What Is Religion?


Religion is a complex concept. While it may seem avantgarde to speak of a religion as a constellation, assemblage, or network today, this way of talking about complex social phenomena is a longstanding tradition in Christian theology. For example, Christian theologians have traditionally analyzed their way of life in terms of its three aspects: fides (faith), praxis (practice), and telos (goal). Each of these aspects corresponds to a different aspect of what it is to be religious.

While most attempts to analyze religion have used some kind of functional definition, there are also “monothetic-set” definitions. These operate on the classical theory that every instance that accurately fits a given concept will have one defining property that places it in the category. In the last several decades, interest in polythetic approaches to classification has risen. These use a version of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of prototypes to recognize many properties that crisscross or overlap with each other without being essential.

Some argue that, whether they are monothetic or polythetic, substantive and functional definitions of religion suffer from an ethnocentrism. They tend to focus on beliefs and personal experience or on the dichotomy between the natural and supernatural, ignoring faith traditions that emphasize immanence or oneness such as some forms of Buddhism and Hinduism.

These and other questions about what it is to be religious are central to the study of religion. The answers will shape what a religion is and how it is practiced.

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