Study of Religion: The Academic Study of Religion in North America

views updated


North American intellectuals, poets, and scholars have shown considerable enthusiasm in exploring religion dating back to the nineteenth century. This spirit flourished in scholarly, theological, philosophical, and artistic investigations.

The Early Roots of the Academic Study of Religion

Academic study in the nineteenth century was often tied to Christian theological interests and institutions, but this is not to say that all religious study was simply apologetics. Early scholars in the emerging field of North American comparative religions included James Freeman Clark (Harvard Divinity School), who published Ten Great Religions: An Essay in Comparative Theology in 1871. Between the 1860s and 1900 several religiously oriented university chairs were appointed at places such as Harvard, Boston University, Princeton, and CornellClark's appointment as "Professor of Natural Religion and Christian Doctrine" at Harvard being one example. Although these chairs did not represent a full-fledged comparative religion such as was emerging in Europe, they did portend a trend away from singly theological reflections and apologetics. In addition to Clark, other scholars included W. D. Whitney, James Freeman Clarke, and George Foot Moore. In 1892 T. W. Rhys Davids, a British scholar of Buddhism, was invited to lecture at the newly established "American Lectures on the History of Religions," a joint venture among several colleges and universities. In the same year the University of Chicago established a department devoted to the study of comparative religion.

Outside of universities, Ralph Waldo Emerson (and other transcendentalists), Walt Whitman, and John Burroughs represent just a few of the voices among amateur Orientalists, philosophers, poets, and theologians interested in religious experience, mysticism, religious psychology, and religious pluralism. On the level of popular culture, Chicago's World Parliament of Religions in 1893 offered a plurality of different Christian congresses and lectures and introduced many Americans to what became the earliest understandings of Buddhist Theravāda and Zen as well as Hindu Vedānta. These events and thinkers held the common interest in religion and trust in "modern" scholarly methods to reveal the origins, meanings, and truths of the myriad human behaviors deemed religious.

These forcesas well as a plurality of religious groups examining their own theologycreated a diversity of ideas, interpretations, and reflections on institutional religions (such as Christianity and Buddhism), on religious texts (such as the Bhagavadgītā and the Bible), and on the role of religious practices and claims in society (such as religion and law or psychology of religion).

This early phase of amateur and academic study of religion was wide-ranging, yet disciplinary identity and overall theoretical coherence were still in development. Often uneasy (even antagonistic) mixtures of theology, history, and social sciences evolved in this early academic study of religion. Even though clear disciplinary identity was lacking, active study proceeded in several areas. Unique among these was the American school of psychology of religion. Stanley Hall (18841924)trained at Wilhelm Wundt's laboratory of experimental psychology in Leipzigbrought European psychology to the United States and set the stage for the development of an original American psychology of religion by James H. Leuba (18681946), Edwin Diller Starbuck (18661947), William James (18421910), and others. Positivism and American "pragmatism" were this new psychology's orientation, questionnaires and surveys became one of its primary methods, and the psychology of religious conversion was one of its early foci. Leuba addressed conversion from the psychological point of view and as a scientific rationalist in his 1896 dissertation in psychology (written at Clark University under Stanley Hall). Starbuck and James, from different perspectives, were more accepting of transcendental realities and distinctly "religious" experience, but nonetheless their approaches were thoroughly scholarly in Starbuck's The Psychology of Religion and James's The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Another fruitful area of research was in the emerging discourses of American anthropology. North American scholars and professional (and amateur) ethnologists had a long encounter with indigenous Americans. Franz Boas, Robert H. Lowie, Paul Radin, Alfred L. Kroeber, and Clyde Kluckhohn (to name a few) all showed significant interest in religious aspects of Native American cultures (worldviews, ceremonies, and myths). Boas (18581942) at Columbia University trained numerous anthropologists (Lowie, Radin, and Kroeber among them) who tended to work from the basic assumption that understanding native cultures required careful study of their "religions" (rituals, myths, and customs). The influence of Native American studies and American anthropology had wider impact than just the Americas, being of interest to both anthropologists and scholars of religion in Europe. Whereas such thinkers as the French Lucien Lévy-Bruhl tended toward the philosophical and theoretical, American anthropologists contributed a strong emphasis on empirical fieldwork and (following Boas), a keen sense of history, and even a distrust of overtheorizing the data.

