Religion Explained

The term religion denotes a set of common beliefs and practices pertaining to the supernatural (and its relationship to humanity and the cosmos), which are often codified into prayer, ritual, scriptures, and religious law. These beliefs and practices are typically defined in light of a shared canonical vocabulary of venerable traditions, writings, history, and mythology. As religious traditions are often deeply embedded into specific cultural contexts, these traditions often contain moral codes that outline the relationships that a believer is expected to cultivate with respect to themselves, other believers, outsiders, and the supernatural world. Finally, a common element of many religious traditions is the division of the world in two comprehensive domains, one sacred, the other profane. In this context, religious thought and practice are aimed at delineating and reifying these two disparate realms through personal effort and/or communal ritual.

The social structure of the world’s religious traditions can be roughly placed on continuum based on their respective levels of interpersonal involvement and social engagement. On one end of this scale would be the most inwardly-directed types, such as the desert saints of early Christianity and the ascetics of Hinduism. On the other hand, one would find the religious traditions that are most firmly entrenched in all aspects of personal, social, and juridical life, such as the medieval Catholic Church and the theocratic regimes of some Islamic states. All other religious traditions could be situated somewhere between these two poles. However, the multivalent interplay between the religious and secular spheres has caused some scholars to question the utility of the term “religion,” as they claim that it presents these traditions in “a reified, essentialized fashion, isolated from the political, social, economic, and cultural worlds within which they are embedded.”

Given its ubiquity in human affairs and world history, religion has been a perennially controversial topic for generations. The subject of religion can induce a range of responses from love, compassion and goodwill, to fear, loathing, and xenophobia. Indeed, religion can be seen as something of a paradox, as it simultaneously contains both humanity’s most sublime moral and spiritual teachings, as well as grim remnants of intolerance and patriarchy that foster hatred and horror. Thus, despite the growing dangers of religious fundamentalism, the world’s religions continue to be treasure chests of spiritual resources for making a positive impact on world affairs.

Religion Faith Cross Light Hand Trust God Pray


“Religion” as a Term


The English word religion has been in use since the thirteenth century, loaned from Anglo-French religiun (eleventh century), ultimately from the Latin religio, “reverence for God or the gods, careful pondering of divine things, piety, the res divinae.

The ultimate origins of Latin religio are obscure, though a historically popular derivation suggests that the term emerged from ligare “bind, connect”; likely from a prefixed re-ligare, i.e. re (again) + ligare or “to reconnect.” This interpretation is favored by modern scholars such as Tom Harpur and Joseph Campbell, though it owes its place of prominence to St. Augustine, who used it in his interpretation of Lactantius. Another possibility is derivation from a reduplicated *le-ligare. Another historical interpretation, this one offered by Cicero, connects lego “read,” i.e. re (again) + lego in the sense of “choose,” “go over again” or “consider carefully”.


Main article: Definition of Religion

The word “Religion” has been defined in a wide variety of manners, with most definitions attempting to find a balance somewhere between overly restrictive categorizations and meaningless generalities. In this quest, a variety of approaches have been employed, including the use formalistic, doctrinal definitions, and the emphasis experiential, emotive, intuitive, valuational and ethical factors. Definitions mostly include:

  • a notion of the transcendent or numinous (most important for theistic belief systems
  • a cultural or behavioral aspect of ritual, liturgy and organized worship, often involving a priesthood, and societal norms of morality (ethos) and virtue
  • a set of myths or sacred truths held in reverence or believed by adherents

Sociologists and anthropologists tend to see religion as an abstract set of ideas, values, or experiences developed as part of a cultural matrix. For example, in George A. Lindbeck’s Nature of Doctrine, religion does not refer to belief in “God” or a transcendent Absolute. Instead, Lindbeck defines religion as, “a kind of cultural and/or linguistic framework or medium that shapes the entirety of life and thought… it is similar to an idiom that makes possible the description of realities, the formulation of beliefs, and the experiencing of inner attitudes, feelings, and sentiments.” According to this definition, religion refers to one’s primary worldview and how this dictates one’s thoughts and actions.

