The Academic Study of Religion


Religion is a cultural phenomenon that is both pervasive and powerful, shaping people’s beliefs and practices. Its enduring influence, combined with its rich diversity, make the study of religion within an academic context vital. The term itself has a long history of usage and semantic shifts, but the academic study of religion emerged only in the twentieth century as scholars recognized that its study would require a new framework.

Scholars have debated how best to define the concept of religion, with most approaches falling into one of two categories: a substantive or functional approach. Substantive definitions of religion assess the presence of a belief in a distinctive kind of reality, while functional definitions consider the unique way a form of life can unite people into a moral community.

For many scholars, a problem with substantive definitions is that they are based on the idea that the existence of such beliefs is necessary for a religion to exist. This view, known as the “requisite theory” of religion, is problematic because it equates religion with certain types of beliefs or practices, even if those beliefs or practices are not shared by all believers.

The emergence of the social science of religion prompted an alternative approach that avoids this problem. Scholars who use the term today take religion to be a taxon for sets of social practices that have at least some family resemblance. This is a more general notion of religion than the paradigmatic forms of religion that are familiar to most Westerners—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism—and it may be that all forms of human life can be labeled as religions in this sense.

This more general notion of religion raises a question about the nature of the category, which is: does it have to be defined in terms of necessary and sufficient properties or should it simply be treated as a prototype concept? While it is tempting to say that the latter option is more appropriate, this argument overlooks the fact that there are problems with any lexical definition of a concept.

In addition, the idea that there is a minimum set of features that must be present in a religion makes it hard to include a religion such as the United States military, which has many of the characteristics of a religious organization but does not believe in a transcendent being.

The most common solution to these problems is to add a fourth dimension to the three-sided model of the true, the beautiful, and the good, which is the material culture that shapes the practices and communities that are organized as religions. This includes the physical habits, rituals, and social structures of a group, as well as its beliefs, values, and celebrations. Including this dimension is sometimes called the “anthropological” approach to religion. This method, which was pioneered by Ninian Smart, also emphasizes the importance of understanding what religions have in common as well as their differences.