Understanding the Concept of Religion

Religion is a broad category that encompasses beliefs and practices that influence the inner emotions, attitudes, values, and morality of two-thirds of the world’s population. It is an important concept, and is central to many areas of human endeavor, including public policy, psychotherapy, education, and family life. Because of this, a clear understanding of religion is necessary for any discussion of these issues.

As the study of religion has evolved, scholars have tended to narrow the definition of the term. A number of scholars have focused on the social impact of religion, defining it as the beliefs and practices that bind people together (social cohesion), promote consistency in behavior (social control), or provide strength during life’s tragedies and transitions (meaning and purpose).

Other scholars, such as the sociologists Emil Durkheim and Paul Tillich, have defined religion functionally. They have argued that religion names a common human orientation that can be found in all cultures.

This broader view of religion has been criticized for blurring the line between the concepts of culture, philosophy, and tradition or myth, and for introducing some philosophical problems into the study of religion. In response, some scholars have adopted a “family resemblance” approach to the concept of religion, arguing that there are certain crisscrossing and partially overlapping characteristics that can be seen across many different social practices that are called religion.

The term religion has become increasingly contested, with a number of different views being put forward by academics and ordinary people alike. These range from the view that religion is a system of beliefs and practices that influences a person’s morality, values, and attitudes to the view that religion is simply an attempt to control or manipulate the lives of those who subscribe to it.