Religion as a Human Science

By Ksarjian, Lena | Free Inquiry, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

Religion as a Human Science


Ksarjian, Lena, Free Inquiry


Since religion is a vast topic, I want to narrow the field and limit this discussion to Judaism and Christianity: (1) because Judaism and Christianity are the dominant religions of American culture, and (2) because Judaism and Christianity are traditionally insulated from the rigors of secular humanistic historical investigation.

When individuals within American culture are asked to think about religion, they will most likely think of faith. They will then think of their particular faith--be it Jewish or Christian. Pressed a little further, these same Americans will think of the god of their respective belief systems: the Yahweh of the Old Testament, or the god of the New Testament; and they will think of the mythological and historical figures of their faith: Moses, Abraham, or Jesus. Pressed further, these Americans will think of the places in which their faiths are worshiped: the temple, the cathedral, the temple, or the church; and they will think of the individuals presiding over the worship services within these places: the rabbi, the priest, or the minister. They will then think of the theological myths and rituals surrounding their faith: Passovers, Eucharists, communions, Last Suppers, and baptisms. These same individuals will think of the holy days and symbols of their faith: Christmas days and Easter festivals; Chanukahs and crucified Jesuses; five-pointed Stars of David and statuettes of virginal Marys. Pressed a little more, our Americans will recall the myths of their faith. For example, the myths of an afterlife: heavens, hells, purgatories; sheols and gehennas; angels and demons; eternal lives spent in bliss, or in the unending torture of hell-fire. Rarely will our Imaginative Americans think of religion in terms of science.

When most Americans think of science, they think of chemistry, physics, biology, botany, astronomy, and anatomy. They may also think of the social sciences: psychology, sociology, and anthropology--but, they will not think of religion. However, I would argue that religion is the first science. I base this assertion on a particular definition of the term science.

The word science comes from the Latin scientia, which simply means "knowledge." Religion, or perhaps more specifically, mythology and cosmology, is the attempt of ancient people to understand a seemingly senseless and hostile environment. Religion is the first, imagined, categorical body of knowledge out of which other scientific disciplines evolved. Theology, philosophy, and modern science ask the same questions raised initially by religion: Where did we come from; what are we doing here; and, where are we going? Thus, as one historian of religion stated, "Religion, to the degree that it is usefully conceived as an historical, human endeavor, is to be set within the larger academic frameworks provided by anthropology, the humanities, and history."(1) Placed within such an academic framework, the study of religion is achieved within an atheistic context of secular historical investigation.

Most individuals would be outraged to learn that the academic study of religion is fundamentally an atheistic project. Among some people, the term atheist raises notions of flag burning and unconscionable behavior perpetrated by mindless radicals. However, these heated reactions are unnecessary. The word atheist comes from the Latin atheos, and means "without god." By extension, the question of the existence or nonexistence of a god, gods, or goddesses is irrelevant when studying the histories of Judaism and Christianity. Furthermore, the debate over the existence or non-existence of a god or goddess is not an historical question, it is a metaphysical one, and should be reserved for the theologian.(2)

By contrast, the historian of religion is interested in text and context. The historian of religion, like the scientist, seeks evidence--evidence that comes in the form of manuscripts, iconography, archaeology, art, and literature. …

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