One of the peculiarities of American higher education is that the major universities have not beenand arguably still are notstate institutions as they have been in most parts of the world. The development of divinity schools at such institutions as Chicago, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton led the early- and mid-twentieth-century development of the academic study of religion. Whereas social sciences (psychology, anthropology, sociology) were contributing both data and theories to the study of religion, it was often these divinity schools that led the self-conscious pursuit for an American "comparative religion" or "history of religions." Harvard and Chicago are two notable examples, training many of the historians and comparativists who populated the many departments of religious and cultural studies of the 1960s, 1970s, and following decades.

Religious Studies and Related Disciplines

Following the lead of these divinity schools, "religious studies" emerged as an academic discipline during the 1960s and 1970s in private and state universities. Religious studies include disciplinary approaches such as anthropology, sociology, history, and philology. Other approaches are geographic or chronological, such as religion in America, East Asian cultures and religions, and ancient Near Eastern studies. Others are drawn from doctrinal or community boundaries, such as Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, or Christian studies.

After World War II, following the earlier interests of Clark, James, and Boas and even such thinkers as John Dewey, several new voices and schools of thought spoke from within the emerging field of religious studies. Prominent among them were Erwin R. Goodenough (Yale), Wilfred Cantwell Smith (Harvard), Joachim Wach (responsible for the program at Brown and for shaping the program at the University of Chicago), Mircea Eliade (following Wach at the University of Chicago), and the Scottish-born Ninian Smart (University of California, Santa Barbara). From different perspectives, their approaches tended to treat the topic of religion as a self-generated category whose study was an act of interpretation and understanding. Their interests (philosophy, sociology, history, and phenomenology) and area studies backgrounds (Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism) varied. Eliade was particularly prominent among these mid-century voices. He tended to look at religious products (myths and rituals) as manifestations of sacred (or mystical) reality that originated outside of human experience. Thus he collected vast amounts of diverse cultural material into general categories, such as "myth," as exemplified in his Patterns in Comparative Religion (1958). Even though this kind of study brought together broadly divergent materials into overarching categories, there was also a strong sense of contextual history in the Chicago school of the history of religions. The Chicago journal History of Religions, begun in 1961 at the height of Eliade's prominence, has tended to publish detailed and context-rich historically grounded studies.

The approaches of these mid-century thinkers varied widely but might be described as treating religious institutions and behaviors as phenomena similar to literature, a music composition, or a performance. Following the analogy of the arts, a particular religious ritual must be interpreted (appreciated, criticized) much like a musical performance or an artifact. Study of this kind might include, for example, encouraging the practice of Zen meditation in addition to studying Zen texts on meditation or interviewing Zen monks. Ninian Smart referred to this kind of study as "participatory" and insisted that the study of religion need be polymethodic and interdisciplinary because in order to understand religion the scholar must be simultaneously inside and outside of the subject of study. Smith, Eliade, and Smart all argued that the academic study of religion needed to be a broad utilitarian and humanistic study and not some kind of strictly (and only) objective historical study of particular traditions.

The mid-century study of religion also boasted several "popular" trends in books and media. The works of the literature scholar Joseph Campbell and the Bollingen Foundation are examples of the extensive study of comparative mythology thatalthough occurring outside of religious studies or divinity schoolsbrought a vast amount of religious materials to popular audiences in books and media, such as Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Masks of God and the PBS series Moyers: Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. While many scholars of religion view Campbell's work as "popular" and "literary" instead of historical or scholarly, this does not downplay the influence of such work in bringing comparative religious materials to large audiences (many of whom might never have studied religion in universities). The religion scholar Huston Smith, author of The World's Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions (1958) and other textbooks and general works on religion, hosted film and television presentations of religions and the psychology of religious experiences that, like Campbell's work, presented comparative religions to large popular audiences.

