Phenomenology of religion is a method of studying religion that attempts to determine its most essential point. It asks the question, what is religion, and how are we even able to speak of the various world religions in similar terms? By observing the usually very divergent beliefs and practises of the world’s cultures and religions and comparing the corresponding phenomena within each tradition, it seeks to make the underlying nature, call it the Platonic Form, of religion manifest. To reach this end, any and all prior bias in the mind of the observer must be suspended for the purposes of the study, (including, and especially, historical and cultural bias) in order for it to remain objective and scientific.

Phenomenology as applied to religion must by definition be secular in its outlook, i.e. no one belief system may be seen to have any more validity than any other. For example reference is made to the effect religion has on the lives of followers as individuals or groups, but only as psychological or sociological phenomena, and with a connection in mind to other traditions, without the unnecessary and misleading claims to the truth or falsity of the beliefs in question. The goal is an abstract, ahistorical definition that transcends anything limited to the constraints of space and time.

The movement began in the late 19th century when scholars began to realise that the phenomenological approach could be applied to religion. Not counting W. B. Kristensen, whose lectures were not published until the 1960s, the first introductory volume about the method was published around the beginning of the 20th century with Gerardus van der Leew’s ‘Phenomenology of Religion’ (1933). He was influenced by and developed the ideas of his predecessors, particularly Martin Heidegger’s hermeneutics and Edmund Husserl’s ‘epoché’ (‘holding back’, in this case applied to judgement on an alien culture) and ‘bracketing’.

Hermeneutics, simply put, is to allow the object of study to remain within its socio-cultural context as a means of avoiding personal judgement and bias. It is to empathise with the culture, to attempt to understand what members of this culture mean when they perform, for example, a certain ritual. Husserl’s concept of bracketing is far more useful however, as it realises the limitations we have within us that prevent us from truly understanding certain foreign concepts but it offers a solution nevertheless. In his article ‘Phenomenology and Ninian Smart’s Philosophy of Religion’, Charles Courtney describes it as a method where ‘the bewilderingly diverse data of religion can be philosophically linked together without doing damage to the several strands’.

So for example, we might attempt to come to a true and perfect understanding of different examples of ritual pilgrimage, such as the instance of the Islamic Hajj. What we can bracket out of the obvious and observable in this case is anything that symbolically relates specifically to the myths that brought it about. What we are left with is a pure example of pilgrimage, which could presumably be applied to and understood by any other culture in the world.

These methods and ideas were later further developed by Ninian Smart. In ‘The Science of Religion and the Sociology of Knowledge’, he proposed that we should ‘neither affirm nor deny the existence of the gods’. This methodological agnosticism (his own term), is a fine conclusion to the evolution of the ideas that led up to it. There should be no intention in the comparison to prove anything- the observer must be constantly agnostic: ‘the question of truth is a question not asked, not a question left unanswered’ (The Phenomenon of Religion). Or as Kristensen put it, ‘the believer is always right’ (quoted in Thinking About Religion, ed. Ivan Strenski).

This wilful agnosticism allowed Smart to categorise the similarities between the world’s religions, without having to appeal to a standard, even atheism. This is an improvement on and a compromise between Kristensen’s belief that all religious phenomena should be judged by western, Christian standards, and Peter Berger’s stance that we should begin our search from a secular and atheistic premise. These would only result in a conclusion tainted by bias. The most agnostic starting point in the study of religions is to remove ‘the divine’ from the equation while keeping it firmly in mind- ‘we put the transcendent in brackets. But we do not neglect it’. Otherwise the scholar would be in the unfortunate position of basing his subject of study on his own standards, and judging it thus. This has in the past resulted in enormous errors in the understanding of foreign cultures.

To give an example of the inadequacy of definitions that arise out of the study of religion with the colouring of cultural bias and the usefulness of bracketing, I shall refer to one of Ninian Smart’s works, ‘Towards a Theory of the Configuration of Religion’. While Smart was exceedingly knowledgeable in many world religions over a very wide range, he was particularly fond of Buddhism as it provided an almost ideal counter point to Ottian thought. So God is obviously an important part of religion, whatever name is given to the concept and however it is described. At a point in this book Smart compares, or at least attempts to compare, the antitheses Buddhism and Christianity.

The idea is that god may be experienced and this is the basis of religion, the religious experience. But the Christian God and the Buddhist Nirvana are radically removed concepts. Nirvana represents the absence of anything i.e. pure emptiness. God represents a possibly anthropomorphic (or to be more accurate and less biased on the side of atheism we could view man as theomorphic), all powerful creator who is conscious of his creation and acts within it from time to time. We cannot simply say that both are ‘god’ when we compare them at this complex a level, because there is not much within them that connects them, unless we melted our definition down to its most essential point, without the unnecessary baggage of cultural prejudice. Our definition of ‘religious experience’ is limited to our own culture- images of the Ottian ‘numinous experience’ are evoked. In another culture the bias would lean in another direction (probably towards mysticism in the Buddhist’s case). We must bracket out the ‘god’ part of the formula in order for the connection to be made smoother.

