Essay on World Religions And Belief Systems

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100 Words Essay on World Religions And Belief Systems

World religions.

There are many different religions in the world, each with its own beliefs and practices. Some of the major religions include Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism.

Belief Systems

A belief system is a set of beliefs that a person or group of people holds to be true. Belief systems can be religious or secular. Religious belief systems are based on the teachings of a particular religion, while secular belief systems are not based on any particular religion.

Diversity of Religions

The diversity of religions in the world is a reflection of the different ways that people have tried to understand the meaning of life and the universe. There is no one right way to believe, and people should be free to practice the religion that they feel is right for them.

It is important to be tolerant of people who have different religious beliefs. Tolerance means respecting the beliefs of others, even if you do not agree with them. Tolerance is essential for creating a peaceful and harmonious world.

250 Words Essay on World Religions And Belief Systems

What are world religions.

World religions are belief systems that have a large number of followers all over the world. They offer rituals, ceremonies, and practices to help people connect with the divine or ultimate reality. World religions include Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism.


Christianity is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ and revolves around the belief in a triune God consisting of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Christians believe that Jesus is the Messiah who came to Earth to save humanity from sin. Christianity emphasizes love, forgiveness, and compassion.

Islam is founded on the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and centers around belief in one God, Allah, and his messenger, Muhammad. It highlights the importance of submission to God’s will, known as Islam, and adherence to the Five Pillars of Islam. Muslims strive to live a life of devotion, prayer, fasting, charity, and pilgrimage to Mecca.

Hinduism is a complex and diverse belief system with no single founder. It originated in India and encompasses a variety of traditions, philosophies, and practices. Hinduism places great emphasis on dharma, or righteous living, and the concept of reincarnation, where the soul passes through a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

Buddhism, founded by Siddhartha Gautama, or the Buddha, originated in India and focuses on the pursuit of enlightenment or nirvana. It emphasizes the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path as ways to overcome suffering and achieve liberation from the cycle of rebirth.

Judaism is the oldest monotheistic religion, dating back to the Hebrew patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It revolves around the belief in one God, Yahweh or Jehovah, and the sacredness of the Torah, the Hebrew Bible. Judaism emphasizes ethical behavior, ritual observance, and the covenant between God and the Jewish people.

500 Words Essay on World Religions And Belief Systems

World religions are belief systems that have a large number of followers all over the world. They often have a long history, and they have shaped the cultures of the regions where they are practiced. Some of the largest world religions include Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

Belief Systems of World Religions

Belief systems of world religions are the sets of beliefs and practices that are followed by the members of that religion. These beliefs and practices can be about things like God or gods, the afterlife, and the meaning of life. They can also include things like rituals, ceremonies, and festivals.

Similarities among World Religions

Even though world religions have different beliefs and practices, they also share some similarities. For example, many religions believe in a higher power, or God. They also often have a sense of community and belonging. Additionally, many religions have a code of ethics that their members are expected to follow.

Differences among World Religions

Of course, there are also many differences among world religions. These differences can be in their beliefs about God, the afterlife, and the meaning of life. They can also be in their rituals, ceremonies, and festivals. These differences can sometimes lead to conflict between different religious groups.

Importance of Understanding World Religions

It is important to understand world religions because they play a major role in the lives of many people around the world. They can help to shape people’s values, beliefs, and behaviors. They can also give people a sense of community and belonging. By understanding world religions, we can better understand the people who practice them and build bridges between different cultures.

World religions are belief systems that have a large number of followers all over the world. They often have a long history, and they have shaped the cultures of the regions where they are practiced. Belief systems of world religions are the sets of beliefs and practices that are followed by the members of that religion. They can be about things like God or gods, the afterlife, and the meaning of life. Even though world religions have different beliefs and practices, they also share some similarities.

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Essays About Religion: Top 5 Examples and 7 Writing Prompts

Essays about religion include delicate issues and tricky subtopics. See our top essay examples and prompts to guide you in your essay writing.

With over 4,000 religions worldwide, it’s no wonder religion influences everything. It involves faith, lessons on humanity, spirituality, and moral values that span thousands of years. For some, it’s both a belief and a cultural system. As it often clashes with science, laws, and modern philosophies, it’s also a hot debate topic. Religion is a broad subject encompassing various elements of life, so you may find it a challenging topic to write an essay about it.

1. Wisdom and Longing in Islam’s Religion by Anonymous on Ivypanda.com

2. consequences of following religion blindly essay by anonymous on ivypanda.com, 3. religion: christians’ belief in god by anonymous on ivypanda.com, 4. mecca’s influence on today’s religion essay by anonymous on ivypanda.com, 5. religion: how buddhism views the world by anonymous on ivypanda.com , 1. the importance of religion, 2. pros and cons of having a religion, 3. religions across the world, 4. religion and its influence on laws, 5. religion: then and now, 6. religion vs. science, 7. my religion.

“Portraying Muslims as radical religious fanatics who deny other religions and violently fight dissent has nothing to do with true Islamic ideology. The knowledge that is presented in Islam and used by Muslims to build their worldview system is exploited in a misinterpreted form. This is transforming the perception of Islam around the world as a radical religious system that supports intolerance and conflicts.”

The author discusses their opinion on how Islam becomes involved with violence or terrorism in the Islamic states. Throughout the essay, the writer mentions the massive difference between Islam’s central teachings and the terrorist groups’ dogma. The piece also includes a list of groups, their disobediences, and punishments.

This essay looks at how these brutalities have nothing to do with Islam’s fundamental ideologies. However, the context of Islam’s creeds is distorted by rebel groups like The Afghan mujahideen, Jihadis, and Al-Qa’ida. Furthermore, their activities push dangerous narratives that others use to make generalized assumptions about the entire religion. These misleading generalizations lead to misunderstandings amongst other communities, particularly in the western world. However, the truth is that these terrorist groups are violating Islamic doctrine.

“Following religion blindly can hinder one’s self-actualization and interfere with self-development due to numerous constraints and restrictions… Blind adherence to religion is a factor that does not allow receiving flexible education and adapting knowledge to different areas.”

The author discusses the effects of blindly following a religion and mentions that it can lead to difficulties in self-development and the inability to live independently. These limitations affect a person’s opportunity to grow and discover oneself.  Movies like “ The Da Vinci Code ” show how fanatical devotion influences perception and creates constant doubt. 

“…there are many religions through which various cultures attain their spiritual and moral bearings to bring themselves closer to a higher power (deity). Different religions are differentiated in terms of beliefs, customs, and purpose and are similar in one way or the other.”

The author discusses how religion affects its followers’ spiritual and moral values and mentions how deities work in mysterious ways. The essay includes situations that show how these supreme beings test their followers’ faith through various life challenges. Overall, the writer believes that when people fully believe in God, they can be stronger and more capable of coping with the difficulties they may encounter.

“Mecca represents a holy ground that the majority of the Muslims visit; and is only supposed to be visited by Muslims. The popularity of Mecca has increased the scope of its effects, showing that it has an influence on tourism, the financial aspects of the region and lastly religion today.”

The essay delves into Mecca’s contributions to Saudi Arabia’s tourism and religion. It mentions tourism rates peaking during Hajj, a 5-day Muslim pilgrimage, and visitors’ sense of spiritual relief and peace after the voyage. Aside from its tremendous touristic benefits, it also brings people together to worship Allah. You can also check out these essays about values and articles about beliefs .

“Buddhism is seen as one of the most popular and widespread religions on the earth the reason of its pragmatic and attractive philosophies which are so appealing for people of the most diversified backgrounds and ways of thinking .”

To help readers understand the topic, the author explains Buddhism’s worldviews and how Siddhatta Gotama established the religion that’s now one of the most recognized on Earth. It includes teachings about the gift of life, novel thinking, and philosophies based on his observations. Conclusively, the author believes that Buddhism deals with the world as Gotama sees it.

Check out our guide packed full of transition words for essays .

7 Prompts on Essays About Religion

Essays About Religion: The importance of religion

Religion’s importance is embedded in an individual or group’s interpretation of it. They hold on to their faith for various reasons, such as having an idea of the real meaning of life and offering them a purpose to exist. Use this prompt to identify and explain what makes religion a necessity. Make your essay interesting by adding real-life stories of how faith changed someone’s life.

Although religion offers benefits such as positivity and a sense of structure, there are also disadvantages that come with it. Discuss what’s considered healthy and destructive when people follow their religion’s gospels and why. You can also connect it to current issues. Include any personal experience you have.

Religion’s prevalence exhibits how it can significantly affect one’s daily living. Use this prompt to discuss how religions across the world differ from one another when it comes to beliefs and if traditions or customs influence them. It’s essential to use relevant statistical data or surveys in this prompt to support your claims and encourage your readers to trust your piece.

There are various ways religion affects countries’ laws as they adhere to moral and often humanitarian values. Identify each and discuss how faith takes part in a nation’s decision-making regarding pressing matters. You can focus on one religion in a specific location to let the readers concentrate on the case. A good example is the latest abortion issue in the US, the overturning of “Wade vs. Roe.” Include people’s mixed reactions to this subject and their justifications.

Religion: then and now

In this essay, talk about how the most widespread religions’ principles or rituals changed over time. Then, expound on what inspired these changes.  Add the religion’s history, its current situation in the country, and its old and new beliefs. Elaborate on how its members clash over these old and new principles. Conclude by sharing your opinion on whether the changes are beneficial or not.

There’s a never-ending debate between religion and science. List the most controversial arguments in your essay and add which side you support and why. Then, open discourse about how these groups can avoid quarreling. You can also discuss instances when religion and science agreed or worked together to achieve great results. 

Use this prompt if you’re a part of a particular religion. Even if you don’t believe in faith, you can still take this prompt and pick a church you’ll consider joining. Share your personal experiences about your religion. Add how you became a follower, the beliefs that helped you through tough times, and why you’re staying as an active member in it. You can also speak about miraculous events that strengthen your faith. Or you can include teachings that you disagree with and think needs to be changed or updated.

For help with your essay, check out our top essay writing tips !

essay about world religion

Maria Caballero is a freelance writer who has been writing since high school. She believes that to be a writer doesn't only refer to excellent syntax and semantics but also knowing how to weave words together to communicate to any reader effectively.

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essay about world religion

Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology

essay about world religion

World Religions Overview Essay

essay about world religion

The Movement of Religion and Ecology: Emerging Field and Dynamic Force

Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, Yale University

Originally published in the Routledge Handbook of Religion and Ecology

As many United Nations reports attest, we humans are destroying the life-support systems of the Earth at an alarming rate. Ecosystems are being degraded by rapid industrialization and relentless development. The data keeps pouring in that we are altering the climate and toxifying the air, water, and soil of the planet so that the health of humans and other species is at risk. Indeed, the Swedish scientist, Johan Rockstrom, and his colleagues, are examining which planetary boundaries are being exceeded. (Rockstrom and Klum, 2015)

The explosion of population from 3 billion in 1960 to more then 7 billion currently and the subsequent demands on the natural world seem to be on an unsustainable course. The demands include meeting basic human needs of a majority of the world’s people, but also feeding the insatiable desire for goods and comfort spread by the allure of materialism. The first is often called sustainable development; the second is unsustainable consumption. The challenge of rapid economic growth and consumption has brought on destabilizing climate change. This is coming into full focus in alarming ways including increased floods and hurricanes, droughts and famine, rising seas and warming oceans.

Can we turn our course to avert disaster? There are several indications that this may still be possible. On September 25, 2015 after the Pope addressed the UN General Assembly, 195 member states adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). On December 12, 2015 these same members states endorsed the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Both of these are important indications of potential reversal. The Climate Agreement emerged from the dedicated work of governments and civil society along with business partners. The leadership of UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, and many others was indispensable.

One of the inspirations for the Climate Agreement and for the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals was the release of the Papal Encyclical, Laudato Si’ in June 2015. The encyclical encouraged the moral forces of concern for both the environment and people to be joined in “integral ecology”.  “The cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor” are now linked as was not fully visible before. (Boff, 1997 and in the encyclical) Many religious and environmental communities are embracing this integrated perspective and will, no doubt, foster it going forward. The question is how can the world religions contribute more effectively to this renewed ethical momentum for change. For example, what will be their long-term response to population growth? As this is addressed in the article by Robert Wyman and Guigui Yao, we will not take it up here. Instead, we will consider some of the challenges and possibilities amid the dream of progress and the lure of consumption.

Challenges: The Dream of Progress and the Religion of Consumption

Consumption appears to have become an ideology or quasi-religion, not only in the West but also around the world. Faith in economic growth drives both producers and consumers. The dream of progress is becoming a distorted one. This convergence of our unlimited demands with an unquestioned faith in economic progress raises questions about the roles of religions in encouraging, discouraging, or ignoring our dominant drive toward appropriately satisfying material needs or inappropriately indulging material desires. Integral ecology supports the former and critiques the latter.

Moreover, a consumerist ideology depends upon and simultaneously contributes to a worldview based on the instrumental rationality of the human. That is, the assumption for decision-making is that all choices are equally clear and measurable. Market based metrics such as price, utility, or efficiency are dominant. This can result in utilitarian views of a forest as so much board feet or simply as a mechanistic complex of ecosystems that provide services to the human.

One long-term effect of this is that the individual human decision-maker is further distanced from nature because nature is reduced to measurable entities for profit or use. From this perspective we humans may be isolated in our perceived uniqueness as something apart from the biological web of life. In this context, humans do not seek identity and meaning in the numinous beauty of the world, nor do they experience themselves as dependent on a complex of life-supporting interactions of air, water, and soil. Rather, this logic sees humans as independent, rational decision-makers who find their meaning and identity in systems of management that now attempt to co-opt the language of conservation and environmental concern. Happiness is derived from simply creating and having more material goods. This perspective reflects a reading of our current geological period as human induced by our growth as a species that is now controlling the planet. This current era is being called the “Anthropocene” because of our effect on the planet in contrast to the prior 12,000 year epoch known as the Holocene.

This human capacity to imagine and implement a utilitarian-based worldview regarding nature has undermined many of the ancient insights of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions. For example, some religions, attracted by the individualistic orientations of market rationalism and short-term benefits of social improvement, seized upon material accumulation as containing divine sanction. Thus, Max Weber identified the rise of Protestantism with an ethos of inspirited work and accumulated capital.

Weber also identified the growing disenchantment from the world of nature with the rise of global capitalism. Karl Marx recognized the “metabolic rift” in which human labor and nature become alienated from cycles of renewal. The earlier mystique of creation was lost. Wonder, beauty, and imagination as ways of knowing were gradually superseded by the analytical reductionism of modernity such that technological and economic entrancement have become key inspirations of progress.

