Religion is, broadly speaking, people’s attempts to answer questions like “Where did we come from?” and “Why are we here? What does it all mean?” In addition to providing answers, many religions also offer followers structure, a code of ethics, and a sense of purpose. They may also provide the promise of an afterlife, which serves a useful psychological function for many.
Throughout history, different religious beliefs and practices have flourished in the course of human development. Some of these beliefs and practices have been able to hold on for centuries, while others have faded away with the rise of new religions or with changes in popular culture. But one thing that seems to remain constant is that humans have always been curious about the world around them.
The field of study that is Religious Studies consists of the various ways in which people attempt to address these questions. It can include the study of specific religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Latter-day Saints, as well as of more general societal responses to these questions, such as secularism.
Students studying religion are often required to analyze primary sources, such as sacred texts or works of art, and secondary sources, such as surveys or news articles. This type of analysis is meant to help students develop hypotheses about how and why people believe what they believe, as well as how these beliefs and behaviors affect the larger society in which they live.
In many classes, the most effective way to teach about religion is by exploring the different religious traditions themselves. This can be done in a number of ways, including reading the holy book of each religion that interests you (though these books are normally quite lengthy and complex), attending a service in a faith that is not your own, or simply having a conversation with someone of a different religious belief.
Some scholars, such as Durkheim and Paul Tillich, have used a functional definition of religion to describe its role in society: Religion is whatever beliefs and behaviors serve a social function, such as generating solidarity or providing orientation in life, whether or not those beliefs involve belief in unusual realities. Such a definition makes religion seem to exist in every culture, but it does not necessarily follow that any of these beliefs or behaviors is “true” or “authentic.”
Other scholars use a more qualitative approach to the concept of religion. These “polythetic” approaches to the study of religion focus on the fact that not all instances of a concept share the same defining properties, and they thus treat each case of the concept as a prototype rather than as having a fixed meaning. As such, these polythetic approaches allow for the possibility that some religions can be classified as similar even if they differ from each other in fundamental aspects of their practice. In other words, there is no single, essential religion. This allows for a broader range of interpretations and understandings of the term, which ultimately can lead to a deeper level of learning.