The Study of Religion

Religion is a complex phenomenon with an ancient and varied history. It is usually described as a collection of beliefs and practices that are regarded as sacred, ultimate or spiritual. These beliefs and practices orient people’s responses to life’s fundamental questions about death, suffering, tragedy and the nature of the universe and human beings. Religion is also a system of moral or ethical values that people hold and use to guide their lives. The study of religion requires a broad range of methodologies, drawing on textual, historical, anthropological, theological/philosophical and sociological tools.

In modern times, the concept of religion is typically understood as a taxon of sets of social formations, with the paradigmatic examples being the world’s major religious traditions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. It is a common view that these traditions share certain characteristics, which have been analyzed by the classical theory of the prototype and by analytical techniques such as those of structuralism.

There are some who reject this approach to the study of religion and maintain that no such taxon exists, or that a definition for the term is inappropriately restrictive. Others argue that a more appropriate category would be “belief in disembodied spirits and/or explicit metaphysics.” Still others go even further, holding that the word is an artificial construct that arose as a result of European colonialism and that it should be abandoned. These views are criticized by scholars who believe that they prevent the development of a genuine science of religion.

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