Challenges: Religions Fostering Anthropocentrism

This modern, instrumental view of matter as primarily for human use arises in part from a dualistic Western philosophical view of mind and matter. Adapted into Jewish, Christian and Islamic religious perspectives, this dualism associates mind with the soul as a transcendent spiritual entity given sovereignty and dominion over matter. Mind is often valued primarily for its rationality in contrast to a lifeless world. At the same time we ensure our radical discontinuity from it.

Interestingly, views of the uniqueness of the human bring many traditional religious perspectives into sync with modern instrumental rationalism. In Western religious traditions, for example, the human is seen as an exclusively gifted creature with a transcendent soul that manifests the divine image and likeness. Consequently, this soul should be liberated from the material world. In many contemporary reductionist perspectives (philosophical and scientific) the human with rational mind and technical prowess stands as the pinnacle of evolution. Ironically, religions emphasizing the uniqueness of the human as the image of God meet market-driven applied science and technology precisely at this point of the special nature of the human to justify exploitation of the natural world. Anthropocentrism in various forms, religious, philosophical, scientific, and economic, has led, perhaps inadvertently, to the dominance of humans in this modern period, now called the Anthropocene. (It can be said that certain strands of the South Asian religions have emphasized the importance of humans escaping from nature into transcendent liberation. However, such forms of radical dualism are not central to the East Asian traditions or indigenous traditions.)

From the standpoint of rational analysis, many values embedded in religions, such as a sense of the sacred, the intrinsic value of place, the spiritual dimension of the human, moral concern for nature, and care for future generations, are incommensurate with an objectified monetized worldview as they not quantifiable. Thus, they are often ignored as externalities, or overridden by more pragmatic profit-driven considerations. Contemporary nation-states in league with transnational corporations have seized upon this individualistic, property-based, use-analysis to promote national sovereignty, security, and development exclusively for humans.

Possibilities: Systems Science

Yet, even within the realm of so-called scientific, rational thought, there is not a uniform approach. Resistance to the easy marriage of reductionist science and instrumental rationality comes from what is called systems science and new ecoogy. By this we refer to a movement within empirical, experimental science of exploring the interaction of nature and society as complex dynamic systems. This approach stresses both analysis and synthesis – the empirical act of observation, as well as placement of the focus of study within the context of a larger whole. Systems science resists the temptation to take the micro, empirical, reductive act as the complete description of a thing, but opens analysis to the large interactive web of life to which we belong, from ecosystems to the biosphere. There are numerous examples of this holistic perspective in various branches of ecology. And this includes overcoming the nature-human divide. (Schmitz 2016) Aldo Leopold understood this holistic interconnection well when he wrote: “We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” (Leopold, 1966)

Collaboration of Science and Religion

Within this inclusive framework, scientists have been moving for some time beyond simply distanced observations to engaged concern. The Pope’s encyclical, Laudato Si , has elevated the level of visibility and efficacy of this conversation between science and religion as perhaps never before on a global level. Similarly, many other statements from the world religions are linking the wellbeing of people and the planet for a flourishing future. For example, the World Council of Churches has been working for four decades to join humans and nature in their program on Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation.

Many scientists such as Thomas Lovejoy, E.O. Wilson, Jane Lubchenco, Peter Raven, and Ursula Goodenough recognize the importance of religious and cultural values when discussing solutions to environmental challenges. Other scientists such as Paul Ehrlich and Donald Kennedy have called for major studies of human behavior and values in relation to environmental issues. ( Science , July 2005) This has morphed into the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. (mahb.standford.edu). Since 2009 the Ecological Society of America has established an Earth Stewardship Initiative with yearly panels and publications.  Many environmental studies programs are now seeking to incorporate these broader ethical and behavioral approaches into the curriculum.

Possibilities: Extinction and Religious Response

The stakes are high, however, and the path toward limiting ourselves within planetary boundaries is not smooth. Scientists are now reporting that because of the population explosion, our consuming habits, and our market drive for resources, we are living in the midst of a mass extinction period. This period represents the largest loss of species since the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago when the Cenozoic period began. In other words, we are shutting down life systems on the planet and causing the end of this large-scale geological era with little awareness of what we are doing or its consequences.

As the cultural historian Thomas Berry observed some years ago, we are making macrophase changes on the planet with microphase wisdom. Indeed, some people worry that these rapid changes have outstripped the capacity of our religions, ethics, and spiritualities to meet the complex challenges we are facing.

The question arises whether the wisdom traditions of the human community, embedded in institutional religions and beyond, can embrace integral ecology at the level needed? Can the religions provide leadership into a synergistic era of human-Earth relations characterized by empathy, regeneration, and resilience? Or are religions themselves the wellspring of those exclusivist perspectives in which human societies disconnect themselves from other groups and from the natural world? Are religions caught in their own meditative promises of transcendent peace and redemptive bliss in paradisal abandon? Or does their drive for exclusive salvation or truth claims cause them to try to overcome or convert the Other?

Authors in this volume are exploring these issues within religious and spiritual communities regarding the appropriate responses of the human to our multiple environmental and social challenges. What forms of symbolic visioning and ethical imagining can call forth a transformation of consciousness and conscience for our Earth community? Can religions and spiritualites provide vision and inspiration for grounding and guiding mutually enhancing human-Earth relations? Have we arrived at a point where we realize that more scientific statistics on environmental problems, more legislation, policy or regulation, and more economic analysis, while necessary, are no longer sufficient for the large-scale social transformations needed? This is where the world religions, despite their limitations, surely have something to contribute.

Such a perspective includes ethics, practices, and spiritualities from the world’s cultures that may or may not be connected with institutional forms of religion. Thus spiritual ecology and nature religions are an important part of the discussions and are represented in this volume. Our own efforts have focused on the world religions and indigenous traditions. Our decade long training in graduate school and our years of living and traveling throughout Asia and the West gave us an early appreciation for religions as dynamic, diverse, living traditions. We are keenly aware of the multiple forms of syncretism and hybridization in the world religions and spiritualties. We have witnessed how they are far from monolithic or impervious to change in our travels to more than 60 countries.

Problems and Promise of Religions

Several qualifications regarding the various roles of religion should thus be noted. First, we do not wish to suggest here that any one religious tradition has a privileged ecological perspective. Rather, multiple interreligious perspectives may be the most helpful in identifying the contributions of the world religions to the flourishing of life.

We also acknowledge that there is frequently a disjunction between principles and practices: ecologically sensitive ideas in religions are not always evident in environmental practices in particular civilizations. Many civilizations have overused their environments, with or without religious sanction.

Finally, we are keenly aware that religions have all too frequently contributed to tensions and conflict among various groups, both historically and at present. Dogmatic rigidity, inflexible claims of truth, and misuse of institutional and communal power by religions have led to tragic consequences in many parts of the globe.

Nonetheless, while religions have often preserved traditional ways, they have also provoked social change. They can be limiting but also liberating in their outlooks. In the twentieth century, for example, religious leaders and theologians helped to give birth to progressive movements such as civil rights for minorities, social justice for the poor, and liberation for women.  Although the world religions have been slow to respond to our current environmental crises, their moral authority and their institutional power may help effect a change in attitudes, practices, and public policies. Now the challenge is a broadening of their ethical perspectives.

Traditionally the religions developed ethics for homicide, suicide, and genocide. Currently they need to respond to biocide, ecocide, and geocide. (Berry, 2009)

Retrieval, Reevaluation, Reconstruction

There is an inevitable disjunction between the examination of historical religious traditions in all of their diversity and complexity and the application of teachings, ethics, or practices to contemporary situations. While religions have always been involved in meeting contemporary challenges over the centuries, it is clear that the global environmental crisis is larger and more complex than anything in recorded human history. Thus, a simple application of traditional ideas to contemporary problems is unlikely to be either possible or adequate. In order to address ecological problems properly, religious and spiritual leaders, laypersons and academics have to be in dialogue with scientists, environmentalists, economists, businesspeople, politicians, and educators. Hence the articles in this volume are from various key sectors.

With these qualifications in mind we can then identify three methodological approaches that appear in the still emerging study of religion and ecology. These are retrieval, reevaluation, and reconstruction. Retrieval involves the scholarly investigation of scriptural and commentarial sources in order to clarify religious perspectives regarding human-Earth relations. This requires that historical and textual studies uncover resources latent within the tradition. In addition, retrieval can identify ethical codes and ritual customs of the tradition in order to discover how these teachings were put into practice. Traditional environmental knowledge (TEK) is an important part of this for all the world religions, especially indigenous traditions.

With reevaluation, traditional teachings are evaluated with regard to their relevance to contemporary circumstances. Are the ideas, teachings, or ethics present in these traditions appropriate for shaping more ecologically sensitive attitudes and sustainable practices? Reevaluation also questions ideas that may lead to inappropriate environmental practices. For example, are certain religious tendencies reflective of otherworldly or world-denying orientations that are not helpful in relation to pressing ecological issues? It asks as well whether the material world of nature has been devalued by a particular religion and whether a model of ethics focusing solely on human interactions is adequate to address environmental problems.

Finally, reconstruction suggests ways that religious traditions might adapt their teachings to current circumstances in new and creative ways. These may result in new syntheses or in creative modifications of traditional ideas and practices to suit modern modes of expression. This is the most challenging aspect of the emerging field of religion and ecology and requires sensitivity to who is speaking about a tradition in the process of reevaluation and reconstruction. Postcolonial critics have appropriately highlighted the complex issues surrounding the problem of who is representing or interpreting a religious tradition or even what constitutes that tradition. Nonetheless, practitioners and leaders of particular religions are finding grounds for creative dialogue with scholars of religions in these various phases of interpretation.

Religious Ecologies and Religious Cosmologies

As part of the retrieval, reevaluation, and reconstruction of religions we would identify “religious ecologies” and “religious cosmologies” as ways that religions have functioned in the past and can still function at present. Religious ecologies are ways of orienting and grounding whereby humans undertake specific practices of nurturing and transforming self and community in a particular cosmological context that regards nature as inherently valuable. Through cosmological stories humans narrate and experience the larger matrix of mystery in which life arises, unfolds, and flourishes. These are what we call religious cosmologies. These two, namely religious ecologies and religious cosmologies, can be distinguished but not separated. Together they provide a context for navigating life’s challenges and affirming the rich spiritual value of human-Earth relations.

Human communities until the modern period sensed themselves as grounded in and dependent on the natural world. Thus, even when the forces of nature were overwhelming, the regenerative capacity of the natural world opened a way forward. Humans experienced the processes of the natural world as interrelated, both practically and symbolically. These understandings were expressed in traditional environmental knowledge, namely, in hunting and agricultural practices such as the appropriate use of plants, animals, and land. Such knowledge was integrated in symbolic language and practical norms, such as prohibitions, taboos, and limitations on ecosystems’ usage. All this was based in an understanding of nature as the source of nurturance and kinship. The Lakota people still speak of “all my relations” as an expression of this kinship. Such perspectives will need to be incorporated into strategies to solve environmental problems. Humans are part of nature and their cultural and religious values are critical dimensions of the discussion.

Multidisciplinary approaches: Environmental Humanities

We are recognizing, then, that the environmental crisis is multifaceted and requires multidisciplinary approaches. As this book indicates, the insights of scientific modes of analytical and synthetic knowing are indispensable for understanding and responding to our contemporary environmental crisis. So also, we need new technologies such as industrial ecology, green chemistry, and renewable energy. Clearly ecological economics is critical along with green governance and legal policies as articles in this volume illustrate.

In this context it is important to recognize different ways of knowing that are manifest in the humanities, such as artistic expressions, historical perspectives, philosophical inquiry, and religious understandings. These honor emotional intelligence, affective insight, ethical valuing, and spiritual awakening.

Environmental humanities is a growing and diverse area of study within humanistic disciplines. In the last several decades, new academic courses and programs, research journals and monographs, have blossomed. This broad-based inquiry has sparked creative investigation into multiple ways, historically and at present, of understanding and interacting with nature, constructing cultures, developing communities, raising food, and exchanging goods. 

It is helpful to see the field of religion and ecology as part of this larger emergence of environmental humanities. While it can be said that environmental history, literature, and philosophy are some four decades old, the field of religions and ecology began some two decades ago. It was preceded, however, by work among various scholars, particularly Christian theologians. Some eco-feminists theologians, such as Rosemary Ruether and Sallie McFague, Mary Daly, and Ivone Gebara led the way.

The Emerging Field of Religion and Ecology

An effort to identify and to map religiously diverse attitudes and practices toward nature was the focus of a three-year international conference series on world religions and ecology. Organized by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, ten conferences were held at the Harvard Center for the Study of World Religions from 1996-1998 that resulted in a ten volume book series (1997-2004). Over 800 scholars of religion and environmentalists participated. The director of the Center, Larry Sullivan, gave space and staff for the conferences. He chose to limit their scope to the world religions and indigenous religions rather than “nature religions”, such as wicca or paganism, which the organizers had hoped to include.

Culminating conferences were held in fall 1998 at Harvard and in New York at the United Nations and the American Museum of Natural History where 1000 people attended and Bill Moyers presided. At the UN conference Tucker and Grim founded the Forum on Religion and Ecology, which is now located at Yale. They organized a dozen more conferences and created an electronic newsletter that is now sent to over 12,000 people around the world. In addition, they developed a major website for research, education, and outreach in this area (fore.yale.edu). The conferences, books, website, and newsletter have assisted in the emergence of a new field of study in religion and ecology. Many people have helped in this process including Whitney Bauman and Sam Mickey who are now moving the field toward discussing the need for planetary ethics. A Canadian Forum on Religion and Ecology was established in 2002, a European Forum for the Study of Religion and the Environment was formed in 2005, and a Forum on Religion and Ecology @ Monash in Australia in 2011.

Courses on this topic are now offered in numerous colleges and universities across North America and in other parts of the world. A Green Seminary Initiative has arisen to help educate seminarians. Within the American Academy of Religion there is a vibrant group focused on scholarship and teaching in this area. A peer-reviewed journal, Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology , is celebrating its 25 th year of publication. Another journal has been publishing since 2007, the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture . A two volume Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature edited by Bron Taylor has helped shape the discussions, as has the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture he founded. Clearly this broad field of study will continue to expand as the environmental crisis grows in complexity and requires increasingly creative interdisciplinary responses.

