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Ways of Studying Religion



There is no single way to study religion. The modern study of religion utilizes a number of methods to understand religion better. Some may emphasize one approach over another, but most would agree that the religious history and experience of humanity is so complex that a variety of different disciplines must be used. In this section we will review a few of the methods that are commonly employed in the study of religion.


Learning Objectives

 After completing your study of this unit you should be able to answer the following questions with at least a 70% accuracy:

List several disciplines that are employed to explain religious phenomena.

Describe the phenomenological method

Explain what is meant by "reductionism."

Define the following terms:


literary criticism






 Describe the contribution of the following individuals to the study of religion:

Gordon Allport

Sigmund Freud

Mircea Eliade

Max Weber

Emile Durkheim

Karl Marx


Theology and Philosophy


While Livingston suggests that in certain situations, the discipline of theology can be considered a way that religion is studied, it is probably more accurate to classify theology as an expression of religion itself. Theology literally means "talk about God." It thus starts from a religious conviction (there is a God), and works from within a religious framework.. Theology thus presupposes a commitment to the doctrines or fundamental truths of a religion; the theologian is a part of that faith tradition. In other words, one is a Jewish Theologian, a Christian theologian,or an Islamic theologian. Theologians are helpful to a general study of religion insofar as they are committed to a scholarly analysis and interpretation of their own faith tradition. Theology can certainly be academically rigorous and demanding, but is is "not just an act of critical interpretation, it is a confession of faith." (Kessler, Studying Religion, p. 34). Numerous theologians have contributed to our understanding of religion and have even refined the tools that are used to study religion in general. In the final analysis, however, religious studies requires a more objective approach to each faith tradition.


Philosophy of Religion

 Unlike theology, philosophy does not necessarily presuppose a commitment to a religious tradition. At least since the 18th century in Europe, philosophy has attempted to look at religion from outside of its claims. In other words, philosophy's starting point is not from within a religion's doctrine, but outside of it, The philosophy of religion may thus be defined as "the rational attempt to formulate, understand, and answer fundamental questions about religious matters." The "religious matters" typically include such things as the existence of God, life after death, and the relationship of good and evil to the notion of a just God. While religion takes these subjects as matters of faith, the philosophy of religion analyzes these claims for their reasonableness and logic. For example, the 18th century British philosopher, David Hume, analyzed religious claims about the power and goodness of God in light of the existence of great suffering in the world. We will explore his analysis as well as the subject of evil and suffering in more detail in a later unit.

 While philosophy of religion is usually viewed as standing "outside" the claims of faith, it should be noted that this has not always been the case in Western civilization. Through the medieval period, religious thinkers used the methods of analysis and inquiry developed by ancient philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato. Even in later periods, it was not unusual for philosophers to see their purpose as clarifying and strengthening the claims of religion. It is also important to understand that within certain Eastern religious traditions such as Hinduism, there is no real distinction between philosophy and religion (or theology). For example, there are at least six philosophic systems that are accepted as a part of Hinduism. These philosophic traditions may disagree with one another, and may even seem to reject some fundamental doctrines of Hinduism; yet they are considered part of the Hindu tradition since they are directed to the liberation or salvation of the self. (Kim Knott, Hinduism, a Very Short Introduction, p 119). As one scholar put it, Indian philosophy "has sprung from religion and has developed side by side with religion. It has therefore been inseparably fused with religion to such an extent that philosophy minus religion is almost unthinkable in India" (Debra BrataSen Sharma, The Philosophy of SADHANA, p 2.)


Literary Criticism

Since many religious traditions have sacred writings (scriptures), literary analysis is an important tool for scholars of religion. Literary analysis of sacred texts can be divided into several sub-disciplines:


A. Textual Criticism compares and seeks to explains differences among copies of a text. Keep in mind that all ancient texts were copied by hand. During copying, changes could be made to the text. On the one hand, some changes were accidental: the scribe simply misread a word or made and honest mistake. On the other hand, some changes may have been intentional to try to produce a reading that made more sense (at least to the copyist). The textual critic compares different readings of the same text, evaluates them, tries to explain the differences and attempts to determine the most "original" readings.

One well-know example from the Christian scriptures (the New Testament) is found in the Gospel of John. In the third verse of the fifth chapter it is reported that a great number of disabled people used to lie near a pool in Jerusalem. A few versions of this verse add these words to the end of the third verse:

"and they waited for the moving of the waters. From time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters. The first one into the pool after each such disturbance would be cured of whatever disease he had."