In ‘The Phenomenon of Religion’ Smart begins to take a few steps further towards explaining the apparent difficulty in resolving these two quite disparate forms of religious experience by making the thought-experimental leap from the religious experience, whichever form it may take, to the ‘reality’ of something inconceivable. As far as the subject is concerned, what he has experienced is real, and it is not for the scholar to argue otherwise (‘the believer is always right’). The Christian and the Buddhist may have had widely different experiences- but the very fact that neither one can adequately understand and therefore describe his experience is what connects them. ‘Those two experiences are different, but not in opposition’ (Courtney). At this point he appears to have left Husserl’s flavour of phenomenology far behind in all but a very basic essence. To Smart, phenomenology is a very useful tool for reducing a concept to its simplest form, but other philosophical methods are required to go any further in a truth-seeking enterprise- he sees it as a ‘descriptive method which need not be in any strong sense typological’ (The Science of Religion).

So Smart then takes us further towards a theory of religion that seeks to explain all by extending his definition of what constitutes religious experience into Otto’s ‘numinous’ experience and the addition of the mystical experience- very similar to the categories suggested by Richard Swinburne. In doing so he broke the principle of phenomenology, that is, never to begin the development of an explanation of religion with your own personal prejudices. The point is to discover where the truth lies, not to judge data on preconceptions. But at this point Smart is perfectly free to do this as he has already shown theism to be an inadequate theory of god. Theism may work fine within our culture but to anybody on the outside, looking in, it probably looks wrong, as the god-concepts of other cultures look wrong to us when we view them out of glasses coloured with our cultural bias.

So in comparing religions and bracketing out that which is truly unnecessary in order to reduce them to essence, Smart managed to categorise what he called the dimensions of religion: the dimensions of ritual, emotion, myth, philosophy, ethics, society, and a later amendment and addition to his list, the material dimension. The dimensions of philosophy, myth and ethics are internal to the believer and the others are all external- or put another way, Smart’s way, the external dimensions are historical, and therefore studying them is fairly straightforward from the outsider’s point of view, while the internal dimensions are ‘parahistorical’, and require actual participation in order for there to be any understanding of the observed. These seven dimensions do not provide a definition of religion as much as they give us a new point to begin from in the study of religion.

All religions have these seven things in common, in various degrees. The more of these dimensions a religion, or any instance at all, can be said to have, and the more definite these dimensions are, the closer to ‘Religion’ the instance is. This is not a perfect tool for identifying or studying religion but it is vastly helpful. This development in the field, as well as others like it, probably did much to make religious studies what it is today. Smart’s willingness to step outside of the box his predecessors had built around him and go back to the point of defining his objects of study, his openness to accept the possibility of nontheistic religions aside from Buddhism (things that his contemporaries would more likely define as ‘cult’, or even political doctrines), was integral in the development of 20th century religious studies. Fairly early on in his career he was entertaining the idea of, for example Marxism as religion. If we were to analyse it based on Smart’s seven dimensions of religion we would find that it satisfies most, if not all seven dimensions- although a couple of them do need to be, admittedly, loosened somewhat for Marxism to fit.

Reductionism and phenomenology are fine methods for the study of religion and they have pushed the field very far. As with all methodologies however, they will have their limitations. It is up to the scholar of religion to realise what the limits of his method of study are and develop solutions that will help him to overcome his handicap. Nothing is perfect and Smart realised this, which is why he didn’t allow himself to become too dependant on any one method but rather allowed himself the freedom to choose the tools that fit the job best. His theory in development was almost Hegelian in its simplicity and crystalline intricate beauty. Unfortunately he never managed to see it in a form that the field of religious studies would have been satisfied with. However he has left contemporary scholars with an excellent jumping-off spot to continue his studies where he left them.

Thinking about Religion ed. Ivan Strinski pp. 115-119, 126-134 (Blackwell, 2006)

Ninian Smart, The Phenomenon of Religion (Seabury, 1973)

Ninian Smart, The World’s Religions (Cambridge University Press, 1992)

Myron Orleans, Phenomenology in: Encyclopedia of Sociology (Macmillan Reference USA, 2001)

Dr. James L. Cox, Religion Without God: Methodological Agnosicism and the Future of Religious Studies (lecture)

Charles Courtney, Phenomenology and Ninian Smart's Philosophy of Religion in: the International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion, March 1978

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