The Academic Study of Religion

Religion is the organized devotional life of man aimed at his communion with God. It exists in its highest perfection in heaven, where the angels and saints love, praise, and adore God, and live in perfect conformity with his holy will. On earth, it is practically coextensive with the human race. It is vitiated where the mistake is made of mistaking many nature-deities for the one true God, or where it is sunk into Pantheism and the idea of a universal force such as the all-pervading ether or the force of gravity is substituted for the concept of the Creator.

In his essay Religion and Civil Society, Max Weber offers an alternate definition of religion: “The idea of a religion is not merely a product of the human mind but, rather, the expression and effect of some social reality.” He adds that “the emergence of a concept of religion as a social genus did not wait for language, and it is possible that the phenomenon labelled ‘religion’ is present in all societies, although it has never been articulated in terms of a formal religious doctrine.”

The academic study of religion is a vast and diverse field. Some colleges and universities offer specialized programs of religious studies; others teach a wide range of courses in which religion is one component. Some writers have offered functional definitions, such as that of Durkheim or Paul Tillich, in which the term is defined as whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values, whether or not that concern involves belief in unusual realities.

A substantial part of the discipline is devoted to the study of specific religious traditions, including the history of these traditions and their teachings. Other significant topics include anthropology, comparative religion, philosophy of religion, theology, and cosmology. Some writers, such as Ninian Smart, have analyzed the essential features of any religion and suggested that they can be summed up in a three-sided model consisting of the concepts of truth, beauty, and goodness. Others, such as Catherine Albanese, have added a fourth C for community to this model.

In recent decades, the field has undergone a reflexive turn in which scholars have begun to examine its disciplinary boundaries and the concept of what counts as religion. This has involved the examination of how religion is constructed and has shown how even those cultures that appear to be without religion can exhibit religious elements. It has also demonstrated that the occurrence of religious phenomena does not necessarily imply that those phenomena are genuine beliefs in a supernatural deity or an afterlife. See agnosticism; atheism; theism; polytheism; pantheism; existentialism; and mysticism. Also see cult; divination; ecclesiastical hierarchy; faith; idolatry; iconography; mysticism; prayer; sacred kingship; and shamannism.