The Concept of Religion


Religion is a term used for a wide array of practices, beliefs, and ways of life. It’s a social taxon that includes Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and more. But it’s also a word that is controversial. In fact, some scholars want to get rid of it altogether.

What makes it controversial is the thorny issue of whether the concept is useful or even meaningful in different cultures. There are some scholars who believe that the concept of religion is a Western construct that doesn’t make sense in non-Western worldviews. Other scholars, however, point to research that suggests a variety of positive benefits associated with religious belief and practice. In particular, some studies have found that people who regularly engage in religious activities are more likely to be moral, self-controlled, and less anxious about death than those who do not. Other studies have linked religious participation to healthy habits like exercise, regular social interaction, and strong coping skills.

The controversy surrounding the concept of religion stems from disagreement over how broadly to define it. Substantive definitions of religion determine membership in the category based on a person’s belief in a distinctive kind of reality. One such example is Emile Durkheim’s definition of religion as whatever system of practices unite a group of people into a moral community (whether or not those practices involve belief in supernatural realities). Others take the approach of dropping the substantive element and defining religion purely functionally, which would include any set of behaviors that have some kind of impact on people’s lives. One example is William James’s description of “personal religion” as the feelings, acts, and experiences a person has in solitude that they apprehend to stand in relation to “whatever primal reality they choose to assert with solemnity and intensity” (1902:39).

A problem with both the functional and the substantial approaches is that they tend to exclude beliefs or practices that most people don’t consider religious. This problem is especially acute if the functional definition is used, which tends to resist an ideological image of humans as passive social actors who respond to the will of other social agents.

For these reasons, many scholars have proposed abandoning the notion of religion. Other concepts, such as culture and the body, might be better tools for sorting out different types of human behavior. This isn’t a popular move, though. Some people argue that it’s important for anthropologists to study religion, and there is some truth to this claim. Anthropologists, who work with the concept of religion in its broadest possible sense, have a legitimate claim to the expertise needed to understand this diverse and often unruly phenomenon. There are also some disciplinary issues at play here. Those who study theology or intellectual history might prefer to work with a more narrow conception of religion that can be easily defined and compared across cultural traditions. This conception might work well for them, but it might not be helpful to students of political science or social philosophy.