The Concept of Religion

The term Religion refers to a broad genus of social formations whose defining properties are varied and complex. It is difficult to pin down, and it has been a subject of much debate. Some take a functional approach such as Durkheim’s definition of religion as whatever social concern organizes people’s values (and doesn’t involve belief in unusual realities). Others, like Paul Tillich, use a more axiological approach to define it as the most important concerns that shape a person’s life and provide meaning and purpose for it.

Another approach is the substantive one crafted by anthropologist Clifford Geertz. He defines religion as a system that establishes powerful, pervasive moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing them with an aura of factuality.

Other anthropologists have pushed the concept of Religion further still. They have used it to criticize modern Western concepts of religion by arguing that they are not the same as the religious phenomena we observe in other cultures. They claim that the taxon we have constructed of Religion is an invented category whose development goes hand in hand with the rise of European colonialism.

Regardless of which of these approaches is taken, most analysts agree that Religion involves a great deal of complexity and variation. It cannot be reduced to a single or two factors, but is rather like a family whose members have different features but who share a set of resemblances. It is a contested category, but it is important to study because it provides resources and inspiration for virtually all human creations, including art and architecture.

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