The Emergence of Religion As a Social Genus

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The word “religion” is a catch-all term for a large category of social practices. It’s a taxon that includes many different things, from the global religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism to smaller regional forms like Confucianism or Daoism, to forms of life that haven’t been named. Some scholars, such as Clifford Geertz, define religion in terms of belief in particular kinds of supernatural beings or cosmological orders. Others define it in more functional terms, as the way in which a form of life brings together a community and defines its moral values. Still others, such as Emile Durkheim and Talal Asad, argue that there’s no such thing as a religion and that we should stop using the term.

For example, a teacher might include religion in a unit on cultural studies by having students examine two sources—a primary text from the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church that explains why it believes that only men can be priests and a poll showing that most American Catholics support allowing women to serve as priests. Then students develop hypotheses about how a community of believers would respond to this conflict. Students then share their hypotheses in small groups with a partner before explaining them to the class.

Religious beliefs and phenomena are diverse and complex, and studying them takes time, skill, and patience. However, some people find the study of religion intellectually stimulating and personally meaningful. Some major in religion, but many simply take courses to better understand their neighbors and coworkers, or to prepare for travel or a move to another country.

As a result, it’s important to have a good understanding of how the field of religion was historically and is currently defined. This article explores the emergence of the concept religion as a social genus and considers two philosophical issues that arise for it, issues that are also likely to come up for other abstract concepts used to sort cultural types such as literature or democracy.

The first issue concerns the question of whether a social genus can have an essence. Some scholars have argued that it can’t, and so they reject “substantive” definitions of religion that focus on the presence of certain kinds of beliefs. Others, such as Talal Asad and Rodney Needham, take a more functional approach, arguing that the category of religion can be understood by looking at how it brings people into moral communities and defines their values, even if these properties aren’t shared by all members of the community. They call this a polythetic definition. Both approaches offer valuable insights into the operation of a social concept. Neither offers an answer to the question of what a religion is, but both are worth considering when trying to make sense of this evolving category.