The Concept of Religion
Religion is a term that is used to describe many different kinds of beliefs, practices, and traditions. It includes belief in the existence or role of a god or gods, supernatural entities, and spiritual dimensions; and it also includes beliefs that relate to divine punishment or salvation.
Throughout history, religion has played an important role in society and culture. It is often associated with moral beliefs and behavior, a sense of community and tradition, and even health benefits.
The concept of religion has been used as a social taxon to sort cultural types since the middle of the twentieth century, with most attempts focusing on monothetic definitions that fasten on a single property that makes each instance of the category “religious”. However, recent philosophical debates over the nature of social taxons have led some scholars to treat the concept of religion in a more polythetic fashion.
A common polythetic approach begins by treating the concept of religion as a family resemblance category, and then recognizing that most members of this class have certain characteristics or properties. These characteristics, or traits, are the same ones that are seen in other human kinds of phenomena such as magic and sorcery, cults, and sects.
One of the key philosophies behind this approach is that it can help us distinguish between necessary and sufficient properties for the emergence of a social kind, and it can also reveal patterns that might not be seen otherwise. It is therefore similar to the approach of family resemblance that we saw for humankind in Chapter 4.
For this reason, it is helpful to begin by defining the essential features of a religious phenomenon so we can see how much this characteristic resembles other phenomena. The more these features are displayed in any given phenomenon the more likely it is to be called a religion.
The defining features of religion include a commitment to a particular set of beliefs or traditions, participation in a group that is committed to the same beliefs or traditions, and the underlying values and motivations that are shaped by this commitment. It is the implication of these traits that have made the concept of religion so appealing to many people in our time.
There are many ways in which the concept of religion has changed over the years and this change is often a result of political and social changes. There has also been a reflexive turn in the social sciences and humanities as scholars have pulled the camera back to examine constructed objects previously taken for granted as unproblematically “there.”
In this context, it is not enough to accept that a given phenomenon can be called a religion just because it demonstrates some of the above features. What is more, it must be able to demonstrate all of these features in order to be considered a legitimate social institution.
A key factor in this argument is that most human societies are not characterized by one or two major religious institutions. This is because most societies are populated by diverse groups of people with a wide variety of beliefs and traditions.