What are some foundational reasons for studying religion? There are a number of such reasons, some of which this post will attempt to show can be both academic and personal.
First, religion presents itself within human experience, notably in societies and therefore opens itself up to investigation. The French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), in his The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, observed that religion has “been too widespread throughout humanity and is too established to be illusory. An illusion does not last this way for centuries.” Durkheim declared religion to be an “imminently social” reality, which is not merely a “system of ideas” but “above all a system of forces.” Given these forces, religious ideas will find expression in many important and powerful areas of human intellectual and social life including, but not limited to, art, philosophy, history, sociology, anthropology, politics, and psychology. For scholars, this provides impetus for studying religion. This project has unfolded in the historical development of religious studies as a discipline when theorists first began entertaining the possibility that religion could be “approached and traced as a continuous narrative” in the effort to render the “subject of religion intelligible” (1).
A second important reason for studying religion is because it assists in understanding human beings. It seems obvious that sociologists and anthropologists would find themselves at a deficit concerning an understanding of human beings and their motivations should the religious aspect be neglected. The overwhelming majority of people have been (and still very much are) religious, which means that most cultures and societies throughout history have been influenced by religion. Teachings of religious traditions influence how people perceive reality, such as what roles certain people should have within the family or society, how members of a specific gender should act, how to view unbelievers or outsiders, and so on. Understanding religion will assist in answering questions about human ritual and behaviour, some of which might be unfamiliar. Why do some Samoans ask for a pardon before chopping down a tree or plucking a plant from the ground? Why do the Dogon construct their villages in the shape of the human body? And why do tantric Buddhists engage in elaborate dance performances? If one wishes to understand these rituals and practices then engaging in a study of religion is required. This was put forth with clarity in the words of anthropologist and symbologist Clifford Geertz (1926-2006),
“Whether it be formulated as mana, as Brahma, or as the Holy Trinity, that which is set apart as more than mundane is inevitably considered to have far reaching implications for the direction of human conduct. Never merely metaphysics, religious is never merely ethics either. The source of its moral vitality is conceived to lie in the fidelity with which it expresses the fundamental nature of reality. The powerful coercive “ought” is felt to grow out of a comprehensive factual “is,” and in such a way religious grounds the most specific requirements of human action in the most general contexts of human existence” (2).
Thirdly, studying religion allows for interfaith dialogue, which is a much needed effort in contemporary pluralistic and religiously diverse societies. The understanding and willingness to confer as equals helps, says African scholar of religion Laurenti Magesa, “to contribute to the peace and survival of our fractured and precarious universe” (3). The theologian Hans Kung argued similarly, saying that there can be no peace without religious dialogue,
“We need a more intensive philosophical and theological dialogue of theologians and specialists in religion which takes religious plurality seriously in theological terms, accepts the challenge of the other religions, and investigates their significance for each person’s own religion” (4).
A fourth, and very personal, motive for studying religion is because it might provide clarity in the process of going about deciding what to believe. We realize that there are many religions and we might desire to find and embrace a religion that compels and attracts us in some way. Many people have mystical experiences they consider to be religious, such as experiences of awe, wonder, and even worship. Perhaps religion is what best accounts for this and that will best satisfy the individual. Yet most of us realize that religions cannot all be true: perhaps some are true, or one of them is true, or maybe all of them are false. These are important questions that many people ask. How we answer them will also influence how we perceive the world, our place in the world, and ourselves. But how is one going to ever answer these important questions unless he or she takes the time to look into it them?
1. Capps, W. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. p. xxii, 345.
2. Geertzs, C. 1968. Ethos, World-View and the Analysis of Sacred Symbols. In Dundes, A. Every Man His Way: Readings in Cultural Anthropology. p. 302-303
3. Magesa, L. 2014. African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life. p. 3
4. Kung, H. 1991. Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic. p. 137-138.