The Study of Religion

Religion is a vast and complex phenomenon. For much of the last century, attempts to define it have been “monothetic”, operating with the classical view that any accurate description of a concept will include some property or other which distinguishes it from other concepts with the same name. In the last several decades, however, there has been a growing interest in using what are called “polythetic” approaches to the study of Religion.

Most religions do many things. They establish codes of recognition (so that people can recognize their kin and other members of the tribe, for example) and they make life a little more predictable. They also provide for the healing of wrongdoing (for example, through forgiveness rituals) and for coping with death. And they are a source of confidence that people can explore their own possibilities, both within themselves and in their environments (for example, through rituals which visit past experiences to enable them to relive or deal with them).

For most people, the question of whether a given religion is ‘true’ or ‘right’ is one which they are reluctant to answer. Instead, they often cite its importance to them as evidence of its truth. For this reason, the study of religion tends to focus on its inner, personal side, the feelings and emotions that it evokes and expresses in individuals, rather than in societies as a whole.

There are, of course, a wide variety of ways in which religions operate, and the resulting diversity is a source of fascination to scholars. For example, some religions are extremely large and coherently organized, with clear hierarchies based on Popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, laity, male religious orders and female religious orders, etc. Others are more loosely structured and have no hierarchy at all, but consist of a series of independent beliefs which share some underlying features.

Other religions are rooted in particular cultures and operate only within those. These are usually defined as “world” religions and their main representatives are Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. In addition, there are a number of faiths that have gained in popularity recently and which can be described as “new religious movements”.

All these religions share some features, but they do not all fit into the same category. In this context, some people have argued that there is no such thing as religion as an abstract idea, and that the term should be reserved for the practices and communities that generate and manage it. But other scholars have argued that this is to miss the point, that a functional definition of religion allows us to name something inevitable about human culture and that it is unfair to deny that name to those aspects of religion which appear in all cultural contexts. This is sometimes known as a “pan-humanist” approach to the study of religion.