The Concept of Religion


Religion is a vast, complex collection of beliefs and practices that millions of people around the world adhere to. Religions share a common set of tenets such as a belief in gods, and a moral code that is supposed to guide their actions. Religions also share a set of rituals and prayers, and a particular understanding of the universe and the afterlife. These tenets are often used to bring people together and provide them with a sense of meaning in their lives.

Scholars who study religion have a number of different ways to define the concept. The most important, known as substantive definitions, are based on the idea that there is some essential difference between religion and non-religion. These definitions include defining religion in terms of beliefs, rituals, or some other aspect that differentiates it from the rest of culture, or in terms of its role in shaping moral values and social behaviors.

Other scholars take a functional approach to the concept of religion, focusing on its ability to bring people together into a community. This approach has its roots in Emile Durkheim’s (1899) “Elementary Forms of Religious Life” and its later development by scholars such as Jonathan Z. Smith. This is often referred to as a polythetic (or family resemblance) approach, because it suggests that the various things called religions have no one thing in common, but rather various crisscrossing and partially overlapping features similar to those between members of a particular type of family.

Still others define religion in terms of its ability to generate a “mystical” experience, often characterized by fear and fascination. This approach to the concept has its roots in thinkers like Rudolf Otto, who argued that the intellectual categories of Tylor and others miss the point of religion, which is the encounter with an absolute Other that generates a feeling of terror and fascination.

Another important approach to the concept of religion is based on the idea that there is a natural kind of category for religion, which can be understood in terms of its properties and relations to other concepts such as laws or economics. This theory of social kinds is rooted in the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who famously suggested that it might be possible to find a way to define the concept of games without ever resorting to the word “game.”

Regardless of which approach to the definition of religion a scholar takes, there are two philosophical issues that must be addressed. The first is whether a concept like religion can be defined in any meaningful way at all. The second is the extent to which a distinction between secular and sacred elements of human culture is useful for analytic purposes.

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