The work in religion and ecology rests in an intersection between the academic field within education and the dynamic force within society. This is why we see our work not so much as activist, but rather as “engaged scholarship” for the flourishing of our shared planetary life. This is part of a broader integration taking place to link concerns for both people and the planet. This has been fostered in part by the twenty-volume Ecology and Justice Series from Orbis Books and with the work of John Cobb, Larry Rasmussen, Dieter Hessel, Heather Eaton, Cynthia Moe-Loebeda, and others. The Papal Encyclical is now highlighting this linkage of eco-justice as indispensable for an integral ecology.

The Dynamic Force of Religious Environmentalism

All of these religious traditions, then, are groping to find the languages, symbols, rituals, and ethics for sustaining both ecosystems and humans. Clearly there are obstacles to religions moving into their ecological, eco-justice, and planetary phases. The religions are themselves challenged by their own bilingual languages, namely, their languages of transcendence, enlightenment, and salvation; and their languages of immanence, sacredness of Earth, and respect for nature. Yet, as the field of religion and ecology has developed within academia, so has the force of religious environmentalism emerged around the planet. Roger Gottlieb documents this in his book A Greener Faith . (Gottlieb 2006) The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew held international symposia on “Religion, Science and the Environment” focused on water issues (1995-2009) that we attended. He has made influential statements on this issue for 20 years. The Parliament of World Religions has included panels on this topic since 1998 and most expansively in 2015. Since 1995 the UK based Alliance of Religion and Conservation (ARC), led by Martin Palmer, has been doing significant work with religious communities around under the patronage of Prince Philip.

These efforts are recovering a sense of place, which is especially clear in the environmental resilience and regeneration practices of indigenous peoples. It is also evident in valuing the sacred pilgrimage places in the Abrahamic traditions (Jerusalem, Rome, and Mecca) both historically and now ecologically. So also East Asia and South Asia attention to sacred mountains, caves, and other pilgrimage sites stands in marked contrast to massive pollution.

In many settings around the world religious practitioners are drawing together religious ways of respecting place, land, and life with understanding of environmental science and the needs of local communities. There have been official letters by Catholic Bishops in the Philippines and in Alberta, Canada alarmed by the oppressive social conditions and ecological disasters caused by extractive industries. Catholic nuns and laity in North America, Australia, England, and Ireland sponsor educational programs and conservation plans drawing on the eco-spiritual vision of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme. Also inspired by Berry and Swimme, Paul Winter’s Solstice celebrations and Earth Mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York Winter have been taking place for three decades.

Even in the industrial growth that grips China, there are calls from many in politics, academia, and NGOs to draw on Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist perspectives for environmental change. In 2008 we met with Pan Yue, the Deputy Minister of the Environment, who has studied these traditions and sees them as critical to Chinese environmental ethics. In India, Hinduism is faced with the challenge of clean up of sacred rivers, such as the Ganges and the Yamuna. To this end in 2010 with Hindu scholars, David Haberman and Christopher Chapple, we organized a conference of scientists and religious leaders in Delhi and Vrindavan to address the pollution of the Yamuna.

Many religious groups are focused on climate change and energy issues. For example, InterFaith Power and Light and GreenFaith are encouraging religious communities to reduce their carbon footprint. Earth Ministry in Seattle is leading protests against oil pipelines and terminals. The Evangelical Environmental Network and other denominations are emphasizing climate change as a moral issue that is disproportionately affecting the poor. In Canada and the US the Indigenous Environmental Network is speaking out regarding damage caused by resource extraction, pipelines, and dumping on First Peoples’ Reserves and beyond. All of the religions now have statements on climate change as a moral issue and they were strongly represented in the People’s Climate March in September 2015. Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, published the first collection of articles on religion and climate change from two conferences we organized there. (Tucker & Grim, 2001)

Striking examples of religion and ecology have occurred in the Islamic world. In June 2001 and May 2005 the Islamic Republic of Iran led by President Khatami and the United Nations Environment Programme sponsored conferences in Tehran that we attended. They were focused on Islamic principles and practices for environmental protection. The Iranian Constitution identifies Islamic values for ecology and threatens legal sanctions. One of the earliest spokespersons for religion and ecology is the Iranian scholar, Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Fazlun Khalid in the UK founded the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Science. In Indonesia in 2014 a fatwa was issued declaring that killing an endangered species is prohibited.

These examples illustrate ways in which an emerging alliance of religion and ecology is occurring around the planet. These traditional values within the religions now cause them to awaken to environmental crises in ways that are strikingly different from science or policy. But they may find interdisciplinary ground for dialogue in concerns for eco-justice, sustainability, and cultural motivations for transformation. The difficulty, of course, is that the religions are often preoccupied with narrow sectarian interests. However, many people, including the Pope, are calling on the religions to go beyond these interests and become a moral leaven for change.

Renewal Through Laudato Si’

Pope Francis is highlighting an integral ecology that brings together concern for humans and the Earth. He makes it clear that the environment can no longer be seen as only an issue for scientific experts, or environmental groups, or government agencies alone. Rather, he invites all people, programs and institutions to realize these are complicated environmental and social problems that require integrated solutions beyond a “technocratic paradigm” that values an easy fix. Within this integrated framework, he urges bold new solutions.

In this context Francis suggests that ecology, economics, and equity are intertwined. Healthy ecosystems depend on a just economy that results in equity. Endangering ecosystems with an exploitative economic system is causing immense human suffering and inequity. In particular, the poor and most vulnerable are threatened by climate change, although they are not the major cause of the climate problem. He acknowledges the need for believers and non-believers alike to help renew the vitality of Earth’s ecosystems and expand systemic efforts for equity.

In short, he is calling for “ecological conversion” from within all the world religions. He is making visible an emerging worldwide phenomenon of the force of religious environmentalism on the ground, as well as the field of religion and ecology in academia developing new ecotheologies and ecojustice ethics. This diverse movement is evoking a change of mind and heart, consciousness and conscience. Its expression will be seen more fully in the years to come.

The challenge of the contemporary call for ecological renewal cannot be ignored by the religions. Nor can it be answered simply from out of doctrine, dogma, scripture, devotion, ritual, belief, or prayer. It cannot be addressed by any of these well-trod paths of religious expression alone. Yet, like so much of our human cultures and institutions the religions are necessary for our way forward yet not sufficient in themselves for the transformation needed.  The roles of the religions cannot be exported from outside their horizons.  Thus, the individual religions must explain and transform themselves if they are willing to enter into this period of environmental engagement that is upon us. If the religions can participate in this creativity they may again empower humans to embrace values that sustain life and contribute to a vibrant Earth community.


Berry, Thomas. 2009. The Sacred Universe: Earth Spirituality and Religion in the 21st Century (New York: Columbia University Press).

Boff, Leonardo. 1997. Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books).

Gottlieb, Roger. 2006. A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planetary Future . (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Grim, John and Mary Evelyn Tucker, eds. 2014. Ecology and Religion. (Washington, DC: Island Press).

Leopold, Aldo. 1966. A Sand County Almanac . (Oxford University Press).

Rockstrom, Johan and Mattias Klum. 2015. Big World, Small Planet: Abundance Within Planetary Boundaries . (New Haven: Yale University Press)

Schmitz, Oswald. 2016. The New Ecology: Science for a Sustainable World. (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Taylor, Bron, ed. 2008. Encyclopedia of Religion, Nature, and Culture. (London: Bloomsbury).

Tucker, Mary Evelyn. 2004. Worldly Wonder: Religions Enter their Ecological Phase . (Chicago: Open Court).

Tucker, Mary Evelyn and John Grim, eds. 2001 Religion and Ecology: Can the Climate Change? Daedalus Vol. 130, No.4.

Header photo: ARC procession to UN Faith in Future Meeting, Bristol, UK

100+ Religion Essay Topics


The realm of religion has always been a deeply fascinating and, at times, contentious area of study. The possibilities for exploration are vast, from theological doctrines to the impact of religion on societies. If you are a student or an enthusiast looking to delve into religious studies through essays, you’ve come to the right place.

Table of Contents

What is a Religion Essay?

A religion essay is a piece of writing that explores topics related to spirituality, theological doctrines, the historical evolution of religions, religious practices, and the impact of religion on various facets of society. It provides an avenue for individuals to critically examine and articulate their understanding of a religious subject, fostering both introspection and academic analysis.

Guide on Choosing a Religion Essay Topic

In 100-150 words? Here goes: Choosing a topic for a religion essay can be overwhelming, given the vastness of the subject. Start by narrowing your focus. Are you more interested in theological concepts, historical events, or social impacts? Research current events related to religion, as contemporary issues can provide fresh perspectives. Reflect on personal experiences or curiosities. It’s always easier to write on topics you’re passionate about. Lastly, ensure your chosen topic has enough credible sources available for a well-researched essay.

Religion Essay Topics Lists

Theological concepts.

  • The Concept of God in Abrahamic Religions
  • Karma and Reincarnation in Hinduism
  • The Significance of Nirvana in Buddhism
  • Sufism: The Mystical Dimension of Islam
  • The Holy Trinity in Christianity: Interpretations and Beliefs

Historical Events

  • The Crusades: Religious Zeal or Political Conquest?
  • The Reformation and its Impact on Christianity
  • Spread of Islam: Historical Perspectives and Causes
  • Ancient Egyptian Religion and its Influence on Society
  • The Role of the Vatican during World War II

Social Impacts

  • Religion and its Role in Shaping Moral Values
  • The Influence of Religion on Art and Architecture
  • Religion and Politics: A Dangerous Liaison?
  • Impact of Secularism on Modern Societies
  • Feminism and Religion: Points of Convergence and Divergence

Contemporary Issues

  • The Rise of Atheism in the 21st Century
  • Religion and LGBTQ+ Rights: Conflicts and Resolutions
  • Modern Religious Movements and Cults: A Study
  • Religion in the Age of Technology: Evolution or Dissolution?
  • Climate Change: Religious Perspectives and Responsibilities

Personal Reflections

  • My Spiritual Journey: Discoveries and Challenges
  • Religion in My Family: Traditions and Changes
  • The Role of Prayer in My Life
  • Personal Experiences with Religious Tolerance and Intolerance
  • Finding Peace: A Personal Encounter with Meditation

Historical Contexts

  • The Fall of Constantinople: Religious Implications
  • The Establishment of the Church of England
  • Comparative Analysis: Spread of Christianity and Islam in Africa
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls: Relevance and Discoveries
  • Influence of the Byzantine Church on Orthodox Christianity

Theological Doctrines

  • Comparative Analysis of Heaven in Different Religions
  • The Role of Angels and Demons across Religions
  • Salvation in Christian Theology
  • Islamic Views on Predestination
  • Hindu Views on Creation and Cosmos

Philosophical Questions

  • The Problem of Evil in Religious Thought
  • The Existence of God: Arguments For and Against
  • Morality: Divine Command Theory vs. Secular Ethics
  • Free Will vs. Divine Determinism
  • The Concept of Soul in Various Religions

Modern Interpretations and Movements

  • Progressive Christianity: A New Age Movement?
  • Jihad: Misunderstandings and Clarifications
  • Spiritual but Not Religious: The Rise of Secular Spirituality
  • Neo-Paganism and Modern Witchcraft
  • The Baha’i Faith and Its Universal Message

Religious Practices and Rituals

  • The Significance of Hajj in Islam
  • Christian Sacraments: Symbols and Meanings
  • Hindu Festivals and Their Socio-religious Importance
  • Jewish Dietary Laws: Significance and Practice
  • Zen Buddhism: Practices and Philosophies

Religion and Society

  • The Role of Religion in Contemporary Politics
  • Religion and Education: Benefits and Drawbacks
  • Religious Perspectives on Healthcare Ethics
  • The Impact of Religion on Family Structures
  • Religion in Media: Representation and Bias

Interfaith and Comparative Studies

  • Comparative Study of Abrahamic Religions
  • Eastern vs. Western Spiritual Practices
  • Similarities in Creation Myths Across Religions
  • Comparative Study of Ascetic Practices in Religions
  • Rituals of Death and Afterlife Across Cultures

Gender and Religion

  • Female Figures in Christianity: Beyond Mary
  • The Role of Women in Islamic Societies
  • Feminine Divinities in Hinduism
  • Gender Roles in Traditional and Modern Jewish Practices
  • The Evolution of Gender Norms in Buddhist Traditions

Religion and Science

  • Religious Perspectives on Evolution
  • The Vatican and Astronomy: A Historic Relationship
  • Islamic Contributions to Science and Mathematics
  • Hindu Cosmology and Modern Astrophysics
  • Buddhism and Psychology: Overlaps and Insights

Mysticism and Esoteric Beliefs

  • Kabbalah: Jewish Mysticism Explored
  • Christian Gnostic Traditions
  • Sufism: The Heart of Islamic Mysticism
  • Tantra in Hinduism and Buddhism: Misunderstandings and Realities
  • The Rosicrucians: History and Beliefs of a Mysterious Order

Sacred Texts and Their Interpretations

  • The Bhagavad Gita: A Philosophical Analysis
  • Parables in the New Testament: Meanings and Implications
  • The Talmud and Its Relevance in Contemporary Judaism
  • The Tao Te Ching: Exploring Daoist Philosophy
  • Themes of Justice and Mercy in the Qur’an

Religion and Art

  • Depictions of Buddha in Art: Evolution and Significance
  • Christian Iconography: Symbols and Their Origins
  • Islamic Calligraphy: Beauty in Sacred Texts
  • Religious Themes in Renaissance Art
  • The Influence of Hindu Mythology on Classical Dance Forms

Faith and Modern Challenges

  • Addressing Climate Change: Religious Responses and Responsibilities
  • Religion in the Digital Age: New Forms of Worship and Community
  • The Ethics of Genetic Engineering from Religious Perspectives
  • Faith Healing vs. Modern Medicine: A Comparative Analysis
  • The Role of Religion in Modern Mental Health Practices

Minor Religions and Sects

  • Jainism: Principles of Non-Violence and Asceticism
  • The Yoruba Religion: Understanding Orishas and Rituals
  • The Alevi Community: Beliefs and Practices
  • Zoroastrianism: History and Current Status
  • The Raelian Movement: Extraterrestrial Beliefs and Controversies

Call to Action

Overwhelmed by the vastness of religious topics or unsure how to articulate your thoughts cohesively? Let WriteOnDeadline help! Our expert essay writers are well-versed in diverse religious subjects and can craft an impeccable essay tailored to your needs. Don’t hesitate – reach out to us today!

