The Concept of Religion

Religions have a profound influence on people, both individually and collectively. They can bring peace and security, but also division and stress, especially for those who are treated unequally or discriminated against. They provide the framework for some of our most cherished goals, such as morality, community, and an afterlife, but they can also limit our potentialities by creating and maintaining rigid disciplinary boundaries and rigid codes of recognition and behaviour.

It is important to distinguish between monothetic and polythetic approaches to the concept of Religion. Monothetic definitions tend to look for a certain number of essential characteristics that must be present in order to have a religion. These include such things as belief in God, a specific god or goddess, a particular ritual practice, and a belief in a universal afterlife. Polythetic approaches, on the other hand, take a more holistic view of the world, and they do not stipulate how many characteristics a religion must have. Such an approach is often used to describe indigenous religions.

Over the past forty years or so, there has been a “reflexive turn” in the study of Religion. This means that scholars have pulled the camera back to examine how the concept of Religion is constructed, and how it relates to social and cultural processes. One way to do this is by examining the seven dimensions of Religion as proposed by Ninian Smart: practical and ritual; experiential and emotional; mythical or narrative; doctrinal and philosophical; ethical and legal; and material (art, architecture, sacred places). These are all necessary for a full understanding of the world’s religions and their role in human life.