The Concept of Religion


Whether it is considered an intrinsic part of human nature or something that develops in response to certain cultural conditions, the idea that religion is a social genus cuts across multiple disciplines. It is a subject of inquiry in anthropology, history, philosophy, psychology, religious studies, sociology, and most recently, cognitive science.

Functionalist approaches tend to define religion in terms of the functions it serves. Emile Durkheim argued that any belief and practice that generates social cohesion and provides orientation in life may be called a religion. The intellectual descendants of Durkheim follow this approach and, in general, consider any system of beliefs and practices that serve these functions to be religion.

Other definitions of religion use more qualitative criteria. For example, Abraham Lincoln developed a definition of religion that requires a belief in a transcendent being, a community of like-minded believers who support each other, rituals and ceremonies, and some form of discourse that claims the existence of an all-powerful divine authority. This is a “monothetic” approach because, according to Lincoln’s criteria, all religions have these four features at the very least.

The most recent debates about the concept of religion are driven by research showing that religiosity has significant benefits. These include helping people to develop a set of moral criteria and promoting psychological and physical well-being. The evidence also suggests that regular religious practice can protect people from social problems such as suicide, drug abuse, alcoholism, out-of-wedlock births, and crime.