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Religious Studies

Religious Studies

"Religious studies" is now the descriptive term of greatest currency for the academic study of religion. In 1867, F. Max Müller first used the term Religionswissenschaft, the science of religion, to describe his comparative philological studies, which he hoped might uncover the essence of religion scientifically. This term and Religionsgeschichte, the history of religions, gained wide use among European scholars and in universities to describe the academic study of religion, which they saw as a human science on the model of Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911) in which the understanding of the actor or actors in social phenomena is integral. Science and history in its narrow sense would emancipate the study of religion from theology. Here the heritage of the academic study of religion is clearly visible. Like earlier eighteenth-century European Enlightenment thinkers, such as Berkeley, Locke, Hume, and others, the new science or history of religions would seek to explore religion within the canon of reason rather than depending on the authority of revelation.

Today, more than a century after its origin, the modern study of religions involves substantially more elements than naively envisioned by the first students of religious studies. Indeed, one of the most important contributions of Ninian Smart to religious studies has been constantly to remind us that religious studies is a perspectival and comparative discipline that seeks to understand religion as a multidimensional phenomenon. By "multidimensional" he of course refers to the dimensions of the object of the discipline. Religion consists, among other things, of an authoritative narrative dimension (e.g., myth construed in its proper meanings), a doctrinal dimension, a ritual dimension, an experiential dimension, an institutional dimension, and an ethical dimension. Describing religious studies as a perspectival and comparative discipline immediately suggests that religious studies cannot be fully conducted within the frame of any one discipline and requires multidisciplinarity, drawing its methods and practices from the disciplines of the humanities and fine arts such as history, language study, literature, art and architecture, music, drama, and dance; from the disciplines of the social sciences, including anthropology, sociology, politics, and economics; and more recently from newer fields that often span the humanities, fine arts, and social sciences, such as global and international studies, gender studies, or ethnic studies. Religious studies in its broadest formulation then seeks to understand religion as a complex human phenomenon in history and in the contemporary world. However, by describing religious studies as a perspectival and comparative discipline, we are also able to understand the structure of the field and the classical theories and their reformulations that have advanced our understanding of religion.

We might describe one of the most important components of this structure broadly as the sociological or social-scientific study of religion. Already in the last decades of the nineteenth century there were a series of major contributions that arose from early fieldwork and folklore studies and that sought to put the origins of religion into an evolutionary context. These included E. B. Tylor's theory of animism (Primitive Culture, 1871), R. R. Marett's theory of pre-animism ("Pre-animistic Religion," 1900), and James Frazer's study of the relationship between magic and religion (his The Golden Bough, first published in two volumes in 1890, grew to twelve volumes by 1915). But the most powerful and theoretically enduring contributions came from Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), Max Weber (1864–1920), and Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), all of whom sought to provide a sense of the function and social processes of religion, even if those processes originated in the unconscious, as Freud argued. For example, Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) sought to explain religion as the collective representation of society forged through an explosive discharge of social or individual energy that he called "effervescence." While Durkheim's work synthesized much nineteenth-century reflection on religion, he rejected the evolutionary thinking of his predecessors. His use of the word "elementary" does not mean the simplest in an evolutionary scheme. Instead, Durkheim understood "elementary" to mean the simplest in the sense of the most basic, that which would allow us to see precisely the religious nature of humans and would reveal to us an essential and permanent aspect of all human life. Equally essential to Durkheim's analysis of religion is the fundamental dichotomy between the sacred and profane. While most social theorists have utilized Durkheim's analytic works of the 1890s, his most important contributions to the study of religion come from a series of works begun with the Elementary Forms and continued in a series of monographs and lectures. These later works reveal a cultural program in which Durkheim came to understand that secular social processes have to be modeled upon the sacred world. This is why he called this project a "religious sociology." This later Durkheimian project would come to have immense influence on the semiotics of Ferdinand Saussure, the structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss, the comparative Indo-European mythological studies of Georges Dumézil, Roland Barthes's examination of the systems of symbolic classification that regulate a wide array of secular institutions and social processes, and post-modernist theorists such as Michel Foucault, who have carried the Durkheimian emphasis on the central social power of the sacred and profane even further into the social domain through the structuring power of symbolic patterns or discourses.

