Essentials of Religion: Definitions

In this post the terms: religion, denomination, sect and cult will be discussed below.


When considering the definition of any word we often find that its meaning is clear to us until asked to define it. The same can be said of religion. There are many different religions and they are all so diverse that it is often difficult to bring all characteristics together under one banner.

Religion is an important aspect of social life. It is interwoven into the culture of a people and is intimately linked to the issues of social integration and conflict between different groups within a society and between societies.

Religion has been defined as a system of beliefs, practices and philosophical values shared by a group of people; it defines the sacred, helps explain life, and offers salvation from the problems of human existence (Henry Tischler). Another, but very similar view, states that religion involves a set of symbols, invoking feelings of reverence or awe, and is linked to rituals or ceremonials (eg. church services) engaged in by a community of believers (Anthony Giddens).

Despite the disparity in the various definitions of religion, the features of religion presented below, remain constant and will be introduced in the next post on Religious studies. They are:

  • Prayer
  • Place of Worship
  • Belief Systems
  • Rituals
  • Worship
  • Symbols
  • Sacred Writings
  • Deity
  • Festivals
  • Rites of Passage.

Compare the information presented here with your notes from R.E. class. Highlight the main ideas and overlapping points to come to an understanding of religion.


This is an organisation that bears several features of the church. Denominations tend to exhibit features of adjustment to the wider society. In other words it typically unites a group of congregations into a single administrative body. Denominations differ greatly in the distribution of power between individual congregations and the central authority. Some characteristics of denominations are:

  • Formal bureaucratic structures,
  • hierarchical structure,
  • official creeds specifying religious beliefs,
  • large in size, established facilities and
  • predominantly middle-class leadership.

Examples of denominations are: Catholicism, Lutheran and Methodist.


This is a small religious group that is an offshoot of an established religion or denomination. It holds most beliefs in common with its religion or origin, but has a number of novel concepts which differentiate them from the parent religion.

Some characteristics of sects are:

  • They have small, exclusive membership;
  • is usually in high tension with society;
  • is usually formed as a result of a split church;
  • has a negative relationship with the other institutions in society;
  • claims religious legitimacy;
  • has members who are normally converted, rather than born into the faith;
  • is dogmatic and fundamentalist, believing in literal interpretations of scriptures;
  • has no formal organisation;
  • is usually intolerant of other groups and
  • is usually short-lived but may grow in size and eventually become a denomination.

An example of a sect that evolved into a denomination is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormons.

Sects can therefore be considered as a mechanism by which new religious movements are formed. As mentioned above some are short lived, some may linger and become a denomination; however very few will ever become established religions.


This is a religious organisation that is independent of the religious traditions of a society. Cult movements tend to arise in times of distress and rapid change where established religions are unable to satisfy the questions of individuals and members of society as a whole. Some examples are: Scientology and the Hare Krishna Movement. Some characteristics of a cult are:

  • introduces a new, different religious tradition in the society and is usually led by a charismatic leader;
  • is very innovative, with new ideas new beliefs, and combinations of beliefs;
  • if successful, can overtime become a new church or sect within the mainstream tradition;
  • is loosely organised and short-lived;
  • rejects the norms and institutions of larger society for a purer form;
  • has few coherent doctrines, makes little demand for moral purity, and rather, focuses on the personal benefits;
  • usually appeals to the lower socio-economic groups;
  • may make use of astrology, black magic or transcendental meditation.

Essentials of Religion: Definitions

Use your notes and the information presented above to complete the quiz below.


Mustapha, Nasser; Sociology for Caribbean Students (2009)

Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance;



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