James W. Turner: Controversies Revisited. A Defense of the Concept of Religion


Anthropologists have claimed that no society known historically, and no contemporary society for which we have ethnographic information, has lacked a system of religious beliefs. But not all scholars have agreed with this claim of universality, and in Religious Studies the rejection of universality was associated with research on the history of the concept, “religion.” In this article I examine critiques of the idea of universality and identify problematic issues they encounter. I will then look at different definitional strategies that have been adopted towards religion, with brief examples of each. This will be followed by a discussion of the concept of empiricism in relation to the definition of religion. This will lead to a discussion of the “ontological turn” in anthropology and the corporeal nature of human beings that underlies our shared sensory experience. Finally, I will offer a definition of religion that supports the claim of universality.

[universality of religion, religious studies, definitional strategies, empiricism, ontological turn]