Religion is a broad term that includes a wide range of beliefs and practices. Some of these practices involve belief in disembodied spirits or cosmological orders, while others may be focused on rules and rituals. Some academics define religion in terms of the social functions that it serves. Others believe that defining religion in this way is a Protestant bias and that it shifts attention away from the invisible, mental states that form the basis of human religiosity.
The study of religion has been around since ancient times, and was formalized in the 19th century with the rise of history, archaeology, anthropology, and other scientific disciplines. During this time, there was a growing interest in learning about the religious diversity of the world and its influence on culture and society.
Many people take up the study of religion because they want to better understand their own faith and find ways to practice it. They may also wish to gain a better understanding of the cultural beliefs of their friends and coworkers. Still others might be interested in a spiritual journey that can help them overcome life’s challenges and increase their level of happiness and contentment.
It is important to be aware of the wide variety of definitions that are used to describe religion. These definitions can be lexical (such as the definition in a dictionary), functional, or structural. When a term is functional, it means that the concept is more than just a taxon for sets of practices, but is a kind or category of which there are many tokens. In this sense, religion is much like ice skating: it is something that can be practiced by any number of people and yet it is often referred to as “religion” because it shares certain characteristics.
A structural approach to religion has been exemplified by the work of Paul Tillich, who defines religion as whatever is most dominant in a person’s values and concerns. This definition reflects a desire to move beyond the invisible, subjective mental states that have traditionally formed the basis of religion.
In the past, there was also a strong preference for seeing religion as a set of observable cultural phenomena, or that it was a set of activities that could be identified through ethnographic study and observation. This view grew out of the 19th-century theories that were developed from, or were competing with, Christian and other theologies.
These days, the study of religion is more commonly seen as a taxon for groups of practices that are associated with particular cultures and whose characteristics can be described using a wide array of methodologies, including but not limited to ethnography, anthropology, history, archaeology, and sociology. Nonetheless, there are two philosophical issues that can arise with this contested concept, similar to those that might be raised for the concepts of literature or democracy, namely that it is possible to have a stipulative definition for a social genus and that such a definition is not necessarily universal.