The Importance of Studying Religion

The Importance of Studying Religion

Religion consists of a variety of beliefs and practices that encompass a wide range of activities. From the swearing-in of witnesses in a courtroom to the Pledge of Allegiance, religion is woven into the fabric of our lives and can be seen all around us. It influences how we dress, where we live, how we worship and the way that we interact with one another. Studying different religions gives students the opportunity to develop a well-rounded understanding of the world and helps prepare them for whatever career they choose to go into.

There are two senses of the term “religion.” In the first sense, scholars legitimately use the concept to explore a vital part of human experience. Anthropologists and ethnographers study it as a key dimension of the human condition, in its richness and unruliness. Theologians and philosophers use it to describe, interpret and understand a particular body of doctrinal beliefs, values, and dogma that capture our fundamental dependence on something greater than ourselves.

A second sense of religion refers to a social category that is universal and that can be identified as such even when it is not observed in any culture. This approach to religion presupposes that there are certain things that all religions have in common, such as the belief in disembodied spirits and cosmological orders. But there is no obvious way to test the claim that any given religion meets this criteria.

Regardless of how it is understood, there are some core issues that are important to understand in studying religion. The most basic distinction is between descriptive and normative inquiries. Normative questions focus on the truth of religious claims and other aspects of religion that are generally believed to be true or acceptable, while descriptive inquiry focuses on observable dimensions of religion and its history.

The discipline of religion has been shaped in various ways since the 19th century. Anthropologists and sociologists have emphasized the importance of studying religion as an aspect of human culture in its diversity and complexity, while theologians and philosophers have approached it in more normative terms. But the discipline is still young, and it is not clear how it will evolve in the future.

Regardless of which approach is taken, it is essential that the discipline of religion not become narrow and parochial in its scope. The best way to avoid this is for scholars to study religion as a global phenomenon, using the tools and methods of other intellectual disciplines. This way, the discipline will remain as relevant to the world as it has been in the past. And it will be better able to serve its most vital purpose in the future: to make sense of the diversity and complexity of humanity. That is a responsibility worth taking seriously.