The Concept of Religion

When we leave the universe of Abrahamic reference, we are confronted with a fundamental problem concerning the scope of the concept of “religion”. This concept is dilemmatic when we set out to look at African cultures. In this scenario, it is always operative to take up Kishimoto’s adequate definition [1] that each cultural context generates its definition of religion. To accept such a postulate is to reject hermetic notions that frame the phenomena into religious and non-religious from a particular scheme of what is considered a religion. Rodney Needham [2] had already discussed the problem of translating the concept of “religion” into non-Latin languages. Later, Lenclund [3] broadened the discussion by recognising the obstacle constituted by our Western model of belief to establish an analysis of other cultural-religious realities. Notwithstanding Lenclund’s proposal, later authors bring theoretical proposals that entangle the gaze from ethnocentrism: Christine Bell [4], with the opposition between “ritual” and “religion”, or Rivière [5] (along the lines of Hammond [6]), with the classical opposition between “religion” and “magic”.

One of the first obstacles to the analysis of religions in Africa, particularly within the so-called autochthonous ones, is the assumption of the separation theory between the sacred and the profane[7]. As first Awolalu[8]and later Appiah[9] have argued, religion/rituality is not separate from everyday life. On the contrary, it enters daily activities, assuming an explanatory and justificatory role in all current elements and events. Religion acquires a dimension of “total social fact”[10], operating as a product and producer of social order and aggregation[11]. Following this route, Robin Horton[12]recognises the role of “communion” proper to African religions, extending the idea to attitudes of “explanation”, “prediction”, and “control”.

The dimension of explanation is found with the religious phenomenon ab initio, referring to religion as a metaphorical language that aims to produce a set of narratives that elucidate natural phenomena and the world. In turn, prediction relates to the wonders of divination, which seek to predict essential events in the community’s life. At the same time, control concerns rituality itself, i.e., the capacity of ritual action to control negative phenomena in social life, such as heavy rains, droughts, floods, and epidemics.

Cite this article as: João Ferreira Dias, "The Concept of Religion," in Adarrum, accessed in 6 de Outubro, 2022, url: <>.

[1]KISHIMOTO, Hideo, “An operational definition of religion”, Numen, 8 (3), 1961, pp. 236-240.

[NEEDHAM, Rodney, Belief, Language and Experience, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1972.

[3]LENCLUD, Gérard, “Vues de l’esprit, art de l’autre: L’ethnologie et les croyances en pays de savoir”, Terrain, 14, 1990, pp. 5-19.

[4]BELL, Christine, Ritual: Perspective and Dimensions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1992.

[RIVIÈRE, Claude, Socio-anthropologie des religions, Paris, Armand Colin, 1997.

[HAMMOND, Dorothy, “A problem in semantics”, American Anthropologist72 (6), 1970, pp. 1349-1356.

[7]ELIADE, Mircea, Le sacré et le profane, Rowohlt Taschenbuchverlag GmbH, 1957.

[8] AWOLALU, Joseph Omosade, “What is African traditional religion?”, Studies in Comparative Religion, 10 (2), 1976, pp. 1-10.

[9] APPIAH, Kwame Anthony, “African traditional religions”, In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, London: Routledge, 1998.

[10] MAUSS, Marcel, Essai sur le don forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1925.

[11] DURKHEIM, Émile, Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse: Le système totémique en Australie, Paris, Alcan, 1912.

[12] HORTON, Robin, “A definition of religion, and its uses”, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 90 (2), 1960, pp. 201-226.

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