Other religious scholars have put forward a definition of religion that avoids the reductionism of the various sociological and psychological disciplines that reduce religion to its component factors. Religion may be defined as the presence of a belief in the sacred or the holy. For example Rudolf Otto’s “The Idea of the Holy,” formulated in 1917, defines the essence of religious awareness as awe, a unique blend of fear and fascination before the divine. Friedrich Schleiermacher in the late eighteenth century defined religion as a “feeling of absolute dependence.”

The Encyclopedia of Religion defines religion this way:

In summary, it may be said that almost every known culture involves the religious in the above sense of a depth dimension in cultural experiences at all levels—a push, whether ill-defined or conscious, toward some sort of ultimacy and transcendence that will provide norms and power for the rest of life. When more or less distinct patterns of behaviour are built around this depth dimension in a culture, this structure constitutes religion in its historically recognizable form. Religion is the organization of life around the depth dimensions of experience—varied in form, completeness, and clarity in accordance with the environing culture.

Other encyclopedic definitions include: “A general term used … to designate all concepts concerning the belief in god(s) and goddess(es) as well as other spiritual beings or transcendental ultimate concerns” (Penguin Dictionary of Religions (1997)) and “human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence.”

All of this being said, some scholars call the utility of the term “religion” into question, as it creates (or reifies) a distinction between the secular and sacred elements of human existence that may bear little relation to the lived experience of believers. As Jonathan Z. Smith argues, “[r]eligion [as a discrete category] is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization.” Such critiques, and the porous, multivalent understanding of religion that they engender, should be taken into account throughout the following discussion.


In the earliest Latin accounts, the term “religion” was used exclusively to describe proper religious praxis — a sense of the term that was inherited by early Christian writers. Jonathan Z. Smith provides an excellent overview of this restrictive usage:

In both Roman and early Christian Latin usage, the noun forms religio/religiones and, most especially, the adjectival religiosus and the adverbial religiose were cultic terms referring primarily to the careful performance of ritual obligations. This sense survives in the English adverbial construction “religiously” designating a conscientious repetitive action…. The only distinctly Christian usage was the fifth-century extension of this cultic sense to the totality of an individual’s life in monasticism: “religion,” a life bound by monastic vows; “religious,” a monk; “to enter religion,” to join a monastery. It is this technical vocabulary that is first extended to non-Christian examples in the literature of exploration, particularly in the descriptions of the complex civilizations of Mesoamerica.”

In keeping with the term’s Latin origins, religious believers have characterized other belief systems as immoral forms of superstition. Likewise, some atheists, agnostics, deists, and skeptics regard all religious belief as superstition, as in Edmund Burke famous quip that “superstition is the religion of feeble minds.” Religious practices are most likely to be labeled “superstitious” by outsiders when they include belief in extraordinary events (miracles), an afterlife, supernatural interventions, apparitions or the efficacy of prayer, charms, incantations, the meaningfulness of omens, and prognostications. Greek and Roman pagans, who modeled their relations with the gods on political and social terms, scorned the man who constantly trembled with fear at the thought of the gods, as a slave feared a cruel and capricious master. The Romans regarded such fear of the gods (deisidaimonia) as superstitious. Early Christianity was outlawed as a superstitio Iudaica, a “Jewish superstition,” by Domitianin the 80s C.E., and by 425 C.E. Theodosius II outlawed Roman “pagan” traditions as superstitious.

The Roman Catholic Church considers superstition to be sinful in the sense that it denotes a lack of trust in the divine providence of God and, as such, is a violation of the first of the Ten Commandments. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states superstition “in some sense represents a perverse excess of religion.” The Catechism clearly dispels commonly held preconceptions or misunderstandings about Catholic doctrine relating to superstitious practices:

Superstition is a deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand is to fall into superstition.


Development of religion

There are a number of models regarding the ways in which religions come into being and develop. Broadly speaking, these models fall into three categories (as discussed below):

  • Models which see religions as social constructions;
  • Models which see religions as progressing toward higher, objective truth;
  • Models which see a particular religion as absolutely true.

