The Academic Study of Religion Explained

I’ve always been jealous of academics who have fancy job titles like sociologist or archaeologist. They just sound so cool, but what do you do when you study religion? Am I a religiologist? Well, one of the reasons why this is even an issue is because religious studies the- academic discipline – draws from multiple methods, from anthropology, from sociology, and even some of the hard sciences like neuroscience, bringing all of these tools to the table to study the single subject religion. So, what are some of the main approaches to the academic study of religion and how do they differ? Let’s start with the sociological approach to religion. Sociology is the scientific study of society including the structures, interactions, and collective behavior of human beings; and if we’re talking about collective human behavior, religion is a great example. So it shouldn’t surprise you some of the foundational thinkers of sociology studied religion. Emile Durkheim, in his book “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life,” tried to describe the origins and function of religion in society. Sociologist Max Weber analyzed the role religion played in economic and social structures with his essay “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” and although later studies are a little more sophisticated than Durkheim and Weber, these scholars continue to shape the sociological study of religion. Modern sociologists such as Nancy Ammerman at Boston University study the social structures and practices of religion as it’s practiced in daily life. Asking questions like: How do new religious movements form? Why do humans participate in communal ritual? And how do factors like gender race and ethnicity all influence religious identity? Studies like these use a combination of quantitative and qualitative tools like analyzing demographic data, conducting surveys, in-person interviews, or even archival research. But all of these tools combined to identify and analyze religion as it functions in society. But while guys like Durkheim and Weber were studying the intersection of religion and society, scholars like Freud were taking a psychological approach to religion studying, how the human mind, our thoughts, our emotions, and even the biological processes of our brain influence religious belief and practice. Now, Freud famous compared religious rituals to obsessive-compulsive behavior in his essay “Obsessive Actions and Religious Rractices,” but modern scholars have generally debunked his more eccentric approaches to religion, while at the same time building on his methodology of focusing on the human brain. Some of these studies take a more Freudian approach to religion, like Princeton emeritus professor Gananath Obeyesekere, who uses psycho- analytical methods when studying the religions of his home country, Sri Lanka. Other scholars take a more cognitive science approach. Pascal Boyer, for example, a professor of anthropology and psychology at Washington University St. Louis, applies the study of evolutionary psychology to religion. In his book Religion Explained” he argues that the tendency towards religion is hardwired into the human brain – and you’ll notice this sounds a lot like the hard sciences. Contemporary figures in the scientific study of religion include Dimitris Xygalatas, who measures different levels of hormone production and extreme rituals, and Patricia Sharp, who studies the neural underpinnings of meditation and mindfulness. What unites this research in the scientific study of religion is not so much a single methodology, but a tendency to emphasize reductionism and explanation. During the 18th century, the philosopher David Hume argued that religious beliefs and behaviors could be explained naturalistically, without and appealed the theological explanations or personal spiritual experience. This simple idea has formed the core of the scientific study of religion: That religion can be explained using the tools that we use to analyze any other aspect of human behavior So, at this point you might be asking yourself, “Well, why do we even need to bother having a separate discipline called religious studies?” And one reason why this is the case is because religion is just too complex for one discipline to manage. Remember: religion is embedded in all aspects of culture: our art, our politics, our literature, gender, race, ethnicity, all influence it. Religious studies demands an interdisciplinary approach, and it demands scholars and students who are able to apply different methods to the study of religion. But none of these approaches are mutually exclusive. You can be an anthropologist of religion who uses psychological approaches. You can be a historian of religion who also uses archaeological data, like myself. But this is actually an advantage to religious studies because different approaches ask different questions and reveal different sets of data. So, whether you’re a biologist or have interest in philosophy or politics, you probably can find a home in religious studies. As always, thanks for watching.

  1. Very interesting indeed! Funny enough I always found it odd that the english language doesn't really have a separate 'job title' for scholars of religious studies; in Sweden we have: 'religionsvetare' and 'religionshistoriker' as the job title for scholars of religion and historians of religion. Very good video as allways!

  2. And of course, then you have the methods of study some religions create to study themselves, generally called "theology". It is…somewhat unclear how useful these are in helping people understand religion, aside from letting outsiders understand that particular religion better.

  3. The intellectual study of religion will quench the thirst for esoteric understanding, authenticity and freedom at the next
    existential intellectual matrix desert mirage.

  4. This is great! Another that I will add to the videos I include for my own online class: introduction to the study of religion.
    BTW, I like the simple, abstract background in this video. Avoids distractions and flows well when you switch between your own image and other images – stable background gives better continuity throughout the video.

  5. @ReligionForBreakfast Being a religion science student in The Netherlands I always find myself explaining why I study religion science. They always assume I am religious myself. It's funny the first 10 times but gets slightly annoying. Keep up the great video's I used your video on Freud for a exam (philosophy of religion). Thanks

  6. Heyhey! What are your thoughts on the classical myth models? Like the dying and rising god, the dismembered sacrificial creator? Do you think that they are anachronistic or simplistic?

  7. The following is meant to be a constructive criticism. I hope you don't take too much offense. I find this video to be severely lacking in substance – anyone, whether they have a degree or not, can tell you as much. In this day and age, there are already so many people on YouTube doing this kind of educational videos, but most of them aren't really experts in the subject so the things that they can tell you are either can be easily garnered from wikipedia or similar resources, or just make unsubstantiated claims altogether, so their attempts at "educating" often do not go very far. Most of the time, they have to bank on being entertaining, doing skits and stuffs, akin to adding some spice into a thin soup. Sure a watery soup that is well-spiced can still be nice, but ultimately it isn't going to be very fulfilling.

    I believe that as an actual researcher, and presumably a lecturer, in the subject, you can say much more than this. Make a video that actually shows people that what the subject you are studying actually means something, whether in intrinsic terms or extrinsic ones, and not videos that seem to me to be maybe useful for some trivia contests at best. Be a real teacher, not an infotainer. Although I have to admit that maybe most people just don't care about the real meat and vegetables and just want to be filled with GSM and salt and sugar…

  8. Hey, love your videos. Can you recommend a channel that focuses on Shintoism, Buddhism, and/or Greek mythology from an academic perspective?

  9. I know this question comes pretty late and that it probably won't get answered, but in the slim chance that it is I am going to make, since i discovered you channel recentely (via your religion in Zelda video, curiously) and I'm frankly in love with it .

    As someone very interested in the history and practice of religion and as an applied linguist by formation, would you know some scholar who approaches it from the perspective of linguistics. To clarify, I know that Felicitas Goodman and J. Samarin made some studies on the phonetic and prosodic characteristics of glossolalia (or "speaking in tongues"), but I was wondering if any similar studies were made on the characteristic (be it syntactic, lexic or prosodic) of ritualistic speech, or the influence of religious differences on the formation or preservation of language varieties (Pensylvanian Dutch comes immidiately to my mind, although that would be more sociology of language than linguistics, I guess).

  10. Sir I am so glad I found your channel. I found the motivation to do my master's thesis for political science on religious literacy and its effect on perception and political behavior. Been meaning to find a way to intersect my major with my interest in religious studies. So thank you! 😀

  11. I'm in my first year of studying Religious Science and going through your videos before my exam in Religious Theories is so helpful, I can not thank you enough! There really should be more channels like this out there, but I'm glad that at least you are around, providing such quality content.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *