Religious studies, or Religious education, is the academic field of multi-disciplinary, secular study of religious beliefs, behaviors, and institutions. It describes, compares, interprets, and explains religion, emphasizing systematic, historically-based, and cross-cultural perspectives.
While theology attempts to understand the intentions of a supernatural force (such as deities), religious studies tries to study human religious behavior and belief from outside any particular religious viewpoint. Religious studies draws upon multiple disciplines and their methodologies including anthropology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and history of religion.
Religious studies originated in the nineteenth century, when scholarly and historical analysis of the Bible had flourished, and Hindu and Buddhist texts were first being translated into European languages. Early influential scholars included Friedrich Max Müller, in England, and Cornelius P. Tiele, in the Netherlands. Today religious studies is practiced by scholars worldwide. In its early years, it was known as Comparative Religion or the Science of Religion and, in the USA, there are those who today also know the field as the History of religion (associated with methodological traditions traced to the University of Chicago in general, and in particular Mircea Eliade, from the late 1950s through to the late 1980s). The field is known as Religionswissenschaft in Germany and Italy and Sciences de la religion in the French-speaking world.
Religious studies vs. theology
Western philosophy of religion, as the basic ancestor of modern religious studies, is differentiated from theology and the many Eastern philosophical traditions by generally being written from a third party perspective. The scholar need not be a believer. Theology stands in contrast to the philosophy of religion and religious studies in that, generally, the scholar is first and foremost a believer employing both logic and scripture as evidence.
 Intellectual foundation and background
Before religious studies became a field in its own right (e.g., flourishing in the US as of the late-1960s), several key intellectual figures explored religion from a variety of perspectives. One of these figures was the famous pragmatist William James. His 1902 Gifford lectures and book The Varieties of Religious Experience examined religion from a psychological-philosophical perspective and is still influential today. His essay The Will to Believe defends the rationality of faith.
Max Weber studied religion from an economic perspective in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-5), his most famous work. As a major figure in sociology, he has no doubt influenced later sociologists of religion. Émile Durkheim also holds continuing influence as one of the fathers of sociology. He explored Protestant and Catholic attitudes and doctrines regarding suicide in his work Suicide. In 1912 he published his most memorable work on religion, Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.
Interest in the general study of religion dates back to at least Hecataeus of Miletus (ca. 550 BCE – ca. 476 BCE) and Herodotus (ca. 484 BCE – 425 BCE). Later, during the Middle Ages, Islamic scholars studied Persian, Jewish, Christian, and Indian religions. The first history of religion was the Treatise on the Religious and Philosophical Sects (1127 CE), written by the Muslim scholar Muhammad al-Shahrastani. Peter the Venerable, also working in the twelfth century, studied Islam and made possible a Latin translation of the Qur’an.
Notwithstanding the long interest in the study of religion, the academic discipline Religious Studies is relatively new. Dr. Chris Partridge notes that the “first professorships were established as recently as the final quarter of the nineteenth century.” In the nineteenth century, the study of religion was done through the eyes of science. Max Müller was the first Professor of Comparative Religion at Oxford University, a chair created especially for him. In his Introduction to the Science of Religion (1873) he wrote that it is “the duty of those who have devoted their life to the study of the principal religions of the world in their original documents, and who value and reverence it in whatever form it may present itself, to take possession of this new territory in the name of true science.”
Partridge writes that “by the second half of the twentieth century the study of religion had emerged as a prominent and important field of academic enquiry.” He cites the growing distrust of the empiricism of the nineteenth century and the growing interest in non-Christian religions and spirituality coupled with convergence of the work of social scientists and that of scholars of religion as factors involved in the rise of Religious Studies.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the term “religious studies” became common and interest in the field increased. New departments were founded and influential journals of religious studies were initiated (for example, Religious Studies and Religion). In the forward to Approaches to the Study of Religion, Ninian Smart wrote that “in the English-speaking world [religious studies] basically dates from the 1960s, although before then there were such fields as ‘the comparative study of religion’, the ‘history of religion’, the ‘sociology of religion’ and so on…”
In the 1980s, in both Britain and America, “the decrease in student applications and diminishing resources in the 1980s led to cut backs affecting religious studies departments.” (Partridge) Later in the decade, religious studies began to pick up as a result of integrating religious studies with other disciplines and forming programs of study that mixed the discipline with more utilitarian study.
