What Is Religion?


Religion is a complex topic that can inspire love, compassion and goodwill, as well as hatred, fear and xenophobia. It is also a treasure chest of humanity’s most sublime moral and spiritual teachings. The world’s religions contain everything from spiritual guidance to tools for promoting social justice and peace.

The study of religion encompasses many scholarly approaches, including textual, historical, philosophical, anthropological and other perspectives. Because religion is part of a culture, it is typically studied through those cultural lenses as well.

Traditionally, academic scholars have offered what are called “monothetic-set definitions” of religion. They define religion as a set of beliefs or values that shape one’s primary worldview.

Some sociologists and anthropologists have gone further in their treatment of religion, describing it as a kind of social matrix or medium that shapes one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. Others have taken a polythetic approach to religion, defining it as a class of social practices with specific properties.

A common criticism of these substantive definitions is that they have their roots in European colonialism. Consequently, there are those who argue that the concept of religion is simply an invented category and that it should be rejected as such (see Possamai 2018: ch. 1).

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