1. Unit 1 – Studying Religion
RITUAL, SYMBOL, MYTH
2. But I‘m not religious!!
• Studying about religion is not the
same as religious instruction.
• Religions construct comprehensive
worldviews and teach their members
what to believe and how to behave.
Religious knowledge comes by faith
and/or revelation rather than
• In a secular university, students
study about religion(s)—how and
why they work (or don‘t), and about
the beliefs and behaviors of
religious people. The goal is to
understand but also to explain
intellectually, using reason rather
than faith or revelation.
3. But I‘m religious!!
• Studying religion(s) does not mean
giving up your personal faith or
beliefs. It requires setting them
aside temporarily to become an
impartial, objective observer.
• Just as a non-religious person must
bracket out his/her skepticism, a
religious person must also forgo
judgment and suspend dis/belief for
the sake of the study.
• This suspension of dis/belief is
4. • Stands outside the religious tradition
and looks in
• Committed to understanding and/or
explaining religion as a researcher
• Creates knowledge based on methods
and standards of his/her academic
• May participate in a religious
community for the purposes of his/her
• Member of a religious tradition
• Committed to the teachings and
practices of his/her religion
• Promotes the interests of his/her
• Believes and/or practices religion for
• Speaks from within the religious
INSIDE / OUTSIDE
Insider‘s Viewpoint Outsider‘s Viewpoint
5. WHAT IT TAKES TO STUDY RELIGION
• Openness. Open-minded people recognize they may be wrong; their beliefs are fallible.
• Honesty. Laying aside prejudices (pre-judging) and being self-reflective. Why do I think as I do
about religion(s)? Where and how did I learn what I ―know‖ about it/them?
• Critical Intelligence. Critical thinking—striving to see things clearly—and drawing conclusions
based on evidence allows you to overcome prejudice and make fair judgments.
• Analysis requires breaking down a complex object into simpler elements and looking at
them closely; seeing how they relate to one another and how they relate to similar
elements in other objects—how they are the same and how they are different?
• Synthesis requires putting the object back together, having learned something new about
our objects from the work we have done.
• Integrity. Do careful research and be methodical in your work.
• Critical Tolerance. Respecting freedom of religion does not mean that a student of religion must
give a blanket sanction to any and all religious beliefs and practices.
6. What is Religion??
In one sense, religion is a fabrication of
our academic imaginations. That is, as
an object of study, we have to define
what counts as religion and what does
Religions have always been compared
to one another as part of academic
study. Categories of comparison had to
be constructed and ―religions‖ were
classified according to kind.
In the end, it is the job of the scholar to
limit a field of study—to say what is
going to be in and what is out.
• RELIGIONS … what counted when
• Christianity, Judaism, Mohammedanism and
Idolatry; polytheists, monotheists, pantheists.
(until early 19th century).
• Nature religions, magical religions, and
ethical religions—nationalist and
universalistic or World Religions (C. P. Tiele,
―Religions‖ in Encyclopedia Britannica,
• Twelve great ―living‖ religions: Primitivism,
Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto, Hinduism,
Jainism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Sikhism,
Judaism, Islam and Christianity (J. C. Archer,
Faiths Men Live By, 1934).
7. What is Religion??
Are Communism, Atheism, Christianity,
football and Confucianism all members
of the same class of ‗things‘?
What could we learn by comparing
elements of one to another?
Do people generally think of all these
―things‖ as religions? There are different
kinds of definitions. A dictionary
definition (lexical), for example, provides
you with the common usage of a word; a
stipulative definition tells your reader
how YOU will use a word in a specific
context. This is a common kind of
definition in academic discourse.
8. DEFINING ―RELIGION‖ IN RELIGIOUS STUDIES
• Stipulative definitions – a definition that specifies how a term will be used in a particular
context. When I write a paper, I may tell the reader up front that I will be using the word
―religion‖ to mean belief in spiritual beings. I will stipulate that this is my working
definition, recognizing that this does not capture everything that the word ―religion‖ could
• Lexical definitions – This is a dictionary definition that records common usage. It has little
value in an academic study of religion except as evidence of how the word is used at any
given time in any given place.
• Essential definitions – Religion(s) are sometimes defined in terms of their core, or
essential characteristics; what makes religion(s) unique. Sometimes called insider‘s
definitions or first-order definitions, they are not often used in secular religious studies
today. Modern religions are extremely diverse internally they share similar characteristics
with each other externally. Essential characteristics are usually combined with functional
characteristics (what religions ―do‖) to create cluster definitions of religion(s) today.
