The Study of Religion


A religious education can help students develop a more well-rounded and balanced outlook on life. It can also help prepare them for the world of work and a variety of career options. For many students, learning about the cultural beliefs of a new classmate, coworker, or neighbor can be very beneficial. Whether as a major, minor, or simply a way to get to know someone, the study of Religion can be a fascinating and rewarding endeavor.

The term “religion” has long been a social taxon for a diverse array of practices and beliefs that have little in common. It is not surprising that scholars have struggled to understand its limits and what it means to say that something belongs to a religion.

For some, the answer lies in the substance of a religion: whether it includes belief in an unusual kind of reality. Others, following the lead of Emile Durkheim, have sought to define religion in terms of whatever system of practices binds people together into a moral community (whether or not they involve belief in an unusual reality). Still others, including Clifford Geertz, have taken a functional approach that eliminates the need for a specific belief and simply defines religion as “a system of symbols that acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and by clothing these conceptions with an aura of factuality.”

More recently, scholars have been exploring a more polythetic approach to understanding religion. Instead of fastening on a single property that is shared by all religions, polythetic definitions recognize more than one or even two properties that are common to most religions and avoid the claim that an evolving social category has an ahistorical essence.

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