AN EVALUATION OF SCIENCE OF RELIGION
Rev. Dr. Selvam Robertson
AN EVALUATION OF SCIENCE OF RELIGION
This paper is an attempt to evaluate the origin and development of scientific study of religion and to highlight the common issues in studying religion and their implications for the Indian context, in four parts. The first part is an exploration into the various factors, which were responsible for the emergence of the science of religion, with special reference to the contributions of Max Muller. Second part is an evaluation of the major methods used for the scientific study of religion. Third part examines the main issues emerging from different methods. And the fourth part is an attempt to examine the possibilities for an appropriate Indian approach to the study of religion.
1 Early Beginning of Science of Religion
From the first century A.D. onwards there had been attempts, perhaps amateur or ostensible to acquire knowledge about religions other than one’s own. The culmination of this process was the dawning of a new discipline for the systematic or scientific study of religions in the later part of the 19th Century. Many factors and persons, especially Max Muller, contributed to this end.
1.1 Factors Responsible for the Emergence of Science of Religion
Several factors were responsible for the emergence of science of religion. They were: reformation, geographical discoveries, deists, scientific and intellectual developments, travel accounts, decipherment of ancient texts, enlightenment philosophers, romantic idealism and studies in myth and folklore.
E. O. James and Waardenburg perceive the impact of reformation upon the study of religions. It subjected Bible and rituals or church practices to critical study and reasoning. Julius Welhausean challenged the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and the possibilities of fixing a specific date. Similarly, David F. Strauss had concluded that the whole life of Jesus was a myth: that, as a historical person, he never existed. The application of historical critical method for the study of scripture was, in fact, a courageous act.
Geographical discoveries of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries helped the west to come in contact with other ways of behavior, thought, and belief; and demanded broadening of its view of human nature, culture and religion. They also created an earnest interest to learn about the life and practices, including religions, of other people.
During seventeenth and eighteenth centuries deists were of the opinion that, the original religion was good and pure, it was only later the priests corrupted it. They also popularized the natural religious quality of humanity against the prevalent idea of revealed religions.  In spite of the dominance of the church deistic thoughts contributed the fundamental insight-the ideal of natural religion, to the sprouting scientific study of religion.
Scientific and intellectual developments of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries provided the model for new approaches to the study of religion.
theory of evolution,
‘linear development of things’, influenced the thoughts of many great scholars
essentially those who advocated anthropological approach. Added to this was the
critical reasoning prevalent in the academic circles. Darwin
Although not very systematic, eighteenth century witnessed the descriptions of religion by several travelers. Charles de Brosses’ suggested Fetishism was the earliest form of religion. He held that all nations had to begin with fetishism, to be followed afterwards by polytheism and monotheism. Muller argued that there is no fetish without its antecedents, and it is in these antecedents alone that its true and scientific interest consists. Meiners accepted the theory of fetishism but went beyond it and ‘stressed the role of human imagination in the development of religious worship’. Similar account was given by Benjamin Constant y de Rebeque: “For Constant, religion is essentially a feeling which is the very foundation of man’s nature.” 
Discovery and decipherment of ancient texts opened a field of research on as yet largely unknown religions. William Jones discovered structural similarities between Sanskrit and European languages. He also found similarities between the Indian Myths and Greek, Roman and Biblical. Jean Francois Champollion deciphered the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic script. In fact, philological research ultimately initiated the Scientific Study of religion.
Having taken into consideration the plurality of religions, German philosophers viewed religions as out growth of a natural reasonable religion or as the natural outcome of the general manifestation of divine grace. For them religions have a historical existence and that religion cannot be studied apart from history. 
Romantic idealism emphasized individuality, feelings, and imagination, and it urged openness to remote, ancient, mystical, and folk culture and religion. Friedrich Scheliermacher assigned religion primarily to feeling that is the feeling of absolute dependence. For Hegel the concrete history of religions is the realization of the abstract idea of religion. Vico held that, fear of a superior power was the origin of religion.  In general, Romantic Idealism considers that religion had a common origin whether it was fear or feeling.
The early part of the 19th century witnessed several studies in mythology. Often the history of religion was compared to the study of myth and comparative religion with comparative mythology. Along with myth, studies in the folklore also influenced the scientific study of religion.
