The Academic Study of Religion

Religion is one of the most contested concepts in human history. Originally it meant scrupulous devotion; then it was expanded to encompass theistic, polytheistic, and cosmic forms of belief and practice. Today it is most often defined as a system of social practices. But even that definition is problematic. It may be used to describe a variety of things that are not religious at all, including sports, movies, and fashion trends. It also explains little about what is distinctive about religion and makes it difficult to critique.

The reason is that religions do far more than provide a framework for sanctioning and rewarding, approving and disapproving, and inspiring and ideating. They create whole worlds of security, a sense of order and purpose in which people can recognize who they are, what they are doing, where they are, and where they are going. The security they provide extends beyond the limits of the religions themselves, into the acknowledged but largely unknown future.

This basic argument has led to an immense diversity of religions. In some of them, for example, time is viewed as cyclical, with lives going round repeated years of commemorative festivals; in others, such as Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, the possibility of punishment after death is only a proximate rather than an ultimate destination (eschatology). And, even within religions that posit an eternal reward, there are many degrees of excellence that can be ascribed to human beings and their achievements.

Moreover, religions are the source of some of the most beautiful and lasting of human creations: not only art, music, dance, drama, and literature but agriculture, architecture, engineering, and the explorations of the cosmos that issued into the natural sciences. These creations are enlivened by imagination, informed by faith, and infused with spirituality.

All of this is why it is important to study the world’s religions in their entirety. And it is why every university student in the United States should be required to take at least one course in the academic study of religion, not just some courses on individual religious traditions. The academic study of religion, like all other subjects of study in the humanities and social sciences, the arts, and the sciences, should be approached with the same critical skills – historical, comparative, interpretive, and so on – that are taught to students in other fields. But that is not yet the case. In most colleges and universities in the United States, only a few courses are offered on the academic study of religion and most of those focus on one tradition or another. This is an unfortunate state of affairs that should be remedied. It is time that every student of human culture be forced to study a wide range of the world’s religions and learn what makes them all different, and what they have in common. Only then will we understand what it is to be a person in the twenty-first century. And only then will we be able to build a world in which all humans can live together peacefully.