The Nonjudgmental Study of Religion

Religion is one of the most important and powerful aspects of human life. It has shaped cultures, the arts, science, and politics, as well as the behaviors of individuals and societies. For many people, the answer to the big questions of life and death is provided by their religious beliefs. Religion also offers moral guidance for living a good life, including forbidding abortion and urging people to be generous.

The study of religion is an anthropological field of research that includes a wide variety of approaches. The main impulse that has driven this variety of studies is the desire to understand the genesis and function of religion. The fact that most of the world’s major religious traditions are based on tribal or “primitive” societies makes it natural to look to these societies for insights into the development and functions of religion.

In general, the anthropological approach to religion is nonjudgmental. This does not exclude the possibility that some religions are projections or illusions, but it does require that the scientific study of them be conducted without a prejudgment about their nature.

The first step in this nonjudgmental study is the creation of a classification system for religion. This allows for the comparison of different religions to reveal commonalities or similarities that can be used as the basis for explanation. The most popular classification system is a polythetic one, which is an array of characteristics that can be sorted in a number of ways. As long as enough of these characteristics are present in a given society, it can be considered a religion.

A second step is the attempt to identify a set of essential features that distinguish a religion from other social phenomenon. These are called the essential characteristics of religion, and they include belief in a supernatural being or cosmological order, ritual behavior, and an overall sense of sacredness or worth. These characteristics can be compared among various religions to see what makes them distinct and what binds them together.

The third step in the nonjudgmental study of religion is to determine what purpose it serves. This may be a form of social control or it may be an attempt to give meaning and purpose to existence. In the latter case, the religious person may seek to connect with a creator god or goddess who he or she believes is watchful of humanity and who can provide an ultimate answer to the big questions of life and death.

Attempts to define religion have varied from a lexical definition, which is simply a description of what the term means in a particular language or culture, to functional approaches like Durkheim’s, which focuses on the social function of fostering solidarity. More recently, scholars have taken a reflexive turn and begun to question the very idea of a “religion”. The emergence of new social theories has meant that some religions that once were considered to be part of an essential reality are now viewed as mere artifacts of cultural history.