How to Study Religion

Religion is a system of beliefs, values and behaviors that is central to the cultural life of a group. Religious beliefs and practices vary widely across cultures but some, such as funeral rites or the recognition of the afterlife, appear in all cultures. Despite the fact that many people who describe themselves as religious “nones” believe in God or a spirit world, some research suggests that there is a minimum amount of religiosity in everyone’s lives and that religion has important social functions.

Like all social institutions, religion evolves within and between cultures. It may change radically in response to technological advances or it may keep old features and add new ones. Some research has shown that certain types of religion are beneficial to the individual and society, promoting health, learning, economic well-being, moral behavior and a sense of community. In other cases, religious beliefs and practices can lead to conflicts, wars, terrorism and prejudice.

The question of how to study religion is a central one for the discipline of sociology. Some scholars have taken a functional approach, looking for the beliefs and behaviors that create and sustain societies. Others have tried to define religion as a social genus, identifying those systems of belief and ritual behavior that are found in most or all cultures. A problem with this approach is that it can easily reduce the definition of religion to a lowest common denominator and miss the crucial differences that distinguish different systems of belief and ritual behavior.

A third method for studying religion is the hermeneutical or interpretive approach. This looks for a key to explain or unlock the mysteries of religion. It can be effective, but it also runs the risk of imposing a view of what is religious onto the material that is being studied.

Finally, there are “polythetic” approaches to the study of religion that try to understand how all the facets of religion fit together to form a whole. These approaches are useful because they do not operate with the classical assumption that any entity that can be accurately described will share a defining property.

The study of religion is a vital part of any modern, literate society. It is essential to understanding the nature of man, how he develops as a species and why some societies succeed and fail. In the United States, it is important that we elect presidents and a Senate that recognize this role and respect our freedom to practice religion. Similarly, it is important that we respect the role of religion in the courts and that our judges are sensitive to the influence of religious values on the law. This requires a thorough understanding of the historical development of religion and its relation to the law in all of its forms. Only then can we be sure that we are interpreting the Constitution’s separation of church and state in a way that is faithful to the founding fathers’ intent.