What is religious studies?

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Page author: Luke Burns

This page created on: 07/11/2020

Last modified: 17/11/2020


Religious studies is the academic study of religion - but what does that really mean?



Religious studies is the academic study of religion - but what does that really mean?

It means that we use scholarly tools and techniques to investigate what religion is, how it’s performed, why it exists, and what it means for the people who practice it.

It also means looking critically at how we build up our picture of ‘religion’ - who gets to define the category? What does it include, and what does it leave out? How are words like religion, sacred, secular, cult, and spirituality (to name a few) used to express meaning, and what are the social aspects of these categories?

For example, does it make a difference if someone’s practice is described as a religion or as a cult? What about spirituality vs religion?

Critical theory

This sort of thinking (and thinking about thinking!) is sometimes referred to as critical theory.

It means taking a step back and asking questions about the ‘tools of the trade’, the ideas and principles, the methods and approaches that we use. This is an important part of religious studies, without which we might blindly reinforce unfair power structures, ignoring or diminishing the validity of a wide variety of diverse religious practices.

What makes a religion true?

Religious studies is also agnostic with regard to religious ‘truth’, or we might say that the subject is ‘secular’ - it does not require us to make judgements about whether a particular worldview is ‘true’, instead it focuses on studying people in the context of their religious practices and beliefs, without passing judgement.

This also means that you don’t have to be religious to study religion, and equally you don’t have to be non-religious. Our observations should be based on the people we study, not our own personal beliefs about how right or wrong those people are.

It’s worth bearing in mind that this is easier said than done!

Recognising ourselves

This brings us to another important point about religious studies - scholars must be aware of their own bias and perspective, and where possible aim to minimise the effect this may have on their studies, and be as transparent as possible about their position. This makes it easier for other people to read their work in its proper context, and understand the religious people being described, but also the person describing them and how this may influence the presentation.

How should we study?

Religious studies is multidisciplinary - it doesn’t cover just one area of human life, in fact religion impacts almost everything that people do, and so the methods used to study ‘religion’ need to be equally broad.

In practical terms, this means that you might use tools drawn from anthropology, psychology, neurology, sociology, musical theory, geography, history, textual studies, and more in order to build your understanding.

In conclusion…

Religious studies is a fascinating subject, which examines the diverse and complex ways that people express and experience meaningful connections between each other and the world.

It aims to understand and describe perspectives without passing judgement on their validity or truth. It requires self-awareness and empathy, as well as critical judgement and discernment, and offers a wide variety of tools for studying different types of religious expression.

Image credits

Image by Honey Kochphon Onshawee from Pixabay

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