The Study of Religion


Religion is a collection of beliefs, practices and social organization. It deals with sacred things, a sense of the divine, and moral guidelines. It can give meaning to life, provide comfort in times of tragedy and offer strength during difficult periods. It can bring people together and motivate them to work for social change. Many religions also have institutions that administer charities and education, and organize community events. The study of religion is a very diverse discipline. Anthropologists (social scientists who focus on the study of cultures and their people) have found evidence that religious belief and ritual behavior are very ancient. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of burial rituals among prehistoric humans and have uncovered remains from other species that lived during past geological periods.

Some sociologists define religion by what it does, and not by what its doctrines are or what specific beliefs are held. This approach is sometimes called a “functional definition” and is considered one of the most important tools in the study of religion. The problem with this type of definition, however, is that it inevitably contrasts religions and attempts to rank them on a scale of goodness.

Other sociologists take a more holistic view of religion and look at its components. These include the social element, spiritual experience, the social institution and its authority. This is sometimes referred to as a family-resemblances approach, since religions have many characteristics in common. While some may emphasize different aspects of religion, they are all made up of similar components that make them a “family.”

Emile Durkheim, an early sociologist who studied the impact of religion, believed that it served many functions, including binding people in society, promoting behavioral consistency, and offering strength for individuals during tragedies and transitions in their lives. His work is a significant contribution to the modern study of religion.