At the same time American social scientific studies of religion viewed religion not as self-generated phenomena understandable only on its own terms but as a cultural product. Human beings generate the varied religious practices and beliefs that they employ for a variety of contingent, political, personal, and social purposes. This kind of science is described as reductive: it examines religion not as a special subject but as a product of social life that can be explained with the same intellectual tools as other human phenomena, such as political parties, psychological pathology, or marketing trends. Although this orientation grew out of American social scientific concerns for "religion in culture," it echoed in many ways Europe's "scientific study of religion" more than the "history of religions" and "religious studies" common in North American divinity schools and religious studies departments. Some of the North American scholars who approached religion in these ways included Peter Berger, Thomas Luckmann, Bryan Wilson, and Robert Bellah as well as others in sociology who devoted significant attention to the study of religion. The works of Clifford Geertz, Mary Douglas, and Victor Turner contributed both description and theory to the anthropological study of religion.

Contemporary Trends

The intermixture of humanities and social sciences approaches and the additions of original approaches from cultural studies in the late twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries has led to considerable diversity in the discussions and discourses on religion. It is not possible to collect a canon of a dozen authors and thereby gain an overview of North American academic approaches to religion. In this broadly diverse and creatively rich context, all scholars share, in principle, an insistence on intellectual rigor and critical self-awareness. The lack of an all-encompassing theme in the field reflects the shared insistence on focusing on religion in specific historical contexts (regardless of the analytical and intellectual methods employed). Significant in this American trend is the plethora of critical examinations of the role of subjectivity in all productions of knowledge (in universities and popular culture). Scholars of previous generations often critically examined political authority or religious truth claims, yet they sometimes failed to use these same critical methods to examine their own productions of knowledge about complex human phenomena (whether religion, culture, or politics). Beginning from different backgrounds and presuppositions, contemporary scholars employ the principle of contesting and examining everything, not just the subject matter but also scholarship and the academy itself.

The combination of area study with the study of disciplinary history is a primary manifestation of this trend toward rigorous disciplinary self awareness. Steven M. Wasserstrom (Judaic studies), Robert A. Orsi (religion in America), Sam D. Gill (religion and cultural studies), and many others practice this new trend in their scholarship and published works. Wasserstrom's Religion after Religion: Gershom Scholem, Mircea Eliade, and Henry Corbin at Eranos (1999) carefully explores the mystical and poetic influences on the formation of the discipline in the works of three scholars (of Judaism, history of religions, and Islamic studies respectively). Part of understanding how to practice the study of religion is through understanding the genealogy of the study itself in North America. Gill's Storytracking: Texts, Stories, and Histories in Central Australia (1997) presents several aspects of the contemporary trend to careful contextual research and self-critique. Storytracking presents the worldview of Australian Aboriginal religion by applying the Aboriginal peoples' own methods of narrative to the study of Australian Aboriginal culture and thereby also provides critique of previous scholarship that distorted the data. As such it provides both an original study of Aboriginal culture and a critique of the academic study of religion.

Bruce Lincoln (myth, ritual, and ideology), Charles Long (religion in the contemporary world), and Jonathan Z. Smith (Judaism's myth and ritual) are prominent scholars and teachers who reflect on the topic of religions and the study of religions and contribute significant applications of these reflections and theories to area studies. These three thinkers' contributions cover extensive and detailed philological, historical, and cultural studies touching almost all aspects of the academic study of religion from ancient Israel, Africa, and Europe to contemporary religious, political, and cultural issues in North America and abroad. Diana L. Eck (Hinduism and religious pluralism) and Martin Marty (Christianity and religion in the contemporary world) continue and defend the humanistic concerns of the mid-century thinkers that religion is a kind of personal, irreducible human experience also through careful awareness and critique of previous scholarship and through specific contributions to Hindu and Christian studies.

Some scholars directly pursue this disciplinary self-awareness by addressing the theoretical basis of the academic study of religion and the constitution of the field (especially under the rubrics of method, theory, or metatheory). In many cases these approaches focus less on critiquing the discipline through specific area studies than on the academic study of religion itself as their area study. Some prominent voices are Hans Penner, Donald Wiebe, Catherine Bell, and Russell McCutcheon.

