The Concept of Religion

Religion is the set of beliefs, ritual practices, and social institutions that people use to navigate the world. It is a remarkably broad taxon, embracing everything from indigenous spirituality and folk magic to Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. As the world’s population continues to grow and shift, this incredibly varied collection of practices is becoming even more difficult to sort and define.

Philosophers have long grappled with the concept of religion, and there are two fundamental issues that arise for any attempt to define it. One is the problem of whether a concept can be said to have an essence; the other is the question of how to determine what falls within that taxon.

Some philosophers, such as Frederick Ferre, argue that attempts to understand religion in terms of beliefs or other subjective states are ahistorical and that the best approach is to analyze the structure of religious communities. Others, such as Charles Taylor, argue that this approach is unsatisfactory because it omits important aspects of human behavior.

Other philosophers, such as Karl Marx and Emil Asad, have urged scholars to think about the ways in which assumptions baked into the definition of religion skew our understanding of historical realities. For instance, if a scholar defines religion functionally as the practices that generate social cohesion or provide orientation in life, then one must assume that these features are inevitable and inexorable in human societies. This assumption, which is a version of the classical theory that concepts have a prototype structure, is problematic in many ways.