Approaches to the Study of Religions

There are many ways of studying religions. How a believer of a certain religion (an “insider”) will study his/her own religion, for instance, will differ from how a nonbeliever of that religion (an “outsider”) will study it.Their motivations and methods will be different. For our purposes, we shall examine certain approaches to the study of religions that are based on certain academic disciplines. Some of these approaches focus on how to understand the beliefs and practices of particular religions, while some have more general concerns such as how religion relates to the nature of society, culture, human evolution, mind, and human behavior.

Most approaches come up with what are called “theories of religion,” referring to accounts or explanations of the origins and functions of religion. A theory of religion may be internal or external. An internal theory of religion is a particular religion’s account of its own origins and functions (e.g., Christianity’s own account of the origins and functions of the Christian religion); while an external theory of religion is an account of the origins and functions of particular religions, or religion in general, using the methods of certain academic disciplines. As we examine the different disciplinal approaches to the study of religion, we shall briefly touch on some of the external theories of religion. Some of these theories may be controversial, or questionable, for some people; nonetheless, knowing them broadens our understanding of the meaning and nature of religion.


The etymological meaning of the word theology—based on its Greek origin, namely theo, which means “God,” and logos which means “discourse” or “study,”—is “study of God.” Theology, however, is not just limited to the study of the nature of God, for it also studies in a systematic way the main doctrines of a particular religion. In addition to the main scriptures of a particular religion, theology often involves the study of the works of recognized theologians who are usually believers of the religion. These theologians, through their works, systematically explain the main doctrines of their own respective religions. For instance, Christian theologians explain the doctrines of Christianity, and their works constitute Christian theology. The term “theology,” though often used to refer to Christian theology, also applies to the systematic study of the other monotheistic religions, standardly referring to Judaism and Islam. Hence, we also have Jewish theology (and Jewish theologians) and Islamic theology (and Islamic theologians).

For other religions, the systematic study of their doctrines is usually referred to as “philosophy” instead of “theology.” One obvious reason is that the term theology implies a belief in one God but other religions may not subscribe either to the belief in God or gods or to the belief that there is only one God. Consequently, the systematic study of the doctrines of Buddhism and Hinduism, for instance, are respectively called Buddhist philosophy and Hindu philosophy, and not Buddhist theology and Hindu theology. We also have Confucian, Taoist, and Shinto philosophies; instead of Confucian, Taoist, and Shinto theologies.

Religious Studies and Comparative Religion

If theology focuses on a particular religion, religious studies examine the different religions of the world. In particular, a student of theology intends to deepen his/her understanding of a particular religion, while a student of religious studies intends to understand the different religions of the world. Furthermore, if theology studies a particular religion always from the inside, religious studies study different religions mostly from the outside. This means that a student of theology is a follower of the particular religion he/she is studying; whereas a student of religious studies is usually not a follower of the religions he/she is studying. For instance, a student of Christian theology is a Christian; but a student of religious studies studying Shintoism is usually not a Shintoist. Still another difference is that while theology limits itself to its own internal theory of religion (its own account for its origins and functions), religious studies considers external theories of religion (accounts of the origins and functions of religion by other academic disciplines). On the other hand, comparative religion refers to a branch of religious studies that is concerned with the systematic comparison of the doctrines and practices of two or more particular religions.

In light of these considerations, our approach in examining the different world religions in the subsequent chapters mainly falls under religious studies. Given this, we, however, also use other approaches especially comparative religion and philosophy of religion—which we will discuss next.

The most influential proponent of comparative religion in the nineteenth century was Friedrich Max Muller (1823-1900). Muller, an authority of Sanskrit (the classical religious language of India), urged that the study of religion should not be limited to the religions of the Mediterranean (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) and that the great religions of the East should also be seriously studied. He also introduced a broad program and methodology of comparing religions, which “included principles like gaining knowledge of others through their own writings, grouping religions according to their regional, linguistic contexts, and avoiding the common distortion of comparing the positive aspects of one religion with the negative aspects of another” (Paden 2005, 212-213). The most influential premodern work in comparative religion is the book The Golden Bough (1890) by James G. Frazer (1854-1941). The book is a vast collection of rituals, myths, and religions organized by patterns and themes, which made extensive use of sources from primitive and folk cultures (Paden 2005, 213). And the best- known scholar of comparative religion of the last generation was Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), whose studies included the concepts of sacred space and mythic time, and the sacredness of nature (Paden 2005, 215).

