What is the Phenomenology of Religion?

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Image: An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion, James Cox, 2010, Bloomsbury Publishing

The phenomenology of religion is a methodological approach to religion (as a phenomenon) which searches for patterns of religious experiences or practices across traditions. This includes a concentration on religion’s manifest features, such as the visible, self-evident, and empirical factors, which are treated as a means to make religion intelligible. Walter Capps (1934-1997) refers to phenomenology as an analysis of “an assemblage of elements, a constellation of ingredients—even, possibly, a pattern of interrelatedness” which make up religion (1). As such, the phenomenology of religion holds that religion is a unique human experience which deserves its own area of study. It further includes an approach which treats with importance the subjective views and experiences of the religious people being studied. An “insider” approach is often treated with primacy.

The First Phenomenologists of Religion and the Influence of Edmund Husserl

The first phenomenologists were Cornelius Petrus Tiele (1830-1902) and Pierre Daniel Chantepie de la Saussaye (1848-1920), both of whom provided descriptive systems and classifications of religion. A number of other theorists followed them including William Brede Kristensen (1867-1953), Geraardus van der Leeuw (1890-1950), C. J. Bleeker (1898–1983), and Mircea Eliade (1907-1986). The phenomenology of religion was primarily inspired by Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), and its methodology therefore evidenced Husserlian techniques, interests, and conceptual terminology. It has been of interest to scholars as to just how much influence Husserl has had on the content, methodology, and direction of religious studies as a discipline.

It was the philosophers Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) who inspired Husserl’s work. Husserl favored Descartes’ philosophical approach which attempted, through an extensive methodological employment of doubt, to ground indisputable knowledge, and place knowledge on firm foundations. Husserl’s work also begun with the distinction between phenomena and noumena as it was conceptualized by German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant engaged the metaphysics of mind in which he attempted to analyze and describe the structure of rationality. He used the idea of noumena to refer to the world of pure intellection, and contrasted it with the idea of “phenomena.” He believed that because human beings only perceive representations of objects, they do not see or perceive objects as they are “within themselves.” This is best understood through Kant’s concept of transcendental idealism, which emphasizes a distinction between what human beings can experience (the natural, observable world) and what they cannot (“supersensible” objects such as God and the soul). Husserl appreciated Kant’s ideas, and emphasized the notion of phenomena, by which he meant the world of apparent, visible, and perceptible things (referred to as “the things themselves”). Phenomena, in Husserl’s view, were not illusory or of secondary importance; rather they are of primary importance, and very real and perceptible. If one wished to understand human beings, then one should investigate the fundamentals of the world which were most immediate, thus requiring emphasis and concentration on phenomena. Husserl referred to this as Lebenswelt (“life world”), the realm that is most immediate. He also contended that the Lebenswelt evidenced a discernible structure constituted by general rules, and organizing patterns and principles. The emphasis was thus moved away from abstract world (noumena) to the world of primary experience (phenomena).

An “Insider Knows Best” Approach to Studying Religion

Treating the insider’s view with primacy led some of the earliest phenomenologists, such as Kristensen, to approach religion in quite a different way. Scholar of religion Ivan Strenski explains that the,

“phenomenologists of religion did not seek to theorize about religion, and therefore did not try to explain what may have caused it. They tried instead to take religion as a phenomenon — as it was presented to them. With these data in mind, they then tried to make sense of it by seeing how the various parts of a religion fit together to make a whole” (2).

For the early phenomenologists, this constituted understanding religion in a way that did not seek after the causes of religion or religious institutions. Capps refers to this as a “shift” in intellectual interest from an analyses which emphasized singles (such as a single core essence or a single origin) to plurality, which recognized religion as consisting of a multiplicity of elements. As such, the phenomenologists differed when to a number of other important historical theorists. They did not, for instance, approach religion by attempting to explain it through evolutionary models of development as did David Hume (1711-1776)), James Frazer (1854-1941) and E.B. Tylor (1832-1917), nor they did not attempt to seek after Natural Religion by providing accounts of religion’s primordium (origins) and of its earliest beliefs as did Jean Bodin (1530-1596), Wilhelm Schmidt (1868-1954), and others.

William Brede Kristensen and Rudolf Otto’s Idea of Religious Experience

The “insider knows best” approach emphasized the subjective views of the religious people, which was an approach Kristensen was strong on. Kristensen contended that if one did not privilege the views of the religious person, or should one attempt to understand religion from a viewpoint different to a religious person, he then “negates the religious reality” (3).

