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Exploring Religion

Session 1: Overview 

Tools for Exploring Religion 

Learning objectives

  • Know how to define religion.
  • Explore and understand different social science methods used to study religion.
  • Develop an increased awareness of different religions.
  • As promised, this course is an exploration of religion throughout America and across the globe. Before we begin this exploration, however, we need to clarify both how we define religion and what tools we will use to conduct this exploration. 

So, what is religion?  Many definitions have been offered, but they are often divided into two major groups: functional and substantive. The first definition focuses on the functions religion performs and does not require a belief in a higher power. This definition holds that religion is a set of beliefs and practices that are sacred (set apart) and serve to unite participants into a single moral community. By focusing on what religion does rather than what it is, this definition has the advantage of being inclusive and not limiting religion to groups that hold beliefs in a god or the supernatural. This advantage, however, also is a disadvantage. Many movements or groups, e.g., communism, nationalism, and even atheism, serve to unite others around common beliefs, yet they are seldom viewed as a religion. 

The second group of definitions focus on what religion is or the substance of the beliefs and practices. The substantive definitions agree that religion is a set of unified beliefs and practices but hold that the beliefs and practices are based on the existence and nature of a supernatural or superhuman power (e.g., a god). Critics note that this definition can be too restrictive because the formal teachings of some eastern religions do not include a supernatural or superhuman power. Yet, this definition has advantages for our course. Along with narrowing the focus of the course, and not drawing attention to highly disparate groups, this allows us to use a definition that is more in line with common usage. Drawing on the substantive definition, this course will focus almost entirely on religions based on the premise of a supernatural or superhuman power.

How will we explore religion?  The “Methods for Exploring Religion” activity introduces many of the online tools the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA) offers for exploring religion. This includes surveys on the beliefs and practices of people across the globe, diverse information on the seemingly endless numbers of religious groups, and maps and reports on the religious variations across communities, counties and countries.

The second activity briefly reviews a few of the measures social scientists use for studying religion. This activity gives you a first glimpse at the diversity of religious beliefs held by Americans. Both the readings and the Pew Research Center videos will introduce you to the research methods used to collect the data explored on the ARDA and will offer guidance on how to assess the strengths and weaknesses in each research method. 

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