Religion today: Themes and issues
Religion today: Themes and issues

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Religion today: Themes and issues

2.6 Theological, reductionist and phenomenological perspectives 3

2.6.1 The phenomenological perspective

The term ‘phenomenology’ is a good example of polysemy, as it has different meanings according to the academic context in which it is found. There are scientific phenomenology and philosophical phenomenology, for example, and the sociologists Ken Thompson and Kath Woodward describe phenomenology as, ‘The development in sociology of a philosophical approach which focuses on people’s consciousness of their experiences and how they interpret the world; the meaning it has for them’ (Thompson and Woodward, 2000, p.51).

In talking about phenomenology here, however, I am using the term particularly in connection with the approach taken by Ninian Smart at Lancaster University, when a Religious Studies department was established there in 1967 (for a good accound of the early development of Religious Studies, see Sharpe, 1986). This developed out of the field of history of religions in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and it is an approach that accepts religion as an enduring human phenomenon, which can be studied and appreciated as a phenomenon, on its own terms, but without making a judgement as to whether it is true or false. Thus, from the phenomenological perspective, when a believer prays, what matters is that the believer believes a divine being hears; when a believer performs a good action, he or she believes that it has implications for a future existence. As Smart puts it, ‘God is real for Christians whether or not he exists’ (Smart, 1973, p.54).

To appreciate the power and significance of religious belief for the participant, Smart claimed, the student needs empathy, which he described thus:

It is a kind of warm distance. For instance I have a love of Buddhism and I feel sometimes I can understand parts of it, and enter into its meanings through people. But I am not thereby a Buddhist (actually I am an Episcopalian). Distance is perhaps especially difficult for Westerners with regard to Christianity. Paradoxically, their closeness may prevent a good understanding of the religion in its diversity. I know people who, believing Christianity to be false, think it is unimportant; and others who, believing it to be true, identify it with their image of it. Both reactions, naturally enough, are short on empathy and a sense of proportion.

(Smart, 1979, p.8)

Thus, individuals are asked, when studying religion, to ‘bracket off’ their own belief or disbelief (a process known as ‘epoche’) and concentrate on what is happening for the believer. Smart called for ‘empathetic objectivity’ and ‘neutralist subjectivity’; he spoke of phenomenology as a ‘warm science’, a science that requires a sensitive and artistic heart. In trying to steer this middle course between methodological theism and atheism, phenomenology has been characterized as methodological agnosticism.

The phenomenological perspective developed in the 1960s and 1970s in the context of increasing religious and cultural pluralism in the West, when there was a need for ways of talking about, teaching about and thinking about religion in a non-competitive, nonjudgemental manner. Attention is paid to what believers consider to be the authoritative texts and traditions, and to their accounts of their religious life and experiences; qualitative methods such as interviews and participant observation have frequently been employed. This seemed the only logical way forward in an increasingly relativistic and pluralistic milieu, and phenomenology was claiming that this, rather than reductionism, was an ‘objective’ or non-biased way of looking at religion.

In presenting these three very roughly characterized approaches, I am simply signalling that there are a variety of ways of looking at religion and that what seems a logical approach to one person may well appear deficient to another.


Having outlined three broad methodological approaches to the study of religion, however imperfect, it would be a useful exercise to consider their relative advantages and disadvantages. What might be the advantages and disadvantages of the theological, the reductionist and the phenomenological approaches? You might like to write down some ideas at this point.


  1. Theological approach. Some would argue that as theologians are normally practitioners of the religions they are examining, they know the traditions from the inside and therefore understand them better and can represent them better to others than outsiders. As theologians are generally concerned with deepening understanding of particular traditions, they are not distracted by competing truth claims and have nothing to prove, and as believers are better able to understand and empathize with other believers. Also, as they are studying the process of belief and trying to understand not only what but why people believe, havingsome sort of faith will be an advantage. Alternatively, it could be argued that, as theologians are working from within particular traditions, they will be incapable of seeing them clearly and might have a tendency to dismiss not only other religions but also other branches of the same traditions, thus giving a biased, incomplete account of them.

  2. Reductionist approach. One advantage of this approach might be that it is good for gaining critical distance, to identify important social or psychological factors that would not be recognized by insiders. As disinterested observers, reductionists are not hampered by sectarian interests, or the competing truth claims of different religions, and can therefore provide objective accounts of what is going on. As they deal purely with what can be studied – empirical evidence – they are less likely to be sidetracked into fruitless speculation and can both comment on and predict social trends and conditions on the basis of their research. Alternatively, if reductionists start with the view that religion is not what believers think it is, it might be argued that they will be incapable of understanding what is happening to or for the believer and of representing that religion fairly or accurately.

  3. Phenomenological approach. The advantage often claimed for phenomenology is that it does not engage in or become distracted by competing, non-provable truth claims. As it does not try to explain religion and accepts religions on their own terms, it is believer-centred and fair. Conversely, it can be argued that phenomenology is merely descriptive, and that only a believer can truly understand what is happening in any religion. Furthermore, it is generally recognized that it is impossible to be impartial, for no matter how hard researchers try to ‘bracket off’ their own beliefs and opinions, they bring their own perspectives and agendas to the phenomenon. It could also be said that as phenomenology is relativistic, it is itself reductionistic, seeing religion only in terms of its meaning for the believer.


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