Religion provides a source of comfort and guidance. It helps people deal with life’s ebb and flow, and it offers a basis for moral beliefs and behaviors. It also promotes social connection and a sense of tradition, and some research suggests it may even improve health. But religion has been a challenging subject to study, partly because of its subjective and abstract nature. Some researchers have attempted to define religion objectively, using such tools as history and anthropology. But even these have been troublesome, with many arguing that religion is too intangible for such an approach.
Others have tried to find a distinctive ingredient in all religions, such as the numinous experience or the contrast between the sacred and the profane. But objections have been raised to all of these attempts, either because they exclude religious ideas considered peripheral (such as the belief in gods in Theravada Buddhism) or because they leave out philosophies such as Marxism and Freud, which are not traditional religions but which address some of the same issues.
In addition, scholars have argued that the concept of religion is itself problematic. It is easy to confuse the term with a particular culture or group, and this confusion has led to debates about whether or not a given concept should be defined as being present in more than one cultural group. Others argue that the concept of religion should be defined functionally, such as by the ways in which it organizes people’s lives, or by its social functions such as its effect on morality.
The modern study of religion began in the 19th century, with the rise of disciplines such as archaeology, history and anthropology. These studies have allowed a more systematic and comparative knowledge of the religious diversity of human cultures around the world.
It is important to teach students about the different religions that exist in the world, both to reduce intolerance and bigotry and to develop global citizens. But it is just as important to help them understand how these religions are practiced today, and this can be done through site visits, films and discussion with students of other faiths.
The concept of religion has evolved through the years, with some of its senses becoming dominant and others receding. The most dominant uses are religion as belief/meaning, religion as identity and religion as structured social relations. The other categories, including Marxist approaches to religion as ideology and Parsonian notions of religion as norms and values are becoming less prominent in academic study. This evolution shows the importance of being self-critical in studying religion. It is important to recognize that assumptions baked into the concept distort our understanding of historical realities. As a result, what is counted as religion by one scholar may be excluded by another. This is why it is important to use a variety of definitions when analyzing religion in a social science context.