How Should We Study Religion?


Having pursued an M.A. and Ph.D. in religious studies I have been asked on many occasions why I did. Several have queried if I was planning on entering the religious life (Sister Andrea Grace? I donít think so). Others have questioned what I could do with such a degree, and why I would even bother to study this subject. In a world where most students pursue very practical degrees such as business, nursing, or accounting, these are valid questions. But there is a great deal of misconception about what religious studies entails. Scholars in this field are not interested in studying religion as believers of it, pondering what is the Truth, for this falls outside of an objective study. Rather, they investigate religion as historians, sociologists, and cultural anthropologists. For instance, Buddhist scholars would not be concerned with how to attain Nirvana for their personal liberation, but with what Nirvana means to Buddhists. They would also have an interest in the different types of Buddhist schools, what each group believes in, how certain Buddhist ideas originated, and the effects of Buddhist ideas on culture and society at large.

Often confused with religious studies is theology, yet there is a fundamental difference between the two. Theology approaches religion from an insiderís view--that is, as a believer. Many theologians actually enter religious vocation. The existence of God, the truth of religion, and the validity of alternative religions are all topics here. While several past and present theologians have offered a great deal to our understanding of religion, certainly theologian Paul Tillichís contribution should not be ignored, it is not religious studies. Unlike theologians who address religion with a religious viewpoint, scholars of religion may be agnostics, total atheists, or themselves religious. In this area oneís religious orientation is of no consequence because as historians the objective is to analyze the origins and content of philosophical groups without addressing the truth-value of them. Thus, the professional goal of a religious studies scholar is not to be a member of the clergy or of a theological board but generally to be a researcher, writer, and professor of the subject.

I learned the difference between theology and religious studies the hard way. After obtaining my B.A. in psychology from UCSD I entered graduate school at USD in theology. I was interested in the effects of religion on society and did not realize that I entered the wrong area to study this. Figuring this out shortly into the semester I submitted an application to UCSBís religious studies program and was admitted for the following year. Unfortunately, this was only after I paid a very high tuition at USD for ten units that did not transfer.




The Study of Religion



While at UCSB I studied under Ninian Smart, one of the worldís foremost scholars of religion. In a seminar on methodology Smart suggested that there are three main ways to study religion: with antipathy, with sympathy, and with empathy. The first method, embraced by Freud and perhaps Marx, looks at religion with scorn as primitive and childish, as a sort of pariah on society. Freud called religion a neurosis and suggested we need to be healed from it. Marx was critical of capitalism, and religion, he asserted, perpetuated it. Oppressed creatures turn to religion for comfort and hence fail to revolt; religion then is a tool to prevent social change and to maintain the status quo. The second method is embraced by theologians. Here one presupposes the truth of religion and generally evaluates other religions as lesser versions of the right one. As expected, Smart and other academicians in religious studies support the latter approach since it seems to be much less biased. Instead of religion being cursed or hailed the goal here is to try to step into the shoes of the subject at hand and see the world from that viewpoint. For instance, when reporting on a tribe in Africa the scholar observes and may even partake in the rituals as a social scientist collecting data and then descriptively documents the event as objectively as possible. The empathetic approach has a scholarly title; it is referred to as phenomenology--the objective, descriptive study of religious phenomena.

In the seminar the question surfaced whether a truly objective study could be possible since all of us have some form of bias to begin with? Karl Mannheim, a sociologist of religion, argues that the scholar, even if one wanted to, can never really be totally objective, since one is a product of a particular historical existence and so evaluates data based on frames of reference or categories of a given historical moment[1]. Smart responded to the query by saying, "Well, while all of us may be sinners there are certainly degrees of sin." In other words, there is a big difference between a totally prejudice study and one that tries to keep as much bias as possible in check. To collapse the distinction is a category error.

Maintaining objectivity and empathy is sometimes not an easy task. When I first traveled to India I recall being shocked when I saw a poor Indian girl begging for change with only half a hand. I learned that her fingers had been cut off when she was a baby by her parents. Though a rarity, there are cases of this happening among the lowest caste in India. Of course, from a Western standpoint it was barbaric. Yet, let us step into the shoes of the participants. If you had a child whose social position was destined to be a beggar (remember there is no social climbing in the caste system), you would probably want to ensure that he or she is the best beggar on the block. It is a simple matter of survival. Deformations usually bring sympathy and hence more donations from tourists. In a strange way the parents were looking out for the girl. The lesson here is that we need to understand the social environment in total before passing final judgement.



Smartís Three Approaches to Study Religion

Antipathy: A negative view of religion; an attempt to unmask the distortion of religion

Sympathy: Generally a positive, yet biased view of religion; an assumption of the truth of religion; often a critical view of "other" religions outside of oneís own

Empathy: A neutral view of religion; an attempt to understand religion from the subjectís perspective so as to properly describe it; this method wins the support of Smart


Peter Berger, a well-known scholar of religion, agrees with Smart that there are three approaches to religion. Instead of antipathy, sympathy and empathy he refers to them as reduction, deduction and induction[2]. Reduction has a slightly different meaning than antipathy, however. Religion is not dismissed as a leviathan of society but viewed as a product of material culture and reduced down to its material underpinnings. The goal then is to unmask the social origins of religion. Identical with the sympathetic approach, deduction is an attempt to reassert religious certainty, to deduce religious truths (theology fits here). And in parallel with empathy, the inductive approach, phenomenological at heart, concentrates on the experiential side of religion.


