Historian of Religion Cornelis Petrus Tiele’s Theory of Religion

Cornelis P. Tiele (1830-1902) was a Dutch historian of religions and a pioneer in the early science of religion. Largely because of his efforts, the history of religions became a recognized discipline in the theological faculties in the Netherlands.

Tiele studied theology at the University of Amsterdam, later became a professor at a seminary in Leiden where he taught the history of religions, and then occupied the new chair of the History of Religions and Philosophy of Religion in the Faculty of Theology.

He began his career in the 1850s writing on the Gospel of John. He offered an apologetic arguing that the Gospel of John offered useful and factual historical information and insight into the life of Jesus. He believed that John should be preferred to the other New Testament writings because of its more accurate historical portrayal. But likely Tiele’s main contribution to the scientific study of religion came in his Outlines of the History of Religion (1877). This book attempted to demonstrate how religion, namely the relation between the human being and the superhuman, developed over the ages among many nations and races, and, ultimately, in humanity.

Tiele offered a survey of religions based on a study of materials in their original language. He taught himself Avesta, Akkadian, and Egyptian, all of which aided his study of ancient religions. Several important works emerged from Tiele’s hand. These, along with Outlines of the History of Religion, include History of the Egyptian Religion (1882), Elements of the Science of Religion (1897), and The Religion of the Iranian People (1912).

Tiele on Religion 

Tiele wanted to understand and explain religion, which he defined as,

“the aggregate of all those phenomena which are invariably termed religious, in contradistinction to ethical, aesthetical, political, and others. I mean those manifestations of the human mind in words, deeds, customs, and institutions which testify to man’s belief in the superhuman, and serve to bring him into relation with it” (1). 

Religion is “a frame of mind adapted to the relation between man and his God” (2). Tiele hypothesized that religion is basic to humanity; religion “is certainly rooted in man’s nature – that is, it springs from his inmost soul” (3). It is what “dwells in the inmost depths of our souls” and constitutes the “mightiest of motors in history”.

He sees religion everywhere in humanity’s history; religion has,

“formed as well as tore asunder nations, united as well as divided which sanctioned the most atrocious and barbarous deeds, the most and libidinous customs, and inspired the most admirable acts self-renunciation, and devotion, which occasioned the most sanguinary rebellions, and persecutions, as well as brought about the freedom, and peace of nations…” (4).

Tiele evidences a broad conception of and interest in religion. He is not willing to overlook details in religion, both good and bad. He realized that religion has contributed to both moral and immoral activities in history, which means it has had both its benefits and drawbacks. Tiele also noticed how religion exerts a strong influence upon human behavior. As “one of the mightiest motors”, religion vigorously influences how people decide to live their lives. Tiele believed that religions originate in an emotion, namely something that affects human beings. Religious words and deeds “flow spontaneously from the heart”.

Tiele was interested in the development of religion which he termed the “morphological” part concerned with “the constant changes of form resulting from an ever-progressing evolution” (5). Development simply means growth which, based on Tiele’s quotation of an “American scholar”, is “a continuous progressive change according to certain laws and by means of resident forces” (6).

Tiele wrote that “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” (7). Of course, not all religions survive. Many have “for ever quitted the stage of the world’s history. As there are dead languages, so there are dead religions.” An example Tiele cited is Roman religion. Roman religion was tied to the state and, when a state dies, so does its religion. Religions may die but religion itself does not since it exists with humanity that does not die out.

Tiele classified religion into “natural” religions and “ethical” religions. Ethical religions are superior to natural religions. According to Tiele, there are three ethical religions: Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, although these three religions are not considered of equal worth. Islam is merely a “wild offshoot of Judaism and Christianity” while Buddhism “neglects the divine” opens itself to becoming “infected by the most fantastic mythology and the most childish superstitions” (8) Christianity, however, ranks higher “above both its rivals”, although, Tiele maintained, this is not for confessional reasons but is a conclusion made from a scientific point of view. 

Tiele’s Science of Religion

What did Tiele mean by a “science of religion”? He offers several details. A science of religion is not interested in “the superhuman itself, but religion based on belief in the superhuman” (9). As such, rather than focusing on the superhuman, a science of religion emphasizes the “historical-psychological, [and] social”. A science of religion is first and foremost a human phenomenon and therefore justifiably belongs to the domain of science.

