The Concept of Religion


The word religion is so broadly used that it’s hard to pin down a clear definition. Different religions approach questions of truth, Scripture, behavior, morality, family, death, and salvation in completely different ways. A broad definition can encompass such diverse practices as animism, polytheism, monotheism, henotheism, anthropomorphism, and fetishism. But a more focused approach would be to define religion functionally, and look at what it brings to people’s lives.

The functional approach to the concept of religion has been heavily influenced by Emile Durkheim’s work, which defines it as any social system that organizes a group into a moral community. Other social scientists have taken up this definition. Likewise, Paul Tillich offers one based on the axiological function of providing orientation to a person’s life.

A third approach to the concept of religion focuses on its psychological effects on people’s lives, and tries to distinguish between various spiritual experiences. This view has been influenced by psychologists and neuroscientists who study the brain, and argue that there is some kind of mental mechanism for religious experience.

Sociologists, historians and philosophers have also attempted to understand the essence of religion. This effort has largely been shaped by the cultural epochs in which ideas were formulated, and by different theories of how religion developed. This has led to notions that have been both positive and negative in character.

One negative characterization of the nature of religion was advanced by Rudolf Otto, who argued that human experience of the holy is essentially negative in that it consists of feelings of fear and awe that are based on man’s knowledge of God’s power and omnipresence. This was a profoundly influential perspective, although many of its ideas were later rejected by scientific research.

The search for a precise definition of religion can lead to unsatisfactory results, especially when trying to rank the different religions according to their characteristics and their relative usefulness in human communities. A univocal definition would quickly reduce the different religions to a lowest common denominator, and this is an undesirable result for a discipline that depends on empirical methods. Rather, the search for a meaningful concept of religion should be viewed as a continuous process of exploration and discovery, with particular attention to its interaction with culture. This will enable researchers to develop adequate conceptions of the phenomenon, and provide insights into the nature of its development throughout history. It will also allow us to recognize and understand what is really at stake in the debate over religion’s social significance. For example, there is little point in discussing the meaning of religion if we do not recognize that it reinforces social inequality and contributes to hostility and violence motivated by religious differences. This is a serious matter that must be addressed in the study of religion.