The Study of Religion

Religion is pervasive throughout the world and has a profound effect on both individuals and societies. The study of religion is a natural and necessary extension of the academic disciplines that deal with culture, history, and philosophy, including sociology, anthropology, and psychology. Studying the diverse range of beliefs, traditions, and practices is a fascinating and enriching experience for students. The study of religion also encourages real-life skills that can’t always be taught in a classroom and helps create well-rounded and culturally aware young scholars.

Religions have often been at the root of social upheaval and civil war. It is no surprise, then, that some of the most important historical figures have been deeply religious and political activists. The concept of religion can be difficult to define, however, since many different cultures have their own unique interpretations of God and the universe. The term is often used to describe any system of belief that includes the existence of a supreme being and some form of supernatural or spiritual forces. It can also include beliefs in the afterlife, cosmological orders, and a variety of other doctrines and rituals.

The academic discipline of religion has evolved with the recognition that it is an ever-changing and evolving phenomenon, not a static set of ideas or practices. The study of religion encompasses a wide variety of scholarly fields, from anthropological and phenomenological approaches to the history of religions and their development across time, to the study of their beliefs and values, and to the examination of how these religions affect modern-day society.

Many textbooks take a narrow approach to the study of religion, limiting it to beliefs about God and the afterlife, and teaching only a few basic doctrines. These books may satisfy standardized test requirements but do not help students understand the complex nature of religion. The best study guides for religion offer in-depth descriptions of contemporary belief systems, as well as first-person accounts of what it is like to live within the boundaries of a particular religion.

A key to understanding the nature of religions is recognizing that there are multiple dimensions to a religion, or what Ninian Smart describes as its “luxurious vegetation.” These seven dimensions are: practical and ritual; experiential and emotional; narrative or mythical; doctrinal and philosophical; ethical and legal; and institutional and material (art, architecture, and sacred places).

While many religions are based on specific theologies and doctrines, they can all share certain aspects of behavior. These include a sense of responsibility for the well being of the community; a belief in punishment after death; the importance of a moral code to guide decision-making; and the importance of honoring elders and relatives.

Psychological studies of religion can focus on the effects of the various religious beliefs and practices on people, especially their mental health. Research indicates that there are two types of motivation to follow a religion: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation relates to a person’s needs and desires, such as the desire for status, belonging, and security. Intrinsic motivation involves an individual’s internalized beliefs and a genuine commitment to the principles of a religious tradition.