The Academic Study of Religion


Religion is a broad category of beliefs, behaviors and practices that have a wide range of benefits for individuals, families and communities. It may reinforce social solidarity, encourage moral behavior and a sense of responsibility, provide social control and order, and serve as a source of hope and inspiration for the future. In its various forms, it may help reduce stress and anxiety, promote health and well-being, and motivate people to work for positive social change. In addition, many religious teachings and rituals offer concrete guidance on how to live a good life.

In the academic study of Religion, most scholars have taken a variety of approaches to defining the concept. Some have used a functional definition, such as Durkheim’s, which turns on the function of creating social cohesion. Other scholars have analyzed religion through the lens of psychology. These include studies by Sigmund Freud (Oedipus Complex, Illusion), Carl Jung (Universal archetypes), Erich Fromm (Desire, Need for Stability), Gordon Allport (Psychological and Religious Experiences), Rudolf Otto (Mystical Experiences), William James (Pragmatism, Personal Religious Experiences) and a host of others.

A more recent development is the “polythetic” approach, which uses the prototype theory of concepts and allows a number of different characteristics to be considered in a classification scheme. This allows for surprises and the discovery of patterns, for example, in a classification system that looks at bacterial strains, it was found that they all share a small number of properties.

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