The Problem of Defined Religion

Religion is a broad concept in use, with more than 80 percent of the world’s population subscribing to some form. A wide range of beliefs and practices fall under the term, from traditional polytheism to strict monotheistic systems, from complex rituals to the simple belief in a supreme being. There are also various definitions of what is counted as a religion and what is not, and many scholars find it difficult to agree on how to define the category of religion.

One approach to the problem of defining religion is that it can be understood as a social genus, meaning that there are certain beliefs and practices that tend to appear in every culture. This view of religion has its advantages, but it raises issues that are likely to arise for any abstract concept used to sort cultural types.

A major problem is that the emergence of a social taxon like religion does not wait for the development of language, so there may already be some ideas about this concept in the minds of people who are not yet aware of a term for them. This is important because it means that if there are some notions about what is or is not a religion that were around before the idea of the term was coined, those notions should be taken into account when assessing whether the term is useful for study.

Some scholars criticize the utility of the term religion, saying that it creates a false dichotomy between secular and sacred elements of society. Others, such as anthropologists Clifford Geertz and Talal Asad, argue that the concept of religion is in fact useful for understanding the ways in which people deal with ultimate concerns and questions about life, death, the cosmos, and morality.

Another point of criticism is that the way in which scholars have approached the study of religion has shaped the concept itself. For example, some scholars have argued that to think of religion in terms of beliefs or subjective states is a sign of Protestant bias, and that the concept should be shifted from hidden mental states to visible institutions and disciplinary practices.

Despite these points of criticism, there is a strong consensus that the idea of religion is real. Its existence has been demonstrated through numerous studies of a variety of religious traditions. In addition, it is possible to construct theoretical models of how the concept religion works and what it can tell us about social reality. As such, the discussion of the concept of religion is an ongoing project that will continue to shape scholarly study of religious traditions in the years to come. Scholars will need to be vigilant about the ways in which the concept is used, and will continue to struggle with how to best define it. But, as this article demonstrates, it is necessary to do so in order to understand the complexity of the phenomenon that is religion.