Useful References

  • BBC Religions – Comprehensive information on a wide array of religions.
  • Religion Online – Full texts by recognized religious scholars.
  • Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project – Offers statistical research and reports on religion’s role in society.

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Essay on What is Religion for Students and Children

500+ words essay on what is religion.

Religion refers to a belief in a divine entity or deity. Moreover, religion is about the presence of God who is controlling the entire world. Different people have different beliefs. And due to this belief, many different cultures exist.

What Is Religion Essay

Further, there are a series of rituals performed by each religion. This is done to please Gods of their particular religion. Religion creates an emotional factor in our country. The Constitution of our country is secular . This means that we have the freedom of following any religion. As our country is the most diverse in religions, religion has two main sub broad categories:

Monotheistic Religion

Monotheistic religions believe in the existence of one God. Some of the monotheistic religions are:

Islam: The people who follow are Muslims . Moreover, Islam means to ‘ surrender’ and the people who follow this religion surrender themselves to ‘Allah’.

Furthermore, the holy book of Islam is ‘ QURAN’, Muslims believe that Allah revealed this book to Muhammad. Muhammad was the last prophet. Above all, Islam has the second most popular religion in the entire world. The most important festivals in this religion are Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.

Christianity: Christian also believes in the existence of only one God. Moreover, the Christians believe that God sent his only Jesus Christ for our Salvation. The Holy book of Christians is the Bible .

Furthermore, the bible is subdivided into the Old Testament and the New Testament. Most Importantly, Jesus Christ died on the cross to free us from our sins. The people celebrate Easter on the third day. Because Jesus Christ resurrected on the third day of his death.

However, the celebration of Christmas signifies the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Above all Christianity has the most following in the entire world.

Judaism: Judaism also believes in the existence of one God. Who revealed himself to Abraham, Moses and the Hebrew prophets. Furthermore, Abraham is the father of the Jewish Faith. Most Noteworthy the holy book of the Jewish people is Torah.

Above all, some of the festivals that Jewish celebrate are Passover, Rosh Hashanah – Jewish New Year, Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement, Hanukkah, etc.

Get the huge list of more than 500 Essay Topics and Ideas

Polytheistic Religion

Polytheistic religions are those that believe in the worship of many gods. One of the most believed polytheistic religion is:

Hinduism: Hinduism has the most popularity in India and South-east Asian sub-continent. Moreover, Hindus believe that our rewards in the present life are the result of our deeds in previous lives. This signifies their belief in Karma. Above all the holy book of Hindus is ‘Geeta’. Also, Hindus celebrate many festivals. Some of the important ones are Holi-The festival of colors and Diwali- the festival of lights.

Last, there is one religion that is neither monotheistic nor polytheistic.

Buddhism: Buddhism religion followers do not believe in the existence of God. However, that does not mean that they are an atheist. Moreover, Buddhism believes that God is not at all the one who controls the masses. Also, Buddhism is much different from many other religions. Above all, Gautam Buddha founded Buddhism.

Some FAQs for You

Q1. How many types of religions are there in the entire world?

A1. There are two types of religion in the entire world. And they are Monotheistic religions and Polytheistic religions.

Q2. What is a Polytheistic religion? Give an example

A2. Polytheistic religion area those that follow and worship any Gods. Hinduism is one of the examples of polytheistic religion. Hindus believe in almost 330 million Gods. Furthermore, they have great faith in all and perform many rituals to please them.

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Big History Project

Course: big history project   >   unit 7.

  • WATCH: Where and Why Did the First Cities and States Appear?
  • READ: Intro to Agrarian Civilizations
  • ACTIVITY: Comparing Civilizations
  • READ: Mesoamerica
  • READ: Jericho
  • READ: East Asia
  • READ: Greco-Roman
  • READ: Aksum
  • READ: Ghana
  • READ: We're not in Kansas Anymore — The Emergence of Early Cities

READ: The Origin of World Religions

  • ACTIVITY: Comparing Crops
  • READ: Gallery — Civilization
  • Quiz: The First Cities and States Appear

The Origin of World Religions

Why religions became global.

In subsequent centuries, urban dwellers, and particularly poor, marginal persons, found that authoritative religious guidance, shared faith, and mutual support among congregations of believers could substitute for the tight-knit custom of village existence (within which the rural majority continued to live) and give meaning and value to ordinary lives, despite daily contact with uncaring strangers. Such religious congregations, in turn, helped to stabilize urban society by making its inherent inequality and insecurity more tolerable. (61)

A closer look at Hinduism and Buddhism

The untouchables, the lowest members of society, dealt with human waste and the dead. This group did the jobs no one else wanted to do. They were regarded by the other groups as ritually impure and therefore outside the hierarchy of groups altogether. The Sudras had service jobs, and the Vaisya were herders, farmers, artisans, and merchants. The Ksatriyas, the second highest caste, were the warriors and rulers. At the top were the Brahmans, who were priests, scholars, and teachers. Because priests were part of this caste, the early religion is known as Brahmanism. Brahmanism evolved into the larger Hindu tradition.
The Hindus revered many gods. They believed that people had many lives (reincarnation). Also, they believed in karma. This meant that whatever a person did in this life would determine what he or she would be in the next life. Thus, reincarnation creates a cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth. The cycle ends only when a person realizes that his or her soul and God’s soul are one. To help achieve this goal, the Hindus had several spiritual practices, some of which are done in the western world today, including meditation and yoga.
1. dharma: living a virtuous life
2. kama: pleasure of the senses
3. artha: achieving wealth and success lawfully
4. moksha: release from reincarnation
Life is filled with suffering (dukkha).
The root of this suffering comes from a person’s material desires (to want what you do not have).
In order to stop suffering, you must get rid of desire or greed.
If you follow the Eight-Fold Path then you can eliminate your material desires, and therefore, your suffering.
Right View: Understand that there is suffering in the world and that the Four Noble Truths can break this pattern of suffering.
Right Intention: Avoid harmful thoughts, care for others, and think about more than yourself.
Right Speech: Speak kindly and avoid lying or gossip.
Right Action: Be faithful and do the right thing; do not kill, steal, or lie.
Right Living: Make sure that your livelihood does not harm others. Do not promote slavery or the selling of weapons or poisons.
Right Effort: Work hard and avoid negative situations.
Right Awareness: Exercise control over your mind and increase your wisdom.
Right Concentration: Increase your peacefulness and calmness, in particular through meditation.

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World Religions, Essay Example

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This course has not only improved my knowledge and understanding of individual religions but has also made me more aware of their similarities and differences. Despite different beliefs, all religions basically attempt to address two main questions, (1). Why we are here? (2). What happens after we die? Another thing I noticed is that all religions have evolved over the years and all religions have been ambiguous to some extent. Even religions that claim to have preserved their traditions and texts better than others have at least two segments within them if not more, who have difference of opinions. One other important thing I learnt from this religion is that one cannot underestimate the role religion plays in our daily lives and in global affairs, even when countries claim to exercise separation of church and the state such as the U.S.

I have also become less biased towards other religions and have realized that I often measured them on Christian principles. Now I have learnt that different religions have different values and assumptions and it is not possible to understand the actions of other religions’ followers, if we see them through the lens of Christian teachings. Religions are like cultures in this sense that we cannot compare any two cultures because they are built on different assumptions, values, and beliefs. Instead of comparing religions for superiority, a more objective approach for a scholar will be to see religions as diversity of beliefs in the same way as anthropologists view cultures. Anthropologists do not view any culture as superior or inferior to others but just appreciate the fact that the diversity of cultures makes the world an interesting place. One could say that religions lead to divisions but I think the problem is lack of understanding among the followers of different religions and education is the only solution to building cooperative relationship among them. I also believe in the power of education because I was shocked to learn the similarities between three faiths that are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and yet the conflicts among these religions are the most common in recent history.

One academic approach to the study of religion could focus on the motivations of the followers of different religion. People usually follow ideals because they expect a certain reward or want to avoid undesirable circumstances or events. Instead of judging religious people on the merit of their actions only, a better approach would be to understand the motives behind those actions. This approach will not only help outsiders better understand particular religions but also help insiders reform the corrupted beliefs or practices of their own religions. One example are the suicide bombers in the Middle East. Anyone is capable of understanding that suicide bombing is a foolish act but such a simple approach ignores that fact that suicide bombers are motivated by a belief that they will go straight to heaven. Even certain Muslim elements argue that suicide bombers are misguided because you can’t expect your way to heaven by harming innocent civilians. Thus, instead of condemning suicide bombers which will only lead to further rebellion, a better approach is to understand their motives and take steps to tackle the misguided beliefs that motivate these suicide-bombing candidates.

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The Concept of Religion

It is common today to take the concept religion 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, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. [ 1 ] Perhaps equally paradigmatic, though somewhat trickier to label, are forms of life that have not been given a name, either by practitioners or by observers, but are common to a geographical area or 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 short, the concept is today used for a genus of social formations that includes several members, a type of which there are many tokens.

The concept religion did not originally refer to a social genus, however. Its earliest references were not to social kinds and, over time, the extension of the concept has evolved in different directions, to the point that it threatens incoherence. As Paul Griffiths notes, listening to the discussions about the concept religion

rapidly suggests the conclusion that hardly anyone has any idea what they are talking about—or, perhaps more accurately, that there are so many different ideas in play about what religion is that conversations in which the term figures significantly make the difficulties in communication at the Tower of Babel seem minor and easily dealt with. These difficulties are apparent, too, in the academic study of religion, and they go far toward an explanation of why the discipline has no coherent or widely shared understanding of its central topic. (2000: 30)

This entry therefore provides a brief history of the how the semantic range of religion has grown and shifted over the years, and then considers two philosophical issues that arise for the contested concept, issues that are likely to arise for other abstract concepts used to sort cultural types (such as “literature”, “democracy”, or “culture” itself). First, the disparate variety of practices now said to fall within this category raises a question of whether one can understand this social taxon in terms of necessary and sufficient properties or whether instead one should instead treat it as a family resemblance concept. Here, the question is whether the concept religion can be said to have an essence. Second, the recognition that the concept has shifted its meanings, that it arose at a particular time and place but was unknown elsewhere, and that it has so often been used to denigrate certain cultures, raises the question whether the concept corresponds to any kind of entity in the world at all or whether, instead, it is simply a rhetorical device that should be retired. This entry therefore considers the rise of critical and skeptical analyses of the concept, including those that argue that the term refers to nothing.

1. A History of the Concept

2.1 monothetic approaches, 2.2 polythetic approaches, 3. reflexivity, reference, and skepticism, other internet resources, related entries.

The concept religion did not originally refer to a social genus or cultural type. It was adapted from the Latin term religio , a term roughly equivalent to “scrupulousness”. Religio also approximates “conscientiousness”, “devotedness”, or “felt obligation”, since religio was an effect of taboos, promises, curses, or transgressions, even when these were unrelated to the gods. In western antiquity, and likely in many or most cultures, there was a recognition that some people worshipped different gods with commitments that were incompatible with each other and that these people constituted social groups that could be rivals. In that context, one sometimes sees the use of nobis religio to mean “our way of worship”. Nevertheless, religio had a range of senses and so Augustine could consider but reject it as the right abstract term for “how one worships God” because the Latin term (like the Latin terms for “cult” and “service”) was used for the observance of duties in both one’s divine and one’s human relationships (Augustine City of God [1968: Book X, Chapter 1, 251–253]). In the Middle Ages, as Christians developed monastic orders in which one took vows to live under a specific rule, they called such an order  religio (and religiones for the plural), though the term continued to be used, as it had been in antiquity, in adjective form to describe those who were devout and in noun form to refer to worship (Biller 1985: 358; Nongbri 2013: ch. 2).

The most significant shift in the history of the concept is when people began to use religion as a genus of which Christian and non-Christian groups were species. One sees a clear example of this use in the writings of Edward Herbert (1583–1648). As the post-Reformation Christian community fractured into literal warring camps, Herbert sought to remind the different protesting groups of what they nevertheless had in common. Herbert identified five “articles” or “elements” that he proposed were found in every religion, which he called the Common Notions, namely: the beliefs that

  • there is a supreme deity, [ 2 ]
  • this deity should be worshipped,
  • the most important part of religious practice is the cultivation of virtue,
  • one should seek repentance for wrong-doing, and
  • one is rewarded or punished in this life and the next.

Ignoring rituals and group membership, this proposal takes an idealized Protestant monotheism as the model of religion as such. Herbert was aware of peoples who worshipped something other than a single supreme deity. He noted that ancient Egyptians, for instance, worshipped multiple gods and people in other cultures worshipped celestial bodies or forces in nature. Herbert might have argued that, lacking a belief in a supreme deity, these practices were not religions at all but belonged instead in some other category such as superstition, heresy, or magic. But Herbert did include them, arguing that they were religions because the multiple gods were actually servants to or even aspects of the one supreme deity, and those who worshiped natural forces worshipped the supreme deity “in His works”.

The concept religion understood as a social genus was increasingly put to use by to European Christians as they sought to categorize the variety of cultures they encountered as their empires moved into the Americas, South Asia, East Asia, Africa, and Oceania. In this context, fed by reports from missionaries and colonial administrators, the extension of the generic concept was expanded. The most influential example is that of anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor (1832–1917) who had a scholarly interest in pre-Columbian Mexico. Like Herbert, Tylor sought to identify the common denominator of all religions, what Tylor called a “minimal definition” of religion, and he proposed that the key characteristic was “belief in spiritual beings” (1871 [1970: 8]). This generic definition included the forms of life predicated on belief in a supreme deity that Herbert had classified as religion. But it could also now include—without Herbert’s procrustean assumption that these practices were really directed to one supreme being—the practices used by Hindus, ancient Athenians, and the Navajo to connect to the gods they revere, the practices used by Mahayana Buddhists to connect to Bodhisattvas, and the practices used by Malagasy people to connect to the cult of the dead. The use of a unifying concept for such diverse practices is deliberate on Tylor’s part as he sought to undermine assumptions that human cultures poorly understood in Christian Europe—especially those despised ones, “painted black on the missionary maps” (1871 [1970: 4])—were not on the very same spectrum as the religion of his readers. This opposition to dividing European and non-European cultures into separate categories underlies Tylor’s insistence that all human beings are equivalent in terms of their intelligence. He argued that so-called “primitive” peoples generate their religious ideas when they wrestle with the same questions that all people do, such as the biological question of what explains life, and they do so with the same cognitive capacities. They may lack microscopes or telescopes, but Tylor claims that they seek to answer these questions in ways that are “rational”, “consistent”, and “logical”. Tylor repeatedly calls the Americans, Africans, and Asians he studies “thinking men” and “philosophers”. Tylor was conscious that the definition he proposed was part of a shift: though it was still common to describe some people as so primitive that they had no religion, Tylor complains that those who speak this way are guilty of “the use of wide words in narrow senses” because they are only willing to describe as religion practices that resemble their own expectations (1871 [1970: 3–4]).

