Reclaiming the Concept of Religion

Religion is a social institution that exists to provide people with a framework for thinking about their lives. Its functions are to establish a shared identity, define moral values, provide a sense of community and tradition, and teach people about the divine.

Some scholars treat religion as a social genus that is universal and appears in all human cultures. For example, Emile Durkheim defined religion as a group of beliefs and practices that serve a common social function such as creating solidarity and providing orientation for life.

Others, such as Paul Tillich (1957), define religion as whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values (whether or not that concern involve belief in any unusual realities). This approach suggests a functional rather than an historical view of religion, but it also implies a tendency to see religion as an interior state independent of social power.

To reclaim the concept of religion, Asad argues that we must shift our attention from hidden mental states to visible institutional structures. This means that, like Smith, we must reevaluate the assumptions that have distorted our understanding of the historical reality of religion. But we must do so in the context of a historical investigation, based on the ongoing discovery of new patterns and insights.