The Concept of Religion


Religious ideas seek answers to questions that science does not address, such as the meaning of life and what happens after death. Some religions develop a single figure who is believed to have received divine messages, such as the prophet Jesus in Christianity or Muhammad for Islam or Baháulla for the Bahái faith. Others, such as natural religions that develop from human reasoning rather than through divine revelation, posit that humans discover truths about the world and the way it works.

The concept of religion has a history as long as humanity itself. Traditionally, scholars have approached the study of religion with an emphasis on its cultural context. Increasingly, though, scholars have moved beyond cultural boundaries and sought to analyze religion on its own terms. The result has been a shift from the classical view that every instance of a given concept must share a defining property in order to accurately be described by that concept—a so-called monothetic set—to an approach that treats religion as a social genus that is present in multiple cultures without requiring that those cultures all have the same beliefs and practices.

Some people criticize this approach because they believe it to be too broad and that it reflects a Western bias. Nevertheless, it is still the most practical and useful approach for interfaith and comparative religion studies. It allows us to use the same analytical skills (historical, comparative, interpretive) across cultures while still treating them as distinct.

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