Religion consists of cultural systems of beliefs, values, and ethics. It influences a large portion of the world’s population and often plays a major role in politics. Several religious studies programs are offered at the college level.
Interest in the study of religion dates back to antiquity, when Hecataeus of Miletus (c. 550 BCE) and Herodotus (c. 484 BCE) wrote about Greek religion. Interest increased during the Renaissance, when more or less systematic compilations of mythological material were made. This prepared the way for the modern study of religion.
The 19th century was the formative period of the modern study of religion, as scholars such as Max Weber and Emile Durkheim developed the concept of religion as a social taxon. These scholars used the concept of religion to study how people organize their lives around belief in a higher power and how those beliefs shape human behavior.
Today, the conceptualization of religion as a social kind faces two philosophical issues, ones that likely also emerge for other abstract concepts that sort cultural types such as “literature” and “democracy.” The first issue concerns whether one can use the concept to understand how these various practices differ from each other. The second issue concerns whether a social taxon like religion can be said to have an essence, that is, a set of necessary and sufficient properties.
A polythetic approach to the study of religion recognizes that different religions share some but not all characteristics and that these differences allow for the existence of a variety of religions within a family of religions. In contrast, a monothetic approach fastens on a single property and excludes other possibilities.