Religious studies

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Preach to the choir
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Crux of the matter
Speak of the devil
An act of faith

Religious studies is, as indicated on the tin, a complex set of academic disciplines focused on the study of religion.
At its core, religious studies analyze beliefs, pratices, symbols, superstitions, myths and sacred texts, and compares all current and historical religions in the attempt to understand what the religious phenomenon is, why it exists, how it came to be, and what (if anything) it provides humanity.

Religious studies is an academic subject that uses a multidisciplinary approach, combining the sciences and humanities. Branches of history, social sciences (anthropology, sociology, psychology), philosophy, psychoanalysis and, more recently, even economics, cognitive sciences, and neurosciences, are combined in an attempt to understand "religion" as a social, human, and cultural construction.

Separating epistemology from theology[edit]

Religious studies is distinguished from faith-based fields of study like theology, apologetics, and religious philosophy, because these work from the premise that the religion being studied is "true", and therefore tend towards supernatural explanations of reality (like Creationism for Christian fundamentalists) in order to give evidence to their claims without having it; on the other hand, religious studies approaches the subject from a secular, impartial viewpoint and works without premises, and adopts methodological naturalism (every hypothesis and event must be explained and tested by reference to natural causes and events). People who adhere to religious beliefs and practices often view religious studies as an implicit assumption that their own religion (basically, every religion) is being regarded as false.

Religious studies is the phenomenological study of religion, meaning that it's focused on the secular study of religion and the impact of religious belief on its adherents. Theology, on the other hand, takes an in-universe approach to the study of religion. As a result, theology frequently involves apologetics, while religious studies generally ignores the truth value of religious claims. Consequently, religious studies involves the application of epistemology:

Contemporary epistemology of religion may conveniently be treated as a debate over whether evidentialism applies to religious beliefs, or whether we should instead adopt a more permissive epistemology. Here evidentialism is the initially plausible position that a belief is justified only if “it is proportioned to the evidence”. [...] Evidentialism implies that full religious belief is justified only if there is conclusive evidence for it. It follows that if the arguments for there being a God, including any arguments from religious experience, are at best probable ones, no one would be justified in having a full belief that there is a God. And the same holds for other religious beliefs, such as the belief that God is not just good in a utilitarian fashion but loving, or the belief that there is an afterlife. Likewise it would be unjustified to believe even with less than full confidence that, say, Krishna is divine or that Mohammed is the last and most authoritative of the prophets, unless a good case can be made for these claims from the evidence.

Evidentialism, then, sets rather high standards for justification, standards that the majority do not, it would seem, meet when it comes to religious beliefs, where many rely on “faith” [...]. Many others take some body of scripture, such as the Bible or the Koran as of special authority, contrary to the evidentialist treatment of these as just like other any other books making various claims. [...]

This century has seen a turn in the debate, with emphasis on the implications of disagreement, “How can sincere intelligent people disagree? Should not we all suspend judgement?”
—Peter Forrest, "The Epistemology of Religion", in Edward N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition).


The objective study of religion and comparative approach towards it first occurred amongst the ancient Greeks and Romans, and studying the history of religion in general, was popular for a time amongst Muslim scholars during the Middle Ages.[1] It was not until the 19th century that religious studies began to emerge as its own discipline distinct from the study of history, with the rise of secularism, the decline of the old forms of organized Christianity, and the study of comparative religion.

Fields of study[edit]

Descriptive religion[edit]

Because religious studies in its modern form was developed (like anthropology in general) in a European/Christian context, as explorers contacted a host of different peoples practicing diverse religions and customs, and brought descriptions of what they had seen back to a Christian-dominant civilization, the most common aspect of religious studies is "descriptive" or Classification Studies. This was originally done for the purpose of figuring out how the people in question could be converted to Christianity, but as the field became more academic, the evangelism aspect was greatly de-emphasized.[note 1]

For the same reason, many such classification studies may assign a religious character to facets of another people's culture that the practitioners themselves do not see as religious,[2] or over-emphasize comparisons of ethnic religions to Christianity.[note 2]

Comparative religion[edit]

Jesus saves.
Moses invests.
Krishna spends.

The precursor to religious studies as a discipline is the field known as "comparative religion". In the latter part of the 20th century, there emerged from these neat descriptions and classifications a new field, where the aim was to find basic structural similarities in some or even all religions. Out of the comparative study of religion came ideas about "birth-death-rebirth deities", the sacred and profane as seen by humanity, sacred and transitional space, association of women with early divinity, the influence of religions on each other, and the importance of myth and ritual to human society, as examples.

