The Definition of Religion and Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion


There is much debate about what constitutes religion. This article will look at alternative, functionalist, and substantive definitions, as well as Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion. In the last 40 years, the social sciences and humanities have taken a reflexive turn, and some scholars argue that religion is a personal concept that can only be understood by its believers.

Functionalist definitions

A functionalist definition of religion focuses on what religions do rather than what they believe. According to this view, religions are systems of beliefs and practices that contribute to society. It is therefore inappropriate to define religion in terms of beliefs and practices that are only relevant to individuals. Nonetheless, functionalist definitions can be useful for discussing the meaning of religion and its place in society.

Functionalist definitions of religion seek to level the playing field among different ideologies and institutions. They note that while individuals may kill for many reasons, the act of professing belief in a god does not necessarily lead to violence.

Substantive definitions

There are two main types of definitions of religion: functional and substantive. Functional definitions are more inclusive and broad, including many non-religious practices and beliefs. This can make the term “religion” meaningless. Substantive definitions, on the other hand, avoid this problem by focusing on the traditional expressions of religion.

Substantive definitions of religion are concerned with the content of a religion’s beliefs and the impact it has on human societies. By contrast, functional definitions focus on how religion benefits society. In this view, the social actor does not play a direct role in the process; it only transmits cognizance to adherents.

Alternative definitions

There are many different definitions of religion. Some are more inclusive than others. A functional definition, for example, would include any belief system accompanied by a committed group of followers. Other definitions are more narrowly focused, such as a substantive definition. A critical point is that religious beliefs do not necessarily need to be based on God or any other external power.

The term “religion” was first coined in the 16th century, and encompasses a variety of cultural concepts. In the past, Europeans believed the world was divided into three classes. That changed after the Protestant Reformation. They also began to discover and colonize other civilizations. Some of these cultures were recognized as religions.

Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion

In his book Genealogies of Religion, Talal Asad applies Michel Foucault’s “genealogical” approach to anthropology to reveal the assumptions that Christian and secular anthropologists have made about religion. The author argues that people experience all kinds of religious experiences, including those rooted in Islam, and then goes on to show that these experiences are shaped by authorizing power.

While Asad’s work is rife with erudition and fluency in various disciplinary discourses, it shows extraordinary restraint in its argumentation, avoiding self-reflexive rhapsodies and iconoclastic frenzies. Though Asad acknowledges the works of Nietzsche, Foucault, and others, he does not directly follow their work or aspire to do so.