Study of Religion: The Academic Study of Religion in Eastern Europe and Russia

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In most European countries, the study of religion developed during a period of transition between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was a time when scholars were attempting to categorize and examine the full range of human activities. The study of religions emerged then as a specifically modernistic, empirically oriented discipline focusing on culture, and concerned first and foremost with the human being. Individual researchers gained academic standing and recognition not by reason of nationality or citizenship but rather by virtue of their academic credentials, their interests and affinities for specific schools of thought, as well as by trends within the field of religious studiesall factors that have little to do with geopolitical principles. In an examination of the course of the development of religious studies in Europe, which may be subdivided into the continent's eastern and western spheres, much depends on political developments in Europe during the Cold War period. European religious studies stands in an objectively identical context: over the course of many centuries, Europe's religious situation was determined by a single religion, and this fact also restricted, in a fundamental way, the modes of access to religion that were open to theoretical and methodological research.

In contrast, it was European expansionism that brought knowledge of non-European religions, and which consequently contributed decisively to the creation of a common material basis for research within the field of religious studies. With the exception of Soviet Russia, this religious-scientific material was appraised in the other countries now designated as "eastern European" by such methods commonly deployed by religious-studies scholars in general. These include comparative methods, religious-historical methods, religious-phenomenological methods, religious-critical methods, and others. Moreover, with these methods, similar results were also achieved. Only after 1945, when these states came under Soviet domination, did the situation change. This change was due to the application of powerful political and ideological constraints. As a result, however, no distinctively Eastern European variant of religious studies has come into existence, and Eastern Europe was also thereby prevented from becoming a place of academic self-identification. On the contrary, the academic study of religion was eradicated almost entirely behind the Iron Curtain, though it did manage to retain a certain form in Poland. It was replaced during the Cold War era by the ideology of so-called scientific atheism.

The Emergence of Religious Studies in Eastern Europe and Russia

The beginnings of religious studies in Eastern Europe, as elsewhere on the continent, occurred during the last third of the nineteenth century, when new efforts were undertaken in religious research. These new directions were influenced by new currents of thought, including positivism and evolution theory, as well as from the positive impact of new information from the ethnological, religious-historical, and archaeological spheres. However, the study of religion was not established as an institution (i.e., as a relatively independent field of academic investigation) until the period following World War I. Therefore, in the comparison to Western Europe, the scientifically ascertainable history of religious studies in Eastern European countries is shorter by approximately two generations of researchers. However, this applies primarily to Poland, the Czech Republic (formerly Czechoslovakia), and to some extent even in Hungary. But in Russia, and in a large portion of the Balkans, the academic study of religion studies was not firmly established as an institution until the political changes that came after 1989. Consequently, the development of religious studies in the eastern half of Europe must be viewed in an entirely different manner from its progress in Western Europe.

The early history of religious studies in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary is connected with an interest in folklore that emerged in the nineteenth century. Scholars sought traces of religious traditions and mythologies in ancient folk legends. The tradition of comparative mythologyfrom which, in the first half of the twentieth century, the methods of the comparative study of religion aroseis rooted here. One must count among the best-known researchers of this period in Poland the ethnologist and religious historian Jan Aleksander Karlowicz, the historian of Christianity Ignacy Radlinski, and the Asian studies specialist Andrzej Niemojewski. In the Czech Republic the ethnologically oriented mythology researchers František Ladislav Čelakovský and Josef Jungmann were noteworthy pioneers. In Hungary, the academic exploration of religion was fostered from the circle of theologically educated members of the clergy, and was characterized as strongly Christian. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the study of religion had traditionally been identified with apologetics. Occupying the preeminent place among Hungarian researchers of this time are the linguist Zsigmond Simonyi, who also translated into Hungarian for the first time the work of Max Müller in 1876, and the founder of Islamic studies in Hungary, I. Goldziher. It was Goldziher who made the first mention in Hungary, in 1881, of a new discipline called comparative religious studies.

