What is religion
Anthropology facts

What is religion?

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While we enter in contact every day with different religious traditions and practices, it is today very important to grasp a deeper understanding of what a religion is and what role it fulfill within a given society

Let’s talk religion

Sia da un punto di vista storico sia da un punto di vista delle Scienze delle religioni è impossibile prescindere da un’ipotesi, per quanto arbitraria di definizione, che tenga conto sia della realtà storico-culturale in cui s’intende operare sia del complicato problema metodologico soggiacente

Filoramo Giovanni, Che cos’è la religione? Temi metodi problemi, Torino, Einaudi 2004, p. 88.


It is proper to begin acknowledging the western origin of the concept of “religion”: as pointed out from different researchers, the word itself has a small circulation outside the western languages, and even in the West it entered gradually, often in order to indicate the religions of the others; it has been pointed out that the world religio is of uncertain origin, more often used to describe an inner state of consciousness than to point to a set of beliefs.


La religione, vale a dire la parola, l’idea e soprattutto l’ambito paticolare che esse designano, rappresenta una creazione del tutto originale che solo l’occidente ha concepito e sviluppato in seguito alla sua conversione al cristianesimo

Dubuisson Daniel, L’Occident et la religion: mythes, science at idéologie. Bruxelles, Editions Complexe, 1998. P. 270, quoted in Comba Enrico, Antropologia delle Religioni. Un’introduzione, Bari Laterza, 2008, pag. 18


It is clear therefore that this word may carry the burden of ethnocentricity, tightly connected with the historic and cultural situations that favoured the emergence of a specific kind of religious practices and institution in the western countries. Instead of abandoning the word altogether, the anthropologists rely now on imperfect and incomplete definitions, clearly shown as such, taking into consideration different elements and characteristic that have to be organized time after time, depending on the specific cultural context and phenomenon. In this way, accepting the idea of a progression of elements from unquestionably religious system to a clearly non religious entities, researchers can avoid arbitrary oppositions and leading to a more careful nuances and understanding.

Religion in society

Religion is a fundamental component of the system of knowledge that organize the society, and represent a complex system within the cultural complex it belongs. Therefore, it can be understood as an expression of the structures that govern the social context (as Levi-Strauss suggest), or it can be explained as a consequence of such system, a representation (as we can see in Durkheim, in the Britannic anthropology or in Georges Dumézil).

Moreover, within themselves, religious systems are complex systems, and the acceptance from the community is far from uniform leaving the space for indifference, uncertainty or insurrection; for these and other reasons, the religious systems offer an interpretation of the human behavior within a specific community and in a specific cultural system. As many researchers argued in the past years, it is therefore necessary to give more attention to the religious practice and the pragmatic ways in which the symbolic representation find realization in the social context.Religion and society



Some definitions of Religion

One of the first to strongly argue for this necessity is William Robertson Smith, who define the practical and ritual dimensions as a set of non verbalized, embodied ideas that take shape and form in the social and communitarian practice. Pierre Bordieu follows the same orientation, identifying in the practice the connection between religion and the other sphere of social life (economics, politics, arts, ecc.). A particular attention to the ritual approach is traceable in Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah e Richard Schechner; they define ritual as codified and repetitive actions carrying a certain level of effectiveness (cure from illness, for example). Finally, Turner believes that the focus on ritual and religious organization allows to examine in details the way in which symbolic ritual and social devices support individual and collective faith. Ritual is here a process, a performance and not a result of cognitive abstract structures.

Practices and symbols

In order to be identified as such, the religious systems must possess two elements; a set of practices and activities (social or individual); and a complex of symbolic connections and world interpretation. Cliffor Geertz follows this path when he argues that religion is a cultural system where the elements of world explanation, or world view (aimed to describe or explane the world) are combined with the ethos, the behaviours that define the individual or social action in the community.

