Religion is a social genus of beliefs, practices, and a social organization in which shared values are preserved and propagated. Durkheim believed that religion is about community: it binds people together (social cohesion), promotes consistency in behavior (social control), and offers strength during life’s transitions and tragedies (meaning and purpose).
The three parts of a model for religion include the “feeling” part, which includes the cognitive and affective aspects of human experience; the “structure” part, which is made up of beliefs, practices, and institutions; and the “agency” part, which addresses the way humans act through their beliefs. This three-part model is the basic framework for many of the most important theoretical approaches to religion in the twentieth century and continues to be used today.
A historical and dialectical approach to religion is based on the assumption that religious experiences are meaningful because they have concrete meanings for a particular culture or time in history. Such an approach also emphasizes the holism of religious experience.
In contrast, a hermeneutical approach to religion fixes upon a single interpretative key and attempts to unlock the mysteries of religion through the reinterpretation of religious texts. This approach is likely to be most useful for the historical study of religions.
One of the major challenges in historical religion is that of understanding what it means to call something a religion. The semantic range of the concept has shifted over time, and many different definitions are used to distinguish between similar kinds of practices. This makes it hard to establish a univocal definition of religion. This difficulty is especially serious when we are talking about a category of social practices that has been labeled as religion by practitioners and observers but that has not yet been categorized in a systematic way.