The Six Areas of Interest in Historical and Contemporary Religious Studies

Previously we examined the question: “What is Religious Studies?” where we noted its historical origins in the Enlightenment period and the several important questions theorists were asking at the time which were formative for the discipline as it grew over the following centuries. This brief article now turns to the six major branches of Religious Studies that have occupied the minds of theorists from the discipline’s beginning up until the present time of the twenty-first century.

Important to note is that several of these branches and the questions they asked that occupied the minds of historical theorists have largely been left to history and are no longer engaged by contemporary scholars. For example, minus the exception of the late sociologist Robert Bellah, most scholars no longer find theorizing concerning the evolution of religion, a topic which occupied our early theorists, relevant today. But as will also become apparent is that several branches continue to be popular today such as, but not limited to, the description and function of religion.

The Sine Qua Non (Essence) of Religion

What concerned earliest Enlightenment writers was the question of sine qua non, the term used to denote the essence at the very fundamental core of religion. Scholarship of religion and its prominent theorists have derived methodological attempts to isolate this first principle understood to be absolutely fundamental to religion. This fundamental component is best understood as “That without which the subject would not be what it is.” In an attempt to apply such thought to religion, theorists have posited theories based on data. Rudolf Otto proposed the idea of the Holy or the “numinous,” Friedrich Schleiermacher the notion of the “feeling of absolute dependence,” Anders Nygren the “eternal,” and Erwin R. Goodenough the “Mysterium tremendum,” to name a few. 

As one will observe, featured prominently in the writings of these scholars is what is referred to as the tripartite categorical formula based on Immanuel Kant’s philosophical work. This formula proposes three a priori categories (such as thought, ethics, and aesthetics) believed to be the sine qua non of religion, and later theorists have worked with it either adding to, modifying, or rejecting them.

The Primordium (Origin) of Religion

The origin of religion has typically been the theorist’s effort to isolate a causal primary factor, source, and root of religion. Scholars have referred to this causal primary factor as the primordium (the beginning point) and many have proposed evolutionary theories explaining the development of religion through a stage-by-stage process or sequence within human history. 

Further, many scholars of religion have tried to look as far back as they possibly could into the realm of prehistory. The assumption here is that by looking at the earliest evidence of human societies and human religions one would possibly uncover religion’s true primordium. To some theorists, the origin of religion has been viewed as synchronous with the beginnings of humanity itself. What is also clear is that the data and evidence found within early religions, tribes, and societies are interpreted in conflicting, mutually exclusive ways. Some theorists state that religion had its roots in primitive animism, others in polytheism, and yet others in monotheism. 

The Description of Religion

For scholars, engaging in a description of religion is a change of methodology and interest. It is a change in that theorists are no longer looking for a primordium (origin) of religion, an essence (core or underlying root to religion), or hypothesizing concerning its development (chronicle). There is a shift from singularity (the assumption of religion’s single essence or single chronicle) into plurality in which the theorists now view religion as consisting of many components. They believe that by examining this multiplicity they will notice definite arrangements which Walter Capps referred to as “an assemblage of elements, a constellation of ingredients—even, possibly, a pattern of interrelatedness.”

Typically, historical theorists believed that it was possible to render religion intelligible through a methodological paradigm of systematic classification and thus they began employing a more systematic and comprehensive description of it. This paradigm tended to focus on the empirical and perceptible because it became clear that religion had something fundamentally to do with human society and culture. This paradigm emphasized “religions traditions” and “organized patterns of multiplicity,” and understood religious traditions to be examples of organized coordination. This was (and is) an approach that focused on phenomena, namely, the perceptible, empirically, and manifest that were perceived and portrayed. 

The scholar would attempt to determine how religious phenomena appeared in human experience to determine religion’s structure and provide a description of it. The ideal for the scholar was to utilize this methodological paradigm objectively, open-mindedly, and descriptively, and to also take seriously the major religious traditions of the world, giving them the attention they require and deserve. However, should the scholar wish to hone in on a particular religious tradition he or she could well do so but should justify why.

The Function of Religion

An inquiry into the function of religion is the theorist’s attempt to determine what role religion plays within society. Scholars have linked the multiplicity of characteristics to the question of function which focuses on the teleological factors involved. It seems apparent that religion has an identifiable purpose or objective within societies in which the religions are in a relationship of interdependence. This essentially follows Aristotle’s recommendations “to treat the phenomena as being characteristic of an organism, and then approach that organism as an entity that has an identifiable purpose of objective.” Theorists thus attempt to provide a descriptive portrayal of the function of religion via studying it in terms of its social, political, and economic roles. The founding fathers of this orientation are Emile Durkheim (France) and Max Weber (Germany), both pivotal thinkers in the development of sociological theory and who approached religion in socio-functional terms. These two scholars formulated methods that were used by generations of scholars after them in attempts to understand religion by concentrating on the dynamics of social organization.

The Language of Religion

A further point of inquiry concerns the language of religion. This intends to provide an adequate answer to the question: “How is religion expressed?” to which theorists have proposed hypotheses. 

The question of the expression brought about a keen interest in analyses of the language of religion, especially on behalf of continental theorists whose main concerns were with the workings of symbology. These theorists believed that symbols and myths were integral to religion (religion would not exist without them) and suggested that they were there at religion’s very beginning. What followed was much interest and effort into analyzing the “data” of religious content and language, such as symbolic forms, cultural symbols, and the process of symbolization which, as modes of aesthetic consciousness, constituted a big proportion of religion’s content. However, like the other aforementioned pursuits within the study of religion, the study of religion’s expression touches on the philosophy of language which is often reflected in the writings of the theorists. Some questions raised concern the nature of language and how it becomes a tool of representation and construction of the world.

The Comparison of Religion

Some have questioned whether the comparison of religions should have a place within Religious Studies. Walter Capps in Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline (1995) contends that it should but in so far as it does not seek to determine the supremacy of one religion’s theology over that of others. This, states Capps, has no place in Religious Studies, and neither should the scholar of religion while operating within the framework of the discipline attempt to show how one religion is more true or superior over others. But the study of the comparison of religion does have a place and it is important. One of the major reasons for its importance is the plurality of religious orientations, traditions, and beliefs within societies. In such religiously pluralistic societies, it is thus important for members to become familiar with the traditions and beliefs of others.


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