The Concept of Religion

Religion is a term that has come to encompass an amazing variety of human social practices. Some people are willing to give up their jobs, homes, families and even lives to follow religious beliefs or paths that bring them closer to God. Many of the world’s most beautiful and awe-inspiring buildings, monuments and art are related to religion. Religions inspire poetry, drama, music and dance. They are the source of the earliest explorations of the cosmos that became the natural sciences. And they provide a source of meaning and comfort for millions of people around the world.

But all the various ways that the concept of Religion has been retooled over time raise two philosophical issues. First, what is the essential nature of this concept that now covers a broad taxon of cultural types? And second, can it be described as a realist or a nonrealist concept?

It is important to keep in mind that the term Religion was adapted from the Latin religio, which roughly means scrupulous devotion. So the early sense of this concept was that of a social genus or type. As the concept evolved, its sense shifted as well: it became more and more of a functional category that sorting various types of social practices into. The range of practices included in this category grew and diversified, with the theistic, polytheistic, and cosmic senses of the term becoming increasingly distinct from one another.

Some people argue that this development of the concept of Religion is a modern Western phenomenon. They want scholars to recognize that assumptions baked into the concept have distorted our grasp of historical realities. They want us to shift our attention from the idea of a social genus or type to its underlying social dynamics and practices.

On the other hand, some people argue that the concept of Religion is an invention that has no objective basis. These critics argue that the rise of religion as a concept went hand in hand with European colonialism. They want us to stop treating religion as if it corresponded to something that existed outside of modern Europe.

In general, I agree with the critics who say that it is problematic to focus on concepts of religion based on the premise that these are all realist or lexical definitions. But they also need to be careful not to go too far the other way. For if they deny that the concept of Religion has an essence, they risk a kind of antirealist position that is just as flawed as the realist or lexical definitions they are opposing. Kevin Schilbrack is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of The Philosophical Problems of Religion (Stanford, 2011). He has published articles in Philosophy & Theory, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. His current project is on the phenomenology of religion. He can be reached at [email protected].