Religion is a multifaceted, complex phenomenon. It has walked with mankind since time immemorial and seems to be a fundamental human need. It has shaped and been shaped by society and has always sought to answer some of life’s most difficult questions. Yet it is also a phenomenon that has gotten separated from the world’s most profound issues, a separation that allows it to be reduced to narrow cultural divides.
The study of religion as an object of academic inquiry has developed significantly in the 19th century. The need for a comparative treatment of religious beliefs and practices became apparent as Europeans were introduced to the richness and variety of non-European cultures. Moreover, the Renaissance and the discovery of the Americas stimulated new trends toward more or less systematic compilations of mythological material. The result was the beginning of modern studies of religion.
Scholars have offered many different definitions of religion. Some define it substantively as a set of beliefs and practices that entail worship of an all-powerful deity and participation in religious rituals. Others define it functionally as a way of organizing one’s values and providing orientation in life. Still others use a hybrid of these approaches, such as Durkheim’s, which uses the social function of creating solidarity to define religion and Tillich’s, which offers a philosophical framework for discussing religion based on belief in unusual realities.
A more recent trend has been to critique the stipulative definitions of religion by arguing that they are not only reductive but ethnocentric. In particular, they reduce the discussion of religious ideas and experiences to a question of mental representations or a scientific phenomenology and thus fail to address the complexity of the phenomena under consideration.