On one hand, the academic study of religion entails the examination of and even comparison between the socio-historical contexts of explicitly religious institutions, infrastructure (e.g., temples, kivas, mosques, stupas, churches, altars, etc.), images and symbols, ritual and ethical practices, written and performed texts (e.g., scriptures, prayers, and stories), influential thinkers, and the deeper ideas (e.g., love, justice, freedom, power, and even “the truth” and “the good” but also evil) and feelings (e.g., euphoria, anxiety, resolve, etc.) associated with any if not all of these.
On the other hand, the modern critical study of religion also focuses on the selection and ordering of those “highly” influential ideas and feelings, and moreover on the selection of “higher” criteria and standards “deeper down” by which some ideas and feelings are chosen and valued over others. The extent to which communities and individuals—whether explicitly religious or not—at least implicitly live by some values and meanings considered ultimate is one key way of identifying the religious layer throughout the human condition. Be it the “freedom” driving Pilgrims and refugees, optimism in an “invisible hand” of the market, the “truth” sought by science and philosophy, the just “ends” orienting a projected history, or the sense of identity or even loss of a singular “self” or collective “spirit,” religion infuses and has been infused by all other realms of the human experience and culture.
To this extent, the study of religion at George Mason University is the study of what people from antiquity to modernity have considered to ultimately matter, even when they disagree or deceive themselves as to what they believe such ultimate meanings and values might be.