Does the Academic Study of Religion Have a Useful Role in the Humanities?


Religion is a social phenomenon involving beliefs, practices and symbols that people hold sacred. The term is most often associated with the belief in gods or spirits, but can also refer to beliefs about the broader human community or the natural world. Religions differ widely in their symbols, beliefs and practices, and have strong impacts on the lives of their followers. For example, religious beliefs may provide a sense of purpose and meaning for life, or support family and community cohesion. They may encourage ethical conduct and promote mental and physical wellbeing. They may also be a source of comfort in times of stress and grief.

In modern society, many people define religion as a set of beliefs and practices that generate social cohesion, offer guidance in difficult situations, and promote morality and good health. However, the concept of religion is complex and contested. Some scholars argue that the definitions of religion that are currently used have a colonialist bias that privileges western religious traditions over others. Others claim that religion is simply a social construct with no objective existence. These criticisms raise questions about the academic study of religion, and whether or not it has a useful role to play in the humanities.

The definition of religion has changed over time, reflecting the scholarly approaches to the subject. Some scholars, such as Clifford Geertz, have emphasized the importance of understanding the cultural context in which religion takes place. This approach has shaped the way in which academics study religion. For example, anthropologists often focus on the cultural significance of religious symbols and texts, rather than just looking at how they are used in practice.

Other scholars, such as Emile Asad, have criticized the idea that there is a “thing” called religion. Asad argued that the concept of religion was invented in order to describe a particular type of social reality, but that the social structure that is now labeled as religion would have existed in some form without it. His criticism was not, however, a rejection of the idea that religion is real, but rather that we should recognize that the concepts of religion are biased by the assumptions baked into them.

The academic study of religion provides important insights into the lives of humans. Religious faith serves several functions in society, including bringing peace and stability, encouraging ethical behaviour, providing a framework for identity, providing support in challenging times, promoting psychological and physical well being, and motivating individuals to work for positive social change. It is therefore of utmost importance that researchers continue to study the diverse and powerful beliefs and practices of religious people all over the world. For more information on the field of religious studies, see the American Academy of Religion’s extensive Why Study Religion website.