Why Study Religion?

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Religion is a pervasive and powerful force in human history, influencing many aspects of culture and shaping people’s lives. The academic study of religion has its roots in the 19th century, but the subject really came into its own with the rise of social sciences like history, archaeology and anthropology.

Most of the time when scholars discuss religion, they are talking about specific practices or groups of believers that share a set of beliefs and values. This may include a belief in one or more gods or a spiritual concept, a code of conduct and ethical rules that govern behavior, and an understanding of the supernatural. It also involves a sense of community and belonging, as well as an important place in the world.

The definition of religion can be very controversial. While some scholars take a monothetic approach to the term, believing that a religion must have certain defining characteristics in order to be considered a religion, others think that the concept is a bit more fluid. These “polythetic” approaches to religion have been growing in popularity over the last several decades.

For many students, the reason to study religion is simply to understand another person or group’s beliefs better. This could be as simple as learning more about the religious practices of a new co-worker or taking a course to prepare for a trip to a different country. The National Council for the Social Studies supports this approach and reminds students that the study of religion is a critical part of understanding our diverse society.