The term religion has come to describe a wide range of practices and beliefs. It has also been analyzed in a variety of ways, with a variety of theories attempting to sort it into categories like culture, race, and nationality. The complexities of these approaches make it difficult to understand what the concept of religion is really about. Most definitions attempt to define it in terms of a belief in a distinctive kind of reality, but there are other interpretations that drop this element and use the term to refer to a distinct role that forms of life can play in people’s lives (a theory sometimes called “functional”).
The word religion derives from a Latin adjective meaning “scrupulousness,” which is why early scholars such as Emile Durkheim focused on religious beliefs. In the twentieth century, though, there has been a shift in understanding what it means to be a religion. The dominant approach today is to see the term as a social taxon, a sortable category that can be applied to different forms of human existence and behavior. This view is based on the classic idea that any instance that accurately fits the category will have some defining property that distinguishes it from other phenomena. This is known as the “monothetic” understanding of concepts.
Using the functional definition, some social scientists and historians have argued that most of what has been thought of as religion is actually a set of cultural practices, such as rituals, beliefs, texts, moral codes, and institutions that manage these elements. They argue that the way these cultural practices organize themselves into a group and exert control over that group is what defines them as a religion. This is the view of the religions as social genus or cultural type, as developed by Talal Asad in his 1993 book Genealogies of Religion.
Other scholars, such as Michel Foucault and David Lincoln, have criticized stipulative definitions of religion, arguing that they are often based on the assumption that there is a unique essence to religiosity that can be discerned, or that such an essence is so broad as to encompass nearly everything that humans value in their lives. This is the theory of “religious capital” that Foucault developed, and it is what has led to the reflexive turn in studies of religion in which some scholars are pulling back the camera to examine the way that social constructs such as a religious concept are constructed by their users.
These definitions of religion all have their strengths and weaknesses, and they all face the same problem that other abstract concepts used to classify human phenomena have faced: what properties are necessary and sufficient for a concept to work? A good answer to this question will likely have implications for the other abstract concepts that are used to sort cultural types, such as literature, democracy, and culture itself. In this context, the discussion of religion is particularly interesting because of its history and its wide semantic range.