Religion is an expansive term encompassing all different spiritual, transcendental and faith-based systems of belief and their associated rituals, traditions, values and customs. It can be difficult to define, but one thing is for sure, it’s a powerful force in the world and an important part of culture. Taking classes in this field of study can help students gain a broad understanding of the history of religion and the different beliefs that make up this cultural phenomenon.
In the nineteenth century, with the growth of archaeology, anthropology and social science generally, scholars began to study religion in a more systematic way. Initially, this was done through the lens of Western philosophy and theology, but as the knowledge base expanded, scholars developed more complex understandings of religion in general, and the field of study gained a more holistic perspective.
One common definition of religion is a substantive one that defines it in terms of the presence of a particular kind of belief in reality. This is an approach that one sees in Emile Durkheim, who argues that religion is whatever system of practices unites people into a moral community (whether or not those systems involve beliefs in unusual realities). It also is seen in the philosopher Paul Tillich, who defines religion as the prevailing concerns that organize and guide a person’s values.
Alternatively, scholars have favored functional definitions of religion. This means that a religious system is defined in terms of its role it plays in the life of a society or individual. This approach can be found in Durkheim, and it is also present in the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. It is a more positive view of religion, arguing that it reflects the aspirations of humanity. This was a view that was further developed by the philosophers Franz Junghuhn and Friedrich Schelling, as well as by the 19th-century Romantics and others who came to follow them.
Anthropologists suggest that early religion may have developed in response to human attempts to control uncontrollable parts of their environment. These attempts can take the form of manipulation—such as drawing pictures of animals on cave walls in order to ensure success in hunting—or supplication—as is shown in the earliest examples of religion, such as asking for gods and goddesses to bless or punish humans.
These types of theories of religion have a number of problems, not least the fact that they tend to be reductionist in that they don’t recognize the ways in which the other dimensions of culture contribute to the existence of a particular religion. To fully understand religion, it is necessary to take into account all the contributing factors—from a particular set of practices and beliefs to physical culture, habits and even feelings. To these dimensions, scholars sometimes add a fourth, called community, to the model. This is a good way to recognize the ways that the social and the cognitive are always intertwined. This approach is often called a polythetic definition of religion.