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Religious studies


Religious studies, alternately known as the study of religion, is the multi-disciplinary academic field devoted to research into 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 nature of transcendent or supernatural forces (such as deities), religious studies tries to study 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 19th 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 Sciences des religions in the French-speaking world.

The term "religion" originated from the Latin noun "religio", that was nominalized from one of three verbs: "relegere" (to turn to constantly/observe conscientiously); "religare" (to bind oneself [back]); and "reeligere" (to choose again). Because of these three different potential meanings, an etymological analysis alone does not resolve the ambiguity of defining religion, since each verb points to a different understanding of what religion is. During the Medieval Period, the term "religious" was used as a noun to describe someone who had joined a monastic order (a "religious").



  • 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 their own lives. That is to say, they need to empathetically (Einfühlung) 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.
  • 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.
  • Curtis, Finbarr (2012). "The study of American religions: critical reflections on a specialization". Religion. 42 (3): 355–372. doi:10.1080/0048721x.2012.681875. 
  • Eaton, Mark E. "Religious Studies Encyclopedism: A Recent History." The Reference Librarian (2016): 1-13.
  • Eliade, Mircea and Ioan P. Couliano. The HarperCollins Concise Guide to World Religion: The A-to-Z Encyclopedia of All the Major Religious Traditions (1999)
    • Eliade, Mircea ed. Encyclopedia of Religion (16 vol. 1986; 2nd ed 15 vol. 2005; online at Gale Virtual Reference Library). 3300 articles in 15,000 pages by 2000 experts.
  • Elliott, Scott S. ed. Reinventing Religious Studies: Key Writings in the History of a Discipline (Acumen, 2013) 280pp
  • Hall, Weetwood; et al. (2013). "Religious Studies at 50". Religious Studies. 49: 437. doi:10.1017/S0034412513000395. 
  • Hart, Darryl G. The University Gets Religion: Religious Studies in American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).
  • Hafner, Johann. "Relating Theology and Religious Studies: Reflections on the German Academic Landscape." Toronto Journal of Theology (2015): 1-9.
  • McCutcheon, Russell T. The discipline of religion: structure, meaning, rhetoric (Routledge, 2003)
  • Martin, Luther H., and Donald Wiebe. "Religious studies as a scientific discipline: The persistence of a delusion." Journal of the American Academy of Religion (2012) Online
  • Miles, Jack. God: A Biography. New York: Vintage, 1996.
  • Olson, Carl. The Allure of Decadent Thinking: Religious Studies and the Challenge of Postmodernism (Oxford University Press, 2013).
  • Pals, Daniel L. Eight Theories of Religion. 2nd Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Sloan Wilson, David. Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
  • Stark, Rodney. Discovering God: The Origins of Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.
  • Torre, Renée de la, and Eloísa Martín. "Religious Studies in Latin America." Annual Review of Sociology 42.1 (2016).
  • Werblowsky, RJ Zwi (1989). "In nostro tempore: On Mircea Eliade". Religion. 19 (2): 129–136. doi:10.1016/0048-721x(89)90035-3. 
  • Werblowsky, RJ Zwi (1975). "on studying Comparative Religion". Religious Studies. 11 (02): 145–156. doi:10.1017/s0034412500008301. 
  • Witte, John. "The Study of Law and Religion in the United States: An Interim Report," Ecclesiastical Law Journal (2012) 14#3 pp 327–354. online
  • Chopra, R. M., (2015) " A Study of Religions ", Anuradha Prakashan, New Delhi,
  • Eliade, Mircea ed. Encyclopedia of Religion (16 vol. 1986; 2nd ed 15 vol. 2005; online at Gale Virtual Reference Library). 3300 articles in 15,000 pages by 2000 experts.
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