Cornelis Petrus Tiele – A Scientific and Morphological Study of Religion


Cornelis Petrus Tiele (1830-1902), born in Leiden, Netherlands, was a theologian and professor of the history of religion at the University of Leiden. He specialized in Egyptian, Assyrian, and Mesopotamian religions, and was majorly responsible for getting the phenomenology of religion off the ground, which was then followed by William Brede Kristensen (1867-1953) who became the first phenomenologist of religion.

Natural Religion and the Development of Religion

Like other theorists before him, Tiele assumed that there was a Natural Religion, or a fundamental, core part of the human being that is intrinsically religious. He held to a two-level view of world religion. On one level there were the many different religions, but at a fundamental level, there is one essential religion. According to Ivan Strenski, this line of thought supposed that “At the superficial level were the many conflicting forms of religions of revelation. But at the profound level was the one Natural Religion, the knowledge of which was open to all people of good faith” (1).

Much of Tiele’s work was also concerned with the development of religion. According to Tiele, “All religions develop; but, like every form of social life, for a time only. All have their periods of birth, growth, bloom, and decline… Though ever changing in form, religion lives like mankind and with mankind” (2). Tiele’s book Outlines of the History of Religion to the Spread of the Universal Religions (1877) provides an origin-developmental model of religion where he attempts to trace religion’s development from its animistic origins up until the formation of the Christian religion in Greco-Roman times. However, despite these interesting contributions to the development of religious studies, Tiele is remembered more for his scientific study of religion.

The Science of Morphology and a Scientific Study of Religion

In Tiele’s home country an alternative model of science, namely morphology, was developing and would soon influence how religion was approached as a subject. As a biological science, morphology required that scientists engage in a rigorous sorting of data into classes or kinds and then classify these kinds into more general species for comparative purposes. Tiele took this approach and applied it to the study of religion. Thus, he sorted out different kinds of religions into classes and subclasses until he had filled out the tree of world religions. Tiele’s approach, if it was ever to be taken seriously and find in the Dutch educational system, needed to obtain support from the theological establishment and it needed to be deemed scientific. Fortunately, The Higher Education Act of 1876 laid the foundations allowing for a new academic and secular discipline: the phenomenology of religion, and this formed a pathway for the soon-to-be phenomenologists of religion such as William Brede Kristensen (1867-1953) and Gerardus van der Leeuw (1890-1950).

Tiele contended that religions were open to scientific observation,

“The province of our investigation is sufficiently extensive — all religions of the civilized and uncivilized world, dead and living, and all the religious phenomena which present themselves to our observation” (3).

This conviction motivated him to write a two volume work called the Elements of the Science of Religion (1896). Volume one he subtitled “Morphological” and volume two “Ontological.” His morphological account was modeled on the biological sciences and therefore encompassed both the descriptive categorization of organic life forms and the rules of their development. Tiele’s purpose was to sort out the different types of religions as well as their growth, and by the end of the 19th century, he had effectively given support for the co-existence of the history of religion with the newer phenomenological style of studying religion. Tiele’s morphology of religion suggests that a study of religion should start by sorting out or classifying religions according to their different kinds (4). He applied this to several important topics such as in the differences between various kinds of gods, spiritism versus animism, the differences between religions concerning how they started (founder versus “unconscious growth”), and religions that are world negative versus those that are world-affirming

Tiele’s Value in the Academic Study of Religion

Tiele has also been credited with laying three additional and very important features in the academic study of religion (5). This was to practice a detached, impartial, and objective study of religion through what might be called “bracketing” one’s belief. The science of religion, explains Tiele, is an “unprejudiced investigation, in order to ascertain how it [religion] arises and grows and what are its essentials, and in order thoroughly to understand it” (6). A scientific study of religion would study all religions without prejudice. According to Walter Capps, Tiele is remembered, “for his attempt to treat the history of religion in a comprehensive and self-conscious manner, identifying its aims and methods as he proceeded” (7).


1. Strenski, I. 2015. Understanding Theories of Religion: An Introduction. p. 82.

2. Tiele, C. P. 1897. Elements of the Science of Religion. p. 31.

3. Tiele, C. P. 1897. Ibid. p. 6.

4. Tiele, C. P. 1897. Ibid. p. 6.

5. Strenski, I. 2015. Ibid. p. 81.

6. Tiele, C. P. 1897. Ibid. p. 7.

7. Capps, W. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. p. 117



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