The Study of Religion

Religion is a belief system involving an organized structure of rituals and symbols that express beliefs in the supernatural and transcendent. A religion typically includes a belief in the afterlife, a supreme god or goddess, and often a set of sacred texts that contain religious teachings. Some religions also have codes of ethical behavior and a leader or founder who is given almost godlike status. The study of religion is usually a combination of different disciplines, such as anthropology and sociology, that each look at different aspects of the religious tradition. Psychoanalytic therapists examine the feelings and symbols of the religious experience; historians and anthropologists look at the development of a religion; and literary scholars try to elicit the meanings of myths and other religious writings.

One theory about the origins of religion is that it grew out of human curiosity about the big questions of life and death and the fear of uncontrollable forces. People wanted hope—the assurance that they would live on after death and that there was a purpose to their existence. Religion arose as a way to answer these questions and give people hope.

Whether or not this is true, many religions have similar characteristics. These include a sacred place or object; religious teachings and practices; religious experiences; a holy book; and rituals that are performed to commemorate or celebrate certain events. Many religions also have a prophet or messenger who is a source of divine instruction. Jesus Christ for Christianity, the Buddha for Buddhism, Muhammad for Islam, and Moses for Judaism are examples. Some religions are naturalist in nature and grow out of human curiosity about the universe and how it works rather than from divine revelation.

In the 19th century an attempt was made to put the study of religion on a scientific basis, and chairs in the history of religion were founded at colleges around the world. This trend was opposed by theologians, who did not want to sacrifice theological integrity for the sake of a discipline that could be used to support scientific theory and criticism.

Despite this resistance, comparative research in the history of religion came into its own as an academic subject in the late 1880s. A chair in the history of religions was established at the College de France, and chairs were later founded in Switzerland, Great Britain, and the United States.

Critics have claimed that the concept of religion is an invention of modern European culture, and that people should stop using the word to refer to things that do not exist outside this sphere. Others have gone farther and argue that there is no such thing as a religion, and that it is unfair to treat any belief system as if it were a religion. These arguments do not, however, imply that there are no religious beliefs or practices, and some people have opted for a definition of religion that drops the substantive element—the belief in a distinctive kind of reality—and defines it as whatever brings people together into a moral community.