In the twentieth century, one sees a third and last growth spurt in the extension of the concept. Here the concept religion is enlarged to include not only practices that connect people to one or more spirits, but also practices that connect people to “powers” or “forces” that lack minds, wills, and personalities. One sees this shift in the work of William James, for example, when he writes,

Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto. (1902 [1985: 51]; cf. Proudfoot 2000)

By an “unseen order”, James presumably means a structure that is non-empirical, though he is not clear about why the term would not also include political, economic, or other invisible but human-created orders. The same problem plagues James’s description of “a MORE” operating in the universe that is similar to but outside oneself (1902 [1985: 400], capitalization in the original). The anthropologist Clifford Geertz addresses this issue, also defining religion in terms of an “order” but specifying that he means practices tied to conceptions of “a general order of existence”, that is, as he also says, something whose existence is “fundamental”, “all-pervading”, or “unconditioned” (1973: 98, emphasis added). The practices that are distinctly religious for Geertz are those tied to a culture’s metaphysics or worldview, their conception of “the overall shape of reality” (1973: 104). Like James, then, Geertz would include as religions not only the forms of life based on the theistic and polytheistic (or, more broadly, animist or spiritualist) beliefs that Herbert and Tylor recognized, but also those based on belief in the involuntary, spontaneous, or “natural” operations of the law of karma, the Dao in Daoism, the Principle in Neo-Confucianism, and the Logos in Stoicism. This expansion also includes Theravada Buddhism because dependent co-origination ( pratītyasamutpāda ) is a conception of the general order of existence and it includes Zen Buddhism because Buddha-nature is said to pervade everything. This third expansion is why non-theistic forms of Buddhism, excluded by the Herbert’s and Tylor’s definitions but today widely considered religions, can serve as “a litmus test” for definitions of the concept (Turner 2011: xxiii; cf. Southwold 1978). In sum, then, one can think of the growth of the social genus version of the concept religion as analogous to three concentric circles—from a theistic to a polytheistic and then to a cosmic (or “cosmographic” [Dubuisson 1998]) criterion. Given the near-automatic way that Buddhism is taken as a religion today, the cosmic version now seems to be the dominant one.

Some scholars resist this third expansion of the concept and retain a Tylorean definition, and it is true that there is a marked difference between practices that do and practices that do not involve interacting with person-like beings. In the former, anthropomorphic cases, practitioners can ask for help, make offerings, and pray with an understanding that they are heard. In the latter, non-anthropomorphic cases, practitioners instead typically engage in actions that put themselves “in accord with” the order of things. The anthropologist Robert Marett marks this difference between the last two extensions of the concept religion by distinguishing between “animism” and “animatism” (1909), the philosopher John Hick by distinguishing between religious “personae” and religious “impersonae” (1989: ch. 14–15). This difference raises a philosophical question: on what grounds can one place the practices based on these two kinds of realities in the same category? The many loa spirits, the creator Allah, and the all-pervading Dao are not available to the methods of the natural sciences, and so they are often called “supernatural”. If that term works, then religions in all three concentric circles can be understood as sets of practices predicated on belief in the supernatural. However, “supernatural” suggests a two-level view of reality that separates the empirically available natural world from some other realm metaphorically “above” or “behind” it. Many cultures lack or reject a distinction between natural and supernatural (Saler 1977, 2021). They believe that disembodied persons or powers are not in some otherworldly realm but rather on the top of a certain mountain, in the depths of the forest, or “everywhere”. To avoid the assumption of a two-level view of reality, then, some scholars have replaced supernatural with other terms, such as “superhuman”. Hick uses the term “transcendent”:

the putative reality which transcends everything other than itself but is not transcended by anything other than itself. (1993: 164)

In order to include loa , Allah, and the Dao but to exclude nations and economies, Kevin Schilbrack (2013) proposes the neologism “superempirical” to refer to non-empirical things that are also not the product of any empirical thing. Wouter Hanegraaff (1995), following J. G. Platvoet (1982: 30) uses “meta-empirical”. Whether a common element can be identified that will coherently ground a substantive definition of “religion” is not a settled question.

Despite this murkiness, all three of these versions are “substantive” definitions of religion because they determine membership in the category in terms of the presence of a belief in a distinctive kind of reality. In the twentieth century, however, one sees the emergence of an importantly different approach: a definition that drops the substantive element and instead defines the concept religion in terms of a distinctive role that a form of life can play in one’s life—that is, a “functional” definition. One sees a functional approach in Emile Durkheim (1912), who defines religion as whatever system of practices unite a number of people into a single moral community (whether or not those practices involve belief in any unusual realities). Durkheim’s definition turns on the social function of creating solidarity. One also sees a functional approach in Paul Tillich (1957), who defines religion as whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values (whether or not that concern involve belief in any unusual realities). Tillich’s definition turns on the axiological function of providing orientation for a person’s life.

Substantive and functional approaches can produce non-overlapping extensions for the concept. Famously, a functional approach can hold that even atheistic forms of capitalism, nationalism, and Marxism function as religions. The literature on these secular institutions as functionally religions is massive. As Trevor Ling says,

the bulk of literature supporting the view that Marxism is a religion is so great that it cannot easily be set aside. (1980: 152)

On capitalism as a religion, see, e.g., McCarraher (2019); on nationalism, see, e.g., Omer and Springs (2013: ch. 2). One functionalist might count white supremacy as a religion (Weed 2019; Finley et al. 2020) and another might count anti-racism as a religion (McWhorter 2021). Here, celebrities can reach a religious status and fandom can be one’s religious identity (e.g., Lofton 2011; Lovric 2020). Without a supernatural, transcendent, or superempirical element, these phenomena would not count as religious for Herbert, Tylor, James, or Geertz. Conversely, interactions with supernatural beings may be categorized on a functional approach as something other than religion. For example, the Thai villager who wears an apotropaic amulet and avoids the forest because of a belief that malevolent spirits live there, or the ancient Roman citizen who takes a bird to be sacrificed in a temple before she goes on a journey are for Durkheim examples of magic rather than religion, and for Tillich quotidian rather than ultimate concerns.

It is sometimes assumed that to define religion as a social genus is to treat it as something universal, as something that appears in every human culture. It is true that some scholars have treated religion as pan-human. For example, when a scholar defines religion functionally as the beliefs and practices that generate social cohesion or as the ones that provide orientation in life, then religion names an inevitable feature of the human condition. The universality of religion that one then finds is not a discovery but a product of one’s definition. However, a social genus can be both present in more than one culture without being present in all of them, and so one can define religion , either substantively or functionally, in ways that are not universal. As common as beliefs in disembodied spirits or cosmological orders have been in human history, for instance, there were people in the past and there are people in the present who have no views of an afterlife, supernatural beings, or explicit metaphysics.

2. Two Kinds of Analysis of the Concept

The history of the concept religion above shows how its senses have shifted over time. A concept used for scrupulous devotion was retooled to refer to a particular type of social practice. But the question—what type?—is now convoluted. The cosmic version of the concept is broader than the polytheistic version, which is in turn broader than the theistic version, and the functional definitions shift the sense of the term into a completely different register. What is counted as religion by one definition is often not counted by others. How might this disarray be understood? Does the concept have a structure? This section distinguishes between two kinds of answer to these questions. Most of the attempts to analyze the term have been “monothetic” in that they operate with the classical view that every instance that is accurately described by a concept will share a defining property that puts them in that category. The last several decades, however, have seen the emergence of “polythetic” approaches that abandon the classical view and treat religion , instead, as having a prototype structure. For incisive explanations of the classical theory and the prototype theory of concepts, see Laurence and Margolis (1999).

Monothetic approaches use a single property (or a single set of properties) as the criterion that determines whether a concept applies. The key to a monothetic approach is that it proposes necessary and sufficient conditions for membership in the given class. That is, a monothetic approach claims that there is some characteristic, or set of them, found in every religion and that if a form of life has it, then that form of life is a religion. Most definitions of the concept religion have been of this type. For example, as we saw above, Edward Tylor proposes belief in spiritual beings as his minimal definition of religion, and this is a substantive criterion that distinguishes religion from non-religion in terms of belief in this particular kind of entity. Similarly, Paul Tillich proposes ultimate concern as a functional criterion that distinguishes religion from non-religion in terms of what serves this particular role in one’s life. These are single criterion monothetic definitions.

There are also monothetic definitions that define religion in terms of a single set of criteria. Herbert’s five Common Notions are an early example. More recently, Clifford Geertz (1973: ch. 4) proposes a definition that he breaks down into five elements:

  • a system of symbols
  • about the nature of things,
  • that inculcate dispositions for behavior
  • through ritual and cultural performance, [ 3 ]
  • so that the conceptions held by the group are taken as real.

One can find each of these five elements separately, of course: not all symbols are religious symbols; historians (but not novelists) typically consider their conceptions factual; and so on. For Geertz, however, any religious form of life will have all five. Aware of functional approaches like that of Tillich, Geertz is explicit that symbols and rituals that lack reference to a metaphysical framework—that is, those without the substantive element he requires as his (2)—would be secular and not religious, no matter how intense or important one’s feelings about them are (1973: 98). Reference to a metaphysical entity or power is what marks the other four elements as religious. Without it, Geertz writes, “the empirical differentia of religious activity or religious experience would not exist” (1973: 98). As a third example, Bruce Lincoln (2006: ch. 1) enumerates four elements that a religion would have, namely:

  • “a discourse whose concerns transcend the human, temporal, and contingent, and that claims for itself a similarly transcendent status”,
  • practices connected to that discourse,
  • people who construct their identity with reference to that discourse and those practices, and
  • institutional structures to manage those people.

This definition is monothetic since, for Lincoln, religions always have these four features “at a minimum” (2006: 5). [ 4 ] To be sure, people constantly engage in practices that generate social groups that then have to be maintained and managed by rules or authorities. However, when the practices, communities, and institutions lack the distinctive kind of discourse that claims transcendent status for itself, they would not count for Lincoln as religions.

It is worth noting that when a monothetic definition includes multiple criteria, one does not have to choose between the substantive and functional strategies for defining religion , but can instead include both. If a monothetic definition include both strategies, then, to count as a religion, a form of life would have to refer to a distinctive substantive reality and also play a certain role in the participants’ lives. This double-sided approach avoids the result of purely substantive definitions that might count as religion a feckless set of beliefs (for instance, “something must have created the world”) unconnected from the believers’ desires and behavior, while also avoiding the result of purely functional definitions that might count as religion some universal aspect of human existence (for instance, creating collective effervescence or ranking of one’s values). William James’s definition of religion (“the belief that there is an unseen order, and our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto”) is double-sided in this way, combining a belief in the existence of a distinctive referent with the spiritual disciplines with which one seeks to embody that belief. Geertz’s definition of religion also required both substantive and functional aspects, which he labelled “worldview” and “ethos” (1973: ch. 5). To treat religion as “both/and” in this way is to refuse to abstract one aspect of a complex social reality but instead recognizes, as Geertz puts it, both “the dispositional and conceptual aspects of religious life” (1973: 113). [ 5 ]

These “monothetic-set definitions” treat the concept of religion as referring to a multifaceted or multidimensional complex. It may seem avant garde today to see religion described as a “constellation”, “assemblage”, “network”, or “system”, but in fact to treat religion as a complex is not new. Christian theologians traditionally analyzed the anatomy of their way of life as simultaneously fides , fiducia , and fidelitas . Each of these terms might be translated into English as “faith”, but each actually corresponds to a different dimension of a social practice. Fides refers to a cognitive state, one in which a person assents to a certain proposition and takes it as true. It could be translated as “belief” or “intellectual commitment”. Beliefs or intellectual commitments distinctive to participation in the group will be present whether or not a religious form of life has developed any authoritative doctrines. In contrast, fiducia refers to an affective state in which a person is moved by a feeling or experience that is so positive that it bonds the recipient to its source. It could be translated as “trust” or “emotional commitment”. Trust or emotional commitment will be present whether or not a religious form of life teaches that participation in their practices aims at some particular experience of liberation, enlightenment, or salvation. And fidelitas refers to a conative state in which a person commits themselves to a path of action, a path that typically involves emulating certain role models and inculcating the dispositions that the group considers virtuous. It could be translated as “loyalty” or “submission”. Loyalty or submission will be present whether or not a religious form of life is theistic or teaches moral rules. By the time of Martin Luther, Christian catechisms organized these aspects of religious life in terms of the “three C’s”: the creed one believed, the cult or worship one offered, and the code one followed. When Tillich (1957: ch. 2) argues that religious faith is distorted when one treats it not as a complex but instead as a function of the intellect alone, emotion alone, or the will alone, he is speaking from within this tradition. These three dimensions of religious practices—symbolically, the head, the heart, and the hand—are not necessarily Christian. In fact, until one adds a delimiting criterion like those discussed above, these dimensions are not even distinctively religious. Creed, cult, and code correspond to any pursuit of what a people considers true, beautiful, and good, respectively, and they will be found in any collective movement or cultural tradition. As Melford Spiro says, any human institution will involve a belief system, a value system, and an action system (Spiro 1966: 98).

Many have complained that arguments about how religion should be defined seem unresolvable. To a great extent, however, this is because these arguments have not simply been about a particular aspect of society but rather have served as proxy in a debate about the structure of human subjectivity. There is deep agreement among the rival positions insofar as they presuppose the cognitive-affective-conative model of being human. However, what we might call a “Cartesian” cohort argues that cognition is the root of religious emotions and actions. This cohort includes the “intellectualists” whose influence stretches from Edward Tylor and James Frazer to E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Robin Horton, Jack Goody, Melford Spiro, Stewart Guthrie, and J. Z. Smith, and it shapes much of the emerging field of cognitive science of religion (e.g., Boyer 2001). [ 6 ] A “Humean” cohort disagrees, arguing that affect is what drives human behavior and that cognition serves merely to justify the values one has already adopted. In theology and religious studies, this feelings-centered approach is identified above all with the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Rudolf Otto, and with the tradition called phenomenology of religion, but it has had a place in anthropology of religion since Robert Marett (Tylor’s student), and it is alive and well in the work of moral intuitionists (e.g., Haidt 2012) and affect theory (e.g., Schaefer 2015). A “Kantian” cohort treats beliefs and emotions regarding supernatural realities as relatively unimportant and argues instead that for religion the will is basic. [ 7 ] This approach treats a religion as at root a set of required actions (e.g., Vásquez 2011; C. Smith 2017). These different approaches disagree about the essence of religion, but all three camps operate within a shared account of the human. Thus, when William James describes religion as

the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual [people] in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine. (1902 [1985: 34])

he is foregrounding an affective view and playing down (though not denying) the cognitive. When James’s Harvard colleague Alfred North Whitehead corrects him, saying that “[r]eligion is what a person does with their solitariness” (1926: 3, emphasis added), Whitehead stresses the conative, though Whitehead also insists that feelings always play a role. These are primarily disagreements of emphasis that do not trouble this model of human subjectivity. There have been some attempts to leave this three-part framework. For example, some in the Humean camp have suggested that religion is essentially a particular feeling with zero cognition. But that romantic suggestion collapses under the inability to articulate how an affective state can be noncognitive but still identifiable as a particular feeling (Proudfoot 1985).

