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Reasons for Studying Religion

Reasons for Studying Religion

Author: Ted Fairchild

This lesson will discuss both the motivation for, and the benefits of, studying religion.

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Reasons For Studying Religion

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello, welcome to reasons for studying religion. So why study religion? Where to begin? In addition to being incredibly inspiring and rich and full of mystery, religion can often be an overwhelming subject. It can be confusing, frustrating, weird, scary, isolating, or just boring.

So let's get an idea of what we're going to learn with this tutorial. First of all, we want to get an idea of how religion is threaded through individual human experience and humanity as a whole, historically, psychologically, scientifically, socially.

Secondly, we want to look briefly at the question and the idea of transcendence beyond this human realm of matter and causality, birth, life, death, the afterlife. And thirdly, we want to be able to think about and articulate the practical and ethical importance of recognizing different cultures and religious traditions.

Now, there's some reason why you've chosen to study religion. You may or may not come from a religious background. You may have rejected religion and are returning to it now with some new curiosity and interest. Maybe you want to understand yourself and your neighbor better.

So right off the bat, there are personal, individual reasons for studying religion, and there are many approaches. So let's look more closely now at this thing called religion.

The academic study of religion is a relatively recent thing when we look at how far back the ideas that we now associate with religion can be traced. Neolithic man, for example, as he adjusted to life in settlements and transitioned from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, lived with the belief in an earthly material order that reflected a transcendent order. This idea was used to help establish sensible order in society, like having a central government, for example.

And similarly, the civilizations of ancient Egypt saw the use of geometry and science as practical extensions of a higher law and order. Therefore, they imparted the material earthly world of experience with great religious and spiritual significance.

Healing the human body also, for example, was performed by individuals who were believed to be directly in contact with the transcendent realm. Another good example is mummification. This was a way of ensuring the safe transition or the safe passage of the soul from the earthly realm to the afterlife.

And moving quickly now to industrialization, there emerged the social sciences, sociology, and anthropology, and certain branches of modern psychology, et cetera. And in sync with modern science, these sciences also restrict their ground of inquiry to the observable world inside here, the known, the noble, and observable. If there are valid questions, there are thought to be valid explanations and answers.

However, in many of these fields, some of these questions can be more open-ended. And those open-ended questions can be addressed by fields such as philosophy, psychology. Here in this diagram, we have a representation of some of the approaches to religion and some of the fields that interact with religion and study them.

The ones that are represented here, modern science and social sciences, represent the restricted realm of the known and the observable world. These ones that extend out are moving into the realm of the transcendent and exploring, and interacting, and having certain customs and faith, faith-based practices that are related to the transcendent, such as ancient Egypt, like we discussed, Christianity, for example, all of the religions, Buddhism, Judaism.

Psychology, as I mentioned, goes through this perforated area that at times restricts itself to the known and observable world, but again, has questions and addresses some of the questions and leaves them more open-ended.

But really, the strongest point to be made here is that modern science and the social sciences do restrict themselves to these questions that are thought to be answerable. And the unanswerable questions are addressed more by the main primary religions that we'll be discussing, by certain disciplines like philosophy and psychology.

And of course, here within the world as we know it, all of these things, religious, nonreligious, are obliged to interact and intersect with the question and the struggle of our individual humanists and our collective humanity.

So we have modern science interacting with social sciences. We have all the religions interacting with each other in one way or another. Psychology, we have philosophy, ancient Egypt, which could be studied from a modern science, archaeology, anthropology. So they're all interacting and intersecting and creating an interesting situation.

And this is what makes it very interesting, and rich, and confusing, and scary. And all of the questions and traditions and methods of inquiry collide, while somehow having originated from the same place. So generally, religion addresses questions about human life, individual and collective, and its relationship to that which is beyond. God, the absolute, the one, there are many names.

And there are religious customs, traditions, that maintain that relationship. And the questions and commitments of religious life, for that matter, maintained through the customs of marriage, religious ceremonies, and law, for example.

The final point today has to do with how to be with and respond to all the turmoil, the confusion, of difference, confusion of uncertainty, as well as the splendor and the magic of it all. Living as we do in a global society, we interact with a hodgepodge of cultures, practices, and peoples. People who might have some of the same questions we have, but approach them from a different angle.

We want to be able to respond to these differences thoughtfully and compassionately, having the necessary background knowledge to support genuine responsibility and engagement with the world, more often than not outside of a religious context. This is the goal of a global citizen, and we might keep that in mind as we navigate our various pathways of knowledge and experience.

So before we go, let's do a quick review and recap. We began by acknowledging that there might be personal reasons for studying religion, and that they could, in fact, overlap with humanities, ancient preoccupation with the transcended realm, that which is beyond the ordinary.

We looked at several examples of this from Neolithic man to ancient Egypt to modern man as we uphold certain customs and conventions that trace back through religion to much earlier times, customs related to marriage, law, and political structures, for example.

The inherited questions of religion and religious life seem to center around the idea, the hope, and the belief in the transcendent. We pointed out that some approaches are more naturally inclined in this way, as are the individuals that make up any group.

We also noticed that the diversity of religious belief and the variety of possible approaches to religion and the questions that inspire and surround it requires sensitivity, living in a world that can tend to be confusing and unknown, but ripe for challenge.

Well, that's it for now. I hope you enjoy your day, and we'll see you next time. Good-bye.


Terms to Know

A term used to refer to all human beings collectively.


That which is beyond the ordinary.