The Study of Religion

The study of Religion allows students to gain a better understanding of people and cultures around the globe. It opens up opportunities for civic engagement and cultivates skills needed to work collaboratively with diverse populations. This is consistent with the NCSS Framework, which calls for all students to explore a broad range of global contexts and issues in preparation for post-secondary life.

The concept of religion is a difficult one to pin down. Traditionally it has served as a taxon for sets of social practices, with the paradigmatic examples being the so-called “world religions.” In fact, this nineteenth-century invention of religion was crafted within the crucible of European missionary and colonial encounters, and it quickly emerged as an internal hierarchical classificatory system.

It is also common today to use the term as a functional taxon, identifying practices that unite a group of people into a moral community, regardless of whether they believe in any particular unusual reality. This approach was largely inspired by Emile Durkheim’s work, which prepared the way for more modern developments.

As a result, scholars are increasingly turning away from stipulative definitions of religion and towards polythetic ones. Polythetic definitions avoid the claim that an evolving social category has a fixed essence by acknowledging many properties that can be shared among religions without necessarily being essential. These approaches are not only less prone to ethnocentrism, but they are also more capable of dealing with the reality that there are many things in this world that simply cannot be captured by any definition of religion at all.

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