The Concept of Religion


Religious beliefs and practices shape many aspects of people’s lives, from the ways they raise their families to the way they conduct business. They help determine their cultural identity and influence their outlook on the world. They can also be a source of comfort or even support during difficult times. These reasons and more make religion an important topic for study in the humanities, social sciences and other subjects.

The term “religion” has a long history of scholarly debate, as scholars try to define what it means and how it functions in different cultures. Traditionally, scholars have used “monothetic” approaches to the concept, operating under the classical belief that each instance of a category will accurately be described by the defining property that defines it. However, over the last several decades, there has been a significant movement to use “polythetic” approaches, using a prototype structure to define the concept of religion.

A classic example of a polythetic definition of a concept is a classroom unit where students investigate Jewish rites, such as a bar or bat mitzvah. Students work together to examine first-person accounts and articles about the ceremonies, how they have changed over time, and what impact they might have had on the participants. They then discuss what they have learned from their research and how this may change their own understanding of the Jewish faith.

Similarly, scholars have used polythetic approaches to define religion’s function. For example, Emile Durkheim defined religion as the sum of all of the things that unite people into a moral community—even if these activities don’t involve beliefs in any particular unusual realities. This approach to the concept of religion has become a standard in sociological analysis.

Other scholars have taken a more critical approach to the concept of religion. For instance, they have argued that the way the term has been used over time reveals a political character. They have pointed out that the expansion of the meaning of religion in modern society went hand in hand with European colonialism. As such, they argue that scholars should pull back on the idea of religion as a social phenomenon and recognize that assumptions baked into the concept of religion distort its historical reality.

Some scholars have pushed even further to question the idea of thing-hood, arguing that it is biased to view religion as a set of mental states. They have suggested that a better approach is to focus on the visible institutions and disciplinary practices of religion, rather than exploring hidden mental processes, as a way of increasing religious literacy in the broader society. These arguments have received some support from scholars who have been interested in a structural approach to the concept of religion.