The Conceptual Range of Religion


Religion is an important part of the social fabric and it has a variety of consequences for human lives. It helps to alleviate physical and emotional suffering in times of crisis, it is a source of moral guidance and provides an opportunity to cultivate spirituality and grow closer to God.

The History of the Conceptual Range

Over the centuries, religion has developed into a wide-ranging social category. It is used to sort the different kinds of beliefs and practices that unite people in social communities, to name an inevitable feature of the human condition, and to distinguish one group from another.

There are three basic definitions of religion: a “substantive” approach in which the term identifies membership in a specific set of beliefs; a “functional” approach in which it defines religion in terms of its distinctive role; and an “intermediate” approach in which it takes both the substantive and functional elements to be significant.

A substantial approach to religion explains it in terms of belief in supernatural beings; a functional approach in terms of ultimate concern; an intermediate approach in terms of the relationship between one’s beliefs and the role that they play in one’s life.

Despite its wide-ranging semantic range, there are two philosophical questions that arise about religion that are likely to be relevant for all abstract concepts used to sort cultural types. First, the disparate variety of social practices said to fall under this taxon raises a question about whether this can be understood as an essence or family resemblance concept. Second, it raises a question about how to distinguish between necessary and sufficient properties of religion as a category-concept.