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Ways of Studying Religion

Last week we talked about a definition for religion, why it is human beings are religious and why it is important to study religion.  Now we must turn our attention to HOW one studies religion.  Religion is a field of study:  it’s like an umbrella that covers a number of different disciplines such as history, anthropology, archaeology, and so forth. While a wide range of disciplines contributes to the study of religion, the following may be considered the most important.


            Theology literally means “god talk;”  it is a systematic effort to reflect upon, refine and interpret the beliefs of a particular faith tradition. Usually the theologian is a part of that faith tradition; in other words, one is a Jewish Theologian or an Islamic theologian.  Theologians are helpful to a general study of religion insofar as they are committed to a scholarly analysis of their own faith tradition. 


            Since almost all major world religions have sacred texts or scripture literary analysis is an instrument that scholars of religion must use.  Literary analysis of sacred texts investigates when, where and why sacred texts or scriptures were produced. It also seeks to identify the genre or type of literature. In many cases, it is also important to explores the process of editing and transmission of a text. 


This work of the historian is to try to reconstruct accurately the events of the past. Especially does the historian of religion try to frame events in a “larger context.”  This context evaluates events in terms of geography, political history, economics, archaeological evidence, other sources of information, social dynamics, etc.  Thus, the Protestant Reformation or the Islamic Conquests of 634-644 C.E. are seen not simply as “religious events,” but must be understood in terms of the social and economic forces and wider political events.


           According to Livingston, anthropology “is the study of human beings as creators of and creations of culture.”  Culture can be defined as the ways of life learned and shared by people in social groups.  Often culture may include the “customs” (ways of life”) that a group of people share and pass on.  Thus traditions, customs and acceptable behavior varies from one culture to another.

An obvious example of ways of life (customs) that vary from one culture to another may be rites of passage such as funerals. Even what we eat is determined by our culture.  In some cultures it’s perfectly acceptable to eat dogs.  Generally, in my culture, we refrain from eating dogs.

Anthropology may seek to define what is unique about a culture.  It may also try to reconstruct the culture of past societies and civilizations. In the study of religion, we generally ask how does religion function within a culture. Emile Durkheim was an anthropologist who believed that anthropology should focus on the function of religions in society. In particular, anthropology explores how religious institutions and beliefs function in the total life of the community.  For example, religion may function to provide stability, discourage or encourage certain behaviors, define one's status within the group, or lend authority to leaders and institutions.


The sociologist focuses on group behavior.  In particular, sociology tries to determine how religion and society interact: how does religion impact a society and how does society impact religion?  Marx believed that society has a dramatic impact on religion:  it shapes religions to reflect the values of society.  On the other hand, Max Weber sought to demonstrate how religion (Calvinistic Protestantism) was a major force in  shaping/inspiring American society  through the “Protestant Work Ethic.”  In his book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), he argues that the Protestant belief that it was one's religious duty to serve God through hard work and pursuit of wealth led to the of capitalism in in America.


            Psychology literally means “study of the soul.”  It is therefore not surprising that a number of  psychologist have applied the insights of psychology to religious behavior. Sigmund Freud explained religious beliefs as practices as nothing more than illusions and neuroses. On the other hand, Gordon Allport demonstrated the value of applying insights from psychology to the study of religion.  In a landmark study exploring the relationship between prejudice and religion, Allport demonstrated that personality structures help explain whether a person has  a superficial (“extrinsic”) or deep (“intrinsic”) commitment to religious teaching.


            While philosophy’s relationship to religion has changed over the centuries, it would be fair to say that today, the major role of philosophy is to analyze religious language and premises and test its logic and claim to knowledge and truth.


Phenomenology grew out of a philsophic movement that sought to accurately describe human experience rather than explain it. Consequently, the phenomenological approach to religion attempts to understand religion  in its own terms; that is, it seeks to describe and understand religious experience and avoid reductionism: reducing it to sociological or psychological of philosophical  terms or making judgments about the validity or truth of that experience.  We can describe phenomonolgy in terms of its purpose,  perspective and process.

Purpose:  The purpose of phenomenology is to describe accurately religious beliefs and phenomena.

Perspective: Phenomenology adopts the perspective of the “insider” (a devotee of the religion being studied). In so doing, it attempts to re-experience a certain religious phenomenon’s essential character or structure.  In other words, it asks "What does this mean to the devotee of this religion?"

Procedure:  The phenomenological method requires a “bracketing of convictions.” In other words, one refrains from asking “is it right” long enough to ask “what does it mean?” It must be emphasized that this bracketing of convictions is a temporary stance of neutrality; one retains his or her own beliefs, but tries to understand the beliefs of others in their own terms.

While phenomenology has advantages over other approaches to the study of religion, it also has limitations and potential problems.  For example, a description may be overly simplistic.  In addition, how can one decide if the perspective of an insider is accurate?  Moreover, explanations of religious phenomena can be both necessary and valid.

It is therefore important to give some attention to hermeneutics: the art of interpretation.  Hermeneutics attempts to set forth principles that insure a valid interpretation of religious phenomena. For an interpretation to be valid, both description and explanation must be combined. Consequently, three principles of interpretation can be suggested:

  • Understanding must precede explanation.  In other words, attempts at explanations of religious beliefs and phenomena are legitimate when combined with an honest attempt to understand them.

  • Description and explanations must not limited to describing in terms acceptable to the “insider”

  • Multiple explanations are allowed since they help avoids reductionism and show the depth and intricacies of religious phenomena. 

  This is the approach taken by most comparative religious studies. It seeks to isolate and describe different types of religious phenomena by means of comparison and contrast. For example, phenomenology might look at the symbolism and use of water in different modern and ancient religions.  If could describe sacrifice, sacred meals, stories, religious leadership as found in various religions.  Through description, comparison and contrast we come to see common  and pervasive forms of religious experience. At the same time, these common forms of religion will be analyzed and  various explanations will be suggested. This combination of phenomenology of  the approach that we will most commonly employ in our study of religion.