The Study of Religion

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The study of religion examines human responses to life’s great riddles and questions, including death, suffering, tragedy and the nature of the universe. Religious Studies uses historical, ethnographic, theological/philosophical and sociological tools to analyze the diverse cultural manifestations of religion. The goal is to understand how individuals and communities respond to the mysteries of life through beliefs, values, practices and rituals that shape their worldviews.

The term “religion” comes from the Latin verb religio, which means a kind of scrupulousness or devotion. In Western antiquity, religio referred to the careful observation of taboos, promises, curses and commitments made by a person to their gods. In other cultures, religio could refer to a whole set of beliefs and rituals related to a single god or goddess.

There have been many attempts to define what religion is. The most common definitions involve a belief in a particular type of transcendent reality. Some scholars, especially anthropologists and sociologists, take a more functional approach to the concept of religion. Emile Durkheim defined religion as whatever system of social ties unite people into a moral community, and Rodney Stark has worked to analyze the evolutionary advantages that religion might have provided hunter-gatherers.

These two approaches to the concept of religion are not mutually exclusive and can be used together. The question is whether the distinctions they create are necessary and sufficient. Regardless of how the concept of religion is defined, it is clear that some things clearly belong to the category of religion while others do not.