The Study of Religion


The word religion encompasses beliefs and practices that are central to the lives of a large number of people worldwide. It may also refer to an entire culture, such as the religions of China, India, or ancient Rome. In this article, however, we will mainly use the term to refer to any form of organized belief and ritualized behavior that is held in common by a group of people. This may include worship, moral conduct, and adherence to specific religious teachings. It is not intended to include things like magic, art, or science, which are often viewed as having no religious character at all.

The study of religion became a serious academic pursuit in the 19th century, and scholars from many different disciplines (history, philology, literature, philosophy, psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc.) have sought to understand its nature and history. Nevertheless, no consensus has developed as to the most appropriate methods for this endeavor.

One problem that has plagued the study of religion is the perception of its subjectivity. A great deal of its content is not directly observable, and even those parts that are observable tend to be interpreted subjectively by the adherents of a given religion. Moreover, it is difficult to objectively evaluate the inner sentiments that are conveyed by religious stories and rites.

Despite these problems, some scholars have succeeded in studying religion. They have done so by treating it as a social genus, a phenomenon that is present in all cultures. They have defined religion functionally, such as Emile Durkheim’s definition of whatever system of practices unites a group of people into a single moral community. In this view, religion is the most important force that keeps society together.

Other scholars have taken a more critical stance, and have treated religion as an invented concept that went hand in hand with European colonialism. They have suggested that the fact that religion is defined so flexibly, in such a way that it can be found in every culture, indicates that it is nothing more than an abstract construct created for power and control purposes.

Still others have suggested that the concept of religion should be expanded to include an essential element, namely, its role in a person’s life. They have defined religion as “that which orients and values life” in a particular way, in other words, as that which provides meaning, purpose, or direction. This definition is a direct challenge to the traditional substantive and functional definitions of religion, which treat it as a set of ideas and beliefs rather than as something that helps to organize and guide human lives in particular ways. Whether this criticism is valid or not, it has served to shift the focus of the debate over how to study religion. Regardless of how it is ultimately defined, the concept of religion is likely to remain an important aspect of human culture for a long time to come. It will probably continue to influence both individual and societal affairs, and it is likely that the study of religion will always be a vital academic endeavor.