The study of Religion offers students the chance to examine a variety of different beliefs and practices in their historical and cultural contexts. The discipline also seeks to understand the ways in which different faiths interact with the world and their followers. The field of Religious Studies is important because it gives people the tools they need to live in a religiously pluralistic society.
Many definitions of Religion are based on the notion that there is some essence that can be found in all religions, that there is a kind of prototypical religion to which all others can be compared. For example, Lincoln (1972) defines Religion as the “conceptions and conceptions which postulate and seek to regulate a distinction between an empirical and a significant supra-empirical segment of reality; the languages, symbols, and activities which are concerned with this distinction and its regulation; and the activities and institutions which manage it.”
Other scholars seek to uncover the common features that all religions have in common. For example, Ninian Smart (of the Universities of Lancaster and California, Santa Barbara) has argued that there are seven characteristics that all religions have in common: mythic (stories that give shape to beliefs), doctrinal (the themes and ideas that emerge from the myths), experiential (contact with a transcendental order), ethical (morality or legal codes), social (institutions and leadership), and ritual (prayers, liturgies, dances, prostrations).
While monothetic definitions fasten on one property, polythetic approaches recognize more properties. However, polythetic definitions do not avoid the charge that they are ethnocentric in their identification of a prototypical religion.