The Concept of Religion


Over the past several decades, scholars have pulled the camera back, so to speak, and examined the constructed nature of objects previously taken as unproblematically “there”. Among those objects is religion. The concept of religion is widely used to describe a set of social phenomena that communicate, celebrate, internalize, interpret, and extrapolate a faith. These include beliefs (myths), rites, an ethos, a worldview, and a system of symbols.

Like other social institutions, religion evolves within and across cultures over time. However, unlike economics, which can change radically from one era to the next, the changes in religion are more gradual and tend to incorporate older features with new ones. The result is that the notion of what counts as religion often shifts, and it is difficult to define what religion actually consists of.

For some scholars, the lack of clarity over what constitutes a religion is problematic because it creates an artificial barrier between those who practice religiosity and non-religious individuals. The most common definition of religion focuses on beliefs in a distinctive type of reality. This approach is often criticized, for example, because the idea of ‘atheism’ or’science’ also includes beliefs in a unique sort of reality and so could be included in a definition of religion.

A second definition focuses on the way religion provides meaning and purpose to life, reinforces social unity, and fosters positive illusions. This approach explains why religious belief and practice can have significant effects on the health of people and communities, including reductions in family dissolution, crime, delinquency, out-of-wedlock births, drug and alcohol abuse, depression, stress, and prejudice.