Does Religion Have an Essence?
The term “religion” has come to mean a broad and complex set of practices, beliefs, values, and attitudes. It may seem avant-garde today to use a multifaceted vocabulary, but in fact treating religion as a multidimensional complex is quite ancient. For example, Christian theologians in the nineteenth century analyzed the anatomy of their way of life by breaking it down into fides, fiducia, and fidelitas, each of which corresponds to a different dimension of a religious practice. The term “religion” also comes to mean a particular attitude or state of being: people behave religiously, scrupulously, fervently, generously, ecstatically, puritanically, ritualistically, and so on.
This wide semantic range is an important part of what makes religion such a useful category for sorting cultural types, and what gives the concept its power to discriminate among phenomena. Nevertheless, there are two philosophical issues that concern any attempt to categorize religious phenomena as social kinds: whether the concept is one that can be defined, and whether it can have an essence.
The answer to both questions is affirmative, though with many qualifications, which the immense diversity of religions make necessary. For instance, in most religions the past is visited, often in order to forgive wrongdoing, and the future is envisioned (albeit with the knowledge that it will be a mostly unknown destination). This is because humans live their lives as projects, moving forward toward acknowledged but largely unknown goals. Religious systems protect and transmit the means through which these proximate and ultimate goals are attained.