What is Religion?
Introduction to Religion
Religion may be defined broadly as the human quest for, experience of, and response to the holy or sacred. This universal human activity expresses itself in at least three ways: in thought (the intellectual expression), in action (the practical expression), and in fellowship (the communal expression).
These complex religious expressions comprise the subject-matter of the academic study of religion. Specifically, the data of religious study include the literature, stories, myths, histories, doctrines, rituals, ethical prescriptions, and institutional forms of the many and diverse traditions past and present. The academic study of religion is non-sectarian; it does not seek to evangelize or propagate a particular religion. Nevertheless, careful analysis of the data of religion should enrich one's own understanding and commitment and assist in the clarification and development of one's own theological views.
Traditionally, religious studies in American colleges and universities have focused on the Western religious traditions rooted in the Bible. Since the 1970s, however, increasing contact with non-western cultures and religions has broadened the scope of Religious Studies in the universities with more attention being given to non-Christian and non-Jewish traditions. The following survey of the subfields of religious study reflects that change.
(1) The History and Phenomenology of Religions. These courses are cross cultural; that is, examine religious data from various traditions, seeking to analyze, classify, understand and compare different types of religious activities such as ritual and the use of sacred text.
(2) Bible. Religion departments typically offer survey courses on the entire Bible as well as courses or particular books or sections of the Bible. Current methods of literary, historical and theological analysis are used in the study of these writings.
(3) History. These courses deal with the development of particular religious traditions through time. Representative courses would include church history or the history of Islam.
(4) Theology. These deal with the doctrines or belief content of a religion or religions.
(5) Ethics. Courses in religious ethics explore the connection between a religion's assumptions about the nature of human existence and the moral norms implied in those assumptions. These assumptions and norms are applied to particular moral issues.
(6) Religion and Culture. Religions exist within a broader cultural setting, which they influence and by which they are also shaped. Courses in this category consider such themes as the relation of religion to the political order, to the economic order, to science and technology, and to literature.
(7) World Religions. In addition to the survey course, individual courses on particular religions such as Islam and Buddhism might be offered. The primary focus is on sympathetic understanding of each tradition on its own terms.
(8) Allied Fields of Study. Several fields outside religious studies proper deal with aspects of religion from their particular perspectives. These include:
a. Philosophy of Religion. This seeks to assess the grounds people have offered to justify believing in God. Further, it deals with such topics "as the relation between faith and reason, the nature of religious language, the relation of religion and morality, and the question of how a God who is wholly good could allow the existence of evil.
b. Psychology of Religion. This discipline seeks to understand the psychological origins of religion and the way it functions in the personality. It deals, for example, with such topics as religious experience, conversion, faith, prayer, and worship.
c. Sociology of Religion. Sociologists are interested in religion in so far as religion takes institutional forms. They look for the possible social origins of religion and seek to understand how religion functions in society.
Religion as an academic discipline belongs to the Humanities, those studies which deal with the unique creations of the human spirit, such as philosophy, literature and language. The humanities have long been recognized as an integral part of a liberal arts education. Religion has been and is an essential part of human culture. Thus, an informed person should have an acquaintance with this subject. In addition, the study of religion is one way of assuring that issues of value and meaning are considereed in the course of one's education. Finally, while the academic study of religion does not seek to make students religious or persuade them of the validity of a particular perspective, it does provide them with the resources to make a more informed judgment about their own worldviews.
Students and parents of students are rightly interested in what value the study of religion has beyond the general purposes already mentioned. While the study of religion is not a professional program preparing students for a particular entry-level job, it does develop abilities and skills which are usable in many other activities. These include:
Analytical and critical skills. The study of religion requires careful reading and analysis of texts, the comparison of diverse religious beliefs and practices, and the analysis of arguments for or against particular beliefs.
General problem solving. The development of the analytical and critical skills just described should also sharpen a person's ability to identify a problem, organize and analyze relevant data, and develop possible alternative solutions to it.
Communication skills. Writing and speaking are an integral part of religion courses.
Representatives of business and industry are increasingly emphasizing that the essential qualifications for employment are those skills which a student derives from a broad liberal education. It is also the case that college graduates are likely to change careers as well as jobs several times during their lives. A broad college education provides the ability to adapt to changing situations, learn new skills, and accept more challenging responsibilities as these arise.
A religious studies program is also a good pre-professional course of study.
Seminary. The American Association of Theological Schools recommends a broad liberal arts background with a distribution of courses from the social sciences and humanities, including religion. Religion is considered a desirable choice of major for the student who has a particular interest in this field at the undergraduate level.
Graduate School. Same students who have demonstrated an especially high aptitude and proficiency in the undergraduate study of religion choose to pursue graduate study for an M.A. or Ph.D. degree in order to prepare for a career in college or seminary teaching.
Law School. A student interested in pre-law who wishes to major in religion should consider supplementing his or her program with courses such as logic and epistemology in philosophy and courses in the social sciences or business.
For students not majoring or minoring in Religion, good reasons exist for their taking some elective courses in religion. Students planning to pursue professional training in law or medicine or seek employment in business or industry, for example, can broaden their understanding of Western culture through the study of biblical literature. Or a study of church history and the history of religious thought will increase their appreciation of the formative factors and cross-currents of thought that shape our modern world. The study of world religions can provide a better understanding of the beliefs, customs, and attitudes of other cultures. Courses such as Christian Ethics can help students sort out assumptions, issues and options available in moral decision-making situations. Finally, the academic study of religion encourages people to begin the journey of significant reflection on the ultimate questions of existence. The excitement of that journey in itselfs enriches the lives of all who embark on it.