The Concept of Religion


Religion is the complex of beliefs, rituals, and practices that impact individuals and societies. People may be drawn to a particular religion for reasons including culture, community, and/or spirituality. Others may not feel connected to a religion at all, even if they believe in its theological beliefs and/or rituals of worship.

The concept of religion is widely debated, and its definition has drawn the attention of scholars in a number of disciplines. These include anthropology, history, philosophy, religious studies, psychology, and sociology.

In the early twentieth century, a “monothetic-set” approach to religion began to develop, defining it as “the belief in a distinctive kind of reality that generates a social genus,” such as an afterlife, disembodied spirits, or cosmological orders (Smith 2001). Other scholars have defined religion functionally, in terms of the beliefs and practices that provide direction in life for a social group, such as a nation, tribe, or family.

As the range of social practices that now fall within this genus has widened over time, there have emerged both “monothetic” and “polythetic” approaches to defining religion. Monothetic approaches have been rooted in the classical view that any instance accurately described by a concept will share a defining property that puts it into that category.

Polythetic approaches have been based on the “prototype” theory of concepts, which holds that every instance in an accurately described category will have some prototype structure that is the key to understanding that category’s essential properties. This approach, however, requires that one take a more nuanced account of the way that human beings construct social groups and what it means to claim transcendent status for such groups.