The Concept of Religion


Religion is a social taxon, a set of practices that share certain features. Its paradigmatic forms are Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, but it can also include forms of life that no one has named (e.g., Rastafarianism). The question of how to define religion raises the same issues that are faced when defining other abstract concepts used to sort cultural types. Should there be sharp lines around the concept to ascertain certainly whether something is religious, or should it have a fuzzy edge, allowing for the possibility of new phenomena?

Many scholars are critical of the way in which the concept is being used. They point out that the use of the word creates, or reifies, a distinction between secular and sacred elements of human existence, an artificial separation that may have little to do with the realities of believers. Others, such as Jonathan Z. Smith, argue that the concept of religion names a real thing, and that it is necessary to understand that real thing.

Still others use the concept of religion to examine how social structures organize individuals. Functionalists rely on the notion that a religious organization creates a sense of meaning for its members and establishes a common vision of the world. Other functionalists, such as Cooley and Yinger, employ a more macrofunctional approach, which views religion as the means by which societies control human behavior and engender in their citizens a sense of moral responsibility.