Knowing More to Live Better: What is the Purpose of Studying Religion?

The formal study of religion and its various, cultural manifestations is as justifiable an undertaking as any other attempt  to comprehend other experiences or practices in our societies. Why? Ideally and for all practical purposes, it gives us the privilege of grasping what religion is, how its practitioners view the world and relate to it, what they believe in and do, and what motivates them. This knowledge allows us to appreciate our diversity and interact with it responsibly.

Given the significant place that religion has had in history and the decisive role it has played in shaping our global identity, it is not enough to simply “know” or “talk about” religion.  It is way more than bare facts or data.  Rather than being content with scratching the surface or pretend that it is not important, we should invest the time and energy to be familiar with the depths and complexities of religion with several, interconnected objectives in mind as well as through different viewpoints.  But in order to do that, we need to identify some basic facts.  Why should we, then, study religion and its endless examples around the world?

1. To Obtain First-Hand Information about Religion.  Without ruling out other possible goals to achieve, we must study religion to simply gain information about how other people view the world and act in that light. This is the first step of several.  It is about tuning in our hearts and minds to listen to their life-stories, sets of beliefs and values, and efforts to interact with what they see as their “Ultimate Reality,” namely, God, superior beings, an absolute energy integrating the universe or simply a perfect, esoteric unknown. Because religious phenomena are part of the world we live in and because the majority of its inhabitants practice a religion or believe in some form of spirituality, religion must be seen and understood as an important part of us. Therefore, we have to be proactive in grasping some basic facts about different ways of interacting with that dimension of life that transcends our five senses, a closed-minded notion of history or scientific, digital mindsets. The ultimate goal is not agree or disagree, much less to judge or put religious practices down, but to educate ourselves on this type of experience so we can interact with their practitioners in meaningful, life-giving ways.  Assuming that we do not know everything and that every experience adds something new to our notion of “the truth,” the study of religion will improve ourselves and enable us to make better choices.

2. To Determine the Place and Role of Religion in Society.   After obtaining some basic information we are ready to go deeper.  An open-minded, welcoming, critical, and solid approach to religion will provide us with the insights to know in what ways religion and its manifold cultural manifestations interact with secular experiences, groups, and social institutions, either to impact them or being impacted by these social components.  All sectors of society are interconnected and modify each other.  They have important places and roles to play.  With this in mind, a strict separation between “what is religious” and “what is secular,” for example, is neither possible nor desirable.  They relate to each other.  The institutions of church and state influence each other.  The people who brought Christianity to the Americas were not able to separate themselves from the European, colonialist worldviews that brought them to new lands to subjugate and wipe out entire, indigenous populations. Again, whether we like it or not, religious experiences, views, and practices are part of the society we live in; as such, they deserve a careful scrutiny of their place and function.

3.  To Understand Religion Contextually.  Since everything humans do is the result and a reflection of its own culture and history, religion must always be examined taking into account its own generating milieu and influencing surroundings.  Although they have a lot in common (which allows for them to be studied comparatively), all world religions have traits that make them unique, precisely because of their close ties to unique histories and contexts. As expressions and socializing agents of their own cultures, religions always embody and make their own values and ways of looking at the world that only an curious, unveiling approach can make apparent. It is not simply what religions do on the surface, but rather what they take for granted. There is always something underneath the surface that explains religious views and actions, which we normally know nothing or very little about.  Trees have roots, icebergs have larger structures under water, and there is more going own behind the scenes of the stages of theaters.  Taking into consideration the original, historical context of Islam, for instance, allows us to comprehend its strictness or top-down regulations; in fact, the word “islam” literally means “submission.” There is a very close connection between Siddhartha Gautama’s struggles with “desires” and Buddhism’s notion that the root of evil in the world is “selfish, uncontrolled passions.”

4.  To Identify and Classify  Similarities and Differences Among Religions.  We must study religion in order to have a wider or even universal understanding of this phenomenon.  To achieve this goal, it is crucial we identify what makes religions unique but also what binds them together, as part of a life-long process seeking to be as inclusive as possible.  A close look at what cultures do in relation to a higher power or being clearly shows that each religion has its own distinctive traits, but also that there are undeniable similarities among all of them that facilitate a process of sorting them out and classification; they all follow transcultural, patterns of behavior.  A more formal approach to religion will definitely help us identify those elements that are repetitive and, as a result, predictable and manageable. These similarities, in turn, serve as rough material to develop a methodology of analysis that can and should be applied to the examination of all religions.

5. To Know Ourselves Better.  Our understanding of the world we share and that influences us should never be one-sided or unidirectional. Thus, we must approach religion in order to obtain a new self-awareness for self-development at different levels: religiously, psychologically, politically, socially, culturally, etc.  It is really about knowing ourselves, which is the starting and ending point and main framework of reference in interacting with others, especially with those whose convictions and actions differ from ours.  On the basis of this  principle, by knowing more about other religions in their present contexts, we will also know more about our own religious convictions or the lack thereof.  It is like learning a new language, which is process of using our own to learn a new one and vice versa.  Comparing and contrasting ourselves with others will hopefully bring to the fore aspects of human identity we never deemed possible. At the end of the day, what would the trade-off be? Discerning who we are at deeper levels so we can better ourselves to help others.

6.  To Improve Our World.  Last but not least, we should also embrace the academic study of religion in order to transform or develop our society for the better. By looking at this phenomenon and/or experience with an abstract, higher power or reality, we can certainly gain moral insights to transform society. Although not always successful, world religions seek to create a world of love, justice, and peace and prepare us for the next life. Their connections with the spiritual world, their emphasis on meditation and wisdom, and clear ties to mother nature can certainly make significant contributions to a world that is oftentimes driven by money, power, and intellectual forms of reasoning. Consistent with their outlook, there are moral lessons to be learned from world religions

About amartinez

Dr. Aquiles E. Martinez is Professor of Religion (Biblical Studies) and Coordinator of the Religion and Philosophy Programs at Reinhardt University. Ordained in the United Methodist Church, Dr. Martinez has dedicated a good part of his life to equip pastors and church leaders in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States, with the appropriate skills, knowledge, and experiences so they can serve their communities effectively. In addition to his many books, articles, and essays published in English and Spanish, Dr. Martinez has served several churches and the global community as an effort to help people develop significant relationships with God and their neighbors, especially with marginalized communities.
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