"Religion is powerful and persistent, and it shows no signs of disappearing. It provokes heartfelt commitment, eloquent expression, forthright action, and intense debate. For both practitioners and observers - for everyone who wants to be informed about the world around them - religion is an intensely curious phenomenon that calls out for better understanding." (source)
The academic study of religion as we know it today can be traced to the 19th century encounter of Western scholars and theologians with non-Western cultures. In the United States, departments of Religious Studies began to emerge in public universities beginning in the late 1950s and 1960s. The American Academy of Religion, the preeminent association of scholars of Religious Studies in North America, was formed in 1964 and now has over 11,000 members, including faculty and graduate students from colleges, universities, and divinity schools all over North America, Asia, Africa, and Europe. Today, departments of religion and Religious Studies are integral parts of humanities divisions on college and university campuses throughout the United States, promoting further understanding and appreciation of the many ways human beings express themselves in modes that can be called "religious."
The academic study of religion rests on the basic distinction between studying about religion as a field of inquiry and being religious or a religious practitioner. This distinction is central to the U.S. Supreme Court case Abington vs. Schempp (1963), a case involving daily prayer as part of a Pennsylvania school's opening exercises. The Court found the school's practice of daily prayer unconstitutional, concluding that mandated religious exercises in public schools were in violation of both the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses. However, the Court drew a distinction between religious instruction and instruction about religion, noting that while the former was unconstitutional, the latter was not, and indeed should be encouraged in public education. Writing for the majority, Justice Clark asserted that one's "education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization." We might say then that the academic study of religion is one of the only fields of study actually mandated by the Supreme Court for all U.S. citizens!
The academic study of religion is an inherently interdisciplinary field, incorporating textual studies of the world's sacred texts, language studies, art, history, philosophy, anthropology, politics, economics, sociology, psychology, comparative literature and literary studies, cultural studies, gender and ethnic studies, legal studies, and other approaches in order to better understand, compare, interpret, and analyze those beliefs, practices, traditions, communities, artifacts, and other phenomena we call "religious."
To read more about the academic study of religion, including some common misconceptions, pressing issues, and how to get started, see Why Study Religion, a comprehensive website sponsored by the American Academy of Religion and funded by a grant from the Lilly Endowment.