What is the Academic Study of Religion? (Religious Studies)

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Religious Studies is an academic discipline that developed out of Europe and that is less than 200 years old. It should not be confused for theology nor should scholars of religion be seen as theologians. Rather than appealing to religious doctrines, supernatural forces and agents, scholars of religion attempt to understand the phenomenon of religion externally, that is external/outside of any particular religious viewpoint. According to the Walter Capps, the author of Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline, Religious Studies attempts to provide “training and practice… in directing and conducting inquiry regarding the subject of religion.” It seeks after techniques to make the “subject of religion intelligible.” In this respect, four major questions have propelled forth the academic study of religion, many of which have featured prominently in both past and present scholars of religion:

-What is Religion?
-How did religion come into being?
-How shall religion be described?
-What is the function or purpose of religion?

The Enlightenment Origins

Importantly, the study of religion has its roots in the European Enlightenment of the 17th century, and was particularly inspired by the rationalist philosophers Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant who both exerted great influence on later scholars. The Enlightenment scholars, following in the footsteps of Descartes and the Kantian Paradigm, sought to explore three important questions of primary importance:

-Does religion belong to cognition?
-Does religion belong to moral or ethical considerations?
-Does religion belong to aesthetics?

From these questions it is clear that Enlightenment inquiry required that religious beliefs and attitudes be grounded not in a divine will, special providence, creedal formulation, or ecclesiastical authority but in natural, public, human factually experience. Enlightenment thinkers thus approached religion as something imminently human, and sought to explain religion as a human habit, pattern, capacity, and temperament.

Thus, a distinction between natural religion and revealed religion was drawn. Natural religion referred to common religious sensibilities to which any person, simply by being human, could lay claim. Natural religion was therefore accessible and available to all. It was inviting, tolerant, and possessed no requirements other than one’s humanity. Revealed religion was the religion of the church, the institutions, of specific authorities accompanied by doctrines, creeds, theologies, and liturgies. For number of commentators, revealed religion was seen in a negative light for it functioned as a system of tyranny and of intellectual enslavement. Attempts were therefore made to strip revealed religion of its excesses and reduce it to its fundamental, core elements, thus exercising fertility with the Cartesian Method and Kantian Paradigm.

Following Descartes’ method, Enlightenment scholars of religion discounted religious claims of a peripheral nature in their attempt to reach certifiable first principles. Emphasis was thus placed upon a reductionist view of human nature which Enlightenment thinkers believed consisted of three fundamental capacities, namely, feelings, thoughts, and actions. Religion was approached in a similar reductionist way because the goal was to make religion intelligible and situate it within the fundamental human capacities, hence the motive behind the three major question posed above.

It is also important to observe that many of the Enlightenment thinkers possessed their own assumptions when they sought to answer these questions. For example, they assumed that religion was rooted in something natural and human as opposed to something supernatural. They assumed that human mental and sensitive capacities were uniform the world over, and also assumed that their accounts of religion would apply universally to all people.

The Major Areas of Religious Studies

In our next post we will look a little more closely at the six major areas within Religious Studies, which all in their own ways pose methodological attempts to render religion intelligible. These areas include:

-The Essence (Sine Qua Non) of Religion
-The Origin (Primordium) of Religion
-The Description of Religion (Phenomenology)
-The Function of Religion
-The Language of Religion
-The Comparison of Religion


5 responses to “What is the Academic Study of Religion? (Religious Studies)

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