Understanding the Concept of Religion

Religion is a powerful force in the lives of nearly half of Americans. Whether through prayer, attending religious services, or performing devotional acts like volunteering, people of all faiths are actively involved in helping their neighbors. They also regularly gather with extended family and engage in moral conduct that promotes compassion, humility, and service to others. But what does it really mean to be religious?

Most attempts to analyze the concept of Religion have been “monothetic” – that is, they have operated under the classical assumption that every instance accurately described by a given concept will share some defining property. For example, Emile Durkheim defined religion as whatever system of practices unite a group of individuals into a single moral community (whether or not those systems involve belief in any unusual reality).

More recently, scholars have been working to avoid such monothetic definitions, and many have adopted what is sometimes called a “polythetic” approach, recognizing that instances of a given concept can have multiple properties and therefore be distinguished from one another. Some of the most influential works in this vein, such as Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion (1993), use Michel Foucault’s genealogical method to demonstrate that contemporary anthropologists have been biased toward a focus on inner states and human subjectivity, while neglecting how such experiences are often inculcated by the disciplining techniques of an authorizing social order.

These approaches can be valuable, but it is important to remember that they still operate under the assumption that there is a substantive meaning to the concept of Religion. And, as the debate over religious freedom in our country shows, there are important social issues at stake in how this category is recognized and understood.

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