Although the three-sided model of the true, the beautiful, and the good is a classic account of what any social group explicitly and implicitly teaches, one aspect is still missing. To recognize the always-presupposed material reality of the people who constitute the social group, even when this reality has not been conceptualized by the group’s members, one should also include the contributions of their bodies, habits, physical culture, and social structures. To include this dimension mnemonically, one can add a “fourth C”, for community. Catherine Albanese (1981) may have been the first to propose the idea of adding this materialist dimension. Ninian Smart’s famous anatomy of religion (1996) has seven dimensions, not four, but the two models are actually very similar. Smart calls the affective dimension the “experiential and emotional”, and then divides the cognitive dimension into two (“doctrinal and philosophical” and “narrative and mythological”), the conative into two (“ethical and legal” and “ritual”), and the communal into two (“social and institutional” and “material”). In an attempt to dislodge the focus on human subjectivity found in the three Cs, some have argued that the material dimension is the source of the others. They argue, in other words, that the cognitive, affective, and conative aspects of the members of a social group are not the causes but rather the effects of the group’s structured practices (e.g., Asad 1993: ch. 1–4; Lopez 1998). Some argue that to understand religion in terms of beliefs, or even in terms of any subjective states, reflects a Protestant bias and that scholars of religion should therefore shift attention from hidden mental states to the visible institutional structures that produce them. Although the structure/agency debate is still live in the social sciences, it is unlikely that one can give a coherent account of religion in terms of institutions or disciplinary practices without reintroducing mental states such as judgements, decisions, and dispositions (Schilbrack 2021).

Whether a monothetic approach focuses on one essential property or a set, and whether that essence is the substance or the function of the religion, those using this approach ask a Yes/No question regarding a single criterion. This approach therefore typically produces relatively clear lines between what is and is not religion. Given Tylor’s monothetic definition, for instance, a form of life must include belief in spiritual beings to be a religion; a form of life lacking this property would not be a religion, even if it included belief in a general order of existence that participants took as their ultimate concern, and even if that form of life included rituals, ethics, and scriptures. In a famous discussion, Melford Spiro (1966) works with a Tylorean definition and argues exactly this: lacking a belief in superhuman beings, Theravada Buddhism, for instance, is something other than a religion. [ 8 ] For Spiro, there is nothing pejorative about this classification.

Having combatted the notion that “we” have religion (which is “good”) and “they” have superstition (which is “bad”), why should we be dismayed if it be discovered that that society x does not have religion as we have defined the term? (1966: 88)

That a concept always corresponds to something possessing a defining property is a very old idea. This assumption undergirds Plato’s Euthyphro and other dialogues in which Socrates pushes his interlocutors to make that hidden, defining property explicit, and this pursuit has provided a model for much not only of philosophy, but of the theorizing in all fields. The traditional assumption is that every entity has some essence that makes it the thing it is, and every instance that is accurately described by a concept of that entity will have that essence. The recent argument that there is an alternative structure—that a concept need not have necessary and sufficient criteria for its application—has been called a “conceptual revolution” (Needham 1975: 351), “one of the greatest and most valuable discoveries that has been made of late years in the republic of letters” (Bambrough 1960–1: 207).

In discussions of the concept religion , this anti-essentialist approach is usually traced to Ludwig Wittgenstein (1953, posthumous). Wittgenstein argues that, in some cases, when one considers the variety of instances described with a given concept, one sees that among them there are multiple features that “crop up and disappear”, the result being “a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing” (Wittgenstein 1953, §68). The instances falling under some concepts lack a single defining property but instead have a family resemblance to each other in that each one resembles some of the others in different ways. All polythetic approaches reject the monothetic idea that a concept requires necessary and sufficient criteria. But unappreciated is the fact that polythetic approaches come in different kinds, operating with different logics. Here are three.

The most basic kind of polythetic approach holds that membership in a given class is not determined by the presence of a single crucial characteristic. Instead, the concept maps a cluster of characteristics and, to count as a member of that class, a particular case has to have a certain number of them, no particular one of which is required. To illustrate, imagine that there are five characteristics typical of religions (call this the “properties set”) and that, to be a religion, a form of life has to have a minimum of three of them (call this the “threshold number”). Because this illustration limits the number of characteristics in the properties set, I will call this first kind a “bounded” polythetic approach. For example, the five religion-making characteristics could be these:

  • belief in superempirical beings or powers,
  • ethical norms,
  • worship rituals,
  • participation believed to bestow benefits on participants, and
  • those who participate in this form of life see themselves as a distinct community.

Understanding the concept religion in this polythetic way produces a graded hierarchy of instances. [ 9 ] A form of life that has all five of these characteristics would be a prototypical example of a religion. Historically speaking, prototypical examples of the concept are likely to be instances to which the concept was first applied. Psychologically speaking, they are also likely to be the example that comes to mind first to those who use the concept. For instance, robins and finches are prototypical examples of a bird, and when one is prompted to name a bird, people are more likely to name a robin or a finch than an ostrich or a penguin. A form of life that has only four of these characteristics would nevertheless still be a clear example of a religion. [ 10 ] If a form of life has only three, then it would be a borderline example. A form of life that has only two of these characteristics would not be included in the category, though such cases might be considered “quasi-religions” and they might be the most interesting social forms to compare to religions (J. E. Smith 1994). A form of life that only had one of the five characteristics would be unremarkable. The forms of life that had three, four, or five of these characteristics would not be an unrelated set but rather a “family” with multiple shared features, but no one characteristic (not even belief in superempirical beings or powers) possessed by all of them. On this polythetic approach, the concept religion has no essence, and a member of this family that only lacked one of the five characteristics— no matter which one —would still clearly be a religion. [ 11 ] As Benson Saler (1993) points out, one can use this non-essentialist approach not only for the concept religion but also for the elements within a religion (sacrifice, scripture, and so on) and to individual religions (Christianity, Hinduism, and so on).

Some have claimed that, lacking an essence, polythetic approaches to religion make the concept so vague that it becomes useless (e.g., Fitzgerald 2000: 72–3; Martin 2009: 167). Given the focused example of a “bounded” approach in the previous paragraph and the widespread adoption of polythetic approaches in the biological sciences, this seems clearly false. However, it is true that one must pay attention to the parameters at work in a polythetic approach. Using a properties set with only five elements produces a very focused class, but the properties set is simply a list of similarities among at least two of the members of a class, and since the class of religions might have hundreds of members, one could easily create a properties set that is much bigger. Not long after Wittgenstein’s death, a “bounded” polythetic approach was applied to the concept religion by William Alston who identified nine religion-making characteristics. [ 12 ] Southwold (1978) has twelve; Rem Edwards (1972) has fourteen and leaves room for more. But there is no reason why one might not work with a properties set for religion with dozens or even hundreds of shared properties. Half a century ago, Rodney Needham (1975: 361) mentions a computer program that sorted 1500 different bacterial strains according to 200 different properties. As J. Z. Smith (1982: ch. 1) argues, treating the concept religion in this way can lead to surprising discoveries of patterns within the class and the co-appearance of properties that can lead to explanatory theories. The second key parameter for a polythetic approach is the threshold number. Alston does not stipulate the number of characteristics a member of the class has to have, saying simply, “When enough of these characteristics are present to a sufficient degree, we have a religion” (1967: 142). Needham (1975) discusses the sensible idea that each member has a majority of the properties, but this is not a requirement of polythetic approaches. The critics are right that as one increases the size of the properties set and decreases the threshold number, the resulting category becomes more and more diffuse. This can produce a class that is so sprawling that it is difficult to use for empirical study.

Scholars of religion who have used a polythetic approach have typically worked with a “bounded” approach (that is, with a properties set that is fixed), but this is not actually the view for which Wittgenstein himself argues. Wittgenstein’s goal is to draw attention to the fact that the actual use of concepts is typically not bound: “the extension of the concept is not closed by a frontier” (Wittgenstein 1953, §67). We can call this an “open” polythetic approach. To grasp the open approach, consider a group of people who have a concept they apply to a certain range of instances. In time, a member of the group encounters something new that resembles the other instances enough in her eyes that she applies the concept to it. When the linguistic community adopts this novel application, the extension of the concept grows. If their use of the concept is “open”, however, then, as the group adds a new member to the category named by a concept, properties of that new member that had not been part of the earlier uses can be added to the properties set and thereby increase the range of legitimate applications of the concept in the future. We might say that a bounded polythetic approach produces concepts that are fuzzy, and an open polythetic approach produces concepts that are fuzzy and evolving . Timothy Williamson calls this “the dynamic quality of family resemblance concepts” (1994: 86). One could symbolize the shift of properties over time this way:

Wittgenstein famously illustrated this open polythetic approach with the concept game , and he also applied it to the concepts of language and number (Wittgenstein 1953, §67). If we substitute our concept as Wittgenstein’s example, however, his treatment fits religion just as well:

Why do we call something a “religion”? Well, perhaps because it has a direct relationship with several things that have hitherto been called religion; and this can be said to give an indirect relationship to other things we call the same name. (Wittgenstein 1953, §67)

Given an open polythetic approach, a concept evolves in the light of the precedents that speakers recognize, although, over time, what people come to label with the concept can become very different from the original use.

In the academic study of religions, discussions of monothetic and polythetic approaches have primarily been in service of developing a definition of the term. [ 13 ] How can alternate definitions of religion be assessed? If one were to offer a lexical definition (that is, a description of what the term means in common usage, as with a dictionary definition), then the definition one offers could be shown to be wrong. In common usage, for example, Buddhism typically is considered a religion and capitalism typically is not. On this point, some believe erroneously that one can correct a definition by pointing to some fact about the referents of the term. One sees this assumption, for example, in those who argue that the western discovery of Buddhism shows that theistic definitions of religion are wrong (e.g., Southwold 1978: 367). One can correct a real or lexical definition in this way, but not a stipulative definition, that is, a description of the meaning that one assigns to the term. When one offers a stipulative definition, that definition cannot be wrong. Stipulative definitions are assessed not by whether they are true or false but rather by their usefulness, and that assessment will be purpose-relative (cf. Berger 1967: 175). De Muckadell (2014) rejects stipulative definitions of religion for this reason, arguing that one cannot critique them and that they force scholars simply to “accept whatever definition is offered”. She gives the example of a problematic stipulative definition of religion as “ice-skating while singing” which, she argues, can only be rejected by using a real definition of religion that shows the ice-skating definition to be false. However, even without knowing the real essence of religion, one can critique a stipulative definition, either for being less adequate or appropriate for a particular purpose (such as studying forms of life across cultures) or, as with the ice-skating example, for being so far from a lexical definition that it is adequate or appropriate for almost no purpose.

Polythetic definitions are increasingly popular today as people seek to avoid the claim that an evolving social category has an ahistorical essence. [ 14 ] However, the difference between these two approaches is not that monothetic definitions fasten on a single property whereas polythetic definitions recognize more. Monothetic definitions can be multifactorial, as we have seen, and they can recognize just as many properties that are “common” or even “typical” of religions, without being essential. The difference is also not that the monothetic identification of the essence of religion reflects an ethnocentrism that polythetic approaches avoid. The polythetic identification of a prototypical religion is equally ethnocentric. The difference between them, rather, is that a monothetic definition sorts instances with a Yes/No mechanism and is therefore digital, and a polythetic definition produces gradations and is therefore analog. It follows that a monothetic definition treats a set of instances that all possess the one defining property as equally religion, whereas a polythetic definition produces a gray area for instances that are more prototypical or less so. This makes a monothetic definition superior for cases (for example, legal cases) in which one seeks a Yes/No answer. Even if an open polythetic approach accurately describes how a concept operates, therefore, one might, for purposes of focus or clarity, prefer to work with a closed polythetic account that limits the properties set, or even with a monothetic approach that limits the properties set to one. That is, one might judge that it is valuable to treat the concept religion as structurally fuzzy or temporally fluid, but nevertheless place boundaries on the forms of life one will compare.

This strategy gives rise to a third kind of polythetic approach, one that stipulates that one property (or one set of properties) is required. Call this an “anchored” polythetic definition. Consistently treating concepts as tools, Wittgenstein suggests this “anchored” idea when he writes that when we look at the history of a concept,

what we see is something constantly fluctuating … [but we might nevertheless] set over against this fluctuation something more fixed, just as one paints a stationary picture of the constantly altering face of the landscape. (1974: 77)

Given a stipulated “anchor”, a concept will then possess a necessary property, and this property reintroduces essentialism. Such a definition nevertheless still reflects a polythetic approach because the presence of the required property is not sufficient to make something a religion. To illustrate this strategy, one might stipulate that the only forms of life one will consider a religion will include

(thereby excluding nationalism and capitalism, for example), but the presence of this property does not suffice to count this form of life as a religion. Consider the properties set introduced above that also includes

If the threshold number is still three, then to be a religion, a form of life would have to have three of these properties, one of which must be (A) . An anchored definition of religion like this would have the benefits of the other polythetic definitions. For example, it would not produce a clear line between religion and nonreligion but would instead articulate gradations between different forms of life (or between versions of one form of life at different times) that are less or more prototypically religious. However, given its anchor, it would produce a more focused range of cases. [ 15 ] In this way, the use of an anchor might both reflect the contemporary cosmological view of the concept religion and also address the criticism that polythetic approaches make a concept too vague.

