The Semantic Range of Religion
Religion is a set of beliefs and practices that center on questions about the meaning of life and may involve the worship of a supreme being. The term is commonly used in the English language to describe such traditions as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism.
The Semantic Range of Religion
Over the years, the semantic range of religion has grown to encompass a wide variety of social practices, and scholars often argue about how best to define it. While the term has been traditionally understood as a monothetic concept, there are now several polythetic approaches that attempt to understand it more holistically.
The first approach, the “classical” theory of concepts, argues that every accurately described instance will share a defining property that makes it distinct from other instances. This is a strategy that has been applied to many other abstract concepts, including literature, democracy, or culture itself.
A second, more functional approach, tries to define religion in terms of the distinctive role it plays in someone’s life. This is a strategy that is also common in economics, psychology, and anthropology.
During the nineteenth century, scholars in various disciplines began to study religion. Historians, philologists, literary critics, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and economists all took part in this endeavor.
In the twentieth century, however, there was a shift in emphasis. The traditional substantive definitions of religion–such as those of Weber, Durkheim, and Simmel–all emphasized the presence of a belief in a distinctive kind of reality. This approach, called the “substantive” or “religious” definition, is still widely used today.
Some philosophers have rejected this definition for various reasons. De Muckadell (2014), for example, argues that stipulative definitions are problematic because they force scholars to accept whatever definition is offered. In addition, such stipulative definitions often leave the door open to counting non-traditional religious or spiritual practices as legitimate objects of the study of religion.
As a result, scholars are increasingly looking for ways to define religion that are more functional or generative. This is a trend that is reminiscent of the “reflexive” turn in the social sciences and humanities.
While this turn has been criticized for its obfuscation of the real world, it does make sense to think about religion as a social taxon that has evolved over time and across cultures. This is because, unlike many other abstract concepts, religion has a history of having different uses in each cultural context.
Reflexive scholars have pointed out that the way in which religion has developed over time suggests that it is a construct. They have argued that this is especially true in cases where religion has been conceived as a means to subjugate people. This criticism has helped to create a new generation of scholars who have embraced the idea that religion is not a natural entity, but rather a product of modernity.
The use of religion in political life is one reason that a broader understanding of religion has become so important in contemporary society. A large number of politicians, in particular in the United States and Europe, are religious. This is not necessarily good news for non-religious individuals, but it does highlight the importance of studying religion to understand how it operates in the world.