The Concept of Religion

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Religion is a cultural system that binds people together in communities of faith, worship and a shared purpose. It may involve devotional practices, moral conduct and beliefs about the supernatural and spiritual concepts such as gods and goddesses. It also often encompasses organized religions and their social institutions, as well as a shared code of rituals.

Some scholars, particularly those influenced by Foucauldian or post-colonial thinking, argue that the concept of religion is a construct invented to justify European colonialism and imperialism. The category of religion is deeply implicated in the history of Western statism and imperialism, they say, so the only appropriate scholarly stance toward it should be one of critical suspicion.

The problem with this critique is that it misunderstands the nature of the term religion itself. Unlike the concept of crime, for which it is legitimate to work with a narrow definition that focuses on specific developments and crimes, it is not possible to do this with the category of religion.

As a result, it is perfectly valid for anthropologists to study the different dimensions of the religious experience in its diversity and unruliness; or for theologians to study religious doctrine and scriptures; or for intellectual historians to study religion as a coherent, inter-generational scholarly body of thought.

However, to ask that the concept of religion encapsulate and describe all of human experience is like asking for a totalitarian law. It would not only miss the point of the study of religion, it would make it impossible to compare the various religious traditions.