Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version


Defined most straight-forwardly, the term refers to a subject matter. By this definition, religious studies is confined to no specific discipline and encompasses the contributions of psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, economists, literary critics, art historians, and philosophers. Religious studies so defined is an area studies. It is the subject area of a library card catalog.

When religious studies is defined this broadly, the distinctive contribution of members of departments of religious studies—scholars of religion—is limited. Their task is merely to amass and classify data about religions and to leave to psychologists, sociologists, and others the analysis of the data. Just as the role of a subject librarian is to assemble the books for others to read, so here the role of scholars of religion is to assemble the data for others to analyze. A library is judged by how many books it has collected on a subject, not by what the subject librarian thinks of the subject. The categorization of books as "religious" is the responsibility of the subject librarian, but even the chief subject librarian of the Library of Congress ordinarily defers to the author. A book by a psychologist purportedly analyzing religion psychologically would get categorized under religion, even if also cross-catalogued under psychology.

A second, slightly bolder way of defining religious studies is to entrust scholars of religion with not merely gathering data but also presenting them from the worshiper's point of view. Scholars of religion here record the actor's point of view, but they do not assess it. They present the worshiper's view of the origin, function, and meaning of religion, but they leave to psychologists, sociologists, and others the determination of the "actual" origin, function, and even meaning of religion.

The third, far bolder way of defining religious studies is to grant it the status of a discipline and not merely a subject matter. Defined this way, religious studies is the distinctive prerogative of scholars of religion. To study religion is now to study a distinctively, or "irreducibly," religious subject. Some scholars of religion bar others from studying religion on the grounds that what others study is by definition psychology or sociology rather than religion. Most scholars of religion allow others to participate in the study of religion, but they still demarcate one aspect of the subject as irreducibly religious. Psychologists and sociologists, it is granted, decipher the psychological and sociological aspects of religion, but there remains an irreducibly religious aspect. Scholars of religion who insist on an irreducibly religious aspect of religion are sometimes called "religionists."

What is this irreducibly religious aspect of religion? Most often, it is claimed to be the object of religious worship: god, divinity , or, to use the preferred term, the sacred . Religious studies alone, argue religionists, can grasp the sacred, precisely because the sacred is unlike anything else. To study the sacred is to study something that by nature is not psychological, sociological, or otherwise nonreligious.

The other aspect that is claimed to be distinctively religious is the origin and function of religion. Religionists assert that persons become and remain religious to satisfy an irreducibly religious need. To be irreducibly religious, that need cannot be merely one satisfied by religion, as might be said of the need for food, health, victory in battle, explanation of the world, or purpose in life. The need must itself be irreducibly religious. It is the need to experience the sacred . Many religionists deem this need universal, even if it goes unfulfilled in some persons. The function of religion is exactly to provide opportunities for experiencing the sacred.


Criticisms of religious studies defined in any of these ways abound. As commendable as the ecumenism of the definition of religious studies as a subject area is, religious studies is thereby demoted to a mere repository of data for full-fledged disciplines to scrutinize. Taking this consequence as a criticism is, of course, to beg the question about the real nature of religious studies. At the same time, religious studies defined meekly as a mere subject area does not possess even the limited autonomy of other area studies. For religious studies seen in this way harbors only a provisional subject matter, one awaiting translation into the terms of whichever disciplines turn to it. For example, the psychology of religion translates religious phenomena into psychological ones. Worshipers may think that they are praying to their god, but from a Freudian point of view, they are praying to their fathers. The subject matter becomes psychology rather than religion. Books currently catalogued under "religion" get recatalogued under "psychology."

Religious studies credited with at least presenting the worshiper's point of view is one step beyond religious studies restricted to a mere subject area, but here too religious studies constitutes less than a discipline and is permitted to take no stand on the actual origin, function, and meaning of religion. Religious studies defined this way does not presume to say why human beings are in fact religious, only why they think they are.

Religious studies defined as an outright discipline has all the virtues that religious studies defined as anything less lacks. It is entitled to make its own claims about the origin, function, and meaning of religion. It is on par with other disciplines that do the same. The question here, however, is whether religious studies can justify itself as an independent discipline. Too often the justification offered for an irreducibly religious approach to religion is simply an appeal to the worshiper's point of view. But other disciplines do not deny the worshiper's point of view. Rather, they seek to account for it. For psychologists, sociologists, and others, the analysis of religion begins with the worshiper's point of view but does not end there. For religionists to invoke the worshiper's point of view against psychologists, sociologists, and others—as if religionists alone take that point of view into account—is to invoke a straw man (see Segal 1989:1-36, 1992:35-49).