9. A CLUSTER DEFINITION OF RELIGION
• Defining religion in terms of both content and function is preferable to using essentialist (only
content) or reductionist (only function) definitions.
• Rituals, Symbols, Myths
• Belief in or apprehension of God/s or a transcendent reality
• Sacred texts (canons)
• Creates sacred time and sacred space.
• Answers existential questions about the meaning of life and death
• Defines good and evil, and creates a moral universe
• Creates a moral community or social group bound together by its beliefs and practices.
A religion may have all or most of these characteristics. It will necessarily share many of these
elements with other religions while it will share only a few with non-religious systems.
10. DISCIPLINARY LENSES FOR STUDYING
• Historical development of religious tradition. The goal was originally to prove that all
religions at their essential core were the same. Either awareness of this core was lost over
time or human beings were gradually progressing toward this awareness through time.
• Comparative study of religious systems. World Religions courses are paradigmatic.
• Social scientific study of religion(s)
• Anthropology. Concerned with the way humans create meaning and use symbols to
• Sociology. Focused on religion as the product of social forces.
• Psychology of Religion. Concentrates on religion as a function of the mind.
• Philosophy and Theology
• Both are concerned with questions of truth. Philosophy wants to know if religion propounds
the truth, while theology claims to be able to study truth as it has been revealed.
11. GOALS AND METHODS
IN STUDYING ABOUT RELIGION
―Theology is the scholarly language of religion, and religious studies are the scholarly
language about religion‖
-Gary Kessler, Studying Religion, p. 28
12. Goals and Methods
Describing involves classifying.
To do this requires categories for religious
phenomena. Muslims believe in one God
(p). Belief in God is a category of religious
phenomena called ―theism‖ (x). Belief in a
single God is a subcategory of theism
A note of caution: Analyzing or reducing a
whole to its parts is only part one; failing to
synthesize or to put the whole in
perspective again can make a religion
seem more like the blind men‘s elephant
than a dynamic system.
13. GOALS AND METHODS - CONTINUED
• These are ―ideal‖ types that serve as a base for comparison. The ―prototype‖ for theism
has historically been Christian beliefs about GOD because religious studies is a Western
• A prototype should not be seen as better or worse than any other example, it should be
the most easily recognized example of your category. Prototypes are culturally relative not
absolute examples. In a Buddhist culture, the prototype for theism might be atheism.
• If you are interested, you can listen to a cogent philosophical explanation of the concept
of ―god/GOD/God‖ on You Tube. It is about 25 minutes long, but worth the time. This is not
required, but recommended. http://youtu.be/eFzObFaF2b0
14. GOALS AND METHODS - CONTINUED
• These are classification schemes. Here is one possible typological scheme for the
concept of GOD/god/God, or ―THEISM‖
• Monotheism – belief in one god
• Polytheism – belief in more than one god
• Pantheism – belief that everything is god
• Henotheism – the belief that multiple gods exist, but only one (at a time) should be
• Ditheism – there are two gods, and both are equal
• Deism – belief that god(s) exist/s but they or s/he does not intervene in human
15. GOALS AND METHODS - CONTINUED
• Comparison is a method of analysis that looks for similarities and differences among
phenomena in the same class. You can compare one kind of ritual with another kind of
ritual, but you can‘t compare myths to rituals. This sounds obvious, but is more
complicated when you try to compare complex religious systems to one another.
• Understanding is what most humanistic scholars strive to achieve by their study of
religious phenomena. First we will want to know what ―x‖ means to a religious person.
Second, we will ask what the phenomena we are describing, along with their attached
meanings, add to our knowledge about religion and about being human. Kessler refers to
this process as ―interpretation‖.
• Explanation is what we attempt to do when we apply disciplinary theories to our data. We
may understand that a Pentecostal snake handler believes s/he is handling under the
power of the Holy Ghost, but we might explain the dissociative trance state that handlers
achieve in order to perform their rituals using psychological models. In the secular study
of religion, explanations are given in terms of natural not supernatural causes.
17. SITE VISITS: OBSERVER AS A PARTICIPANT
• ―There is no substitute for talking to people who practice religion and observing what they do‖
(Kessler, p. 33).
• Preparation involves doing preliminary research on your community and setting up your
• Observation means paying attention to details, taking copious notes or recordings, and
writing up your observations as soon after the visit as possible.
• Participation means taking part in the religious activities when it is possible and proper to
do so. Most communities welcome outside participation, although there can be some
restrictions that apply. Research and prior contact are critical here so you know what you
• Interviews. Plan to speak with people and to ask questions that will help you understand
what is happening.
• Documentation – the who, what, where, when and why of your site visit
• Writing the Report.