The Study of Religion

Religion has become a major source of identity for many people. Some identify primarily with a religion’s theological beliefs and rituals; others feel more drawn to their religion’s community and culture. Still others, such as atheists and agnostics, may be attached to a religion simply because it is part of their culture; they don’t necessarily believe the religious teachings or participate in the rituals.

The study of religion emerged as a discipline in the 19th century, when the methods and approaches of history, philology, literary criticism, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and other disciplines were brought to bear on questions about the nature of religion. The debates that arose reflected the efforts of scholars to construct a definition of religion that would account for its various social functions.

Substantive definitions, such as that of the Protestant theologian Herbert Clarke (1834-1883), defined religion in terms of belief in a distinctive kind of reality. This approach ignored the fact that some social groups worshiped multiple gods or celestial bodies, and it omitted from its definition the existence of religious practices that could not be described as beliefs in a unique kind of reality.

By contrast, functional definitions, such as that of the sociologist Emile Durkheim (1912), define religion in terms of whatever system of practices unites a group into a moral community. This approach, which dropped the requirement that a group’s practices be based on a specific belief in an unusual reality, is open to criticism for its ethnocentrism.

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