The Durkheimian tradition also gave rise to new studies of the relationship between traditional religions and the polity or state. Robert Bellah's classic essay on civil religion ("Civil Religion in America," Daedalus, Winter 1967, pp. 1–21) demonstrated how the modern nation-state could be invested with some of the same symbolisms as those traditionally associated with religion. This was followed by other studies that sought to explore civil religion in other nation-states (e.g., Charles S. Liebman and Eliezer Don-Yehiya, Civil Religion in Israel, 1983). The Durkheimian tradition's understanding of collective representations and the primacy of sacred and profane as both ontological (having to do with the fundamental nature of being or existence) and social categories resulted in new studies generated from field research. For example, Victor Turner's interpretation of ritual (The Ritual Process, 1969), while heavily indebted to Arnold van Gennep's The Rites of Passage (originally published in 1909) for the idea of ritual liminality and communitas, draws much from Durkheim. Likewise Clifford Geertz's densely detailed description and his efforts to study religion comprehensively as a cultural system (The Interpretation of Cultures, 1973) owe much to the Durkheimian paradigm.

A second major component of religious studies has been the phenomenology of religion, which traces its origin to Rudolf Otto's The Idea of the Holy (1917). Otto argued that the holy or the sacred was a sui generis category of experience, irreducible to the sum total of the empirical world. The manifestation of the sacred is characterized by two contradictory experiences—the sacred's mysterium tremendum and its fascinans. The mysterium suggests the total otherness of the holy, its radical unlikeness to the empirical world. The tremendum frightens us, fills us with awe, and repels us. But the manifestation of the holy is also accompanied by its fascinans —that which fascinates and draws us to it. The social structuring of the sacred as a system of power was comprehensively formulated in Gerardus van der Leeuw's Religion in Essence and Manifestation (originally published in 1933) and later revised in the work of Joachim Wach (1898–1955). However, the most theoretical powerful phenomenological analysis of religion has come from the work of Mircea Eliade (1907–1986). Among his major contributions are Patterns in Comparative Religion (originally published in 1949), The Myth of the Eternal Return (originally published in 1949), Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (originally published in 1951), Yoga: Immortality and Freedom (originally published in 1954), and his three-volume A History of Religious Ideas (originally published in 1976 to 1983). Throughout these works Eliade attempted to explore what he called the morphology of the sacred or the forms that the sacred's manifestations took in history. These manifestations had a more primal and experiential form than the social structurations described by either van der Leeuw or Wach. A central category in his analysis was myth, which proved to be the key that could unlock the religious meanings of rituals. Eliade drew a sharp distinction between what he called homo religiosus, religious man, and the humans of archaic cultures and civilizations who ritually used myth to return the cosmos and human society to the time of the beginnings. Eliade was particularly sensitive to how archaic religious forms persisted in history and drew parallels between historiography and psychoanalysis and the traditional functions of myth and ritual.

Eliade's phenomenological study of religion achieved a prominence in religious studies as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1963 decision in the Schempp case, which reinforced the separation of church and state while at the same time giving legitimacy to the academic study of religion in state-supported schools, colleges, and universities. Eliade's paradigm for the study of religion came with a new descriptive language that clearly marked it as different from theological studies as well as from older ways of studying religion. This new paradigm seemed most appropriate for the new context of the study of religion after this landmark court decision, which ushered in the century's most expansive period of growth in the United States of the academic discipline of religious studies. While Eliade described his contribution as belonging to the history of religions, subsequent critiques by Kurt Rudolph ("Mircea Eliade and the 'History' of Religions," Religion 19, no. 2 [April 1989]: 101–128) and Jonathan Z. Smith (Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jones-town [1982] and To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual [1987]) have challenged his understanding of history as well as his interpretation of the central myths and rituals that lay at the heart of his phenomenology. Eliade believed that all religious meanings could be harmonized as modalities of the sacred. More recent studies have suggested that this consensus is a scholarly construction and that a central dynamic of religious traditions is conflictual meanings. For example, Bruce Lincoln has shown that classification systems expressed in myth and ritual often embody conflict, both legitimating the status quo or delegitimating it and opening the way to new possibilities of thought and action (Discourse and the Construction of Society: Comparative Studies of Myth, Ritual, and Classification, 1989).

See alsoAnthropology of Religion; Archetype; Eliade, Mircea; Ethics; Freedom of Religion; Myth; Psychology of Religion; Religious Experience; Revelation; Rites of Passage; Ritual; Sociology of Religion.


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Richard Hecht

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