The Concept of Religion


Religion is an ancient and diverse category of human beliefs, practices, and experiences. It is also a contested concept. Its semantic range has expanded over time, with some scholars arguing that it is a family-resemblance concept while others denounce its use as a social taxon and suggest that its modern semantic expansion went hand in hand with the spread of European colonialism.

Regardless of the debate over its status, Religion is a useful term for sorting cultural types and providing a starting point for analyzing and understanding their differences. It is also a key concept for many disciplines, including anthropology and sociology.

The term “religion” originally referred to a set of beliefs and practices that were characterized by taboos, promises, curses, oaths, and other commitments. These beliefs were based on an individual’s relationship with the gods, or other supernatural entities, and included a particular cosmological order. The word later incorporated the idea of an afterlife.

Some scholars have stipulatively defined Religion as being present in every culture while others have taken functionalist approaches that define religion as the set of beliefs and practices that generate social cohesion or provide a person’s orientation in life, for example. These definitions, however, tend to ignore other elements of religious practice such as rituals and group membership. For this reason they are not necessarily universal. They also tend to be shaped by an idealized Protestant monotheism. An alternative to these monothetic-set definitions is Talal Asad’s genealogical approach to religion which aims to counteract the bias for the subjective found in anthropology by drawing attention to the disciplined practices that produce and organize human subjectivity.