The Concept of Religion

Religion is a way of orienting people’s lives towards acknowledged but largely unknown ends. It gives them a means of judging the wisdom and rashness of decisions, of forgiving wrongdoing, of dealing with death and other limits (e.g., via rituals that ‘visit’ the past to enable people to learn from it). It also gives them a way to cope with frustration and fear. It thus sets them free from reactions like desperation and despair (suicide, nervous breakdown or psychic ailments) that would otherwise be unavoidable.

The term’religion’ can mean anything from a particular system of scrupulous devotion to an entire culture or society, and it is in this sense that most people today understand the concept of religion. It is a concept that has been through an extraordinary evolution. Originally it referred to specific forms of scrupulous devotion and it was used in the context of specific religious beliefs, such as monotheism or polytheism. The concept then began to be applied to a wider range of social practices and a whole range of cultural systems and values, and it was in this context that Emile Durkheim and other sociologists developed the modern definition of’religion’ as the dominant concern of a moral community irrespective of its specific beliefs.

It is thought that early religion arose in response to humans’ attempts to control uncontrollable parts of their environment – such as the weather, pregnancy and birth, or success in hunting – by manipulation (magic) and supplication through rituals. Magic tries to make the environment directly subject to human will, while religion seeks to gain control through divine intervention.

As religion evolved, it took on a more general role as a provider of social stability and moral guidance, providing ways for conflicts to be settled through courts or softening penalties exacted by barbarian law. It became a useful ally/servant of the state (Yahveh gave Moses laws for Israel, Thoth for Egypt, Shamash for Babylonia) and even served to justify its own position as a super-national religion by claiming a divine right of supremacy over other religions.

The work of Emile Durkheim and other sociologists laid the foundations for a more functional view of religion, which continues to influence contemporary thought. This view holds that religion is whatever brings together a group of people in a moral community, regardless of the nature of their beliefs or practices. It is a view that has been enlarged by the growth of the disciplines of history, archaeology, and anthropology. It includes the recognition that a religion can take many shapes, but that there are important consequences no matter what shape it takes. It is a perspective that also acknowledges the importance of the contributions of a religion’s body, habits, physical culture and social structures. In fact, it is a perspective that can be augmented by adding a fourth C: the material dimension. This approach is called’materialist’ and was pioneered by Catherine Albanese (1981). It is not to be confused with the ‘analytical’ or ‘historical’ perspectives on religion.