The Study of Religion

What is Religion?

Merriam Webster defines religion as “a belief in a god or a group of gods; an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods; an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group; a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith” (Merriam Webster, 2016).  However, this is neither a complete nor accurate definition of religion.

Religion could be said to contain some or all of the following eight elements: belief system; community; central myths; ritual; ethics; characteristic emotional experiences; material expression; and sacredness. A belief system is where several beliefs about the universe and humans place in the world fit together to form a worldview. This belief system or worldview is shared by several people in a community, and its ideals are practiced by this community. Religions contain myths or stories about the creator of the universe or about the human helper the creator sent to Earth. It should be noted that myth does not necessarily mean the stories are untrue, just that they are a part of that specific religion. Religions contain rituals or ceremonies that are practiced by the community, such as baptism in Christianity. Religions provide rules or ethics about how people should act and how they should treat others. These rituals and ceremonies usually bring a characteristic emotional experience with them, such as awe, or inner peace, maybe even fear. Religions use material expressions, such as paintings, and statues to depict the lives of the deities or saints that form the religious belief system. Religions carry with a feeling of sacredness by using special clothing, different languages, or places, in the community to shares in this sacredness (Molloy, 2013). Regardless of what religion one believes in and follows, all religions have certain elements in common.

Patterns in World Religions

All religions are different, but all religions are also the same in some ways. All religions have three major patterns that can be seen across cultures, and those patterns are views of the world and life, focus on beliefs and practices, and views on males and females (Molloy, 2013).

All religions attempt to answer one of the most profound questions known to humankind – What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? What is our purpose?  How did the universe come into existence; will it ever end? How do we reach fulfillment or salvation? What is or should be our relationship with nature? What is or what should be our relationship with the sacred or the holy?  All religions answer these questions in different ways (Molloy, 2013).

Some religions define the sacred or “God” as transcendent, living in a realm beyond our ability to reach. Other religions represent sacred as being within humans and nature and can be experienced as energy or a feeling of peace. Sometimes it is seen as having personal attributes, much like humans, and sometimes it is viewed as an impersonal entity, who has not care about humans (Molloy, 2013).

Some religions see the creator of the universe as a personal, caring entity that has a master plan for the cosmos, and that he or she is guiding the world along on an ultimate path that leads to his or her ultimate goal for life. Other religions view the universe as eternal, having neither a beginning nor end. If the religion sees the universe as having been created by a creator, then that religion worships that creator. If, however, the religion views the universe as eternal, with no creator, then the universe becomes the center of that religion (Molloy, 2013).

The human attitude toward nature is also something all religions address. Some religions believe that nature was put here to be the tools for man. Some religions preach that nature is evil and must be overcome. Some religions say that nature is sacred and needs no alterations. And, some religions teach that nature is or was created by a divine being for humans to shape (Molloy, 2013).

In some religions time is considered linear, moving in a straight line from the beginning to the end; the end of everything as we know it. In these religions time is important because it is limited and unrepeatable. In other religions time is cylindrical, moving in an endless pattern of changes that repeat themselves over and over again on a grand scale. In these religions time is not so important, the universe is not moving towards an ultimate ending, and enjoying the present is more important than being concerned about the future (Molloy, 2013).

In some religions, humans have a purpose and are part of a great divine plan. Individual meaning comes from within and from the divine in the context of a great struggle between the forces of good and evil. In these religions human actions are of great importance and therefore, their actions are prescribed by a righteous moral code. In other religions, however, human life and their actions are not viewed as important, and the individual person is only part of a much larger reality. In these religions, humans are not seen as a small part of a larger plan; they are seen as part of a family, society, and the universe as a whole; placing more importance on how one may achieve harmony with the universe, as opposed to their individual salvation. Human action is not guided by a divine moral code, but by the family and society of the individual (Molloy, 2013).

Different Approaches to Studying Religions

            The study of religion was, at one time, divided among different academic fields. Fields such as psychology, theology, and philosophy would study different aspects of religions. Now, the study of religion is unified into one academic field, but all the different fields still study religion as part of their curriculum.

Psychology means soul study in Greek, and encompasses the study of human mental states, emotions, and behaviors. Psychology takes a special interest in religions because of its rich material in human experiences. Mythology is the study of myths, which is the study of religious stories, texts, and arts that reveal universal commonalities. Philosophy means the love of wisdom in Greek, and encompasses the study of human life and their purpose. Theology means the study of the divine in Greek, and encompasses the study of one particular religious belief, usually the religion of the theologies who is doing the studying in order to gain a deeper understanding of their own religion (Molloy, 2013).

Critical Issues in Studying Religion

The academic study of religion has, in the past, been carried out by individuals seeking to find further knowledge in their own religion. However, in recent decades, there has been a shift in this cycle where now people are wanting to study religion academically without promoting the beliefs of one religion over another. The great questions of religions were once studied as a philosophy course in colleges, while other aspects of religious beliefs were found scattered in such academic departments as anthropology, history, or psychology. The study of religion then was very fragmented, scattered all over the college campus, and no unified course could be found.

In the recent past, all of this has changed and now most campuses have a department for studying religion as a whole. However, the academic study of religion brings problems and questions, as well as clarity, insight, and answers. Some concerns include the rights and obligations that professionals hold towards the practitioners of each religion, the truthfulness of informants or interpreters, the objectivity of the professional, and how, and in what way do researchers change indigenous communities.

 

References

Molloy, M. (2013). Experiencing the world’s religions: Tradition, challenge, and change (6th

Ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Religion. (n.d.). Retrieved June 13, 2016, from http://www.merriam

webster.com/dictionary/religion

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Author: harmony_loves_exploring

Anthropologist, with minors in Sociology and Psychology, traveler, and writer. Mom! In true love!

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