The Concept of Religion

Religion is a set of beliefs and practices related to the worship of a supreme power, often understood as God. It also involves cultural beliefs and values as well as devotional practices such as prayer, meditation, and rituals. The concept of religion is controversial. Some scholars (particularly those influenced by Foucauldian or post-colonial theories) argue that the notion of religion is deeply implicated in the history of western statism and imperialism, and thus that the only appropriate scholarly stance toward it is one of critical suspicion. Others argue that religion is everywhere present in our world and that, therefore, the study of religion is important to our understanding of global complexity.

Different disciplines will have differing approaches to this question. Anthropologists, for instance, might legitimately use a definition of religion that relies on the social function of creating solidarity, while theologians might work with a more content-based definition that looks at the ideas and doctrines that capture our fundamental dependence on a higher order of being.

Even if an open polythetic approach accurately describes how a term operates, it may be more useful, for purposes of focus or clarity, to adopt a closed polythetic definition that limits the set of properties one will compare. This is, in fact, the approach that has been taken by scholars such as Emile Durkheim, who defines religion as whatever system of practices unites people into a single moral community, whether or not they involve belief in any unusual realities.

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