The Concept of Religion
Religion is the social category we use to sort many kinds of human activities into a group. These practices range from scrupulous devotion to capitalism and from the belief in one god or multiple gods to witchcraft, sorcery, magic and cults. Despite the wide semantic range of what people say counts as religion over time, the concept has remained useful for academic study because it allows us to compare and contrast cultural phenomena and understand how they relate to each other.
Many scholars, particularly in sociology, have used the concept of religion to describe various sets of beliefs and behaviors that bind groups together and create an orientation for people’s lives. These functional definitions of religion drop the notion that the beliefs and practices are based on an unusual reality and instead focus on their functions. Emile Durkheim’s work on the sociology of religion focused on this function, and it continues to be influential. Paul Tillich took a similar approach, defining religion as whatever dominant concerns organize a person’s values (whether or not those beliefs involve unusual realities).
These functional definitions of religion have been criticized by realists who point to the fact that they depend on social power for their existence. The more powerful a society, the more likely it is to have these functions and the more religions there will be. Then, even if all the religions were to disappear, societies would not dissolve.
The functionalist perspective on religion is also criticized by critics who point to the way in which the practice of religion can be harmful. The critics argue that religion can lead to societal problems such as inequality and division. They point to the history of religiously motivated violence and hostility, including the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice.
In these cases, the critics argue that the concept of religion should be discarded as a tool that serves a particular social class interest. They point out that there are other concepts that can be used to sort cultural types, such as literature, democracy or culture itself.
These criticisms have led to the emergence of polythetic definitions that seek to avoid the claim that an evolving social taxon has an essential property. However, these new approaches do not address the problem of how to define what counts as a religion or whether there is an essential property that differentiates it from other social activities such as magic or witchcraft. These are questions that will likely remain unresolved. But, regardless of the specific answers, it seems clear that there are important issues that we need to consider in a thoughtful discussion about this important concept. This article will examine these issues. To do so, it will explore the development of the concept of religion and will highlight two philosophical issues that are important to understanding this contested concept. Then, it will discuss the implications of those issues for thinking about the nature and meaning of religion itself.