Studying Religion – REL 134

REL/134 – Studying Religion

The many different religions of the world often share common essential elements that qualify the practices and beliefs of a group as a recognized religion. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are three western religions that have many things in common that should be considered when studying religion.

Religion impacts human life on many levels and as a result there are many different fields that study religion including psychology, mythology, philosophy, theology, anthropology, literary theory, and even archeology. There are several key critical issues to be aware of when studying religion, including being objective, respectful, and the diversity that exists within each religion (Molloy, 2012).

Religion Essentials

In order for a tradition to be considered a religion it typically has many of the seven characteristics that are common among recognized religions. The seven commonalities include a belief system, community, central myths, ritual, ethics, material expression, and sacredness. The belief system is the way in which the religion views the role of human beings and the universe.

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These views are disseminated and followed by a community. The central myths are the stories that are shared and are meant to reinforce religious teachings. Rituals are the ceremonious activities that are performed in relation to the beliefs of the religion. Ethics are the codes of human conduct that are often received from a higher power, but can also be established by society.

Material expression refers to the various tangible objects that religions utilize such as statues, ritual objects, and important geographical locations. Sacredness is important to differentiate between what is sacred to a religion and what are just normal ordinary people, places, and things (Molloy, 2012).

Three Western Religions

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are considered to be the three main western religions of the world. These three religions have many common characteristics that reinforce them as established religions. They view time as having a beginning or creation, along with the end of time or the universe that does not repeat.

These three religions believe that humans are an integral part of a greater plan. They see humans as the central focus in the battle between the forces of good and evil. These religions use sacred words and scripture in teachings, music, and art to successfully pass on their practices and beliefs. These religions all practice exclusivity, and prohibit individuals from worshiping other religions at the same time.

They view separation from certain places, food, and beliefs as a way to separate the good from the bad in the world. Prophetic orientation is the practice of humans acting as intermediaries between the faithful and the sacred, and is also a shared characteristic of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Molloy, 2012).

Fields of Study

Religion has far reaching implications on many different aspects of human life, and as a result there are many different approaches to the study of religion. According to “Studying Religion” (n.d.), “Given the power of religion in our world, it is imperative that we, as citizens, study it.” The field of psychology studies human behavior and often involves the study of how religion influences the mental and emotional states of religious individuals.

Mythology has studied the stories of various religions and attempts to reveal patterns among the different religions. Philosophy is an important approach when studying religion since it aims to answer many of the same questions that religion seeks to answer such as what is the meaning of life and the universe. When a person has a goal of becoming a leader in his or her religion, theology is field of study that focuses on the traditions of just one religion.

Anthropology is concerned with studying the way in which religion influences the social behavior of humans, such as the family unit, social status, and other cultural challenges. Archeology studies the ruins of ancient societies in an attempt to shed light on the origins of traditions and the relationship between different religions. Literary theory studies the various religious texts in order to interpret the human search for enlightenment (Molloy, 2012).

Critical Issues

There are several key critical issues to be mindful of when studying religion. Observers need to be as objective as possible when conducting research, and be careful not to inject their own biased theories into their conclusion. Practitioners can sometimes give false or misleading answers to researchers when they feel the questions are not appropriate.

Respect for varying cultures must be adhered to in order to limit the moral implications that can be created by the researcher. The religious experience can be very different for men and women, even if they practice the same religion. Finally, since many religions have blended at one point or another there is a great diversity that exists within each major religion that must be considered when conducting research (Molloy, 2012).


There are seven common elements that scholars use to differentiate between a bona fide religion and just everyday traditions. There are often shared belief systems among different religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all subscribing to the idea of a supernatural realm that is not of this earth.

Many different fields are intricately involved with the study of religion, and many share the same goal of further understanding human behavior and the universe. Critical issues that can arise while studying religion should be considered and taken into account by the researcher in order to sustain objectivity and remain respectful of different cultures.


Molloy, M. (2012). Experiencing the World’s Religions: Tradition, Challenge, and Change, 6th Edition by McGraw-Hill Education

Studying Religion. (n.d.). Retrieved from Studying Religion: An Introduction Through Cases by McGraw-Hill Education

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