The Concept of Religion

Religion is a complex phenomenon that intersects with many diverse aspects of human existence. Some of these include: the elaboration of personal meaning and significance, the development of cultural norms, the establishment of social control, the promotion of psychological and physical health, and the motivation to work for social change. The vast diversity of religious beliefs and practices across the globe underscores the need for ongoing research that seeks to illuminate how religion both shapes and is shaped by the multifaceted tapestry of contemporary society.

Religions vary enormously across cultures and within societies, but they are all fundamental to human life. Historically, they have both liberated people and oppressed them. They have shaped knowledge, the arts, and technologies. They have also helped form communities, provided moral and ethical guidance, promoted morality and social order, and served as a source of spiritual and emotional comfort. Moreover, they provide individuals with hope and purpose in a world that often seems to be chaotic and hostile.

The word “religion” refers to people’s relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. In theistic religions this is a relationship to gods or spirits, while in more humanistic or naturalistic forms it is usually a relationship with the broader human community or with nature itself. Religions are also characterized by texts that have scriptural status and by the granting of authority to certain individuals who are seen as invested with moral or spiritual powers.

Philosophers have debated the concept of religion. Many have offered definitions that try to capture the essence of religion. But a lexical definition is flawed, as it fails to take into account the many ways in which the term is used.

Another way to approach the problem of defining religion is to use functional definitions. These shift the focus of analysis from hidden mental states to observable institutions and disciplinary practices. Such an approach, however, can lead to a number of problems, especially when it is applied in cross-cultural studies.

A final method is to look at the history of religions and how they have evolved over time. This approach reveals that the concept of religion is, like any other idea, a historical construction. The study of religions can therefore help us understand how ideas about the nature of reality have developed over time and how these ideas have influenced human affairs.

For a discussion of the problems involved in trying to define religion see The problem of definitions by Frederick Ferre. Other philosophers who have analyzed the concept of religion include Heidegger, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, and Gabriel Marcel. More recently, a wide range of Continental philosophers have taken religion seriously. Their work has pushed the boundaries of what might be called the secular. It has also challenged the traditional view that only religious ideas have the potential to be true. This approach is sometimes called “polythetic” because it rejects the classical view that a concept has a unique defining property and instead adopts a prototype theory of concepts.