The Concept of Religion

Religion is a concept used to describe human beings’ relation to that which they consider holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. It also commonly refers to people’s concerns about their own lives and deaths, and about the broader human community or universe. People’s religious concerns may be expressed in a variety of ways. In traditionalist traditions, they are often expressed in terms of worship of gods or spirits; in humanistic or naturalistic traditions, they may be expressed in terms of concern for the broader human community or universe. Moreover, it is not uncommon for the word religion to be used to refer to a particular church or denomination, or to a specific group of believers within one church or denomination.

The concept of religion has a rich and varied history, with its senses shifting over time. It was originally a concept of scrupulous devotion and obligation. It was retooled to refer to a type of social practice, and then to a specific belief system or a family of beliefs. More recently, it has been retooled again into a type of form of life. In addition to these shifts, there is a widespread objection that “there’s no such thing as religion” (Possamai 2018). This objection typically bolsters functional definitions of the term but does not deny that the phrase religion corresponds to a distinct kind of form of life.

Scholars from different disciplines use a variety of approaches to investigate the phenomenon of religion. Psychology examines feelings and experiences, and the symbols that express these feelings; sociology and social anthropology look at institutional structures; history looks at the development of a tradition from its inception through its present state; and literary studies seek to elicit the meaning of myths and other symbolic items. Each approach views religion in a somewhat different way, but there is usually some overlap among the disciplines, as all are concerned with the same basic features of a religious tradition.

Formal definitions of religion have not received much attention, but they do exist. The functionalist Emile Durkheim defined religion as whatever dominant concerns organize a society’s values and provide orientation for its members. His formulation differed from the stipulative definitions of other functionalist social scientists, such as Karl Marx and Max Weber, which focused on particular developments and beliefs.

The verstehen school of social scientists argues that formal definitions are important to study religion, because they describe the ways in which participants understand their own behaviors and make judgments about whether something is religious. These understandings may be incorrect or incomplete, but they are still the starting point for social science investigation.

One approach to this problem is that the varying definitions of religion reflect a Protestant bias and that it would be better to focus on structures rather than subjective mental states. This argument is sometimes used to support structuralism, which tries to explain religion in terms of the underlying social structures and institutions that produce it. Whether this argument is valid is unclear, however, as it seems likely that many of the same mental processes that underlie structural explanations of religion are also at play in subjective understandings.