The truly formative period of religious studies occurred in the years after World War I, and developments in Eastern Europe revealed specific trends pertinent to each country. Even the conceptualizing of religious concepts proceeded in a different manner. The differences are strictly tied to the disparate historical development of these countries. For example, a long-standing Protestant tradition prevailed in the Czech Republic, but Poland was shaped by the strictest Roman Catholicism. Thus even the fundamental conception of religious studies, not to mention an understanding of other religions, differed between the two lands. Schematically expressed, in the Czech Republic religion was considered a component of public culture, and from the very beginning one devoted oneself to the investigation of religion, from differing technical points of view. Thus linguistics, historical sciences, psychology, ethnology, and religious philosophy all played a role, but this was true of theology only to a lesser degree. This diversity of approaches has exerted a profound influence, which extends down to the present time and finds expression in the quest for answers to the questions of what the scientific study of religion is, how one can classify it, and by which rationality paradigm it is sustained. The supreme embodiment of this quest is the work of the actual founder of Czech academic religious studies, the Indologist Otakar Pertold, who in 1920 published Základy všeobecné vědy náboženské (Foundations of the universal study of religion).

Religious studies in Poland, by contrast, tended toward a Catholicized view, which understood religion in several more distinctive forms as the phenomenon sue generic, and in religious history worked with the conception of Christianity as the exemplar. There also arose the so-called leizistic study of religion, that is, freethinking and anti-clerical religious studies, which attempted to examine religions objectively in their plurality, free of any religion-based bias. This inner split endured in Poland into the twenty-first century. Catholicism exerted a similarly formative influence on the development of Hungarian religious studies. The study of religion was conducted only within the theological seminaries and institutions, and efforts in the direction of a secular research, such as the suggestion by Ernst Troeltsch that an independent college for the academic study of religion be established at every university, were strictly rejected. Among those who rejected a secularized study of religion was the Catholic professor Aladár Zubriczky, who concerned himself with the parallels between Christianity and other religions, and who viewed Christianity as the veritable paragon of what a religion should be.

During the period between the two world wars, academic activities in these three countries kept apace with those in other comparable states (e.g., the Netherlands, France, and Finland), and had good prospects for further development. However, the decisive break came after World War II, when Eastern Europe came under Soviet domination. At that point, the academic study of religions was prohibited and suppressed. In places where the study of religion was already in existence in the form of established institutionsas for example in the Czech Republicthese institutions were uprooted. Scientific atheism became the sole method according to which the essential nature of religions was to be interpreted. In many cases religious-studies researchers were personally persecuted, driven from the universities by the dozens, and forced into punitive hard labor; the Czech historian of religion Záviš Kalandra, who specialized in ancient Slavic mythologies, was even sentenced to death in a sham trial and executed in 1950.

As a consequence of these developments, the academic study of religion almost totally vanished from Eastern European academic life for the next four decades, and survived only in theological seminaries and institutions, where it was pursued under the guise of the theological disciplines. Specifically, this development went forward in Poland, where internal political forces were not as thoroughly devastating as elsewhere in the Soviet bloc and where, consequently, the publication of religious-scientific works as well as translations remained a possibility. In principle, it can be said that this period entailed significant setbacks, not only because of the near-total extermination of religious studies as a field, but also because of the further theologization of religious studies in those places where it partially survived. This resulted in great difficulties in the theoretical-methodological realm and in the struggle to achieve self-understanding in which religious studies engaged after the sweeping political changes that occurred after 1990.

The time after the change was one of revival for the academic study of religion. There had been evidence that it was still nominally active, though dormant, back in the late 1960s during a period of political thaw, and again thanks to developments that occurred when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev instituted a policy of perestroika in the 1980s. Because of this, religious studies as a discipline was able to officially establish itself relatively quickly. Religious-studies departments returned to the universities; national societies for the academic study of religion were established; magazines, books, and translations in the field of religious studies were published; attempts were also made to re-establish international academic contacts. However, the relatively long cultural isolation into which the totalitarian states had been driven, which was true of the academic research in general within these countries as well, had a lingering negative impact on the field which endured into the twenty-first century.