Not all of the theories stood the test of time equally, of course. Mircea Eliade, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim and other influential early sociologists and anthropologists of religion contributed heavily to the understanding of how comparative religion should work as an academic discipline.

One significant problem with comparative religion is the simplification of religion and mythology to make the point that "all religions are fundamentally the same". Mircea Eliade (of The Sacred and the Profane fame), Sir James Frazer (of The Golden Bough), Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell have all been highly criticized for their reductionist deconstruction of religion and myth.

History of individual religions[edit]

The history of any given religion, as told by historians rather than its own clergy, has become an increasingly important aspect of religious studies. Christianity, for example, has never been under such deep critical scrutiny as it has been under during the 19th-21st century.

Religious studies scholars tend to ask questions such as:

  • Where did the religion's ideas come from?
  • What kind of political games influenced the decision to codify particular dogma?
  • When and where and by whom were texts written?
  • Who was the target audience and what was the cultural context of the original text?

While this is possible to do from within the religion, generally, people studying a religion's history critically and objectively will at least be doubtful about whether that religion is true. This was certainly the case with the Christians who studied ethnic religions during the Age of Discovery and beyond, which has in many instances led people to question the studies' accuracy.

Sociology and religion[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Sociology of religion

Anomie and the codification of religion are a major theme in religious studies. This frequently takes the form of analysis of religious conversion experiences and the relationship between religious adherence and participation and the culture at large.

Cognitive science of religion[edit]

Stewart Guthrie proposed the first cognitive theory of religion in 1980.[3] The cognitive science of religion (sometimes abbreviated "CSR") as a research program formed during the 1990s and 2000s as an outgrowth of work in the tradition of Guthrie, growing to incorporate interdisciplinary research from cognitive science, psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, sociology, evolutionary theory, and philosophy of religion and mind.[4] CSR attempts to integrate multiple dimensions of religion into a broad framework, including cognitive mechanisms, learning heuristics, ritual displays, group competition, and cultural evolution.[5] Key concepts include Justin Barrett's hyperactive agency detection device (HADD),[6] William Irons' concept of religious ritual as a sign of hard-to-fake commitment,[7] and Harvey Whitehouse's imagistic and doctrinal modes of religiosity.[8]

The first book-length study of a single religion from a cognitive perspective is Jennifer Larson on the ancient Greeks;[9] she emphasizes that Greek Religion was about doing (can you sing a hymn? do you know the dance steps? are you wearing the proper costume for the festival?), and very little about belief (which cannot be objectively measured).

Magic and ritual[edit]

See the main articles on this topic: Magical thinking and Superstition

Magic is another area of interest for scholars of religious studies, especially those who focus on anthropology. Because of the functionalist approach that dominates in the field, all forms of folk magic, miracles, and even common religious rituals such as baptism and other rites of passage are treated as existing pretty much on the same level and as treating virtually identical psycho-social needs.


  1. There are cases where Religious Studies are used to promote Christianity.
  2. For example, flood myths are very widespread, but it's doubtful that many of them outside of the Middle East bear any relationship to the Biblical flood myth.


  1. At least according to WP
  3. Stewart Guthrie. A Cognitive Theory of Religion. Current Anthropology, vol. 21, no. 2, April 1980.
  4. What is Cognitive Science? And What Does It Have to do with Religion? John F. Kihlstrom, UC Berkeley
  5. Scott Atran and Joseph Henrich. The Evolution of Religion: How Cognitive By-Products, Adaptive Learning Heuristics, Ritual Displays, and Group Competition Generate Deep Commitments to Prosocial Religions. Biological Theory 5(1) 2010, 18–30.
  6. Justin L. Barrett. Exploring the Natural Foundations of Religion. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol. 4, no. 1, Jan. 2000
  7. William Irons. Religion as a Hard-to-Fake Sign of Commitment. In Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment.
  8. Harvey Whitehouse. Modes of Religiosity: Towards a Cognitive Explanation of the Sociopolitical Dynamics of Religion. Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, Volume 14, Numbers 3-4, 2002 , pp. 293-315(23)
  9. Jennifer Larson, Understanding Greek Religion 2016 Routledge London, 978-0-41568-846-8.