What Is Religion?


About Religion

More than 80 percent of people around the world subscribe to some religion. Given that fact, one might think the word has a clear meaning, but in truth, the term is notoriously difficult to pin down. There is a vast array of beliefs, practices, and institutions that could all be considered to be a religion depending on which definition one uses.

Scholars have debated the nature of the concept, with some arguing that it should be treated as an open polythetic category. Such a category allows for different properties to be attached to the notion, but limits the number of characteristics that can be used in comparisons. In contrast, others argue that a closed polythetic category, such as that of theology, should be used because it is able to distinguish clearly between different forms of belief.

In terms of substantive definitions, there is Emile Durkheim’s version of the concept, which defines religion as whatever system of practices unite a group of people into a moral community (whether or not that community believes in any unusual realities). Another functional approach comes from Paul Tillich (1957), who defined the concept in terms of an individual’s dominant concern that serves to organize his or her values.

Other scholars, such as Jonathan Z. Smith, have argued that the term “religion” creates (or reifies) a distinction between secular and sacred elements of human existence that may not always be present in reality. These critics urge scholars to consider how assumptions baked into the use of a particular concept distort our understanding of its social reality.

Posted in: Gembing