The Concept of Religion

Throughout history, people have created many ways to express their values and beliefs. These have often been organized into religions. In most traditions, religion involves the way human beings deal with ultimate concerns about life after death or their place in a cosmological order. It also often involves the esteem and authority invested in texts, practices, or people, and it often includes a system of rules for moral behavior.

The term “religion” comes from the Latin religio, which roughly means scrupulousness or devotion. The earliest uses of the concept of religion included the idea that some humans have beliefs in gods or spirits, but today, there are many different definitions.

Modern scholars sometimes take a functional approach to the concept, in which the category of “religion” includes whatever system of practices unites a group of people into a moral community, whether or not those systems involve belief in unusual realities. This is a different approach than the monothetic and polythetic approaches to the concept of religion.

In addition, some scholars have criticized the concept of religion by arguing that it is an invented category. They argue that the concept’s modern semantic expansion went hand in hand with European colonialism and that we should stop treating it as if it names a kind of thing.

Other critics have taken this argument further, claiming that the concept of religion doesn’t name a kind of thing at all. This article explains how the notion of religion has evolved over time and then considers two philosophical issues that arise for the contested concept.