The Concept of Religion in Modern Anthropology


Religion is a social formation consisting of a group of people who share and organize their lives around particular beliefs. Religious activities and practices are often based on the belief that there is a spiritual entity that provides a source of wisdom, power, guidance, or enlightenment.

In some societies, religion can be a significant influence on politics and social life. It can help people to find meaning in their lives, make sense of death and suffering, and cope with emotional or physical difficulties. It can also have positive health effects, reducing tension and anxiety.

Several theories have been proposed to explain why and how religions can have such effects. They range from psychological explanations to the study of the ways in which culture influences religions.

One of the most important developments in recent years is the reflexive turn in religious studies. These scholars are arguing that religion has become a concept in anthropology that has been shaped by assumptions that are Christian (insofar as they take belief as the key mental state of all religions) and modern (insofar as they treat it as essentially distinct from politics).

Some scholars believe that this approach leads to an ethnocentric view of religion and to a neglect of historical reality. For example, Talal Asad (1993) argues that the concept of religion has been distorted by the assumption that it operates independent of social power.

Asad adopts Michel Foucault’s “genealogical” approach to show how the concept of religion is rooted in assumptions that are both Christian and modern. He explains that to see religion as a structure that exists qua social reality implies that one should shift attention from hidden mental states to visible institutions or disciplinary practices. This is a difficult move to make, because the mental states that define religion are typically not viewed as being subjective but as belonging to an institution that can be inspected.

He suggests that this approach can reveal patterns in religious history, and allow scholars to develop explanatory models. Asad identifies five properties that distinguish religion: fides, faith; fiducia, trust; moral commitment; praxis, practice; and ethos, character.

Fides refers to a cognitive state in which a person assents to a proposition or accepts it as true. It could be translated as “belief” or “intellectual commitment”. Beliefs will be present in a religion whether they have developed authoritative doctrines or not.

Faith is an affective state in which a person is deeply moved by a feeling or experience and thus is bound to its source. It could be translated as “trust” or “emotional commitment”. This would include the experience of salvation, enlightenment, or liberation.

The ethos of a religion is characterized by an attitude that emphasizes the importance of right belief and conduct, participation in religious institutions, and the use of certain rituals, symbols, or places that are sacred to the believers. This approach is sometimes called a “moral theory of religion”.

Moreover, many studies have shown that practicing a religion can help to reduce tension and anxiety in people. This is mainly because it can provide a sense of stability and continuity in life. It can also have a positive effect on health, by reducing the risk of disease and improving coping.