The Concept of Religion

Religion is an omnipresent part of the human experience. It encompasses beliefs and practices that vary widely among people, from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism to Buddhism, Shinto, and hockey. Religion shapes cultures, political systems, and even the lives of billions of individuals around the world. It impacts countless aspects of the world, from morality and everyday behavior to the way that people view God, the afterlife, and the creation story.

A number of scholars have analyzed the concept of religion, both to define it and to explain its importance in different cultures. Most attempts to define religion have been monothetic, arguing that any instance that accurately describes the term will share certain defining properties. However, there are “polythetic” approaches that do not stipulate the number of properties a member must have in order to be included in the category.

Other scholars have used a functionalist approach, which looks at how a practice serves its own social functions. For example, Durkheim’s definition turns on the function of creating solidarity among followers, and Paul Tillich’s functional definition includes whatever the dominant concern is that organizes a person’s values (whether or not those concerns include belief in unusual realities). Still others have argued that to understand religion as a collection of mental states is a Protestant bias and should be replaced by a focus on institutions. The problem with this shift is that it may exclude considerations of how religious practices influence individuals and society, such as the role of religion in politics or economics.

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