A “science” means that one investigates religion “in order to learn something about it in accordance with a sound and critical method appropriate to each department” (10). A science of religion engages in classification and the drawing of inferences. It is interested in facts. It is the desire “to understand and to explain” (11).

Further, a study of religion “is sufficiently extensive”. It investigates “all religions of the civilised and uncivilised world, dead and living, and all the religious phenomena which present themselves to our observation” (12). It is to “survey the whole region” that it must have traversed “in every direction” (13). The researcher must be knowledgeable. He must possess an understanding of anthropology, history, and the discoveries of archaeologists because these disciplines have yielded valuable insights “for the history of religion”. In short, the researcher “must be master of the material with which he has to work” and must at a minimum “have studied at least two religions in the original sources” (14). This is a lengthy process but is “the only way to achieve lasting results”. 

The materials of such a study and investigation include “doctrines, myths, customs, the observances they inculcate, and the organization of their adherents, religious forms, their bloom, and decay…” (15). Tiele noticed that researchers are confronted with “innumerable” religious phenomena such as myths, hymns, proverbs, books, confessions of faith, preaching, prophesyings, ordinances, cults, dispositions towards God, communities, rites, doctrines, sacred languages, orders, sects, parties, and schools in conflict with each other, etc. (16). The researcher needs to sift through and classify these phenomena, but also probe critically into them and determine which items have the “most light” to offer.

A science of religion is interested in the life, growth, nature, and origin of religion. An investigation into these questions requires the contribution of other human sciences including anthropology, sociology, and psychology. It also requires the contributions of history because “A good deal of the material that it uses is historical, for it must strive to understand religion, as it now exists, by studying what it formerly was” (17). This was of significance to Tiele because it aids in outlining an evolution of religion, an effort that “cannot be done without historical research” (18). Imperative it is that “Historical research must precede and pave the way for our science”.

Tiele further emphasized that a science of religion must be impartial. It is not the researcher’s place to “champion any of these forms [of religion] as the best, or perhaps the only true form – he leaves that to the apologists. Nor does he attempt to purify, reform, or develop religion itself – that is the task of the divine and the prophet” (19). The researcher “knows nothing of heretics, schematics, or heathens” (20). In other words, he makes no value judgment regarding how religious persons are living out their beliefs. Rather, the researcher is “a man of science” to whom “all religious forms are simply objects of investigation” (21). As such, in Tiele’s view, a science of religion is to be neutral. It is also to be secular,

“It is not a philosophic creed, or a dogmatic system of what is commonly called natural theology, or a philosophy with a religious tinge, and still less a philosophy regarding God Himself. All this is beyond its province. It leaves these matters to theologians and metaphysicians” (22).

Tiele further stated that “The business of a science of religion is to investigate and to explain” (23), an approach based on a researcher’s wish to know what religion is and why human beings are religious. Tiele did not consider an impartial and secular approach to investigating religion as impossible for the researcher who is already committed to a faith tradition,

“It is an error to suppose that one cannot take up such an impartial scientific position without being a sceptic; that one is disqualified for an impartial investigation if one possesses fixed and earnest religious convictions of one’s own; that a man is incapable of appreciating other forms of religion if he is warmly attached to the Church or religious community in which he has been brought up” (24).

Tiele wanted to employ a science of religion to conceptualize religion’s essence, which he called the “ontological” part of the study (25). By essence, he meant a permanent form of religion underlying ever-changing forms and varying manifestations of religion and the constant elements they all possess in common. Tiele considered the essence of religion to be the “adoration of a superhuman [upon] which we feel dependent” and the innate sense of the Infinite (26).

Tiele anticipated possible objections to an established science of religion. He rightly observed how to many “religion is a very delicate matter” and that to “make it the subject of a science seems like desecration” (27). But this, he maintained, should be expected because many sciences (such as physics, astronomy, the study of languages, etc.) were denounced when they first developed and were deemed initially “harmful, dangerous, and impious” (28).

Just as these scientific fields, despite initial resistance, developed into valuable domains of knowledge and functioning disciplines, so will, Tiele anticipated, a science of religion. Tiele posited that a science of religion, rather than undermining faith, would “incur not danger” to religion but come as “great benefit”. A science of religion also does not care to create a new religion, which means it is not in the business of competing with already existing religions.

