Signposts of Understanding When Talking About Religion


Religion is the human being’s relationship to that which he or she regards as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. In some religious traditions, these concerns are expressed in terms of relationships to gods or spirits; in others, they are more generally reflected in relations to the broader human community or the natural world. In most cases, the defining properties of a religion are intangible and difficult to define. As a result, it can be helpful to establish a few signposts of understanding when talking about religion.

Two such signposts are provided by scholars whose work is foundational for anthropological analysis of religion. American anthropologist Clifford Geertz defines religion as “a system of symbols that acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by clothing them with an aura of factuality.”

Other scholars take a more Humean approach to the concept of religion, describing it as a particular feeling that has zero cognition (though they usually recognize that feelings do play some role). In contrast, some realist scholars such as Emile Durkheim, argue that the concept of religion can be defined as whatever set of practices unite people into a moral community, regardless whether those practices involve belief in any distinctive kind of reality.

These different perspectives on the nature of religion may seem contradictory, but they all operate within the same basic framework. It is important to understand the complexities of different religions, so that one can have meaningful conversations with people from other cultures. One great way to do this is to read the Holy Book of a religion that you are interested in. This will give you a good idea of how that faith is structured and how they practice it.