Defining the Concept of Religion

Religion is an ancient and pervasive cultural phenomenon that affects many aspects of human life, such as fashion, media, war, colonization, enslavement and abolition, marriage practices, legislation and law enforcement, family structures, economy, education, and literacy. On the negative side, it can also cause social conflict as illustrated by religiously motivated persecution, torture, and terrorism.

In sociological terms, some theorists like Bronislaw Malinowski argue that religion performs a positive function in society by creating social solidarity and integrating people into society. However, some sociological theories such as Marxist and Feminist completely disagree with this argument and would argue that religion causes social instability and conflict amongst the people.

It is important to note that defining the concept of religion can be difficult as it has so many different aspects. Attempts to create an adequate notion of religion by a purely formal strategy often result in a minimalism that degenerates into a lowest common denominator.

A more constructive way to approach the study of religion is to try to understand it within the context of particular social worlds. For example, James’s definition of religion is based on personal experience: “anything in which an individual aspires solemnly and gravely to stand in relation to that which he or she considers the source of all being.” A similar approach has been taken by ethnographic studies, wherein the focus is on understanding the meaning of religious beliefs within a specific culture. Nevertheless, these attempts to understand the nature of religion tend to be dominated by ethnocentric assumptions.