Understanding the Concept of Religion


Religions help people deal with ultimate concerns about their lives and their fate after death. In religious traditions these concerns are expressed in terms of a personal relationship with gods or spirits, or, in more humanistic and naturalistic traditions, the broader human community or the natural world. Religions also protect and transmit the means to attain life’s most important goals. Some of these goals are proximate, and have to do with living a wiser, more fruitful, more charitable or successful life (religions offer advice on how to accomplish this), or, in some cases, avoiding punishment or reaping rewards after death. Others are transcendent, and have to do with the final condition of this or any other individual or with the cosmos itself.

Religion is a complex phenomenon that, in its diverse forms, can promote social unity and cohesion and, at the same time, promote intolerance, cruelty, bigotry, and social oppression, even, as history shows, to wanton bloodshed. Despite its many risks, religion continues to be the heart and soul of what might otherwise be (and all too often has been) a cold-hearted world.

The field of study that deals with the concept of Religion is broad and multidisciplinary. Anthropology, history, philosophy, theology, sociology, and psychology all contribute to understanding this phenomenon. More recently, the development of cognitive science has led to the application of a scientific approach to religion. This new synthesis aims to understand the way in which beliefs, practices, and experiences shape human thinking and behavior.

There are two broad ways to understand the nature of Religion: functional and structural. Functional approaches rely on patterns of behavior, rituals, and beliefs to identify what it is that constitutes a religion. The classic model used by anthropologists to categorize religions is the Triadic Model, which divides them into the true, the beautiful, and the good. This model is useful because it allows us to consider the interrelationships of these elements and to recognize the complexity of the phenomena.

On the other hand, structural models rely on a set of criteria based on how these elements interact to produce a given outcome or behavior. These criteria are outlined by Ninian Smart in his famous Anatomy of the World’s Religions. Smart identifies seven characteristics that he believes constitute the “luxurious vegetation” of the world’s religions:

The challenge is to discern these overlapping and intersecting features and determine how they relate to each other. A method of examining these characteristics is called “polythetic classification”—a technique inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblance, in which he suggests that, for example, the vast variety of games that might be categorized as ‘games’ share crisscrossing and partially overlapping features. Treating the varying phenomena of Religion in this way might allow us to identify and compare defining characteristics, which could then lead to explanatory theories. The resulting analysis, it is hoped, will provide a more balanced and comprehensive view of the ‘luxurious vegetation’ that religions have to offer.