When I was at uni I studied an anthropology subject about religion. Anthropology is the study of people; traditionally people from societies other than our own (sociology tends to study our own society, although these days the boundaries are fairly blurred). I remember constantly being bothered by this niggling concern, that the Western scholars, and us as their students, were missing something important. We read exerts of ethnographies from all over the world, detailing accounts of witchcraft, ancestor worship, totemism and all other manner of religious beliefs and practices. Yet the assumption was always that the religious phenomena these 'exotic' people engaged with was not real; that is was some kind of device that the society used to explain something else, or perhaps a type of psychological manifestation.
It's not supposed to matter whether or not an anthropologist accepts the veracity of religious believes or magical practices. The idea is that you just observe what happens and think about the role that the beliefs or practices have in the society. The dancing ritual may or may not have any mysterious or spiritual quality that is beyond pure human experience, but it sure does bond people together and transfers some cultural values, for example.
But I think it does matter. I've been doing some more reading on this topic lately, and personally I think that one of the functions of religion is to help people connect with what I call the 'divine'. Other people might call it spirit, or God, or mana, or the goddess. If you start off on the assumption that people's concept of spiritually is not 'real' and that the divine does not exist - which seems to be the assumption by most of the scholars I've been reading, rather than a less decided agnosticism - then you're missing a big chunk of the function of many religions.
I come to this question from the perspective of my own Christian faith, of course, which takes the existence of the divine for granted. It would be hard to accept the divine as a given if you don't believe in it. And certainly many (most?) scholars have not and do not have this conception, largely because many scholars are from secularised Western backgrounds, belong to fairly secular institutions and have agnostic or atheist beliefs.
Which is why I always felt, in that undergrad subject, that our study of religion was fairly ethnocentric - that is, privileging our own ethnic perspective over others. I also felt it to be a bit patronising, as the class smirked at this 'irrational' beliefs of other cultures. Well maybe they understand something that we don't understand! I wonder if academia were dominated by highly religious people from non-Western cultures, would scholars come to different conclusions about the nature of religion?