The Concept of Religion


Religion is a social genus whose paradigmatic examples are the world’s so-called “world religions” such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. The term can also be used to describe a group of people who belong to a particular religion, such as Catholics or Evangelicals. The concept of religion cuts across a variety of academic fields, including anthropology, history, sociology, philosophy, religious studies, psychology, and cognitive science. Scholars who study religion engage in an ongoing debate over the concept’s meaning and nature. The discussion is marked by disagreements over what should constitute a definition of religion. These disagreements revolve around whether the concept of religion should be defined substantively or functionally. Substantive definitions focus on what beliefs or practices should be included in the category of religion, whereas functional definitions focus on what religion is supposed to do for its followers.

Substantive approaches to the study of religion tend to stress the importance of theology and metaphysics. For example, a typical definition of religion might include the belief in disembodied spirits and cosmological orders. Such a definition would exclude those who do not believe in these things, and this is seen as a problem. In contrast, functionalist approaches to the study of religion emphasize that religion gives meaning to life and serves a number of important functions such as maintaining social stability and encouraging personal growth.

The 19th century saw a number of different theories of religion rise and fall, and this period is considered the formative era of modern religion studies. Three of the most influential thinkers in this field were Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx. Marx viewed religion as an institution that maintains patterns of social inequality, and he famously stated that religion is the opium of the people. Durkheim emphasized that the practice of religion is a response to an inner sense of spiritual need, while Weber argued that religion is a psychological mechanism for maintaining social solidarity.

In recent times, scholars have begun to question whether there is any way to make sense of the vast diversity of practices that now are said to be part of the religion genus. This skeptical turn, known as a reflexive approach, has centered on two key issues. The first is that the sheer number of practices that are included in the concept of religion raises the question of whether it is possible to understand this taxon by focusing on a set of necessary and sufficient properties. A second issue is that the concept of religion shifts according to who is using it, and this suggests that the concept is a social construct rather than a naturally occurring phenomenon.

Some scholars have therefore advocated polythetic or “family resemblance” approaches to the concept of religion. This approach would resemble the way that geneticists categorize different strains of bacteria by their varying degrees of analogical similarity, noting that these crisscrossing and partially overlapping characteristics are what defines a species.