The Concept of Religion


Religion is the belief in, and practice of, that which people regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. It is the basis for moral order and the primary source of meaning and value in human life. Religious people are willing to live according to and, at times, die for what they value most. The concept of religion is a social phenomenon, and it is often studied using textual, historical, anthropological, linguistic, philosophical and other approaches.

In the nineteenth century, Emile Durkheim developed a definition of religion based on the fact that it unites a number of people into a single moral community. This approach is referred to as a substantive definition. Today, scholars are increasingly taking a different approach to the concept of religion by defining it functionally. This is referred to as a polythetic definition, and it allows for the recognition of many properties that are shared by religions.

Supporters of the polythetic definition argue that stipulative definitions are problematic because they imply that a religious phenomenon has an essential quality or core. They criticize the stipulative definition that identifies the essence of religion as too narrow and excludes many religious groups. They also point out that polythetic definitions can be just as ethnocentric as monothetic definitions, because they recognize many properties that are common to a group but not necessarily essential. They also fail to address the broader motivations that underlie a religion’s development and the nature of the relationships between religion and other cultural dimensions of society.

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