The Concept of Religion


Religion is the beliefs and practices that people have about the world. It has many different purposes and is present in almost every society. It can be a source of comfort or guidance, help people to develop moral behavior, and even affect life expectancy.

The concept of religion emerged in western antiquity from the Latin word religio, which meant “scrupulousness” or “conscientiousness” and was often used to describe people who adhered to taboos or committed to specific gods with unbreakable promises, curses, and transgressions. These commitments formed a way of organizing one’s values and provided orientation for one’s life.

During the twentieth century, several different approaches to defining the concept of religion have developed. These definitions range from a “substantive” approach in which the presence of belief in unusual realities is considered a sufficient condition for membership in the category, to a functional approach that defines religion in terms of what role it plays in a person’s life (e.g., Durkheim’s definition).

A “functional” approach to defining the concept of religion can be contrasted with the “monothetic” approach, which fastens on a single property or set of properties that is considered necessary and sufficient for membership in the class. It is also contrasted with the “polythetic” approach, which recognizes a number of properties that can be a sufficient condition for membership in the class and that are common to most or all members of the class.

For example, Alston (1967) argues that when enough of the following properties are present to a sufficient degree in a class of religious strains: (i) a certain proportion of their members have a particular trait; and (ii) the traits are co-appearing within the class, then we have a religion.

This type of approach is increasingly popular today as people seek to avoid the claim that an evolving social category has an ahistorical essence. It can be a useful strategy, but it requires the same sort of ethnocentric bias that monothetic approaches do.

As a result, scholars of religion have found it difficult to provide a coherent account of the term without introducing mental states such as judgements, decisions, and dispositions. Consequently, the “structure” and “agency” debate has become a significant part of the study of religion.

The first objection to the idea that religion has an essence is a negative one: “It is nave to assume that something like this can be defined.” The second, more subtle, is a realist objection: “Religion is no such thing.”

These two objections are not without merit and have important implications for how we think about religion. But, they still have to be distinguished from an argument that religion does not have an essence.

To reject the idea that religion has an essence is to make a serious mistake. Rather, it is to fail to distinguish between what is and is not true about the concept of religion, and to misunderstand its importance as a social taxon.