1: Academic Study of Religion

St Peter's Basillica
Vatican City

Key Terms

  • Religion
  • Normative
  • Descriptive
  • Theology
  • Scholarly


I. The Study of Religion

  • A. The Difference between Theologians and Scholars of Religion
    • Religion can be used to authorize and approve of some things and to disapprove of others. So how does this fit in the academic world?
    • Scholars of religion seek to be as objective as possible
  • B. Why Scholarship Doesn’t “Compete” with Theology
    • Different approaches with different goals
    • Theology - share personal beliefs as truth
    • Scholarship - share peer-reviewed scholarship, making no claims to truth
    • Appeal to different audiences
  • C. Viewing Religion from the Outside
    • Scholars make no distinction between voices within and
      without a tradition
    • Those within a religion cannot disallow a scholar from study
    • Information given from within is suspect
    • An outside scholar does not have to be denaturalized
    • An outsider is less likely to perpetuate a biased identity
  • D. A scholar's job is to 
    • Contextualize a social group's origins, texts, and claims
    • Compare claims of a social group with the historical record
    • Critique social power structures and how they are used
    • Analyze the ways social groups perceive and simplify complex social problems
    • Resist social forces that aim to make religious authorities unquestionable

II. Scholarly Claims about Religion

  • Normative - claims that assert this is what you ought to do
  • Descriptive - reporting on historical and cultural phenomena in a way that is not prescriptive, but is instead focused on an objective explaination
    • This is the approach scholars of religion take
  • Scholars of religion are neither "pro" nor "anti" theology
    • They simply respect the role of theology as separate from the academic world
    • The academic study of religion is not the same as a "religious course”
  • Examples:
    • A Christian cannot serve in the military, because the Bible says "those who live by the sword die by the sword.”
    • In 1527, at a meeting of the Swiss Anabaptists, a statement of faith called the Schleitheim Confession was signed. One of the seven articles agreed upon by these Anabaptists was that Christians should never engage in violence for any reason. This doctrine is known as Christian Pacifism.

III. Normative Terms to Avoid

  • Myth
  • Essence
  • Faith
  • Truth
  • Universal
  • Necessary
  • Sacred


IV. Additional Useful Links