The Concept of Religion

Religion is one of the most pervasive and powerful forces in human history. It shapes the way people understand themselves, each other, and their place in the world. It is also the subject of a broad array of academic disciplines, including sociology, history, philosophy, anthropology, and ethics.

The concept of religion is complex and has many different interpretations. It is difficult to define, but a common approach is to look at what distinguishes religion from other forms of life and values. Some of the characteristics that distinguish religions are intensity and comprehensiveness. This definition, which is sometimes called the genus-species definition of religion, has been criticized as overly broad, but it provides a useful framework for understanding religious phenomena.

Most of the early studies of religion focused on beliefs and practices. The work of Emile Durkheim in the nineteenth century led to the development of a more functional approach, which defines religion in terms of the role that a particular form of life can play in society. Other scholars have defined religion in terms of a particular system of valuation (cf. Edward Burnett Tylor’s 1871 definition).

Recent studies of religion have focused on the dynamics of religious processes and on how people experience their faith. They have also looked at the ways that religions organize societies and shape knowledge, the arts, and technology. The work of Talal Asad in the 1990s has provided a Foucauldian framework for understanding how power shapes religion. His book Genealogies of Religion argued that anthropological studies have been shaped by assumptions that are Christian (in the sense that they treat belief as a mental state characteristic of all religions) and modernist (in the sense that they treat religion as essentially separate from politics).