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Understanding the Concept of Religion

Religious beliefs and practices vary greatly across the globe and through history. They are also closely linked to various social phenomena and issues in human societies. These relations have given rise to a wide variety of theories about Religion. These theories aim to understand the functions that religion serves and the ways that it can reinforce inequality and other problems in society.

Many scholars use a definition that drops the substantive element and instead defines religion as whatever system of beliefs and practices unite people into moral communities (and thus, presumably, have some kind of underlying cohesive structure). One can see this approach in Emile Durkheim’s view of religion as “whatever set of beliefs and feelings a group has which make it feel that it is part of a larger moral community,” or in Paul Tillich’s definition of religion as “whatever dominant concern orients a person’s values” and, therefore, gives his life meaning.

A more problematic approach seeks to develop a natural kind definition, arguing that religions are so similar to one another that they constitute a grouping that could be identified by empirical means. This approach is favored by some cognitive scientists who wish to study the psychological, philosophical and other elements of a religious tradition in order to discover what basic patterns or structures are involved. It is contested by others, who argue that such an attempt to define religion in terms of visible institutional structures and disciplinary techniques misses the point; it would ignore the fact that religious traditions have a past and a future, and the way that this relates to their philosophies, beliefs, rituals, myths and symbols.

Some scholars take a more ideological approach to the concept of Religion, rejecting the notion that any belief in something other than natural reality can be called religion. They have argued that the term is a modern construct that was invented in service of European colonialism and should be dropped from discussions about global issues. It is not clear how this line of argument can be supported, however, because the very existence of the term Religion implies that it identifies a phenomenon that exists in some cultures and is recognizable by other humans.

A broad spectrum of academics, policy makers and practitioners worldwide is recognizing the importance of taking Religion into account when addressing problems such as conflict resolution, development or climate change. To this end, the new book series “Religion Matters” brings together cutting edge scholarship in an accessible form that will appeal to a global audience. Unlike previous attempts to analyze the role of Religion in global issues, this book series aims to bring together the insights and methods of different disciplines to address the question of what Religion actually is. It does this by drawing on concepts from anthropology, sociology and religious studies to explore how the concept of Religion might be defined in a noncircular and meaningful way. This will help to establish a framework for understanding the role of Religion in current global issues.