The Academic Study of Religion

Religion is a cultural system of beliefs, practices and ethics that is rooted in human experience. Religious belief is often the product of a need to deal with anxiety, stress and uncertainty. It is also a source of hope, meaning and social cohesion. Research shows that religious people have better health and more meaningful lives than those who are not religious.

The scholarly study of religion is concerned with the diversity of beliefs, practices and institutions that are held by humans worldwide. The study is a valuable tool for understanding global contexts, encouraging civic engagement and cultivating skills needed to work collaboratively with diverse populations. Widespread illiteracy about religion fuels prejudice and antagonism, and the study of religion provides important information about a variety of beliefs that can contribute to peaceful coexistence.

A key issue in the academic study of religion is how to define “religion”. Narrow definitions imply that certain practices are not religions, such as idolatry or belief in a supreme god. But such definitions are arbitrary and ignore the fact that many practices in all cultures are considered to be religions. Broader definitions, on the other hand, imply that all religions have some common characteristics, such as a commitment to an ethical code, a shared narrative about the origin of life and a set of ritual practices that are intended to bring spiritual or moral benefits.

Some scholars, such as Edward Burnett Tylor, argue that religion should be defined as the belief in spiritual beings. Others, such as the sociologists Rodney Needham and J. Z. Smith, argue that the concept of religion can be understood as a taxonomic one, like literature or democracy, and that its properties can be discerned by a process similar to how geneticists sort bacteria according to their various characteristics.