Intro to Religion: Methods of Study

by Luke Muehlhauser on March 20, 2010 in Intro to Religion

intro to religion methods of studyWelcome to my course on religion.

I said at the start we would not study religion philosophically and theologically in this course. Instead, we will study religion scientifically and phenomenologically. We will study religion as a human phenomenon.

By what methods will we study religion as a human phenomenon?

  • History. The historian gathers the data available to him in an effort to reconstruct “what really happened.” He seeks to tell the story of what may have happened in the past that would best account for the data we have now. Who did what, when, and why? What was the relevant social, cultural, economic, political, and environmental context?
  • Anthropology. The anthropologist studies human behavior in community. How do humans interact with each other and their environment? In particular, an anthropologist of religion tries to figure out what functions are played by religion in serving the purposes of a community.
  • Sociology. The sociologist studies human societies: their culture, family life, gender roles, moral attitudes, knowledge, institutions, and so on.
  • Phenomenology. When we examine religion from a phenomenological approach we will examine what religion is like as it appears to its adherents. What is their experience like? What does it mean to them?
  • Psychology. What’s going on in someone’s psychology when they engage in religion? Does religion make people happier or more bigoted? The psychologist wants to know.
  • Neuroscience. The neuroscientist looks directly at the brains of religious and non-religious people. What parts of the brain are engaged when people make religious judgments? Can religious experiences be induced by stimulating certain parts of the brain?
  • Literary criticism. Some religions are greatly influenced by their scriptures. The literary critic asks: Who wrote these? When? Why? For whom? What genre is this? What was the original meaning? How has the text been passed on and interpreted?

Next, we will turn these methods upon the subject of religion and see what we can learn.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

lukeprog March 20, 2010 at 11:12 am


Yeah, that’s a good idea.


lukeprog March 20, 2010 at 11:13 am


Oops, thanks.


Rhys Wilkins March 20, 2010 at 2:23 pm


I am just wondering Luke, will this course also examine atheism from the same perspective? There was a recent article on New Scientist which made the point that since religion is such a ubiquitous phenomenon throughout human history, we should maybe examine atheism, not religion as the anomaly.


Scott March 20, 2010 at 2:34 pm

“Historiography” refers to studying the history of history – i.e. how the method of recording & studying the past as evolved over time – “metahistory”, if you want. It sounds like your paragraph just refers to straight-up “history”.


lukeprog March 20, 2010 at 6:00 pm

What the heck? Why are these comments showing in reverse order now?


lukeprog March 20, 2010 at 6:00 pm

Oh, only some of them are. Stupid.


Jeff H March 20, 2010 at 7:12 pm

Luke, could you stop time travelling please? It’s making things really confusing. Thanks.


Marco March 20, 2010 at 8:38 pm

To be honest; why would you start another subject without finishing one of the so many subjects you have going on at the moment? I like the spirit and all, but maybe you’re overdoing things a bit?

If not, I din’t say anything… ;)

Take care


svenjamin March 20, 2010 at 11:34 pm

The description of how anthropologists study religion seems like a summary of the more-or-less defunct functionalist school of sociology in the tradition of Emile Durkheim. Anthropology isn’t really a singular discipline with a unified theoretical approach. Probably the best you could do here is say something about anthropology of religion focusing on collecting ethnographic data.

Actually, your descriptions of anthropology and sociology seem kind of inverted to me. The boundary isn’t really clear though. The saying used to go “anthropology studies them and sociology studies us,” but that isn’t really true anymore. But sociologists tend to actually be half decent with numbers, which is more than I can say for most anthropology types…

For the record, I’m an anthropology grad student with bachelor’s degrees in math, anthropology and religious studies. Main interests in religion are early Indian and SE Asian buddhism, and a dozen other things.


James Farrell March 22, 2010 at 5:45 pm

You might consider adding economics of religion to the list. There’s obviously a big overlap with sociology and psychology here, but there’s something left over, I think. The Wikipedia entry gives an orientation.


J. Quinton March 23, 2010 at 6:36 am

I don’t want to step on any toes, but there’s also another blog that studies religion from a sociological point of view:



lukeprog March 23, 2010 at 10:58 am

J Quinton,

Yeah, Epiphenom is in my sidebar.


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