The Concept of Religion

The Concept of Religion

For many people, Religion is a collection of ideas and behaviors that are considered sacred or holy, and that are often taught by a religious leader. Religion also includes the ritual practices and institutions that support these beliefs and practices. Some thinkers go further and consider that a person’s religion is the source of their values, worldview, and sense of identity.

The concept of Religion has been the subject of debate in philosophy, sociology, history, and theology for centuries. Some philosophers have argued that there is no such thing as Religion, while others have attempted to define the term so as to include all forms of belief. Still others have sought to explain how and why Religion develops, grows, or dies.

Most attempts to define the term Religion have been “monothetic,” meaning that they use a single property or set of properties to determine whether something is a member of that class. For example, some definitions of Religion have been based on the idea that all religions have a supernatural component, while others have been based on a belief in an afterlife or the existence of disembodied spirits.

Monothetic approaches to the definition of Religion have failed for a number of reasons. One reason is that they are not predictive of how Religion will develop or decline in a particular culture or social setting. Another is that they are too narrow, focusing only on theistic religions at the expense of non-theistic religions such as Buddhism. Finally, these approaches are equivocal or inconsistent and change with legal circumstances such as the desire to protect free exercise of religion versus the goal of limiting government’s establishment of Religion (see this article for more on this issue).

A different approach is to abandon the notion that there is a single property or set of properties that identify a group as a member of a particular class. Instead, these “functional” approaches focus on the distinctive role that a form of life can play in people’s lives. For example, Emile Durkheim’s definition of Religion is a functional approach, because it determines membership in the category in terms of the social function that Religion plays in creating solidarity among people.

In the early twentieth century, some thinkers began to move away from these functional approaches. Some, such as Rodney Needham, drew upon the concept of a prototype to develop a polythetic approach that defines Religion by including beliefs, values, and practices. Others, such as Catherine Albanese, suggested adding a fourth C to this list to identify the always-presupposed material reality of people’s bodies, habits, and physical culture, even when these aspects are not explicitly included in any formal doctrine. In either case, these new, polythetic approaches show promise for helping us to understand the dynamics of Religion and how it develops in a given culture or society. Further, this way of thinking about Religion may be more helpful in addressing the problems raised by those who argue that religion is an obsolete idea and should be eliminated from society.