Reading: How Should We Study Religion?

Some basic principles of religious studies

Reasons for studying religion can be clustered together under two broad headings:

  1. to understand the society in which we live, the culture we inherit and the wider world of which we are a part;
  2. as part of a personal quest for religious self-fulfillment.

These different reasons might lead to different approaches to the study of religion.

To a great extent, the meanings now attached to the terms religion and religions have tended to promote the study of religion in order to understand the world in which we live rather than as part of a desire for personal religious self-fulfillment. In fact, the assumptions contained within this “modern” use of religion and religions in themselves indicate something of the approach we must follow. Awareness of the breadth and variety of religion suggests a need:

  1. for care when looking for the boundaries of religion;
  2. for openness to the variety of possible religious expressions;
  3. to place forms of religion in their social and historical context;
  4. to avoid premature judgements when dealing with questions about the truth and value of particular religions.

If we are studying religion to make sense of social customs and political events, we can do that without having to make assumptions about the nature of religion, its origins, whether it is a good or bad thing and, whether it is true or false. It is sufficient that people speak about religion as a factor that affects their lives. We can choose to approach these aspects of religion in a neutral manner—that is, without intending to offer any judgement on their truth or falsity. In practice, of course, it is not possible to achieve a position of complete neutrality, but the conscious desire to minimize distortion and bias as far as possible has been a principle adopted in many branches of scholarship. You will already be familiar with this in the reporting and analysis of politics. Certain journalists and commentators evidently strive to be disinterested (“impartial” as distinct from “uninterested”) and not to base their judgements on their own political convictions. Even so, at times their impartiality is called into question, particularly by the major political parties in the run-up to an election! Nevertheless, we know that these reporters are attempting to offer a different kind of judgement from those newspaper columnists who make no secret of their political sympathies and write opinion columns that trumpet their convictions. Similarly, the position of the impartial political commentator is significantly different from that of those senior, often retired, politicians who are invited to comment as a result of their vast experience and knowledge of the political process. Retirement may make for greater freedom in criticizing one’s own party, but, as viewers, listeners or readers, we know that these figures still speak as insiders and that there are likely to be limits to the extent of their impartiality.

In the study of religion there is a comparable divide. There are those whose style of approach and methods are closely bound up with their own religious convictions or with a personal search for religious self-fulfillment. There are others who, regardless of whether they are religious or not, strive for an impartial approach not shaped by their own beliefs. This latter approach to the study of religion, sometimes known as Religious Studies, has developed in step with the understanding of the terms religion and religions that we have inherited from the late eighteenth century. It is still a relatively new way of studying religion and, in fact, only gained a foothold in European universities in the latter half of the nineteenth century, where it offered an alternative to theology. It is also very much the product of the European and North American intellectual traditions.

Religious Studies as a Discipline

Until the late nineteenth century, theology had provided the main academic discipline in European universities for the study of religion. Theology (from the Greek, “discourse about God”) is concerned with questions relating to the relationship between God (or gods) and humanity. A theologian may begin from what is held to be a divine revelation taken, say, from a sacred book or religious teacher, about the nature of God and the relationship of God to humanity. In this form, theology is concerned with the interpretation of the substance and implications of a particular revelation. Some styles of theology have relied upon rational reflection upon experience, including observation of nature, in order to formulate beliefs about the nature of God and the relationship between God, the world and human beings. Theological inquiry may be conducted in a highly scholarly manner, and some contemporary theologians argue that its starting point requires nothing more than a willingness to consider the possibility of the existence of God. More typically, however, theology has been practiced within the framework of a given religious position. Much of what has gone under the heading of theological training has been shaped by the interests of religious faith and designed to be put to the service of that faith. Historically in Europe it has largely taken the form of Christian theology.

I would certainly agree with you if you reacted to the notion of neutral or disinterested study of religion by arguing that it would be pretty pointless to approach religion in a way that cuts out those parts that might challenge you directly. When you study religion, you do place yourself in a position in which your personal views may be changed. Yet, in this respect, the study of religion is no different from other branches of study that examine human ideas and actions, although religious claims are different from those made, say, by political theories. However, a study of religion that sets out to deepen an individual’s faith, resolve personal religious doubts, or satisfy a need for religious belief is surely a religious quest in itself. It could all too easily slide into something entirely directed by that individual’s interests: a study within fixed horizons. Even when not restricted to one religious tradition, it is likely to begin with built-in assumptions about the value of religion—for example, that religion in some way provides insights that we have to understand and live by in order to experience a fulfilled existence. Theology has been criticized for fixing the horizons of the study of religion in just this sort of way.