Philosophy of Religion

Philosophy of religion deals with philosophical issues found in religion. These philosophical issues include, among many others, whether we can adequately prove the existence of God, reconcile the existence of evil with the existence of a God who is wholly good and all-powerful, reconcile God’s omniscience (the power to know everything) and foreknowledge (the power to know future events) with human freedom, explain the nature of miracles, determine the meaningfulness of religious language (how religious linguistic expressions acquire their meanings), and many others. Philosophy of religion tries to settle issues in religion solely by means of the human power of reasoning. This means, among others, that the philosophy of religion justifies claims by the strength and coherence of arguments. Some theologians also engage in philosophy of religion to show that what is believed by faith can also be demonstrated by reason.

Two famous and highly influential Christian theologians who also engaged in philosophy of religion were St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. One contribution of St. Augustine was his theory that evil is the absence of good (which he adopted from the view of the Greek philosopher Plotinus on the nature of light and darkness). St. Augustine used this theory to resolve the philosophical question, “If everything comes from God, where does evil come from?” According to him, evil exists in the world but it does not come from God, for what only comes from God is good. The absence of good (the moral kind) is caused by our disobedience to the will of God.

Aquinas is famous for his five proofs for the existence of God: his arguments from causation, motion, necessity, design, and degrees of protection. Briefly, the arguments from causation and motion claim that the series of causes and effects, and movements in the world, must begin with God being the first cause and mover; the argument from design claims that the intricate design of the world cannot be attributed to mere chance but only to God as the divine intelligence; the argument from necessity claims that there must be a God who is a necessary being (one who has always been existing) to explain how contingent beings (those that presently exist but previously did not) have come to exist; and the argument from degrees of perfection claims that there must be a God whose perfection serves as the standard for determining the degrees of qualities that we attribute to things (like that they are good or better).

Psychology of Religion

Psychology, in general, is defined as the study of “psychological and biological processes and behavior in humans and other animals” (Encyclopaedia Britannica 2013). Psychology of religion is the application of the different psychological theories and methods to explain religious phenomena, which include the belief in God, religious experiences and behaviors, and spirituality. In brief, it is the study of religious phenomena in so far as they may be understood psychologically (Merkur 2005,165).

Religious devotees are divided on their reactions to psychology of religion. On the one hand, some view psychology of religion as a program that reduces religious phenomena believed to be real to mere psychological phenomena. On the other hand, some view it as a way of purifying religion from the idolatry or worship of human-made objects. Three famous psychologists who examined and analyzed religious phenomena psychologically were William James, Sigmund Freud, and Carl Jung.

William James (1842-1910) focused on the psychological process that occurs in a religious conversion, when a nonreligious person becomes religious (Merkur 2005, 172). Some of the contributions of William James were his distinction between institutional religion and personal religion, his analysis of religious experiences as mystical experiences, and his pragmatic approach to the value of religion—that the truth and value of a religious belief for an individual depend on the beneficial effects of the belief on the life of the individual.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was the founder of psychoanalysis, which generally claims that our behaviors are largely controlled by our unconscious mind which contains our repressed sexual and violent desires. Freud viewed religion negatively. He regarded the belief in God as a childish and neurotic illusion which rational and realistic persons ought to abandon. It is an illusion because it is just a product of the human imagination. It is a childish illusion for, as Freud remarked, “religion originates in the helplessness and anxiety of childhood and early manhood” (quoted in Merkur 2005,166). Accordingly, God is just the projected ultimate father image that helps humans deal with their feelings of helplessness and guilt. God, in this regard, serves as a source of security and forgiveness.

Carl Jung (1875-1961) was the founder of analytic psychology, the name given to Jung’s psychological-therapeutic system which divides the unconscious mind into the personal and the collective. Related to Freud’s concept, the personal unconscious mind contains all our personal experiences that we are not aware of (because we have suppressed them); while the collective unconscious mind contains universal experiences of mankind and the archetypes (the basic universal images that recur in various forms in different cultures) which we have inherited from our ancestors. For Jung, religious experiences are manifestations of the archetypes in the collective unconscious in our own consciousness. Since becoming aware of our unconscious makes us a whole person (a fully realized Self), religion is thus seen by Jung as something positive (Merkur 2005, 177).

