Understanding Religion As a Concept

Religion is a cultural system of beliefs, practices, and ethics. It includes a wide variety of practices, from the daily to the magical, and may involve any number of cosmologies and creation myths. These cosmologies and creation myths explain, in different ways, the origins of life, the universe, and the world. Many religions include sacred histories and narratives, preserved in oral traditions, written texts, symbols, and art, as well as sacred spaces, which attempt to answer fundamental questions about the nature of life, the universe, and the cosmos.

In the past, scholars have tended to define religion in terms of a belief in a particular kind of reality. Such a definition is sometimes called a substantive definition, although one might also call it a “reductionist” or an “essentialist” definition because it determines whether something counts as religion by reducing it to a belief in a special kind of reality. In the twentieth century, some scholars shifted away from substantive definitions, and instead adopted a functional approach that defined religion in terms of what a form of life could do for people.

For example, a functional definition might be something like: religion is whatever system of practices unites a number of people into a single moral community (whether or not those practices include belief in any unusual realities). This type of functional definition is often called a “genetic” or “family-resemblance” definition because it determines whether or not a group of behaviors and attitudes count as religion by looking at their function in the context of the human experience.

As these social taxonomies shift, the question of how to understand religion as a concept has become more complex. Scholars have debated the merits of a reductionist approach versus a genetic or family-resemblance approach, and they have debated whether or not religion is a category that should be viewed as a substance or as an abstract idea that sorting out social types might be better done by treating it as a generic “social genus” rather than a specific kind of substance.

Even so, it is important for scholars to understand the semantic range of the term religion before attempting to make a choice about how to understand and study it. If the choice is wrong, it will be difficult to construct an adequate definition for religion that can be used as a tool for analysis. Thus, stipulative definitions of religion are problematic because they require that one simply accept any particular definition and do not provide the means for critique. An example of this is the stipulative definition of religion offered by Edward Burnett Tylor in 1871, which narrowed the scope to a belief in spiritual beings.