However, these models are not mutually exclusive, as multiple elements may be seen to apply simultaneously, or different models may be seen as applying more fittingly to different religions.

Pre-modern Religious Thought

In pre-modern (pre-urban) societies, religion is one defining factor of ethnicity, along with language, regional customs, national costume, etc. As Xenophanes famously comments:

Men make gods in their own image; those of the Ethiopians are black and snub-nosed, those of the Thracians have blue eyes and red hair. Yes, and if oxen and horses or lions had hands, and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as men do, horses would paint the forms of the gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and make their bodies in the image of their several kinds.

Ethnic religions may include officially sanctioned and organized civil religions with an organized clergy, but they are characterized in that adherents generally are defined by their ethnicity, and conversion essentially equates to cultural assimilation to the people in question. The notion of gentiles (“nations”) in Judaism reflect this state of affairs, the implicit assumption that each nation will have its own religion. Historical examples include Germanic polytheism, Celtic polytheism, Slavic polytheism and pre-Hellenistic Greek religion, as well as Hinduism and Chinese folk religion.

The “Axial Age”

Main article: Axial Age

Karl Jaspers, a prominent figure in the academic study of religion, posited a “quantum leap” in religious thought that occurred simultaneously on various parts of the planet in the six hundred year span between 800 and 200 B.C.E. This axial age, which he describes in his Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte (The Origin and Goal of History), was host to a number of key religious figures (such as Plato, Heraclitus, Laozi, Mencius, Confucius, Zhuangzi, Siddhartha Gautama, Mahavira, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the writers of the Upanishads), each of whom immeasurably extended the humanistic and metaphysical bases of their respective traditions. Jaspers saw in these developments in religion and philosophy a striking parallel without any obvious direct transmission of ideas from one region to the other, having found no recorded proof of any extensive inter-communication between Ancient Greece, the Middle East, India and China. This historical periodization has been adopted the majority of scholars and academics, and has become a prominent point of discussion in the history of religion.

Some of the more notable concepts to emerge in the Axial Age included monism, monotheism, the Platonic idealism of Hellenistic philosophy, the notion of atman in Vedanta, the notion of Dao in Daoism, and the so-called Golden Rule, which emerged independently in the writings of virtually all thinkers of the period.

Middle Ages

The present-day world religions established themselves throughout Eurasia during the Middle Ages through various world-expanding processes, including the “Christianization” of the West, the transmission of Buddhism to East Asia along the Silk Road, the decline of Indian Buddhism, the rise of Hinduism in India, and the spread of Islam throughout the Near East and much of Central Asia. In the High Middle Ages, Islam was in conflict with Christianity during the Crusades and with Hinduism in the Muslim conquest in the Indian subcontinent. In each of these cases, religion was generally transmitted as a subcomponent of an overarching ruling ideology, as exemplified in the various tales of forced conversions and religious persecution from the period.

In marked contrast to this deeply entrenched version of religious teachings, many medieval religious movements also emphasized the mystical notion of direct, unmediated contact with the Divine. Some of these groups include the Cathars, various Christian mystic saints (e.g., Hildegard of Bingen), Jewish Kabbala, the Bhakti movement in India, Sufism in Islam, and Zen Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism in the Far East.

Modern period

European colonization during the 15th to 19th centuries resulted in the spread of Christianity to Sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas, Australia, the Philippines, and the Far East. This expansion brought Christianity into direct contact (and often contention) with the world’s other leading belief system, including Hinduism in India, Islam in the Middle East, and Confucianism and Daoism in China. This of course led to considerable regional repercussions, as existing religio-cultural traditions struggled to adopt their worldviews to the presence of these interlopers. Some examples of these responses include the Boxer Rebellion in China, the First War of Indian Independence, and the development of the Ghost Dance religion among indigenous North Americans — each of which, to a greater or lesser extent, was informed by both religious and political tensions.

