The Study of Religion


Religion is a complex subject with a wide variety of definitions. The most common definition is that religion is a system of beliefs and values which are held by believers and worshippers. The belief system is based on some transcendent reality, and the followers have a strong emotional bond with it. The religious beliefs are usually accompanied by rituals and symbols. The word religion is also often used as a synonym for spirituality. However, these two concepts are not the same and have a different meaning.

Several approaches have been taken to the study of religion, both since the 19th century and in modern times. Sociologists and anthropologists tend to view religion as an abstract set of ideas, values, and experiences developed as part of a cultural matrix. George A. Lindbeck defines religion as “a kind of cultural and/or linguistic framework or medium, which shapes the whole of thought, life and experience. It is like an idiom, a vocabulary that enables the formulation of beliefs and the experiencing of inner attitudes, feelings and sentiments.”

A number of sociologists have taken a functional approach to the study of religion, with Emil Durkheim proposing a social criterion for defining it as whatever is the primary concern in one’s life, or Paul Tillich’s axiological criterion of defining it as whatever serves this particular role for one’s values. Likewise, Rodney Stark has attempted to define religion by the way in which it develops and adapts over time in response to changes in social circumstance.

Theologians and psychoanalysts have also tried to explain the genesis of religion. The former, such as James and Leuba, have argued that it was a natural phenomenon that grew out of human need to give shape to the awe and wonder that people feel toward the cosmos and towards death. The latter, such as Freud, have interpreted the emergence of religion in terms of various psychological processes, most notably the Oedipus complex, which he postulated to involve unresolved sexual feelings of parents and children towards each other and, in turn, a taboo against intrafamily sexual relations.

In recent years a reflexive turn has occurred in the study of religion, with scholars pulling back and examining the constructed nature of the objects that they have previously taken for granted as simply “there.” This newer method is often called polythetic. It works with the notion that there are certain characteristics or properties that all members of a class share, and it is enough for a group to have some of these characteristics to be considered a religion. It is a very different approach from the classical notion of a prototype, which operates with the assumption that there is a single defining property that will accurately describe all examples of a concept. The polythetic approach is similar to the way that scientists sometimes use computer programs to sort bacteria according to their physical characteristics. This enables them to spot unexpected patterns and make useful connections that they could not have found by merely looking at the individual bacteria.