The Concept of Religion

Religion is a broad category that includes many different beliefs and practices. The range of practices included in the concept has created a challenge for scholars who try to understand it. Various definitions have been used to sort this collection of social practices into categories, but the various approaches to the concept of religion have produced different results. Some define the term in terms of a belief in a distinctive kind of reality; others focus on the social functions that the religion fulfills; and some have embraced a more philosophical approach, defining the term in terms of its nature and experience.

A common understanding of the meaning of religion is that it has to do with some form of salvation. This can be salvation of the soul, as in Christianity and its brethren, or of the world, as in Buddhism. This belief is often associated with a set of specific rituals, sacred texts, and a system of rites that includes special days, places, and symbols. It is also usually a group activity.

In a different tradition, sociological functionalists like Émile Durkheim defined religion in terms of its functions in society. His version of the concept was much more inclusive, involving any system of beliefs and activities that bring together people into a moral community, regardless of whether they believe in unusual realities.

Anthropological functionalists, such as the Polish-British anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942), focused on the importance of myth and ritual. His work on the Trobriand Islands of New Guinea, for example, highlighted a strong link between myth and religion. Psychoanalysts, such as Sigmund Freud, also gave explanations for the genesis of religion. He suggested that primitive religion reflected the unresolved Oedipus complex and his ideas led him to reconstruct a primordial stage of human development, in which small groups were dominated by fathers and the incest taboo was an attempt to resolve hostility toward one’s mother and love for one’s father.

These functional interpretations of the concept of religion have influenced more recent studies. The search for tidy accounts of the genesis of religion has, however, given way to more practical concerns, as anthropologists have come to realize that attempts to pin down religious roots in nonliterate societies are likely to be fruitless. The search for a clean definition of the term has also been complicated by the fact that many cultures have religions with very different beliefs and practices. Attempts to narrow the concept of religion to include only certain beliefs or practices will inevitably exclude those from the group that is being studied. This problem can be addressed by using a definition that is functional rather than substantive, as suggested by Emile Durkheim, but such functional definitions have their own problems. They may force scholars to accept any definition that is offered, a situation that can lead to problems when the concept of religion is being studied by other disciplines. A family resemblance concept is probably the best solution.

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