At the same time, the 18th century saw the rise of a rationalist/secularist trend in Europe, which rose to prominence due to the French Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. During this period, the growing Continental disenfranchisement with Christianity led to an increased interest in the philosophical/religious traditions of China and India, with Buddhism, Upanishadic Hinduism, and Confucianism coming to play an influential role in the intellectual discourse of the day.

In the twentieth century, the role of religion in public life became an increasingly contentious issue. The Communist regimes of Eastern Europe and China were explicitly anti-religious, with Western Europe and America (at least among intellectual elites) becoming increasing secularized. At the same time, Christianity and Islam continued to spread at ever-increasing rates throughout the developing world. While many of these modern religious movements have stressed compassion and social justice, other fundamentalist strands (which have developed in Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism) have sought to use religious teachings to establish ideological world-views and forward conservative political agendas. Over and above these developments, a great variety of cults and new religious movements originated in the 20th century, many proposing syncretism of elements of established religions.

Religions can coexist

Coexist How Peaceful are the Religions of the World


Religious traditions fall into super-groups in comparative religion, arranged by historical origin and mutual influence. In this framework, the term “Abrahamic” describes those which originated in the Middle East, “Indian” depicts those that emerged in India, and “Far Eastern” refers to those that arose in East Asia. Another group with supra-regional influence are African diasporic religions, which have their origins in Central and West Africa.

  • Abrahamic religions are by far the largest group, and these consist primarily of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism (sometimes Bahá’í is also included). They are named for the patriarch Abraham, and are unified by their strict monotheism. Today, slightly more than fifty percent of the world’s population are followers of Abrahamic religions and they are spread widely around the world (with the exception of South-East Asia).
  • Indian religions originated in Greater India and tend to share a number of key concepts, such as dharma and karma. They are most influential across the Indian subcontinent, East Asia, South East Asia, as well as in isolated parts of Russia. The main Indian religions are Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism.
  • Far Eastern religions consist of several East Asian religions which make use of the concept of Tao/Dao (in Chinese) or Do (in Japanese or Korean). They include Daoism, Confucianism, Shinto, Chondogyo, and Caodaism, as well as Far Eastern Buddhism (which represents an overlap between the “Far Eastern” and “Indian” groups).
  • Iranic religions include Zoroastrianism, Yazdanism and historical traditions of Gnosticism (Mandaeanism, Manichaeism). Though distinct from the Abrahamic traditions, Iranian religious ideas have extensively influenced the outlook and spiritual practice of the other Middle Eastern faiths (as evidenced in Christian Gnosticism and Sufism), as well as in recent movements such as Bábísm and the Bahá’í Faith.
  • African diasporic religions practiced in the Americas, imported as a result of the Atlantic slave trade of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, based upon the traditional animist religions of Central and West Africa.
  • Indigenous tribal religions, formerly found on every continent, but now marginalized by the major organized faiths. Despite this, they often persist as undercurrents of folk religion. This category includes African traditional religions, Asian Shamanism, Native American religions, Austronesian and Australian Aboriginal traditions and arguably Chinese folk religion (overlaps with Far Eastern religions).
  • New religious movements, a heterogeneous group of religious faiths emerging since the nineteenth century, often syncretizing, re-interpreting or reviving aspects of older traditions (Bahá’í, Hindu revivalism, Ayyavazhi, Pentecostalism, polytheistic reconstructionism), some inspired by science-fiction (UFO religions, Scientology).

Religious Belief and Related Forms of Thought

Religious belief usually relates to the existence, nature and worship of a deity or deities, and to faith in divine involvement in the universe and human life. Alternately, it may also relate to values and practices transmitted by a spiritual leader. Unlike other belief systems, which may be passed on orally, religious belief tends to be codified in literate societies (whereas religion in non-literate societies is still largely passed on orally).

Religion, metaphysics, and cosmology

Religion and philosophy meet in several areas, notably in the study of metaphysics and cosmology. In particular, a distinct set of religious beliefs will often entail a specific metaphysics and cosmology. That is, a religion will generally have answers to metaphysical and cosmological questions about the nature of being, of the universe, humanity, and the divine.

