What is the Academic Study of Religion?
The following is a brief introduction to the publicly
funded study of religion. Words in red are not links but, instead,
display brief additional information when the cursor hovers over
Anthropology or Theology?
study of religion is fundamentally an anthropological enterprise.
That is, it is primarily concerned with studying people (anthropos
is an ancient Greek term meaning "human being"; logos
means "word" or a "rational, systematic discourse"),
their beliefs, behaviors, and institutions, rather than assessing
"the truth" or "truths" of their various beliefs
or behaviors. An anthropological approach to the study of religion
(which is not to say that the study of religion is simply a sub-field
is distinguished from a confessional, religious, or theological
approach (theos is an ancient Greek term for "deity"
or "god") which is generally concerned with determining
the nature, will, or wishes of a god or the gods. Traditionally,
the term "theology"
refers to specifically Christian
discourses on God (i.e., theology = systematic Christian thought
on the meaning and significance of the Christian witness), though
the term now generally applies either to any religion's own articulate
self-study or to its study of another religion (e.g.,
religious pluralism are equally theological pursuits).
Descriptive or Normative?
Although the academic study of religion—sometimes
called Comparative Religion, Religious Studies, the History of Religions,
or even the Science of Religion—is concerned with judging
such things as
historical accuracy (e.g., Did a person named Siddhartha
Gautama actually exist, and if so, when and where?) and
descriptive accuracy (e.g., What do Muslims say they
mean when they say that Muhammad
was the "seal of the prophets"?), it is not concerned
to make normative
judgements concerning the way people ought to live
or behave. To phrase it another way, we could say that, whereas
the anthropologically-based study of religion is concerned with
the descriptive "is" of human behavior, the theological
study of religion is generally concerned with the prescriptive "ought"
of the gods. As should be clear, these two enterprises therefore
have very different data:
the academic study of religion studies people, their beliefs, and
their social systems; the theological study of religion studies
God/the gods and their impact on people.
Comparision and Theory
Like virtually all scholarly disciplines in the modern university,
the academic study of religion is a product of nineteenth-century
Europe. Although influenced a great deal by European expansionism
colonialism (the study of religion is largely the product of
Europeans encountering—through trade, exploration, and conquest—new
beliefs and behaviors, sometimes understood as strange, sometimes
as familiar), early scholars of religion were interested in
collecting and comparing beliefs,
myths, and rituals
found the world over. After all, early explorers, soldiers, and
missionaries were all returning to Europe with their diaries and
journals filled with tales that, despite their obvious exoticness,
chronicled things that bore a striking resemblance to Christian
beliefs and behaviors. As such, early scholars tried to perfect
the use of the non-evaluative comparative method in the
cross-cultural study of people’s religious beliefs, "our's"
and "their's". To compare in a non-evaluative manner means
that one searches for observable, documentable similarities and
differences without making normative judgments concerning which
similarities or differences were good or bad, right or wrong,
original or derivative, primitive or modern.
To compare in a non-evaluative
manner means that one searches for observable similarities and differences
and then theorizes as to why just these similarities and
why just those differences. For example, most all Christians
generally believe that the historical person named Jesus
of Nazareth was "the Son of God" (similarity)
yet only some of these same Christians believe that the Pope
is God’s primary representative on earth (difference). As
an anthropological scholar of religion, can you theorize as to why
this difference exists? A theological approach might account
for this difference by suggesting that one side in this debate is
simply wrong, ill-informed, or sinful (depending which theologian
you happen to ask); an anthropologically-based approach would
bracket out and set aside all such normative judgments and theorize
that the difference in beliefs might have something to do with the
psychology of people involved, their method of social organization,
their mode of economic activity, etc.
In other words, the anthropological
approach to the study of religion as practiced in the public university
is a member of the
human sciences and, as such, it starts with the presumption
that religious beliefs, behaviors, and institutions are observable,
historical events that can therefore be studied in the same manner
as all human behavior. If they are more than that, then scholars
of religion leave it to theologians who to pursue this avenue of
Religion and the US Supreme Court
Although the study of religion came to North American universities
prior to Word War I and, for a brief time, flourished at such schools
as the University of Chicago, Penn, and Harvard, it was not until
the late-1950s and early-1960s that Departments of Religious Studies
were established in most public universities. In the U.S.,
the establishment and success of these departments can be related
to the Supreme Court’s understanding of the Constitution.
