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There is no universally accepted definition of religion, only various attempts at definition. Roughly, substantialist and functionalist approaches can be distinguished. Substantialist definitions try to determine the essence of religion, for example, in its relation to the sacred, the transcendent or the absolute; according to Rüdiger Vaas and Scott Atran, for example, the relation to the transcendent represents the central difference to the non-religious.

Functionalist concepts of religion attempt to define religion on the basis of its community-creating social role. In many cases, the definition is made from the perspective of a particular religion, for example, Christianity. One of the most famous and often quoted definitions of religion comes from Friedrich Schleiermacher and reads: Religion is "the feeling of the schlechthinnige dependence on God". The definition from the point of view of a Jesuit is: "Worship of spiritual personal beings, standing apart from and above the visible world, on whom one believes oneself to be dependent and whom one somehow seeks to tune favorably."

A substantialist definition, for example, according to the Protestant theologian Gustav Mensching, reads: "Religion is an experiential encounter with the sacred and a responding action of the human being determined by the sacred. "According to the religious scholar Peter Antes, religion is understood to mean "all ideas, attitudes and actions toward that reality which people accept and name as powers or might, as spirits or also demons, as gods or God, as the sacred or absolute, or finally also only as transcendence."

Michael Bergunder divides the term into Religion 1 and Religion 2. Religion 1 can be understood as the attempts of religious studies to define the term precisely. Religion 2, on the other hand, refers to the everyday understanding of religion. However, there are interactions between these two definitions, so that a clear distinction cannot be made. Bergunder historicizes the concept of religion and therefore criticizes it at the same time. Thus, there is a difference in the understanding of religion on the meta-level (true philosophically) and in the experience (anthropologically)