Science of Religion

relg-and-sciA pioneer in the “science of religion,” Friedrich Max Müller, studied religion “scientifically” through the comparative study of languages. He held that there had been a divine revelation that had been obscured throughout the ages by language before trickling down to the religions now manifest in the world, which we can both access and analyze through any given religion’s texts. As an example, religious orientations may have begun from contemplating the powers and wonders of the natural world because many cultures regarded the sun in a “religious” manner. By examining the way in which these cultures referred to the sun, Müller argued, one could learn something about the original, albeit historical, religious intuition. In this way, religion stands behind language. Humankind is naturally religious, with a primal impulse that is pure, revealed by God, and only later corrupted by humans wielding language. At times, Müller referred to the corrupted variants of the first religious revelation as mythology. Using scientific, philological, and comparative methods, Müller made a distinction between Theoretic and Comparative Theology. The former set out to show the conditions under which religion was possible, while the latter dealt only with historical forms of religion. This was the difference between speculating how language or religion should have evolved from a simple to a complex system and explanation through historical precedent. Comparative Theology should always be brought to its fullest conclusion before Theoretic Theology is carried out. Given Müller’s training as a comparative philologist, it is no great surprise that he placed much importance in the various divisions of language (grouped by genus) and their common name for their respective objects of worship. In this way, Müller hoped to show how language revealed both humanity’s impulse towards religion and that same pure revelation that stood behind all language. His goal was to help form a non-confessional common mind about the sacred texts of all the world’s religions, and thus a common mind about religion.

*Müller, Friedrich Max. Introduction to the Science of Religion: Four Lectures Delivered at the Royal Institution. London: Longmans and Green, 1893.

*This summary is for my upcoming comprehensive exam in the study of religion.


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