Philosophy, Anthropology, Psychology: Useful in the Study of Religion

“The brute facts of our existence do bring us face to face with questions about which our normal practical techniques and scientific know-how are powerless to provide answers or solutions”

This essay will identify the key focus of the following disciplines in general and then with regard to the study of religion, and discuss the usefulness of such a focus: Philosophy, anthropology, psychology.

The key focus of the three sciences, philosophy, anthropology, and psychology, in general, is to gain a better understanding of what it means to be human, individually and collectively.  Two of these, Philosophy and Anthropology, in contrast to Psychology, converge under the general heading of social sciences, whereas, Psychology’s practitioners are massed together under one roof (Topic 7:73, Sociology, Anthropology and Religion, Approaches to the Study of Religion). All three concentrate their attention on different facets of these sciences to help interpret religion.

It is at this point of divergence between the three that their individual usefulness in their different major concepts and approaches to religion can be discovered.  In the conjoint discussions of philosophy and religion, for example ‘issues of truth claims’ and ‘reason’, surface.  A philosophical question such as ‘what are the basic assumptions that underlie some leader of a religious movement’s assertions of truth’, might be discussed as the starting point of a philosophical discussion. (Alison Manion in Topic 4:45-6, Philosophy and Religion, Approachesto the Study of Religion).  Other questions that might be asked in relation to such avowals to truthare ‘what concepts and ideas-structure do such assertions offer, as opposed to what they actually believe or assert about themselves as true”.  Questions such as these show philosophy not so much as attempting to solve the questions that arise from the matters under investigation as to dealing with the issues underlying all knowledge and reality in the interest of gaining understanding.  In so doing foundations and presuppositions are exposed and the process of reasoning comes into play.

In its quest to gain understanding, modern philosophy may be divided into two branches, critical or analytical and continental, sometimes called dialectical.  Analytic philosophy will be considered here.  This branch of philosophy has largely been based on Christianity due to the cultural background surrounding it.  The usefulness of a non-theistic and fairly abstract focus remains broad enough to cover issues that arise from many religions.  In keeping with this broad approach is a typical definition of deity.  ‘God’ is explained as ‘a being who created us, loves us, knows all, is all-powerful and with whom we can have a personal relationship’ (Topic 4:46, Philosophy and Religion, Approaches to the Study of Religion).  The usefulness of having a philosophical approach may help people question their basic religious beliefs and gain a broader understanding of them.  Alternatively, it could also assist people who do not believe in a deity and prefer a more philosophical approach to life.

Unlike philosophy, anthropology’s main points of interest are on particular societies and cultural phenomena, especially non-western, non-industrial societies.  Sociology’s approach, on the other hand, although it is interchangeable with anthropology, is more general and abstract in its major concepts and approaches in its way of looking at the experiences of human societies and social change.  The breadth of sociology-anthropology has two major areas.  The first is physical anthropology with questions of human origins and physiological links between human and earlier hominids.  The other, cultural anthropology is the study of all facets of culture and deals with social organization, folklore, and beliefs (Topic 7:73-4, Sociology, Anthropology and Religion, Approaches to the Study of Religion).

Where anthropology couples together with religion, its diversity can be seen in all four of cultural anthropology’s sub disciplines:

1) Ethnology, to do with human custom

2) Social Anthropology, dealing with social customs

3) Ethnography, the detailed description of individual cultures, normally by means of participant observation, and

4) Structural Anthropology, involving linguistic and literary analysis (Topic 7:73-4, Sociology, Anthropology and Religion, Approaches to the Study of Religion).

Anthropology is useful in helping humanity understand, define and legitimate their society, and themselves as individuals, as well as their identity and place in it.  The theories of modern sociology’s two founders, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, serve to help people understand better and even discover their place in society.  Overall, these two appear to follow opposing ideas about the role of religion in society.

The usefulness of the sociology of religion can be seen in helping an individual, a small community, and a nation collectively, to gain an understanding of their particular society and customs through a study of their religious history leading up to the present time.  Cultural anthropology has four sub-disciplines, Ethnology, Social Anthropology, Ethnography, and Structural Anthropology (Topic 7:74, Sociology, Anthropology and Religion, Approaches to the Study of Religion).

