The Academic Study of Religion

Religion is a large and varied group of belief systems. Religious beliefs include a supreme being or gods, angels and demons, spirits, and reincarnation. Religious practices include prayer, meditation, sacraments, and rituals. Religion also includes such beliefs as heaven and hell, a resurrected body, salvation, redemption, and immortality.

The academic study of religion has been divided into various fields and approaches, each with its own methodological issues. For example, sociology and social anthropology have examined religion in terms of the structure and organization of religious traditions; psychology views religion as a set of feelings and experiences; and linguistics examines the symbolic expressions of religion through myths, rituals, and other symbols.

In a polythetic approach, each of these disciplines studies different aspects of religion but, when taken together, they provide a complete picture. This allows scholars to see how different parts of religion relate to each other.

Other ways of understanding religion have included examining its origins and development. Some anthropologists, for example, believe that religion began as a human reaction to the knowledge of death and a search for either a way to avoid it or, in the absence of such a possibility, a place to go after life ended. This led to tribal totems, ancestor worship, and belief in guardian gods. It also led to stories of the creation of the world and tales of specific gods and goddesses.

A more recent view, influenced by the work of Max Weber, is that religion is a group of culturally sanctioned values that provides guidance and direction in life. It may also serve to unite people, promote psychological and physical well being, and motivate people to work for social change.