While the influence of the above factors on the founding of a new discipline for the scientific study of religion can be endorsed S. Radhakrishnan writes “the development of the science of comparative Religion is due mainly to two factors: the publication and study of the – Sacred Books of the East and the growth of anthropology.”
1.2 Early Founders
Although the Emperor Akbar may be considered the first who ventured on a comparative study of the religions of the world, the real vision was the product of later part of the 19th century.
Cornelis P. Tiele was one of the first to offer a historical survey of a number of religions based on study of source materials. On the basis of evolutionary thought Tiele stressed the evolution of the ‘religious idea’ through the historical forms of religion which represented different stages. Although he advocated a kind of historical method, he maintained that, the science of religion requires a broader foundation than history in the ordinary sense of the word.
Pierre D. Chantepie de la Saussaye was a forerunner of later phenomenologies of religion. Besides historical work in his field, he was primarily interested in systematic classification. His inadequate knowledge of languages hindered access to the original sources. Hence he concentrated less on history and more on classification of religion.
1.3 MAX MULLER
The most important of the founders of ‘Science of religion’, was Friedrich Max Muller called, the father of Religionswissenschaft or Religious studies. According to J. G. Arapura, “but for him, comparative religion, history of religion, phenomenology of religion, Relgionswissenschaft, or whatever else it is called, as distinguished from theology, would not have found a place in the modern university.”
Being a philologist Muller used comparative method for the study of languages and applied the same method to the systematic study of religion. He was interested on the archaic forms of religion in order to find the origin of religions and “…suggested that contemporary primitives might preserve some very ancient mythologies, rituals, and beliefs which could be taken as survivals from prehistoric times, and that from them one could discern originals.” Of course, “his ultimate aim was to elaborate a complete science of human thought: and this he chose to do in four stages, beginning with the science of language, and passing through the science of mythology and the science of religion to the final goal of the science of thought.” This is reflected in Muller’s Natural Religion.
Muller approached the study of religion from his knowledge of Sanskrit and other ancient languages. He considers comparative philology as both a tool and model for research in religion, because both religion and language originate in the instinctual life of humanity and exhibit a remarkable continuity of development. Waardenburg writes “he held that philological and etymological research can discover the meaning of religion for early men by restoring the original sense to the names of the gods and the stories told about them.”
In Muller’s own words “the science of Language has taught us that there is order and wisdom in all languages, and that even the most degraded jargons contain the ruins of former greatness and beauty.” Further “our customs and traditions are often founded on decayed and misunderstood words.” Muller’s conviction is that more than half of the difficulties in the history of religion owe their origin to constant misinterpretation of ancient language by modern language, of ancient thought by modern thought, particularly whenever the word has become more sacred than the spirit. He further, tells in very authentic tone that if we want to understand ancient religion, we must first try to understand ancient language.
Muller’s interpretation of myths is distinct. He tried to explain their substance by means of natural phenomena, and their terminology by what he called a ‘disease of language. That is explaining the figurative metaphors derived from impressive experience of natural phenomena as the real. Penetrating the myths is necessary to reach the heart of the religion, which they conceal.
1.3.3 Science of Religion
“Science of religion” is the direct translation of the German expression ‘Religionswissenschaft’. Max Muller coined this term. It only points to the scientific or systematic study of religions. Muller adopted comparative and historical methods in the science of religion.
Comparative religion is simply one aspect of the study of religion. But often it is misunderstood. Max Muller writes “Generalization will come in time, but generalization without a thorough knowledge of particulars is the ruin of all sciences, and has hither to proved the greatest danger to the Science of Religion.” The expression ‘comparative religion’ is suspected because of its implied connection with theology. That is the motive for much work in the comparison of religions was not the ‘impartial and scientific’ desire to establish patterns, similarities and differences, but the theological desire to demonstrate that one’s own position was superior, fuller, or more than mundane compared with that of others. In fact comparative study of religion or ‘comparative religion’ for short is really a phrase to indicate the study of religion in so far as the student is not confining his attentions to single case study.
