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Religion is an all-encompassing and powerful force in the lives of millions of people worldwide, from the daily activities of a Jew buying kosher food at the supermarket to a Buddhist monk practicing mindfulness meditation on the subway train. Yet many of the questions that we have about religion — such as why it persists despite its inconsistencies and contradictions — remain unanswered.
While the concept of religion has its roots in ancient history, modern academic study has emerged with the recognition that religions are a powerful social phenomenon marked by both diversity and transformation. The study of religion is thus an essential part of any well-rounded educational experience in the humanities and social sciences, and the subject deserves to be taught with the same critical skills that are applied to other subjects.
Emile Durkheim was one of the first sociologists to analyze religion in terms of its societal impact, emphasizing that religion is not about beliefs in disembodied spirits or cosmological orders but rather about a set of shared values that bind communities together and help them cope with life’s tragedies, transitions and hardships. His approach continues to shape sociological thinking about religion today.