The Field of Religious Studies
Religious practices have a significant impact on the lives of two-thirds of Americans. They contribute to happiness, family stability, moral principles that govern behavior and a sense of belonging. They provide a framework for addressing problems, such as drug and alcohol abuse, delinquency, crime, poverty, depression, anxiety, prejudice and health issues. However, completely secular approaches to public policy, psychotherapy and education ignore these important aspects of the American experience.
There are many different approaches to religion, ranging from theology and philosophy to the empirical and experimental. For example, psychological scientists who study the human mind argue that belief in a higher power can answer emotional and psychological needs and provides a sense of purpose in life. Scientists who study the brain believe that there are specific areas of the brain that are activated when people have religious experiences.
Social scientific studies of religion often start with the idea that there is a set of social and cultural norms that constitute religion, and that differences between different religions can be measured and evaluated in terms of these standards. This approach is not without its problems, and the field of comparative religion has been critical of the premise that there are such universal definitions of what religion is.
The field of religious studies developed through the comparative comparison of diverse historical materials. Scholars have debated how to define religion, with some advocating a formal strategy of identifying and describing known cases, and others rejecting the use of stipulative definitions that threaten to drive theories and determine conclusions (e.g., Zeldin 1969). Some scholars have advised proceeding with study of the historical material and fashioning definitions at a later time.
A more recent approach tries to grasp religion in its concreteness and historical creativity by looking at the ways in which religions function in their own societies. This approach is especially important in the study of new religions and revitalization movements that often have an element of modernity, as well as in studies of “quasi-religions” such as cults and new age practices.
For some scholars, the concept of religion is not so much a taxon of social practices as it is a way of constructing and interpreting the world. This view, which grew out of the ideas of Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) and Martin Heidegger (1905-76), is sometimes called objectivity or verstehen. The goal is to understand how the world is constructed by religions, and what their significance for the social order is.