The Study of Religion

Religion is a set of beliefs and practices that people regard as sacred. It is the source of moral values, provides a sense of meaning and purpose in life, reinforces social unity and stability, acts as an agent of control, promotes psychological and physical well-being, and may motivate people to work for positive social change.

All religious traditions seem to share certain basic characteristics: they divide the world into two classes or opposed groups, one containing all that is holy and the other containing all that is profane, and the belief that people should live according to these rules. The concept of religion also includes rituals and ceremonies – acts that unite people, celebrate their spirituality, and express religious beliefs and traditions.

The study of Religion is a complex endeavor, both because religion can be both comforting and terrifying, and because it has significant consequences for society, both in terms of its effects on people’s lives and in the way that societies are structured (see Religion in the Social Sciences). Many scholars agree with Emile Durkheim, who argued that the existence of religion is a necessary condition for the emergence of society; the more religious a culture, the more stable and cohesive it tends to be.

Historically, philosophers and scientists have struggled to define Religion. Some, like John Locke, believed that Religion should be separated from other social institutions. Others, like Voltaire and other members of the Enlightenment movement, celebrated Science as the source of true knowledge and dismissed Religion as superstition. In the twentieth century, however, a more functional approach to Religion emerged, defined in terms of the functions that it fulfills.