The Concept of Religion in Anthropology


Religion is one of the most controversial concepts in anthropology. It is not just that scholars differ about what it is, but that they have radically different approaches to how the concept should be understood.

One approach treats religion as a social taxon whose members are all people who believe in a distinctive kind of reality, such as heaven, hell, or purgatory. Another approach defines religion as whatever system of beliefs and practices unites people into a moral community. Yet a third approach drops the substantive element and defines religion as those practices that generate human attachments. This “functional” definition is most common today, and it has been a mainstay of Emile Durkheim’s theory of religion.

Many scholars, however, have criticized the idea that something as broad and diverse as religion can be understood by using a functional definition. They argue that the emergence of the concept of religion as a taxon was a project of modernity, and that it is therefore unjust to treat it as an inevitable feature of human culture.

Others take the argument even farther and claim that the concept of religion is an invented category whose modern semantic expansion went hand in hand with European colonialism. This line of thought has been a key part of the “reflexive turn” in religious studies, and it has helped orient the debate over what to do about the contested nature of religion. Some have even gone so far as to use the slogan “no such thing as religion” (e.g., Possamai 2018).