Religion is human beings’ relationship to that which they deem holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. It is most often defined as a way of dealing with ultimate concerns about life and death—whether in a literal sense, as in heaven or hell after death or a more symbolic sense, such as the attainment of nirvana—but it can also deal with such practical matters as moral conduct, right belief, and participation in religious institutions. It can be expressed in many forms and traditions, such as mythology, prayer, scriptures, sacraments, rituals, moral laws, and symbols. It may be experienced in many ways, including worship, fellowship, and devotional practices, and it is usually accompanied by some form of organization and community.
The study of religion involves the use of a wide range of approaches, including textual analysis, sociological, anthropological, and philosophical. It is a complex and fascinating subject. It is important for the study of history to include a grasp of religions, as they have been important in shaping both individuals and societies throughout the world. It is also vital for the understanding of culture.
Many textbooks take a standard “dates and doctrines” approach to teaching religion, which may help students pass standardized tests but doesn’t adequately prepare them for the complexities of living in a multicultural society. Instead, seek out resources that teach about the variety of beliefs and practices in modern-day religious cultures; give first-person accounts from members of a particular faith about what it means to be part of their group; and allow students to contribute their own input to class discussions so that they feel more involved in learning about different religions.
A third issue with the study of religion is the question of what it is to be a religion. Many scholars reject the notion that a religion must be some specific kind of belief, for example, that it must involve the supernatural. Others, such as Carl G. Jung, argue that a religion must be a coherent system of values and beliefs. Finally, some scholars such as Margaret Smith and George Herbert Asad contend that religion names a social reality rather than an existential phenomenon.
Despite these debates, it is generally agreed that religion exists and that it is a social genus. Emile Durkheim suggests a functional definition of religion: it is whatever systems of practices unite people into a single moral community (whether or not those communities believe in any unusual realities). Paul Tillich takes the same view, but with more emphasis on a person’s dominant concern to organize his or her values.
Whether you decide to pursue Religion as a major, or just want to better understand the cultural beliefs of your friends or coworkers, this subject is essential for our global society. By studying it, you can learn about the subjective boundaries that people have historically placed around what is considered “sacred” and what is considered “profane.” You’ll also gain a deeper appreciation of the diversity that we share in this world.