The Social Nature of Religion


The word religion evokes images of a variety of practices and beliefs that range from agnosticism to Scientology. Yet most people in the world, about 6.5 billion of them, are religious in one way or another. It is hard to think of any other phenomenon whose presence and importance are as widespread.

As early and, for millennia, successful protective systems, religions have given their adherents the confidence and security to do other things. They have allowed them to explore human possibility and, in the process, have been a source of many of our most beautiful cultural creations, including art, architecture, literature, music, dance, drama, and the explorations of nature that issued into what we now call science.

What is more, religions protect and transmit the means to attain some of life’s most important goals. Some of these goals are proximate and have to do with life in this world (a wiser, more charitable, more fruitful, more successful, or less suffering way of living); others are ultimate, having to do with the final condition of this or any other human being, or even of the cosmos itself.

It is these features that account for the wide and diverse semantic range of what is now said to constitute religion, so that it is often treated as a social kind, a taxonomic concept sorted into classes according to their shared properties. This approach raises two important issues, however, that are also raised when a taxonomic concept is used to sort cultural types, as it was with “literature” and “democracy”. The first issue concerns whether a social taxonomic concept like this can be understood in terms of its necessary and sufficient characteristics or only as a family-resemblance concept.

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