Scholars also begun probing the realms of religious experience through way of examining the subjective, emotional, and experiential side to religion. German theologian Rudolf Otto’s (1869-1937) and his idea of the Holy (which he also referred to as the numinous) and the tremendum mysterium were influential on a number of theorists across several fields. It was also appealing to Kristensen. For Otto, religion was a supremely transcendental reality to which he gave the category “the Holy.” He argued that “holiness” is unique to religion, most closely associated with goodness, and is an intangible, unseen yet compelling reality that inspires both fascination and dread within human beings. The Holy is always present within religious experience and awareness, and without it religion would not exist. Otto posited the numinous to consist of two elements which were bound together, the tremendum mysterium . By tremendum he meant awe, majesty, and urgency. By mysterium he meant something wholly other and distinct from everything else but despite such distinctiveness, the mysterium still attracts and fascinates. For Kristensen, the Holy captured a very real and subjective reality for religious believers, thus giving credence to approaching religion on how it is experienced by believers.

Gerardus van der Leeuw’s and Bracketing Out Value Judgements

Van der Leeuw, an ordained minister, pastor, and professor of History of Religions and Theology at the University of Groningen, was responsible for professionalizing the phenomenology of religion. He turned it into a discipline and made efforts to marry both the objective and subjective features of religion. On the objective side he laid out the anatomy of the structure of religion and attempted to give it an objective structural classification. His book Religion in Essence and Manifestation (1938) was akin to both an encyclopedia of religions and methodologies for studying religion. It provided readers with long lists of religious categories (such as prophet, priest, taboo, sacred etc., listing some 700) which constitute religion. Van der Leeuw also attempted to link these objective elements with the subjective features of empathy and understanding. By empathy, he meant that one should avoid making a judgement on truth or value regarding the phenomena in question while investigating it. One is to withhold from this until he or she has finally understood what has been presented. Thus, the scholar of religion is to regard religious data in a neutral and detached way. For example, if one studied Christian belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, the phenomenologist, on van der Leeuw’s view, would note that this is so for Christians. He “brackets” out the alleged truth claims of Christ being Lord and Saviour, and does not make value judgements on it himself. Essentially, to make value or truth judgements is to go beyond the phenomenon itself, which phenomenologists should avoid doing.

Ninian Smart Adds Dynamism to Van Der Leeuw Phenomenology

Ninian Smart (1927-2001) was a scholar of religion whose most influential contribution to religious studies was his sevenfold scheme dividing religion into the historical and para-historical dimensions or categories. The para-historical categories concern the beliefs and concepts on behalf of the religious people which, in order to learn about (on the part of a scholar), requires direct participation. Smart believed that one needed to access the beliefs, myths, and desires of religious people in order to understand why they act as they do. The historical categories, moreover, are those features of religion which are tangible and can be accessed empirically. Smart argued that that one should apply the category of “dynamics” to van der Leeuw’s phenomenology. To Smart, van der Leeuw’s categories were too static and permanent. However, theorists and scholars of religion realize that religious categories and realities are far from fixed; rather, they are lively and contested. Smart’s phenomenology as it is presented within his sevenfold scheme attempts to capture the plurality and diversity of religion.

Contemporary Phenomenology of Religion

21st century phenomenology of religion emphasizes the subjective character of religious experience and emotion. Although there remain important methodological questions yet to find consensus answers, phenomenologists agree on examining discernible relationships between a person’s religious experiences and his or her experiences of the material world. For example, how might a particular religious experience in one individual or across a group of believers influence behaviour and practice? In some cases a religious experience is used to signify a person’s superior status in relation to others, yet in other instances it instills a sense of humility and awe. The apprehension of God or the Sacred are also of interest to the contemporary phenomenologist. How might a religion’s conceptual framework (such as its doctrines, rituals, and practices) contribute to the emotional feelings and religious experience? And what are sacred spaces according to a religious tradition and its believers? What can one learn about these spaces by observing their features? How do they shape a believer’s sense of meaning in the present? How do they go about binding a community together? The phenomenology of religion asks many questions, and is a helpful methodological approach to the scientific study of religion. It supports the notion of “bracketing” out personal views and urges the temporary suspension of judgment of religious phenomena under consideration. It is further helpful it its prioritizing the subjective experiences of religious people and groups, and seeing their insider perspectives as something worth examining.


1. Capps, W. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. p. 106.

2. Strenski, I. 2015. Understanding Theories of Religion. p. 83.

3. Kristensen, W. 1968. The meaning of religion: lectures in the phenomenology of religion. Translated by John Carman.


One response to “What is the Phenomenology of Religion?

  1. Pingback: Rudolf Otto – Religious Experience as Apprehension of the Holy | Bishop's Encyclopedia of Religion, Society and Philosophy·

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