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Religion As An Item Of Public Discourse

When it comes to defining religion, there are thus two common approaches: either one inductively browses through the group of things called religion, looking for an essentially shared feature or one sets about looking for the universal function it performs. If one takes the former route, then objects are defined by some feature that is internal to them, more often than not some nonempirical feature judged to be sui generis (i.e., self-caused, one of a kind). For instance, because there are innumerable observable differences among the members of the group known as, say, "U.S. citizens," people often fall back on the assumption that what really unites the members of this group is an internal experience, a feeling, an attitude—all things that cannot be tasted, touched, smelled, or heard, but, instead, only felt by the participants themselves and approximated rather crudely by the uninitiated observer. Because for many people religion is assumed to refer to an invisible but all-too-real interior world that is fully experienced only by the believer (a point often associated with Otto's work), this essentialist approach is still popular, within and outside the academy.

But, if "religion" is to be used in the human sciences as a classification to name an aspect of the observable, intersubjective world, then the essentialist approach is not helpful for it is premised on the priority of a subjective, private world of affectation and aesthetic appreciation. Because the functionalist approach focuses on the use to which something is put, it shifts attention to defining something in light of an observable group of people, their needs, their goals, and their interests (demonstrating the debt scholars of religion owe to such anthropological predecessors as Mary Douglas and her 1966 study of the sociology of classification, Purity and Danger). The functionalist approach therefore holds more promise for the academic study of religion practiced as part of a public discourse.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Reason to RetrovirusReligion - The Beginnings Of "religion", The Essentials Of Religion, The Functions Of Religion, Religion As An Item Of Public Discourse