As the concept of religion has expanded over time to encompass a wide range of practices, it has been a common concern to try and sort out which social phenomena can be considered as religion. Unlike other abstract concepts used to describe cultural types, such as “literature” or “democracy,” there are not a set of necessary and sufficient properties that all instances of the term must possess in order to be classified as religion. This article explores two philosophical issues that have arisen for this contested concept and argues that they do not necessarily undermine the value of using it to study religion.
Some scholars have taken the view that it is impossible to define religion because it is a social construct that depends on context and culture. This position is usually based on the assumption that it is unfair to try and reduce the complexity of religion by limiting its definition to certain supposedly essential features. It is, however, possible to understand this broad category as a complex that has several dimensions and many interrelationships. The idea of treating religion as a kind of network or assemblage may seem avant garde but it has long been a characteristic feature of scholarly approaches to the phenomenon.
Nevertheless, some thinkers have tried to develop a formal definition of religion. Edward Burnett Tylor, for example, suggested that one could classify a phenomenon as religious when it had a mystical element and was characterized by solemnity or graveness. He argued against restricting the concept by a limited list of features, such as belief in spirits or the afterlife, because this would exclude many aspects of human life.
A sociological functional approach to defining religion can be traced back to Emile Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (see Durkheim, Emile). His definition turns on the idea that any system of beliefs and practices that creates solidarity can be considered a religion.
This type of functional definition also finds support in Paul Tillich’s notion of religion as any dominant concern that organizes a person’s values and binds them together into a moral community. This approach is sometimes criticized because it relies on an ideological image of humans that privileges the passive role of the religious adherent.
A different approach, inspired by the field of cognitive science, attempts to understand the concept of religion as a complex that influences how we experience the world around us. It argues that there is not enough room for all of the elements of religion in our brains to be simultaneously activated. This view suggests that a definition of religion should focus on the most influential dimensions and leave out the rest. It has been criticized by some scholars who argue that it is unfair to try to distill the meaning of religion from this perspective, because it ignores the ways in which our bodies and habits shape our experiences. A variation on this argument adds a fourth dimension to the classic three of true, beautiful, and good and calls it “body.” This fourth dimension incorporates a person’s physical culture and habits into their religion by way of their sense of community.