A Brief HistoryThe modern critical study of religion dates from the seventeenth century, when global exploration brought many previously isolated cultures in contact with one another. In the West people began to compare and reflect upon the many religious systems that were becoming known, first from the perspective of judging them or “explaining them away” as heresies (wrong belief) or “paganism” (non-belief). In the nineteenth century the modern, comparative study of religion was born. Claiming “he [sic] who knows only one religion knows none,” H. Max Muller advocated a comparative and “value-free” study of religions, which did not presume the greater truth of any tradition over any other. The explosion of theories about human nature and culture towards the end of the nineteenth century contributed to the field’s interdisciplinary nature, as anthropology, psychology and sociology joined archeology, philology, philosophy and history as means to investigate religion’s many facets.
Religious studies began as an academic discipline in the university in the middle of the twentieth century, as post-secondary institutions shifted from teaching confessional courses in (Christian) Religious Knowledge to more broadly based studies of the human search for meaning. Increasing interest in eastern traditions and in personal spiritual growth furthered religious studies’ expansion. Currently there is an upsurge of interest in religious studies in both Europe and North America, signalling the importance of questions about religion and about spirituality for the 21st century.
What is Religious Studies?
Religious Studies explores religion’s many facets:
- Religious behaviours such as prayer, meditation, pilgrimage, and worship
- Claims about Truth and Ultimacy answers given to questions like “Where did we come from?” “What is the purpose of human life?” “Where does evil come from?” “Is there another life beyond this one?” “How should we live?”
- Myths the narratives which answer these questions in story form
- Symbol Systems images through which religious beliefs and values are expressed, such as the yin/yang symbol (Chinese religions) or the cross (Christianity)
- Rituals patterned behaviours which mark important life events such as coming-of-age, marriage, and death, and as part of religious worship
- Metaphysical formulations intellectual and philosophical reflections on religious beliefs
- Worldviews the “big picture” in which religious beliefs and behaviours are understood to make sense
- History and Development of Traditions such as Shinto, Taoism, Islam, neo-paganism, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, the religions of India
Religious Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University is undertaken from non-confessional comparative, historical, philosophical, and social scientific perspectives. No religious tradition is advocated over others, nor is religious belief a presumption or requirement of its students.