The Social Construction of Religion

Religion is a term with a wide semantic range. As such, it raises questions similar to those that might arise for any abstract concept used to sort cultural types—for example, literature, democracy, or culture itself. One problem is that when scholars use a word to denote a genus, they tend to assume that there are common features of the things grouped in that genus. For example, a person may think that funeral ceremonies are the same across cultures, even though they may vary within religious communities.

Historically, the study of religion has focused on sacred texts (like scripture and doctrine) and on the life stories (“vitae”) of religious and spiritual figures like saints, prophets, and other spiritual superstars. However, this kind of study misses the point that religion is a social construction. Over the past few decades, there has been a reflexive turn in sociology that has drawn attention to the constructed nature of concepts like “religion” and the ways they are defined.

For instance, there are different definitions of what a religion is and how many characteristics it must have to be considered a religion. The monothetic and polythetic approaches to this question are a reflection of the fact that there is no consensus about what constitutes a religion. Some researchers prefer to look at the functions a religion fulfills in society, for example, social cohesion or providing orientation in life. Others look at the ways a religion is organized to meet these functions.

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