A Constructive, Empirically Grounded Approach to Understanding Religion

Religion is an important part of many people’s lives. It is a central source of moral guidance, it helps to create and sustain social groups, and it seems to provide health benefits, according to some recent studies. But what exactly is it? What is the nature of this phenomenon, and why does it stick around in so many societies? This article seeks to answer these questions by offering a constructive, empirically grounded approach to understanding Religion.

For much of history, the concept of religion was understood as a social genus, or a cultural type, that exists in every culture. This view, reflected in classic texts like Frazer’s The Religions of the East and the modern sociological work by Lawrence Berger and Philip Gorski, takes for granted that there are certain properties that any culture must display in order to be considered a religion. It is a classic example of the prototype theory of concepts, which states that each instance will have a single, defining property that distinguishes it from other instances.

A more recent turn in analysis has shifted the discussion away from such monothetic views toward a more polythetic one. This newer approach recognizes that there is more to religion than just a set of beliefs and practices. It also involves a community of believers who support and encourage each other in their spiritual journeys. These are not trivial aspects of Religion, as they help to explain why religious participation has been associated with better mental health.

As such, a proper understanding of Religion requires a more holistic and fluid definition that incorporates both the social and the psychological. The term ‘religion’, after all, derives from the Latin word religio, meaning “scrupulousness” or “devotedness”. It was clearly understood in western antiquity that not all worshippers shared a belief in the same god(s), and that these different religions could exist side by side.

The newer, more functional definitions of religion attempt to capture this broader sense of the term. They often use the phrase ‘religious belief and practice’ to describe a wide range of phenomena. While this approach is useful, it does not always succeed in capturing the full complexity of Religion, and the ways in which it functions within a society.

Finally, there are those who argue that the concept of Religion is a false construct. They suggest that the development of the term as a social genus goes hand in hand with European colonialism and that we should stop treating it as an indivisible aspect of human culture. These criticisms go too far in my view, since they still imply that any substantive definition of Religion can be correct or incorrect. However, there are many more sophisticated analyses of the nature of Religion that do not make this claim (see, for example, Possamai 2018).