What is religious studies?

by Professor David Thomas FBA

12 Oct 2019

People carry on believing. Throughout recorded history and almost certainly before records of any kind existed, people have believed in something bigger than themselves, if nothing more definite than what has been called “the terrifying and fascinating Mystery”. There have been times of great surges in religious belief among populations, and times when belief has been in decline, as in western Europe through the course of the 20th century. But despite the ups and downs, the allure of holy places and saintly figures has persisted, and even people who say they have no faith will utter a prayer in times of difficulty or danger. Religious belief is a fact of life, and it calls for understanding.

All the major religions of the world contain teachings about what is correct belief and action. These can seem straightforward, as in the Hebrew Bible’s prohibition against working on the Sabbath, or the Qur’an’s instruction to perform the five daily prayers. But there are problems even here: the first causes Jews to ask what exactly is work (can turning on a light be called work?), while the second causes Muslims to ask how to perform the prayers correctly (how should you hold your hands as you stand facing the Ka’ba?). They can also be extremely complicated, as in the Gospels’ suggestions that Jesus was both human and divine (how did these two natures unite in the one person?), or in the Buddhist belief that the Noble Eightfold Path can lead to liberation from the cycle of rebirth (exactly how can believers achieve this?).

Reflection on holy scriptures and the lives of saintly figures helps provide answers to questions such as these. It involves close scrutiny of what has been written, said and done. It is also concerned to define the character of the religion, to maintain the consistency of this character through time, to prove that its teachings are logical and consistent with one another, and to explain and justify these to believers and defend it against opponents. This is the practice of theology.

Photograph of three giggling schoolgirls in hijabs sitting in a classroom learning the Quran.
Students in Malaysia learn and memorise the Qur'an at an Islamic school outside Kuala Lumpur. Photo by Mohd Rasfan / AFP / Getty Images

The result of this inside process of reflection is that what we can call the shape of the religion, what its teachings stand for and what is performed by its believers, can be understood. Another way of understanding a religion is to look at it from the outside, examining it objectively without any requirement to accept the teachings and values as believers.

In this way of looking, the religion becomes an object laid open to scrutiny, like a body in a laboratory. No account is taken of the claims about divine origins or involvement, because what is important is to observe how the components that make up the religion function together. The religion is regarded as a system, as it were, through which believers construct the ways they perceive the world and their place within it. For example, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all promote strong social responsibility. This is because believers in these three religions accept the world as the creation of the one God, who has given it design and meaning. The interconnected character of society pictured by these faiths is the product of a fundamental teaching within each of them. This external approach to religions is known as religious studies.

From the time of the first European universities, theology was among the major academic disciplines followed – it was often called ‘the queen of the sciences’. In more recent times, it has been complemented or occasionally replaced by religious studies, which is perceived as a more objective and academically sound means of understanding how religions ‘work’ within the societies where believers live. This change has opened the way for sociology of religion, psychology of religion and a host of similar disciplines. Each applies its own methods of studying religion, but all work from the basic principle that the religion or religions under examination are phenomena, systems, organisms or the like that exist in the world. Whether the claims of any religion are true is not a matter for consideration.

David Thomas is Emeritus Professor of Christianity and Islam at the University of Birmingham. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2018. 


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