Religious belief and practice play a crucial role in the lives of most people on earth. The fact that this is true has profound implications for the study of religion. Those who approach the subject from a totally secular perspective often misunderstand its fundamentals, and are likely to miss some of the most important aspects of human life. This is unfortunate because the field of Religion has a vital importance for the well being of our societies and its citizens. Those who study it must understand its place in the lives of two-thirds of the world’s population if they are to provide useful services for them.
The scholarly study of Religion has evolved considerably over the past half-century. The earliest attempts to classify what we now think of as religions began with anthropological studies in the 19th century. Anthropologists divided religious practices into categories such as polytheism (belief in more than one god), henotheism (worship of only a small number of deities) and monotheism (worship of only one god).
These early attempts to define Religion based on what believers believe tended toward substance definitions that required adherence to a distinctive kind of reality. In the 20th century, however, an alternative approach emerged that dispensed with the need to believe in a specific set of beliefs and focused instead on how a particular set of beliefs and practices served people. This functional definition is now the dominant approach to the study of Religion.
Emile Durkheim and Paul Tillich developed sociological theories of religion that relied on this functional definition, and a variety of scholars have since developed similar ideas. These views are sometimes referred to as “functionalist” theories of Religion, although some have criticized them as tending to explain away rather than to explore religion’s essential nature.
There has also been a resurgence of interest in the study of Religion that takes its cue from the concept of culture, with an emphasis on what social processes and cultural products make up the category we now call religion. Those who take this view of Religion see it as a contested social taxon that cannot be understood by focusing solely on its constituent beliefs and practices. Instead, they argue that it is better to consider what these beliefs and practices share with other social cultural types, a notion known as analogical similarity or family resemblance.
A growing body of research supports the hypothesis that the practice of Religion serves to stabilize and strengthen families and communities, providing a moral structure that helps people deal with problems such as crime, drug addiction, AIDS, mental illness, and prejudice. It also contributes to a sense of meaning in people’s lives and enhances their health, academic achievement, and work performance. These benefits seem to be more pronounced in countries with strong religious traditions than in those without them. As such, the study of Religion has profound implications for public policy, psychotherapy, and education. It is also of great relevance for the debate over globalization and terrorism.