Contributions continue to come from outside of religious studies as well. Examples include Edward Said (postcolonial theory) and Talal Asad (anthropology, especially religion and secularism in the Middle East), whose writings contribute to specific study of the Middle East while also providing extensive theoretical and philosophical contributions on the study of culture. Works from such contributors include Asad's Formation of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (2003), which is of interest to anthropologists, scholars of religion, and area specialists, and a broad general readership as well. Rodney Stark (sociology, especially rational choice theory of religion) represents different, strictly social scientific principles by offering comprehensive social scientific theories to explain religion.

At one time the study of religion could be divided into either history or sociology or according to intellectual trends, such as functionalism, structuralism, or phenomenology. There is no single or dominant trend in the contemporary study of religion, although postcolonial studies, critical theory, performance studies, religion and ecology, feminism, subaltern studies, and cognitive science inform the traditional orientations of history, philology, and the social sciences. As a field religious studies constantly battles to remain relevant to the wider public and maintain rigorous scholarly study while also being subject to intellectual, political, and cultural fads, trends, and moods.

Institutional Trends in Colleges and Universities

In the late 1960s and early 1970s colleges and universities established departments of religious studies as part of larger cultural trends. The "red scare" and anticommunist political mood encouraged interest in and defense of religion as a defining feature of the democratic cultures. It was also a time of assertive revivalism, creativity, and change within traditional American religious communities. Vatican II and liberal Protestant theology revitalized Christian interests in "religion." A new conservatism that emphasized historical and textual study also emerged. The 1960s counterculture was fascinated with so-called exotic traditions, such as Buddhism and yoga, and also antitraditional explorations of occultism. Changing immigration policies and patterns, the proliferation of media, international affairs, and geopolitical interests in the Middle East and Asia all contributed to a vast increase in international and multicultural interests. U.S. and Canadian trends in higher education reflected these social and intellectual trajectories, and the result was an explosion of liberal arts and cultural studies programs (religious, women's, ethnic, and others).

By the 1970s institutional boundaries were drawn more strictly between theology and the secular study of religion. Conservative Protestant colleges remained committed to theological study of religion focused on the active promotion of their particular religious views. Roman Catholic colleges and universities tended before the 1970s to offer courses in theology but generally did not offer majors and minors in the study of religion. Since that time many Catholic institutions have developed religion programs, and although in many ways unlike the conservative Protestant colleges, they are generally aimed at preparing students for occupations within religious industries (churches and counseling). Mainline Protestant colleges developed along parallel patterns with public institutions, adopting ecumenical outlooks and secularizing trends (such as in the divinity schools mentioned above).

During the 1980s and afterward programs expanded to include a broader range of approaches, especially those of the social sciences and cultural studies. Religious studies scholars now regularly employ fieldwork, ethnography, statistical analysis, demographics, cultural criticism, and performance studies. These developments have extended the boundaries of religious studies beyond traditional categories, such as "scripture" or "Hinduism." Women's issues, the politics of religious violence, religion and medicine, and religion and the body are particular examples of these transformations.

After the 1980s some programs in religious studies continued to grow and prosper, whereas others suffered due to political changes and fiscal constraints in higher education. Changes in public and private funding and the adoption of corporate business models by many universities have caused departments and programs to defend their existences based on costs and enrollment. In these environments religious studies programs must compete with other departments for students, funding, and faculty appointments. Many programs have coped with these fiscal realities by shifting their emphasis away from competing for majors and minors through reframing their place within university-wide programs, such as providing courses for general education, multicultural and international initiatives, and other circumstances in which religious studies is not the students' major program of study.

A different trend in the study of religion is the formation of centers that focus on religious topics but draw faculty from numerous departments. Such centers capitalize on the inherent interdisciplinary nature of the field drawing on scholars from multiple disciplines. Harvard's Center of the Study of World Religions, Toronto's Department and Center for the Study of Religion, and the University of Chicago's Martin Marty Center (and institute devoted to relating the scholarly study of religion to wider public audiences) are three examples. There has also been a rise of "centers" that focus on a geographic area (culture, religions, politics, history, and languages). An example is the Center for Sikh and Punjab Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Some centers focus on an issue, such as conflict studies or women's studies, or a specific time period. For example, Trinity College's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life focuses on religion in the contemporary world. Other disciplines and cultural studies programs also contribute significant studies of religious subject matters. One example is the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota.

