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Philosophical Issues in the Study of Religion

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Religious beliefs and phenomena are an integral part of the human experience. They are an enduring source of joy and sorrow in the lives of individuals, communities, and societies around the world. They have been the inspiration for some of the most eloquent and moving of all human creations, including art, architecture, music, dance, poetry, drama, and the explorations of nature that issued in the form of the natural sciences.

They have also provided the foundation of many of the most cherished values, such as love, truth, justice, and compassion. In the past, scholars who studied religion have attempted to analyze it through various anthropological methods. But they have faced two philosophical issues that are common to all attempts to sort cultural types into a taxon such as religion.

The first problem is whether the concept of religion can be defined in a way that allows it to accurately describe all instances of human religiosity. To do so requires that the definition be able to identify the essential properties that define it uniquely. Unfortunately, the emergence of all these different ways of describing human religiosity has made this difficult.

Many scholars today have sought to avoid this difficulty by adopting “polythetic” approaches to the study of religion, which are based on family resemblance rather than on a single essential property. This approach is not without its problems, however, mainly because it assumes that the resemblances can be recognized with a degree of precision.

In addition, the definitions based on family resemblance tend to be ethnocentric, in that they are shaped by the assumptions of those who use them. This has been a problem, for example, in the case of the definitions of the term “religion” that have been used to justify the appropriation of a culture by a foreign power.

Another approach is functional, such as that of Paul Tillich who argues that a person’s religion is whatever dominant concern serves to organize his or her values (whether or not this concerns include belief in unusual realities). This functional analysis of religion has its strengths and weaknesses, but it does recognize that human beings have always had some type of organized religiosity in their lives.

One of the most influential books in the recent reflexive turn in anthropology has been Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion (1993). In this book Asad adopts Michel Foucault’s genealogical method and seeks to show that the concept of religion operating in contemporary anthropology is shaped by Christian and modern assumptions. These assumptions are not only Christian, in that they see all religions as essentially the same, but they are modern in that they assume that religion is a purely private phenomenon that can be separated from politics. These assumptions are problematic for anthropology because they obscure the fact that religion is much more than just inner states and experiences. It is a complex social system that permeates every aspect of human life. In fact, all human life can be described as a project toward acknowledged but largely unknown futures, and this project is inherently political.

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