One of the modern founders of Cultuaral Anthropology, Emile Durkheim (1915) in his ‘Elementary Forms of the Religious Life’ debunked the experiences and feelings of individuals.  His theory was that society collectively sought to belong, to be ethical, to serve society, to sacrifice, to answer to the need to surrender and worship.  Durkheim said, “Religion is the sacred power that legitimates the existing order” (Topic 7:77, Sociology, Anthropology and Religion, Approaches to the Study of Religion).  Feminists would agree with this theory that ‘religion … legitimates the existing order’. ‘On the simplest level, feminist criticism of religious traditions understands religion, or perhaps the constructions of religion in various social contexts, as one of the players in the oppression of women’ (Topic 10:103, Feminist Criticism, Approaches to the Study of Religion).

Unlike Durkheim, Max Weber (1963) in The Sociology of Religion, focused on the individual.  He saw the individual and in particular, the charismatic leader acting as a prophet, initiating new trends, “that favor criticism, change, and greater personal commitment”, by gathering small groups of people, bringing about change and breakthroughs, and new forms of religion.  He understood “the substance of religion as building sacred communities” “creating order and stability” and “personal commitment” and choice (Topic 7:78 Sociology, Anthropology, and Religion, Approaches to the Study of Religion).  Weber would fit more in today’s western society then Durkheim, however, both views exist in any society, allowing for checks and balances in it that nurture the individual as well as the community as a whole.  Overall these two diverse ways of thinking mirror the complex cultural pluralism people encounter in the modern world and both would prove to be advantageous in helping people to discover their identity and place.

Psychology, like anthropology, also belongs to the social sciences.  It involves discovering and analyzing the experience of the individual, helping them to discover their identity.  The focus of psychology is another way in which the study of religion might be approached.  The study of psychology and religion is divided into four main groups.  1) Debunking religion, 2) legitimation of religion 3) legitimation of one kind of religion over another, 4) the appropriation of psychology by religionists for internal religionists ends (Topic 6:59, Psychology and Religion, Approaches to the Study of Religion).

Psychology in its numerous forms employs a variety of applications to religion allowing the individual to 1) examine self, as well as, 2) identify the various stages of growth that 3), leads to maturity.  These three main categories of psychology where applied to religion reveal the diversity and variety found in it.  These, together with the variances found in religion, would prove to be advantageous to the individual seeking to clarify their own belief system, its function, and whether they have matured and broadened their belief system enough to be beneficial to their everyday life, future growth, and development.

One of the disadvantages of psychology might be for the inquirer lighting upon the ‘wrong’ field.  For example, Freud (1907) claimed the best way to explain religion is through theories of psychoanalysis (p 62).  However, a psychologist trained in Freudian methods would claim that religion is both an illusion (p 63), and a neurosis (p 62).  According to Freud’s theory ‘maturity will see it pass away’, and ‘in order for the individual to be cured the neurosis has to be removed’ (Topic 6:62, Psychology and Religion, Approaches to the Study of Religion). Freudian focus is to debunk religion (Topic 6:59, Psychology and Religion, Approaches to the Study of Religion).  Therefore, Freud’s view may not necessarily be beneficial for religious fundamentalists, for example, who value their religious beliefs and are ‘trying to conserve a particular religious heritage’ (Topic 9:95, Political Criticism Approaches to the Study of Religion).

Carl Jung (1875-1961) on the other hand, describing himself as a phenomenologist, considers only that which is there on the surface; that the focus is the individual person and that person’s psyche, and identifying archetypes in the person’s dreams, say, as opposed to the ‘depth model’ developed by Freud.  Jung’s model requires the practitioner to investigate what is beneath the surface of a person’s life.  He claims that ‘primordial images’ can be seen to recur throughout human history’ (Topic 6:64-6, Psychology and Religion, Approaches to the Study of Religion).

These images, in turn, appear to synthesize with Durkheim’s argument.  Durkheim believes that ‘every stable nation and society has a ‘myth’, a set of ideas, symbols, and stories, that define and legitimate society’ (Topic 7:75, Sociology, Anthropology and Religion, Approaches to the Study of Religion).  However here the similarity ends, in that Durkheim insisted that ‘religion is never found away from a group or a collectivity’ (p 75).  Jung however, does not mean by the ‘collective unconscious’ that they are a ‘collective inheritance of images and myths that are a joint possession of the human race’.  Rather, they are ‘inherited tendency’ and ‘instinctive’, such as bird’s nest-building and without ‘known origin’ (Topic 6:66, Psychology and Religion, Approaches to the Study of Religion).

In sum, all three disciplines philosophy, anthropology, psychology, with regard to the study of religion, can show their usefulness in helping individuals as well as collectively, to gain an understanding of what it means to be human, by helping people to formulate their own religious or philosophical position more clearly.




























Approaches to the Study of Religion, Studies in Religion, RELS 304, Study Guide and Unit Notes, The University of New England, Armidale.