Religion is the set of societal responses, both behavioral and intellectual, to life’s great riddles and questions, such as death, tragedy and the nature of self, community and universe. Religious Studies uses a range of interdisciplinary approaches including historical, ethnographic and theological/philosophical to interpret and explain the multifaceted complexes that are religions.
The study of religion has long been concerned with the question of what makes something a “religion.” While there are countless definitions, many scholars agree that the fundamental characteristics of any religion are its beliefs and practices. Some, such as Emile Durkheim, define religion in terms of the social functions it fulfills in human societies, while Paul Tillich’s functional definition defines religion as whatever dominant concern organizes a person’s values (whether or not those concerns involve belief in any unusual realities).
A related debate is whether religious phenomena exist qua real things that are independent of the concept that names them. Some, such as Clifford Geertz, use hermeneutic analysis to understand cultural actions as if they were texts that say something, while others like Karl Marx assume that the appearance of a phenomenon is merely a result of the fact that it has been named and that the name itself influences the way in which it is perceived.
In the early modern period, some scholars rejected both of these positions, arguing that no one can claim to know what a religion is unless it is understood as a coherent system of beliefs and practices that creates a specific kind of world. While this position is still widely held, it has been challenged by a number of more contemporary approaches to the study of religion.
For example, Rodney Needham argues that the fact that a belief has been called a “religion” does not necessarily make it any more true or false than other phenomena that are not given that name. He points out that a computer program could sort 1500 different bacteria according to 200 different properties, and it would be wrong to assume that the discovery of any particular organism proves that the theory of classification in which that organism belongs is incorrect. This approach, which he calls polythetic, seeks to distinguish between cultus and doctrinus, or between things that function as rituals and those that are ideational. It has the potential to yield surprising discoveries about what the underlying phenomena really are, and it may also lead to better explanatory theories. It has a strong appeal to those who want to avoid the pitfalls of realist or lexical definitions. It does, however, run the risk of overlooking the significance of many phenomena that could be described as a religion.