The Study of Religion


A major category-concept of social life, religions take many forms. The world’s major religions include Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. In addition, people often practice a range of smaller, more local, faiths. Some of these are more like folk traditions than any of the major religions.

Sociological perspectives on religion have examined its consequences for societies and individuals. For example, Max Weber emphasized the role of religion in the rise of capitalism. Other sociologists have focused on the ways that religious beliefs and practices shape human morals, and that organized religions can play a powerful role in instilling guilt and fear.

Anthropologists, however, have been more concerned with the origins of religion and have tended to reject tidy theories that link it to modern secularism. The anthropologist Johann Jakob Bachofen’s pioneering work on a mother goddess, for example, unravelled puzzles in ancient law, mythology, and art through the idea of a matriarchal society.

The study of religion has also been enhanced by archaeological discoveries, especially those involving the great temples at Angkor Wat and Borobudur (Cambodia), Ellora and Ajanta (India), and the Great Stupa at Boudhanath, Kathmandu (Nepal). The scholarly study of architecture and art objects has also expanded the understanding of the roles that these plays in religion. As a result, scholars have been drawn to polythetic definitions of religion. These are based on the notion that the simplest functional or structural definitions will not suffice and that the study of religion needs to go beyond a mere lexical description of the concept.