The Concept of Religion

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Religion is a form of life that enables people to make sense of their world and their place in it. It provides for a moral order and, in past times, offered answers to many of the most important questions that humans face. People often rely on it for meaning, significance, and value, and are willing to live according to and, at times, die for its teachings.

The word religion reflects this tangled history, beginning as a stipulative term for scrupulous devotion and later adopting a sense of a particular type of social practice. Its semantic expansion goes hand in hand with the rise of modern European colonialism, so it is not surprising that scholars have criticized its use as an instrument for dehumanizing other cultures.

Today, one hears that religion is an invented category and that we should stop treating it as if it corresponds to something that exists outside the sphere of modern European influence. While rejecting the notion of thing-hood, these critiques remain realist in that they recognize that the concept of religion names a social phenomenon and that such phenomena would exist whether we had a name for them or not.

Nevertheless, it is not enough to simply reject the idea of a substantive definition of religion. Some academics have opted for a functional approach that drops the requirement that religion involve belief in a distinctive kind of reality. Instead, they use the concept of religion to refer to whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values (whether or not those concerns involve beliefs in unusual realities). Among other things, these functional definitions include Emile Durkheim’s (1812) concept of religion as whatever system of practices unites a number of people into a moral community and Paul Tillich’s (1957) view that the concept of religion includes whatever dominant concern orients a person’s life.