The Study of Religion

The study of Religion involves learning about the belief systems that are practiced throughout the world. It also covers the philosophies, teachings and traditions of those belief systems. A good degree in the field of Religious Studies will help students to understand other cultures and will give them a foundation to better communicate with people of all faiths.

Traditionally, scholars have debated over how to define the concept of religion. Some have opted for a substantive definition, holding that the term names a real thing that can be observed in the world. Others, following Asad, argue that this approach misses important aspects of the phenomenon, including inner sentiments that cannot be easily described or observable.

Another approach is to hold that the term describes a distinctive role that a form of life can play in society. This is a functional definition, and one can see it in Emile Durkheim’s definition, which holds that religion is whatever system of practices unite a group of people into a moral community (whether or not the practices involve belief in unusual realities).

A third approach takes a mixture of both of these approaches. Some scholars reject the notion of a “substantive” or “functional” definition and argue that the term is best understood as a taxon, a category-concept that can be applied to a wide range of social formations. This position is sometimes called the polythetic view, and it holds that a religion names a complex of features, rather than a single thing that can be accurately described or identified in the world.