The Study of Religion


Religion is a vast array of beliefs and practices that are characterized by faith, ritual, and community. It is so diverse that it may never be possible to agree on a single definition of religion, but the study of religion does offer some important insights. For example, a study of religion can help explain why some systems like Buddhism are considered to be a religion and capitalism is not, even though the two share certain characteristics.

Early on, human beings tried to control uncontrollable forces in their environment — such as the weather, pregnancy and birth, and success in hunting — by using magic or by appealing for guidance from gods and goddesses. Anthropologists believe that this early effort to control the world around them grew both out of curiosity about the world and out of fear of death, which humans felt was unavoidable.

Many scholars today use the concept of religion as a taxon for sets of social practices rather than as a category that determines membership by belief in a distinctive kind of reality. This is often called a functional approach to the study of religion. One of the most famous examples is Emile Durkheim’s definition, which turns on the function that religion plays in generating moral solidarity, but many other definitions of religion have used this kind of framework as well.

Scientific approaches to the study of religion also are growing in popularity. Psychologists, for instance, argue that some forms of religion address emotional and psychological needs in humans, such as a fear of death or the desire to create meaning and purpose in life. Neuroscientists have found evidence that some parts of the brain are wired for religious experiences.