The Concept of Religion


Religion is a vast swath of human cultural activity, from the sublime moral and spiritual teachings that foster love, compassion and goodwill to the grim remnants of intolerance, violence and xenophobia. It provides the means to achieve many of life’s most important goals, some proximate (a wiser, more fruitful, more charitable, more successful way of living) and some ultimate, which have to do with the death of this body, the end of this world, and even the very emergence of the cosmos itself.

Most of these goals are conveyed in written and oral traditions, but religions also communicate them in gestures, art, silences, and even that most basic of human necessities: breathing. Their most common goal is to help people live life a little more fully by helping them recognize and deal with the numerous limitations that stand in the path of every projective life.

Religious beliefs and practices are central to most societies. They serve as the basis for moral and ethical behavior, provide a framework for social control and organization, and are often foundations for scientific and economic thinking. They are also the source of much of humanity’s most sublime and beautiful works of art and architecture, music, dance, drama, poetry, and the explorations of the cosmos that issued into the natural sciences.

A number of different theories are used to define religion, from the realist approach of Durkheim, who defines it as whatever socially necessary functions a group adopts in order to create solidarity and the sense of belonging that sustains it, to the functionalist approach of Paul Tillich (1957) who describes it as any dominant concern that organizes a person’s values and gives them meaning in their lives, whether or not this involves beliefs in unusual realities. More recently, sociological and evolutionary psychology approaches have attempted to identify the features of religion that allow it to be most successful in weathering changes in social circumstance.

The concept of religion has become so widely used that it is easy to forget its artificiality. It is a term that was borrowed from a Latin word, religio, which roughly translates as “scrupulousness” or “conscientiousness.” Thus it is used to describe any activity carried out scrupulously, devotedly, ecstatically, sacrificially, puritanically, and ritualistically.

These diverse definitions of religion illustrate the difficulty involved in describing a phenomenon that has no objective existence beyond the minds and bodies of individuals who construct it for their own purposes. For this reason, some scholars have called for the deconstruction of the concept of religion and the use of more precise terms such as belief, practice, and moral/ethical reasoning. The author of this article would agree that there is value in such a move, but she also believes that it is essential to retain the concept of religion so that one can analyze, evaluate, and criticize religion as any other human endeavor. That is why it is so important to teach religion in the academy, albeit with all the critical skills that are taught in other subjects such as history, comparative studies, and interpretive analysis.

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