The Study of Religion


Religion focuses on human beings’ relation to that which they consider holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. It typically entails concern with the future, particularly death, and how people will be rewarded or punished for their actions on this earth and in the next, as well as beliefs and practices that define what is considered “sacred” and what is deemed “profane.” As a broad category, it also includes how people respond to social or natural catastrophes and how they treat others. The study of religion encompasses a variety of disciplines and may employ textual, historical, linguistic, philosophical and anthropological approaches.

Traditionally, attempts to analyze the concept of religion have been “monothetic.” This approach holds that an evolving social category has a defining essence that can be found in all instances. More recently, scholars have been working with “polythetic” definitions of religion. Polythetic definitions are based on the idea that a social category can be accurately described as having many properties rather than just one property.

These new approaches bolster the claim that the term religion names a functionally distinct kind of form of life, not just any old belief system or set of practices. Moreover, they suggest that the three-sided model of the true, the beautiful, and the good is incomplete without the addition of a fourth C: community. This is a vital dimension of the religious experience that is not reflected in the official texts and dogma that are studied by theologians or by intellectual historians.

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