As a human experience with very specific cultural characteristics or in its more institutionalized faces throughout the history of humankind, religion has caught the attention of the inquisitive, restless minds of an increasing number of people, especially among men and women who have dedicated themselves to the scientific, academic or scholarly study of religion or world religions. What are some of the reasons that have moved so many people to do so?
Knowing that the answers are as varied as people are, there are few reasons that justify the study of religion, but some preliminary observations are in order.
Some people think that religion is simply a personal matter or something up to the choice of the individual. Others affirm that religion is only for religious people, and some simply do not care either way. There are also those that go as far as to criticize, reject, or even condemn any religion due to their belief that religion is a product of ignorance, fanaticism or a primitive mentality. These critics would argue that professing allegiance to any religion tradition is no longer relevant (especially in this scientific, contemporary, digital era) and that, in the worse case scenarios, ends up alienating and hurting people, especially when religious beliefs are taken to an extreme. This viewpoint is not worthy of our attention for now, although we admit that, in many cases, as Carl Marx used to say, religion continues to be “the opiate of the masses.”
Moving away from the above initial responses but without neglecting their value, the study of religion (or even the experience of being part of any religion) is a big deal for several reasons.
1. Everywhere and Anywhere. To begin with, religion is a universal phenomenon or experience. In every nation or ethnic group around globe we find evidence of its presence, no matter its numbers of followers or level of influence. This characteristic speaks volumes about the importance of religion. Despite the strong influence of secularism, scientific discoveries, and the post-modern values prevailing in the I-phone generation, the majority of people in the world practices or identifies itself with some sort of religion or spiritual philosophy and/or movement. In fact, religious communities still are the most powerful human networks on the globe. How could we then look the other way or repress this factual reality?
2. Multiple Ideas about the Mystery. The study of religion, in any of its cultural concrete manifestations, is significant because religion connects people with diverse, cultural understandings of God or equivalent concepts. Close to this effort, religion creates and follows theological and moral principles that help its believers transform societies for good and prepare their followers for another life after death. The idea is to facilitate encounters with the Holy Mystery that would develop a lasting, meaningful relationship with it.
3. The Heart of Cultures. Religion is at the core of many cultures, as well as globalization. We have many cultures in our own backyard, and the world is becoming more interdependent and interconnected than ever before, which means that it is crucial that we understand religion as expressions of cultures that allow people to live more structured lives. We cannot talk about globalization while leaving out the religious experiences of the cultures they represent, the contributions they make, and the challenges they bring along the way.
4. A Socializing Force. In a variety of ways, religion is still a very powerful socializing factor in our societies. Thus, we need to know more about it. Just as it did in antiquity, religion continues to play a major role in influencing the way people feel, believe, and act. Here in America, no matter how hard we try, we cannot always neatly separate “the Church” from “the State.” Religious values influence political choices, legislations, and policies.
5. Social Identity. Psychologically or existentially, religion gives people social identity, structure and meaning, as it provides some answers to many fundamental questions about life and death, happiness, character, hope, love, and faith. With its focus on what is ultimately important in life and human-in-born instincts linked to God, through the eyes of faith, it helps form questions as it guides people’s journeys. If the majority of the population of world follows different religions or forms of spirituality, wouldn’t this be an important phenomenon to examine and learn more about?
6. Moral Guidance. As religion helps people live with meaning and purpose, it also provides them with diverse moral compasses. Having concrete notions of right and wrong and developing criteria and principles to differentiate between the two, religion seeks to develop peoples’ moral character as a reflection of God’s or the universe’s absolute goodness, so that we can love and serve each other in practical terms and with intentionality. Although not always achieved, the emphasis on right living is an imperfect preparation for a much better life somewhere in the universe after our earthly pilgrimages are over.
7. Determining Life Choices. Religion is helpful in giving us criteria to understand people’s individual health or medical choices. This is exemplified in the Jehovah witnesses’ refusal to receive or give blood to patients fighting for their lives because, in their literal readings of the Old Testament, receiving or giving blood “violates” Moses’ laws regarding the nature and function of blood. For good or ill, life-and-death choices heavily depend on religious, pre-conceived concepts.
Knowing some basics about religion helps us understand job-related challenges as well. Some employees might take certain days off or not do certain activities because of religious convictions. For instance, praying five stipulated times for Muslims might have an impact on certain responsibilities at job sites. These traits should not be ignored by employers and employees.
8. A Social Conflict Trigger. The study of religion is important because it allows us to understand why some social conflicts take place. In fact, religion lies at the core of clashes between nations and/or ethnic groups. Take, for example, the numerous riots among clans or tribes in Africa, terrorism, and religiously-motivated attacks to abortion clinics and the doctors and nurses who perform abortions.
9. More Pervasive than Politics. Thinking of the universality of religious experiences and trying to be more specific, we need to point out that religion in many parts of the world is so popular and plays an even more important role in society than what politics does. If we pay any attention to the ways in which our government uses its power and resources to serve the population, shouldn’t we also spend time trying to understand the place religions have in society and the role they play in our world given their effective appeal to the masses?
10. Coping in the Face of Adversity. In the aftermath of misfortune, tragedy, pain, disease or death, or even when individuals or groups find themselves in the midst of negative experiences, they can be spiritually revived, to the surprise of many. Although many people may withdraw from religion or reject the idea of God, others are paradoxically drawn to the Spiritual Unknown to strengthen their faith. Surprisingly, the terrorists attacks on September 11 drove some many people to get closer to God or think about the meaning of life in more spiritual terms. This type of response needs to be understood and explained.
11. Morally Ambiguous. In closing, and moving beyond all the positive reasons that justify the study of religion, religion is and will continue to be , at times, as a source and agent of alienation, exploitation, and oppression. Because religion is not always that good or glowing, it is important we set some time apart to figure out why and how religions lend themselves to what is morally wrong. With its popular emphasis on the other world and spiritual, abstract realities, and lack of focus on earthly, urgent issues, religion oftentimes neglects very important areas of human development. With the institutionalization of its ideas and its hunger for control and power, religion has also hurt many people. Knowing more about the causes, influencing factors, and repercussions behind these types of situations, is a powerful reason inviting us to deepen our understanding of religion and world religions. A neglect or a superficial approach to this reality would be counterproductive.