4 Why study religion?
4.1 The cart before the horse?
At this point you may be wondering whether you blinked and missed something, or whether I have omitted a crucial step. So far, I have been pressing you to agree that the term ‘religion’ is crying out for more careful, critical definition. Now I am asking why you should wish to study something that has boundaries you can, apparently, no longer take for granted. Surely, we need to know what the thing is before we can say why we might wish to study it? Yet, when we decide to study something, we often begin with little more than an everyday understanding of the subject. In fact, with a topic such as religion it is almost impossible to separate the definition of the subject from the reasons why one might be interested in studying it.
Yet there is a further complication in the relationship between the questions ‘what is a religion?’ and ‘why study religion?’. This is that people are inclined to take up the study of religion (or steer well clear of it!) on the basis of personal assumptions, not simply about the value of religion but about its truth or falsity. Such people ‘know’ what religion is, and this is why they study it or ignore it. Even those who do not begin from a fixed view about the truth of religion but take up the study of religion because of its visible effects upon society may well put the question ‘what is religion?’ on hold; they too at least know why they are studying it and that is a sufficient starting point. However, once you get into the study of religion you tend to realise that the everyday and popular understanding of religion, which was certainly good enough to get you started, needs refining and so you then return to the question ‘what is religion?’ at a different level – from a critical standpoint. This is what we are doing in this course. Let's look now at possible reasons for studying religion before we return in Section 5 to the question ‘what is religion?’ from a different angle – that of critical study.