Religion is a global phenomenon that continues to shape individuals and communities. It is pervasive in modern society and the study of it has become an important academic endeavor. In this course, you will learn the different approaches that have been taken to understand and analyze it. Most attempts to describe religion are “monothetic” in that they operate with the classical view that any instance that accurately describes a concept will share one or more defining properties. The last several decades, however, have seen the emergence of “polythetic” approaches that abandon the classical view and treat religion as having a prototype structure.
The concept of religion evolved from the Latin term religio, which roughly translates as scrupulous devotion or conscientious commitment. It became a synonym for “cult” or “belief.” But its meaning shifted again when it was retooled to describe a category of social formations, a social kind, or even a cultural type. This shift in meaning makes it difficult to say whether there is such a thing as religion or not.
Some critics of the notion of religion have argued that it is an invented category, whose semantic expansion went hand in hand with European colonialism. Others have pushed this argument further by claiming that the idea of religion is nonrealist and that to treat it as a category is to yearn for a sort of “total law” that would govern all aspects of social life.
Rather than using textbooks that take a standard “dates and doctrine” approach, seek out resources that will teach you about the complexities and nuances of contemporary religious life. It is especially useful to read the Holy Book of any religion you are interested in, or at least parts of it, to get a feel for its teachings and stories. It is also a good idea to talk to people of the religion you are studying, and if possible to visit their places of worship.