The Study of Religion


Religion is the system of beliefs and practices that a human community adopts in order to address and cope with its ultimate questions. It may involve a range of emotions and behaviors such as prayer, devotion, rituals, cults, feasting, commemoration (of deities or saints), matrimonial and funerary services, music, art, public service and meditation. It may also include an underlying and intangible belief that there is some transcendent reality beyond the material realm that is the source of ultimate truth, meaning, and value. It is a unique form of valuing that distinguishes itself from other forms by its intensity and scope, the fact that it involves emotional commitments as well as rational ones, and that it offers a framework for human behavior.

Until recently, most scholars who studied religion focused on historical processes rather than on the phenomenology of religious phenomena themselves. This approach has provided rich resources for understanding the emergence of religious institutions and their development in different societies. However, it has not addressed the fundamental issue of whether religion has an essence that makes it distinct from other forms of human life.

The emergence of the field of religious studies in the nineteenth century coincided with the rapid expansion of European contacts with other cultures, which introduced new ideas about the variety of human customs and beliefs. This led to the emergence of more or less systematic compilations of mythological and other materials, which prepared the way for the study of religion in modern times.

A common view today is that the concept religion constitutes a social taxon whose paradigmatic examples are the so-called world religions Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. However, critics argue that to define religion in terms of beliefs or any subjective states reveals a Protestant bias and that it is more appropriate to think of it as a family-resemblance concept rather than as a naturalistic or rationalist one.

Another important trend in the study of religion has been to abandon substantive definitions of religiosity and to focus on its functional characteristics. This approach has been exemplified by the work of Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch and by their journal Annales, History, Sociology and Anthropology (originally called Annales d’histoire économique et sociale). They were concerned with uncovering a temporal stratum of longue duree, that is, extensive periods of time that formatively shape not only political and socioeconomical history but the concrete experiential world of the general population. Thus, they looked at the underlying and intangible beliefs that form religions by looking at their effects on society and not just their content. They emphasized neutral description and rejected the partisanship that characterized much earlier approaches to history. This approach was especially valuable when dealing with religion in antiquity. It allowed for the recognition that religion is a human phenomenon with an enduring value. It enables people to deal with the challenges presented by the fact that they are conscious of an unavoidable future and know only sparsely what it will contain.