Understanding Religion in a Variety of Disciplines and Perspectives
Religion is one of the most pervasive aspects of culture, so it’s no surprise that its study requires a range of disciplines and perspectives to fully understand. You can choose to major in Religion, or simply take a course to better understand your own cultural beliefs, those of a friend or coworker, or to further your understanding of the religious belief system of a foreign country you may be traveling to on an exchange program or as part of a job abroad.
Substantive definitions of religion, such as that of Emile Durkheim, which defines religion as whatever set of practices unite a group into a moral community, are still common among scholars today. But a growing number of scholars have rejected substantive definitions and adopted a different approach, treating the term “religion” as a social taxon that does not have an essence but rather sorts social types. Such taxons tend to have overlapping sets of properties, just as computer programs that sort bacteria tend to identify groups that share the same set of characteristics.
Sociological approaches to religion seek to understand the functions that religions serve for their believers, how they can reinforce and perpetuate inequality and conflict, and how they can motivate people to work for social change. These perspectives tend to have a more pragmatic view of religion, limiting it to a set of behaviors that are deemed sacred by social structures, but they also acknowledge that some activities may never qualify as religion if they do not include the concept of transcendental entities or gods.