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Why Study Religion? Studying Religion, Philosophy, and Theology


Religious Studies as an Academic Discipline:

Every decent college and university has a department dealing with the study of religion: religious history, religious beliefs, comparative religion, and perhaps even some theology thrown in. The study of religion is multi-disciplinary, encompassing literature, history, philosophy, psychology, sociology, linguistics, art, and more. Because of the role of religion in human culture, the study of religion can become the study of humanity itself.

Does Religion Even Exist? Religion & Culture:

We can’t study religion without knowing what we are trying to study, and some argue that there is no such thing as religion, just “culture” with arbitrary boundaries around things Western scholars call “religion.” There is some merit to this argument, but the similarities among religious belief systems around the world are strong enough to justify a comprehensive field of study encompassing art, linguistics, philosophy, sociology, psychology, and so forth.

Religion & Art:

No one can look at art, modern or ancient, without noticing the pervasive influence of religion. Religions provide cultural symbols, mythology, and emotional short-hand for ideas, concepts, and attitudes necessary for artistic work. Without the common cultural resources created by religions, much of the art we have would be impossible — religion isn’t necessary for art, but religion’s cultural role makes the connection inevitable. Ignorance of religion thus results in ignorance about art.

Religion & Language:

The relationship between religion and language is one of the least recognized, at least among the general public. Language in religion often doesn’t function exactly as it does elsewhere in life; in religion, language often performs actions rather than merely to communicate information. A blessing, for example, is an action, not just communication. Understanding how language is used in religion not only provides insights into religion, but also into the nature and function of language itself.

Religion, Politics & History:

Because of religion’s role in human cultures, it’s impossible to understand the flow of human history without some grounding in various religious beliefs. Religious mythologies provide structure to the world and give people a sense of where they fit in; this, in turn, affects the range of choices available to governments and how societies interact with each other. Religious beliefs influenced how China reacted to European explorers, for example, and how people treat the environment.

Religion, Wars, & Conflict:

The connection between religions and violent conflict are well known. Religions tend to be absolutist, meaning they don’t allow for the possibility of being wrong or the the validity of other religions. This encourages contempt for outsiders and discourages the negotiations and compromises necessary to resolve differences of opinion peacefully. Without compromises, all that remains is either for one group to dominate others or for conflict to simmer, sometimes erupting into open violence.

Religion & Ethics:

The relationship between religion and morality is so close that many believers imagine that morality without religion isn’t possible. Throughout history, collective wisdom about ethical and unethical conduct has been preserved in religion: standards are explained via religious mythologies and enforced via religious doctrines or traditions. People learn how to behave through their religions because they perceive their relationship to each other and the universe through their religion.

Religion, Biology, and Evolution:

The field is still young, but studies of the biological and evolutionary nature of religious beliefs have resulted in some interesting results. Epilepsy, for example, can trigger hyper-religiosity and studies of the brain have pinpointed regions which are active not only in such epileptics, but also others who are very religious. It will be some time before we can understand what sort of “biological basis” religion might have, but it will help us learn about who we are as a species.

Religion vs. Theology:

The motives behind theology and the philosophy of religion are very different, but the questions they ask and the topics they address are often the same. While theology relies upon religious scriptures as authoritative, they are objects of study in the philosophy of religion where the authorities are reason, logic and research. Philosophy of religion scrutinizes religious claims in order to formulate either a rational explanation or a rational response to them. Read More...

Religion Matters - Religion & Religious Philosophy on this Site:

Some may wonder why there is so much material about religion, religious belief, and religious history on this site — not to mention material dealing with philosophy, politics, and art. The answer to such questions is touched upon in the above: I write about religion because religion matters.

The name of this site is Agnosticism / Atheism and the primary topics are of course agnosticism and atheism, but the coverage here also includes religion. Why? Because agnosticism and atheism often involve critiques of religion, yet religion cannot be substantively or seriously critiqued if it is not understood. That, in turn, requires some understanding of philosophy, language, art, politics, theology, history, ethics, and so forth.

There are sites here on About covering specific religions; they do so, however, from the perspective of believers and for the benefit of believers. I cover religion more generally, I do so from a critical, scholarly, and objective perspective, and I write for the sake of both believers and nonbelievers. Doing this requires some engagement with political philosophy, the philosophy of science, art, epistemology, the philosophy of mind, logic, language, metaphysics, ethics, the philosophy of law...basically the entire scope of modern philosophy.

Disagreements, including heated ones, are frequent between believers and nonbelievers. This isn’t just because they reach different conclusions about the value of religion, but also because they have different ideas about the nature of religion itself. By writing about philosophy, theology, politics, and art, I hope not only to educate nonbelievers about the basics they need to know, but also help believers better understand an atheistic perspective to these matters.

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