Origin of the Discipline of Religious Studies:
Müller and Otto

The chief figure in the establishment of religious studies as a discipline and not merely a subject matter was the Indologist Friedrich Max Müller. According to Müller, everyone is religious: "Wherever there is human life, there is religion" (1910:7). Religion originates in the experience of the sacred, which he calls the "Infinite." Because the experience of the Infinite is spontaneous, Müller postulates no religious need. Human beings experience the Infinite not directly but through nature—most of all through celestial phenomena, especially the sun:

What position the sun must have occupied in the thoughts of the early dwellers on earth, we shall never be able to fully understand. Not even the most recent scientific discoveries described in Tyndall's genuine eloquence, which teach us how we live, and move, and have our being in the sun, how we burn it, how we breathe it, how we feed on it—give us any idea of what this source of light and life . . . was to the awakening consciousness of mankind. (1910:200)

The object of worship is not, however, the sun itself but the Infinite, which transcends the natural world through which it manifests itself. The Infinite is experienced through the senses but lies beyond the senses.

This distinctive subject matter requires a distinctive discipline to study it. Hence the autonomy of religious studies: It alone studies the true object of worship, which is beyond the ken of other disciplines. Books on religion currently cross-listed under "psychology" and other disciplines are recatalogued under "religion" exclusively.

The theologian Rudolf Otto (1923) went even further than Müller in isolating the sacred, which Otto prefers to call the "Holy." For Müller, the sacred, while distinct from the profane, is manifested through it and is therefore akin to it. For Otto, the sacred is the opposite of the profane and must be experienced directly. While Otto's concern is not disciplinary, his emphasis on the radical other-ness of the sacred only reinforced the call for a separate discipline to comprehend it.

Wach and Eliade

Whereas Müller wanted to encompass all of religious studies in a single "science of religion," his successors more often have sought to extricate individual strands within it. The strands most commonly singled out have been the phenomenology of religion, which is equivalent to comparative religion, and the history of religions, which focuses on individual religions. Some scholars have pitted phenomenology against history (see van der Leeuw 1963: 686); others have sought to reconcile the two (see Pettazzoni 1954:215-219, Bleeker 1963:1-15).

It was above all the historian Joachim Wach (1944, 1958, 1968, 1989a, 1989b) who strove to establish the autonomy of the history of religions. According to Wach, the history of religions leaves to theology and philosophy the determination of both the essence and the truth of religion, and leaves to the social sciences the determination of the origin and function of religion. The distinctive issue left for the history of religions is for Wach the "meaning" of religion, or its significance for the worshipers themselves:

No one will deny that bracketing [the question of truth] makes it possible to study the philosophical systems of all peoples and times and to value them as expressions of world views. . . . Those who study the arts are familiar with this procedure. Their discipline attempts to understand a work of art by attempting to draw out its "meaning"; it does not raise the question of "truth." (1989a:25)

Far more enamored of sociology than of psychology, Wach grants that sociology can account for both the origin and the function of religion: "A wide field is open for the sociologist of religion in the examination of the sociological roots and functions of myths, doctrines and dogmas, of cultures and association in general and in particular (hic et nunc )." Sociology can even account for the particular form a religion takes: "To what extent are the different types of the expression of religious experience in different societies and cultures socially conditioned (technological, moral, cultural level)?" (1989b:100).

Yet Wach is still prepared to pronounce the essence of religion irreducibly religious: "A religious manifestation must be understood as a religious manifestation" (1989a:162). The heart of religion is, as for Müller and Otto, the experience of the sacred. Sociology can account for the form religion takes, but it can never grasp the common pristine experience expressed through that form: "There can be no doubt that it is characteristic of religious experience to transcend cultural conditions" (1989b:135). The origin and intended function of religion turn out to be irreducibly religious, and even sociology can tackle only the unintended functions of religion: "We have tried to show that social integration is not the 'aim' or 'purpose' of religion. Religion is sound and true to its nature only as long as it has no aim or purpose except the worship of God" (1944:381). Wach, like Müller, assumes religion to be both universal and spontaneous, and thereby more easily seen as self-explanatory.