Here I would like to suggest a shift from the attention to the religious practiceques to the relationship between personal experience and collective tradition and social relations; the focus is thus set on the personal faith and the cultural tradition. The individual religious experience is of course to be located within the tradition from which it springs, but there is an element of freedom and unpredictability due to the complex relation between the individual and the social context. We can resume the definition offered by Geertz of religions as


A system of symbols that operates (or works) establishing deep, widespread and lasting moods and motivations in human being, through the formulation of general concept about reality, and the surrounding these concept with an aura of concreteness that moods and motivations appear completely realistic.

Geertz C., The interpretation of Cultures, Basic Book 2000, 1973, p. 90.


Religious systems and knowledge

Due to these characteristic, the religious system is the joining link between individual experience and cultural model; it is a world interpretations with the purpose to build knowledge and define the instruments and means by which this knowledge can be attained and accepted. It’s a system that prompts the individual to achieve a wider understanding of the surrounding and inner dimension, and to act accordingly to a specific world interpretation shared with the rest of the comunity. As we’ll see below, this is the area in which religious systems start to interact with (or even generate) power.


L’uomo non si avvicina mai agli dèi con le mani libere e lo sguardo chiaro. Parlare dei rapport dell’uomo con la religione non avrebbe concretamente – psicologicamente e socialmente – alcun senso se non si precisa che tali rapport variano da cultura a cultura, e che essi variano con le culture proprio perchè all’interno di ciascuna di queste ogni uomo è format dalla religione prima ancora di avere con essa un rapport consapevole

Augè M., Il genio del Paganesimo, Torino, Bollati Boringhieri 2001. Or. Ed., Genie du Paganisme, Gallimar, Paris 1982


Monotheism and Politheism

Marc Augè offers one of the most interesting contribution to the notion of religion, and in particular to the difference existing between the monotheistic and the polytheistic religions; since we are about to face a religious landscape were Christianism and other monotheisms never truly manage to establish, it is important to briefly introduce some of the most substantial elements of his considerations. On the one hand, he considers religion as a general systematization of the world, expressive of the social reality in the double sense that it prescribes prohibitions and behavior and describes idealized representations of the world; on the other hand, he devotes the central part of his work to the relationships that Christianity entertained with other religious beliefs systems. In this regard, he underlines that the majority of Christian authors perceived the gap existing between their religion and the others’: this gap however was not so much a matter of dogmas or cosmogonies (we see infact similar narrations, such as the fall from heaven or the flood, in different traditions), as in the deep feeling of unease and pain toward the worldly realities, and the consequent hunger for the afterlife in the heaven of God. This attitude caused a violent rejection of all the other world interpretations, with their deities and images of life


Prendere sul serio gli dei pagani vorrebbe dire riconoscere che essi sono il fondamento di una specifica concezione materialistica del mondo

Augè M., Il genio del Paganesimo, Torino, Bollati Boringhieri 2001. Or. Ed., Genie du Paganisme, Gallimar, Paris 1982


From this emerges the intolerant character of the monotheistic religions, that see in the politeisms the opposite tenets of their core nature, and are therefore the main enemy, source of danger and abherration. Paganisms indeed present often a completely different set of meaning and values, and entail a different relationship with nature and with the deities; the pagan gods are familiar entities, whose image is inseparable from that of the human being, and while there is a complete acknowledgment that men can make mistakes and do wrong, there is not the notion of original sin as interpreted in monotheisms. Moreover, there is always a strong accent on the immanence and of the strength of the divine power, the deities are within the world and participate with it and with mankind; Augé defines it the world of the perpetual call, of the everyday significance, a world filled with meanings and flooded with gods and spirits. In the pagan world there is no principle based on the exteriority that can legitimize order and history


Se i politeismi pagani hanno sempre perso […] ciò si deve, tra le altre ragioni, alla loro eccezionale virtù di tolleranza.

Augè M., Il genio del Paganesimo, Torino, Bollati Boringhieri 2001. Or. Ed., Genie du Paganisme, Gallimar, Paris 1982


This tolerant attitude is what allowed, in the politheisms, mixtures, survivals, loans from other cultural realities; the fact that this attitude has usually been a source of interest, of curiosity and often of reject from European observers show the persistence of an intimate existential refusal and astonishment in front of the genie of paganism.

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