The Study of Religion


Religion is a social taxon that contains many different practices. It is often viewed as something universal, but there are people who do not believe in the afterlife, supernatural beings or cosmological orders of nature.

Some historians treat religion as a category-concept with an essential property, while others use the term to refer to specific traditions or beliefs. Others, such as anthropologists, have attempted to trace the origins of religious belief systems and have developed a range of analytical methods. Archaeologists have stimulated new thinking about prehistoric religion and helped decipher monumental religious artifacts such as the temples at Angkor Wat (Cambodia), Borobudur and Ellora (Indonesia) and the rock-cut shrines of Ajanta and Varanasi (India). The study of iconography, the interpretation of visual art, has also been influenced by religious studies.

Psychoanalysts have contributed to the study of religion by examining its symbolism and by interpreting myths and dreams. Freud postulated that incest taboos and totems were a result of the Oedipus complex, which involves unresolved feelings of hostility toward one’s mother and father.

Several scholars have moved away from the search for a stipulative definition of religion and have shifted attention to analyzing the social functions and structures of specific traditions. Anthropology has emphasized a holistic approach to religious phenomena and has developed the concept of ritual, while sociology and social anthropology have studied the institutions that organize religions. History, philosophy and theology look at beliefs and attitudes; psychology examines religious experiences and feelings; and literary studies seek to elicit the meaning of myths and symbols.