The Concept of Religion

Religion is complex, and it can be difficult to articulate. Like other human phenomena it is elusive and evasive, and the concept of religion can take on different senses over time. Several researchers have tried to clarify the notion of religion by offering definitions that attempt to identify some features that distinguish it from other social practices. The most common are those that describe religion as a particular set of beliefs and rituals. Using terms such as “contellation”, assemblage, network, or system these definitions treat religion as a multifaceted, multidimensional complex. This approach is not new. Christian theologians, for example, have long described their faith as simultaneously fides (belief), fiducia (trust), and fidelitas (fidelity).

Other approaches are more critical of the notion of religion. They question the validity of the category, and argue that it has been shaped by Western imperialist and neo-colonial projects. They suggest that the concept is a fiction, and that it fails to capture some real, important, and diverse human activities and beliefs.

Others have sought to avoid this critique by adopting a polythetic approach to the concept of religion. This approach seeks to define the concept by identifying a class of properties that all religions share. These might include a belief in an afterlife, a belief in a transcendental reality, the use of a sacred text or object, the idea of a moral order that is presupposed by any culture, and so on. This approach is not without its problems, however. For one thing, it can be hard to identify a set of properties that are reliably found together in all cases, and it also tends to ignore the fact that some cultures do not have a view of an afterlife or of a cosmological order at all.