7.2 Religious Studies as a discipline
Until the late nineteenth century, theology had provided the main academic discipline in European universities for the study of religion. Theology (from the Greek, ‘discourse about God’) is concerned with questions relating to the relationship between God (or gods) and humanity. A theologian may begin from what is held to be a divine revelation taken, say, from a sacred book or religious teacher, about the nature of God and the relationship of God to humanity. In this form, theology is concerned with the interpretation of the substance and implications of a particular revelation. Some styles of theology have relied upon rational reflection upon experience, including observation of nature, in order to formulate beliefs about the nature of God and the relationship between God, the world and human beings. Theological enquiry may be conducted in a highly scholarly manner, and some contemporary theologians argue that its starting point requires nothing more than a willingness to consider the possibility of the existence of God. More typically, however, theology has been practised within the framework of a given religious position. Much of what has gone under the heading of theological training has been shaped by the interests of religious faith and designed to be put to the service of that faith. Historically in Europe it has largely taken the form of Christian theology.
I would certainly agree with you if you reacted to the notion of ‘neutral’ or disinterested study of religion by arguing that it would be pretty pointless to approach religion in a way that cuts out those parts that might challenge you directly. When you study religion, you do place yourself in a position in which your personal views may be changed. Yet, in this respect, the study of religion is no different from other branches of study that examine human ideas and actions, although religious claims are different from those made, say, by political theories. However, a study of religion that sets out to deepen an individual's faith, resolve personal religious doubts, or satisfy a need for religious belief is surely a religious quest in itself. It could all too easily slide into something entirely directed by that individual's interests: a study within fixed horizons. Even when not restricted to one religious tradition, it is likely to begin with built-in assumptions about the value of religion – for example, that religion in some way provides insights that we have to understand and live by in order to experience a fulfilled existence. Theology has been criticised for fixing the horizons of the study of religion in just this sort of way.
Unlike theology, the interests and methods of Religious Studies are not rooted within the framework of a particular religion. In separating the study of religion from the student's personal religious faith, or lack of faith, Religious Studies has justified its existence on the grounds that religion is a sufficiently distinctive and widespread aspect of human activity as to warrant its own form of enquiry; it does not depend upon assumptions made about either the truth or falsity of religion.
Models of religion, such as that outlined by Ninian Smart, display the many-sidedness and varied nature of religion. Religious Studies draws upon methods from both the humanities and the social sciences in exploring the complex phenomenon of religion – its history, its art, its ideas, its distinctive social institutions and the states of mind to which it can give rise. Archaeology, comparative methods, history, linguistic studies, pyschology and sociology are all employed within Religious Studies. Religious Studies, therefore, is not founded upon the use of one characteristic method of enquiry but uses a range of different methods to explore a particular area of interest, namely, religion.
Approaching religion as a distinctive and widespread form of human activity implies that we can study religion on broadly the same basis as other human activities. It suggests that, drawing upon common human experiences and our imagination, we can gain insights into what we have not experienced directly. These capacities are used in the same way by historians to help them to reconstruct times past, by anthropologists in the study of societies different from their own, or by actors when they take on a role. There are, however, problems lurking beneath the surface of this brief summary of the broad principles of Religious Studies. The first of these relates to the claim that students of religion can achieve an understanding of religions of which they have no personal experience.