The Concept of Religion

Religion is a complex concept that has been subjected to a wide range of analyses in social science, philosophy and history. It has been a social genus that contains multiple species–including Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. It also includes forms that have not been consciously named as religion, such as Chinese folk traditions or the spiritual practices of indigenous peoples.

One approach is to define the concept of religion by specifying its properties. This definition is often called a “monothetic” approach, although it has been challenged by several scholars as too restrictive and not sufficiently grounded in reality. More recently, a number of scholars have developed “polythetic” approaches that allow for some overlap in the defining characteristics of what constitutes a religion, but do not require that each example must share all of the same properties.

For example, George Lincoln defines a religion as a system of beliefs, values and experiences that provides meaning, purpose and hope for people and is willingly accepted as true by its followers. He adds that it includes a belief in an afterlife and supernatural beings. However, he recognizes that not all religions contain all of these elements and argues that a group’s willingness to live according to its valuations is the key criterion for the existence of a religion.

Other scholars, such as Clifford Geertz and Sigmund Freud, have characterized religion as a projection of human aspirations onto God. They have argued that all human cultures are religious in some way because they all attempt to answer the question of what is truly important in life. They have also emphasized the importance of understanding how these perceptions of religion differ from culture to culture.

Still others, such as the philosopher Paul Tillich and anthropologists like Clifford Geertz and Victor H. Lincoln, have defended a sociological approach to the study of religion. They have criticized the monistic definitions of religion as simplistic and have argued that people do not simply choose their beliefs but rather create them out of a need to give them meaning and value.

Some critics have argued that to understand religion as a mental state reveals a Protestant bias, and that instead scholars should shift their attention from hidden mental states to the visible institutional structures that produce them. Other scholars, such as Talal Asad, have critiqued this argument without advocating a nonrealist position. For Asad, the concept religion names a real thing that would operate in the world even if it were not named, but it is important to realize how assumptions baked into the concept distort our understanding of historical realities. It is for this reason that the academic study of religion has been so difficult and controversial. It is essential that teachers be sensitive to these issues when designing courses and pedagogical methodologies for the study of religion. This will help ensure that the classroom is a safe space for discussions of a topic as controversial and significant as religion.