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.

A Natural History

Stemming from Thomas humeHobbes, David Hume sought to unmask and discredit the doctrines and dogmas of orthodox belief. His primary concern in this regard was to uphold the distinction between religious philosophers and speculative atheists. Hume was, as an empiricist, of the latter ilk. In his Natural History of Religion, Hume sets out to show how religion emerged and developed in practice. He is concerned with religion’s foundation in reason and its origin in human nature. He starts by claiming that nature “bespeaks an intelligent author,” but that the origin of religion’s belief and practice is difficult to ascertain. Unlike an “original instinct or primary impression of nature” that produces a universal instinct in humanity, it appears on examination that “the first religious principles must be secondary” and, as such, open to perversion and even destruction “by various accidents and causes.” The purpose of his work, therefore, is to produce a natural history of religion by identifying “what those principles are, which give rise to the original belief” and the factors that produce changes in it” (33). It is important to note here, however, that natural religion for Hume means “coming from humans,” which is in contrast both to revelation and innateness. Religion, wherever it recurs, recurs because of humans struggling with their passions—in this case, fear. Humans fear the chaotic world and attribute the unknown forces to the various gods working their will in the world. Hume goes on to suggest that the origin of religion is polytheistic (in contrast to monotheistic) and that theological doctrines are developed “beyond reason and common sense” (66). In fact, Hume suggests, religion is antithetical to ethics, where ritual is a stand-in for ethics within religious systems. In this way, religion can be said to be anti-social. In the end, Hume maintains that when religious principles are examined, it appears that they are nothing but “sick men’s dreams…the playsome whimsies of monkies in human shape” (86). In other words, religious principles cannot be rational.

*Hume, David. The Natural History of Religion. Edited by H. E. Root. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010.

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