A study of Religion is an important topic because it increases your understanding of the diversity of people and cultures that make up our global community. Whether you’re interested in the cultural beliefs of a friend or coworker, moving to a different city or country, or just learning more about the world around you, studying Religion helps you to navigate this complexity.
Religion refers to a complex of organized beliefs, practices, and systems that are typically centered on belief in a divine or supernatural force. It may include worldviews, texts, prophecies, revelations, morals, and a variety of rituals. It is also often accompanied by an emphasis on prayer, meditation, holy places, symbols, trances, and feasts.
It is not uncommon for scholars to treat religion as a social genus, meaning that it appears in more than one culture and can be defined either substantively (the beliefs and practices that a person holds) or functionally (the ones that generate social cohesion or provide orientation). This view of religion is not without its critics. For example, some believe that to define religion functionally is to suggest that it is an inevitable feature of human existence. This is a flawed argument because religion is a social construct, and therefore, it can be defined in any number of ways that do not render it nonrealist.
Other scholars argue that religion is a myth, an idea about the universe and humanity that is not true but is nevertheless highly influential in people’s lives. This theory is based on the notion that there are patterns in human experience that can be identified and explained by using myth as a lens.
In this perspective, religious experiences are primarily emotional and psychological, rather than cognitive. They involve tears, joy, trancelike states, feelings of connectedness with the world and with others, altered states of consciousness, and many other types of experience that can be profoundly transformative. These experiences can be interpreted in a variety of ways and serve many functions, including providing meaning and purpose to life, strengthening community ties, maintaining social stability and control, promoting physical and psychological well-being, and motivating people to work for social change.
Emile Durkheim, an Austrian sociologist who was also a physician, developed the sociological concept of religion in 1892. Durkheim focused on the social functions that religions perform, and he theorized that these functions are accomplished regardless of what particular religious beliefs are promoted or practiced. Today, this theory is largely accepted as part of the mainstream of social science.
The goal of the study of religion should be to encourage learning about all religious views, but not to promote or denigrate any one belief system. It is necessary to educate about religions so that we can understand each other’s beliefs, prevent religious illiteracy, and promote respect for diversity and peaceful coexistence in local, national, and international communities. This is a challenging endeavor, but it is essential to our global society. Religious illiteracy fuels prejudice and antagonism, which undermines efforts to foster respect for diverse viewpoints and cooperation in local, regional, national, and global arenas.