Functional definitions of religion determine inclusion into the category based on the role a member plays in a human’s life. Emile Durheim’s (1912) definition that religion is a system of practices that unite people into a moral community regardless of whether they believe in unusual realities. Similarly, Paul Tillich’s (1957) definition of religion as a dominant concern that organizes an individual’s values is functional. Using a functional definition leads one to conclude that ideologies like capitalism, nationalism, and Marxism are religions, and that celebrities can achieve religious status. On the other hand, using a functional approach can also lead one to interpret formerly religious objects and practies as irreligious.


Schilbrack, K. (2022). The Concept of Religion. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2022). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.

In the twentieth century, however, one sees the emergence of an importantly different approach: a definition that drops the substantive element and instead defines the concept religion in terms of a distinctive role that a form of life can play in one’s life—that is, a “functional” definition.

One sees a functional approach in Emile Durkheim (1912), who defines religion as whatever system of practices unite a number of people into a single moral community (whether or not those practices involve belief in any unusual realities). Durkheim’s definition turns on the social function of creating solidarity. One also sees a functional approach in Paul Tillich (1957), who defines religion as whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values (whether or not that concern involve belief in any unusual realities). Tillich’s definition turns on the axiological function of providing orientation for a person’s life.

Famously, a functional approach can hold that even atheistic forms of capitalism, nationalism, and Marxism function as religions.

Here, celebrities can reach a religious status and fandom can be one’s religious identity (e.g., Lofton 2011; Lovric 2020).

Conversely, interactions with supernatural beings may be categorized on a functional approach as something other than religion.