Disaggregating the Concept of Religion


Religion has been a complicated subject to study, and much of the literature on it has been sloppy and even misleading. One reason for this is that many definitions of religion have been “monothetic”–they operate with the classical view that each instance of a concept will have a defining property that accurately describes it. This is wrong for two reasons: First, it overlooks the role that different aspects of a type of life can play in describing that type of life; this is what we mean by “functional” definitions of concepts. Second, it fails to recognize that different types of religious beliefs and practices often have the same functional purpose–that of providing a community with a sense of identity and moral order.

Fortunately, over the last several decades there has been a growing movement to take a disaggregating approach to understanding the concept of religion. This move has been driven by a desire to understand how the construction of the notion of religion affects our grasp of historical realities. For example, scholars have criticized the fact that what counts as “religion” changes from time to time and place. This phenomenon reveals that the notion of religion is not a “thing” that exists in the world independent of social power.

The most common method for disaggregating religion is to treat it as a complex of practices and beliefs, similar to how we analyze other types of social institutions such as crime or art. This is not a new approach: a number of the early thinkers in the study of religion (including Emile Durkheim) used this analytical tool.

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