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Five concepts of religion

by Linda Woodhead
International Review of Sociology ()


In the face of continuing debate about the adequacy and definition of the concept of ‘religion’, this paper argues that it is necessary for the social sciences to become more self-critical about their various – and changing – uses of the term. As this paper shows, three main uses are currently dominant: religion as belief/meaning, religion as identity, and religion as structured social relations. By contrast, some uses which were once important are currently recessive, including Marxist approaches to religion as ideology, and Parsonian conceptions of religion as norms and values. Some new uses are also emerging, including ‘material’ religion, religion as discourse, and religion as practice. Drawing these together, the paper proposes a taxonomy of five main major uses of the term. It reflects on their adequacy, and points out where there are still occlusions: above all with regard to ‘super-social’ or ‘meta-social’ relations with non-human or quasi-human beings, forces and powers.

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