The Study of Religion

Religion refers to a set of beliefs and practices that give its followers an object of devotion (such as a god or spiritual concept), a code of moral behavior, and a community that holds itself together with rituals. It also deals with what might be called the supernatural or the spiritual, with forces and powers beyond human control.

The term religion was adapted from the Latin religio, which roughly means “scrupulousness” or “abiding by one’s commitments”. It was used in antiquity to describe an effect of taboos, promises, curses, or transgressions. This suggests that in Western antiquity and in many or most cultures, religions served a function of regulating people’s behaviour.

Today, there are several different ways of approaching the study of religion. The most common approach is a sociological one, which seeks to understand the functions that religion serves in society and the inequality that it can reinforce and perpetuate. Other approaches are psychological and scientific. Psychologists and neuroscientists, for example, argue that humans need religion to satisfy emotional or psychological needs such as fear of death or a desire for meaning in life.

Scholars also use the term religion to describe a range of social and cultural phenomena, including spirituality, morality, and ritual. However, there is debate about whether the term should be confined to beliefs and practices that have an element of the supernatural. There is also a growing recognition that some of the things we currently think of as religious are actually human activities, such as smoking or exercise, that have been ritualized and given a spiritual dimension. This has led to a reflexive turn in the study of religion, with scholars pulling back to examine the way that the concept of religion is constructed rather than simply existing unproblematically in the world.