Bergerís Three Approaches to Study Religion



According to Berger, the phenomenological approach is the best option because it allows an air of openness between scholar and devotee and greater insight into the religion in question. However, I would argue that his rebuff of reduction for not taking seriously the religious claim is altogether premature, for it is a very powerful and necessary method to study religion and should work in conjunction with induction. While phenomenology is indeed an important process to study religion, it is only half of it. Along with gathering the data one must critically analyze it. The word critical here should not be confused with criticism; critical in this context means to evaluate the data with a scientific mindset[3]. Again, objectivity is crucial. Simply describing religious phenomena and not analyzing its origins, its deeper meaning, its effect on the society in question would not suffice. Otherwise known as the sociology of religion, the reductive approach is valuable precisely because it is able to ground religion in a social context and evaluate it accordingly.

To put this all in perspective, induction/phenomenology works in this field only in combination with reduction/sociology of religion: the former is important when data collecting, while the later is required for critical analysis. Phenomenology supplies us with the whats -- what are the beliefs, what are the rituals and myths, etc -- whereas sociology of religion gives us the hows and whys -- how and why did these develop. Let us look at an example to illustrate the difference. Utilizing the Hindu caste once more, the phenomenologist would be interested in describing what the four castes, Brahmins (priestly class), Kshatriyas (warrior or noble class), Vaisyas (mercantile class), and Shudras (servant class), mean to the people of India. From the Hindu perspective the castes have a divine origin. Purusha, representing cosmic man, divided himself up into four parts: his head became the Brahmins, from his arms developed the Kshatriyas, his thighs made up the Vaishyas, and his feet constituted the Shudras. The sociologists, on the other hand, would look for social/human origins to explain how the social distinctions developed. Pulling from historical evidence, sociologists and historians of religion surmise that the invading Aryans brought the caste system to India over four thousand years ago as a means to subjugate the indigenous people of India, who were most likely placed in the shudra caste. The term for caste is varna which means color. The caste system then is a system of color with the indigenous people of darker skin placed in the lowest social position.

Some contemporary sociologists, such as Robin Gill, have suggested that sociology of religion is not simply a value-free science following a purely descriptive model, but it also seems to entail, or at least should, prognosis or a prescription[4]. Following this line of thinking, Rodrick Martain reminds us that the founding fathers of this field--Durkheim, Weber, and Marx--combined the scientific method with philosophical humanitarian concerns or moral considerations, namely, the corrosive effects of the industrial development on the individual and society at large[5]. Many, therefore, argue for an integration of reduction, unmasking ideologies, and humanism, highlighting normative values, since the radical split between the two is not only unnecessary but, in fact, can be detrimental. Society needs to be humanized, they say, and sociology can help bring this about. Thus, the sociologists would not only point out how certain ideas developed but take a step further by analyzing its positive or negative effects on society and perhaps the direction society should go. For instance, in the case of the caste system, the sociologist would be expected to analyze whether or not these social stratifications (and finger slicing) were morally justifiable. If sociologists should serve as humanitarians is still debated today.

Another and more recent discussion within religious studies is whether transpersonal psychology can offer a new insight to the study of religion. Drawing from Piaget, Kohlberg, Habermas, and Eastern teachers, Ken Wilber, a transpersonal psychologist, contends that for a more accurate and fair analysis of religion we need to incorporate what he calls developmental structuralism[6]. Instead of throwing all religions into the same soup, this approach attempts to discriminate between the different developmental-evolutionary stages of religions, including the prerational, the rational, and the transrational. While a prerational religion promotes egocentricism, mythic mindedness, and conformity of belief and action, a rational religion supports individualism and does not fear science, skepticism, and doubt, and a transrational religion, which incorporates the rational but transcends it, is interested in transformation of consciousness to a higher spiritual-pyschological level. The difference between Jim Jonesí group and a Zen Buddhist one is obvious to most of us today but to the untutored eye many prerational religions without the cyanide connection may be falsely placed at the same level as transrational religions. However, failing to recognize hierarchical differences is a grave mistake in religious studies, says Wilber. Without refined discrimination, those with a pejorative view of religion tend to throw out all religions at once, whereas those with a positive view of religion tend to see all religions as legitimate and authentic. But a critical evaluation of religion, which includes a vertical assessment of the groupís developmental level, can remedy this. Thus, according to Wilber sociology of religion needs the methodological tools transpersonal psychology has to offer.


Wilberian Developmental Stages of Religion


Dick Anthony in Spiritual Choices supports Wilberís thesis, petitioning scholars to distinguish between helpful and harmful groups[7]. Problematic groups usually fall in the prerational, unilevel (literalistic), dualistic (the world is seen as real and God is apart from it), charasmatic (personal relationship is necessary with a leader for spiritual growth) category. Less problematic groups, on the other hand, are more multilevel (mystical realms are acknowledge and spiritual growth is a lengthy process), technical (focus is on techniques like meditation) and monistic (a sense of oneness is emphasized). The bottom line here is that scholars are beginning to move away from the purely descriptive approach to one of adjudication. I suspect that transpersonal psychology will have an even greater effect in the future, as scholars begin to realize the import of evaluating the psycho-social level of religions.



A Complete Methodology


Overall, perhaps the best method to study religion is a combination of phenomenology, sociology of religion and transpersonal psychology. Step one, of course, is to objectively describe religious phenomena. Step two would be to critically analyze the data, placing it in a social context and understanding its origins, however human they may be. And, finally, step three is to assess the religionís developmental stage, discriminating among mythic, rational and mystical traditions. What we then have is a balanced approach to study religion, one that takes into consideration 19th century reductionism, 20th century hermeneutics, and 21st century transpersonal studies.