Tiele was born at Leiden. He was educated at Amsterdam, first studying at the Athenaeum Illustre, as the communal high school of the capital was then named, and afterwards at the seminary of the Remonstrant Brotherhood. 
He was destined for the pastorate in his own brotherhood. After steadily declining for a considerable period, this had increased its influence in the second half of the 19th century by widening the tenets of the Dutch Methodists, which had caused many of the liberal clergy among the Lutherans and Calvinists to go over to the Remonstrants. Tiele had liberal religious views himself, which he early enunciated from the pulpit, as Remonstrant pastor of Moordrecht (1853) and at Rotterdam (1856).
Upon the removal of the seminary of the brotherhood from Amsterdam to Leiden in 1873, Tiele was appointed one of its leading professors. In 1877 followed his appointment at the University of Leiden as professor of the history of religions, a chair specially created for him.
With Abraham Kuenen and J. H. Scholten, amongst others, he founded the "Leiden School" of modern theology. From 1867 he assisted Kuenen, A. D. Loman and L. W. Rauwenhoff editing the Theologisch Tijdschrift. In 1889 he became a member of the Teylers Eerste Genootschap. In 1901, he resigned his professorship at Leiden University. He died in January 1902.
Tiele's zeal and power for work were as extraordinary as his vast knowledge of ancient languages, peoples and religions, upon which his researches, according to F. Max Müller, shed a new and vivid light.
Of his many learned works, the Vergelijkende geschiedenis van de egyptische en mesopotamische Godsdiensten (1872), and the Geschiedenis van den Godsdienst (1876; new ed. 1891), have been translated into English, the former by James Ballingall (1878–1882), the latter by Joseph Estlin Carpenter (1877) under the title Outlines of the History of Religion (French translation, 1885; German translation, 1895). A French translation of the Comparative History was published in 1882.
Other works by Tiele are:
- De Godsdienst van Zarathustra, van het Ontstaan in Baktrie, tot den Val van het Oud-Perzische Rijk (1864) a work now embodied, but much enlarged and improved by the latest researches of the author, in the History of Religions (vol. ii, part ii, Amsterdam, 1901), a part which appeared only a short time before the author's death
- De Vrucht der Assyriologie voor de vergelijkende geschiedenis der Godsdiensten (1877; German ed., 1878)
- Babylonisch-assyrische Geschichte (two parts, Leipzig, 1886–1888)
- Western Asia, according to the most Recent Discoveries (London, 1894).
Tiele was best known to English students by his Outlines and the Gifford Lectures On the Elements of the Science of Religion, delivered in 1896–1898 at Edinburgh University. They appeared simultaneously in Dutch at Amsterdam, in English in London and Edinburgh (1897–1899, 2 vols).
In the morphological classification of religions, a universalizing religion or universal religion refers to a religion believing their laws and cosmology to be binding for everyone. They can be directly contrasted to ethnic religions in terms of their characteristics, which are, according to John Hinnells, limited by ethnic or national scope. Tiele was the first known person to formalize this classification in western study of religion.
Universalizing religions are tied to the life of the founder whereas ethnic religions are tied to the physical environment. Those universalizing religions who believe in an eternal universe claim that their religion is eternal and it is regenerated from time to time and the latest founder is just the current regenerator in the beginningless and endless chain of regenerators. Their calendar is generally based on an important event in founder's life. They celebrate important events in the life of the founder; such as birth, death, date of sermon, date of enlightenment etc. They believe that Supreme Being reveals the laws of interactions between various entities of the Universe, either directly or indirectly on the Earth. Some also believe that the same Supreme Being creates the Universe for humans to use. They also believe in existence of "special persons" who compile the laws of Universe as revealed by the Supreme Being. Universalizing religions are usually, but not necessarily widespread.
Some have suggested that there is a bias in naming top level religions for morphological classifications and branches of Buddhism should be considered separate religions if uniform criteria are applied across all the religions.
Ethnic religions grow up slowly and almost imperceptibly, the product of the collective mind seeking satisfaction for their needs. Universal religions, on the contrary, are the outcome of a vivid personal experience on the part of an individual, and reflect his outlook on the world and life. Taking form at the outset in the religious consciousness of a person, these religions lay stress on the inward and subjective side of the religious relation. Man's relation to his god is not a ready-made fact, but a spiritual end to be realized. The inner spirit is not monopoly of any caste or people or species. It is in his spirit that man is religious. Faith is possible for all. Universal religions are individualizing, i.e. inward and personally realized. As all the men (and species for some religions) have the same spiritual nature, they can partake of the same religious experience. Neither physical kinship in a group nor participation in a given ritual system can create in a man or specie or take from them the spirit by which they worship and serve their god. Hence Universal religion is appealing to the spirit without distinction of class or race or specie. The salvation or redemption which it offers is open to all. Just as the object of worship is one, the method of divine service everywhere is the same. The missionary zeal they have displayed has corresponded to their inward vitality. After passing through many vicissitudes these religions are still alive.
Edinburgh University in 1900 conferred upon Tiele the degree of D.D. honoris causa, an honor bestowed upon him previously by the universities of Dublin and Bologna. He was also a fellow of at least fifteen learned societies in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Great Britain, and the United States.
Pieter Anton Tiele was his brother.
- (in English) C.P. Tiele: Comparative history of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian religions. History of the Egyptian religion. London, Routledge, 2000. ISBN 0-415-24461-7 (Repr. of the ed. Trübner & Co., 1882)
- (in English) C.P. Tiele: Elements of the science of religion. New York, AMS Press, 1979 (2 vols.). ISBN 0-404-60480-3 (Repr. of the 1897-1899 ed. published by W. Blackwood, Edinburgh)
- (in English) C.P. Tiele: The religion of the Iranian peoples. Bombay, 1912
- (in English) Religious systems of the world. A contribution to the study of comparative religion. A collection of addresses delivered at South Place Institute. [By C.P. Tiele ... et al.]. Various editions, between 1892 & 1911
- (in English) C.P. Tiele: Outlines of the history of religion to the spread of the universal religions. London, Trübner, 1877
- Chisholm 1911.
- Arie L. Molendijk: The heritage of Cornelis Petrus Tiele (1830-1902). In: Nederlandsch archief voor kerkgeschiedenis, vol. 80 (2000), nr. 1, pag. 78-114
- Important Contributors to the Britannica, 9th and 10th Editions, 1902encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 16 October 2017.
- Monaghan, John; Just, Peter (2000). Social & Cultural Anthropology. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 124. ISBN 978-0-19-285346-2.
- Hinnells, John R. (2005). The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion. Routledge. pp. 439–440. ISBN 0-415-33311-3. Retrieved 2009-09-17.
- "Jainism and Buddhism as enduring historical streams" (PDF). p. 1.
- "Jainism oldest personally founded". p. 294.
- Britannica Tirthankar Definition, Encyclopædia Britannica
- "History of the Buddhas". Buddha Dharma Education Association. Retrieved 8 December 2015.
- Religious Conversion: Religion Scholars Thinking Together, Shanta Premawardhana, John Wiley & Sons, 2015, page 35.
- "Philosophy of religions". p. 138.