Religion is an incredibly broad term that encompasses a very wide range of beliefs and practices. It’s so broad that some scholars have argued that it is not possible to study religion without also studying other aspects of culture, and others have questioned the validity of using the word religion at all.
The term religion has a long history, but the modern discipline of Religious Studies emerged with the recognition that religions are so commonplace around the world and so powerful that they deserve to be studied in their own right. Studying the different religions in the world enables you to understand the diversity of global cultures and increases your understanding of the complexity of the global community. From the Pledge of Allegiance to the swearing in of a witness in court, religion is pervasive and shapes our daily lives.
Emile Durkheim stressed that religion is a social phenomenon and that it serves several functions in a society regardless of the particular religion itself or its specific beliefs. He believed that religion helps to create and sustain solidarity, that it serves as an agent of social control, that it promotes psychological and physical well-being, and may inspire people to work for positive social change.
Another function of religion is to make moral behavior more likely. By teaching people moral values, religion encourages people to act ethically and contribute to a civilized society. The Judeo-Christian tradition of the Ten Commandments is one example of this type of religion.
Religions can help people cope with loss, illness and death and offer guidance on living a happy life. They can also provide an identity that gives meaning and purpose to life. Some religious beliefs are comforting, while others can be disturbing or frightening.
While many of these beliefs are based on supernatural causes, some are based on natural causes and can be as practical as any other. Many religions have left their mark on culture and politics, including through art and music, literature, rituals, dietary restrictions, burial practices, dress codes, and even alterations to the body like male circumcision and piercings.
The vast variety of beliefs and practices that have been given the label “religion” raises two philosophical questions about this taxonomic sorting of cultural types: What properties must a belief or practice have in order to be classified as religion? And should we be able to use this classification as a tool for understanding human cultural development? Some critics have gone so far as to argue that the concept of religion is a category invented by European colonialism and that it should be rejected in favor of a more inclusive definition. The problem with this approach, according to Possamai, is that it removes religion from the category of things and replaces it with a subjective mental state. In addition, it can lead to a false sense of objectivity that makes it difficult for scholars to critique the stipulative definitions that have been used to classify the concept.