A religion is a unified set of beliefs and practices about a transcendent spiritual reality. It gives its followers a source of moral guidance, a code of conduct, and a sense of personal and social belonging. Its influence on individual and social life is universal, and it is an essential component of most cultures throughout the world.
Studying religion can help students develop a more global perspective, reduce intolerance and bigotry, and become better citizens of the world. It can also provide them with an understanding of how diverse people live and work together, especially as they deal with issues like war and poverty. It is important for students to understand that there is no one right answer when it comes to defining a religion, but rather a complex array of cultural traditions that are unique to each person.
The idea that there is something beyond the physical world began as early as ancient Greece with Thales (6th century bce) and Heracleitus (4th century bce). Later, Greek philosophers like Aristotle (3rd century bce) and Plato (c. 450 bce) tried to understand this mysterious essence by proposing different metaphysical principles. These were influenced by the development of new sciences, such as archaeology and anthropology, that allowed systematic knowledge to be developed about cultures worldwide.
These developments helped launch the modern study of religion, which became a formal discipline in the 19th century. Various disciplines, including history, philology, literature, psychology, sociology, and anthropology brought their approaches to bear on the question of religion’s origins, functions, and meanings.
Until recently, most efforts to analyze religion used what is called a “monothetic” definition of the concept. This is the classical view that every instance of a thing that might be accurately described by a certain concept will share a specific defining property. However, the last few decades have seen the rise of a functional approach to the category, as exemplified by Emile Durkheim.
In this model, the notion of religion encompasses all social practices that are considered to have a significant effect on people’s lives. Some, such as the ritual of washing before eating, are not explicitly religious, but they can have a spiritual significance for their participants. Others, such as the belief that there is a god who has a plan for humanity and will judge their deeds at the end of time, are obviously religious.
A few scholars have sought to use the same methods and approaches of the traditional disciplines in order to develop a more holistic and useful understanding of what the word religion really means. But these attempts have not led to a clear resolution of the semantic disarray that surrounds this concept, and what we now have are what are sometimes referred to as polythetic definitions. They use a kind of prototype model to sort the class of practices into categories, and are less concerned with what properties the elements in each class should have.