The Study of Religion
Religion is a concept that refers to beliefs, rituals, and social practices that are characterized by scrupulous devotion and based on faith in something unique. These beliefs and practices are a primary source of meaning, value, and morality for humans. They are also the most important way in which human beings transmit their values from one generation to the next.
Since the 19th century, the discipline of the study of religion has developed into an established academic field that encompasses a wide range of disciplines and methodological approaches. These are essentially inductive, and they are designed to investigate religions in their concreteness, in their historical creativity, and in their meaning for the cultural, social, and individual lives with which they are interwoven.
As a discipline, the study of religion has always been influenced by comparative studies. These studies have been necessary in order to understand the diversity of religions around the world and the complexities of their social and cultural structures. The history of the subject shows that religious beliefs and practices have been shaped by and are often in conflict with changes in the human sciences, such as science and technology.
The concept of religion is a complex entity that has shifted throughout the centuries as the term’s meaning has been refashioned. This complexity is especially apparent in the development of the definitions of religion, which are used to determine what constitutes a religion.
This has prompted various scholars to try to resolve the disarray by developing definitions that offer more precise descriptions of what the term means and should mean. Such definitions may be monothetic or polythetic.
Among the monothetic definitions are those that determine what is counted as religion in terms of its content and structure, such as the formal definitions of Durkheim, Alston, and Smith.
By establishing a formal structure, such a definition makes it possible to develop an explanatory theory. These types of theories can include, for example, the sociological approach of the theory of mass culture or the functionalist analysis of religion in its early twentieth-century manifestations.
In the latter case, the functionalists argue that the function of a religion is to organize people and their activities into a coherent moral community. It is also a way to organize beliefs about supernatural reality into a consistent set of tenets.
Many of the functionalist definitions use a similar structure and can thus be seen to fit well with Durkheim’s earlier, substantive definition of religion. However, the two differ in important ways.
For instance, Durkheim’s version of the “formal” definition was a very general and expansive one, defining religion as “the belief in a distinctive kind of reality that makes life worthwhile and meaningful to the individual.” In contrast, Smith’s functionalist approach is much more specific and focused.
A more sophisticated form of the functional definition, as exemplified by the work of O’Dea (1966), uses a number of criteria to define what counts as religion, including the presence of a distinctive religious “content” that has the potential to become the most intense and motivating response for an individual.