The Study of Religion


The study of Religion encompasses many disciplines, including history, philology, literature, anthropology, sociology, and psychology. Scholars attempting to define Religion usually take a “functional” approach, a category-concept that describes the distinctive role a form of life plays in a culture.

For example, the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz defines Religion as a set of symbols that establish powerful and pervasive moods and motivations in people by formulating conceptions of the general order of things and clothing those conceptions with an aura of truth that makes them seem uniquely realistic. This functional definition leaves room for political ideologies, such as communism or fascism, to be counted among the world’s religions, but it also excludes a host of other ideas and practices that might otherwise fit the bill.

A substantive definition is more restrictive, requiring that a religion be based on belief in a supernatural being or force. This definition has been used by scholars such as Max Weber, who defines religion as whatever system of beliefs and practices unites a group into a moral community, and Emile Durkheim, who defined Religion as the belief in an all-powerful, all-controlling, transcendent being. Substantive definitions tend to leave out many non-Western ideas of divinity, and they are often used as a way of excluding the study of Western religions such as Christianity or Islam.

Despite the fact that no clear definition of religion exists, there is little doubt that it has a profound impact on human societies. Those interested in understanding the complexities of contemporary religion should seek out resources that offer detailed descriptions of modern-day religious beliefs and practices; fact-based analyses of current events; and first-hand accounts of religious experience.

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