Muller also used historical method called Religionsgeschichte (historical study of Religions): “… to my mind, the more interesting, if not the more important part of the science of religion is certainly concerned with what we call the historical development of religious thought and language.” Because of the ambiguities and disadvantages of the two expressions ‘Science of religion’ and ‘comparative religion’, today the term ‘history of religion’ is preferred for the systematic and scientific study of religion.
1.3.4 The Subject, Data and Task of the Science of Religion
Faith of the believer cannot be a legitimate subject of the science of religion. Hence “the science of religion investigates religious conception, values and behavior.” For Ernst Troeltsch “its great question is the question of the nature of religious phenomena, the question of their epistemological and cognitive import, the question of the value and the meaning of the great historical religious formations.” It does not focus upon the essence of religion nor does it creates a new religion.
For the science of religion scripture is an important data. But one needs to remember that canonical books too give the reflected image only of the real doctrines of the founder of a new religion, an image always blurred and distorted by the medium through which it had to pass. Ernst Troeltsch suggests that “Very important data are those one-sided or exclusively religious personalities, sects and groups among whom the effects of scientific ways of thinking sit but loosely or are absent altogether, and who also have not yet lost their religious innocence by any struggle against science.” Besides these two, the practical utility of religions in every day life should become a datum.
The central task of science of religion is ‘the understanding of other religions’. Y. Masih writes, “…the most important task of comparative study of religions is to find out a principle of unity which will harmonize and balance the claims and counter claims of warring religions into one unity.” According to Ernst Troeltsch the purpose of Scientific work on religion is entirely and necessarily to influence religion itself. Ninian Smart maintains, “an important task in the building of a science of religion is to collect the various key materials which recur in differing religious environment.” He wanted to investigate the interaction of such materials in diverse religions. Such an approach could promote healthy inter-religious understanding, without insisting upon unity or without causing damage to any particular religion.
1.3.5 Pattern of Study and Objections to the Study of Religion
Some study religions only to laud the superiority of their own and to depreciate those of others, others consider all religions were false and entertain a simpleminded theory of the nature and origin of religion. Today emphasis has been placed on understanding the uniqueness of each religion and discovering the basic structures of the religious phenomena. Dr. Radha Krishnan writes, “for a scientific student of religion is required to treat all religions in a spirit of absolute detachment and impartiality.” E. O. James writes, “Religious phenomena as distinct from spiritual experience must be investigated on their own merits historically and comparatively independent of any preconceived theories or accepted loyalties.”
In spite of the noble purpose of studying religions some object to it. Dr. Radha Krishnan gives at least three reasons for such objections. One is that the scientific study of religion is imagined to be a danger to religion itself. Another is that comparison means resemblance, and if one religion is like another, what happens to the claims of superiority and uniqueness. And the third is if comparative Religion tells us that higher religions possess features in common with the low and the primitive, then the inference is legitimate that our religious beliefs are of a degrading and childish character. 
Max Muller had perceived this objection in advance and answered as “I do not say that the science of religion is all gain. No, it entails losses, and losses of many things which we hold dear. But this I will say, that, as far as my humble judgment goes, it does not entail the loss of anything that is essential to true religion, and that if we strike the balance honestly, the gain is immeasurably greater than the loss.” It is time that the discipline of religion looks beyond the simple objections to fulfill its task of presenting useful facts in order to facilitate a peaceful co-existence among people of different faiths.
1.3.6 Origin of Religion
Muller maintained that, my chief endeavor is to show that ‘religion did not begin with abstract concepts and a belief in purely extra-mundane beings, but that its deepest roots can be traced back to the universal stratum of sensuous perception’. He gives at east three reasons for tracing the origin of religion. One is “whenever we can trace back a religion to its first beginnings, we find it free from many of the blemishes that offend us in its later phases.” Second is “To Max Muller, the attempt to understand religion was an attempt to understand men, and an attempt, to persuade men to understand one another.” Thirdly “Religion is something which has passed, and is still passing through an historical evolution, and all we can do is to follow it up to its origin, and then try to comprehend it in its later historical developments.”
