The subject of religion is fascinating for many people and there are several ways one may go about approaching it. As we shall see in our comparison between Religious Education, Theology, and Religion Studies, there are several distinct approaches that make use of different methods and ask contrasting questions. We shall consider each field in turn.
Religious Education can take various forms although it generally derives from within a particular religious tradition for the purpose of teaching adherents of that tradition more about it. For example, a Muslim boy might attend a school where he learns about Islamic values and how to recite the Qur’an. Similarly, a Jewish boy might attend a class where he learns to read the Torah just as Hindu boys learn to chant the Vedas. In these spaces, religious education is often provided by a teacher who is a part of the religious tradition, such as a guru or a rabbi. These teachers will communicate the content of the religious tradition to the student in order to inculcate them more deeply in the faith and to help them better understand their own religion.
Such education differentiates its members from other groups. For example, when a Christian is being educated by Christians about Christianity, she is also learning how she is different from non-Christians. Even if the study of other world religions is undertaken in this space, this is not typically to engage other traditions with a value-free orientation. The learning of other traditions within religious education can be done in different ways. On the one hand, it can be done to serve the purpose of teaching and informing a student about the beliefs of others, shared values, and could encourage tolerance and inter-religious dialogue. Less sympathetic ways of teaching religions within religious education is to offer critiques of other religions, to better enable students to defend their own faith in discussions with non-believers, or to work as effective missionaries.
Theology, from the Greek theos (god) and logos (study), usually applies to intellectual reflections on the nature of the divine, which means that theologians, like teachers within Religious Education, are usually deeply embedded within a specific religious tradition.
Theologians thus speculate within the boundaries of their tradition’s doctrines. It is often about providing justification for their religious beliefs and practices. For instance, a Christian theologian would no doubt find himself having to tackle the “problem of evil” which asks the question: “If God loves humanity and is all-powerful and all-good, why is there evil and suffering in the world?” Importantly, questions such as these which interest theologians hold to assumptions not shared by other fields, such as Religion Studies. Implicit in such a question is the existence of God and that this God possesses the characteristics of this specific theologian’s religious tradition. The logic within Theology thus flows from doctrines as well as the faith demands of a specific religious tradition. The Christian theologian might entertain the question as to whether there exists many gods or just a single God, but he is very unlikely to conclude that many gods exist. This is because his religious tradition determines the conclusions he will reason to and any conclusions that appear to contradict the central tenets of his faith will usually be rejected. If he does not reject such contradictions there is a good chance he will be deemed by others within his tradition a heretic, face ridicule, ex-communication or even death in some instances. Apologetics is deemed an important branch of Theology in which theologians or apologists attempt to use reason to defend their faith and critique the worldviews of others.
Religion Studies differs to both Religious Education and Theology. Most centrally, this difference lies in the fact that scholars and students in the discipline strive to examine all aspects of religions with a value-free orientation given that the field itself aims towards objectivity. Those who teach the discipline to others are required to ensure a healthy measure of neutrality.
Importantly, scholars of religion acknowledge that objectivity is an ideal likely impossible to attain as they are themselves also grounded in their own religious, cultural, and social conditions and backgrounds that inform their perspectives. However, objectivity remains the ideal for scholars and students in Religion Studies, and they are trained to do their best to maintain levels of critical awareness and reflection. These attitudes are important in the study of religion because, as Rita Gross has suggested, religion consists of “emotion-laden systems that directly affect people’s lives” which means that,
“the academic study of religion can often feel threatening, in part because the distinction between the study of religion as an academic discipline and the personal practice of religion is not often made in our culture. Therefore, the academic study of religion challenges one’s personal beliefs more than the study of other academic disciplines” (1).
Indeed there is truth to Gross’ statement because engaging in Religion Studies will certainly change one’s views and attitudes on religion. Although this is not unique to this discipline (after all, no discipline should be merely the collection and accumulation of facts, and should change one’s attitudes towards topics being studied), it tends to have more seriousness than one might find in some other fields. For the student, Religion Studies could, in ways often unlike Religious Education and Theology, undermine one’s own cherished religious beliefs or one’s allegiance to a specific religious tradition. Although this could happen it need not necessarily be the case. For many, Religion Studies can enhance an understanding of one’s own faith and perhaps even influence attitudes towards religion itself.
However one might respond to engaging in the discipline of Religion Studies, it certainly differs from Religious Education and Theology because it has no interest in defending a specific religious tradition, critiquing religious traditions, or coming to theological answers to questions of doctrinal significance.
A further imperative within Religion Studies is to maintain a sense of empathy. This means that the scholar or student must attempt to enter into the religious reality of an individual and/or community without being dismissive or attempting to discredit it. The scholar need not accept this reality as true (he might think that it is purely imagination, or he might believe it is true) but can still suspend his disbelief when engaging in his study. It is important for scholars and students to try and understand a religious worldview because for many people that worldview is thought to be true. These worldviews are also far from trivial as they exert a great influence upon a person’s behaviour.
Summary of Differences
Religion Studies differs from Theology as the latter will sometimes function as apologetics to refute or inauthenticate other religious and irreligious traditions. An apologetic approach is undesirable for religion scholars because wielding an ideological ax against another worldview or tradition increases the chances that one will misconstrue the beliefs of others and produce distorted caricatures. This does not assist in the production of knowledge. Scholars of religion will in fact treat religious traditions as a reality even if they do not believe in them themselves, for this is the best way to produce knowledge on religion as a phenomenon. Religious Education and Theology both seek to safeguard a specific religious tradition, whereas scholars of religion do not and are open to reasoning to conclusions that could potentially conflict with their assumptions and biases. Although theologians can also reason and come to conclusions against their previously held theological beliefs, this is unlikely to be anything that disagrees with the fundamentals of their religion. Religion Studies is a science and is therefore primarily about producing knowledge that is open to falsification, not about protecting knowledge or traditions. Religion Studies provides a secular space in which students and scholars of different ideological backgrounds can come together to debate and discuss the subject of religion in order to better understand the behaviours and beliefs of religious persons. Students of Religious Education and Theology also seek to understand religion, notably their own, but this usually does not constitute a religiously or ideologically diverse classroom or academic environment. Unless there are specific moments when Christian theologians/apologists formally interact with a theologian/apologist from another tradition, it will typically be Christian theologians interacting with Christians theologians or Muslims theologians interacting with Muslim theologians.
1. Gross, Rita. 1996. Feminism and Religion: An Introduction. Boston: Beacon Press. p. 5
Rodrigues, Hillary., and Harding, John. 2008. Introduction to the Study of Religion. Abingdon: Routledge. p. 6-12.