The Concept of Religion

Religion is the name that people give to systems of beliefs, practices, and rituals that serve various functions in life. The concept is most commonly used today for the so-called world religions — Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism — but it can also refer to forms of life that have not been given a name. In addition to these culturally specific beliefs and practices, religions usually include a moral code and the promise of an afterlife.

Since the beginning of time, individuals have wondered where they came from, why they are here, and what their purpose is in life. Religious communities attempt to answer these questions and can provide followers with structure, a sense of community, and guidance. In addition, some religions support the idea that people have a spiritual or divine nature and can help people deal with pain, illness, and death.

Some anthropologists use the term religion to describe an entire societal formation, such as a culture or civilization. Others take a more narrow view and limit the term to certain practices or behaviors. For example, a person might say that he or she has religion if he or she regularly attends church services and prays.

Historically, most scholars have treated the concept of religion as an object to be analyzed and studied. These “monothetic” approaches are based on the classical view that every instance of a given class will share some defining property that distinguishes it from other instances. More recently, however, scholars have taken a more reflexive approach and examined the constructedness of the concept of religion.