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Phenomenological Method
Over the past 150 years scholars have taken a variety of approaches in an attempt to understand and study religion. Historians have focused on religion as a political phenomenon. Anthropologists have tried to discern the role that religious practices and institutions play in the life of the community. Sociologists have explored how religion and society interact. Psychology has viewed religion as a creation of the subconscious and philosophy has sought to analyze and test the logic of religious language. Although each of these disciplines provides valuable help in trying to study and understand religion, they all tend toward reductionism. In other words, they reduce religion to a function of psychological/sociological need or of economic or political interests. For example, that Sigmund Freud saw religions as nothing more than "wish fulfillment."

Recent scholarship has attempted to understand religion in its own terms. Foremost among advocates of this approach was Mircea Eliade who argued:

A religious phenomenon will only be recognized as such if it is grasped at its own level, that is to say, if it is studied as something religious. To try to grasp the essence of such a phenomenon by means of physiology, sociology, economics, linguistics, art or any other study is false; it misses the one unique and irreducible element in it - the element of the sacred.

 The attempt to understand religion in its own terms (and take seriously the element of the sacred)  may be understood as the phenomenological approach.  Phenomenology literally refers to that which one can observe.  Thus, the phenomenological method focuses on observing and describing the beliefs and practices of religious peoples and groups from the point of view of religious persons. The phenomenological approach has a specific purpose, perspective and procedure.

The Phenomenological Method

Purpose To understand what and why people believe
Perspective The point of view of religious persons
Procedure Neutrality; "bracketing of our own conviction."

Purpose: First, the primary purpose of the phenomenological approach is to understand religion. Our purpose is not to determine if a religious tradition is true or not. Nor is our purpose to judge based upon our own religious convictions. First and foremost, we simply want to understand what and why people believe.

Perspective: To understand what and why people believe requires us to understand religion from the point of view of religious persons. It is one thing to observe as a disinterested spectator; but to  understand fully what and why people belief requires the perspective of an insider: How does the world appear to them? Why do their beliefs and practices matter to them? What is their cultural worldview? To understand religious beliefs and practices,  we must try to look at any religious tradition as it appears to an "insider" instead of an "outsider."

Procedure: In order to adopt the necessary point of view that will allow us to understand religion, we must attempt to bracket our own convictions. The Sacred Quest describes this "bracketing of our convictions" in this way: "We must set aside the question "true or not?" long enough to inquire into the reasons why people believe and act as they do." As religion scholar Dale Cannon puts it, we must "adopt temporarily a posture of neutrality."  This stance of neutrality is absolutely essential if we are to understand religion from the point of view of religious persons: "If we begin with the premise that we possess all religious truth and everything that cannot fit in our worldview is wrong, sympathetic understanding will be impossible." 

Why Study Religion?

As we begin study of religion, we need to confront the question, "Why Study Religion?"  One can easily understand the need to study a discipline that will be used for one's whole life (such as Speech, Math or English).  Studying to acquire skills necessary for employment also needs no justification.  But why should we take time to study religion from an academic point of view?  There are at least five possible justifications for the academic study of religion: 
  • To understand what it means to be human.  Since religion is an element in virtually all societies, understanding the nature of religion helps us understand humanity.

  • To overcome our ignorance.  We all have a limited world view that centers on our own group or nation.  Because of this ethnocentric perspective we often are unaware of the different perspectives other societies may have. Studying the religious values and experiences of other groups exposes us to different world views.  

  • To understand our own culture. Religion has been and continues to be a powerful influence in shaping the culture of the United States. To understand that influence is to better understand the American experience. In addition, American is now the most religiously diverse country in the world. Neusner: "The diversity of American society makes it urgent for our citizens to introduce themselves to one another. The Texaco executives having trouble with Hanukkah and Kwanzaa at Christmas-time cost their company a big bundle of money. But they also illustrate why a country where nearly every religion in the world finds practitioners--in numbers--requires its citizens to learn about one another."

  • To achieve a global perspective and understanding of the nature of the issues and conflicts throughout the world. The Protestant-Catholic struggle in Northern Ireland, as well as the  Arab-Israeli and  India-Pakistan conflicts have roots in the clash of culture and religion. An understanding of religion equates to a better understanding of of these conflicts.

  • To help us formulate our own beliefs or philosophy of life.  If the "unexamined life is not worth living" then the unexamined faith is not worth believing. Studying religion helps individuals formulate their own questions of faith and to confront and come to terms with their own beliefs. By nature, encountering and studying various religions forces an individual to contrast and compare those traditions to his/her own beliefs. As Neusner says, it teaches us what we are not!