I talked a little about philosophy and religion in past articles. Here, I’m going to talk about the ways people can look at and analyze religion. One article I wrote a while back that generated numerous email responses was on the Historical Jesus, or why we might look at Christianity from a historical rather than theological perspective. Here, I’m going to be a bit broader in scope, but the point is the same – that there are many ways historians, theologians, philosophers, and anyone else can evaluate a religion’s underlying themes and truths. Each provides a different perspective that may help us get closer to the truth – whatever that may be.
- Comparative Religion – Comparative religion is about looking at the similarities and differences between religions. It’s not concerned with judging with religions are the best, most rational, most coherent, or most true to reality. Rather it finds commonalities between each. Much of the work in comparative religion looks at common myths, underlying themes, and symbols. Joseph Campbell’s classic writings on comparative mythology are a good example of this.
- Psychology of Religion – Psychology of religion looks at why people organize themselves into religious structures and/or how they interpret religious experiences on a personal level. Some examples of this include Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents and Moses and Monotheism and William James’ Varieties of Religious Experiences.
- Theology – Theology involves a comprehensive framework for interpreting religious doctrine. Often, theology starts with one prolific writer or group of authority figures and spawns a religious movement such as Catholicism (developed through the Pope’s writings and numerous church councils), Lutheranism (started when Martin Luther tacked his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle), and the other branches of Protestantism that quickly sprang up.
- Apologetics – Apologetics is similar to theology in that, committed believers defend their religious faith (which is usually a particular theology) against criticism. This isn’t about objectivity but rationally arguing why a particular criticism is flawed or proving the truth of a particular doctrine. CS Lewis is a popular apologetic.
- History of Religion – Here, we look at the religious movement from a historical perspective. Who were the key figures that started the religion? Where did they live? What did they do for a living? What was the socio-political environment at the time? Were other figures speaking and/or writing about similar concepts? Who were their rivals? What happened to them? How do they describe these key figures and their followers? Do the historical events that they wrote about match up with the documented history from those in charge?
- Philosophy of Religion – This is about the gap between what we believe and what we can know – in other words, is religious knowledge possible? This requires stepping outside a religious framework and looking at the underlying themes, concepts, and perceived truths. It then asks – do these concepts, arguments, logical frameworks make sense to a rational being?
Much of this website covers Comparative Religion (the demon descriptions) and the History of Religion (specifically Christianity). However, future articles in this series will try to address the broader concepts of good and evil.