The Study of Religion


Religion is a broad term that encompasses many different cultural practices. The concept of religion is often used as a social taxon, sorting out groups of practices that share certain features, such as the world’s major religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism). Social theorists like Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber studied the ways in which these social formations worked in societies. Their ideas shaped the modern understanding of how people cope with their lives and their concerns, particularly those about death and what happens after it.

A core tenet of most organized religions is that they are the way for followers to cope with those ultimate concerns, providing structure, moral guidelines, and the promise of an afterlife. The promise of salvation enables some people to overcome life’s difficulties by finding meaning in them.

The study of religion has taken a variety of forms over the years, including studies in anthropology, history, philosophy, theology, sociology, and psychology. More recently, there has been a move to study the idea of religion in a more reflexive manner by asking questions about how the concept has been constructed and its use in society. These inquiries are prompted in part by the emergence of the field of cognitive science, which studies how people think about the world and the things that inhabit it. The result of these investigations is a growing realization that there are a number of philosophical issues that can arise around the nature and use of the concept religion, just as there are about other abstract concepts such as literature, democracy, or culture itself.