What is the Academic Study of Religion?


Religion Studies is an academic field that developed out of Europe and into a discipline that can be found in most major universities today.

Religion Studies 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, which is external/outside of any particular religious viewpoint. According to Walter Capps, Religion Studies attempts to provide “training and practice… in directing and conducting inquiry regarding the subject of religion” (1). 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 the work of both past and present scholars of religion: [1] What is religion? [2] How did religion come into being? [3] How shall religion be described? [4] What is the function or purpose of religion?

The Enlightenment Origins

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, both of whom exerted great influence on later scholars. The Enlightenment scholars, following in the footsteps of what became known as the “Kantian Paradigm” sought to explore three important questions of primary importance:

[1]. Does religion belong to cognition?
[2]. Does religion belong to moral or ethical considerations?
[3]. Does religion belong to aesthetics?

These questions evidence the Enlightenment mentality that was discontent with supernatural and transempirical explanations, hence efforts to ground religion not in 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. Importantly, in many cases this was an attempt to authenticate religion and present it as a legitimate mode of human experience.

A distinction between Natural Religion and Revealed Religion was drawn. Natural Religion referred to common religious sensibilities to which any person, simply by virtue of 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 a 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 questions posed above.

Contemporary Religion Studies

Religion Studies today continues to study religion because it is, and always has been, a major mover of and motivator in human culture from time immemorial to the present.  Religion Studies scholar Rita Gross explains that “it is impossible to understand human history and culture while ignoring religion… scholars formally trained in religious studies could contribute greatly to the overall environment of inquiry and learning that characterize a university” (2).

Religion Studies is first and foremost a descriptive discipline that gathers and disseminates accurate information about the variety of religious beliefs and practices. It therefore takes controversial material about which many people care deeply and places it in the natural setting of the academic classroom with the purpose of examination and learning. Although scholars of religion do not believe that absolute objectivity is possible they do at least attempt to be as objective as possible. As such,

“Personal agreement or disagreement with the symbols, rituals, and beliefs about which we are learning is largely irrelevant at the stage. Scholars may debate an alternative hypothesis about the information being studied, but debating the truth or falsity of the religious ideas is irrelevant to the academic study of religion as a descriptive discipline” (3).

Attempts at being objective when approaching one’s material are supported by methodological frameworks and rules guiding scholarship. Further, as Gross suggests, when studying and discussing controversial subjects about which people have strong opinions and feelings, it is best to exercise empathy. Empathy means to temporarily drop or “bracket” out one’s own worldview, values, and preconceptions as much as possible when engaged in the study of a religious tradition (4). It also involves imaginatively entering into the milieu of the phenomenon being studied. That is, for the scholar to try to understand the perceptions of the insider of a religious tradition. It is to try to understand what compels the insider to behave the way she does and what reasons she has for believing what she does.

Areas of Religion Studies

Religion Studies has diversified and there are scholars who specialize in select areas. Black Studies of religion is clear about its intellectual agenda to study the historical realities of black people, and to analyze the themes of power, domination, and hegemony, particularly in the sphere of black religious life and experience. Post-Colonial Religion Studies is propelled by theorists who privilege the perspectives of marginalized human beings, especially those who have been colonized or subjected to imperial rule. The concepts of colonialism and empire are explored, particularly through how the influences of imperial systems linger in the present even after the abolishment of such systems. The Psychology of Religion draws on the scientific study of the mind and behavior and treats with primacy the topic of religious motivation: Why do people engage in religious acts? Why does a particular individual engage in religious acts? Feminist Religion Studies, one of the newer areas in the discipline, treats with primacy the experiences of women within religious history and contemporary religion. It consists of academic scholars, mostly women and largely within religious studies, who have “confronted the sex and gender biases that given rise to these attitudes in the religion, and hence to theories of religion…” (5).

There are, of course, many other areas of interest within Religion Studies. A number of scholars are still wishing to pin down an acceptable definition of religion. There are specialists in so-called “cult” movements, which are more appropriately defined as New Religious Movements or alternative religions. These religions have interests in combining science and science fiction with religious beliefs and evidence an increased interest in nature worship and nature religions.


1. Walter, Capps. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

2. Gross, Rita. 1996. Feminism and Religion: An Introduction. Boston: Beacon Press. p. 8.

3. Gross, Rita. 1996. Ibid. p. 8

4. Gross, Rita. 1996. Ibid. p. 10.

5. Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Understanding Theories of Religion: An Introduction. New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 189.



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