What Is Religion?


Religion is a broad term used to describe a wide range of social practices and beliefs. It can be used to refer to specific kinds of belief in a god or divine force, or it can be used to refer to the rituals, practices, and behaviors that people take part in to express their doctrinal beliefs.

Traditionally, one can think of religion as a social taxon for sets of practices that unite a number of people into a single moral community. This idea is common to modern anthropology and sociology, and it is also often reflected in legal and political contexts. In the United States, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for instance, defines religion as “any system of religious belief.”

A common contemporary approach is to take the concept of religion as a substantive definition that determines membership in the social genus by identifying an underlying belief in a distinctive kind of reality. This version is typically associated with the work of Emile Durkheim, who defined religion as “the set of social practices that bind together a group of people in a socially organized way” (Durkheim 1912).

Another commonly accepted modern approach is to drop the substantive element and instead define religion functionally. This approach is associated with the work of Talal Asad, who adopts Michel Foucault’s “genealogical” approach to the study of religion.

For Asad, “religion” is not a name for a specific kind of reality but rather a name for an existential complex. Asad suggests that this concept names a real thing that would operate in the world even had the concept not been invented, and that such an existential complex is capable of inculcating all sorts of mental states and attitudes.

Asad argues that religion is an interior state that is shaped by power. As a result, “it is not a state that is independent of social power but a reified form of that power.”

However, it is important to note that the “realism” of such a definition depends on its purpose-relative nature and not on its content. Nevertheless, such a definition does not necessarily avoid the ethnocentrism that can be involved in monothetic approaches.

To make this point, Asad focuses on a series of assumptions that have distorted our understanding of the historical reality of religion. These include Christian and modern assumptions that take belief as a mental state characteristic of all religions, and the assumption that religion is essentially distinct from politics.

In Asad’s view, these assumptions have led to an overemphasis on the role of the individual in shaping religion and a failure to see that religion is primarily a disciplining technique employed by some authorizing power.

To understand religion in terms of its disciplinary techniques, Asad argues that scholars should adopt the realism of Michel Foucault’s “genealogical” perspective. The key to this approach is the notion that people do not simply have beliefs or attitudes but that these are inculcated through a disciplinary process.