The Study of Religion

Religion is a complex concept that encompasses many diverse beliefs, practices, and institutions. The study of religion, then, requires a great deal of intellectual flexibility and creativity. Scholars have used a variety of analytical lenses to explore the nature of religion, including social science, historical, philosophical, and comparative approaches.

A great many people consider themselves religious in some sense. For some, this may involve believing in a god or in multiple gods. For others, it may involve following a particular set of morals. Still other people may consider themselves religious in the sense that they have an inner experience, mood, or motivation that they feel is sacred. These different definitions of religion underscore the challenge of describing and analyzing it.

The most common definition of religion today is based on the work of Emile Durkheim (1858-1917). Durkheim defined religion as a system of beliefs and practices that are held by a group to be sacred, or set apart from the mundane. A belief is sacred when it is regarded as a source of ultimate authority or power.

Durkheim’s notion of the sacred led to his classification of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism as world religions. But his legacy also extends to many secular practices, such as the passionate regard for and rituals surrounding national symbols and flags and the fervent anger that is often provoked when these are desecrated.

In modern times, the term religion has come to be applied to a wide variety of beliefs and practices that have no formal connection to any of the world’s major religions. This phenomenon has given rise to a number of sociological perspectives on religion that seek to understand the various functions that religion serves and how these functions can contribute to inequality and other problems in society.

A key concern of most of these sociological perspectives on religion is the way in which religion can reinforce and perpetuate inequality, as well as other social problems such as violence, poverty, and environmental degradation. This is a view that some people call the conflict perspective on religion.

Other perspectives on religion, such as those formulated by Kwame Anthony Appiah (1954 – present), take a more cautious stance. They question whether there is such a thing as a religion at all, or at least that vast generalizations about it are dangerous and unfounded (see, for example, his short talk).

In addition, they emphasize that although religion can be a source of social cohesion, history shows that it can also promote social conflict by inciting individuals and entire communities to persecute or kill those who disagree with them. This is a view that some people refer to as the symbolic interactionist perspective on religion.

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