The concept of religion has been a central topic of inquiry in the field of religious studies since its formation as an academic discipline in the 19th century. At its most basic level, scholars seek to define what it is that counts as a religion, either in a general sense or specific to a particular cultural group.
The word religion, from Latin religio, literally means “belief in a god or goddess,” but the study of religion involves much more than lexical definitions. For example, religions are complex, and many scholars take the view that the term “religion” describes a set of interrelated, multifaceted practices or phenomena. These facets include:
A typical religion is both social and personal, with codes of recognition and expected behavior, often organized into hierarchies; rituals that express or evoke inner sentiments, such as joy, grief, awe, wonder, fear or love; and beliefs that provide a framework for understanding the world around us. Religions also may be large-scale and global, or they might be small, local, and intimate.
The study of religion seeks to understand how religions work in the world by analyzing their structures, beliefs, and behaviors. For example, some scholars use a sociological approach to examine how religions interact with each other, as well as with the surrounding culture. Others use historical methods to analyze how religions have evolved and influenced cultures over time. The discipline of religious studies seeks to integrate its knowledge from a variety of sources, including history, archaeology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy and theology.