OVERVIEW OF BASIC CONCEPTS IN RELIGIOUS STUDIES

What is Religious Studies?

Religious Studies is an academic discipline in the modern academy that has as the focus of its investigation the phenomenon called 'religion'. Religious Studies brings together the tools of several diverse academic disciplines, e.g., History, Anthropology, Archaeology, Sociology, Philosophy, to help investigate the nature of religious belief and practice.

It is important to emphasize that Religious Studies is not confessional. That is, the investigation of religious phenomena does not require a commitment to, or acceptance of, any religious system whatsoever. Indeed, personal religious conviction has long been a significant obstacle to the advance of Religious Studies, though it is not necessarily so.

Components of Religious Studies -

What is Religion?

The most basic question to address when beginning the study of any religious system is, "What do we mean by 'religion'?" It is essential that we share a common definition in our investigation, otherwise serious confusion can ensue. Thus, for the present we will adopt as a working definition of 'religion' the following:
DEFINITION: Religion is any set of normative (i.e., action guiding) beliefs and practices designed to connect a community to the divine (i.e., the holy, or the "other").
The practices within a religious system are often referred to as 'rituals' (though the term certainly has broader connotative meaning). Ritual practice is thus any set of activities believed to foster a connection between the participant(s) and the divine. While ritual is often, if not usually, formalized in a liturgy, it can be less prescribed as long as the participant(s) recognizes the act as one aimed at fostering a divine encounter. Ritual practice can be corporate or individual, social or private and includes, but is not limited to:

What is Myth?

Another fundamental part of religion is myth. The popular understanding of this term, or its connotation, implies a false story. However, this is not an appropriate understanding of the term in the context of Religious Studies. Religion is not primarily aimed at divulging truth in the philosophical or scientific sense (i.e., a proposition that corresponds with how the world is), but rather with illuminating or discovering meaning. A story may be meaningful without being empirically or historically true. Parables and allegory are perfect examples; while an allegory may not be literally true, it can none the less be meaningful to the audience. It is in this sense that we must understand the concept of myth in religion.


DEFINITION: Myth is any story or narrative that places the listener/reader in history; it is a narrative that provides meaning and context to the life of the individual or community.

In the context of religion, it makes little sense to ask if a myth is true. A myth is neither true or false; it will be meaningful or not.

What is Theology?

Another important concept in the study of religion is theology. Derived from the Greek theos and logos the term refers to the analytic investigation and expression of fundamental religious concepts. What are the central concepts of a religious system? How is the divine to be understood? What is the relationship between the divine realm and the human world? These are some of the basic questions of theology.

Four Types of Religious Systems