Philosophy of religion uses philosophical tools to evaluate religious claims and doctrines. Western philosophy has traditionally been employed by English speaking scholars. (Some other cultures have their own philosophical traditions including Indian, Muslim, and Jewish.) Common issues considered by the (Western) philosophy of religion are the existence of God, belief and rationality, cosmology, and logical inferences of logical consistency from sacred texts.
Although philosophy has long been used in evaluation of religious claims (e.g. Augustine and Pelagius‘s debate concerning original sin), the rise of scholasticism in the 11th century, which represented “the search for order in intellectual life” (Russell, 170), more fully integrated the Western philosophical tradition (with the introduction of translations of Aristotle) in religious study.
There is some amount of overlap between subcategories of religious studies and the discipline itself. Religious studies seeks to study religious phenomena as a whole, rather than be limited to the approaches of its subcategories.
 Origin of religion
The “origin of religion” refers to the emergence of religious behavior in prehistory, before written records.
 History of religion
The history of religions is not concerned with theological claims apart from their historical significance. Some topics of this discipline are the historicity of religious figures, events, and the evolution of doctrinal matters.
 Sociology of religion
Sociology of religion is concerned with the social aspects of religion, both in theory and in practice. Social structure, the relationship between individual practitioner and religious community, and the construction of meaning are a few of the concerns of the sociologist of religions. Émile Durkheim was the forefather of the sociological study of religion. In 1912 he stated in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life that religion cannot be separated from society, and vice-versa. Durkheim saw religion as a form of social solidarity which helped members of the society to bond together and worship the natural or the supernatural. Simply put, for the sociologist of religions the social conditions in the local form of Heaven or Pantheon mirror the local social conditions on earth, also often the former act to justify the latter.
 Psychology of religion
The psychology of religion is concerned with what psychological principles are operative in religious communities and practitioners. William James was one of the first academics to bridge the gap between the emerging science of psychology and the study of religion. A few issues of concern to the psychologist of religions are the psychological nature of religious conversion, the making of religious decisions, and the psychological factors in evaluating religious claims.
 Anthropology of religion
The anthropology of religion is principally concerned with the common basic needs of man that religion fulfills.
 Cultural anthropology of religion
The cultural anthropology of religion is principally concerned with the cultural aspects of religion. Of primary concern to the cultural anthropologist of religions are rituals, beliefs, religious art, and practices of piety.
 Literary approaches
There are many approaches to the study of sacred texts. One of these approaches is to interpret the text as a literary object. Metaphor, thematic elements, and the nature and motivations of the characters are of interest in this approach. An example of this approach is God: A Biography, by Jack Miles.
 Neurological approaches
Recently there has been an interesting meeting between neurology and religion, especially Buddhism. Also of interest has been the temporal lobe, the “God center” of the brain. (Ramachandran, ch. 9) Although not a widely accepted discipline within religious studies, neurological findings in regard to religious experience may very well become of more widespread interest to scholars of religion. Scientific investigators have used a SPECT scanner to analyze the brain activity of both Christian contemplatives and Buddhist meditators, finding them to be quite similar.
A number of methodologies are used in Religious Studies. Methodologies are hermeneutics, or interpretive models, that provide a structure for the analysis of religious phenomena.
Phenomenology is “arguably the most influential approach to the study of religion in the twentieth century.” (Partridge) The term was first used by Pierre Daniel Chantepie de la Saussaye in his work Lehrbuch der Religiongeschichte (1887). Chantepie’s phenomenology catalogued observable characteristics of religion much like a zoologist would categorize animals or an entomologist would categorize insects.
In part due to Husserl’s influence, “phenomenology” came to “refer to a method which is more complex and claims rather more for itself than did Chantepie’s mere cataloguing of facts.” (Partridge) Husserl argued that the foundation of knowledge is consciousness. He recognized “how easy it is for prior beliefs and interpretations to unconsciously influence one’s thinking, Husserl’s phenomenological method sought to shelve all these presuppositions and interpretations.” (Partridge) Husserl introduced the term “eidetic vision” to describe the ability to observe without “prior beliefs and interpretations” influencing understanding and perception.