Sociology of Religion

Sociology “studies human societies, their interactions, and the processes that preserve and change them. It does this by examining the dynamics of the constituent parts of societies such as institutions, communities, populations, and gender, racial, or age groups” (Encyclopaedia Britannica 2013). Sociology of religion, on the other hand, studies religious beliefs, practices, and organizations using the theories and methods of the discipline of sociology. Sociologists are primarily interested in examining the effects of religion on society. Influential sociological theories of religion came from Karl Marx (1818-1893), Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), and Max Weber (1864-1920).

During his time, Marx observed that the capitalists, in their pursuit of profits, eventually exploited the workers. The goods that the workers helped produced by means of their labor (using the materials and machines owned by the capitalists) were sold in the market at a certain value. But what the capitalists gave back to the workers as payment for their labor were merely their subsistence wages that were just enough for the workers to survive. Aside from being exploited, the workers were also dehumanized or alienated in the workplace. For the workers to bear their miserable and unfulfilling life, the capitalists created various belief-systems, foremost of which was religion, for the working class to see their state as something positive and justified. In this regard, Marx described religion as “the opium of the masses.”

Durkheim was more interested in the unifying effect of religion among members of a society. After studying the indigenous Australians, Durkheim claimed that the totems (sacred objects used as emblems or symbols of a group of people, family, clan, or tribe) that the aborigines worship represented their own conceptions of a unified group or society. Durkheim further claimed that more complex societies had more complex religious systems, but they were all same in that they had religions as ways of unifying their societies.

One of the significant sociological findings of Max Weber was the significant contribution of that the Calvinist religious ideas had on the development of the economic system of capitalism. While for Marx religion is a creation of capitalism, for Weber it is the other way round—capitalism is largely due to religion, more specifically, the Calvinist religion. Accordingly, Calvinists believed in predestination, the view that God has already decided on who will enter heaven or not. But because they wanted to know who would eventually be saved and enter heaven, they thought that financial success was one good indicator. The idea is that one who experiences financial success is blessed and is thus favored by God. This idea led Calvinists to engage in activities that would increase their wealth, paving the way for the development of capitalism.

Anthropology of Religion

The word “anthropology” means science of human beings or humanity. As an academic discipline, anthropology “studies human beings in aspects ranging from the biology and evolutionary history of Homo sapiens to the features of society and culture that decisively distinguish humans from other animal species.” Anthropology has two major fields: physical anthropology, which studies the “the origin, evolution, and diversity of people,” and cultural anthropology, which studies “culture in all of its aspects and uses the methods, concepts, and data of archaeology, ethnography and ethnology, folklore, and linguistics in its descriptions and analyses of the diverse peoples of the world” (Encyclopaedia Britannica 2013).

Anthropology of religion, on the other hand, “explores the ways religious practices are embedded in … specific forms of sociality, regimes of power, historical struggles, and modes of production” (Lambek 2008, 5). It studies religion in relation to other social institutions and compares religious beliefs and practices across cultures. Most of the major thinkers recognized in this area are also those recognized in the sociology of religion like Durkheim and Weber. This suggests that the works of these thinkers cut across the disciplines of sociology and anthropology. For this reason, let us examine the ideas of another pioneering anthropologist of religion, namely Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917).

Tylor, in his work Primitive Culture (1871), claimed that the essence of religion or the minimum defining property of religion, is “the belief in Spiritual Beings,” which he called animism. Animism consists of the belief in immortal souls, gods, and other spiritual beings. It is present in varying forms in the religions of the lower races up to the civilized races of mankind. In fact, the religions of civilized races evolved from the animism of the lower races. Tylor cited the association of morality with animism which was little represented in the lower races but became an integral part of the religions of the civilized races. The belief in the soul as something separate from the body though residing in the body resulted from dealing with certain biological questions such as those concerning the difference between a living body and a dead one; the causes of waking, sleep, trance, disease, and death; and the origin of dreams and visions involving human images. From the belief in human souls grew the belief in other spirits, like those that inhabit nature and those venerated as gods.