Given the generalized discontents with modernity, consumerism, over-consumption, violence and anomie, many people in the so-called industrial or post-industrial West rely on a number of distinctive religious world views (Zeitgeist). This, in turn, has given rise to increased religious pluralism, as well as to what are commonly known in the academic literature as new religious movements, which are gaining adherents around the globe. As suggested above, religious systems (both traditional and modern) are increasing in influence due to the perceived failure of modern/secular ideologies.


Some individuals draw a strong distinction between religion and spirituality. They may see spirituality as a belief in ideas of religious significance (such as God, the Soul, or Heaven), but not feel bound to the bureaucratic structure and creeds of a particular organized religion. In this context, the term spirituality is often consciously chosen in opposition to the designation “religion,” perhaps reflecting a disillusionment with organized religion and a movement towards more “modern” (i.e., more tolerant and more intuitive) forms of religious practice. These individuals may reject organized religion because of historical acts by religious organizations, such as Christian Crusades, the Islamic Jihad, the Spanish Inquisition, and the marginalisation and persecution of various minorities. This being said, many adherents of the “World Religions” do not demarcate between religion and spirituality, as they interpret their tradition as providing access to the spiritual realm.

Mysticism and esotericism

Mysticism, in contrast with philosophy, denies that logic is the most important method of gaining enlightenment. Rather, it is to be attained through non-ordinary states of consciousness, which are, in turn, achieved through psychological and physical processes (such as repetitive prayer, meditation, mantra recitation, yoga, stringent fasting, whirling (as in the case of the Sufi dervishes), and/or the use of psychoactive drugs).

From a religious standpoint, mysticism it thought of as religious practice meant enable communion with (or conscious awareness of) Ultimate Reality, the Divine, spiritual truth, or God through direct, personal experience (intuition or insight) rather than rational ideation. Mystics speak of the existence of realities beyond sensory perception or intellectual apprehension that are directly accessible through personal experience, arguing that these experiences are genuine and important sources of knowledge. Many religious traditions have mystical elements, though these strands are often marginalized due to their counter-hegemonic nature (in denying the necessity of mediation between the individual and the divine).

In a related manner, esotericism claims to be more sophisticated than religion, to rely on intellectual understanding rather than faith, and to improve on philosophy in its emphasis on techniques of psycho-spiritual transformation (esoteric cosmology). Esotericism refers to “hidden” knowledge available only to the advanced, privileged, or initiated, as opposed to exoteric knowledge, which is public. It applies especially to spiritual practices. The mystery religions of ancient Greece, the Gnostic systems of the Middle East, and the Hindu path of jnana marga are examples of esoteric religiosity. Some mystical doctrines, such as the Jewish Kabbala, are also esoteric.


Main article: Mythology

The word myth has several meanings.

  1. A traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon;
  2. A person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence; or
  3. A metaphor for the spiritual potentiality in the human being.

Ancient polytheistic religions, such as those of Greece, Rome, and Scandinavia, are usually categorized under the heading of mythology. Religions of pre-industrial peoples, or cultures in development, are similarly called “myths” in the anthropology of religion. The term “myth” can be used pejoratively by both religious and non-religious people. By defining another person’s religious stories and beliefs as mythology, one implies that they are less real or true than one’s own religious stories and beliefs. Joseph Campbell remarked,

“Mythology is often thought of as other people’s religions, and religion can be defined as mis-interpreted mythology.”

In sociology, however, the term myth has a non-pejorative meaning. There, myth is defined as a story that is important for the group whether or not it is objectively or provably true. Examples include the death and resurrection of Jesus, which, to Christians, explains the means by which they are freed from sin and is also ostensibly a historical event. But from a mythological outlook, whether or not the event actually occurred is unimportant. Instead, the symbolism of the death of an old “life” and the start of a new “life” is what is most significant.


Main articles: Mythology and Philosophy of religion

Humans have many different methods which attempt to answer fundamental questions about the nature of the universe and our place in it (cosmology). Religion is only one of the methods for trying to answer one or more of these questions. Other methods include science, philosophy, metaphysics, astrology, esotericism, mysticism, and forms of shamanism.