Unlike theology, the interests and methods of Religious Studies are not rooted within the framework of a particular religion. In separating the study of religion from the student’s personal religious faith, or lack of faith, Religious Studies has justified its existence on the grounds that religion is a sufficiently distinctive and widespread aspect of human activity as to warrant its own form of inquiry; it does not depend upon assumptions made about either the truth or falsity of religion.

Models of religion, such as that outlined by Ninian Smart, display the many-sidedness and varied nature of religion. Religious Studies draws upon methods from both the humanities and the social sciences in exploring the complex phenomenon of religion—its history, its art, its ideas, its distinctive social institutions and the states of mind to which it can give rise. Archaeology, comparative methods, history, linguistic studies, psychology and sociology are all employed within Religious Studies. Religious Studies, therefore, is not founded upon the use of one characteristic method of inquiry but uses a range of different methods to explore a particular area of interest, namely, religion.

Approaching religion as a distinctive and widespread form of human activity implies that we can study religion on broadly the same basis as other human activities. It suggests that, drawing upon common human experiences and our imagination, we can gain insights into what we have not experienced directly. These capacities are used in the same way by historians to help them to reconstruct times past, by anthropologists in the study of societies different from their own, or by actors when they take on a role. There are, however, problems lurking beneath the surface of this brief summary of the broad principles of Religious Studies. The first of these relates to the claim that students of religion can achieve an understanding of religions of which they have no personal experience.

Insiders and Outsiders

The claim that it is possible to study religion adequately from a disinterested position has been hotly debated. Can the understanding of the observer achieve the same level of insight and authority as the participant in a religion? No serious student of religion can avoid confronting this question.

The outsider cannot escape depending to an extent upon insights from insiders when studying a particular religion. An outsider who has never been through a particular ritual, for example, can only give an account based upon observation and third-party testimony. Observers may be more inclined to rely upon abstractions and generalizations, possibly from sacred books, in the absence of direct experience of the religion as practiced. Such questions as “What does it feel like?” or “Why did you?” can only be answered by insiders because they call for answers based on personal experience or ask for details that may have to do with a local or even family custom. Yet, insiders are fallible and may have their own reasons for describing their experience in a particular way. Insiders will not necessarily agree with each other.

There is also the further issue of whether the experience of one religion contributes to understanding other forms of religion. For example, does personal experience of the practice of prayer in one religion make a student more sensitive when studying prayer or a practice like meditation in a different religion? Is a Muslim who prays better qualified to understand a Buddhist who meditates and vice versa, than, say, a humanist who does neither? Or should students who are not members of the religion being considered simply be regarded as outsiders, whether they are agnostics or members of a different religious faith? Would someone standing outside all religions, but interested in their study, bring an openness and sympathy that a person with a particular religious commitment would find hard to match? If you decide that we should not generalize and that it will depend upon the skill and sensitivity of each student, then you are tacitly accepting that being religious in itself is not a necessary qualification for a student of religion.

In fact, as we have seen, that is one of the principles involved in the approach of Religious Studies. Fervent followers of religion and militant atheists both have the capacity to become insightful students of religion—as long as they are willing to exercise the self-discipline necessary to ensure that their own beliefs do not distort their treatment of the beliefs of others. If I did not accept this possibility, introducing you to Religious Studies would be tantamount to assuming either that you are religious or that you will need to “get religious quick” to complete this course! Yet, the argument that it is possible to study religion effectively without drawing upon personal religious experience has been challenged.

The counter-argument is that “religion” refers to a totally distinct and unique category of human experience which is beyond the comprehension of those who have not shared this experience. A technical way of referring to this is to speak of religion as being autonomous (subject to its own laws) or as being sui generis (Latin for “of its own kind” or unique and pronounced as “soo-ee g[hard ‘g’ as in gun]en-er-is”). The implications of this view for the student have been spelled out in no uncertain terms:

The reader is invited to direct his mind to a moment of deeply-felt religious experience, as little as possible qualified by other forms of consciousness. Whoever cannot do this, whoever knows no such moments in his experience, is requested to read no further; for it is not easy to discuss questions of religious psychology with one who can recollect the emotions of his adolescence, the discomforts of indigestion, or, say, social feelings, but cannot recall any intrinsically religious feelings.

(Otto, 1970, p. 8)

According to this view there are severe limits to the extent to which religion can be understood by the outsider who has not known “intrinsically religious feelings.” This would seem to rule out, for example, Ninian Smart’s argument that both religions and secular ideologies should be studied as worldviews. For if religion is different in kind from a secular ideology, then it cannot be understood on the same terms as other worldviews, but only on its own terms by those who have known some sort of religious experience of their own.

Is acceptance of the claim that religion is autonomous or sui generis consistent with the broad principles of Religious Studies?