Following Wach, the historian of religions Mircea Eliade (1958, 1959, 1968a, 1968b, 1969) strove to distinguish the history of religions from at once theology and the social sciences. Like Wach, Eliade declares religion universal, deems the core of religion the experience of the sacred, and castigates the reduction of religion to something nonreligious. Acknowledging that the social sciences can identify the historical context of religion, he seems to be granting them the determination of the origin and function of religion. But, in fact, he confines them to only the preconditions of religion. The direct origin and function of religion remain, as for Wach, irreducibly religious:

Few religious phenomena are more directly and more obviously connected with sociopolitical circumstances than the modern messianic and millenarian movements among colonial peoples (cargo-cults, etc.). Yet identifying and analyzing the conditions that prepared and made possible such messianic movements form only a part of the work of the historian of religions. For these movements are equally creations of the human spirit, in the sense that they have become what they are—religious movements , and not merely gestures of protest and revolt—through a creative act of the spirit. (1969:6)

As for Wach, so for Eliade, the social sciences can, moreover, say nothing of the meaning of religion: "Like it or not, the scholar has not finished his work when he has reconstructed the history of a religious form or brought out its sociological, economic, or political contexts. In addition, he must understand its meaning" (1969:2). Unlike Wach, Eliade accords no special place to sociology or to any other social science. The egalitarian Eliade abhors all social sciences equally.

Whereas Müller and Otto stress the spontaneous encounter with the sacred, Eliade emphasizes the actual need for the sacred and sees religion as the fulfillment of that need. Myths and rituals are the prime ways in which religion provides contact with the sacred. Myths return one to the time when the sacred was near. Rituals open one up to the continuing presence of the sacred. Because Eliade postulates a panhuman need for the sacred, he is eager to show how self-professed atheists and agnostics are really religious at heart: "The majority of the 'irreligious' still behave religiously, even though they are not aware of the fact. . . . [T]he modern man who feels and claims that he is nonreligious still retains a large stock of camouflaged myths and degenerated rituals" (1968b:204 f). Venturing far beyond his predecessors, Eliade seeks to show that all humans are actually, not merely potentially, religious. He gleefully uncovers the religious dimension in seemingly profane activities such as reading novels, seeing movies, celebrating holidays, and moving house. Religious studies thus is no longer confined to explicit cases of religion but now encroaches on secular domains and disciplines. The disciplinary tables have turned. (On the history of religious studies, see Jastrow 1901, Jordan 1905, Kita- gawa 1985, Preus 1987, Rudolph 1985, Sharpe 1986.)

The legacy of the tradition from Müller to Eliade has been the isolation of the discipline of religious studies from other disciplines, which are seen as threatening to the autonomy of religious studies. While the field of religious studies is indisputably ever more and more open to interdisciplinary approaches, the fear of a hostile takeover by, above all, the social sciences remains. It is not coincidental that in the United States the social scientific study of religion occupies a minor place in the American Academy of Religion, the umbrella organization for scholars of religious studies, and is instead carried out by separate organizations such as the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, the Association for the Sociology of Religion, and the Religious Research Association.

Robert A. Segal


C. J. Bleeker, The Sacred Bridge (Leiden: Brill, 1963)

M. Eliade Patterns in Comparative Religion (Cleveland, Ohio: Meridian, 1958)

M. Eliade, Cosmos and History (New York: Harper, 1959)

M. Eliade, Myth and Reality (New York: Harper, 1968a)

M. Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane (New York: Harvest, 1968b)

M. Eliade, The Quest (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969)

M. Jastrow, Jr., The Study of Religion (London: Scott, 1901)

L. H. Jordan, Comparative Religion (Edinburgh: Clark, 1905)

J. M. Kitagawa (ed.), The History of Religions (New York: Macmillan, 1985)

G. van der Leeuw, Religion in Essence and Manifestation (New York: Harper, 1963 [1933])

F. E. Manuel, The Eighteenth Century Confronts the Gods (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959)

F. M. Müller, Chips from a German Workshop (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1867-1875)

F. M. Müller, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion (New York: Scribner, 1910)

R. Otto, The Idea of the Holy (London: Oxford University Press, 1923)

R. Pettazzoni, Essays on the History of Religions (Leiden: Brill, 1954)

J. S. Preus, Explaining Religion (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987)

K. Rudolph, Historical Fundamentals and the Study of Religions (New York: Macmillan, 1985)

W. Schmidt, The Origin and Growth of Religion (London: Methuen, 1931)

R. A. Segal, Religion and the Social Sciences (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989)

R. A. Segal, Explaining and Interpreting Religion (New York: Lang, 1992)

E. J. Sharpe, Comparative Religion , 2nd ed. (LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court, 1986)

J. Wach, Sociology of Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944)

J. Wach, The Comparative Study of Religions (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958)

J. Wach, Understanding and Believing (New York: Harper, 1968)

J. Wach, Introduction to the History of Religions (New York: Macmillan, 1989a)

J. Wach, Essays in the History of Religions (New York: Macmillan, 1989b).

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