The Concept of Religion

Religion (also known as faith) is a term for systems of spiritual beliefs and practices. Typically, religions are organized around the worship of all-powerful deities and involve behavior such as prayer, meditation, and participation in collective rituals. Many religions also include moral teachings and recognize certain people, places, texts, or objects as holy or sacred. Although the majority of human civilizations have some form of religion, religion is not a universal phenomenon and its definition varies widely.

Some scholars, particularly those who study world history, view the concept of religion as an ahistorical social construct that developed in response to historical events. Others take a more philosophical approach to the concept of religion, viewing it as an abstract taxon for sets of practices that have some kind of family-resemblance.

While a variety of definitions have been offered for the concept of religion, the most common today is a monothetic one that defines it as a set of beliefs and practices that are organized into a specific social system. This approach assumes that the members of a particular religion share some defining property that puts them in that category, and it is similar to the classical assumption that all instances of a given concept accurately describe a single prototype.

Other scholars, including some anthropologists, have offered more holistic and nuanced interpretations of religion. For example, American anthropologist Clifford Geertz defined religion as “a complex of symbols that acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by clothing conceptions of a general order of existence.” Geertz’s definition is viewed as a more sophisticated alternative to the monothetic definition offered above, and it provides an alternative paradigm for how we see religion.