A science of religion can deepen one’s religious life and do so “without preaching, or special apologetic argument, but solely by means of the actual facts our beloved science” (29). It will help “to bring home to the restless spirits time the truth that there is no rest for them unless ‘they arise the Father’” (30).

Further Reflections 

Tiele was instrumental in developing a science of religion and many of his ideas regarding methodology are upheld by contemporary scholars today. True to a science of religion, scientific jargon permeated Tiele’s ideas. He employed terms many scientific terms in his speeches and works including “hypotheses”, “facts”, “observation”, “inferences”, “results”, “reasoning”, “classification”, “impartiality”, and much else (31). Of course, this is essential to the contemporary scholar of religion. Scholars, for instance, routinely engage in observation (as well as participation) in the religious communities they study and wish to report facts about their objects of analysis.

Tiele emphasized a science of religion that is impartial and encouraged an approach to studying religion that is detached. The scholar’s study should strive to be objective. It is important to “bracket” one’s value judgments and biases. Ultimately, a science of religion, all contemporary scholars would agree, is an investigation into the object of religion, which Tiele emphasized: it 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” (32).

What Tiele further maintained and that will be valuable to new students of religion is that a science of religion need not be perceived as hostile to one’s faith. Some beginner students of religion can fear that the process of studying religions will contribute to undermining their faith or religious worldview. Although this can happen, it need not necessarily be the case. One ought to remember that Tiele himself was a scientist of religion as well as a pastor. When it came to strictly religious questions, such as the God question, a science of religion, as Tiele defined it, is neutral and does not wish to comment but rather “leave the question open” (33).


1. Tiele, Cornelis Petrus. 1899. Elements of the Science of Religion, Volume 1. Scribner’s. p. 4. 

2. Tiele, Cornelis Petrus. 1899. Ibid. p. 25.

3. Tiele, Cornelis Petrus. 1899. Ibid. p. 15.

4. Molendijk, Arie L. 2018. The Emergence of the Science of Religion in the Netherlands. Netherlands: BRILL. p. 123. 

5. Tiele, Cornelis Petrus. 1899. Ibid. p. 27.

6. Tiele, Cornelis Petrus. 1899. Ibid. p. 30,

7. Tiele, Cornelis Petrus. 1899. Ibid. p. 31.

8. Segal, Robert A. 2005. “Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion by Jonathan Z. Smith.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 73(4):1175-1188. p. 1177.

9. Tiele, Cornelis Petrus. 1899. Ibid. p. 5.

10. Tiele, Cornelis Petrus. 1899. Ibid. p. 5.

11. Tiele, Cornelis Petrus. 1899. Ibid. p. 18.

12. Tiele, Cornelis Petrus. 1899. Ibid. p. 6.

13. Tiele, Cornelis Petrus. 1899. Ibid. p. 19.

14. Tiele, Cornelis Petrus. 1899. Ibid. p. 19.

15. Tiele, Cornelis Petrus. 1899. Ibid. p. 17.

16. Tiele, Cornelis Petrus. 1899. Ibid. p. 21-22.

17. Tiele, Cornelis Petrus. 1899. Ibid. p. 16.

18. Tiele, Cornelis Petrus. 1899. Ibid. p. 16.

19. Tiele, Cornelis Petrus. 1899. Ibid. p. 10.

20. Tiele, Cornelis Petrus. 1899. Ibid. p. 9.

21. Tiele, Cornelis Petrus. 1899. Ibid. p. 9.

22. Tiele, Cornelis Petrus. 1899. Ibid. p. 15.

23. Tiele, Cornelis Petrus. 1899. Ibid. p. 12.

24. Tiele, Cornelis Petrus. 1899. Ibid. p. 11.

25. Tiele, Cornelis Petrus. 1899. Ibid. p. 27.

26. Molendijk, Arie L. 2018. Ibid. p. 137.

27. Tiele, Cornelis Petrus. 1899. Ibid. p. 7.

28. Tiele, Cornelis Petrus. 1899. Ibid. p. 7.

29. Molendijk, Arie L. 2018. Ibid. p. 141.

30. Molendijk, Arie L. 2018. Ibid. p. 141.

31. Tiele, Cornelis Petrus. 1899. Ibid. p. 5-8.

32. Tiele, Cornelis Petrus. 1899. Ibid. p. 8.

33. Tiele, Cornelis Petrus. 1899. Ibid. p. 5. 

Let me know your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s