We might wish to investigate the claim that religion is autonomous or sui generis as part of our study of religion. To base our method of study on the acceptance of such a claim without first testing the arguments that support it, however, would be to begin from an assumption that is very different from the characteristic but more modest starting point of Religious Studies: namely, the observable importance of religion in peoples’ lives. Yet, we should be aware of the implications of rejecting the sui generis argument. In so doing we have made a statement about the nature of religion: that, for the purposes of study, we are assuming that it is possible to study religion in much the same way as we study other aspects of human experience. On the other hand, those who view religion as sui generis face the problems of identifying what makes it so (which, given the varied forms of religion, is not easy), and also of convincing us that a person who has experienced one form of religion may apply this experience in the analysis of another.

The difference of opinion between those who hold to the sui generis view of religion and those who share the position adopted by Ninian Smart is profound. The fact that the debate continues leads us into another problem in the study of religion in response to which Religious Studies has adopted a characteristic position in terms of method. This is the problem of determining the truth of religion.

Religion: True or False?

I noted earlier that differences between the truth claims made by religions has led those who practice Religious Studies to avoid premature judgements when dealing with questions relating to the truth and value of particular religions. By seeming to by-pass truth claims, you may feel that what I have been describing as Religious Studies avoids what many would regard as the purpose of religion—to deal in truths. This is a difficult area to cover briefly, but let me at least try to explain why Religious Studies takes the line that it does.

Different societies tolerate different codes of morality. Religions, which typically claim to reveal truths, often make different claims and promote different codes of behavior. Can we just assume that these variations are due to the differences in the social and historical contexts in which these religions are found? Some people have argued that all religions contain a measure of certain universal truths, but have taken different outward forms because of the needs of different human temperaments and different social conditions. Some contemporary Hindus are wedded to this idea. There is even an old Indian story used to illustrate it. Wearied by the conflicting opinions of his court philosophers and their mutual intolerance, a king made them watch blind men approach an elephant from different angles and, using their sense of touch, attempt to identify what creature they were being presented with. Not surprisingly, the blind man who grabbed the tail arrived at a different conclusion from the one who embraced a leg. At one level this story serves to encourage humility when asserting one’s opinions, but the story has also been used to suggest something about the relationship between religions that could guide the way we study them.

Practice Exercises

religious and philosophical beliefs?Does the message of the story provide guidelines that we might adopt in our role as critical students of religion?


  1. The story implies that nobody has a monopoly on truth. Humans are like the blind men—we have a limited perception of the universe. But the story also suggests that while the blind men did not grasp the complete picture, they all had some insight. The story invites us to understand the reasons for their failure and not to judge them intolerantly as the court philosophers had judged each other.
  2. The plea for tolerance and respect may sound attractive, but it does not take us much further forward in deciding how to deal with questions of truth. In the terms of this story, all religions are true in their own way and are thus to be respected for meeting different needs. But this is where we do hit a problem. The story presupposes that the elephant was there and that, even when wrong in their conclusions, the blind men had grasped something of the larger picture. Put the pieces together, learn from each other and you will have the right answer. Transferring this to the study of religion would imply that students assume for the purposes of their method that all religions are true in some measure. This may make for tolerance and respect, but it is as much a judgement on the truth claims of religion as are the assumptions that one religion is true or that none are true. For this reason, I feel that the story makes us think harder about how to study religion rather than providing us with a model answer.

The problem is that, in the study of religion, there is no human arbiter comparable to that of the sighted in the story of the blind men and the elephant. Truth claims—for example, about the existence of God—are made within particular religions, and it is between religions that the differences lie. Religions start, however, from different assumptions and appeal to different authorities. Finding a way that will enable us to judge the respective merits of their truth claims is, therefore, extremely difficult. For example, religious traditions often appeal to a sacred book whose authority is not recognized either by people of other faiths or by people of no religious faith. Those who accept the authority of a sacred book are unlikely to accept the judgements of those who deny its authority.

Religious conviction, even when it appeals to reason and logic, more often than not assigns a greater importance to acts of faith, to personal experience and/or to the authority of a religious teacher or sacred book. A person whose conviction rests on foundations such as these may well turn round and argue that an outsider who attempts to judge the truth of a particular religion without such an experience simply does not understand the religion and is thus simply not qualified to judge its truth claims. I remember well talking with a Muslim who has generously given of his time over several years to answer my questions about Islam. On one occasion when we were outside the mosque talking about understanding Islam, he turned to me and said simply, “If you understood Islam, you would come into the mosque with me now and make your profession of faith.”

