The Study of Religion


Religion is a social concept used to refer to a group of beliefs, practices, and institutions. Most academic studies of religion focus on the beliefs, rituals, and symbols of religious traditions, but some also investigate the effects of religious belief and practice on individual and societal well-being. The study of religion has a long history, and there are many schools of thought about how it should be approached. The study of religion has also been influenced by cultural changes, such as the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, which shifted intellectual understandings of religion away from earlier theological forms.

Historically, most attempts to analyze religion have been monothetic, or operating with the classical view that every instance accurately described by a given concept will share a defining property that puts it in the category. Recently, however, scholars have been experimenting with “polythetic” approaches, which abandon this classical view and treat concepts as having prototypes rather than one-size-fits-all properties.

A key assumption in these polythetic approaches is that human societies and cultures vary greatly and therefore a single, comprehensive definition of religion would be useless. A more useful approach is to treat the term as a social genus that can occur in some cultures but not others. This perspective allows us to recognize the fact that there are some beliefs and practices that are commonly seen as religions in different cultures, but it also means that people can be religious without believing in disembodied spirits or cosmological orders.

Moreover, this generative perspective makes it possible to identify the social and cultural influences that shape specific manifestations of religion, thus providing an important analytical tool for comparison. This is especially true when it comes to the reworking of religious beliefs and practices in response to changing cultural conditions.

For example, the emergence of the Ghost Theory in the late 19th century attributed the origins of religion to the service and propitiation of departed relatives. This theory suggests that the first religious offerings were food, weapons and utensils that were deposited in tombs as a form of homage to great nature-deities whose occupations, needs and tastes in the next life were mistakenly assumed to be similar to those of earthly existence.

Other influential books in the reflexive turn of anthropology included Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion (1993), which applies Michel Foucault’s genealogical method to the field of religion. Asad argues that the concept of religion that operates in contemporary anthropology has been shaped by assumptions that are both Christian (in the sense that it takes beliefs as a universal inner state characteristic of all religions) and modern (in the sense that it treats religion as essentially distinct from politics). As a result, the term is problematical because it fails to recognize the social, political and economic forces that shape religious phenomena. To remedy this, he suggests that the concept of religion should be revised to include more than the traditional three-sided model of the true, the beautiful and the good, to add a fourth dimension: community.