The Study of Religion

Religion is a cultural phenomenon that influences human behavior and beliefs. Its pervasiveness throughout history and its continuing impact make it an important subject of academic study. Despite this, many people are ignorant about the nature of religions and how they operate. This religious illiteracy can contribute to prejudice and division in local communities, as well as in society as a whole.

The academic field of study called religion has evolved with the recognition that the study of religion can help us understand a variety of cultures and their enduring influence on human culture. The study of religion can include a broad range of topics, including theology, philosophy, sociology, history, anthropology, and other social sciences.

Traditionally, the word “religion” has been used to refer to a particular belief system or set of practices that are unified by a common worldview, often with shared symbols and rituals. The term is also used to describe social structures and institutions that have a powerful and lasting influence on human life, especially as they organize a person’s identity, ethics, community, and future (see the article What Is a Religion?).

A major challenge of the study of religion is how to account for the diverse range of phenomena that are said to be religious. This is a problem that affects other abstract concepts used to sort cultural types, such as literature, democracy, and even culture itself. Some have argued that the category of religion needs to be expanded, while others have sought to define it more precisely.

For example, in the past it was not uncommon for anthropologists to exclude from the study of religion peoples that worshipped something other than an idealized form of Protestant monotheism, such as ancient Egyptian gods or forces in nature. Such practices were seen as not being religions because they lacked the belief in a supreme deity. Today, however, a broader view is generally accepted, and scholars now speak of a three-dimensional model of religion that includes the beliefs, ethics, and institutions. Some have even added a fourth C, for community, to the list of religious characteristics.

Religions protect a lot of information that has proven to be valuable for human survival and flourishing: everything from sex to salvation. They do this by monitoring, coding, protecting, and transmitting that information.

Religions also imprint on culture, in such things as holy days, feasts, marriage ceremonies, burial rituals, pilgrimages, and the wearing of religious symbols. The study of religion can therefore include the analysis of architecture, art and music. The work of archaeologists has stimulated new thinking about early religions, and scholars are now noticing how much of the world’s great temples, such as Angkor Wat, Borobudur, Ajanta, and Ellora, have religious significance.