Is Religion an Essence or a Social Taxon?


Throughout history, Religion has been both a source of liberation and coercion, a factor in the development of knowledge and the arts, and an instrument of power. Consequently, it has been a significant subject for social and cultural research. The wide range of practices now characterized as religions raises questions about whether the concept should be understood in terms of an essence or as a social taxon.

Some philosophers, particularly those inspired by continental thinkers (such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault) have argued that the idea of an essence is inappropriate for an abstract notion such as Religion. Rather, they have emphasized that it is more useful to view Religion as a socially constructed category, one that depends on particular ideological and power dynamics.

For example, it is widely accepted that a substantive definition of Religion that relies on belief, personal experience, and the dichotomy between the natural and the supernatural is ethnocentric. In doing so, it excludes faith traditions that emphasize immanence or oneness, like some forms of Buddhism and Hinduism.

Likewise, a functional definition that stresses prescriptions for life may exclude some religious traditions such as some forms of Islam. Thus, a hybrid definition that takes into account both substantive and functional criteria may be more appropriate. This type of definition resembles the family-resemblance approach to concepts developed by Ludwig Wittgenstein, which holds that no set of things can be understood in terms of a single property that all instances have in common, but instead must be viewed as a space of crisscrossing and partially overlapping characteristics akin to those found among different members of a family.