A Realist Approach to the Study of Religion


Many scholars have tended to define religion functionally, as beliefs and practices that generate social cohesion or provide orientation in life. But a functional definition can be problematic in two respects. First, it can imply that all such beliefs and practices are equally valid and important. Second, it can imply that there is no essential property that distinguishes religion from other aspects of human behavior. In other words, it can imply that any set of beliefs and practices is religious, regardless of their origins or history.

To avoid these problems, many scholars have adopted a realist approach to the study of Religion. They have argued that, because of the profound importance of religion in human life, it is inevitable that some form of religion should be present in every culture. This approach is sometimes called “pan-humanism.”

It also has its critics. One common criticism is that it imposes a racial and cultural bias in its analysis of the concept. The more serious objection, however, is that it misconceives the nature of religion itself.

For most religious people, the function of religion is not only to generate social solidarity, but also to give them a map for life as project (towards acknowledged but largely unknown futures). This map includes not only ethical goals and standards, but also mythological explanations of time and space. Thus, for example, in some religions, the passage of time is cyclical (with lives being lived over and over again) while in others it is linear (from beginning to end). The map may also include maps of space, so that rituals can be used to visit past events in order to learn from them or even to relive and forgive them.