The Study of Religion


Religion is a social and cultural phenomenon that embodies a set of beliefs and practices that are regarded as sacred. Its influence in society is immense, and it often has a powerful effect on people’s lives. It can promote social cohesion and unity, or it can lead to hostility and violence motivated by religious differences.

Different approaches to the study of religion are based on different assumptions about the nature and meaning of the phenomenon. One approach emphasizes the way that individuals interpret their religious experiences. Another stresses the functions that religion serves in a society. Emile Durkheim’s work on the social impact of religion continues to influence sociological thinking today. The third major approach to the study of religion emphasizes the power of social rituals and how they shape a person’s identity.

Regardless of the particular theory that is used, a proper understanding of religion must be based on careful observation of how people actually practice it and on an examination of the effects of these practices on the individual and the society. There are many different religions in the world and they all differ greatly in their doctrines, teachings, and practices. Some are peaceful and good, while others are violent and evil.

The most fundamental concept of religion is that there is a supernatural Being in and behind the forces of nature. This Being is called God in the highest religions. In lower religions, different phenomena of nature are associated with various personality deities. Man’s helplessness in the face of these forces, and his deep need for Divine assistance, bring about his recognition of dependence on the Deity, and the desire to find communion with him. The consciousness of acquired friendship with a protector so good and powerful inspires hope, and the desire to live in accordance with his will excites love.

The practical side of religion involves the performance of certain acts of homage, which are intended to bring about this communion with the Deity. In some higher forms of religion this is accompanied by the development of filial affection for the Deity. In lower religions, however, this affection is largely absent, and the recognition of dependence on the Deity is more generally a motive for compliance with recognized moral standards than for love for the sake of the Deity. It is a matter of considerable importance for the social scientist that this distinction be clearly drawn, for otherwise the pursuit of a concept of religion adequate to all the data available could easily be reduced to a kind of lowest common denominator.