In Soviet Russia, the development proceeded along far different lines. From the year 1917 onwards, the doctrine of scientific atheism was regarded as sacrosanct, and its declared goal was not knowledge, but rather the total abolition of religion from social life, along with every tradition having anything in common with religion. As attested by the literature of the era, research was not supposed to have been "objective"that is, as impartial as possiblebut rather was to direct itself according to the principles of the class struggle, and thus in accordance with subjective-ideological interests. Although there were attempts at a so-called "Marxist study of religion," such as Dmitrii Modestovich Ugrinovich's 1973 work Introduction to the Theoretical Study of Religion, these political restrictions were not overcome until the latter part of the 1990s. However, after the formation of the Russian Federation in 1993, an entirely different set of problems arose. These involved legal measures vis-à-vis religious liberty, freedom of conscience, the position of the churches in society, and the role of churches in religious and ethical instruction within the schools. Consequently, the establishment of religious studies as a field along standard academic principles was persistently delayed.


In spite of these unfavorable conditions, a large number of religious-academic works by Eastern European scholars have been published since the first two decades of the twentieth century. Individual researchers concerned themselves with a wide range of problems from the history of religion. There also emerged highly specialized schools of Polish and Czech Arab/Islamic studies, as well as Polish, Hungarian and Czech Asian studies; moreover, both Czech Egyptology and Hungarian Tibetan studies are well-known throughout the academic world. Separate Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and biblical fields of study are all well developed. The psychology of religion, sociology of religion, and religious geography are also established in the field. A certain peculiarity makes for an ongoing interest in the philosophy of religion as an auxiliary discipline. Philosophy of religion admittedly belongs to the philosophical rather than religious-scientific disciplines, but it is nonetheless highly valued; this is due to its conceptual nature, and to the possibility of taking advantage of its theoretical-methodological approaches.

Among Hungarian researchers, the following should be mentioned: Károly Kerényi, Einführung in das Wesen der Mythologie (Introduction to the nature of mythology, written with Carl Jung, 1951); Die Religion der Griechen und Römer (The religion of the Greeks and Romans, 1963); Sándor Bálint, Tamulmányok a magyar vallásos népélet köréböl (Essays on folk religion in Hungary, 1943); Instván Hahn, Istenek és népek (Gods and peoples, 1968); Hitvilág és történelem: Tanulmányok az ókori vallások köréböl (Religion and history: Essays concerning ancient religions, 1982); Imre Trencsényi-Waldapfel, Vallástörténeti tamulmányok (Studies on the history of religion, 1959); and Sir Mark Aurel Stein, Innermost Asia: Detailed Report of Exploration in Central Asia, Kansu and Eastern Iran IIV, 1921.

From among the many Polish contributions, the following should be mentioned: Tadeusz Margul, Sto lat nauki o religiach świata (One hundred years of the scientific study of religion, 1964); Franciszek Adamski, editor, Socjologia religii (Sociology of religion, 1983); Zgymunt Poniatowski, Religia i nauka (Religion and science, 1960); Jan Szmyd, Teorie i doświadczenie (Theory and proof, 1966); and Witold Tyloch, editor, Current Progress in the Methodology of the Science of Religion, 1984; Studies on Religions in the Context of Social Sciences: Methodological and Theoretical Relations, 1990.

In the Czech Republic there arose, among others, Josef Tvrdý, Filosofie náboženství (Philosophy of religion, 1921); Frantisek Lexa, Náboženská literatura staroegyptská I-II (Ancient Egyptian religious literature, 1921); Vincenc Lesný, Buddhismus (Buddhism, 1948); Josef Kubalík, Dějiny náboženství (The history of religion, 1984); Dusan Zbavitel, Hinduismus a jeho cesty k dokonalosti (Hinduism and its path to perfection, 1993); Zbynek Žába, Les Maximes de Ptahotep, 1956; Rock Inscriptions of Lower Nubia, 1968; Miroslav Verner, Ancient Egyptian Monuments as seen by V. R. Prutky, 1968; Bretislav Horyna and Helena Pavlincová, Filosofie náboženství (Philosophy of religion, 1999); Dějiny religionistiky (The history of religious studies, 2001); Dusan Lužný, Náboženství a moderní společnost (Religion and modern society, 1999); and Luboš Bělka, Tibetský buddhismus v Burjatsku (Tibetan Buddhism in Buryatia, 2001).

