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Religious studies 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 nature of transcendent or supernatural forces (such as deities), religious studies tries to study religious behavior and belief from outside any particu lar 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 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 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”). Despite this change in meaning, it is important to note the term “religion” is primarily a Christian term. Judaism and Hinduism, for example, do not include this term in their vocabulary.
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. Theology according to this understanding fits with the definition which Anselm of Canterbury gave to it in the 11th century, credo ut intelligam, or faith seeking understanding (literally, “I believe so that I may understand”). The theologian then has the task of making intelligible, or clarifying, the religious commitments to which he or she ascribes. The scholar of religious studies has no such allegiances.
Related Information On Theology ?
Chantepie de la Saussaye
The first explicit use of the phrase “phenomenology of religion” occurs in the Lehrbuch der Religionsgeschichte (Handbook of the History of Religions), written by Pierre Daniël Chantepie de la Saussaye in 1887, wherein he articulates the task of the science of religion and gives an “Outline of the phenomenology of religion”. Employing the terminology of Hegel, Chantepie divides his science of religion into two areas of investigation, essence and manifestations, which are approached through investigations in philosophy and history, respectively. However, Chantepie’s phenomenology “belongs neither to the history nor the philosophy of religion as Hegel envisioned them”. For Chantepie, it is the task of phenomenology to prepare historical data for philosophical analysis through “a collection, a grouping, an arrangement, and a classifying of the principal groups of religious conceptions”. This sense of phenomenology as a grouping of manifestations is similar to the conception of phenomenology articulated by Robison and the British; however, insofar as Chantepie conceives of phenomenology as a preparation for the philosophical elucidation of essences, his phenomenology is not completely opposed to that of Hegel.
Intellectual foundation and background
Before religious studies became a field in its own right, flourishing in the United States in 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.
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.
Economics of religion
Gallup surveys have found that the world’s poorest countries may be the most religious. Of those countries with average per-capita incomes under $2000, 95% reported that religion played an important role in their daily lives. This is contrasted by the average of 47% from the richest countries, with incomes over $25000 (with the United States breaking the trend by reporting at 65%). Social scientists have suggested that religion plays a functional role (helping people cope) in poorer nations. The New York Times offers a graphic illustrating the correlation (not necessarily causation) between religion and poverty.
Geography of religion
The geography of religion is principally concerned with the spatial elements of religious practice and embodiment. In the 1960s and 1970s, geographers of religion such as Wilbur Zelinsky and David Sopher were mostly associated with the “Berkeley school” of cultural geography and focused mostly on the cultural imprints of religion on the landscape. Since the turn in the new cultural geography of religion through the work of James Duncan on the City as Text, geographers of religion have focused on what Lily Kong has called the “politics and poetics” of religion, especially in relation to the political geographies of secular nation-states. Recent interest in the geography of religion has focused on how religious practitioners enact sacred space through their embodied sacred practices as well as the relationship between religion and geopolitics.
History of religion
See also: 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.
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.
The temporal lobe has been of interest which has been termed the “God center” of the brain. (Ramachandran, ch. 9) Neurological findings in regard to religious experience is not a widely accepted discipline within religious studies. Scientific investigators have used a SPECTscanner to analyze the brain activity of both Christian contemplatives and Buddhist meditators, finding them to be quite similar.
Origin of religion
Main articles: Evolutionary origin of religions, Evolutionary psychology of religion, and Revelation
The “origin of religion” refers to the emergence of religious behavior in prehistory, before written records.
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, religion and happiness, and the psychological factors in evaluating religious claims.
Sigmund Freud was another influential figure in the field of psychology and religion. He used his psychoanalytic theory to explain religious beliefs, practices, and rituals in order to justify the role of religion in the development of human culture.
Sociology of religion
Main article: Sociology of religion
The sociology of religion concerns the dialectical relationship between religion and society; the practices, historical backgrounds, developments, universal themes and roles of religion in society. There is particular emphasis on the recurring role of religion in all societies and throughout recorded history. The sociology of religion is distinguished from the philosophy of religion in that it does not set out to assess the validity of religious beliefs, though the process of comparing multiple conflicting dogmas may require what Peter L. Berger has described as inherent “methodological atheism”. Whereas the sociology of religion broadly differs from theology in assuming the invalidity of the supernatural, theorists tend to acknowledge socio-cultural reification of religious practise.
It may be said that the modern formal discipline of sociology began with the analysis of religion in Durkheim’s 1897 study of suicide rates amongst Catholic and Protestant populations. The works of Max Weber emphasised the relationship between religious belief and the economic foundations of society. Contemporary debates have centred on issues such as secularization, civil religion, and the cohesiveness of religion in the context of globalization and multiculturalism.
The sociology of religion also deals with how religion impacts society regarding the positive and negatives of what happens when religion is mixed with society. Theorist such as Marx states that “religion is the opium of the people” – the idea that religion has become a way for people to deal with their problems. At least one comprehensive study refutes this idea. Research has found that secular democracies like France or Scandinavia outperform more theistic democracies on various measures of societal health. The authors explains, “Pressing questions include the reasons, whether theistic or non-theistic, that the exceptionally wealthy U.S. is so inefficient that it is experiencing a much higher degree of societal distress than are less religious, less wealthy prosperous democracies. Conversely, how do the latter achieve superior societal health while having little in the way of the religious values or institutions?”[dead link]
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.