For instance, consider the the sacred consumption of ayahuasca (a psychoactive vegetable extract) among Peruvian Amazonia’s Urarina. The Urarina have an elaborate animistic cosmological system that informs their mythology, religious orientation and daily existence.

Religion and science

Main articles: Science and religion

Religious knowledge, according to religious practitioners, may be gained from religious leaders, sacred texts, and/or personal revelation. Some religions view such knowledge as unlimited in scope and suitable to answer any question; others see religious knowledge as playing a more restricted role, often as a complement to knowledge gained through physical observation. Some religious people maintain that religious knowledge obtained in this way is absolute and infallible, usually due to a fundamentalist certainty in the inerrancy of their scriptures.

In contrast to the intuitive process of knowing advocated by many religious groups, the scientific method states that knowledge must be gained by using empirical facts to test hypotheses and develop theories. It develops theories of the world which best fit physically observed evidence. All scientific knowledge is probabilistic and subject to later improvement or revision in the face of better evidence. Scientific theories that have an overwhelming preponderance of favorable evidence are often treated as facts (such as the theories of gravity or evolution). The logically-positivistic approach only answers cosmological questions about the physical universe, often suggesting that other types of knowing are fallacious.

This being said, many scientists held strong religious beliefs and worked to harmonize science and religion. Isaac Newton, for example, believed that gravity caused the planets to revolve about the Sun, and credited God with the design. In the concluding “General Scholium” to the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, he wrote: “This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.” Likewise, adherents of many other religious traditions have considered scientific exploration to be utterly commensurate with religious life, suggesting that they are simply deepening the existing understanding of the Divine through exploring His(/Her/Its) works. It was such a perspective that allowed the flourishing of science in the Muslim world during the Dark Ages, with scientists such as al-Khwārizmī and Ibn Sina preserving and building upon the mathematical, medical, astronomical, and biological knowledge of the ancient Greeks. In a similar manner, the Bahá’í Faith asserts the harmony of science and religion as a central tenet of its belief system. The principle states that that truth is one, and therefore true science and true religion must be in harmony, thus rejecting the view that science and religion are in conflict. Some Hindu and Daoist scientists propound similar beliefs, often using terms and concepts from classical religious texts to explore the scientific realities of relativistic physics and quantum mechanics.

Nevertheless, conflict arose between religious organizations and individuals who propagated scientific theories which were deemed unacceptable by these organizations. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, has in the past reserved to itself the right to decide which scientific theories were acceptable and which were unacceptable. In the seventeenth century, Galileo was tried and forced to recant the heliocentric theory based on the medieval church’s stance that the Greek Hellenistic system of astronomy was the correct one. This being said, many modern theorists are suggesting that it is reductive and misleading to view the relationship between science and religion as essentially antagonistic, especially when approaching historical sources. The historian of early modern Europe Lewis Spitz says: “To set up a ‘warfare of science and theology’ is an exercise in futility and a reflection of a nineteenth century materialism now happily transcended.” Colin A. Russell suggests that “The conflict thesis, at least in its simple form, is now widely perceived as a wholly inadequate intellectual framework within which to construct a sensible and realistic historiography of Western science.” Gary Ferngren, in his historical volume Science & Religion, states:

While some historians had always regarded the [conflict] thesis as oversimplifying and distorting a complex relationship, in the late twentieth century it underwent a more systematic reevaluation. The result is the growing recognition among historians of science that the relationship of religion and science has been much more positive than is sometimes thought. Although popular images of controversy continue to exemplify the supposed hostility of Christianity to new scientific theories, studies have shown that Christianity has often nurtured and encouraged scientific endeavour, while at other times the two have co-existed without either tension or attempts at harmonization. If Galileo and the Scopes trial come to mind as examples of conflict, they were the exceptions rather than the rule.

Similarly multivalent attitudes can be found within the range of the world’s religious traditions.

