Religions have been around for thousands of years and continue to shape individuals and societies. Their pervasiveness and power makes the study of them an important academic enterprise. At the same time, the nature of religion as a cultural phenomenon is constantly shifting and changing. This has led to a “reflexive turn” in the social sciences and humanities, where scholars have pulled back the camera to examine the constructed nature of these objects that had been taken for granted as unproblematically present in culture. The shift has also made the concept of religion itself murky. It was originally used for scrupulous devotion, but now it can be a taxon for social formations that include polytheistic versions as well as monotheistic ones and even those without belief in any unusual realities. Then there are functional definitions that change the sense of the term still further.
These different uses of the word “religion” raise two philosophical issues that are mirrored in similar debates over other abstract concepts that sort cultural types (such as “literature”, “democracy”, or even the concept of “culture” itself). The first issue is whether the concept can be understood in terms of a set of necessary and sufficient properties, a concept that is sometimes called monothetic. The other is whether the concept can be understood in terms a family resemblance, or a prototype, category.
Psychologists and neuroscientists, for example, have found that religiosity improves people’s ability to cope with stress. In addition, studies of the behaviours of prehistoric humans suggest that religiosity may have been a significant factor in their survival.