Religion studies offers students a chance to engage in deep and meaningful study of human beliefs, cultures, traditions, and values. It encourages critical thinking skills and a broad global perspective. It can also inspire empathy and respect for those who have different beliefs and experiences from one’s own.
The study of religion is dominated by a number of academic disciplines, including religious studies, history, anthropology, sociology, and linguistics. There are a variety of approaches to the study of religion, ranging from ethnography and phenomenology to the study of texts, rituals, and symbols.
A traditional approach to the study of religion defines religion as a set of belief systems that claim a relationship with a transcendent reality (often called “the divine”). While this definition is logical, it ignores the fact that some people believe in multiple gods or spirits, and that other beliefs, such as those that see themselves as part of the natural world, do not include a supreme being.
Other scholars have sought to define religion in a more functional way. Emile Durkheim, for example, defined religion as whatever system of practices unites a group into a moral community—whether or not these practices involve belief in any unusual realities. A version of this approach is used by Paul Tillich, who defines religion as the dominant concern that organizes a person’s values. This is often referred to as a “functionalist” definition of religion. Such definitions use a classical understanding of the emergence of social kinds, and they are sometimes described as monothetic, in that they apply only to cases where the concept has been accurately defined.