The Study of Religion
Religious beliefs and practices are at the heart of most societies. They provide moral guidance and help people to cope with death and loss, as well as giving meaning and purpose to life. For some people, religion is the only thing that explains how to behave in society and what the right choice is in any given situation. Others find that their religion provides the motivation to choose goodness over evil, truth over lies and love over hatred. Throughout history and across cultures religions have evolved, adapted and changed. However, the essence of religion has remained the same.
The study of Religion covers many aspects of belief and behaviour but the key elements are:
People have been interested in the idea of God since prehistoric times. In early societies they used religion to explain life and death and natural events such as hurricanes, while later they developed it into a source of hope. Religion also grew out of human curiosity about the big questions in life and fear of uncontrollable forces such as disease, disasters, war and death. It gave people a sense of hope and the belief that a higher power watched over them and would reward their good deeds and punish their bad ones.
Most of the world’s religions are based on some form of monotheism, that is they believe in one god. A few, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, believe in multiple gods or godesses. The main religions are Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
A common definition of religion was put forward by the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who defined it as “a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these with such an aura of factuality that they seem uniquely real”.
Religion is an important part of most people’s lives. It can influence how people behave and what decisions they make, even though different religions may appear quite different on the surface. Some of these differences are cultural but others come from the different roles within a religion and what specific tasks or duties those roles carry out.
For example, a priest will have different roles within Hinduism and Islam whereas a guru might have the same role in both. Different religions will also have a variety of different rites and rituals which must be followed. These are not just symbolic but often involve the eating of food, the wearing of specific clothes and other practical activities such as prayer and meditation.
The concept of Religion has changed significantly over the years, largely due to changes in the way that it is studied. There is now a growing movement towards what scholars call a phenomenological approach to studying Religion, which involves looking at the experiences of individuals rather than looking at the structures or behavioural patterns that are associated with religion. This method has helped to draw attention to the constructed nature of this contested concept.