Works devoted to the conceptualizing of religious studies, and of religious ideas, merit careful attention. The first theoretical-methodological work in Eastern Europe was Pertold's book Základy všeobecné vĕdy náboženské (Foundations of the universal study of religion). This author considers religion to be an emotion-based awareness of dependence on that which currently transcends the limits of all possible human knowledge. Under the influence of positivism and evolution theory, he distinguished between so-called primitive religions (i.e., ancestor worship, animism, pre-animism, fetishism, shamanism), theistic religions (i.e., polytheistic and monotheistic religions), and new religious forms that come into existence through the decay of monotheism (sects, magic, folk religion). He subdivided the scientific study of religion into what he called concrete religious studies, which deals with religious facts, and so-called abstract religious studies, whose task is to classify and evaluate the knowledge gained from the history of religion.

The first introduction to religious studies after World War II appeared in Poland with Poniatowski's Wstęp do religioznawstwa in 1959. This work was essentially oriented toward religious theory to accommodate the interest of the Polish Academy's workgroup for religious theory, which was created in 1957. In the Czech Republic, only one introduction was written prior to 1989, Nástin religionistiky (Overview of the scientific study of religion) from Jan Heller and Milan Mrázek in 1988. This, however, is written from a theological point of view. The first introduction that conformed to the requirements of the academic study of religion was Horyna's 1994 work Úvod do religionistiky (Introduction to the study of religions). Here the scientific study of religion was represented in a manner comparable to that of other standard works of Western European scholarship; questions of religious-scientific theory were stressed, as well as questions concerning the internal structuring of religious studies, its conceptual foundations, and religious-scientific meta-language. In Russia, theoretical problems of religious studies have been reflected with delay and with many obscurities; this was a legacy of Marxist ideology.

Scholarly Organizations and Publications

Colleges for the scientific study of religion first came into existence in Poland and the Czech Republic shortly after World War I. The first college for the history of religion dates back to 1918 at Poland's University of Lublin; its dean was Josef Archutowski. The first college for religious studies came into existence in 1923 at the Wolna Wszechnica Polska in Warsaw, with Stefan Czarnowski as its dean. In 1937, Wiesław Niemczyk appointed himself the first professor of religious studies in Poland at the University of Warsaw. In the Czech Republic, Pertold appointed himself the first professor of comparative religious studies at Charles University in Prague, where the College of Religious Studies was established in 1934 within the philosophy department. However, this college was dissolved by Communist order in 1948, so that no direct line of successorship exists between it and the post-1989 colleges.

Pertold attempted to incorporate Czech religious studies into international research circles, and participated in the year 1912 in the Fourth International Congress for the History of Religion in the Dutch city of Leiden. His work, however, went unrecognized until 1990 at the Sixteenth Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR) in Rome, where the newly established Czech Society for Religious Research was admitted to the regular membership ranks. In contrast, the Polish Society for the Scientific Study of Religion dated back to 1958, and had been admitted to IAHR ranks at the Twelfth Congress in Stockholm, Sweden. In other Eastern European countries, the scientific study of religion as an institutionalized field of university education existed neither during the period of Communist rule nor prior to that time. It was only after 1990 that the scientific study of religion began to develop in a dynamic fashion. In Hungary, there are three colleges for religious studies: at the Catholic College in Vác, at the University of Pécs, and at the University of Szeged, which emerged as the center of Hungarian religious studies. The Romanian Society for the History of Religion (RAHR) is a member of the IAHR. The situation is also similar in Russiaalthough here the circumstances are in part unclearand in the former Soviet Union satellite states of Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, and the Ukraine, though swift academic advances occurred during the post-1989 era.