His other main conceptual contribution is the idea of the “epoch”: setting aside metaphysical questions and observing phenomena in and of themselves. Husserl “sought to place philosophy on a descriptive and scientific basis.” (Partridge)
Partridge examines the most systematic and thorough example of phenomenology, Gerardus van der Leeuw’s Religion in Essence and Manifestation (1933):
- Firstly, argues van der Leeuw, the student of religion needs to classify the religious phenomena into distinct categories: e.g. sacrifice, sacrament, sacred space, sacred time, sacred word, festivals, and myth.
- Secondly, scholars then need to interpolate the phenomena into the their own lives. That is to say, they need to empathetically (Einfuhlung) try and understand the religion from within….The life examined by the religious studies scholar, insists van der Leeuw, needs to “acquire its place in the life of the student himself who should understand it out of his inner self.”
- Thirdly, van der Leeuw stresses perhaps the fundamental phenomenological principle, namely epoch, the suspension of value-judgements and the adoption of a neutral stance.
- Fourthly, scholars needs to clarify any apparent structural relationships and make sense of the information. In so doing, they move towards a holistic understanding of how the various aspects of a religion relate and function together.
- Fifthly, this leads naturally to a stage at which “all these activities, undertaken together and simultaneously, constitute genuine understanding [Verstehen]: the chaotic and obstinate ‘reality’ thus becomes a manifestation, a revelation” (eidetic vision).
- Sixthly, having thus attained this general grasp, there is a continual need to make sure that it tallies with the up-to-date research of other disciplines, such as archaeology, history, philology etc. For van der Leeuw, as for other phenomenologists, the continual checking of one’s results is crucial to the maintenance of scholarly objectivity. In order to avoid degeneration into fantasy, phenomenology must always feed on facts.
- Finally, having gone through the above six stages, the phenomenologist should be as close as anyone can be to an understanding of the ‘meaning’ of the religious phenomena studied and be in a position to relate his understanding to others.
Most phenomenologists are aware of the fact that understanding is asymptotic and there will never be complete and absolute understanding. By setting aside metaphysical issues (such as a Christian phenomenologist would do with monotheism/polytheism while studying Hinduism), phenomenologists keep religious studies separate from theology and (hopefully) decrease their bias and come away with a more accurate picture.
Seven generally agreed upon features of phenomenology are as follows:
- Phenomenologists tend to oppose the acceptance of unobservable matters and grand systems erected in speculative thinking;
- Phenomenologists tend to oppose naturalism (also called objectivism and positivism), which is the worldview growing from modern natural science and technology that has been spreading from Northern Europe since the Renaissance;
- Positively speaking, phenomenologists tend to justify cognition (and some also evaluation and action) with reference to what Edmund Husserl called Evidenz, which is awareness of a matter itself as disclosed in the most clear, distinct, and adequate way for something of its kind;
- Phenomenologists tend to believe that not only objects in the natural and cultural worlds, but also ideal objects, such as numbers, and even conscious life itself can be made evident and thus known;
- Phenomenologists tend to hold that inquiry ought to focus upon what might be called “encountering” as it is directed at objects and, correlatively, upon “objects as they are encountered” (this terminology is not widely shared, but the emphasis on a dual problematics and the reflective approach it requires is);
- Phenomenologists tend to recognize the role of description in universal, a priori, or “eidetic” terms as prior to explanation by means of causes, purposes, or grounds; and
- Phenomenologists tend to debate whether or not what Husserl calls the transcendental phenomenological epochê and reduction is useful or even possible.
Functionalism, in regard to religious studies, is the analysis of religions and their various communities of adherents using the functions of particular religious phenomena to interpret the structure of religious communities and their beliefs. A major criticism of functionalism is that it lends itself to teleological explanations. An example of a functionalist approach is understanding the dietary restrictions contained in the Pentateuch as having the function of promoting health or providing social identity (i.e. a sense of belonging though common practice).
 Critiques of Religious Studies
A number of religious studies scholars have mounted critiques of religious studies as a discipline. Timothy Fitzgerald, for example, has argued in The Ideology of Religious Studies, in a manner similar to Talal Asad, that there is no coherent non-theological theoretical basis forthe study of religion as an academic discipline.