The Study of Religion


Religion is an area of human activity that has broad social implications. It is the basis of many moral beliefs and behaviors, it provides a structure for social interaction, and it is often a source of comfort in difficult times. It can also have a positive impact on people’s health, including increased longevity and a reduction in stress.

Sociologists study religion in the context of a number of different areas, such as culture, history and politics. They also explore the influence of religion in society at large, both on personal and public life and on the nature of the world and the universe. Despite the wide variety of religions and the diversity of religious experiences, many theories of religion share similar characteristics. These include a belief system with sacred objects and places, the use of myths and symbols, the development of rituals, the concept of salvation, the importance of community, the existence of a god or goddess, and the belief that humans have a spiritual destiny.

Some scholars believe that religion developed in response to a combination of biological and cultural needs. Anthropologists, for example, suggest that early human beings created spirituality as a way to control uncontrollable parts of the environment, such as weather and fertility or success in hunting. Others believe that the need for religion grew out of human curiosity about the big questions of life and death and fear of the unknown. These fears led to the search for immortality or for a chance to escape death or go on to a better place.

In the late 19th century, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung used psychoanalytical techniques to explore the psychological foundations of religious experience and beliefs. More recently, scholars have been using a variety of methods and approaches to study the role of religion in human lives. Some of these studies are quantitative in nature, such as surveys and statistical analysis. Others are qualitative, such as interviews and focus groups. Still others, like those of Clifford Geertz and Paul Tillich, seek to understand religion in terms of its functions in human life.

Some critics argue that defining religion in terms of beliefs or even any subjective states reflects a Protestant bias in the study of religion. They would prefer to see the study of religion shifted away from hidden mental states and towards visible institutional structures that produce these states. Others, such as Margaret Morgan Williams and Raymond Asad, have attempted to balance these two positions by arguing that it is not possible to fully study the function of religion without examining how it relates to its social structure.

Regardless of which theoretical framework is employed in the study of religion, it can be helpful to distinguish between the various types of religions. This can be done through the use of religious categorizations, such as the one developed by William James. These categories can be useful in organizing the vast amounts of data that are available on religion.