The Study of Religion
Religion is a unified system of beliefs and values that gives its members an object or objects of devotion, someone or something sacred to believe in, and a code of conduct for dealing with the world. Generally, religion also involves some type of belief in life after death. Most of the world’s 6.2 billion people identify as religious in some way, and many of them practice more than one religion. There are a few religions that actively seek new members and are often described as “proselytizing,” trying to convert others to their beliefs.
There are many ways to approach the study of religion, but there are some basic similarities. In general, those who study religion try to understand how a religious system works, what makes it tick, and how it affects the lives of those who participate in it. They also try to determine what, if anything, separates religion from other systems and what characteristics make it unique.
Some researchers take a sociological perspective, analyzing how religion organizes society, promotes social inequality, and leads to hostility and violence motivated by religious differences. They also use sociology to compare different religions and look at how they are evolving in a globalized world. Emile Durkheim, a major theorist in this area, focused on the functions that religion serves for individuals and society.
Other approaches are more scientific, based on psychology or neuroscience. Psychologists and neuroscientists, for example, suggest that religion meets human needs, such as a fear of death or a need for meaning and value in life. Some of these scientists also support the theory of memes, which explains how ideas spread and are copied from person to person, much like genes.
Anthropologists, who study human cultures and their origins, offer a different explanation of the evolution of religion. They argue that early religions were protective systems that evolved to control uncontrollable aspects of the environment, such as weather and pregnancy and birth. These early religions tried to manipulate their environments by using magic and supplication. Magic attempts to manipulate the environment directly, such as by drawing pictures of animals on cave walls in hopes of improving hunting success, while supplication seeks divine assistance.
In addition, anthropologists have argued that religions provide comfort and meaning in life by providing a sense of purpose and direction and by establishing codes of recognition, so that in potentially hostile environments people can recognize whether those approaching them are friends or foes. They also build confidence by enabling people to know who they are, where they came from, and where they are going.
Some critics of religion point out that focusing on the beliefs and mental states that form the basis for religion ignores the fact that religion is a social construct. These critics suggest that the use of the term “religion” as a synonym for culture, instead of a particular set of mental states, has been influenced by Protestantism, and that it would be more useful to view religion as a cultural system rather than as an idea or a set of beliefs.