Religion is an organized system of belief and practice that centers on questions about the meaning of life. It may involve worshiping a supreme being, and it often provides guidance in moral behaviors and social relationships. Millions of people worldwide practice religions such as Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam.
Historically, the discipline of religions developed from an attempt to understand the continuity and change within systems of belief and ritual behavior. This task was a legitimate one in the context of a comparative study of the major world religious traditions, and it has remained an essential part of the modern tradition of the study of religion.
Today, the concept of religion is used as a taxon for sets of social practices, a category-concept whose paradigmatic examples are the so-called “world” religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. It is also used for forms of life that have not been given a name, either by practitioners or by observers, but are common to a geographical area or to a group of people–for example, the religion of China or that of ancient Rome, the religion of the Yoruba or that of the Cherokee.
In the twentieth century, many philosophers of religion have studied this issue. They include Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Gabriel Marcel, Franz Rosenzweig, Emmanuel Levinas, and more recently Jacques Derrida.
The problem of the nature of religion is a key question for any historian. It has emerged from a series of anthropological and comparative studies of social and cultural groups, and it is also the subject of important work in philosophy.
There are a number of problems with trying to develop a general theory of religion that can be applied to a wide range of phenomena, and the problem is especially acute when the history of religions moves beyond the context of closely related cultural milieus.
To start with, the definition of religion must be based on empirical data. This means that the study of religions must be conducted with a view to acquiring empirically verifiable evidence, and this requires a thorough knowledge of the methods of the historical sciences.
This method is often characterized as an inductive process, intended to grasp religion as it really is, in its concreteness and in its historical creativity. The dialectic that emerges from this interaction of the concept of religion with specific, ongoing historical investigations is a distinctive feature of the field of religions studies.
The most important philosophical issue affecting the development of this field is whether or not to understand religion in terms of beliefs, which are often hidden from view, or in terms of institutions, which are often apparent to the observer. Some argue that to understand religion in terms of beliefs is an a priori, undialectical approach, and therefore scholars should shift their attention from hidden mental states to the institutional structures that produce them. However, it is also possible to make sense of religion in terms of beliefs by examining its effects on individuals’ behavior and by considering how it may shape communities.