The Shifts and Complexities of Religion


The study of religion helps us understand how people around the world organize their lives. It is a complex and dynamic phenomenon, with a wide range of beliefs, rituals, symbols, and practices. People of many different religions share much in common, including devotion to a god or spirit, belief in afterlife or cosmological orders, and codes of moral conduct.

As the humanities and social sciences have become more reflexive in recent years, scholars have pulled back the camera on what we think we know about a category like religion. The resulting blurriness of definitions shows that the concept has been constructed over time, with its senses shifting depending on who is using it and for what purpose. It is important to recognize these shifts and complexities in order to develop the most accurate picture possible of the phenomena we call religion.

One way to understand these shifts is to look at the functional definitions of religion. Durkheim used this approach, arguing that religion consists of whatever a society uses to create solidarity and promote morality. Another functional approach comes from Paul Tillich, who defined religion as “whatever serves to organize a person’s values.”

While these definitions emphasize certain properties of religion, they cannot capture the whole complexity of the phenomenon. For this reason, polythetic approaches are also increasingly popular. Polythetic definitions seek to avoid the claim that an evolving social class has an ahistorical essence by fastening on multiple properties.