Religious studies is the academic field of multi-disciplinary, secular study of religious beliefs, behaviors, and institutions. It describes, compares, interprets, and explains religion, emphasizing systematic, historically based, and cross-cultural perspectives.
While theology attempts to understand the nature of transcendent or supernatural forces (such as deities), religious studies tries to study religious behavior and belief from outside any particular religious viewpoint. Religious studies draws upon multiple disciplines and their methodologies including anthropology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and history of religion.
Religious studies originated in the nineteenth century, when scholarly and historical analysis of the Bible had flourished, and Hindu and Buddhist texts were first being translated into European languages. Early influential scholars included Friedrich Max Müller, in England, and Cornelius P. Tiele, in the Netherlands. Today religious studies is practiced by scholars worldwide. In its early years, it was known as Comparative Religion or the Science of Religion and, in the USA, there are those who today also know the field as the History of religion (associated with methodological traditions traced to the University of Chicago in general, and in particular Mircea Eliade, from the late 1950s through to the late 1980s). The field is known as Religionswissenschaft in Germany and Sciences de la religion in the French-speaking world.
The term “religion” originated from the Latin noun “religio”, that was nominalized from one of three verbs: “relegere” (to turn to constantly/observe conscientiously); “religare” (to bind oneself [back]); and “reeligare” (to choose again). Because of these three different meanings, an etymological analysis alone does not resolve the ambiguity of defining religion, since each verb points to a different understanding of what religion is. During the Medieval Period, the term “religious” was used as a noun to describe someone who had joined a monastic order (a “religious”). Despite this change in meaning, it is important to note the term “religion” is primarily a Christian term. Judaism and Hinduism, for example, do not include this term in their vocabulary.
Religious studies vs. theology
Western philosophy of religion, as the basic ancestor of modern religious studies, is differentiated from theology and the many Eastern philosophical traditions by generally being written from a third party perspective. The scholar need not be a believer. Theology stands in contrast to the philosophy of religion and religious studies in that, generally, the scholar is first and foremost a believer employing both logic and scripture as evidence. Theology according to this understanding fits with the definition which Anselm of Canterbury gave to it in the 11th century, credo ut intelligam, or faith seeking understanding (literally, “I believe so that I may understand”). The theologian then has the task of making intelligible, or clarifying, the religious commitments to which he or she ascribes. The scholar of religious studies has no such allegiances.
Intellectual foundation and background
Before religious studies became a field in its own right, flourishing in the United States in the late 1960s, several key intellectual figures explored religion from a variety of perspectives. One of these figures was the famous pragmatist William James. His 1902 Gifford lectures and book The Varieties of Religious Experience examined religion from a psychological-philosophical perspective and is still influential today. His essay The Will to Believe defends the rationality of faith.
Max Weber studied religion from an economic perspective in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-5), his most famous work. As a major figure in sociology, he has no doubt influenced later sociologists of religion. Émile Durkheim also holds continuing influence as one of the fathers of sociology. He explored Protestant and Catholic attitudes and doctrines regarding suicide in his work Suicide. In 1912 he published his most memorable work on religion, Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.