What Is Religion?


About Religion

Across the world, people engage in religious practices. These practices can provide guidance and support, as well as a sense of community and tradition. They may also influence behavior and health.

The study of religion can take a variety of approaches to the subject, including anthropological, phenomenological, psychological, and sociological perspectives. These approaches trace their roots back to the Enlightenment and seek to understand religion as an object of scientific inquiry.

There has been a reflexive turn in the social sciences and humanities over the past forty years or so, as scholars have pulled the camera back to examine the constructed nature of objects previously taken for granted. In the field of religious studies, this trend has emphasized that one cannot simply treat religion as a set of mental states like beliefs, moods, or motivations.

This approach is rooted in an assumption that a religion always has four things: a distinctive kind of discourse, a community or group, disciplinary practices, and institutional structures to manage the people within the community or group. For this reason, Asad argues, it is not possible to define religion as just a collection of inner states (i.e., beliefs, moods, or motivations) because those mental states have to be the product of an authorizing power.

Although many researchers use a monothetic definition of religion that limits the properties that a concept can have, a polythetic approach that is open to a wide range of definitions is more useful. This open approach allows for the possibility of the disarray that the term religion can exhibit and, therefore, allows for a more complex understanding of how it functions in the world.