The Study of Religion in America

Religious belief systems play a vital and widespread role in human societies. They can serve a variety of purposes including moral guidance, social connection, and personal spirituality. They have also been linked to health benefits, including longevity and a positive impact on mental wellbeing. The study of Religion is therefore important to the social sciences and humanities. However, there are different ways of approaching the subject. Many scholars use a “monothetic” approach whereby the concept of Religion is defined by the presence of a certain kind of belief in an unusual sort of reality. Others adopt a more functional approach whereby the concept of Religion is defined in terms of a particular role that it can play in human society. This is the approach taken by Clifford Geertz and Emile Durkheim, for example.

Some critics of the idea of a monothetic definition of Religion have gone further and argued that the notion of a religion as a kind of social reality is itself an invention, the product of modern European thought and colonialism. This is a profound argument. But it is also a false one. First of all, there is a strong tradition in the humanities and social sciences of using the concept of Religion to understand the world around us. There is nothing wrong with this, even if there are differing approaches and definitions of the concept of Religion employed by individual disciplines. Anthropologists, for example, legitimately study religion in its diverse, unruly and multifaceted form. Moreover, theology and intellectual historians legitimately study the beliefs and dogma of religious traditions as coherent, intergenerational, scholarly bodies of thought.

Finally, there is a growing recognition of the importance of examining how religions operate in their contexts. This is a necessary step towards an understanding of their power, value and relevance in the modern world.

This chapter examines the diverse religious beliefs and practices of Americans. It begins by looking at the various degrees of importance that Americans assign to Religion, before moving on to explore their views of God, Scripture and miracles. The chapter then considers other aspects of religious life such as worship and devotional practices. Finally, it looks at the relationship between Religion and other forms of spirituality.

Many Americans are religious, with the largest groups of believers being Roman Catholics and Protestants. However, there are many other religions that are practiced by Americans including Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism. This chapter looks at the diverse beliefs and practices of these religions, as well as at their relationship to other forms of spirituality. In addition, the chapter discusses the many practical applications of Religion, such as charity work and community involvement. It also looks at the effects of Religion on American life, including a range of social and economic issues. Finally, the chapter looks at the ways in which Religion is changing in response to new social and cultural challenges.