What Is Religion?
Religion is human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine or worthy of especial reverence. It also includes the way people deal with ultimate concerns about their lives and their fate after death.
Several different monothetic definitions have been proposed to characterize religion, each of which reflects a particular disciplinary focus (see Smith 1990; Schilbrack 2013). For example, Durkheim defined religion as the beliefs and practices that generate social cohesion, while Tillich characterized it as whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values and provide orientation for his life.
A polythetic approach, on the other hand, views religion as an assemblage or complex consisting of many separate elements that have their own specific meanings and functions in the world. Such an approach has been advocated by scholars such as Talal Asad, who adopts Michel Foucault’s “genealogical” approach to anthropology to show that the concept religion operating in contemporary anthropology has been shaped by assumptions that are Christian and modern.
These assumptions were reflected in the early twentieth century in the field of comparative religion, which attempted to explain and contrast systems of belief and ritual behavior from one culture with those of another. This attempt was criticized by Foucault and others as one-sided and Eurocentric.
During the past forty years, however, there has been a “reflexive” turn in the study of religion, as scholars have pulled back from the conceptual dimensions of their discipline to examine the constructed nature of the objects previously taken for granted as unproblematically “there.” The term religion was thus subjected to a series of critiques that sought to identify its political, rather than theoretical, character and to make a distinction between the rational and the cultic aspects of it.