Max Muller found that “Nature, man and self are the three great manifestations in which the infinite in some shape or other has been perceived, and every one of these perceptions has in its historical development contributed to what may be called religion.” He has assigned names to these three manifestations. “I shall distinguish these three divisions as Physical Religion, Anthropological Religion, and Psychological Religion.” He wanted to show that these three aspects are found in every religion in varied degree: “it must not be supposed that these three phases of natural religion, the Physical, the Anthropological and the Psychological, exist each by itself, that one race worships the powers of nature only, while another venerates the spirits of human ancestors, and a third meditate on the Divine, as discovered in the deepest depth of the human heart.” As intended, Muller has reached his final destination of finding the origin of religion.
2 Different Approaches to the Study of Religion
‘Science of Religion’ was simple in origin, rich in purpose and privileged to avail the expertise of many other branches of knowledge. As a result many approaches developed for the scientific study of religions. Some of them are: anthropological, sociological, historical, phenomenological and psychological.
2.1 Anthropological Approach
Anthropology is study of human beings and its basis is culture. Anthropologists use comparative method in order to find what is common to all humanity and ‘what is distinctive of particular societies or groups of societies’. They also study the beliefs and practices of all human societies and use their data to trace the origin of religions.
E. B. Tylor is generally regarded as the founder of the Anthropological study of religion. For him religion was not the result of any revelation or supernatural intervention. He propounded the theory of animism i.e. “the belief that al living beings and natural phenomena that appear to move or have life (Sun, Moon, Rivers, etc.) have individual spirits (animas), some or all of which are appropriate objects of worship.” For him the earliest stage of religion ‘consisted in the belief in souls, present not only in human beings but also in all natural organisms and objects. Tylor saw earlier animistic experience as the irreducible and original source of later religious life.
R. R. Marett, disciple of Tylor, proposed ‘animatism’ or dynamism or pre-animism as the origin of religion. Marett argued that belief in souls or spirits is the result of reasoning. Before reasoning, there could have been a ‘super naturalistic’ stage, in which man recognized an impersonal religious force, which was rather felt than reasoned out. The Melanesian islanders worshiped this supernatural force as Mana i.e. ‘undifferentiated impersonal supernatural force’. In short animatisms is belief in Mana. For Marett this was the first stage of religion.
For Hebert Spencer manism or ancestor worship is the beginning of religion. . This he derived from man’s belief in spirits or ghosts. The fundamental assumption is that, just as fear of the living is at the root of political control, fear of the dead is at the root of religious control. E. O. James called it as ‘ghost theory’.
Andrew Langh proposed that the primitives believed in Supreme beings or high gods and that could be the earliest form of religion. It was prior to animism. He perceived that ‘parapsychology has more to say about the nature and origin of religion than rationalistic anthropological theories.
For James G. Frazer religious activities and attitudes were preceded by the practice of magic. Its aim was to master the external environment through human powers. It is easy to conceive that religion and magic function side by side but not magic preceding religion.
Apart from the above views of cultural anthropology, Social anthropology emphasizes on the functional aspect of religion. The Diffusionist school insists upon the necessity of studying various cultural circle or layers, which could have been caused by small migrations in order to answer the question of similarities in cultures in different religions.
The general criticism against the anthropological approach is that it is confined to the empirical religious phenomena and does not go to the original religious feeling. The second criticism is that, having studied one or few religions, the anthropologists involve in generalizing the data. There is also the fear of approaching the primitive religions with missionary motive.
The original aim of sociology was to find out the ‘scientific account of the laws underlying the social fabric’. It is convinced that human institution cannot be based on error and falsehood, otherwise it could not have lasted. By definition “the sociology of religion is the study of the significant, and often subtle, relationships which prevail between religion and social structures, and between religion and social processes.” It studies the processes by which religion enters into human interaction and how the interaction of men influences religion. In the words of Joachim Wach “the sociologist of religion will have to study and to classify with care the typologically different organizational structures resulting from divergent concepts or religious communion.” Harvey Carrier writes, “sociology from its very birth showed itself immediately concerned with the role and the function of religion in the dynamism of societies.” It is expected that the sociologist will not make any statements about the supernatural in the theories, which attempt to explain or predict religious behavior.
Religion cannot be understood as an extra-social phenomenon. It is the product of society. Hence “we cannot understand the inner from a society unless we understand its religion.” Max Weber was the first to conceive of a systematic sociology of religion. For him, religious behavior can be understood only through its meaning for the individuals concerned and “the most elementary forms of behavior motivated by religious or magical factors are oriented to this world.” 
William Robertson Smith argues, on the basis of totemism that sacrifice was a social integrative and conservatively traditional act. For him totemism was the most elementary form of religious life. Emile Durkheim ‘associated totemism with the distinction between the realms of the sacred and the profane’. For him religion is inherently a social reality and hence it should be studied as a response to specific social needs. He says, “the most barbarous and the most fantastic rites and the strangest myths translate some human need, some aspect of life, either individual or social.” K. P. Aleaz says, “according to Durkheim religion is the essence of the social bond.” The only difference between religion and other institution is that religion distinguishes itself from other human institutions through its fundamental opposition between the profane and the sacred.
2.3 Historical Approach
Cornelius Tiele may be regarded as its founder. The protagonists of a strictly historical approach emphasize the use of historical – critical method and insist on factual – descriptive expositions. Ursula king writes “It was not only the concern of historical truth but also the need to free the study of religion from the dominance of a priori theological and philosophical speculation which required a strong insistence on the use of the historical method.” The reason is every religious element is, significant only in its own proper context.
Robert D. Baired’s definition that history is the descriptive study of the human past holds good if only religion is treated as an integral part of humanity. Muller writes, “there is but one method that leads to really trustworthy and solid results and this is the Historical Method.” For him “the principle of the historical school is not to ignore the present, but to try to understand the present by means of the past.” Practically, the historical approach is burdened with surplus data without adequate ‘integration’. Another concern is whether the historian is able to investigate the essential inner meaning of any religious tradition.
2.4 Phenomenological Approach
The main task of phenomenological approach is to study the essence of religion by studying various structures of religion. Phenomenology is defined as the systematic discussion of what appears. Further “the phenomenological method is a way of describing rather than a way of explaining.” The first person to outline the principles of phenomenology to investigate the ‘essential inner structures of religion’was P. D. Chantepie de la Saussay. Husserl laid two basic principles to phenomenology. One is Epoche i.e., ‘bracketing, or suspension of judgment regarding the phenomenal object’. The second is, eidetic vision, i.e., ‘the intuitive, undistorting grasp of the ‘essence’ of the object’.
One of the major tasks of phenomenologists is to ‘describe the essence of the phenomenon, and not to “locate” it. That is seeking the meaning or essence rather than finding the cause or truth. They have to interpret the symbols in a way that enhances the self-knowledge of human beings. Thus phenomenologist of religions takes a deep interest in the symbol. The earlier (empirical) phenomenologists were busy with structures and pattern but the modern historical phenomenologists, study the structures and their connection in their specific historical context. The new style phenomenology “is moving from the search for timeless essences to a search for meaning inside time.” Its aim is to trace the intention of the religious phenomena.
For Rudolf Otto the non-rational, which is the opposite of that which can be thought about conceptually is the subject matter of investigation. The unnamed or the non-rational is numinous. It is felt as objective and outside the self. Its nature is ‘Mysterium tremendum’, i.e., it grips or stirs the human mind with this and that determinate affective state. Conceptually mysterium denotes merely that which is hidden and esoteric, which is beyond conception or understanding, extraordinary and unfamiliar. Tremendum is the positive aspect of it. It is not fear in the strict sense. This positive can be experienced only in feeling. It is this feeling which emerged in the mind of primeval man, forms the starting-point for the entire religious development in history. Besides ‘mysterium tremendum’, the numinous is fascination. The combination of these two qualities, the daunting and the fascinating, now combine in a strange harmony of contrasts, and the resultant dual character of the numinous consciousness, to which the entire religious development bears witness. The relation between the rational and the non-rational constitute the final meaning of the “Holy”.
On the basis of the combination of these two aspects “Religion, he (Otto) argued, has its own autonomous existence as a phenomenon in human experience.” Otto’s theory is that reason and its limits likewise being set aside, reality manifests itself in consciousness by means of a peculiar numinous sense. He instead of studying the ideas of God and religion undertook to analyze the modalities of the religious experience. Radin remarks “awesome” feelings described by Otto are the result of ‘economic and psychic insecurity’. Otto did not grasp it because of his theological and mystical background.
Nothan Soderblom’s major contribution is the idea of “Holiness”. He was of the opinion that there may be religions even without God, but none, without the distinction between the holy and the profane. His disciple Friedrich Heiler asserted that all religions are directed toward the Holy. For him prayer is the heart and center of all religion.
For Gerardus Van der Leeuw Phenomenology seeks the phenomenon, as such, the phenomenon again is what appears. This principle has a threefold implication: 1. Something exists, 2. This something appears, 3. Precisely because it ‘appears’ it is a ‘phenomenology’. When someone tries to explain what appears, then phenomenology arises. Thus phenomenology is the systematic discussion of what appears. He focused on a wholly other “power” as the object of religious experience. The experience of power varies from people to people. The original experience of the power is more important than the reflection upon it. Finding the original experience of the power is the key aspect of religious study. Leeuw was criticized for devoting his effort to the ‘discernment and presentation of timeless types, structures, and essences. His intuitive method for arriving at his types and structures is far removed from the empirical procedures practiced by modern science and scholarship. Joachim Wach insisted upon the necessity of some personal religious predisposition in the inquirer, apart from scholarly procedures.
Mircea Eliade views that man becomes aware of the sacred because it manifests itself, shows itself, as something wholly different from the profane. For him the history of religions – from the most primitive to the most highly developed – is constituted by a great number of hierophanies, by manifestations of sacred realities. The sacred and profane are two modes of being in the world, rather, ‘two existential situations assumed by man in the course of his history’.
2.5 Psychological Approach
In this approach the area of investigation will be primarily the mental states, motivations and attitudes found in religious contexts. Erich Fromm writes “analysis of religion must not stop at uncovering those psychological processes within man which underlay his religious experience; it must proceed to discover the conditions which make for the development of authoritarian and humanistic character structures, respectively, from which different kinds of religious experience stem.” Since psychology of religion is more individualistic in nature and it explores man’s inner consciousness, it should never slacken in its search for scientific means of doing so.
From the beginning, the psychology of religion follows the observation of religious individuals and the study of traditional content from the history of religion. In other words “the methods employed by psychologists are those of experiment and observation. Psychological approach to the study of religions considers rituals seriously because “compulsive neurotic patients exhibits numerous forms of private ritual.” Again “Religious behavior springs from conscious and unconscious motivation.” But one need to be cautioned that religious emotions, sentiments, and dispositions are complex and no single feeling or meaning characterizes all varieties of religious experience.
William James viewed religious experience as involving intense human emotions and feelings directed toward some unseen order, reality, power “Out there” to which the personal stance is adjustment and surrender. A person’s religion involves both moods of contraction and moods of expansion of his being i.e. sorrow and happiness. In order to explain the matter further, he divides the psyche (soul) into two types. One is healthy soul and the other is sick soul. Healthy soul is optimistic and the sick soul is pessimistic. In his wards “the completest religions would therefore seem to be those in which the pessimistic elements are best developed.” James is criticized for interpreting his cases apart from their socio-cultural context and hardly went into religious history or anthropology.
Sigmund Freud discovered the existence of the personal unconscious and he was able to analyze the major forces within this realm and their influence on consciousness. The unconscious is essentially that in us, which is bad, the repressed, that which is incompatible with the demands of our culture and of our higher self. Freud’s main insight was that all psychical activity is at first unconscious. For Freud, religion is the projection of infantile dependencies upon imagined superhuman beings. The dependencies, he called, collective neurosis. He also found that, there were many non-religious motivations, behind all religions aspirations. The infantile dependencies, or the obsessional childhood neurosis, Freud called, the “Oedupus complex.” That is why he said religion is illusion. The process of detecting this neurosis is called psychoanalysis. For this Freud chose to interpret dream. Dreams for him, are the out come of the suppressed feelings, may be of childhood. It is commented that Oedipus complex may be a more complicated image in our context given that insofar as the father’s influence actually has been complex and not simply authoritarian in our own times.
For Carl Gustav Jung the psyche consists of two parts: Consciousness and the unconscious. The unconscious is older than the consciousness. Again he made a distinction between personal unconscious and collective unconscious. Collective unconscious is responsible for the religious behavior. The personal unconscious is an accumulation of contents that have been repressed during the life of the individual and is continuously being refined with new materials. The collective unconscious consists entirely of elements characteristic of the human species. The elements of the collective unconscious are called ‘Archetypes’. The archetypes are common to all human beings. From the collective unconscious, the archetypes come into the regular course of life. This is religion.
3 Issues in the Study of Religion
This section will analyze the issues involved in the different approaches to the study of religion. Besides, some of the general interests that concern all the students of religion shall be highlighted. They are such as, definition of religion, who should study religion, nature of data for the study of religion, whether value free judgment of data is possible, issues related to the use of language, specific problems in studying living religions, response threshold, observable and non-observable aspects of religion, hermeneutic and option for a pluralist perspective.
3.1 Issues Involved in the Different Approaches to the Study of Religion
With due acknowledgement to the contributions of Max Muller it can be said that, his initial endeavors did not suffer challenges, which are confronted by the modern scholars. His openness to accept the significant value of data supplied by other branches of learning for the science of religion is in fact a beacon.
The anthropologists mostly depended on empirical knowledge and did not penetrate into the real religious realm, which is beyond the empirical phenomena. They are suspected for missionary activities. Their main concentration was upon the primal religions, hence failed to examine the challenges facing the living religions. They are also blamed for over generalization. Even though most of the primal religious data are in oral form, the anthropologist is handicapped with language, at least at the stage of interpretation.
Sociologists have explained religion as a social phenomenon. The real issue is whether religion is responsible for the social institutions or the social structure is responsible for the emergence of religion, because many religious experiences of individuals cannot be explained away by sociological criteria alone. Some sociologists also perceive some form of supernatural influence upon the religious behavior of people.
The issue in historical approach is whether the historian of religion will be able to use the abundance of available data to trace back the origin of religion. Since the data will be influenced by the values and personal experiences of the particular scholars concerned, the historical approach should explore the possibilities of presenting objective facts, which are not hampered with other personal influences.
Phenomenologist are accused for their over dependence on the religious experience of the people. Their quest for various structures, to find out their similarity or differences, involves removing of certain phenomena from the original setting. It can lead the scholar to recognize meanings different from what was really intended. Their enthusiasm to find out the essence of religion is a crucial issue because what seems to be the essence of one religion may not find similar status in other religions.
Studying a few individual cases, psychologists conclude that, certain psychic experience is common to humanity. And this common human nature is responsible for the religious behavior of people. Generalization has its own limitations. They do not see any other possibility for the religious behavior of people.
3.2 General Issues
These are issues that concern all the scholars of religions irrespective of their specific approaches. First of such an issue is the definition of religion. Definitions abound, but without any common agreement. The very word ‘religion’ has become bone of contention because of its implicit Roman religiosity. Also studies have proved that there are religions even without any supernatural element. Thus the question is whether religion has to be defined or not before attempting to study. As an inadequate definition of religion can affect the scholar in examining all the available data, an open-ended approach for the definition will be of greater significance for the scientific study of religion.
Secondly, although not now, earlier studies of religions had been dominated by western scholars, presumably with considerable missionary zeal. The main issue, irrespective of advantages and disadvantages, is whether the insider or the outsider should study religion. The convincing answer is honesty in study.
Thirdly the scholar of religion is over burdened with enormous amount of data because of the emergence of various disciplines and the rapid growth of science and communication. Whether any individual scholar will be able to handle and classify all the data or only one aspect of the data should be focused. It depends of course on the limits set by the individual investigator.
Fourthly, whether one achieves pure value free objectivity, in the study of religion. Although difficult, student of religion can exercise more balanced attitude.
Fifthly, since all religious language, symbol, practice etc. are found meaningful only in their proper contexts, can modern language transmit their real content and implications? Textual study of the religious traditions can be effective. But the availability of the texts and language scholarship are again matters of concern.
Sixthly, unlike studying primal religious traditions, the living religions pose new challenges. Here the problem is not data or origin, but how different religions interact and exist side by side in harmony by addressing common issues. In other words their ‘meaning and function in society’. Another issue connected to the study of living religions is “the response threshold” that is the right of the present day devotee to advance a distinctive interpretation of his or her own tradition.
