The Study of Religion

Religion is a concept used to taxonomize sets of beliefs and practices. It is a “monothetic” concept, meaning that the examples of its membership share a set of defining properties. The last several decades have seen the emergence of “polythetic” approaches to the concept, however. In addition to the classical three-sided model of the true, beautiful, and good, these newer models add a fourth C: community.

Some scholars define religion functionally, as the beliefs and practices that generate social solidarity or provide orientation in life. Others take a more cultural approach. They define it in terms of the culturally sanctioned beliefs, values, and practices that a society accepts as its own, often without recognizing them as such.

The study of religion has a long history. Anthropologists, scientists who study human cultures, believe that early spirituality developed as a response to either a biological or cultural need. Those who support the biological theory of origins believe that religion evolved as a response to the recognition of death, and the desire for a way to avoid it or, at least, a chance to go on to a better place afterward.

Psychologists and neuroscientists, who study the mind and the brain, argue that there is actual circuitry in the human brain for an intense religious experience. Anthropologists, and other scholars, who are more interested in cultural origins, are more likely to argue that early spirituality developed as a response both to the need for a sense of continuity in time and a need for a sense of transcendence, a higher reality beyond the ordinary.

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