The Field of Religious Studies
Religion is a set of organized beliefs and practices that are typically centered on a belief in God or supernatural forces. It includes a worldview, culture, texts, rituals, prayer, sermons, symbols, holy places and experiences such as trances, and feasts that have spiritual meaning for believers. It also involves moral codes that are meant to guide one’s relationships with self, other believers, outsiders, and the universe.
The scholarly field of Religious Studies is split on how best to understand religions and their practices. Some scholars (especially those who are influenced by Foucauldian and post-colonial theory) argue that the concept of religion is deeply implicated in the history of western statism and imperialism. These scholars propose that the best scholarly approach to religion is one of critique and suspicion.
Other scholars suggest that criticizing religion is not the right scholarly stance because it detracts from the important task of understanding its real-world impacts and social significance. These scholars propose that we need to shift our focus from hidden mental states to visible institutional structures. They also suggest that a refocusing of attention will reveal more about the ways in which religions operate.
Increasingly, scholars are adopting a polythetic approach to the study of religion. A polythetic approach recognizes that many properties are common to all religions. This is an alternative to the classic monothetic definition of a religion, which fastens onto a single property that identifies it as such. It is important to note, however, that even though polythetic approaches avoid the claim that a religion has an ahistorical essence, they do not necessarily reject the idea that a religion could exist as a social reality without ever being named in language.