Purpose of This Handout
The purpose of this handout is to explain how religious studies work, what knowledge they provide, and what types of written assignments students do to meet their course objectives.
Religious Studies: Borrowing from More than One Discipline
Before you sit down to write your paper on a religious topic, you should realize that religious studies are extremely multidisciplinary. It means that the discipline brings knowledge, theories and findings from other disciplines as well. However, it is due to this multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary nature of the study that the process of writing a religious paper becomes so fascinating and inspiring. At the same time, not every student can easily accept the multidisciplinary complexity of religious studies. The discipline requires that students use knowledge and theory from other fields in their writing tasks.
Difference between Religious Studies and Religion
Religious studies are not the same as religion. Writing a paper for religious studies does not necessarily require a strong religious commitment. Moreover, any religious research takes place in an academic and secular setting, and most papers created for religious studies are free of any faith or religious bias. Religious papers are not created to debate some controversial religious aspects such as whether or not God exists. Religious studies do not provide any space for philosophic or metaphysical speculations. Their purpose is to provide the broader community with a more comprehensive understanding of religion as a space that welcomes everyone and can be understood by anyone.
Of course, this seems to be a huge problem when you have to distance yourself from any religious perspective and take an objective look on religious issues. However, there is no difficulty at all. As mentioned previously, religious studies bring together the knowledge and theory from multiple fields. Therefore, you can enjoy a whole variety of topics, methods and subjects when working on a religious paper. You can use a whole set of methods of inquiry to meet the goals and objectives of your religious course. For example, you may need to explore the use of religious concepts in fiction stories. You may also want to investigate the patterns of religious development in a certain culture or nation. You may want to explore the religious traditions and customs of some closed communities. All in all, you simply do some academic research without engaging in any specific faith practices.
This difference between religious studies and religion deserves particular attention, because you should know how to construct arguments and use evidence to defend your claims. Religious studies provide all possible opportunities for reducing the scope of prejudice and bias while allowing students to conduct an objective evidence-based review of each particular problem. The focus of writing in religious studies is on high-quality evidence that comes from credible sources. Even the most convincing faith arguments and traditions cannot suffice to create and support a strong academic argument. Evidence is everything, and this should the motto for every student in religious studies.
Typical Writing Tasks in Religious Studies
Because religious studies are so interdisciplinary, students in religious courses are bound to write different kinds of essays and academic assignments. You will find the most common types of writing in this handout. If you still have any questions, better contact your course instructor or supervisor. Below are just some of the most popular academic writing tasks in religious studies.
Comparative Religious Essays
The purpose of any comparative essay is to evaluate the commonalities and differences between two different topics. This is also characteristic of religious studies. However, while working on a religious comparative essay, you will also have to make these comparisons in a broader theoretical context. That is, you will have to justify the commonalities and differences you find between the two topics using some theory. This can be a theory of your choice or a theory requested by your professor.
For example, your supervisor asks you to compare the Hindu and Confucian beliefs about the past and future generations, as well as the role of deities in managing intergenerational conflicts. Here you will note some commonalities such as the use of candles and food. At the same time, you will also need to reference the ritual and religious meaning of both candles and food in the context of both religions. You will have to focus on both theory and practice while discussing these unique religious features.
For example, you may want to focus your paper around the following thesis statement: Although Confucian and Hindu traditions for praising the past generations and managing intergenerational conflicts involve similar practices such as the use of candles and food, they are still different, as reflected in the latest theories of cross-cultural uniqueness and their implications for religious rituals.
Overall, a perfect comparative essay written for religious studies will:
- Describe the religious, cultural, historical, and socioeconomic intricacies of different religious traditions.
- Reference a theory and provide a thorough analysis of these similarities and differences against this theory.
- Compare and contrast each ritual, tradition or religious practice while ensuring that even the tiniest details have been identified.
- Provide a conclusion to identify the significance of these findings and offer recommendations for practice and theory research in the future.
