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Religious Studies: Religious Studies Theory

Religion 101


"If religion has given birth to all that is essential in society, it is because the idea of society is the soul of religion." (Durkheim)

Theories of Religion

Nine Theories of Religion

Huston Smith's The World's Religions

Philip Novak's World's Wisdom

Terms & Concepts

a "belief in spiritual beings", or the belief that "supernatural forces permeate and animate nature, including animals, plants, waters, rocks, and other environmental phenomena", influencing humans. "Shamans and priests, part- and full-time ritual specialists, respectively, attempt to communicate with and thereby influence the spiritual realm."

Sponsel, L. E. (2007). Animism. In P. Robbins, Encyclopedia of environment and society. Sage Publications. Credo Reference.

Trust in the existence of the supernatural or external forces acting upon humanity that directly impact our individual and collective lives, motivating action or binding people together.

Davie, G. (2020). Beliefs. In A. Possamai, & A. J. Blasi (Eds.), The SAGE encyclopedia of the sociology of religion. Sage UK. Credo Reference.

The term doctrine (from the Latin doctrina, “teaching”) refers to the set of teachings that express the content of the a specific religion (with connotations towards Christianity), including "both things to be believed and things to be done".

Stanglin, K. D. (2008). Doctrine. In W. A. Dyrness, & V. Kärkkäinen (Eds.), Global dictionary of theology. InterVarsity Press. Credo Reference.

With origins in the Indo-European root beidh, meaning to trust or to set one's heart on, "faith" generally refers to "the whole orientation and attitude of one's life" towards a deity (typically associated with Christianity).

Flinn, F. K. (2016). faith. In F. K. Flinn, Encyclopedia of world religions: Encyclopedia of Catholicism (2nd ed.). Facts On File. Credo Reference.

the middle ground between monotheism and polytheism - the belief that there is one supreme deity that subsumes other deities (or various manifestations of the supreme deity). "One God, multiple parts."

Lewis, A. E. (2015). henotheism. In R. Audi (Ed.), The Cambridge dictionary of philosophy (3rd ed.). Cambridge University Press. Credo Reference.

the belief in one deity or the oneness of one god(dess).

Principles of right and wrong. In a religious context, morals are typically conferred by a supernatural source or the religious community.

 "a story or legend", typically "a traditional story about gods and superhuman beings as well as human heroes (sometimes interchangeable with "legend" and "folklore").

Munro, M. (2007). Mythology. In U. McGovern (Ed.), Chambers Dictionary of the unexplained. Chambers Harrap. Credo Reference.

"The gods of a people"; a specific grouping of gods and goddesses related to one another that a specific person or group of people worships. pantheon

the belief in multiple deities part of a singular or multiple pantheons. soft polytheism = the belief that multiple deities may be similar to one another/transform into one another. hard polytheism = the belief that all deities are separate entities.

religion expressed in action, in contrast to religion expressed in belief, meditation, prayer, and attendance at religious gatherings

Flinn, F. K. (2016). Praxis. In F. K. Flinn, Encyclopedia of world religions: Encyclopedia of Catholicism (2nd ed.). Facts On File. Credo Reference.

a category of individual or social religious behavior, typically fixed acts and actions "that take place at certain recurrent moments and in which certain bodily gestures, words, music, and material objects may play a role" (see also: ceremony)

Boudewijnse, B. (2005). Ritual. In K. Von Stuckrad (Ed.), The Brill Dictionary of Religion (2nd ed.). Brill. Credo Reference.

Wiegers, G. (2016). Ritual. In R. C. Martin (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim world. Gale. Credo Reference.

a free-spirited attitude that appeals to inner, mystical experience in religious things, unlike dogmatic formations. "Spirituality" is typically meant to signify the individual, private religious practice of the practitioner, and the term has been popularized by both Christians and the New Age movement.

Bochinger, C. (2005). Spirituality. In K. Von Stuckrad (Ed.), The Brill Dictionary of Religion (2nd ed.). Brill. Credo Reference.

practices and beliefs that encapsulate the usual, the established; everyday values and principles; and customary patterns of thought, action, and behavior.

Onnudottir, H. (2020). Tradition. In A. Possamai, & A. J. Blasi (Eds.), The SAGE encyclopedia of the sociology of religion. Sage UK. Credo Reference

What does "religion" mean?

"A religion involves a communal, transmittable body of teachings and prescribed practices about an ultimate, sacred reality or state of being that calls for reverence or awe, a body which guides its practitioners into what it describes as a saving, illuminating or emancipatory relationship to this reality through a personally transformative life of prayer, ritualized meditation, and/or moral practices like repentance and personal regeneration."

Marty, E. & Taliaferro, C. (2018). A Dictionary of Philosophy of Religion, Second Edition. Bloomsbury Academic.

"Religion is a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of nature and of human life. Thus defined, religion consists of two elements, a theoretical and a practical, namely a belief in powers higher than man and an attempt to propitiate or please them."

Frazer, J. (1993). Golden Bough: The Roots of Religion and Folklore. Gramercy Books.

"In sociology, there are broadly two approaches to the definition of religion. The first, following E. Durkheim (1912), defines religion in terms of its social functions: religion is a system of beliefs and rituals with reference to the sacred which binds people together into social groups. In this sense, some sociologists have extended the notion of religion to include nationalism. This recent perspective is criticized for being too inclusive, since almost any public activity - football, for example - may have integrative effects for social groups."

"The second approach, following M. Weber and the theologian P. Tillich, defines religion as any set of coherent answers to human existential dilemmas - birth, sickness or death - which make the world meaningful. In this sense, religion is the human response to those things which concern us ultimately. The implication of this definition is that all human beings are religious, since we are all faced by the existential problems of disease, aging and death."

Abercrombie, N., Hill, S., & Turner, B. (2006). Religion. In The Penguin Dictionary of Sociology. Penguin.

Prominent People Writing About Religion

Chu Hsi

Chuang Tzu

Dalai Lama

Lao Tzu


Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi

Mou Zongsan


Tenzin Gyatso

Emile Durkheim

Mircea Eliade

E.E. Evans-Pritchard

J.G. Frazer

Sigmund Freud

Clifford Geertz

William James

Karl Marx

E.B. Tylor

Max Weber

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