The Two Approaches to the Study of Religion

Religion is the world’s most varied and influential social phenomenon. It is a complex collection of values, behaviors, and attitudes that are practiced in countless ways and to various degrees by almost every human society on the planet.

A wide range of academic approaches have been used in the study of religion. These include anthropological, phenomenological, and psychological approaches, as well as those that are sociological in origin. Some of these are based on historical methods, others are rooted in the Enlightenment tradition, and still more are influenced by contemporary developments in science and culture.

In the modern era, it has become popular to take the concept of religion as a taxon that encompasses a broad array of social practices and sets them all together. This approach is often referred to as a “monothetic set definition”, and it works on the classical assumption that any instance of something that is accurately described by a concept will share a defining property that puts it in that category.

It is also common to take a functional approach to religion, such as the one developed by Émile Durkheim. This focuses on the social function of religion in creating solidarity among members of a society. A functional definition is also seen in Paul Tillich’s definition, which centers on the axiological function of religion, that is, on its ability to organize a person’s values.

These two approaches are not mutually exclusive and can work together to give us a more complete picture of the diversity that is found in the world’s religions. However, they both have weaknesses in a few key areas.

First, they tend to focus primarily on what is manifested in words and symbols. This ignores the fact that much of religion is expressed in nonverbal behavior, such as gestures and body language. It also overlooks the fact that many religions have a strong material component, such as architecture and sacred spaces, and that there are often rituals that entail the use of materials such as food, water, and fire.

Another critical weakness of both these approaches is their focus on the notion of human subjectivity. This tends to emphasize the importance of studying religious beliefs as expressions of individual experience, and this has led some scholars to critique the term religion without denying that it can be used to name real things. For example, Ninian Smart has suggested that we can gain a more balanced and comprehensive view of the “luxurious vegetation” of the world’s religions by observing them in seven dimensions: the practical and ritual; the experiential and emotional; the narrative or mythical; the doctrinal and philosophical; the ethical and legal; and the material (art and architecture). He adds, though, that it is important to recognize that all these dimensions must be taken into account in order to have a full understanding of what is truly religious. This three-sided model of the true, the beautiful, and the good is a good starting point.