Phenomenology is “arguably the most influential approach to the study of religion in the twentieth century.” (Partridge) The term is first found in the title of the work of the influential philosopher of German Idealism, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, entitled The Phenomenology of Spirit. Phenomenology had been practiced long before its being made explicit as a philosophical method by Edmund Husserl, who is considered to be its founder. In the context of Phenomenology of religion however, 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 epoche: setting aside metaphysical questions and observing phenomena in and of themselves, without any bias or commitments on the part of the investigator. The epoche, also known as phenomenological reduction or bracketing, involves approaching a phenomenon or phenomena from a neutral standpoint, instead of with our own particular attitudes. In performing this reduction, whatever phenomenon or phenomena we approach are understood in themselves, rather than from our own perspectives. In the field of religious studies, a contemporary advocate of the phenomenological method is Ninian Smart. He suggests that we should perform the epoche as a means to engage in cross-cultural studies. In doing so, we can take the beliefs, symbols, rituals etc. of the other from within their own perspective, rather than imposing ours on them. Another earlier scholar who employs the phenomenological method for studying religion is Gerardus van der Leeuw. In his Religion in Essence and Manifestation (1933), he outlines what a phenomenology of religion should look like:
- 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 (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.
The subjectivity inherent to the phenomenological study of religion makes complete and comprehensive understanding highly difficult. However, phenomenologists aim to separate their formal study of religion from their own theological worldview and to eliminate, as far as possible, any personal biases (e.g., a Christian phenomenologist would avoid studying Hinduism through the lens of Christianity).
There are a number of both theoretical and methodological attitudes common among phenomenologists: source
- 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).
A group of scholars have criticized religious studies beginning in the 1990s as a theological project which actually imposes views onto the people it aims to survey. Prominent voices in this critical view include Robert A. Orsi, Timothy Fitzgerald, Talal Asad, Tomoko Masuzawa, G.A. Oddie, Richard King, Russell T. McCutcheon, and Daniel Dubuisson. Their areas of research overlap heavily with postcolonial studies.