Religion is a complex influence on the lives of people. It can bring people together but it can also be a source of conflict. It can create a sense of purpose but it can also lead to hate and greed. It can be a comfort to those who are grieving but it can also create an uneasy balance between personal and community life. The role of religion is a complex one and it is not surprising that there are many opinions about what it should do.
In the 19th century, scholars began to study religion as a social phenomenon. This period saw the development of a variety of disciplines that have been connected with religion, especially sociology, history, anthropology, and political science. Most attempts to analyze the concept of religion have been “monothetic” in nature, working under the classical view that any object accurately described by a specific category will share some defining property with all other members of that category.
More recently, there has been a shift toward “polythetic” approaches to the study of religion. In this approach, any number of features could be listed that would qualify something as religious, but these features need not all appear in any given instance of the phenomenon. This approach contrasts with hermeneutical approaches, which fix upon a single interpretive key to unlock the mysteries of the object under investigation (e.g. Hans Jonas’ intelligent application of the modern existentialist term Geworfenheit in his study of Gnosticism or Rudolf Otto’s use of the category of the holy).
The historian of religions has a particularly difficult task in analyzing the concept of religion because it is so broadly defined and applied. Some scholars have argued that to define religion in terms of beliefs is a Protestant bias and that it would be more accurate to focus on the structures of religiosity rather than mental states. However, such an approach risks ignoring the fact that the structures of religions are intertwined with their beliefs and values.
Some scholars have worked to develop functional definitions of religion, arguing that it is a phenomenon that benefits society and is therefore worthy of study. Others have criticized this kind of definition, seeing it as supporting an ideological image of humans as passive recipients of the charisma and legitimacy that are provided by religion.
Perhaps the most useful way to approach the concept of religion is an analogical one, recognizing that it is an essentially indeterminate term that can only be analyzed through a process of comparative research with many different historical materials. The result is a conceptual framework that is always in flux and always open to revision. Such a framework will continue to evolve as scholars compare and contrast new historical materials. In this context, the term religion will be a powerful analogical tool to help us understand and appreciate the many different ways that human beings have attempted to make meaning out of their lives.