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In his Introduction to the Science of Religion (1873) he wrote that it is "the duty of those who have devoted their life to the study of the principal religions of the world in their original documents, and who value and reverence it in whatever form it may present itself, to take possession of this new territory in the name of true science." Many of the key scholars who helped to establish the study of religion did not regard themselves as scholars of religious studies, but rather as theologians, philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and historians.Partridge writes that "by the second half of the twentieth century the study of religion had emerged as a prominent and important field of academic enquiry." He cites the growing distrust of the empiricism of the nineteenth century and the growing interest in non-Christian religions and spirituality coupled with convergence of the work of social scientists and that of scholars of religion as factors involved in the rise of Religious Studies.One of the earliest academic institutions where Religious Studies was presented as a distinct subject was University College Ibadan, now the University of Ibadan, where Geoffrey Parrinder was appointed as lecturer in Religious Studies in 1949.In the 1960s and 1970s, the term "religious studies" became common and interest in the field increased.Because of these three different potential meanings, an etymological analysis alone does not resolve the ambiguity of defining religion, since each verb points to a different understanding of what religion is.During the Medieval Period, the term "religious" was used as a noun to describe someone who had joined a monastic order (a "religious").In its early years, it was known as Comparative Religion or the Science of Religion and, in the USA, there are those who today also know the field as the History of religion (associated with methodological traditions traced to the University of Chicago in general, and in particular Mircea Eliade, from the late 1950s through to the late 1980s).The term "religion" originated from the Latin noun "religio", that was nominalized from one of three verbs: "relegere" (to turn to constantly/observe conscientiously); "religare" (to bind oneself [back]); and "reeligere" (to choose again).

The second are functional, seeking to define "religion" in terms of what it does for humans, for instance defining it by the argument that it exists to assuage fear of death, unite a community, or reinforce the control of one group over another.

His essay The Will to Believe defends the rationality of faith.

Max Weber studied religion from an economic perspective in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-1905), his most famous work.

The religious studies scholar Walter Capps described the purpose of the discipline as to provide "training and practice...

in directing and conducting inquiry regarding the subject of religion". Segal characterised the discipline as "a subject matter" that is "open to many approaches", and thus it "does not require either a distinctive method or a distinctive explanation to be worthy of disciplinary status." Different scholars operating in the field have different interests and intentions; some for instance seek to defend religion, while others seek to explain it away, and others wish to use religion as an example with which to prove a theory of their own.

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