The Study of Religion

Religion is a belief in a higher power that embodies moral and spiritual principles, ritual observances and a worldview. It is a universal phenomenon, and nearly 6.5 billion people on Earth participate in a religion. Although many different theories exist, the field of religious studies encompasses anthropology, sociology, history and philosophy. The purpose of the study of religion is to understand the origins, practices and social consequences of religious beliefs and behaviors.

The earliest known religious behavior was a burial ritual, which anthropologists and archaeologists (scientists who examine the remains of prehistoric humans and their ancestors) have discovered in caves in France and Germany. This ritual is thought to indicate that early human ancestors believed in some kind of spirit or afterlife. Other evidence of ancient religion comes from studying the traces left behind by religious people and from studying their behavior.

Theories of religion are varied, ranging from those that treat it as an organized system with a set of doctrines and teachings that dictate moral behavior, to others that view it as a collection of subjective mental states, or even as an institution in which a group of believers shares certain common beliefs and practices. Most of these theories, however, are based on the assumption that religion is an essential human feature.

Scholars have generally used three main approaches to understanding religion: structuralism, functionalism and hermeneutics. Structuralists use a disciplined approach to analyze religion, seeking out patterns that are similar across religious groups. They also use a comparative methodology, and are concerned to theorize at a high level of generalization. Functionalism, by contrast, seeks to understand the role that religion plays in human societies. Its primary tenet is that all social institutions and societal functions serve specific purposes, and that religion, too, serves its own particular function.

Hermeneutics is a style of philosophical inquiry that uses language and reasoning to interpret religious texts. It is often used in the study of religion, particularly by philosophers and literary critics. This approach allows scholars to critique religion, and to make connections between religious beliefs, behaviors and institutions.

Various definitions of religion have been offered, but all are controversial. One version, popularized by Emile Durkheim, is that religion is whatever system of practices unite a number of individuals into a single moral community. Another, popularized by Paul Tillich, is that religion is a matter of whatever dominant concern organizes a person’s values. These are called “substantive” definitions because they determine membership in the religion category based on a distinctive kind of reality.

Other versions of religion focus on specific religious behaviors and institutions, such as rites of passage or devotional practices. These are called “formal” definitions. Formal definitions are not as controversial, but they have the disadvantage of excluding many religious practices that would otherwise be considered part of religion. This approach to religion is criticized by some as overly narrow and restrictive, since it excludes a lot of religious activities that could be considered important by some people.