|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
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
||To understand what and why people believe
||The point of view of religious persons
||Neutrality; "bracketing of our own
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
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
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!