The Study of Religion

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Religion is a cultural system of beliefs, values, ethics and practices that provides a framework for human existence. It is commonly defined as people’s relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine or worthy of especial reverence; and, in more modern formulations, it includes the way in which individuals or groups deal with ultimate concerns, such as their fate after death, their relationship with and attitude toward the larger human community and nature, and their moral and ethical concerns.

The academic study of religion grew out of the recognition that many religious belief systems play a vital role in shaping the lives and values of their followers, and that the existence of so many different religions is a fact of human history. The concept of religion is a central one in the field of social sciences, which has grown along with anthropology and other natural and historical sciences, and the development of a world economy that has enabled systematic knowledge of the cultures of most of the planet.

Early scholars such as Kant (1724-1804), G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831), and Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), among others, formulated theories of religion that were either metaphysical or psychological in nature. With the growth of the nineteenth century, however, a more functional approach developed. Emile Durkheim (1812-1902), for example, defined religion as whatever a group of believers considers to be sacred and what they do relative to these sacred objects. He considered that these two concepts, the sacred and the profane, create the world in which we live.

Some scholars have argued that to define religion in terms of institutional structures and disciplinary practices rather than beliefs or other mental states reflects a Protestant bias. These scholars have suggested that the field of religion should shift attention to the social structures and observable institutional behaviors that produce the belief systems known as religions. However, it is unlikely that anyone will be able to provide a completely satisfying definition of religion if this means eliminating all mental states from the picture.

The study of religion can generally be divided into descriptive and normative inquiries. Normative inquires are concerned with the truth of religious claims, the acceptability of religious values, etc. Normative inquiries may sometimes inform descriptive inquires, but the latter should not be constrained by the need to address the truth of such claims. Descriptive inquires, on the other hand, are primarily concerned with the history and structure of religions and may occasionally incorporate theories that are directly concerned with the truth or other normative aspects of some or all religions.