The opening lines to the First
Amendment to the Constitution read: "Congress shall make
no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the
free exercise thereof...." Legal scholars distinguish between
the First Amendment's "establishment clause" and its "free
exercise clause." In other words, the Amendment states
that the elected government has no right to enforce, support, or
encourage (i.e., "establish") a particular religion, nor
does it have the right to curtail its citizens' religious choices
and practices (i.e., the "free exercise" of their religion).
It may well be significant that, in the opening lines of the First
Amendment, it is made explicit that all citizens of the U.S. have
the absolute right to believe in any or no religion whatsoever.
In 1963 a landmark case known
as the School District of Abington Township, PA vs. the Schempp
family came before the Court. In this case a non-believing
family successfully sued a public school board for its school's
daily opening exercises in which a Christian prayer was recited
over the school's public address system. The Court decided
that, as a publicly funded institution charged to represent and
not exclude the members of a diverse, tax paying citizenry, the
school board was infringing on the rights of its students, not just
by supporting a specifically Christian worldview but, more importantly
perhaps, a religious worldview.
Both the Constitution's "establishment"
and "free exercise" clauses were therefore the topic of
concern to the Court. Justice Clark, the Supreme Court justice
who wrote on behalf of the majority, stated in his decision that,
although confessional instruction and religious indoctrination in
publicly funded schools were both unconstitutional, one's "education
is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history
of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization."
The majority of the justices interpreted the First Amendment to
state that, although the government cannot force a student to be
either religious or nonreligious, the government certainly can—and
probably should—support classes that study the history of
particular religions, the comparison of two or more religions, and
the role of religion in human history. In a way, we might conclude
that the study of religion is among the few fields of study mandated
by a Supreme Court decision!
Fundamental to its decision was the
Court's distinction between religious instruction and instruction
about religion. The academic study of religion is concerned
to study about religion and religions.
The History of "Religion"
Perhaps you never thought about it before, but the
very term "religion" has a history and it is not obvious
just how we ought to define the term. Obviously, "religion"
is an English term; therefore, we can ask, "Do non-English
speakers have religions? Would an ancient Egyptian name something
as 'a religion'?"
We know that our term "religion"
has equivalents in such modern languages as French and German.
For example, when practiced in Germany the study of religion is
known as Religionswissenschaft (the systematic study, or
wissenschaft, of religion); when practiced in France it
is known as Sciences Religieuses. Even just a brief comparison
of these and other related languages helps us to see that all modern
languages that can be traced back to Latin possess something equivalent
to the English term "religion." This means that, for
language families unaffected by Latin, there is no equivalent term
to "religion"—unless, of course, European cultures
have somehow exerted influence on non-Latin-based cultures/languages,
an influence evident in trade or conquest. Although "religion"
is hardly a traditional concept in India, the long history of British
colonialism has ensured that English speaking Indians have no difficulty
conceiving of what we call Hinduism
as their "religion"—although, technically speaking, to
a Hindu, Hinduism is not a religion but is, rather, sanatana
dharma (the eternal, cosmic duty/obligation/order). Even
Testament is not much help in settling these issues since
its language of composition—koine Greek—lacked the Latin concept
religio. English New Testaments will routinely use
"religion" to translate such Greek terms as
eusebia (1 Timothy 3:16; 2 Timothy 3:5),
terms that are closer to the Sanskrit dharma
or the Latin pietas
than our term "religion."
Even in Latin our term "religion"
has no equivalent—if, by "religion," you mean worshiping
the gods, believing in an afterlife, or being good—what most people
seem to mean today when they talk about "religion." The
closest we come when looking for Latin precursors to our modern
term "religion" are terms such as religare or
religere which, in their original contexts, simply meant
such things as "to bind something tightly together" or
"to pay close or careful attention to something."
So, where does all this leave us?
Well, it leaves us with a lot of questions in need of investigation:
Just what do we mean by "religion"? If a culture does
not have the concept, can we study "their religion"? Is
there such as thing as "the Hindu religion" or "ancient
Greek religion"? Regardless of the history of our vocabulary,
is religion a universal human phenomenon or is it simply one among
many ways that people name and classify their particular social
For a PDF version of this webpage, suitable for printing and distribution, click here.
If you are looking for additional information on
topics covered above, consider following any of these links:
Studying Religion: An Introduction
Text of the 1963 US Supreme Court
decision from the case of the
District of Abington Township, PA vs. the Schempp family
on the Abington v. Schempp decision.