1: The Academic Study of Religion

St Peter's Basillica
Vatican City

Key Terms

  • Religion
  • Normative
  • Descriptive
  • Theology
  • Scholarly


Religion in a Public College Setting

I. The Theologian & the Scholar

  • A theologian picks sides; a scholar does not. (Explanation.)
  • A scholar is interested in historical, philosophical, and sociological reasons why a theologian or religious group makes a claim
  • Not whether the theologian or religious group is right

II. Why Scholarship doesn’t compete with Theology

III. Viewing Religion from the Outside

  • Scholars make no distinction between voices inside and outside a tradition
    • E.g. You don’t have to be a Mormon to research Mormonism
  • Those within a religion cannot disallow a scholar from study
  • Information given from within is suspect
    • Inside stories reproduce (unknowingly) the story their leadership wants to tell
  • An outside scholar does not have to be denaturalized. Tends to be more objective.
  • An outsider is less likely to perpetuate a biased identity

IV. What does a Scholar of Religion do?

  • 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
    • Sometimes a religious group will take a complex issue and spin it as a simple case of “good vs evil” 
  • Resist social forces that aim to make religious authorities unquestionable

V. Scholarly Claims about Religion

  • Normative - claims that assert this is what you ought to do (Explanation.)
  • 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”

VI. Long Live Theology!

  • Separating this course from theology is actually defense of theology!
  • Theological training belongs in a religious institution, not a public school
  • Example lessons: theology vs. academic scholarship

"A Christian cannot serve in the military, because the Bible says "those who live by the sword die by the sword.” 

  • Notice how the above statement makes a normative claim? It’s telling you what you ought to believe about the Bible.

"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.” 

  • This claim, on the other hand, doesn’t depend on one’s beliefs. It’s simply a matter of historical fact
  • The separation of theology and scholarship limits the scholar in important ways

World Religions: Then & Now

I. The (Former) Comparative Study of Religion

  • Academic concept of “world religions” began in the early 1900s
  • 1918 | WWI ends. Europeans and Americans decide there is a practical need to better understand the beliefs of other peoples.
    • Why do they do what they do over on the other side of the world?
  • 1933 | The phrase "World Religions" is first published as a book title
  • Comparative Religious Studies begin, wherein the "essence" of each religion is compared to other religions
    • (e.g. Jews follow laws, Christians love, and Buddhists are mystical.)
  • Problematic approach: religions don’t have essences, because religious identities are polyvalent and change over time!

II. The Functionalist Approach of the Academic Study of Religion Today

  • Scholarship focuses on the “function” of religion within a certain time and place
  • Studies a religious identity (e.g. Islam) on its own terms
  • Also focuses on the social and psychological function religion has for its self-identified members
  • Religion as a dynamic, changing, historical force

III. Conceptual Errors We Want to Avoid!

  • A. Myth - synonym for falsehood and presumes theological claims
  • B. Essence - scholarship does not claim an unreachable essence to religious identities
  • C. Faith - we study the historical record, using rigorous critiques. The scholar takes nothing on faith.
  • D. Truth - scholars do not make claims about absolute, universal capital-t “Truths” 
  • E. Universal - scholarship treats historical phenomena is local, not universal
  • F. Necessary - scholarship treats historical phenomena is contingent, not meant to happen
  • G. Sacredness - identifying the sacred is the theologian’s job.


IV. Additional Useful Links