Religion is a category of social practices that people use to shape their lives and to deal with the ultimate concerns they have about their lives and the world. It includes beliefs and rituals, moral codes, and scriptures that have become a part of people’s lifelong experiences. It is also a group of cultural institutions that provide social support and that help to structure the world’s societies.
The word “religion” dates back to antiquity, and it is used to describe systems of belief and ritual practice that are characterized by their reliance on gods or spirits, or more humanistic or naturalistic forms of spirituality. It is also used to describe a particular set of religious beliefs and practices that are shared by a large number of people.
It is not clear whether this term was first applied to a specific religion, or to the religious practices that emerged from certain cultures. Nevertheless, the modern meaning of religion expanded with European colonialism. This was a semantic expansion that was often accompanied by a distortion of our understanding of the reality of religion.
Today, critics of the concept of religion abound. Some of these critics claim that the term is an invented category. They argue that it has been distorted through assumptions about what is a religion and by the social power that is associated with it. They also argue that the underlying concept is a racist and sexist one.
This criticism is important, and it may be useful to understand it. However, it is important to distinguish between this criticism and the more general idea that the term has been distorted.
For example, Edward Tylor’s monothetic definition of religion is based on a single criterion: a form of life must include belief in spiritual beings to be a religion. It is a functional criterion that differentiates religion from non-religion.
Other monothetic definitions are more complex, and they focus on a set of properties that a social form must have to be a religion. Paul Tillich’s definition of religion is a similar monothetic approach.
Some scholars have pointed out that monothetic approaches produce relatively clear lines of demarcation between religion and non-religion, while polythetic definitions recognize many more properties that are commonly found in social forms. These are the kinds of approaches that can make the concept of religion more flexible and useful for comparing different forms of life, but they might not be so appropriate for a history of religions.
The discipline of history of religions must therefore be concerned not only with examining the concrete and historical aspects of religion but with exploring its conceptual dimensions. This requires that historians employ a conceptual framework that is constantly being refined in the light of new and varied historical materials. In doing so, they need to develop conceptual categories that are open to further revision in the course of comparative studies and which can be interpreted as analogical rather than univocal.