Professional Organizations, Projects, and Publications

Professional organizations in the study of religion arrange conferences (regional, national, and international), disseminate information, support various publications (books, conference volumes, and journals), and publicize the field. The American Academy of Religion (AAR), founded in 1909 and incorporated in 1964, includes scholars from several disciplines and promotes reflections and teachings focusing on a critical understanding of religious traditions, issues, questions, and values. The AAR collects and publishes data and statistics about theology and religious studies programs and sponsors the publication of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (JAAR). The North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR), formed in 1985, is devoted to historical, comparative, structural, theoretical, and cognitive approaches to the study of religion. The NAASR is affiliated with the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR). Its journal Method and Theory in the Study of Religion (MTSR) examines theoretical issues and pedagogical and research methods. The Canadian Corporation for Studies in Religion (CCSR) is a consortium of several other academic societies in the field of religious studies (including the Canadian Society for the Study of Religion and the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies). It coordinates research and publications and was originally formed in 1971 to coordinate research among the different societies and to publish the bilingual (French and English) journal Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses (SR). The Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) was founded in 1949 by scholars in religious studies and social sciences. Its Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (JSSR) generally focuses on sociological approaches to the study of religion. There are additional organizations that support or publish academic studies of religion either from outside the field (such as those devoted to anthropology or literature) or from area studies within the field. Area and topical studies organizations are numerous. Examples include the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), and the Society for Tantric Studies (STS). Numerous other journals publish religious studies topics, such as History of Religions, Religion, and Journal of Hebrew Scriptures.

Publications are an intense area of academic interest. In addition to scholarly monographs, edited works, and journals, North Americans have contributed significantly to the publication of encyclopedias, dictionaries, and textbooks in the field of religion. Encyclopedias of religion, religion and nature, religion and ecology, mythology, ritual, Christianity, and many area studies works have been published in single- and multivolume sets and electronically. Textbooks arranged topically, geographically, and historically offer a broad and creative area of introductory and advanced sourcebooks for scholars and students. North America has been a leading contributor in this last area, offering, for example, Mark Taylor's edited text, Critical Terms for Religious Studies (1998), and Daniel L. Pals's Seven Theories of Religion (1996).


"AAR Guide for Reviewing Programs in Religion & Theology." Academic Relations Task Force, 1999.

Bell, Catherine. Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. New York, 1997.

Braun, Willi, and Russell T. McCutcheon, eds. Guide to the Study of Religion. London, 2000.

Cady, Linell E., and Delwin Brown, eds. Religious Studies, Theology, and the University: Conflicting Maps, Changing Terrain. Albany, N.Y., 2002.

Capps, Walter H. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Minneapolis, 1995.

De Vries, Jan. Perspectives in the History of Religions. Translated by Kees W. Bolle. Berkeley, Calif., 1977.

Fitzgerald, Tim. The Ideology of Religious Studies. New York, 1999.

Gill, Sam. "The Academic Study of Religion." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 62, no. 4 (1994): 965975.

Jensen, Jeppe Sinding, and Luther H. Martin, eds. Rationality and the Study of Religion. Aarhus, Denmark, 1997. See pp. 136144.

Lincoln, Bruce. Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship. Chicago, 1999.

Lincoln, Bruce. Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11. Chicago, 2002.

Marty, Martin. "You Get to Teach the Study of Religion." Academe 82, no. 6 (1996): 1417.

McCutcheon, Russell T. Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion. Albany, N.Y., 2001.

Sharp, Eric J. Comparative Religion: A History. 2d ed. La Salle, Ill., 1986.

Smith, Jonathan Z. To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual. Chicago, 1994.

Smith, Jonathan Z. "Religious Studies: Whither (Wither) and Why?" Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 7, no. 4 (1995): 407413.

Wiebe, Donald. The Politics of Religious Studies. New York, 1999.

Jeffrey C. Ruff (2005)

About this article

Study of Religion: The Academic Study of Religion in North America

Updated About content Print Article