The philosophical approach known as pragmatism, as propounded by the American philosopher William James, has been used to reconcile scientific with religious knowledge. Pragmatism, simplistically, holds that the truth of a set of beliefs can be indicated by its usefulness in helping people cope with a particular context of life. Thus, the fact that scientific beliefs are useful in predicting observations in the physical world can indicate a certain truth for scientific theories; the fact that religious beliefs can be useful in helping people cope with difficult emotions or moral decisions can indicate a certain truth for those beliefs. William James’ conception was that the pragmatic utility of propositions (which is defined by their compatibility with lived experience) is the hallmark of truth, such that “the true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief” and “the true … is only the expedient in our way of thinking.”

Approaches to the Study of Religion

Methods of studying religion objectively (in a scientific and religiously neutral fashion)

There are a variety of methods employed to study religion that seek to be phenomenologically neutral. One’s interpretation of these methods depends on one’s approach to the relationship between religion and science, as discussed above.

  • Historical, archeological, philological and literary approaches to religion include attempts to discover early spiritual intuitions through the study of sacred writings and archeological evidence. For example, Max Müller in 1879 launched a project to translate the earliest sacred texts of Hinduism into English in the Sacred Books of the East. Müller’s intent was to translate for the first time the “bright” as well as the “dark sides” of non-Christian religions into English. These approaches tend to approach religions as historically- and culturally-bounded entities, causing them to occasionally reify traditions as more cohesive entities than is plausible.
  • Anthropological approaches include attempts to lay out the principles of native tribes that have had little contact with modern technology as in John Lubbock’s The Origin of Civilization and the Primitive Condition of Man. The term “religion” is problematic for anthropologists, and their approaches to the subject are quite varied. Some take the view that religion, particularly in less technically complex cultures, is a form of proto-science—a primitive attempt to explain and predict phenomena in the natural world, similar to modern science but less advanced. However, most modern anthropologists reject this view as antiquated, ethnically and intellectually chauvinistic, and unsupported by cross-cultural evidence. Science has very specific methods and aims, while the term “religion” encompasses a huge spectrum of practices, goals, and social functions. In addition to explaining the world (natural or otherwise), religions may also provide mechanisms for maintaining social and psychological well-being, and the foundations of moral/ethical, economic, and political reasoning.
  • Sociological approaches include attempts to explain the relationship between religious thought/practice and social realities (most typically, the development of morality and law). An early example of this approach can be seen in Auguste Comte’s Cours de philosophie positive (1842), which hypothesizes that that a society’s religious mindset goes through the following stages of evolution: 1) obeying supernatural beings, 2) manipulating abstract unseen forces, and 3) exploring more or less scientifically the social laws and practical governmental structures that work in practice. Within a sociological approach, religion is but the earliest primitive stage of discovering what is socially expedient and morally right in a civilized society. It is the duty of intelligent men and women everywhere to take responsibility for shaping the society without appealing to a (potentially non-existent) Divinity and to discover empirically what moral concepts actually work in practice. Comte wrote, in translation, “It can not be necessary to prove to anybody who reads this work that Ideas govern the world, or throw it into chaos; in other words, that all social mechanism rests upon Opinions. The great political and moral crisis that societies are now undergoing is shown by a rigid analysis to arise out of intellectual anarchy.” The intellectual anarchy includes the warring oppositions among the world’s religions. In a later sociological approach, Rodney Stark has met with considerable success in his attempt to analyze the social forces that have caused religions to expand over time and the features of these religions that have been most successful in weathering changes in social circumstance. For example, Stark hypothesizes that, before Christianity became established as the state religion of Constantinople, it grew rapidly because it provided a practical framework within which non-family members would provide help to other people in the community in a barter system of mutual assistance. Similarly, evolutionary psychology approaches consider the survival advantages that religion might have given to a community of hunter-gatherers, such as unifying them within a coherent social group.
  • Philosophical approaches include attempts to derive rational classifications of the views of the world that religions preach, as in Immanuel Kant’s 1788 Critique of Practical Reason. Within a philosophical approach, the reason for a religious belief should be more important than the emotional attachment to the belief. One subset of this approach is the use of epistemological and ontological inquiries, which aim to explore religion by addressing the very nature of how one comes accept any belief or assumption as true on its own terms while bringing especial attention to such issues as the nature of reality and the “knowability” of various types of truth.
  • Psychological approaches. The psychology of religion involves the gathering and classification of various types of data and the building of the explanations of the psychological processes underlying the religious experiences and beliefs. It includes a wide variety of researches (psychoanalytical and others): Sigmund Freud (Oedipus Complex, Illusion), Carl Jung (Universal archetypes), Erich Fromm (Desire, Need for stable frame), William James (Personal religious experience, Pragmatism), Alfred Adler (Feeling of inferiority, Perfection), Ludwig Feuerbach (Imagination, Wishes, Fear of Death), Gordon Allport (Mature religion and Immature religion), Erik Erikson (Influence on personality development), Rudolf Otto (Non-rational experience), James Leuba (Mystical experiences and drugs).
  • Neuroscientific approaches seek to explore the apparent similarities among religious views dominant in diverse cultures that have had little or no contact, why religion is found in almost every human group, and why humans accept counterintuitive statements in the name of religion. In neuroscience, work by scientists such as Ramachandran and his colleagues from the University of California, San Diego, suggests evidence of brain circuitry in the temporal lobe associated with intense religious experiences.
  • Cognitive psychological approaches take a completely different approach to explaining religion. Foremost among them is Pascal Boyer, whose book, Religion Explained, lays out the basics of his theory, and attempts to refute several previous and more direct explanations for the phenomenon of religion. Religion is taken in its broadest sense (from holy mountains over ancestral spirits to monotheistic deities). An explanation is offered for human religious behavior without making a presumption, to the positive or the negative, about the actual subject matter of the religious beliefs. Essentially, the reasoning goes that religion is a side effect to the normal functioning of certain subconscious intuitive mental faculties which normally apply to physics (enabling prediction of the arc a football will take only seconds after its release, for example), and social networks (to keep track of other people’s identity, history, loyalty, etc.), and a variety of others. For instance, the same mechanism that serves to link—without explaining—an event (e.g. rustling of tall grass) with a cause (the possible presence of a predator) will help to form or sustain a belief that two random events are linked, or that an unexplained event is linked to supernatural causes. The reasoning would imply that there is no direct causal link between the subject matter of a belief (e.g. whether the ancestors watch over us) and the fact that there is such a belief.

