The Concept of Religion


The term religion has come to refer to a wide variety of social practices. Today, it is a sort of taxon used to classify a wide array of social formations, such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. Like any other taxon, it can be sorted into a hierarchy of different types. The concept of religion is so abstract, however, that it can be difficult to pin down its essential properties. As a result, scholars tend to use the concept to describe patterns rather than to develop a theory of what religion is.

One approach to understanding religion is to analyze its beliefs, which are the essential component of any religious practice. However, this approach is problematic for two reasons. First, the beliefs are not necessarily true or false; they are simply a set of socially constituted ideas about what is true or false. These beliefs can also differ among believers, depending on their experience, cultural background, and personality. Second, there is a very strong link between the beliefs that are held by members of a religious group and the practices they engage in. For this reason, it is more productive to examine the ways in which a religion’s beliefs translate into its life as a project, including its practices and institutions.

Several scholars have attempted to develop a more robust definition of religion, and some have even favored polythetic approaches over monothetic ones. Using polythetic methods to sort concepts like religion allows for the discovery of surprising patterns and co-appearances that can lead to explanatory theories. It also prevents the temptation to stipulatively define religion, as some have done in the past.

A common stipulative definition of religion states that it is “a belief in a supernatural Being who created the world and governs its processes.” This characterization leaves open the possibility that religions might believe in different deities, though all would believe in a supreme Being who, in their own way, relates to the human condition.

The more robust definitions developed by sociologists and historians of religion take into account the way in which religious beliefs and practices translate into a life as a project. This includes the ways in which a religion makes its story available to people, whether in scripture-reading, preaching, or pilgrimage, as well as the ways that it transmits the components of its story through a variety of media, such as books and artifacts.

In addition to these aspects, scholars who adopt a polythetic definition of religion will recognize that there is an important role for material culture in the construction and expression of religion. This is because people rely on their bodies and their physical cultures for information about the nature of the universe and the social world. In the case of religions, this knowledge may be conveyed in a variety of forms and at various levels, from the microbiological to the cosmic. Moreover, the way in which these ideas are represented and shared can affect people’s decisions about what is morally right or wrong.