Critical Analysis of Religious Texts
This is just another type of academic writing in religious studies, which implies that the student will critically analyze one or several religious texts, placing them in a broader context of the religion they actually describe. The whole point of critical essay writing is not in criticizing but, rather, evaluating and interpreting religious texts. Remember that any writing in religious studies is academic in nature, which means that faith will occupy a minor portion of this assignment, leaving enough space for academic evidence and critical analysis. Although religion and faith are intricately related, in religious studies it is rationality and reason rather than blind adherence to religious practices that define the success of students’ academic progress. Therefore, any critical analysis of religious texts should begin with the study of their origin. You can also use the traditional components of a literary analysis to evaluate and critique the contents, plot (if any), genre and setting of the religious text in question. You may want to question the authorship or effects of the religious text on the most typical religious practices. You may also compare this text to others in the same or a different religious context.
For example, Genesis provides a great venue for a critical analysis of religion and its texts. Particularly in the first chapters of the book, students can find a variety of useful concepts that could provide a better understanding of the main religious practices and rituals. The text incorporates several different accounts of the same events, which is why students find it useful to compare and contrast them. Besides, it is always wise to see the deeper intent of each account and the purpose it has to achieve.
Of course, religious studies are not limited to religious texts. Academic literature and even fiction can easily become an object of religious analysis. For example, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is a popular object of religious speculations. If you have any more questions, or if you are looking for something unique, you may even want to analyze some poetic creations from a religious perspective.
Ethnography and Religion
Ethnographic studies represent a distinct component of religious analysis and exploration. However, it is not simply about using academic evidence; rather, it is about gathering primary evidence from interviewees and analyzing this data. Ethnography is a serious challenge even for the most thriving student, because:
- Ethnography involves different types of writing and research. You can never know what you will need to do meet the goals of your project.
- Ethnography always involves the use of observations, interviews and personal experiences. In other words, it requires extensive fieldwork.
- Ethnography is impossible without following the standards of ethical integrity in research and academic analysis.
If you want to learn more about ethnography, you may also look into our anthropology handout.
History in Religious Studies
Historical analysis is another major element of religious studies. The good news about historical analysis is that you can take the methods used in the analysis of American or British history and apply them in religious courses. For example, you may have a task to explore the historical underpinnings of the Hindu religion and how it evolved over the course of time.
At the same time, please do not forget that not all elements of religious studies are suitable for a historical analysis. For example, many sacred and even academic texts contain a description of miraculous or supernatural events. These events can hardly be explained from the point of history. If, for example, you decide to explore the way Jesus Christ changed his physical form through resurrection, history will be of little help. In the meantime, it will be appropriate to explore the historical interpretations of resurrection and its effects on the historical development of the Christian religion in different parts of the globe.
It is always appropriate to do some self-reflection and see how your perceptions of religion are changing through the religious studies course. This is why many course instructors ask their students to provide journal entries, analyze the most questionable elements of the religious process, raise new questions, communicate with fellow students, and offer new topics for the analysis and discussion of religion. The greatest thing about journal entries is that they are not as formal as, for instance, historical analyses. At the same time, they require a thorough and meticulous analysis of the most current knowledge and the use of academic sources to support your claims.
Below you will find some sample questions used for journal entries in religious studies:
If you are reflecting on some academic or religious source, answer the following questions:
What is the main theme of the source? What issues or questions does it raise? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the source? How does it fit in a broader context of the religion to which it refers?
What are the similarities and differences between the religious texts studied in this course? What are the key conflicts that become evident in a close analysis of these texts? What are the reasons behind these conflicts and disagreements? What would you say about the utility of each source in studying religion? How would you approach the weaknesses identified in each source?
Your Thoughts and Considerations
What do you feel about these course materials? What is your reaction? Do you find them useful or interesting? Why or why not? Do you agree with the author’s position and do you know why the author supports or rejects your own beliefs or perceptions of the religious material? What are the prejudices and biases that govern your reactions? Why do you think what you think, and do you expect that your views or perceptions will change? Do you think that they could impact your success in religious studies?
Using Correct Terminology
You must use appropriate vocabulary when working on a religious studies paper. However, you should also understand the meaning of each term and notion that you incorporate into your texts. Additionally, you may want to use specific or general terms from other disciplines that still fit in the context of religious studies. Such terms include but are not limited to “sacred”, “rituals”, “traditions”, and so on. Feel free to use any approved dictionary if you have questions about the terminology and vocabulary used in religious studies.
Feel Free to Consult Any of These or Other Works
Grace, M. Dictionary of Religion. Los Angeles: M&D, 2000.
MacMaster, L.A.. Useful methods for religious research in academics. NJ: McGraw-Hill, 2012.
Ozborn, K. Religion and theology: Research methods. Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett.