What is the academic study of religion?

“We are at an interesting time for the study of religion in Ireland as the heretofore dominant religion has gone through a period of severe crisis and indeed it can be argued as I did in my paper at UCC that what we are seeing for the Catholic Church and indeed perhaps for wider Irish society is what Michel de Certeau has described as a scène de criseor a moment when the socio-political and religious landscape in Ireland is undergoing a fundamental change.  There is, of course, secularization as Ireland follows the European model, albeit much later than other European societies.  We are witnessing the end of what Dermot Keogh has described as ‘the informal consensus’ that existed in a ‘clerico-political nexus’.  At the same time we are witnessing the emergence of other religious movements and spiritualities as Ireland moves into this new paradigm.

All of this makes the study of religions of great interest and offers great possibilities for an emerging area in the Irish academic landscape.

Heretofore the study of religion in Ireland has been done largely through a theological prism and latterly perhaps from a sociological perspective.  The study of religions seeks, however, to assert itself as an independent discipline with its own perspective and methodologies.  One of the main purposes of ISASR is to bring together scholars in this area, whether to look at religion in Ireland or to look out to the wider world and the role religions play in it.  It welcomes members with an interest in this particular perspective of religion and religious movements of every and any kind.

– ISASR President Patrick Claffey, at the 2012 inaugural conference

As defined in ISASR’s constitution, the Society’s goal is to act as a “forum for the critical, analytical and cross-cultural study of religions, past and present. It is not a forum for confessional, apologetical, interfaith or other similar concerns.”

There are already in existence a wide variety of bodies practicing theology from within particular confessional frameworks as well as inter-religious bodies, and the purpose of this definition is to highlight that the Academic Study of Religion, as practiced internationally in the research associations represented in the International Association for the History of Religions, is distinct from these.

The distinction includes its neutral and etic (external) position as regards any particular religion, which is separate from the many and varied personal beliefs of its practitioners; its commitment to critical and analytical study rather than taking religion for granted; and its cross-cultural and historical perspectives. These enable scholars of religion to research the social and historical phenomenon of religion in all its diversity rather than to pursue particular religious or political agendas.

For those interested in this area, an introduction to one religious studies department is here. Here is an account of why it is worth studying religion. A brief introductory handout is here. A student perspective is here. An overview of how to write religious studies for students is here. The British Association for the Study of Religions’ journal Diskus is available free here. A Wikipedia entry “Religious Studies” is here.

These are of course not official ISASR perspectives but are offered as starting points for those who may be interested to explore further. The topics covered in our inaugural conference also give a good sense of what the academic study of religion can mean in practice.

What is the academic study of religions and why is it important?

Brian Bocking, Professor of the Study of Religions, University College Cork


For most people in Ireland, studying religion has meant studying Christian theology and Christian history, largely in Christian-ethos (usually Catholic) educational institutions ranging from primary schools to third-level colleges. So-called ‘other religions’ (which for a long time meant only Protestantism or Catholicism depending on standpoint, but now extends to Islam) may be included through ‘Ecumenics’ or ‘Inter-Faith Dialogue’, but only in relation to a Christian theological perspective.

This ‘confessional’ approach to studying religion is embedded in many Irish educational institutions where it is common to find a religious test (e.g. production of a baptismal certificate, subscription to a religious ethos) applied to both staff and students. The vast majority of Irish schools and teacher-training colleges, as well as departments of theology, etc., have explicitly confessional affiliations, making the impartial and scientific study of religions impossible. In the whole of the republic, there are currently only two full-time posts allocated to those with international level research and teaching expertise in Islam, one in Indian religions, one in Judaism and one in Buddhism/East Asian religions. Similarly, only two posts are devoted to nonconfessional teaching about Christianity.

There are of course other scholars in Ireland in various departments who have studied religions, particularly religions in Ireland, from a non-confessional standpoint, among them eminent sociologists, historians and experts in Irish Studies. The first ISASR conference in May 2012 featured 30 papers by academics and postgraduates working on religions from a wide range of disciplines. However, there is at present only one academic department in Ireland (at University College Cork) devoted entirely to research and teaching in the academic study of religions. Hence, Ireland is very significantly under-resourced in the area of the study of religions, especially in comparison with provision for confessional, ecumenical and similar theological pursuits.

What is the academic study of religions?

The academic study of religions (ASR), which is a well-established academic subject in universities around the globe, takes an entirely different approach to that of confessional theology (whether that theology is Catholic, Protestant, Shia, Theravada Buddhist,etc.). ASR studies religions (plural) using the same critical, open-ended methods of enquiry and implementing the same egalitarian standards in selecting staff and students that are applied in other reputable academic disciplines. A department fostering the academic study of religions will never apply a religious (nor gender, etc.) test to any member of staff appointed, or student admitted. On the contrary, ASR regards religious affiliation as irrelevant to academic expertise and encourages academically sound contributions to scholarship from those ‘of all religions and none’. As such, scholars in the academic study of religions are able to engage internationally and on equal terms with scholars from the whole range of humanities, social sciences and science disciplines. Indeed, Study of Religions departments typically contain scholars with training in a wide range of disciplines, from history and ethnology to philology and folklore.

The Academic Study of Religions (ASR) fosters the critical, analytical and crosscultural study of religions, past and present. As the orientalist Max Müller observed of languages, “He who knows only one, knows none” and the same applies to religions. Within the human and social sciences ASR has, as its special focus of study, religions as they exist and have existed in the world. ASR programmatically takes a broad view of what constitute ‘religions’; it does not construe ‘religion’ as a separate, unique or transcendent category. To appreciate just how problematic is the category of ‘religion’ itself, and to gain real insights into the nature and role of religions in a globalised world, it is necessary to study a range of religions, as openly and objectively as possible.

ASR draws a clear distinction between studying religions empirically and promoting (or, conversely, attacking) religions. Hence, it does not participate in the confessional, theological, or apologetic practices associated with particular religions. Yet, ASR places no limits on the questions that may be asked about religions. Consequently, ASR is very much interested in the study of theologies, of ecumenical activities and of inter-faith encounters where these occur, but its role is to study, critique and analyse such religious activities in order to understand what is going on and, in particular, how things constantly change; ASR does not itself ‘take sides’ in these religious engagements. This is because ASR claims no divine or religious knowledge or privileged perspective beyond the findings generated by patient, critical, analytical enquiry into events using reputable methods of enquiry, whether historical, textual or fieldwork-based. ASR’s approach is that of any reputable academic subject; the academic researcher who, because of his/her personal views, cannot stand back and analyse events impartially is unlikely to convince colleagues across the different academic disciplines that s/he has a realistic or meaningful picture.

This approach might be termed ‘procedural neutrality’ Like all other reputable academic subjects, however, ASR recognizes that any claim to procedural, or ethical, neutrality faces a serious challenge in the postmodern context. Gender studies and post-colonial theory in particular reveal that there is no truly neutral critique and all scholarship is contextual and politically engaged. However, recognizing that one cannot be entirely impartial is not a licence to act in an arbitrary manner, for example by prioritizing the study of one’s own religion over others, or viewing all developments through a religious lens of one’s own, as theologies aim to do. On the contrary, scholars within the academic study of religions pursue a vigilant, reflexive and dialogical approach to research, recognizing the position of the academic researcher and factoring this in to the debate. In historical and textual studies of past religious events this means, amongst other things, representing forgotten, marginalised and suppressed voices as scrupulously as dominant voices. In the study of contemporary living religions, ASR scholars engaged in fieldwork seek to communicate and interact with the communities they are researching and to maintain an acute awareness of the power the scholar holds as the producer of representations and narratives about religions. One of the major strands in the academic study of religions is the constant and lively global debate about the strengths and weaknesses of different theories, concepts and methodologies employed in the study of religions.

Why is the academic study of religions important?

As a glance at any newscast or history book will reveal, religions are numerous and they exist across the globe. Religions are socially, culturally, economically and politically important, whether one likes them or not. Even locally, the decline of the Catholic church in Ireland coupled with the rise in human rights awareness means that other religious (and anti-religious) actors and institutions are becoming increasingly visible, demanding and influential, raising fundamental questions about the state’s provision for religious rights. Knowledge and understanding of religions in Ireland has however lagged a long way behind (a) the changing demographics in the Republic and (b) the need to prepare Irish students for careers in a multireligious and globalised world. As ISASR’s President Patrick Claffey succinctly put it at the 2012 conference, theologians are no doubt experts in what they do, but this (the academic study of religions) ‘is not their gig’.

ASR is important for understanding religions in just the same way that other reputable cross-cultural academic disciplines or interdisciplinary areas such as international politics, social history or the study of literature etc., are important in their respective fields; without these specialised fields of study, important and constantly changing areas of life would remain persistently unstudied and misunderstood. Like these other subjects, ASR promotes rigorous, detailed, thoughtful, critical and openended enquiry; in the case of ASR into the complex and ever-changing field of religions. Scholars of ASR work to exactly the same academic standards, and with the same concern for theoretical refinement, sound evidence and persuasive argument, as academics in any related field of empirical enquiry in the human and social sciences. ASR produces valuable, reliable and empirically verifiable findings and teaches methods of inquiry and ways of thinking about religions which enable students and others to understand religious diversity and negotiate meaning in today’s complex world.

Last but by no means least, ASR acquires a particular importance in contexts, such as Ireland, where religious (or anti-religious) interests seek to limit open-ended, critical enquiry into religious topics, for example by incorporating a religious test into the process of teaching, learning, research and curriculum approval. In such contexts, ASR provides the only forum – and an extremely valuable forum – in which the study of religions can be pursued with academic integrity, and independently of vested religious or anti-religious interests.

Cork, June 2012