Over the past forty years or so, there has been a reflexive turn in the social sciences and humanities as scholars have pulled the camera back, so to speak, to examine the constructed nature of the objects previously taken for granted as unproblematically “there”. Reflexive scholars have argued that the fact that what counts as religion shifts according to one’s definition reflects an arbitrariness in the use of the term. They argue that the fact that religion is not a concept found in all cultures but rather a tool invented at a certain time and place, by certain people for their own purposes, and then imposed on others, reveals its political character. The perception that religion is a politically motivated conceptual invention has therefore led some to skepticism about whether the concept picks out something real in the world. As with instrumentalism in philosophy of science, then, reflection on religion has raised doubts about the ontological status of the referent of one’s technical term.

A watershed text for the reflexive turn regarding the concept religion is Jonathan Z. Smith’s Imagining Religion (1982). Smith engages simultaneously in comparing religions and in analyzing the scholarly practice of comparison. A central theme of his essays is that the concept religion (and subcategories such as world religions , Abrahamic faiths , or nonliterate traditions ) are not scientific terms but often reflect the unrecognized biases of those who use these concepts to sort their world into those who are or are not “like us”. [ 16 ] Smith shows that, again and again, the concept religion was shaped by implicit Protestant assumptions, if not explicit Protestant apologetics. In the short preface to that book, Smith famously says,

[ T ] here is no data for religion . Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no independent existence apart from the academy. (1982: xi, italics in original)

This dramatic statement has sometimes been taken as Smith’s assertion that the concept religion has no referent. However, in his actual practice of comparing societies, Smith is not a nonrealist about religion . In the first place, he did not think that the constructed nature of religion was something particular to this concept: any judgement that two things were similar or different in some respect presupposed a process of selection, juxtaposition, and categorization by the observer. This is the process of imagination in his book’s title. Second, Smith did not think that the fact that concepts were human products undermined the possibility that they successfully corresponded to entities in the world: an invented concept for social structures can help one discover religion—not “invent” it—even in societies whose members did not know the concept. [ 17 ] His slogan is that one’s (conceptual) map is not the same as and should be tested and rectified by the (non-conceptual) territory (J. Z. Smith 1978). Lastly, Smith did not think that scholars should cease to use religion as a redescriptive or second-order category to study people in history who lacked a comparable concept. On the contrary, he chastised scholars of religion for resting within tradition-specific studies, avoiding cross-cultural comparisons, and not defending the coherence of the generic concept. He writes that scholars of religion should be

prepared to insist, in some explicit and coherent fashion, on the priority of some generic category of religion. (1995: 412; cf. 1998: 281–2)

Smith himself repeatedly uses religion and related technical terms he invented, such as “locative religion”, to illuminate social structures that operate whether or not those so described had named those structures themselves—social structures that exist, as his 1982 subtitle says, from Babylon to Jonestown.

The second most influential book in the reflexive turn in religious studies is Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion (1993). Adopting Michel Foucault’s “genealogical” approach, Asad seeks to show that the concept religion operating in contemporary anthropology has been shaped by assumptions that are Christian (insofar as one takes belief as a mental state characteristic of all religions) and modern (insofar as one treats religion as essentially distinct from politics). Asad’s Foucauldian point is that though people may have all kinds of religious beliefs, experiences, moods, or motivations, the mechanism that inculcates them will be the disciplining techniques of some authorizing power and for this reason one cannot treat religion as simply inner states. Like Smith, then, Asad asks scholars to shift their attention to the concept religion and to recognize that assumptions baked into the concept have distorted our grasp of the historical realities. However, also like Smith, Asad does not draw a nonrealist conclusion. [ 18 ] For Asad, religion names a real thing that would operate in the world even had the concept not been invented, namely, “a coherent existential complex” (2001: 217). Asad’s critical aim is not to undermine the idea that religion exists qua social reality but rather to undermine the idea that religion is essentially an interior state independent of social power. He points out that anthropologists like Clifford Geertz adopt a hermeneutic approach to culture that treats actions as if they are texts that say something, and this approach has reinforced the attention given to the meaning of religious symbols, deracinated from their social and historical context. Asad seeks to balance this bias for the subjective with a disciplinary approach that sees human subjectivity as also the product of social structures. Smith and Asad are therefore examples of scholars who critique the concept religion without denying that it can still refer to something in the world, something that exists even before it is named. They are able, so to speak, to look at one’s conceptual window without denying that the window provides a perspective on things outside.

Other critics have gone farther. They build upon the claims that the concept religion is an invented category and that its modern semantic expansion went hand in hand with European colonialism, and they argue that people should cease treating religion as if it corresponds to something that exists outside the sphere of modern European influence. It is common today to hear the slogan that there is no such “thing” as religion. In some cases, the point of rejecting thing-hood is to deny that religion names a category, all the instances of which focus on belief in the same kind of object—that is, the slogan is a rejection of substantive definitions of the concept (e.g., Possamai 2018: ch. 5). In this case, the objection bolsters a functional definition and does not deny that religion corresponds to a functionally distinct kind of form of life. Here, the “no such thing” claim reflects the unsettled question, mentioned above, about the grounds of substantive definitions of “religion”. In other cases, the point of this objection is to deny that religion names a defining characteristic of any kind—that is, the slogan is a rejection of all monothetic definitions of the concept. Perhaps religion (or a religion, like Judaism) should always be referred to in the plural (“Judaisms”) rather than the singular. In this case, the objection bolsters a polythetic definition and does not deny that religion corresponds to a distinct family of forms of life. Here, the “no such thing” claim rejects the assumption that religion has an essence. Despite their negativity, these two objections to the concept are still realist in that they do not deny that the phrase “a religion” can correspond to a form of life operating in the world.

More radically, one sees a denial of this realism, for example, in the critique offered by Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1962). Smith’s thesis is that in many different cultures, people developed a concept for the individuals they considered pious, but they did not develop a concept for a generic social entity, a system of beliefs and practices related to superempirical realities. Before modernity, “there is no such entity [as religion and] … the use of a plural, or with an article, is false” (1962: 326, 194; cf. 144). Smith recommends dropping religion . Not only did those so described lack the concept, but the use of the concept also treats people’s behavior as if the phrase “a religion” names something in addition to that behavior. A methodological individualist, Smith denies that groups have any reality not explained by the individuals who constitute them. What one finds in history, then, is religious people, and so the adjective is useful, but there are no religious entities above and beyond those people, and so the noun reifies an abstraction. Smith contends that

[n]either religion in general nor any one of the religions … is in itself an intelligible entity, a valid object of inquiry or of concern either for the scholar or for the [person] of faith. (1962: 12)

More radical still are the nonrealists who argue that the concepts religion, religions, and religious are all chimerical. Often drawing on post-structuralist arguments, these critics propose that the notion that religions exist is simply an illusion generated by the discourse about them (e.g., McCutcheon 1997; 2018; Fitzgerald 2000; 2007; 2017; Dubuisson 1998; 2019). As Timothy Fitzgerald writes, the concept religion

picks out nothing and it clarifies nothing … the word has no genuine analytical work to do and its continued use merely contributes to the general illusion that it has a genuine referent …. (2000: 17, 14; also 4)

Advocates of this position sometimes call their approach the “Critical Study of Religion” or simply “Critical Religion”, a name that signals their shift away from the pre-critical assumption that religion names entities in the world and to a focus on who invented the concept, the shifting contrast terms it has had, and the uses to which it has been put. [ 19 ] Like the concept of witches or the concept of biological races (e.g., Nye 2020), religion is a fiction (Fitzgerald 2015) or a fabrication (McCutcheon 2018), a concept invented and deployed not to respond to some reality in the world but rather to sort and control people. The classification of something as “religion” is not neutral but

a political activity, and one particularly related to the colonial and imperial situation of a foreign power rendering newly encountered societies digestible and manipulable in terms congenial to its own culture and agenda. (McCutcheon & Arnal 2012: 107)

As part of European colonial projects, the concept has been imposed on people who lacked it and did not consider anything in their society “their religion”. In fact, the concept was for centuries the central tool used to rank societies on a scale from primitive to civilized. To avoid this “conceptual violence” or “epistemic imperialism” (Dubuisson 2019: 137), scholars need to cease naturalizing this term invented in modern Europe and instead historicize it, uncovering the conditions that gave rise to the concept and the interests it serves. The study of religions outside Europe should end. As Timothy Fitzgerald writes, “The category ‘religion’ should be the object, not the tool, of analysis” (2000: 106; also 2017: 125; cf. McCutcheon 2018: 18).

Inspired by the post-structuralist critiques that religion does not apply to cultures that lack the concept, some historians have argued that the term should no longer be used to describe any premodern societies, even in Europe. For example, Brent Nongbri (2013), citing McCutcheon, argues that though it is common to speak of religions existing in the past, human history until the concept emerged in modernity is more accurately understood as a time “before religion”. His aim is “to dispel the commonly held idea that there is such a thing as ‘ancient religion’” (2013: 8). Citing Nongbri, Carlin Barton and Daniel Boyarin (2016) argue that the Latin religio and the Greek thrēskeia do not correspond to the modern understanding of religion and those studying antiquity should cease translating them with that concept. There was no “Roman religious reality”, they say (2016: 19). These historians suggest that if a culture does not have the concept of X , then the reality of X does not exist for that culture. Boyarin calls this position “nominalism”, arguing that religion is

not in any possible way a “real” object, an object that is historical or ontological, before the term comes to be used. (2017: 25)

These critics are right to draw attention to the fact that in the mind of most contemporary people, the concept religion does imply features that did not exist in ancient societies, but the argument that religion did not exist in antiquity involves a sleight of hand. None of these historians argues that people in antiquity did not believe in gods or other spiritual beings, did not seek to interact with them with sacrifices and other rituals, did not create temples or scriptures, and so on. If one uses Tylor’s definition of religion as belief in spiritual beings or James’s definition of religion as adjusting one’s life to an unseen order— or any of the other definitions considered in this entry —then religion did exist in antiquity. What these historians are pointing out is that ancient practices related to the gods permeated their cultures . As Nongbri puts it,

To be sure, ancient people had words to describe proper reverence of the gods, but … [t]he very idea of “being religious” requires a companion notion of what it would mean to be “not religious” and this dichotomy was not part of the ancient world; (2013: 4)

there was no “discrete sphere of religion existing prior to the modern period” (2019: 1, typo corrected). And Barton and Boyarin:

The point is not … that there weren’t practices with respect to “gods” (of whatever sort) but that these practices were not divided off into separate spheres …. (2016: 4)

Steve Mason also argues that religion did not exist in antiquity since religion is “a voluntary sphere of activity, separate in principle” from politics, work, entertainment, and military service (2019: 29). In short, what people later came to conceptualize as religion was in antiquity not a freestanding entity. The nominalist argument, in other words, adds to the definition of the concept religion a distinctively modern feature (usually some version of “the separation of church and state”), and then argues that the referent of this now-circumscribed concept did not exist in antiquity. Their argument is not that religion did not exist outside modernity, but that modern religion did not exist outside modernity.

These post-structuralist and nominalist arguments that deny that religion is “out there” have a realist alternative. According to this alternative, there is a world independent of human conceptualization, and something can be real and it can even affect one’s life, whether or not any human beings have identified it. This is true of things whose existence does not depend on collective agreement, like biochemical signaling cascades or radioactive beta particles, and it is equally true of things whose existence does depend on collective agreement, like kinship structures, linguistic rules, and religious commitments. A realist about social structures holds that a person can be in a bilateral kinship system, can speak a Uralic language, and can be a member of a religion—even if they lack these concepts.

This realist claim that social structures have existed without being conceptualized raises the question: if human beings had different ways of practicing religion since prehistoric times, why and when did people “finally” create the taxon? Almost every scholar involved in the reflexive turn says that religion is a modern invention. [ 20 ] The critique of the concept religion then becomes part of their critique of modernity. Given the potent uses of religion —to categorize certain cultures as godless and therefore inferior or, later, to categorize certain cultures as superstitious and therefore backwards—the significance of the critique of religion for postcolonial and decolonial scholarship is undeniable. Nevertheless, it is not plausible that modern Europeans were the first to want a generic concept for different ways of interacting with gods. It is easy to imagine that if the way that a people worship their gods permeates their work, art, and politics, and they do not know of alternative ways, then it would not be likely that they would have created a concept for it. There is little need for a generic concept that abstracts a particular aspect of one’s culture as one option out of many until one is in a sustained pluralistic situation. The actions that today are categorized as religious practices—burial rites, the making of offerings, the imitation of divinized ancestors—may have existed for tens of thousands of years without the practitioners experiencing that diversity or caring to name it. Nevertheless, it is likely that a desire to compare the rules by which different people live in relation to their gods would have emerged in many parts of the world long before modernity. One would expect to find people developing such social abstractions as cities and then empires emerged and their cultures came into contact with each other. From this realist perspective, it is no surprise that, according to the detailed and example-filled argument of Barton and Boyarin (2016), the first use of religion as a generic social category, distinct from the concept of politics , for the ways that people interact with gods is not a product of the Renaissance, the Reformation, or modern colonialism at all, but can be found in the writings of Josephus (37–c. 100 CE) and Tertullian (c. 155–c. 220 CE). [ 21 ] From the realist perspective, it is no surprise to see the development of analogous terms in medieval China, centuries before interaction with Europeans (Campany 2003, 2012, 2018) and in medieval Islam (Abbasi 2020, 2021). The emergence of social kinds does not wait on language, and the development of language for social kinds is not only a Western project. If this is right, then the development of a concept for religion as a social genus is at least two thousand years old, though the social reality so labeled would be much older.

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How to cite this entry . Preview the PDF version of this entry at the Friends of the SEP Society . Look up topics and thinkers related to this entry at the Internet Philosophy Ontology Project (InPhO). Enhanced bibliography for this entry at PhilPapers , with links to its database.
  • Nye, Malory, 2020, “ Religion is Not a Thing ”, Religion Bites , 31 January 2020.
  • The Critical Religion Association
  • The Religious Studies Project
  • Centre for Critical Realism

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How to Write World Religions Extended Essay? A Guide from an IB Expert

world religions extended essay

Luke MacQuoid

Hello, IB students! If you’re preparing to write your World Religions extended essay, prepare for an engaging experience. As an experienced IB professional, I look forward to helping you throughout this task. Composing an IB World Religions extended essay is not solely an academic challenge but also a chance to research the captivating universe of different faiths and customs that influence our world.

In this guide, I’ll give you helpful advice and tips to help you with the task. Whether you are interested in studying a particular religious tradition or are fascinated by the philosophical issues raised by religions, this guide transforms your curiosity into a well-researched, convincing, and thought-provoking essay.

What Is the World Religions Extended Essay?

