The Nature of Religion


Religion is a complex category of human phenomena with many features. For example, it may include the belief in a god or gods, a supreme being, an afterlife, idolatry, and so forth. Some scholars have proposed specific definitions of religion, such as Edward Burnett Tylor’s 1871 “the belief in spiritual beings”. Others have tried to analyze the nature of religion by focusing on a particular function it serves. This approach is sometimes called functional analysis, but it may also be termed structural analysis. The latter seeks to find a structure that resembles the religious phenomenon in question.

A few scholars have sought a more analogical approach, seeking out sets of partial affinities among the varied phenomena that constitute religion. These approaches are often referred to as polythetic, and they tend to be more responsive to the comparative-historical goals proper to the study of religion.

Others have gone even further in rejecting the concept of religion as a thing. They argue that the term has never adequately identified what it means to be a religious person. They further assert that the modern semantic expansion of the word religion went hand in glove with European colonialism, and they suggest that people should stop treating religious beliefs and practices as if they correspond to something external to them. This approach, which is sometimes called anti-realism, can be interpreted as a critique of the academic discipline of religion. However, some scholars have argued that this critique is too simplistic.

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