The Definition of Religion in Modern Anthropology

Despite the ubiquity of religion in the world and its powerful influence on many aspects of human lives it remains difficult to define it. The difficulty arises primarily because religious phenomena manifest themselves in a variety of ways. What distinguishes religion from other phenomena is a set of characteristics including belief in God or spirits, supernatural experiences, a sense of the sacred and divine, moral values and attitudes, ritual practices, spirituality, and a variety of other beliefs and activities.

The concept of religion as a social kind is at least two thousand years old, but the development of language for such concepts takes time. Some scholars, for example Emile Durkheim, have defined religion in terms of a belief in unusual realities, while others have used a functional approach, defining the concept of religion as whatever system of practices unite a group of people into a moral community.

Another way of defining religion is by family resemblances, arguing that although a particular instance of religion may emphasise different elements, the family as a whole has a number of resemblances such as belief in God or spirit, sacredness, tradition, morality, etc. Nevertheless, the definitions of religion that are produced from these approaches are not universal and may be open to criticism.

One of the most influential works in the reflexive turn in contemporary anthropology was Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion (1993). Adopting Michel Foucault’s genealogical methodology, Asad sought to demonstrate that the notion of religion in use in modern anthropology has been shaped by Christian (insofar as it treats belief as a mental state characteristic of all religions) and modern assumptions, such as the separation between church and state.

Posted in: Gembing