Professional journals in the field of religious studies are published in almost all Eastern European countries. The most traditional of these periodicals is the Polish publication Euhemer. Przegląd Religionznawczy (Euhemer. Representation of the scientific study of religion), which was founded in 1957 and since 1991 has appeared under the title Przegląd Religionznawczy (Representation of the scientific study of religion). In 1991, the specialist publishing house NOMOS was established in Krakow, Poland, to issue technical literature in the field of religious studies. The leading Czech journal is Religio. Revue pro religionistiku (Journal for the scientific study of religion), founded in 1939; it serves as the central organ of the Czech Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, which is headquartered in Brno. At Masaryk University in the same city, the periodical Religionswissenschaft (Religious Studies) is also published, which brings together the most important religious-scientific works from both domestic and foreign contributors. After the break-up of the former Czechoslovakia into two independent states in 1993, the Slovak Society for Religion Researchpublisher of the periodical Hieron became an independent entity. At the University of Szeged in Hungary, the journal Vallástudományi periodika (Religious-Scientific Periodical) is available in an online version (


Religious-scientific cooperation in the eastern European countriesas in the whole of Europeis hampered by enormous linguistic and cultural differences. It seems unlikely that a supra-national Eastern European religious-scientific organization could come into existence, and the individual representatives of religious studies in the former Eastern bloc countries show no initiative in this direction. The IAHR and the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR) serve as the common foundation for cooperation. The same diversity prevails in a thematic sense. Over the course of time, the political differences that caused academic progress in Eastern Europe to lag were remedied. The research focuses on the history of religion, new religious movements in Europe, enculturation of non-European religions in Europe, which include Buddhism, Islam, Asian religions, and new religious phenomena.

The significance attached to the theory of religious studies is also constantly increasing; its identity problems, which have to do with the deficient methodological equipment; deductive procedures; object and meta-theory; principles of epistemological formalization; the logic of linguistic means of expression, particularly in religious-scientific definition procedures; criteria-formation in the realm of the semantic completeness of religious-scientific concepts; possibilities for the creation of disciplinary, fundamental, and practice-oriented religious-scientific axiomatics.

The question "What is the scientific study of religion?" is pursued with the same seriousness as is the question "What is religion?" Furthermore, the more recent history of Western religious studies is being absorbed, and instruction concerning methodological difficultiesand their possible resolutionis being sought within it. It is possible to conclude that there is no longer any significant difference between European religious studies in the eastern and western halves of the continent, or in any case that if differences do remain they are few in number. This is true as regards topics and the dynamics of development, as well as social resonance. Few seem cognizant of these facts, however. For example, in the most recent and modern introduction to religious studies, written by Hans G. Kippenberg and Kocku von Stuckrad (Munich 2003), not a single word is devoted to Eastern European religious studies.

See Also

Comparative Religion; Marxism; Politics and Religion, article on Politics and Christianity; Positivism.


Bronk, Andrzej. Nauka wobec religii. Lublin, Poland, 1996. Summarizes the theoretical foundations of conceptions of religion in the history of religious studies; focuses on the epistemological foundations of religiology.

Doležalová, Iva, Luther H. Martin, and Dalibor Papoušek, eds., The Academic Study of Religion During the Cold War: East and West. New York, 2001. Conference book from the convention of the same name; contains important contributions made to the field of religious studies in Eastern Europe during the period 19481990, together with some new perspectives that emerged after 1990.

Horyna, Břetislav. Úvod do religionistiky. Prague, 1994. The standard work on religious studies in the Czech Republic, with an overview of the theories of religion, of the scientific study of religion, of methodologies, and of technical history.

Horyna, Břetislav, and Helena Pavlincová. Dějiny religionistiky. Antologie. Olomouc, Czech Republic, 2001. Anthology of the most important among contemporary religious-scientific contributions across all of Europe, including an analysis of the methodological foundations of individual researchers. Serves as the East European parallel to Waardenburg's and Whaling's Approaches.

Bretislav Horyna (2005)

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