For a discussion of the struggle to attain objectivity in the scientific study of religion, see Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey, who argues that some studies performed pursuant to these methods make claims beyond the realm of observable and verifiable phenomena, and are therefore neither scientific nor religiously neutral.


In the modern age, some intellectuals have taken it upon themselves to criticize the continued influence of religion, which they often dismiss as superstition. Most of these western critics focus on the Abrahamic religions—particularly Christianity and Islam—with titles such as Why I am not a Christian, The God Delusion, and The End of Faith representing some recent popular published books. These scholars consider all religious faith to be essentially irrational, often suggesting that the continued acceptance of these beliefs constitutes a danger to the survival of the human race. More explicitly, many of these critics claim dogmatic religions are typically morally deficient, elevating to moral status ancient, arbitrary, and ill-informed rules that may have been designed for reasons of hygiene, politics, or other reasons in a bygone era. Nobel Peace Laureate, Muslim, and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi has spoken out against undemocratic Islamic countries justifying “oppressive acts” in the name of Islam. Speaking at the Earth Dialogues 2006 conference in Brisbane, Ebadi said her native Iran as well as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Yemen, “among others” were guilty of human rights violations. “In these countries, Islamic rulers want to solve twenty-first century issues with laws belonging to 14 centuries ago,” she said. However, it should be noted that not all the criticisms apply to all religions: criticism regarding the existence of god(s), for example, has very little relevance to some forms of Buddhism.

For more Information

Religion and religions

Adapted from New World Encyclopedia

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