ISSUES IN THE STUDY OF RELIGION



ISSUES IN THE STUDY OF RELIGION
The scientific study of religion confronts a variety of issues as it passes through time.  For the sake of convenience, the issues faced by different approaches to the study of religions, starting with that of Max Muller, can be highlighted.  Then, the general issues that call for the attention of every scholar of religion may be listed.  For instance, 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 plurality of perspective.
Muller argued that the manifestation of the infinite is diversely found among all people and hence the common elements among religions could be traced through comparative method and this in turn would enable one to trace the history of the origin of religions. As Muller’s aim was to establish an independent discipline for the scientific study of religion, he did not foresee other difficulties which are confronted by modern scholars. 
The anthropologists depended mostly on empirical knowledge, and hence, they did not penetrate into the real religious realm which is beyond the empirical phenomena. Some of them approached primal religions with hidden motives, like missionaries.  Further, most of the anthropological studies were concentrated on the analysis of primal religions.  They, therefore, failed to examine the challenges facing the living religions. A major issue, this approach has to face is, over generalization.  Anthropologists, having studied one or few primal religions tend to assert that their theory alone can be the right one to trace the origin of religions.  One other issue related to this is that, one or a few anthropologists cannot study the entire primal religious practices.  Even though most of the primal religious data are in oral form, language, at least at the stage of interpretation, is a limitation to the anthropologists.
The real issue in the study of religion from sociological perspective is whether religion is responsible for the social institutions or the social structure is responsible for the emergence of religion.  In other words, whether religion influences society or society influences religion.  The reason is that, many sociologists perceive some form of supernatural influence upon the religious behavior of people. 
The main issue in the 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.  Indeed, it is too hard to perceive the past with the present data. 
The task of the phenomenologist is to find out the essence of religion.  This is a crucial issue because what seems to be the essence of one religion may not be the same or have a similar status in other religions.  Further, as pointed above, shifting religious categories from their original context can lead the scholar to perceive meanings different from what was really intended.
The issue in the psychological approach is that the simple to complex generalization has its own limitations.  Further, the psychologists of religion have not taken heed of any force other than human being to be the cause of the religious behavior of the people.  It requires serious attention because this is what constitutes the crux of the religious sentiment.
Apart from these specific issues, there are certain common issues which cannot but capture the attention of every scholar of religion.  The major issue confronting the study of religion is the definition of the term ‘religion’.  Thus the question is whether religion has to be defined or not before attempting to study it because “philological investigation of the use of the word has revealed some interesting aspects of Roman religiosity, which was characterized by a scrupulous attention to all signs or manifestations of invisible powers or forces.”[1]  At the same time, further studies about religion have proved that there are religions even without any supernatural element. 
On the basis of a deep commitment required from the scholars of religion [2] the emerging next issue is whether the insider or the outsider should study religion.  As scholars of religion face the reality of abundance of data the question is whether any individual scholar will be able to handle and classify all the data or only one aspect of the data should be focused. 
The chronic fear about the value-free judgment of religious data is another issue confronting the study of religion.  In the context of religious pluralism too, value plays an important role.  In the pluralistic paradigm, there is an immense stress to respect the value of each and every religion.  A religiously pluralist country like India is compelled to honour the views of scholars who are committed to their own religion, but treat other religions with same dignity and goodwill. 
With regard to language, when a primal concept is explained in the modern language, whether the real content and implications are carried through is a question that matters religious studies.[3]  
Traditional scholars were concerned with primal or archaic religions.  But today scholars show greater interest in the living religions.[4]  Primal religions did not possess documentary evidences to prove their origin, development, faith, practice etc.  But living religions abound with such details.  Hence the study of living religions requires new dynamics.  Here the problem is not data or origin, but how different religions interact and exist side by side in harmony, addressing the current issues.[5]  Added to this is the issue of personal response (response threshold) to one’s own faith. In the words of Michael Pye “after all, unless one has an understanding of what a religion means to its participants one cannot really be said to understand it fully.”[6]
The academic study of religion, now, is generally concerned with observable data.[7]  But religion is not limited to these observable factors alone.  Beyond the observable there is a non-observable sphere too.  This is what really gives life to religion.  Failure to consider the non-observable causes confusion.[8]  Of course this is related to the element of Truth.  It is a complicated matter yet, “discovering the character of this transcendent focus comprises an important part of the study of a religion.”[9] 
Another important issue the science of religion has to face is to derive at an appropriate Hermeneutical principle.  This need is due to the increasing amount of data being gathered by various branches of studies connected with religion.  Further, the multi religious context definitely is in need of a relevant Hermeneutical principle.[10]  Unless a relevant hermeneutic is used to interpret the religious phenomena which is influencing life at all levels, the study of religion will not be in a position to experience its implications.
Another pertinent issue is whether religious study could be ventured using single method or poly-method.  K. P. Aleaz[11], Eric J. Lott[12] and Ninian Smart[13]  favour a poly-methodic approach.


[1] De Graeve, New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol.12, p.240.
[2] Henry H. Presler, “How should we study other religions?” National Christian Council Review.
Vol.LXXXI, No.5 ( May 1961), pp.193, 194.
[3] Jarich Oosten, “Cultural Anthropological Approaches”, Contemporary Approaches to the
Study of Religion in 2 Volumes, edited by Frank Whaling, Vol.II: The Social Sciences (Berlin: Mouton Publishers, 1985), p.252.
[4] Ursula King, “The Debate about the Science of Religion”, Contemporary Approaches to the
Study of Religion in 2 Volumes, edited by Frank Whaling, Vol.I: The Humanities (Berlin: Mouton Publishers, 1984), p.149.
[5] Geoffrey Parrinder, Comparative Religion (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1962), p.21.
[6] Michael Pye, Comparative Religion An Introduction Through Source Materials (Newton
Abbot: David and Charles, 1972), p.13.
[7] Thomas A. Idinopulos, “The Difficulties of Understanding Religion”, what is Religion?
Origins, Definitions & Explanations, edited by Thomas A. Idinopulos & Brain C. Wilson (Brill, 1998), p.27.
[8] Ibid., p.27.
[9] Eric J. Lott, “Approaching Religious Traditions”, Religions Traditions of India (Indian Theological Library, 1988), p.3.
[10] Ursula King, op. cit., p.152.
[11] K. P. Aleaz, Dimensions of Indian Religion, Study, Experience and Interaction (Calcutta:
Punthipustak, 1995), p.6.
[12] Eric J. Lott, Tradition, Interpretation, Theology Religion, and the Study of Religion (Moutan
 de Gruyter, 1988), p.156.
[13] Ninian Smart, “The Scientific Study in its Plurality”, Contemporary Approaches to the Study
of Religion in 2 Volumes, Vol., op. cit., p.372.

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