Why the difference? Most textual critics have concluded that the longer verses are not original to the Gospel of John. Rather, a scribe added them to explain to the readers why those needing healing were at the pool. Moreover, it explains a later comment by an invalid at the pool, "I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred." In this case, it is fairly certain that the earliest manuscripts of John lacked the longer explanation in verses 3 and 4. In attempting to explain and understand the differences between the two texts, one must necessarily establish which text is more original.


B. Documentary or Source Criticism tries to determine if the work is a composite work; that is, does the entire book come from one author or one period of time? A well known conclusion of source criticism work is that the book of Isaiah in the Hebrew scriptures may be from different authors in different times. A careful analysis of style, historical references, and other factors have led most scholars to conclude that chapters 1-39 come from the 8th Century BCE while chapters 40-55 reflect events of the 6th century BCE.

The scriptures of Islam, the Qu'ran, provide an interesting challenge for the source critic. In this case, there is almost no question that all of the Qur'an are the revelations that Muhammad recited to his early followers. The Qu'ran is the collection of those revelations. The collection, however, is not in chronological order. The work of the source critic is thus to try to determine which revelations correspond to various times and events in the prophet's life.


C. Form Criticism seeks to discern the form or genre of a text. Is a text a hymn, a poem, a prayer or a narrative? Determining the form of a text is important to understanding its social context: was it used in worship, in private meditation, in creating a history, a court of law, as an explanation for a phenomenon, etc.? The form of texts may also shed some light on its unity and the process of formation. An example we will be looking at later in this course, is the book of Job found in the Hebrew scriptures. The beginning and ending of the book are written as a prose narrative and the speeches that make up the majority of the book are in poetry. This may suggest a different origin - or, at least, a different purpose, for the two parts.


D. Redaction Criticism: Redaction criticism attempts to uncover the how and why a text was edited and shaped into its current state. In other words, redaction criticism seeks to discover the purpose of the editor(s) of a text. What was their purpose in putting the material together in a particular manner? For example, why are there three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) that apparently tell the same stories in more or less the same sequence? These three Gospels are known as the synoptic Gospels (synoptic is from Greek, meaning "to see together"). The answer is that each Gospel writer is editing material for his own purpose: Matthew is writing for a predominantly Jewish audience; Luke is writing for a Roman audience and Mark may be addressing an early Christian community facing persecution. The purpose determines how each writer/editor weaves the material together

To gain an appreciation for literary criticism and its insights into the purpose and formation of scripture read The Synoptic Gospels Primer.  Notice that this article is combining documentary and redaction criticism. In other words, it is both identifying different sources for the Gospels and explaining how they were edited together. Although you are free to explore any or all of this site, you are only required to read the page linked above.


E. Reader Response analysis focuses on the interaction between the text and the reader. What the original author intended and what a reader understands may be quite different. A reader's response may be determined by a wide variety of factors: biases, culture, presuppositions, historical setting, etc. How is it that two people can read the same text and have quite different reactions to that text? In the ante-bellum South, the Bible was used by whites to argue that slavery was not only justified, it was divinely sanctioned – mandated by God's Word. At the same time, slaves who heard the stories in the Bible heard a message of freedom and liberation. The responses are determined by the reader's situation. On a more personal level, you might ask, "What feelings, thoughts, ideas does the text elicit from me?" Why? Is that what the author intended? Reader response recognizes that we are always in dialog with the text, that it is dynamic and alive rather than static; it will mean different things to different people in different times.




The Social Sciences and the Study of Religion


Anthropology can be defined as " the study of human beings as creators of and creations of culture" (Livingston, Anatomy of the Sacred, ) 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.

 Two anthropologists who have made considerable contributions to the study of religion are Emile Durkheim and Arnold Van Gennep. Durkheim was an anthropologist who believed that anthropology should focus on the function of religions in society. In fact, we have already seen that Durkheim defined religion in terms of its function. 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. Durkheim's observations led him to theorize that that religion functions in society to enforce discipline and create community.

 Arnold Van Gennep's work focused on analyzing how rites of passage and rituals function within a community of faith. We will explore his work in more detail when we consider religious rituals.



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? Karl Marx believed that society has a dramatic impact on religion: it shapes religion to reflect the values of society. In particular, religion is used by those in power to maintain their power and to appease the working class. For Marx, religion was like a drug that was meant to numb people to their harsh existence: it was the "opium of the people." On the other hand, German sociologist Max Weber sought to demonstrate how religion (in this case, 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 rise 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. Some of these have not always been very positive. For example, Sigmund Freud considered religion to be nothing more than a neurosis. According to Freud, religion originates in a child's relationship to the father; hence many religions viewed God as a Heavenly Father. Religion is thus the psychological projection of people's fears and desires: "Religious ideas are . . . illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind." In short, Freud concluded "Religion is comparable to a childhood neurosis" (The Future of an Illusion, 1927).

