The Study of Religion

Religion is the name for the vast range of human practices that organize and express the ways that people value life and seek to make sense of it. In the modern world, religions have taken many forms, including but not limited to the great so-called “world” religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism, as well as local religions. In addition, there are also a host of other “religious” practices that cannot be easily placed in any of these categories.

The study of religion is a complex and challenging task because it deals with the most basic of human questions: What is life about and what can I do to live a good one? Religions, in their various forms and traditions, provide the answers to these questions. They offer a framework for sanction and condemnation, approval and disapproval, inspiration and ideation, so that values and ideas are constantly evaluated in the light of what is valued most deeply.

As a result, people are continually looking for a way to value their lives and find meaning in them. They turn to their religions for guidance and hope, and in doing so they also create an environment in which they can feel supported and belong. It is in this sense of belonging that religions are most likely to generate a sense of meaning.

In the past, scholars have discussed whether or not it is possible to define religion, and what that definition should be. Some have advocated stipulative definitions, which require that a particular social practice meets certain criteria to qualify as religion (e.g., belief in supernatural beings). Others have argued against these stipulative definitions, and that they force scholars to simply accept whatever definition is offered (de Muckadell 2014).

It is generally accepted today that it is better to think of the concept of religion as a social taxon, a genus within which many diverse social formations fall. This approach to the study of religion is a more productive one than the older, monothetic approaches which focused on mental states or beliefs as the key element of religion.

Another issue that arises with the taxon approach is whether or not it is meaningful to distinguish between essential and ancillary features of a religion. Some scholars argue that a distinction can be made, but that this would require that we move beyond the taxon approach and look at a religion as an object of analysis.

Ideally, any analysis of a religion should be able to identify its core elements and understand the way that they interact with each other. This understanding should be capable of addressing a wide range of issues, from theological debates to the impact of religion on the environment and even the political implications of religious activity.