Seventhly, the academic study of religion, now, is generally concerned with observable data -historical knowledge of the rituals, mythologies, religious communities, ideas, teachings, institutions, arts, and architecture. Beyond the observable there is a non-observable. A clear distinction between them can resolve many misunderstandings. And “discovering the character of this transcendent focus comprises an important part of the study of a religion.”
Eighthly, the bulk of religious data warrants appropriate hermeneutical principle as religion influences human life at all levels. Otherwise it is impossible to systematically order and account for the variety of religious data.
Ninthly, contrary to the original intention, the increasing connection between religion and theology, and other disciplines pose the challenging question can the study of religion be called as an area rather than a discipline. In other words whether a multidisciplinary approach is possible. The answer seems to be affirmative.
4 Implications for the Indian Context
Scientific study of religion offers many valuable insights to the Indian context. First, it reveals that religion is as old as human history. Secondly, it helps furthering ‘free sharing among religions’ i.e. interaction among them. Thirdly, it also postulates that ‘all our faiths have some value’ and the superiority claims of religions becomes untenable and suspicious because in one sense every religion was a true religion in its context. Fourthly Indian context requires special approach, not merely western, as she houses major living religions of the world. More over now the nonwestern scholar’s study and reflection of their own religion is amply available. There is a clear distinction between the Eastern and Western contexts. In
is defined as a way of life. And it is never separated from daily life.
Fifthly, in the context of growing threats to life religion has wider and
significant role to bring people together and engage them in common concerns. India
Sixthly, the scientific study of religion reveals the fundamental, “Unity of Religion”. It is already present in religion but we need to realize it. It helps bring home the idea that religion was one and manifold forms are its existence in diverse cultural contexts. Seventhly, studying religion means studying life. The problem of religion would become vastly complicated if it were to be discretely separated from the problem of people because it has neither essence nor existence nor any kind of being whatsoever apart from people. Focus upon “Life” should become key to the understanding of religious phenomena in
Eighthly, the two fundamental aspects for the scientific study of religions from Indian perspective are “Unity of Religion” and concern for “Life”. It is time we shift from the teaching of religion to the study of religion.
Ninthly, there is no distinction between religion and philosophy in
. Thus Dr. S. Radhakrishnan
approached religion from the viewpoint of philosophy, contrary to the west. Philosophy of religion verifies religious
data systematically and logically. It is
feared that this approach might become a mere intellectual exercise.  India
Tenthly, against the original wishes now there is more possibility for creative integration between theology and the study of religion. This possibility is promising,hence Indian theology cannot ignore the rich and variety of religious resources.
Max Muller founded the “Science of Religion”. Its main task is to study religion scientifically. The scientific study of religion concentrated on the origin of religion. For this the comparative and historical perspectives were applied. The early anthropological theories saw the origin of religion in animism, Animatism, manism, supreme beings, magic etc. The anthropologists of religion used rigorous empirical method. The sociologists of religion interpreted religion as social phenomena. The phenomenological perspective found the essence of religion in some ‘sacred focus’. And the psychological perspective has located religion in human psyche.
The science of religion has to tackle some crucial issues. One of them is whether religion should be defined at all. Whether the insider or the outsider should study religion is another issue. The ever-growing quantity of data raises serious concern to the scholars of religion. The study of living religions faces new issues, which were never problem to the scholars of primal religions. To avoid all seeming hardships in the study of religion a multi-methodic approach is convincing.
The scientific study of religion offers valuable insights, which are relevant to the specific Indian context. A challenging Indian perspective for the scientific study of religion can be formulated on the basis of these insights. Any relevant perspective for the scientific study of religion should take “Life” as the hermeneutical principle.
The growing communal conflicts in
lessened, if religions are studied scientifically and their findings are made
known to their adherents. It will be
promising to implement the ‘Science of religion’ in the regular college
curriculum. The Indian pluralistic
context demands that every citizen is aware to the findings of the “Science of
Religion and Dialogue
 Eric J. Sharpe, Comparative Religion, A History, Duckworth, 1975, pp.1-26.
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 E. O. James, Comparative Religion, Op. cit., p.16.
 Ibid., p.16.
 Thomas L. Benson, The Encyclopedia of Religion, vol.14, p.65.
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