Trying to resolve the problem of how to test religious truth claims continues to vex scholars and religious devotees alike. Those who practice Religious Studies recognize the full importance of this problem, but do not believe that all study of religion should be suspended until it is solved. We continue in the meantime to learn more about religion, but refrain from making premature judgements about matters of truth. In view of the amount of biased and inaccurate reporting of religions which has taken place and continues to take place both in the media and in scholarly work, a measure of caution about premature judgements may be no bad thing. To an extent, this also offers a check when applying the assumptions, principles and methods of Religious Studies, a discipline that evolved in post-Enlightenment Europe, in a global, cross-cultural study of beliefs and practices. But does this mean we can offer only bland descriptions of religion and no evaluative comment? Doesn’t religion on occasion actually do damage?

Religion: A Good Thing or a Bad Thing?

In considering the value of religions, we can begin by saying that one of the first tasks of the critical student should certainly be to test the basis of judgements offered by other commentators. We saw earlier that the Church of Scientology has had problems gaining official recognition as a religion in a number of countries and that these judgements have been tied up with official views that Scientology is socially harmful.

Dramatic events like those surrounding the mass suicide of a religious group or an armed stand-off between a religious group and a government agency need to be understood and explained. To this end, students of religion use methods of historical, psychological and sociological investigation. Sociological and psychological analysis may also help us to understand why individuals are drawn into religious movements and the effects of joining upon both them and their families. This is a particularly pressing question for those who have seen a relative or friend become part of a religious community that closes its members off from those who do not share the same beliefs.

Similarly, claims made about the effects of different techniques of meditation are open to a degree of clinical testing. Many clinical tests have been carried out to measure the effects of different meditative techniques upon rhythms in the brain and upon blood-pressure. In examining this kind of evidence as critical students, we may be acting little differently from someone who is considering taking up a meditation practice but who first wants to know whether it can bring benefits.

To argue, as I have done, that Religious Studies stresses the need to understand beliefs and practices in their context is not to say that the student may offer no judgement upon these. As we have seen, many of the practical consequences of religious codes of conduct are open to observation and investigation, and the justifications for different codes can be tested for coherence. The judgements we pass, however, should be informed by understanding this behavior within its historical and social context, and not simply exercised on the assumption that our own moral code provides a universal standard against which all else may be judged. Think, for example, about the way in which monogamy and polygamy have been regarded as the norm in different societies. Similarly, the age at which it is thought appropriate for young people to enter into full sexual relationships varies considerably. So, although one society might seek to promote or even enforce one standard, as critical students we have to recognize that such standards do vary, and often for good reason, between societies.

Practice Exercises

In the light of what has just been said, are there claims made or issues relating to the lifestyles described in the video clips that you would want to subject to more searching, critical inquiry? Please identify at least one issue in the clips and list two or three questions you would want to pursue.

Practice Discussion

There are many issues that you might have listed. This is one example that caught my attention because it surfaced a number of times. The religions that figured in the videos appeared to offer women a more restricted role in the life of the community. In certain instances, communal worship was largely if not exclusively centered upon the needs of men and key roles seemed to be reserved for men. This was evident in the roles played by men as priests in Christian churches, even though women are now ordained in some denominations. While it was claimed that women were more innately religious than men, often in practice they seemed to be confined to subordinate roles whether in the home or elsewhere. Jews and Muslims downplayed the need for women to attend communal worship and prayer. The domestic role undertaken by Hindu women has been likened to a service offered up to the deities. What part does religion play in the social construction of the roles assigned to the two sexes? What effects has this had upon the lives of men and women and their respective places within society? Is this influence different from social convention more generally, or does religion play a major hand in creating and maintaining social conventions? These are the sorts of question that we should be asking as critical students. I think I would also want to ask further questions about the meaning and value that religious people assign to these roles as a prelude to attempting to answer my other questions.

Religious Studies, then, is not simply a mix of bland and evocative description, but is concerned to understand and analyze the part that religion plays in the lives of people. Our current inability to resolve which religions, if any, are true is a source of frustration but it also vitalizes the discipline. After all, if we knew the answer to this question, we would probably be at the end of our need to study religion and some of us would be out of a job. This limitation should make for humility but not paralysis. Religious Studies is not the only discipline you will meet where questions of truth remain to be resolved.

Now that we have a clearer view of the concerns of Religious Studies and some of the problems associated with using the term religion, I want to move beyond the confines of British society and shift our attention to India and the religious tradition widely known as Hinduism. We are taking this as our next example because Hinduism historically has taken many different forms, and thus defining Hinduism as a “religion” poses particular problems. Taking the different contexts of India and Britain should also make us less inclined to slip into an unthinking acceptance of the assumptions made about religion in one culture and about how to study it. I realize that some of you may know Hindu India well, but my discussion assumes that this will be unfamiliar territory for the majority of you. During this more extended study of religion in context, you will have the opportunity to get a fuller flavor of studying religion and to practice some of the skills you have developed up to this point.