The Concept of Religion

Religion is a broad term that includes all of a human society’s beliefs and practices, whether or not the person who practices them claims that they are religious. Some scholars use the term more narrowly, defining it as the system of beliefs that people use to deal with ultimate concerns. Often, this concern is centered on gods or spirits, but it can also be centered on other concepts such as moral values and a spiritual or natural world.

Some scholars have been critical of the notion that there is any such thing as a religion. One approach, based on the philosophy of Xenophanes and other ancient Greek thinkers, sees religion as a projection of humans’ aspirations. Others, like Clifford Geertz and Karl Marx, have developed a hermeneutic approach to culture that emphasizes the meaning of symbols in the context of their social or historical settings. Still other scholars, such as Martin J. Smith and Émile Asad, have criticized this emphasis on subjectivity, but they have not denied that the concept of religion can refer to forms of life operating in the world.

Many scholars have favored functional definitions of religion, which try to identify the characteristics that distinguish religious phenomena from those of other groups. Emile Durkheim defined religion as any unified system of beliefs and practices that creates a moral community, and his approach has been followed by Paul Tillich, who defines religion as whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values.

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