An Introduction to the Study of Religion

Religion, in some form or another, is a vital part of the lives of billions of people around the globe. It has provided them with comfort in times of sorrow, strength when they feel weak, guidance when they are lost, and purpose in their lives. It has also been a source of the most lasting and moving of human creations, from art and architecture to agriculture, music, dance, drama, poetry, and in the explorations of the cosmos that became natural science.

There are a number of ways to approach the study of religion, some more substantive than others. For example, Durkheim’s definition turns on the social function of creating solidarity; and, more recently, Edward Burnett Tylor defined it as belief in spiritual beings or a supreme being and the practice of worship. Similarly, there are functional approaches, like that of Paul Tillich, who defines it as whatever dominant concern organizes one’s values, whether or not those concerns involve belief in unusual realities.

But perhaps the most useful way of thinking about religion is in terms of its role as a means of managing life’s anxieties and uncertainties. Anthropologists, for instance, think that early religion developed as a way of trying to control the uncontrollable parts of the environment (such as weather, pregnancy and birth, and success in hunting) through magic or supplication. Magic tries to manipulate the world directly through ritual; religion, on the other hand, tries to control it indirectly by appealing to a higher power.

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