The Four Cs of Religion

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Studying religion means understanding how different cultures believe and why. It also encourages critical thinking and communication skills that will serve students well in any major. Whether you want to become an expert in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or Shinto, or want to understand the cultural beliefs of your friends or coworkers, or if you’re planning to move abroad for work or travel, you will benefit from learning more about the world’s religions.

In the past, scholars defined religion by describing its beliefs and practices, or by identifying its social role. Such definitions can be either real or lexical (a description of what is said to be true, such as a dictionary definition). Others define religion functionally, for example as the beliefs and practices that unite people into a moral community. Such definitions are often polythetic, recognizing multiple properties that are “common” to many religions, though they do not identify an essential, ahistorical essence of the concept.

In recent years, some scholars have taken a more reflective stance. They have pulled the camera back to expose the constructed nature of concepts that were once taken for granted as unproblematically “there.” For example, it has been argued that to describe religion only in terms of mythology denies its fundamentally symbolic character, robs God of his status as the ultimate reality, and neglects the contributions made by humans’ bodies, habits, physical culture, and social structures. These are sometimes referred to as the four Cs of religious belief.