Two Philosophical Issues When Religion Is Defined Functionally


A religious community provides the context within which people can find inspiration and ideas, and it is the structure which sanctions and rewards their behaviour. Its systems of beliefs, promises and taboos give them a framework to feel at home in the world; a community where their needs can be met, their desires controlled, and their anxieties soothed. It is no wonder that, even in our secular age, so many people find religion, and why the concept of religion has been retooled to refer to social genuses, not only to particular beliefs, but to all kinds of activities, including a wide range of behavioural patterns:

The semantic elasticity of the term means that what counts as religio varies from one society to another. In some cases, like that of the earliest societies, it is clear that the practice was indeed about belief in a God or a Supreme Being. But, in the main, scholars have sought to understand the phenomenon by dropping the substantive definitions and defining it functionally. Emile Durkheim, for example, defined it as whatever system of practices unite people into a moral community (whether or not they involve belief in unusual realities), and Paul Tillich used the term to refer to any dominant concern that serves to organize a person’s values.

This open polythetic approach reflects the fact that different societies have different religions, but it is possible that a functionalist definition could be a good way of sorting out a group of activities that appear to be the same but differ in details from culture to culture. This entry examines two philosophical issues that arise when a social taxon is defined in this way, issues that will probably come up in debates about any abstract concept that is used to sort cultural types.