The Study of Religion

Religion encompasses belief in the existence and role within human life of a supreme being or gods. It includes ritual practices, the teachings of a holy book or texts, and a community of believers. It can also include devotional acts of worship to a deity, such as prayer and pilgrimage. Religion may also be a source of moral guidance, or a motivation to improve oneself and help others through charitable efforts. Whether or not religion is seen as divinely inspired, many believe that it provides a framework for living in society, and can be a powerful social force, often with positive effects.

The 19th century saw the rise of disciplines devoted to the study of religion, including archaeology and anthropology. These disciplines have shifted the way we think about religion, and in particular have helped us understand that what counts as a religion can change over time, depending on the definition used. This has led to a “reflexive turn” in the study of religion, where scholars have pulled back the camera, so to speak, and examined the constructed nature of objects that were previously taken for granted as unproblematically “there”.

In addition, the development of scientific history and other social sciences allowed systematic knowledge of cultures worldwide to be obtained. This, in combination with the rise of modern philosophy, resulted in a wide range of theories about religion. The philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), for example, viewed religion as a projection of human aspirations. This view was later criticized by German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72), who emphasized the importance of mythology and the idealism of religious thought, and by the English theologian Karl Marx.

More recently, the sociological perspective on religion has become increasingly popular, because it offers a non-theological explanation of how religion functions in society. This view is based on the idea that religions have different functions, and that the most successful ones are those that do most of these things well. The four implicit models of religion in this view are: belief, identity, value-commitment, and power (see the article Theory Snapshot).

A number of questions arise about this approach, however. Among these is the question of how much a practice must share in order to be considered part of a religion, and whether or not there are any necessary and sufficient properties that distinguish religions. These questions are not insignificant, because they point to the issues that are likely to arise in any attempt to define and categorize a complex phenomenon like religion. The debate that has emerged around these issues is known as the structuralism/agency debate. Some scholars of religion have argued that to think in terms of beliefs and any hidden mental states is to reintroduce Protestant bias into the field, while others argue that to abandon belief as a focus of inquiry misses a significant dimension of the phenomenon. For example, some studies have shown a strong link between a person’s beliefs and their day-to-day behavior.