The Study of Religion

Religion is something that people believe in, and it provides a framework for their lives. It gives meaning to life and a sense of value in the world that transcends mere material concerns. Many people need this and are willing to live according to and even die for their beliefs. The study of Religion can be challenging for teachers because it deals with values that contradict each other and a broad range of beliefs that are held by diverse communities.

Traditionally, the study of Religion has been “monothetic.” This means that scholars have analyzed a social group and tried to understand what makes it unique by examining its cultural characteristics, such as language, food, art, and physical culture. More recently, scholars have started to question this approach and to analyze the concept of Religion itself. One of the most influential recent works in this reflexive turn is Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion (1993). In his essay, Asad argues that the notion of religion, like the concepts of art or literature, is constructed and should be examined for its assumptions.

A major point of Asad’s essay is that the modern semantic expansion of the term Religion went hand in hand with European colonialism. Consequently, scholars need to shift their focus from what is true or not in the religions of various cultures to what they are really about. This is to move beyond the three-sided model of the good, the true, and the beautiful to include a fourth dimension: value-commitment.