 Although Freud's views had a profound influence on the psychological approach to religion, other psychologist had a more positive view of religion. In 1902, William James had published a series of lectures entitled, Varieties of Religious Experience. Unlike Freud, James took religious experiences seriously and did not conclude that they negatively impacted human well-begin. In fact, James was so convinced that religious feelings were so much a part of human nature that he subtitled his work, A Study in Human Nature. He analyzed "mystical" or intense religious experiences, identified the characteristics that they had in common, and concluded that, despite their differences, these religious experiences all pointed to a common perception of the divine. In a number of ways, the characteristics of religious experiences identified by James, anticipated the influential work of Rudolf Otto whom we will discuss in the next unit.

 Another psychologist who demonstrated the value of applying insights from psychology to the study of religion is Gordon Allport. 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. Allport viewed an extrinsic orientation as an interest in religion as a means to a goal, while an intrinsic orientation is interested in religion itself. For example, someone with an extrinsic orientation may see attending church as a means to meet people or find social acceptance. Someone with an intrinsic orientation would view church attendance as an end in itself; that is, the action is its own reward.


The 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. For the historian, religion and religious sentiment is only one part of the total picture. For example, the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century is in part a battle over religious doctrine. However, the historian must ask why this division came at this point in time. What contributed to the Reformation? Most historians point out that a number of complex factors converged to make the Reformation possible. These factors include a rise in nationalism, increased literacy among an emerging middle class, and even technological advances such as the invention of the printing press that allowed the words and ideas of the reformers to reach a larger audience.

A second example of the contribution of the historian can be seen in an evaluation of Islamic Conquests of the Seventh century C.E. While the appeal of a simple, monotheistic faith cannot be underestimated, the historian also reminds us that wide-spread corruption in the Byzantine Empire, endless doctrinal debates within Christianity, and weariness from tribal fighting throughout Arabia were also factors that contributed to the rapid spread of Islam.



Phenomenology grew out of a philosophic 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 or philosophical terms or making judgments about the validity or truth of that experience. Reductionism is often described as an attempt to explain one phenomenon totally in terms of another. For example, some sociologists may argue that religion can be completely explained as a sociological phenomenon. Critics of so-called reductionism would respond that if you explain religion solely in terms of sociology, you will miss the "irreducibly religious character of the belief, act, symbol, or institution." Phenomenologists maintain that one must attempt to understand religion as religion; that is, it must be understood as an expression of its essential character. As we have seen, for Livingston and others, this essential character is the "sacred." Studying religion thus means to study it as it is perceived by adherents to be an expression of the sacred.  

We can describe phenomenology in terms of its purpose, perspective and process.


Purpose: The purpose of phenomenology is to describe accurately the religious character of 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. This approach thus insists that the observer try to empathize with the viewpoint of the people who are devoted to a religious belief or practice.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.

One scholar has compared the study of religion to the work of an actor. Just as an actor strives to faithfully portray the values, world view, and understandings of a character, the scholar of religion strives to portray as faithfully as possible the beliefs and world view of the adherents of a particular religion. Whether the actor agrees or disagrees with what the character does, thinks and says is irrelevant - at least while he/she is on stage. The actor certainly does not give up his own convictions; he simply "brackets" them while portraying the character. At the end of the day, he resumes his own identity.

Foremost among advocates of the phenomenological approach was the 20th century scholar, 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."

While phenomenology has advantages over other approaches to the study of religion, it also has limitations and potential problems. For example, a description of a religious phenomenon may be overly simplistic. In addition, how can one decide if the perspective of an insider is accurate? Moreover, explanations of the causes 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 avoid 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. It 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. In analysis and interpretation, we are most likely to rely on the social sciences and other disciplines mentioned above. This combination of phenomenology and interpretation is the approach that we will most commonly employ in our study of religion.





A Final Note: Subjectivity in the Study of Religion

None of the tools used to study religion can claim to be totally objective. In other words, the point of view of the observer will always to some extent influence one's analysis and interpretation. We have already seen this truth at work in reader-response criticism. One's culture, economic situation, social status, etc. form the lens through which one looks at religion and, for that matter, the entire world. No method attains complete, unbiased objectivity. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that as one observes and interpretes religion, one must attempt to be aware of his/her own perspective and possible biases. These are like filters which determine how we perceive religious traditions. If we are ignorant of our own presuppositions and biases, we will probably not succeed in understanding those whose view of reality differs from our own.