Religion is a term that scholars use to describe different cultural groups and their underlying beliefs. It also refers to a set of social structures, including prayer, moral conduct, worship, and participation in religious institutions. The concept of religion arose from the Latin word religio, which roughly means “scrupulousness” or “devotion.” In some cases, researchers have used the term to refer to a particular group’s gods, but in others they have used it to refer to all gods or even human values, such as kindness and integrity.
While many scholars disagree over how to define religion, most agree that it is a cultural phenomenon. Some believe that to understand religion, one should focus on the institutional structures that produce religious behavior rather than on any alleged subjective states. This approach, sometimes called a polythetic or non-reductionist one, reflects a Protestant bias against mental states and emphasizes the importance of institutions. It is also often criticized as insufficiently descriptive (Schilbrack 2022).
Other scholars, such as Talal Asad (1993), have used the concept of religion to describe all types of social structures that are not necessarily religious in the sense that they do not involve belief in a god or adherence to any scriptures. This realist view of religion is sometimes criticized as Western and as a way to denigrate other cultures. However, Asad’s argument shows that the development of the concept of religion does not wait for language to develop.