The Concept of Religion

Religion is a set of beliefs, values, practices and social institutions that form a common way of life for many people around the world. It usually involves a belief in supernatural entities, such as gods or spirits, and sometimes also deals with mystical or spiritual concepts.

The concept of religion has a long history. Its earliest origins can be traced to tribal totems, ancestor worship, and the creation of special deities based on natural forces or as guardians. These deities developed gradually into a variety of forms and often incorporated stories, rituals and rules of behavior.

Early definitions of religion were often quite narrow. They included the belief in a supreme deity, or in judgment after death, or in idolatry and so on. This definition excluded a wide range of peoples, and Edward Burnett Tylor argued that it had the fault of identifying religion with particular developments rather than with a deeper motive which underlies them.

Today, the concept of religion is defined in a range of ways. The most important approach, called monothetic, uses a single property to define the class of religions. In other words, the class is monothetic if all members of it have that property to a sufficient degree.

Other approaches, called polythetic, use a large set of properties to identify the class of religions. They also have a threshold number, or a minimum amount of the properties needed to be present in a given class in order for it to qualify as a religion.

For example, Lincoln (2002) proposes four characteristics to define religion: the presence of a distinctive discourse that claims transcendent status; the existence of practices, communities and institutions in which those conceptions are embodied; the emergence of a religious worldview as a socially constructed reality; and the emergence of religious authorities or systems of governance which regulate, control, and discipline its members.

These features are not essential, but they are necessary and sufficient for Lincoln to see religion as a real thing. In addition, these four characteristics can appear only in a certain context–that is, in a society where the discourse has a special status that distinguishes it from other kinds of social practices.

Among modern scholars, the most common monothetic-set definition is that of J. Z. Smith (1982: ch. 1).

This definition of religion says that any group of people that has these four characteristics is a religion. The only reason a group of people is not a religion is because they don’t believe in the four characteristics to a sufficient degree.

Some people argue that religion is a human instinct, a feeling that answers certain emotional and psychological needs. Psychologists, for example, argue that many people turn to religion to give them a sense of meaning in their lives or a higher spiritual experience than they get from everyday life. Neuroscientists also believe that certain parts of the brain have circuitry for religious experiences.

The study of religion is complex and involves a number of different disciplines. Some of these disciplines include psychology, sociology, anthropology and neuroscience.