The World Religions extended essay, a core component of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma, is a scholarly challenge that invites you to examine a particular aspect of a religion that piques your interest. Think of yourself as an academic detective on a 4,000-word research mission investigating the core of religious beliefs and practices.

Collecting various sources, including ancient scriptures and scholarly articles, you gather information and combine different viewpoints to make an organized and perceptive argument. Your task is critically evaluating these perspectives, drawing reasoned conclusions, and presenting new insights.

This essay is not simply for academic purposes; it’s an opportunity to articulate an expertly crafted argument that showcases your intellectual development and writing abilities . It’s a chance to grapple with complex ideas and contribute meaningfully to understanding world religions. So, are you ready to take on this thought-provoking and fulfilling task?

Choosing a Topic for Your World Religions Extended Essay

Choosing the perfect topic for your World Religions extended essay is essential in your IB path. It’s similar to picking the proper components for a great dish; the better the ingredients, the more impressive the results. You’re gathering data and weaving a tale that blends your observations with the intricacies of religious faiths and practices.

The best topic is something that excites and inspires you. Your passion is vital for your essay because it shines through every sentence. I’ve found that the most captivating topics meet the IB criteria and allow you to share your unique perspective.

IB World Religions Extended Essay Topic Ideas

Think about the areas of World Religions that intrigue you the most. Is it a particular ritual, belief system, or religious phenomenon? Your curiosity is your best guide here. When pondering over potential topics, consider these areas:

  • Cultural Impact . How has a specific religion influenced the culture of a region or community?
  • Historical Significance . Examine significant events in the history of religion and their lasting impact.
  • Rituals and Practices . Investigate the rituals and practices of faith and their meanings.
  • Comparative Studies . Compare and contrast different belief systems.
  • Modern Interpretations . Look at how modern societies interpret and practice ancient religious traditions.
  • Philosophical Dimensions . Research the philosophical aspects of religion and how they address life’s big questions.
  • Influential Figures . Study the life and teachings of a critical figure in a religion.
  • Sacred Texts . Analyze and interpret religious scriptures.
  • Ethical Issues . Discuss ethical dilemmas and teachings in religion.
  • Interfaith Dialogues . Examine interactions and relationships between different religious groups.

IB World Religions Extended Essay

As you sift through these ideas, remember that your curiosity is the map that leads you. Choose a theme that challenges you and allows you to contribute a fresh perspective to World Religions.

In-Depth Research for World Religions Extended Essay

Thoroughly researching your IB World Religions Extended Essay is a big task that needs planning. Start by choosing a topic that excites you and meets IB criteria. Next, do extensive research to make your essay successful by finding trustworthy sources .

When researching, it’s crucial to organize your findings meticulously. Doing so helps maintain clarity and coherence in your essay and ensures a more seamless writing process. As you gather information, it’s essential to continually relate it to your central thesis, ensuring that all evidence supports your argument. Here’s a guide to help you go through this crucial phase.

1. Define Your Research Question

Clearly define the research question or thesis statement for your essay. It will guide your entire research process, ensuring you stay focused and relevant.

2. Gather Diverse Sources

Start by collecting a wide range of sources. Include sacred texts for primary sources, academic journals and books for secondary sources, and interviews or documentaries for tertiary insights.

3. Evaluate Source Credibility

It’s crucial to use credible and reliable sources. Look for academic and peer-reviewed materials, and be cautious of biased or unsubstantiated information. Websites ending in .edu or .org, published by known religious studies scholars, are generally more reliable.

5. Organize Your Research

As you gather information, organize it systematically. You might categorize sources by theme, argument, or type. Keeping detailed notes with citations will be invaluable when writing your essay.

6. Analyze and Synthesize Information

Don’t just collect facts; analyze them. Look for patterns, contrasts, and comparisons. How does the information relate to your research question? Can you draw new conclusions or see the topic from a different perspective?

7. Use Critical Thinking

Challenge assumptions and evaluate arguments critically. Consider different viewpoints and interpretations. This critical approach will add depth to your essay and demonstrate your analytical skills.

Effective Structure for World Religions Extended Essay

A well-structured essay is a pleasure to read. Imagine you’re building a bridge where each part must connect seamlessly to guide the reader across the river of your ideas.

Compelling Introduction

Start with an exciting intro to attract your reader’s attention — it could be a surprising fact or question, or a short story related to your topic. Then, provide the context and background of the religious theme you are discussing. Your thesis statement should be clear and concise, presenting your research question or argument. Think of it as a guide leading the way for your essay.

The Main Part

The central part of your essay is where the real work happens. Each paragraph should start with a clear sentence that supports your thesis. You can use quotes from sacred texts, research, or academic findings as evidence in the paragraph. However, evidence alone is not sufficient; you must add analysis to interpret the evidence and make your argument stronger.

Make your paragraphs flow smoothly by connecting your ideas with transition words and phrases. Don’t avoid discussing opposing views, as addressing and refuting them demonstrate the depth of your research and strengthen your argument.

It’s not merely a summary of your points but a reiteration of your thesis in light of the evidence and analysis presented. Reflect on what you have learned through your research and writing process, providing a personal touch to your conclusion. Conclude with a final thought or a call to action that prompts your reader to consider the significance of your work.

How to Improve Your Writing Skills for World Religions Extended Essay?

Writing is an art, especially in academic contexts. Strive for clarity and coherence. Your arguments should be well-articulated and backed by solid evidence. From my experience, balancing a personal voice with academic rigor can improve your essay. Remember, this is not just an academic task; it reflects your intellectual path.

essay about world religion

Need help with your IB extended essay?

From research and analysis to structuring and editing, our skilled mentors will be by your side, helping you craft an exceptional extended essay that not only meets the wordcount and stringent IB criteria but also reflects your passion for selected IB group .

Mastering Citations in Your World Religions Essay

Citations do more than avoid plagiarism; they create a network of sources that strengthen your argument and show that your work is based on legitimate research. They recognize the scholars and researchers who have formed the basis for your investigation, showing respect for the academic community.

To master citations, you should first learn the citation format most frequently used in religious studies or recommended by your school or the IB DP program . This could be APA, MLA, Chicago, or others. Formatting nuances are specific to each style, so pay attention to the details, including in-text citations and bibliographies. Consistency is critical. While citation generators and referencing software can be helpful, you need to verify accuracy.

Polishing Your World Religions Extended Essay

After you’ve finished researching and writing, it’s time to perfect your essay. This step is all about fine-tuning your work into a masterpiece. Proofreading isn’t just about finding grammar or spelling mistakes; it’s a chance to improve your argument’s clarity, flow, and coherence. Read your essay out loud; sometimes, your ears can catch things your eyes may miss.

It’s also crucial to seek feedback. Someone who isn’t familiar with the subject matter offers valuable insights. They can identify unclear areas, make suggestions, and help you strengthen your arguments. Be open to this feedback; the goal is to improve the quality of your work.

Concluding Thoughts on Writing an IB World Religions Extended Essay

In conclusion, writing an IB World Religions extended essay is not as difficult a task as it may seem at first glance. It’s a chance to engage deeply with a topic that resonates with you and contribute to the scholarly conversation in World Religions. With dedication, curiosity, and the tips I’ve shared, you’re well on your way to creating an essay that’s not only informative but also a true reflection of your academic passion.

And remember, if you need help with the World Religions Extended Essay, our IB experts are here to assist you. 😉

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Luke MacQuoid has extensive experience teaching English as a foreign language in Japan, having worked with students of all ages for over 12 years. Currently, he is teaching at the tertiary level. Luke holds a BA from the University of Sussex and an MA in TESOL from Lancaster University, both located in England. As well to his work as an IB Examiner and Master Tutor, Luke also enjoys sharing his experiences and insights with others through writing articles for various websites, including extendedessaywriters.com blog

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  2. Essay on Religions of the World

    The Religions of the World Religion is big part of human life. Every area of the world has some kind of religion or belief system. Religion is defined as "a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices" ("Religion" Def.2). With such a large amount of religions today, religion is widely ...

  3. Essays About Religion: Top 5 Examples and 7 Writing Prompts

    A good example is the latest abortion issue in the US, the overturning of "Wade vs. Roe." Include people's mixed reactions to this subject and their justifications. 5. Religion: Then and Now. On your essay, ddd the religion's history, its current situation in the country, and its old and new beliefs.

  4. Religion in the Modern World

    Introduction. Religion is a set of cultural and belief system and practices that relate humanity to spirituality and are relative to sacred things (Heilman 25). It is a common term used to elect all concepts regarding the belief in the so called the god (s) or goddess as well as other divine beings concerns.

  5. World Religions Overview Essay

    A Canadian Forum on Religion and Ecology was established in 2002, a European Forum for the Study of Religion and the Environment was formed in 2005, and a Forum on Religion and Ecology @ Monash in Australia in 2011. Courses on this topic are now offered in numerous colleges and universities across North America and in other parts of the world.

  6. 100+ Religion Essay Topics and Ideas

    Theological Concepts. The Concept of God in Abrahamic Religions. Karma and Reincarnation in Hinduism. The Significance of Nirvana in Buddhism. Sufism: The Mystical Dimension of Islam. The Holy Trinity in Christianity: Interpretations and Beliefs.

  7. World Religion Essays: Examples, Topics, & Outlines

    Christian Attitude to Other World Religions -- a Five-Paragraph Essay of the Paradoxes of Tolerance and Intolerance Christianity is, in many ways, a peculiar religion. Its early history is a series of paradoxes and its attitude towards other religions of the world continues to be paradoxical to this day.

  8. Essay on What is Religion for Students and Children

    Religion refers to a belief in a divine entity or deity. Moreover, religion is about the presence of God who is controlling the entire world. Different people have different beliefs. And due to this belief, many different cultures exist. Further, there are a series of rituals performed by each religion. This is done to please Gods of their ...

  9. Religions of the World (Collection)

    published on 07 April 2024. Religion has always been an integral aspect of the human condition. Archaeological evidence strongly suggests religious practices dating back to c. 60,000 BCE and it seems probable that belief in an unseen spiritual world developed independently in cultures around the world from Mesopotamia to Mesoamerica.

  10. READ: The Origin of World Religions (article)

    The Origin of World Religions. By Anita Ravi. As people created more efficient systems of communication and more complex governments in early agrarian civilizations, they also developed what we now call religion. Having done some research on the common features of early agrarian cities, I'm interested in finding out why all civilizations ...

  11. World Religions, Essay Example

    Instead of comparing religions for superiority, a more objective approach for a scholar will be to see religions as diversity of beliefs in the same way as anthropologists view cultures. Anthropologists do not view any culture as superior or inferior to others but just appreciate the fact that the diversity of cultures makes the world an ...

  12. World Religions: Experiences, Beliefs, and Rituals Essay

    Religion is a spiritually powerful belief system for people, consisting of certain practices and endowing things with sacred properties. Religion includes experiences, beliefs, and rituals. Sociologists of different times considered religion as something that gives social stability or as something that creates social change. We will write a ...

  13. Religion Essay Topics: 40+ Interesting Ideas to Explore

    As confusing and sensitive as it is, religion opens up an opportunity to explore different topics, even in your essay assignment. From the existence of God and proof of a deity to the concepts of love and harmony in human existence, there's no limit to what you can write about religion. You just have to find a topic that fascinates you and ...

  14. Essay on Religions for Students and Children in English

    10 Lines on Religions Essay in English. 1. Sets of beliefs held passionately by a society or groups of people reflected in a world view are known as religion. 2. All the nonliterate or underdeveloped societies are known to have a religion. 3. There is no existence of any primitive society without religion.

  15. Religion Essay

    Religion is the belief and worship of a higher being or god. Religion is a system of faith and worship. Religion plays a crucial part in society, and often has been utilized as a basis for and integrated into societal morals and ideals. Religion, however, is often confused with spirituality. Spirituality, a broad concept, is an individual ...

  16. The Concept of Religion

    The Concept of Religion. First published Mon Mar 28, 2022. It is common today to take the concept religion 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, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. [ 1]

  17. Free World Religions Essay Examples & Topic Ideas

    Comparative Study of the World's Five Major Religions Essay 3.5 Gwynne notes the similarity among the Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is the existence of a Supreme Authority.

  18. World Religions Essays: Examples, Topics, & Outlines

    Religion Most of the world's religions have many common thoughts and underlying beliefs, including commonalities in beliefs about developing good character and the importance of love and compassion. This essay will attempt to create a new religion (called the Harmony) that is inspired by the commonalities seen in many world religions.

  19. Essays on World Religions

    Hinduism is one of the oldest and most complex religions in the world, with a rich history and diverse set of beliefs and practices. This essay aims to provide an overview of Hinduism, including its background and history, core beliefs, rituals and practices, social norms,... Hinduism. 14.

  20. Essay on World Religion: Buddhism

    Essay on World Religion: Buddhism. Buddhism is one of the most popular religions in the world, it originates in Nepal, where the "enlightened one" Saddartha Gotama was born. The word Buddhism originates from the word "Buddhi" meaning to awaken. Buddhism is a nontheistic religion, meaning that they do not have any gods in their faith.

  21. Reflection Of World Religion

    Reflection Of World Religion. World Religions was a great opportunity for me to learn about other beliefs in different countries. Before this class, I was unaware of many of the religions that had been discussed. It was fascinating to learn about the various religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Chinese religion, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.

  22. World Religions Extended Essay

    The World Religions extended essay, a core component of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma, is a scholarly challenge that invites you to examine a particular aspect of a religion that piques your interest. Think of yourself as an academic detective on a 4,000-word researchmission investigating the core of religious beliefs and practices.

  23. World Religions Essay

    Many World Religions. Final Essay Dr. David Nikkel REL 1300 Alyxandra Goodwin 12/1/15 The Many World Religions Throughout the semester in this class we have learned to study religion from an academic outsider's point of view. By doing this, we increased our likelihood of achieving neutrality, and were able to focus more on critical reason ...

  24. Essay: World Religions

    World Religions. Essay. Pages: 4 (1304 words) · Bibliography Sources: 0 · File: .docx · Level: College Senior · Topic: Mythology - Religion. ¶ …. Hindu influences in America. Although the United States did not receive Asian immigrants in large numbers until the twentieth century, Hinduism has had a deep and lasting influence on American ...

  25. We are dealing with the following subjects Essay Writing Satistics

    6 likes, 0 comments - edu.assignment.expert.writerJanuary 10, 2024 on : "We are dealing with the following subjects Essay Writing Satistics Economics HR English literature World religion History Education Psyc ...