The Definition of Religion
Religion is a concept that has long provoked intense discussion. It originally referred to a kind of scrupulous devotion, but over time it came to mean a social genus or type. In modern times, it has come to encompass beliefs in cosmological orders and afterlifes as well as a range of moral codes and practices. As a result, it is now difficult to determine what kinds of traditions should be counted as religions and how those definitions might differ. Some scholars have proposed different kinds of definitions, or “monothetic sets”, of religion, while others have argued that we should abandon the notion of a thing called’religion’ altogether and instead look at the ways in which a variety of forms of life can serve a particular role within society.
Some of the early definitions of religion were substantive, in that they defined a religious tradition by its belief in spiritual beings or other supernatural entities. Edward Tylor’s 1871 definition, for example, included only those traditions that believed in spirits or gods. In contrast, Emile Durkheim defined religion in terms of the social bond that its practice could form among individuals; this was a functional definition. The more recent versions of the definition of religion have also been functional, but have emphasized a number of other elements of social life: a sense of moral community; rituals and other forms of expression; belief in the afterlife; and so on.
A number of critics have attacked these kinds of definitions, arguing that they impose a particular worldview onto the phenomena that they are trying to define. Some have even suggested that the category of religion itself was invented at a specific point in time, and that it went hand in glove with European colonialism.
The vast majority of definitions of religion, however, are not functional or monothetic. The bulk of the work done on the concept has been devoted to analyzing its social context and to determining its function in societies.
In fact, a large amount of the work on religion has been an attempt to construct a concept of a social kind that would be capable of encompassing the myriad of religious beliefs and traditions around the globe. It is important to understand that this scholarly project of developing a social kind has been a very long undertaking, and that it is a Western endeavor.
This is why some scholars have argued that it is appropriate to treat the concept of religion as a constructed category, rather than as an attempt to capture an objectively real phenomenon. This approach to the study of religion is sometimes referred to as a’reflexive turn’ in the field, and it has been exemplified by such writers as Charles Taylor, Michel Foucault, John Rawls, and Ian McNeill. Some of the more recent reflexive approaches have also attempted to highlight how the use of the concept of religion in particular settings can be a form of power politics in its own right.