The Importance of the Study of Religion
Religion is the set of beliefs, traditions, and practices that unite a group of people into a moral community. It is a powerful social force that has shaped many cultures throughout history. It is so pervasive in our world that it is nearly impossible to imagine society without it. This is why the study of religion is so important in the academic world.
The term “religion” is a very general one that covers an enormous array of beliefs, traditions, and practices. This broad semantic range has made it difficult to develop an adequate definition of the concept. However, several different approaches to the problem have been attempted. The most common are what might be called monothetic definitions, which operate under the classical assumption that any instance accurately described by a concept will share a defining property that distinguishes it from all other instances. More recently, however, there has been a growing movement towards what might be termed polythetic approaches, which operate under the principle that a concept can be understood as a family-resemblance category rather than a collection of limiting properties.
What is most distinctive about the practice of religion is its voluntary subordination to a free, supernatural Being on whom man feels dependent for his existence and from whom he seeks aid in his quest for happiness and perfection. The highest perfection of religion is found in heaven, where pious souls are able to live in perfect conformity with the Divine will and thus attain the happiness and perfection they crave. Religion on earth, meanwhile, consists of the subordination of mortals to God in the form of devotional acts that lead them to believe and hope that they will attain a bliss-bringing communion with their Deity.
In practically all religions there is also an exercise of authoritative teaching in regard to the intellectual basis of religion, namely the things to be believed. Individuals do not arrive at knowledge of these doctrines independently, through direct intuition or discursive reasoning, but they learn them from the authoritative teaching of their parents and elders and through the observance of sacred rites and customs. These teachings are regarded as being venerable by immemorial usage, and to reject them would be reprobated as an act of impiety.
The virtue of faith is indispensable in religion, since it enables man to perceive and receive the Divine revelation of the doctrines concerning Deity and man’s relation to Him contained in the religious traditions of his community. The virtue of hope is also indispensable to the proper exercise of religion, since it enables man to recognize his frailty and seek help in time of need. Affection is also an important element of the practice of religion, since it gives rise to the generous offerings and expressions of gratitude so common in religious rites. Lastly, the virtue of repentance is indispensable, since it enables men to realize when they have committed offenses against Deity and thereby to keep themselves from the bliss-bringing communion with Him that they crave.