Religion plays a complex role in the lives of most people. It often brings communities together and helps with moral dilemmas. But it also can create tension and even hostility – look at the violence between Muslims and Christians in central Europe, or the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
There are countless religions in the world, and they vary widely from one culture to another. But they all have some things in common – beliefs, practices, rites and rituals, worldviews, and associated moralities. Traditionally, scholars have used these similarities to try to define religion in a scientific way. This has been a difficult task, because of the complexity of human societies and the variety of different beliefs and behaviours that can be described as religious.
The scholarly community has responded to this challenge by developing a number of approaches to the study of religion. These are drawn from the disciplines of anthropology, history, sociology, philosophy, psychology and cognitive science. Some of these approach religion as a social construct, a notion that was introduced by the sociologist Émile Durkheim in 1912. Others see it as an element of a person’s identity. A more recent approach, advocated by philosopher Jacques Derrida, sees religion as whatever unites a group of individuals into a moral community.
Although these approaches differ, they all recognise that the concept of religion contains certain assumptions about reality that should be questioned. This leads to a debate that cuts across disciplinary boundaries and includes historians, anthropologists, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, theologians, and many others.