A Guide to the Study of Religion


About Religion

In human history, there has been a variety of systems of belief and worship. These systems have had a significant influence on individuals and on society.

Some examples of this are a number of religious practices such as the sharia in Muslim-majority countries and Christianity in Europe, which have shaped political decisions and led to various laws. Others include Buddhism in Asia and Hinduism in India.

The study of religion is an academic field that dates back to several centuries and continues today. It has emerged in the 20th century with a recognition of how the diversity and power of religions has shaped individuals and societies throughout human history.

Definitions of Religion

A wide range of scholars have offered definitions of religion. Many of them are monothetic or polythetic, and some have based their definitions on a particular approach to the study of religion.

One such approach, the functional definition, has a great deal of historical roots in Emile Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (Emile Durkheim 1912). Its central features are that: (1) religions help people to organize themselves socially and to establish their collective conscience; (2) they have beliefs in distinctive kinds of supernatural or supernatural-like reality; (3) they are organized into communities with common moral values; and (4) they have institutional structures for managing those groups.

Another important kind of definition is a “substantive” one, in which religion is defined in terms of the distinctive kind of supernatural-like reality that it believes. In the twentieth century, this approach has become increasingly common.