Studying religion
Studying religion

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Studying religion

4.2 Reasons for studying religion

Exercise 7

Identify and jot down reasons that you think might prompt someone to make a study of religion.


Here are some reasons in no special order why people might choose to study religion. You may well have thought of others.

  1. In order to understand the influence of religion upon art, drama, music and literature.

  2. Because of the impact of religion upon global politics.

  3. Because religions claim to convey truths by which human beings should live.

  4. In order to find a religion to live by or for other reasons relating to personal religious self-fulfilment; for example, to deepen an existing religious commitment, to resolve religious doubt, to find a religion in which to believe.

I expect we would agree that there is a value in studying religion to understand the past and the world in which we live now. Think, for example, about the extent to which works of literature, art, drama and music have drawn upon religious symbolism or have been inspired by religious devotion. Again, particularly since 1979 when the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in Iran, discussion of ‘resurgent Islam’ and ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ has been a part of commentaries on international politics. Some time will have lapsed between my writing this course and you reading it, and you will probably be able to identify more timely and topical examples of the often volatile relationship between religion and politics than my reference to Islam. In our everyday lives, an understanding of religion also helps to foster good relations between communities and individuals. Employers need to understand the conventions that govern the lives of their employees; teachers need to understand the customs observed by their students. Requests for leave to celebrate festivals and for special dietary provisions can only be anticipated and provided where understanding exists.

But if you look carefully at the list of possible reasons outlined in the discussion to Exercise 7 above, I think you will see that they fall broadly into two categories. The first category includes reasons for studying religion in order to understand better the society in which we live, the culture we inherit and the wider world of which we are a part (see 1 and 2 above). The second category includes reasons for studying religion that are bound up with the individual's personal quest for religious self-fulfilment (see 3 and 4 above). We might reasonably expect these two sets of motives for studying religion to result in two rather different kinds of approach to that study. We will pick up this point when we draw some conclusions about how to study religion in Section 7.

According to the first category, one reason why we might want to study religion would be to reach a better understanding of contemporary Britain.


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