In the following essay I will be approaching the above discussion in a fairly open ended manner as I believe I will show that the reasons for making a study of religion are as diverse and as many in number as religious schools of thought. I will also be attempting to prove the worth of making a study of religion, as having a greater knowledge of religious traditions can vastly affect ideas and opinions made about religions. This is as opposed to assumptions of the kind of thing religion is made without any special knowledge.
The first thing that is striking when thinking about why people make a study of religion is that the reasons appear to fall under two different categories which for ease of reference, I have named the personal and the social. Before listing the individual reasons, some explanation of these categories is necessary. Personal reasons for studying religion are those that are bound up with our own beliefs and the furthering of our knowledge for purely individual needs. Social reasons for studying religion are those that enable us to form an understanding of other people’s religious beliefs.
Though we may not believe ourselves, developing empathy for other people’s beliefs can help us to understand the social and cultural consequences of belief. Categories now established, I am able now to establish what I feel are the personal reasons for making a study of religion. The first reason is that studying religion can be a way for those who already hold a religious belief to develop their knowledge further. This sort of study could possibly have two different outcomes.
A person’s original religious conviction may be strengthened by their study. They may find greater knowledge enriches their beliefs. However, on the flip side, a person’s previous assumptions about their beliefs could be weakened by greater knowledge. They may find inconsistencies and problems with ideas that they simply taken for granted as true in the past. For example, a person brought up as a Christian and told that God is an all-loving entity may not be able to understand why the Bible contains such stories of death and destruction.
The second reason for studying religion falling under the ‘personal’ umbrella is that of people studying religion in order to find something to believe in. Without much in depth knowledge, people may assume that religion is worthwhile and a valid part of life. They may feel that religion may offer them comfort and security, relieve their fears provide answers to their problems. After all, this is what religion appears to offer. A greater study of religion and this may turn out to be true for many people who may wonder how they managed before finding faith.
Perhaps for others, however, study and quest for answers may provide at best, interesting facts and ideas but no believable inspiration or answers. I arrive now at the second category of reasons for studying religion, the social. The first reason I could see and one that sprung immediately to mind was that of studying religion in order to understand the reasons behind conflict and politics in the world. The fact that religion seems to be responsible for many events both positive and negative shows that it can be a very powerful force upon people, influencing actions and decisions.
An example to illustrate this point is that of Islamic fundamentalists who believe so strongly in their religion that they are willing to cause violence and destruction in it’s name and feel able to justify their actions using religion. A problem here arises though when people do not have a greater knowledge of religion than what they maybe see on the television news. There is a tendency to see all members of such religions as extremists based on the actions of a few.
A greater knowledge can help people to understand that many groups exist within religions, with many differing ideas, even under religions of the same name. Interpretation is the key here, and people will always interpret differently. Another reason for studying religion is so that we can have a better understanding of our ‘neighbours’ religions. We no longer live in a country that is almost entirely Christian. We have representatives of each major religion living in this country, (and in other countries), and a greater understanding of their beliefs is undoubtedly useful in appreciating the needs and opinions of others.
We may have work colleagues who need particular days or times off work for purposes of worship or we may have friends who have moral convictions that prevent them from joining in certain social activities. It may be however, that we are just curious about what happens in the Mosque that has been built in town. Sometimes prejudice and negative feeling arises from non-understanding or a fear of the unknown. I feel a greater knowledge gained from the study of religion can ease tension between cultures living together and so help maintain peaceful relations.
This knowledge is now especially important I feel as we live in a smaller and smaller world. Globalisation is pushing us all closer together whether we like it or not so an appreciation of different beliefs can only help us to understand our global neighbours better. The other social reason I thought of for studying religion is that of just understanding the reasons why people make the personal choice of being religious. This is a reason that is very personal to me and a reason why I have made a study of religion in the past.
Even though I am not religious and feel it is wholly unlikely that any belief system has sufficient reasons to inspire devotion and ‘convert’ me, I still study religion in order to try and find out what it is that makes people believe. I feel that religion gives people comfort, empowerment, security, happiness, a sense of belonging and perhaps a sacred routine providing stability in an uncertain world and I study different religions in order to deepen my understanding so as not to feel my own ideas are in any way superior or more correct than those of the religious.
To conclude, I feel it is also a valid reason for studying religion in order to keep abreast of changes in what sort of movements actually may qualify as religions. It is no longer a world where the main religious groups can be easily identified. There are probably thousands of individual movements, (some stemming from established religions and some not), that claim to be religions and probably an equal number that we see as religions but that would claim not to be.
As long as people think (and also make their own study of beliefs), there will be variety in ideas and opinions. For example, to someone from another country, the 20,000 people gathered at Stonehenge this summer for the solstice could well have been seen as a religious event. Indeed, of those attending, how many may have felt it was a personal religious occasion as opposed to the chance of a party? The main point I feel is to be open-minded!