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The Scholarly Study of Religion

Posted by CommunitarianKevin , 25 May 2012 · 888 views

religious studies
I know I explain it in my "about me" blog but some may not understand what the scholarly study of religion is. My main major is Religious Studies and many people jump to conclusions. The most common conclusion is that I am going to become a priest or a pastor or something along those lines. That is not correct. Many here do not jump to that conclusion but do not understand what exactly it is that I do. To clear it up and introduce the study of religion I will post something I typed up a while back. I hope this clears up any questions you may have.

The Study of Religion

First, I will get into Religious Studies program. At the University of Minnesota we have 2 tracks in the Religious Studies program. Here is some info about track 1…

Description of the Track I Major
This track is ideal if you wish to study religion broadly or as a social and cultural force.
• It emphasizes the methodologies of the humanities, social sciences, and arts.
• It addresses questions of expression, psychology, theology or religious thought, as well as public and social policy and the political contexts and ramifications of religion.

This track provides a solid foundation for careers serving diverse communities in public arenas, as well as graduate study in the arts, humanities, or social sciences, or in theological or seminary programs.

For more info on it, you can check out the full link.

Here is track 2…

Description of the Track II Major
This track is ideal if you seek in-depth knowledge of a particular religious tradition (for example, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, American Indian, or Hmong).
It emphasizes learning about the selected tradition through study of its untranslated foundational texts.

For this track, you must complete preparatory work through the 4th semester (or the equivalent) of a language appropriate to the specific religious tradition and its sources.

This track provides a solid foundation for careers serving diverse communities in public arenas, as well as graduate study in the arts, humanities, or social sciences, or in theological or seminary programs.

Track II is particularly recommended if you are interested in such topics as the (1) the advanced study of the Bible or the Qur’an both in their origins and their later interpretations, (2) the history of Judaism, Islam, or Christianity before the modern period, or (3) the study of the traditions and texts of the religions of South or East Asia, whether in their countries of origin or in diaspora.

Sample subject and language pairings include but are not limited to:
• Judaism: Hebrew (for scriptural or historical area of concentration), German or Yiddish (e.g., for Jewish literature or 20th-century)
• Islam: Arabic, Turkish
• Christianity: Greek or Latin (for scriptural or medieval concentration), German or Spanish (for relevant geographical/cultural themes)
• Buddhism: Chinese or Japanese
• Hinduism: Sanskrit or Hindi
• American Indian religions: Ojibwe or Dakota


In both tracks we are required to take this course. Just reading the description of this course will answer many of the questions people may have about the study of Religion. In my opinion, this is the single most important course in the entire program, which is probably why it is a requirement.

RELS 3001 – Theory and Method in the Study of Religion: Critical Approaches to the Study of Religion-
Description: While even a quick glance at any newspaper these days impresses upon us the importance of religion, just how we are to understand and/or learn about religion, given the vast array of ideas, practices, institutions, and communities that lay claim to the category, is anything but straightforward. Scholars from many disciplines study religion, adding another layer of diversity?not to say confusion?to the question of how one might go about learning about religion. This course attempts to sort through the many theories about religion and methods for studying it that have developed over the past century. We will first examine several theories of religion (what ?religion? is and entails and how it works) from such writers as Sigmund Freud, Max Weber, Rudolph Otto, Thomas Berger, Jonathan Z. Smith, Talal Asad, Tomoko Masuzawa, and others. Then, we will examine a number of different approaches to or methods for studying it, examining some recent monographs using specific methods to explore topics such as Catholic devotional practices (ethnographic), the Gnostic gospels (historical-textual), American spirituality (sociological), and Hindu nationalism (historical, literary deconstruction).

After that description there is not much I have to say. The first thing we attempt to do define religion because as someone said “how did you study religion if there is no universal definition?” This is very difficult and obviously varies a lot. In the books Eight Theories of Religion and Introducing Religion by Daniel L. Pals, we see that there are many Religion theorists (some are listed in the description) that have very different definitions.

We also try to figure out WHY someone believes what they do and HOW religious ideas came about. Obviously this varies depending on the definition.

“I have heard on numerous occasions(from someone who claims to be religious) that "If you except Jesus/Wotan/Allah/etc you'll get your evidence" Should I be telling them 'Oh well you can't define religion so it doesn't matter what you say'?”

The problem with this statement is that you are describing how “religious” people, particularly monotheists, get their proof. This does not address many things which can be considered religion. This is specific to modern, popular religions. It does not address HOW these ideas first came about and WHY people believe them. When I say WHY, I am talking about the origins of religion. Is it sociological, psychological, biological, something divine, or something we do not even understand. WHY does someone believe “if you accept Jesus you’ll get your evidence?” Is it their method of thinking and reasoning different? Methods of reasoning are clearly different between Scientist and “Religious,” but at the same time I scientist can be “religious.” HOW does this happen? How can someone that studies things with empiricism flat out ignore that and believe something based on faith alone? One would think a scientist could not have “blind faith,” but they do. Do you see the complexity of these questions?”

Many Christians and others may not agree with a lot of the stuff I have said and that brings me to the final point I want to make. The study of religion is to be done separate of one’s beliefs. Religion cannot be properly studied if people bring their own views in. Yes, people do bring their own views in, resulting in different definitions, but the goal is to try and be as unbiased as possible. If you consider someone else’s views pointless and stupid, you will never understand them. Religious Studies scholars are made up of all types of people, from Atheists to Christians. This shows that one can put their own views aside and study religion.

I hope this explains the study of religion.

Well done.  I like to study other traditions and find it enriching...also helps when talking to someone who is on another path.

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