How to Study Religion

Religion is an umbrella term for diverse beliefs and practices that are often rooted in ancient traditions but also can be inspired by modern ideas such as compassion, calmness, mindfulness of emotions and relationships, respect for life, love for oneself and others, and so forth. It is a complex subject, and there are many ways to study it.

Some scholars have approached the topic by focusing on what is shared between different religions, seeking to identify common features. Others have taken a functional approach, such as Emile Durkheim’s definition of religion as whatever dominant concern serves to create social solidarity or Paul Tillich’s definition that religion is whatever dominant concern organizes people’s values (whether or not these involve belief in unusual realities).

Other scholars have pulled the camera back and focused on how religion is constructed at a particular time and place, by whom for what purposes, and with what effect. This perspective is sometimes called the reflexive turn in religion studies and is reflected by a range of recent scholarship, from anthropology to sociology to history to philosophy.

It has been argued that the idea of religion does not exist as a thing, that it is a social category that we have invented to deal with the world’s religious diversity and to make sense of human history. In fact, there are a number of religions that cannot be classified by any of the three traditional definitions mentioned above. They include some of the new religious movements that have emerged since the 19th century, such as syncretism and re-interpreting older traditions like Judaism and Islam.

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