The Concept of Religion


Religion is a way of life that is usually associated with belief in supernatural or other unusual things. It is a way of thinking about and living in the world that is often very important to people, particularly in times of crisis or stress.

The concept of religion has a long history and many versions have emerged. These have ranged from “substantive” to “functional.”

Substantive definitions, such as those of Schleiermacher and Kant, define religion in terms of the presence of a belief in a distinctive kind of reality. Other scholars have embraced functional definitions, which turn on a distinctive role that the form of life can play in the lives of its members.

Functional definitions of religion are based on the social function that a group of practices has in creating solidarity among members. Emile Durkheim (1912) and Paul Tillich (1957) have both adopted this approach.

Symbolic interactionist approaches also focus on the symbolic interactions that occur within religious rituals and ceremonies. These can include laughing, crying, trancelike states, a feeling of oneness with others, and other emotional or psychological states.

Polythetic and Monothetic Approaches

Most attempts to analyze the concept of religion have been “monothetic,” operating under the classical view that every instance of a concept accurately described will share a defining property. Increasingly, however, scholars are using open or “polythetic” approaches to determine how this social taxon operates.