Academic Study of Religion

Topics: Religion, Religious studies, Supreme Court of the United States Pages: 7 (1710 words) Published: September 29, 2013

Comparison and Theory

understood as strange, sometimes as familiar), early
scholars of religion were interested in collecting and
comparing beliefs, myths, and rituals found the world
over. After all, early explorers, soldiers, and
missionaries were all returning to Europe with their
diaries and journals filled with tales that, despite their
obvious exoticness, chronicled things that bore a
striking resemblance to Christian beliefs and behaviors.
As such, early scholars tried to perfect the use of the
non-evaluative comparative method in the cross-cultural
study of people’s religious beliefs, “our’s” and “their’s”. To compare in a non-evaluative manner means that one
searches for observable, documentable similarities and
differences without making normative judgments
concerning which similarities or differences were good
or bad, right or wrong, original or derivative, primitive
or modern.
To compare in a non-evaluative manner
means that one searches for observable similarities and
differences and then theorizes as to why just these
similarities and why just those differences. For example,
most all Christians generally believe that the historical
person named Jesus of Nazareth was “the Son of God”
(similarity) yet only some of these same Christians
believe that the Pope is God’s primary representative
on earth (difference). As an anthropological scholar of
religion, can you theorize as to why this difference
exists? A theological approach might account for this
difference by suggesting that one side in this debate is
simply wrong, ill-informed, or sinful (depending which
theologian you happen to ask); an anthropologicallybased approach would bracket out and set aside all such normative judgments and theorize that the
difference in beliefs might have something to do with
the psychology of people involved, their method of
social organization, their mode of economic activity,
In other words, the anthropological approach
to the study of religion as practiced in the public
university is a member of the human sciences and, as
such, it starts with the presumption that religious
beliefs, behaviors, and institutions are observable,
historical events that can therefore be studied in the
same manner as all human behavior. If they are more
than that, then scholars of religion leave it to
theologians who to pursue this avenue of study.

Like virtually all scholarly disciplines in the modern
university, the academic study of religion is a product
of nineteenth-century Europe. Although influenced a
great deal by European expansionism and colonialism
(the study of religion is largely the product of
Europeans encountering—through trade, exploration,
and conquest—new beliefs and behaviors, sometimes

Although the study of religion came to North American
universities prior to World War I and, for a brief time,
flourished at such schools as the University of Chicago,
Penn, and Harvard, it was not until the late-1950s and
early-1960s that Departments of Religious Studies were

Anthropology or Theology?
The academic study of religion is fundamentally an
anthropological enterprise. That is, it is primarily
concerned with studying people (anthropos is an ancient
Greek term meaning “human being”; logos means
“word” or a “rational, systematic discourse”), their beliefs, behaviors, and institutions, rather than
assessing “the truth” or “truths” of their various beliefs or behaviors. An anthropological approach to the study
of religion (which is not to say that the study of religion
is simply a sub-field of anthropology) is distinguished
from a confessional, religious, or theological approach
(theos is an ancient Greek term for “deity” or “god”) which is generally concerned with determining the
nature, will, or wishes of a god or the gods.
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