The Concept of Religion

It might seem avant garde today to use the term “religion” for a constellation, assemblage, or network of behaviors rather than a doctrinal belief system. But it is a common practice in many religious traditions to treat religion as a multifaceted complex. Among the dimensions of that complexity are prayer, rituals, and behavior that a person engages in in order to express his or her beliefs.

It is also possible to consider how all of these dimensions of religion relate to each other and to what the overall goal of religion is. This goal may be a combination of theological and moral issues, but also includes a sense of peace and happiness that is found through a relationship with God. The goal of religion is thus a sort of life in which people seek to live according to the teachings of their religious tradition.

The question of how to define religion is a thorny one that has not been settled by any consensus. Various definitions have been offered, but all of them fall short in some way. Those definitions that require the existence of belief in a certain kind of reality are problematic because they do not take into account the fact that some individuals and groups never believe in such a supernatural being.

A more promising approach is to view religion as a social genus, a class of practices that share some important characteristics. This allows us to identify the members of the genus without requiring them all to have belief in a particular kind of reality. Emile Durkheim argues for this position, and Paul Tillich takes a similar approach.

Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that anyone will be persuaded by this argument. The main problem is that there are a wide variety of practices that people describe as religion, and it would be difficult to argue that all of them are members of the same social genus.

So it appears that we will have to use a different approach, and this is the one most philosophers have been using recently. The concept of religion is a taxon used to sort out sets of social practices, and it is used for the so-called world religions as well as for Buddhist, Hindu, Confucian, and Taoist traditions. It is a concept that has come to be defined in terms of family resemblances, and that raises some philosophical issues that are not so easily resolved as the problems raised by other taxon concepts such as literature and democracy.