The Concept of Religion

Religion is an important social phenomenon, and the topic of much philosophical work. It has influenced politics, economics, art, literature, and music, and it is central to the lives of billions of people around the world. It can bring people together and give them a common purpose, but it can also cause tensions within communities and divide people from one another.

Historically, the word “religion” has had many different meanings, from scrupulous devotion to the belief in one or more gods. More recently, it has come to mean a set of beliefs and practices that are viewed as having sacred significance for a group of people. The term has also been used to describe a particular organization or institution, such as a church, mosque, or synagogue.

Some critics of the concept of religion claim that it is an invented category that goes hand in hand with European colonialism. These critics argue that scholars should stop treating the concept of religion as if it corresponds to something that exists outside the sphere of modern European influence. They call for an end to monothetic and polythetic approaches to the study of religion, and a rejection of substantive definitions of the term (see below).

Others, like Edward Burnett Tylor, have argued that narrowing the concept of religion to the belief in a supernatural being or in the idea of a judgment after death would exclude many peoples from its scope. Tylor called for a more expansive view of the concept that included the beliefs in natural laws, a moral code, and social structure.

A third approach views religion as a genus of social formations that can be identified by specific characteristics. It is based on the notion that a religious group shares similar features, such as a sacred text, a ritualized way of worship, and a belief in one or more deities. This is sometimes referred to as a functional definition of religion, though it is more often referred to as a taxonomic model.

A fourth approach is based on the notion that the concept of religion should include a recognition of the material reality of a religious group. It is a version of the three-sided model of the good, the beautiful, and the true that adds a fourth C, for community. This is the most widely accepted definition of religion, although some philosophers have questioned its utility as an analytical tool. Others, however, have argued that recognizing the social materiality of a religious group can help to explain some of its enduring aspects, such as its attachment to certain symbols and its commitment to particular practices. For example, the fact that a large percentage of Canadians are Buddhists might be explained by their commitment to a community that values compassion and benevolence over wealth and power. These considerations could make the addition of a fourth dimension to the concept of religion helpful.