The academic study of religion isn’t a means of just learning scriptures or passages from a sacred text like the Bible. It is a more complex process and can be considered multidisciplinary – it can include art, literature, linguistics, history, philosophy, psychology, sociology and much more.
Religion can’t be studied without knowing what we are trying to study, and while some would argue it just doesn’t exist, the similarity among the diverse religious belief systems around the world are strong enough to justify a comprehensive field study encompassing the factors listed above, some of which fall into Livingstone’s ‘seven ways of studying religion’. However, to effectively study religion in an academic way, it is important to include critical analysis, which means it is important not to be biased towards your own beliefs.
By doing this you can become more culturally aware of other faiths and beliefs, and thus obtain a greater understanding of religions. Literary criticism plays an important role in the academic study of religion. Religion in the theological way is all about the teachings of a particular sacred text. The Bible for Christianity, the Quran for Islam and Sutras for Buddhism, for example, all contain the teachings and laws of the respective religions, which is essentially how people can understand religion in the first place.
Livingstone, in his theories on religion, says questions are the key to studying and understanding the meaning of sacred texts. Is it reliable; who was the author; when was it written and where; how has the work been received, interpreted and passed on? These are the questions that need to be answered before a true understanding of religion can be obtained, and who better to answer them than a literary critic, according to Livingstone. The relationship between religion and language also relates to this idea of literary criticism.
Language in religion doesn’t often function like it does in everyday life – it is not found at the surface level of words or signs, according to Livingstone. Understanding language and how it is used in religion provides insight, but it also stretches to include the nature and function of language itself. Because of religion’s role in human cultures, it is impossible to comprehend the flow of history without some basic grounding in a variety of religious beliefs.
Livingstone says it would appear obvious that the historical study of religion has to do with establishing what role religious experience and ideas play in the lives of individuals and communities. You only have to look at the Bible and see the Old Testament is dated in years ‘before Christ’. Livingstone gives an example of the Protestant Reformation. The causes of the Protestant Reformation have been a topic of contention among historians, and the debate illustrates both the importance of history in gaining a fuller understanding of that event in western history, and the difficulties in proposing a single casual explanation in history.
But the notion of history and religion can be put a little more simply – religious traditions provide structure to the world and provides people with a sense of where they fit in, which in turn affects choices today, for example decisions about politics. The philosophical scrutiny of religion is one of the oldest and most instructive ways of examining religious experience and belief, according to Livingstone. In this century philosophy’s relation to religion is to analyse the uses of religious language and to test its logical status and meaning.
It asks whether a religious expression is simply performing an action or evoking the emotions. Livingstone says philosophers believe much of the problems with religion stem from these confusing uses of language. Over the centuries and spanning different continents, the notion of philosophy has remained significant in several religious traditions, which emphasises the importance of it in an educational way – In India, philosophy has remained associated with historical developments in Hinduism and the same goes for Buddhism in Asia.
The way in which religion interacts within a social dimension is also a significant element to studying religion. Sociologist, Max Weber, demonstrated that certain forms of social life and behaviour could deeply reflect the religious belief and practice of society. For example: Weber analysed how the new Protestant ethic, which came with the Reformation of the 16th century, proved to be decisive in shaping the spirit of modern capitalist society. All religions have a concept of what it means to be a member of a religious society, how it should function, how it should be organised, and how the society relates to the outside world.
Therefore it is important to have an understanding of the sociology behind religion, especially in the instance that culture and religion become hard to distinguish between. It is understood that religions offer critiques of contemporary society based on concepts of an ideal society and must understand the connection between sacred and secular power and the political and religious institutions representing each. This is where a study of sociology and anthropology become important for religion. The relationship between religious and violent conflict is well known.
It can be argued that religions are inclined to be absolutist, meaning they don’t allow for the validity of other religions. This discourages the discussions and negotiations and compromises needed to resolve differences of opinion peacefully, which can then have an effect on society itself. Without compromises, it can sometimes erupt into violence – so in terms of the importance of studying religion, it is ideal to know the interconnection between sociology and religion to understand why and how conflicts, for example, can sometimes occur.
And then there’s the psychology behind the importance of studying religion. One of the early workers in this particular field was William James. He explored the psychological dimensions of phenomena as conversion, mysticism and saintliness. Livingstone says the connection between psychology and religion is perhaps the most closely associated with great figures in psychoanalysis. He also uses an example of Gordon Allport’s work, who studied the relationship between religion and prejudice.
He says studies such as Allport’s show the value of psychological studies in revealing the potential effect of forms of religion on social relations and behaviours. Allport particularly discovered that there were different correlations between prejudice and types of being religious, what he referred to as extrinsic and intrinsic religions. This particular study into psychology and religion is significant because it can warn us against making too-simple correlation between prejudice and religion, according to Livingstone.
In addition to Livingstone’s ideas behind studying religion, there are other factors that intertwine, like art, for example. No one can view art without noticing the influence of religion. Every religion provides ideas, tales, cultural symbols, and concepts vital to creating art. It can be argued that without the cultural resources available today that have been created by religions, some art would be impossible to create or even understand. It isn’t particularly essential for making art, but religion’s role culturally makes the connection stronger.
In conclusion, it is difficult to seriously or substantively critique religion if it’s not understood. It is for this reason that an understanding language critique, sociology, history, psychology and philosophy, for example, is so important. Livingstone says the academic study of religion can help people to see religion as a whole. These scholarly views and disciplines can help people to see aspects of their own religions that they may be blind to, which in turn can help prosper more appreciation for various religious traditions.