The Concept of Religion


Religion, in modern usage, is a generic term used to refer to a wide range of spiritual practices and beliefs. As such, it is a topic of intense debate, not only among scholars but also between and within disciplines. The concept of religion cuts across anthropology, history, philosophy, sociology, psychology, religious studies, and even cognitive science. This wide spectrum of definitions reflects the fact that there are many different ways to see and understand the role of religion in human life, including its practical and ritual activities; its emotional and experiential aspects; its narrative or mythical aspects; its doctrinal and philosophical aspects; its social and institutional aspects; and its material expressions in art and architecture.

In its broadest sense, religion is humankind’s way of relating to the divine. As such, it encompasses all human beliefs about God and all of the related practices, rituals, and institutions that are connected to these beliefs. In particular, religion is a system of belief that explains the world and provides mechanisms for achieving and maintaining psychological and social well-being. It also provides a framework for moral/ethical reasoning, and it offers answers to the fundamental questions of life, death, and what is to come.

The concept of religion has traditionally been seen as a universal phenomenon, found in every culture throughout the world. However, the fact is that there are people in the past and in the present who do not believe in an afterlife or supernatural beings, and that there are some who do not practice religion at all. Thus, the idea that religion is a social genus has been criticized by those who argue that a functional definition of religion names an inevitable feature of human nature, and that to define it substantively or functionally in a limited way is to miss the point.

It is also argued that monothetic definitions of religion are too narrow, and that they exclude some faith traditions that emphasize immanence or oneness (e.g., Buddhism, Jainism, and Daoism). These criticisms point to the need for a more balanced approach to defining religion, combining phenomenological and etiological/theoretical methods. One way of doing this is by adding a fourth C to the traditional three-sided model of the true, the beautiful, and the good: the concrete or physical dimension of religion, which includes such things as a person’s body, habits, physical culture, and social structures. This is the approach taken by Catherine Albanese (1981) and Ninian Smart (The World’s Religions, 1996). This new model consists of seven dimensions instead of four. It is not a complete account, but it is a start. The broader perspective that this approach provides makes it possible to recognize the richness and complexity of all the world’s religions. It allows us to view them not as a collection of competing metaphysical propositions, but as a variety of cultural forms that serve the same function. The resulting analysis is called polythetic. It is a method that has proven useful in other areas of the social sciences, such as criminology and linguistics.