Introduction to the Study of Religion

I. What is “Religion”?
According to Living Religions, The word is probably derived from the Latin, meaning ‘to tie back,to tie again.’ All of religion shares the goal of tying people back to something behind the surface of life a greater reality, which lies beyond, or invisibly infuses, the world that we can perceive with our five senses. (Living Religions, 2) A more complete definition is provided in the Key terms” section at the end of the chapter:
A particular response to dimensions of life considered sacred, as shaped by institutionalized traditions. (Living Religions, 28)

Frederick Streng (1933-1993), an influential scholar of comparative religion, suggested in his book Understanding Religious Life that the central definition of religion is that it is a ‘means to ultimate transformation.’ A complete definition of religion would include its relational aspect (tying back), its transformational potential, and also its political dimensions.” (Living Religions, 3)

According to the 1990 edition of the Cambridge Encyclopedia, “no single definition will suffice to encompass the varied sets of traditions, practices, and ideas which constitute different religions” (, in which case it may simply be impossible to develop a universally acceptable definition of religion. A potential solution to this problem might be to focus on commonly occurring attributes of religious traditions, such as:
Religious Belief
• revealed and/or discovered truths regarding the origin and meaning of life
belief in (a) supernatural being(s) and some sort of afterlife
conceptual foundations for religious practices and experiences
Religious Practice
an institutionalized body with the authority to regulate and perform religious rituals
a community that engages in individual and/or group practices
normative patterns of moral conduct
Religious Experience
a conceptual understanding of normative religious experiences
rituals/practices intended to produce such experiences
subjective experiences of the sacred and/or mystical experiences
From this perspective, a tradition that possesses a majority of these attributes might be classified as a religion (which is to say that the absence of one or two attributes would not preclude a tradition from being regarded as a religion).

II. Why Are There Religions?
Perspectives on the Origin of Religion
Cultural anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, psychologists, and even biologists have peered at religion through their own particular lenses, trying to explain what religion is, [as well as] its function and purpose ... . [The following are three] of the major theories that have evolved. They are not mutually exclusive. (Living Religions, 5)
(i) The Faith Perspective
Religion is a Human Response to an Ultimate Reality
From the point of view of religious faith, there truly is an underlying reality that cannot readily be perceived. ... The human mind does not function in the rational mode alone; there are other modes of consciousness. In his classic study The Varieties of Religious Experience, the philosopher William James (1842-1910) concluded:
Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. ... No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. (Living Religions, 9)
To perceive truth directly, beyond the senses, beyond the limits of human reason, beyond blind belief, is often called mysticism. ... Encounters with this ordinarily unseen, Ultimate Reality are given various names in spiritual traditions: enlightenment, realization, illumination, satori, awakening, self-knowledge, gnosis, ecstatic communion, coming home. (Living Religions, 9)

An alternative kind of spiritual experience brings one into contact with what the German professor of theology Rudolph Otto (1869-1937) called the Wholly Other.’ Otto referred to this as numinous — a nonrational, nonsensory experience of that which is totally outside the self and cannot be described. ... It brings forth two general responses in a person: a feeling of great awe or even dread and, at the same time, a feeling of great attraction. (Living Religions, 11)
(ii) The Materialist Perspective
There is no Ultimate Reality ~ Humans Invented Religion
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, scientific materialism gained considerable prominence as a theory to explain the fact that religion can be found in some form in every culture around the world. The materialistic point of view is that the supernatural is invented by humans; only the material world exists. (Living Religions, 5)

Sigmund Freud: “Religious ideas ... are not precipitates of experience or end-results of thinking: they are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind. ... Thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life; the establishment of a moral world-order ensures the fulfillment of the demands of justice, which have so often remained unfulfilled in human civilization; and the promulgation of earthly existence in a future life provides the local and temporal framework in which these wish-fulfillments shall take place. ... It is an enormous relief to the individual psyche if the conflicts of its childhood arising from the father complex — conflicts which it has never wholly overcome — are removed from it and brought to a solution which is universally accepted.” (Anthology of Living Religions, 9-10; cf. Living Religions, 5)

Karl Marx:
“Man makes religion: religion does not make man. ... Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
(Living Religions, 5)
Friedrich Nietzsche: “‘Whither is God?’ he cried. ‘I shall tell you! We have killed him — you and I. We are all his murderers! ... God is Dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves? What was holiest and most powerful of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? ... Must we not ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it?” (Anthology of Living Religions, 12)

(iii) The Functional Perspective
Humans Create Religions Because They Are Useful
“Another line of reasoning has emerged in the search for a theory explaining the universal existence of religions: They are found everywhere because they are useful, both for society and for individuals. Religions ‘do things’ for us, such as helping us to define ourselves and making the world and life comprehensible to us. (Living Religions, 6) In short, religions provide insightful answers to fundamental human questions such as:
  • Who are we?
  • Why are we here?
  • Why is there suffering?
  • How should we treat others?
  • How can we reach our potential?
  • What happens after we die?

III. Why Should We Study Religion?

“Traditional cultures and religions naturally assumed their own points of view to be absolute. They did not understand their standpoints to be versions of the world alongside others. One’s own religious beliefs seemed so widely accepted and self-evidently true that they were taken not as one of several descriptions of reality, but simply as the description of reality itself.” (William E. Paden in Anthology of Living Religions (1st Edition), 2)

  • What has changed in our world that has challenged “traditional” assumptions regarding the absoluteness of one’s own religious tradition?
IV. How Should We Study Religion?
“As a descriptive enterprise, the comparative study of religion tries to proceed without the interpretive bias of any particular religious or antireligious position. Rather than looking at religion as something right or wrong, it looks at it as a type of experience, behavior, and symbol system. Religion is therefore seen as a phenomenon. ... The comparative attitude therefore calls for a dispassionate capacity to comprehend and explain other people’s experience of their worlds without interjecting one’s own preferences. One must ‘bracket off’ one’s own concepts of how the world ought to be organized in order to listen to how others configure it, and temporarily set aside what the world means to oneself in order to gain access to what the world means to others.” (William E. Paden in Anthology of Living Religions (1st Edition), 5)
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of this phenomonological approach to the study of religion?
  • How does it compare with other possible approaches that might be adopted?