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Religious studies

Religious studies, also known as the study of religion, is an academic field devoted to research into religious beliefs, behaviors, and institutions. It describes, compares, interprets, and explains religion, emphasizing systematic, historically based, and cross-cultural perspectives. While theology attempts to understand the nature of transcendent or supernatural forces such as deities, religious studies tries to study religious behavior and belief from outside any particular religious viewpoint. Religious studies draws upon multiple disciplines and their methodologies including anthropology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and history of religion. Religious studies originated in the 19th century, when scholarly and historical analysis of the Bible had flourished, and Hindu and Buddhist texts were first being translated into European languages. Early influential scholars included Friedrich Max Muller in England and Cornelius P. Tiele in the Netherlands. Today religious studies is practiced by scholars worldwide. In its early years, it was known as "comparative religion" or the science of religion and, in the US, there are those who today also know the field as the History of religion. The religious studies scholar Walter Capps described the purpose of the discipline as to provide "training and practice. in directing and conducting inquiry regarding the subject of religion". At the same time, Capps stated that its other purpose was to use "prescribed modes and techniques of inquiry to make the subject of religion intelligible." Religious studies scholar Robert A. Segal characterised the discipline as "a subject matter" that is "open to many approaches", and thus it "does not require either a distinctive method or a distinctive explanation to be worthy of disciplinary status." Different scholars operating in the field have different interests and intentions; some for instance seek to defend religion, while others seek to explain it away, and others wish to use religion as an example with which to prove a theory of their own. Some scholars of religious studies are interested in primarily studying the religion to which they belong. Scholars of religion have argued that a study of the subject is useful for individuals because it will provide them with knowledge that is pertinent in inter-personal and professional contexts within an increasingly globalised world. It has also been argued that studying religion is useful in appreciating and understanding sectarian tensions and religious violence.


Academic study of new religious movements

The academic study of new religious movements is known as new religions studies. The study draws from the disciplines of anthropology, psychiatry, history, psychology, sociology, religious studies, and theology. Eileen Barker noted that there are five sources of information on new religious movements: the information provided by such groups themselves, that provided by ex-members as well as the friends and relatives of members, organisations that collect information on NRMs, the mainstream media, and academics studying such phenomena. The study of new religions is unified by its topic of interest, rather than by its methodology, and is therefore interdisciplinary in nature. A sizeable body of scholarly literature on new religions has been published, most of it produced by social scientists. Among the disciplines that NRS uses are anthropology, history, psychology, religious studies, and sociology. Of these approaches, sociology played a particularly prominent role in the development of the field, resulting in it being initially confined largely to a narrow array of sociological questions. This came to change in later scholarship, which began to apply theories and methods initially developed for examining more mainstream religions to the study of new ones. The majority of research has been directed toward those new religions which have attracted a greater deal of public controversy; less controversial NRMs have tended to be the subject of less scholarly research. It has also been noted that scholars of new religions have often avoided researching certain movements which tend instead to be studied by scholars from other backgrounds; the feminist spirituality movement is usually examined by scholars of womens studies, African-American new religions by scholars of Africana studies, and Native American new religions by scholars of Native American studies.


Academic study of Western esotericism

The academic study of Western esotericism was pioneered in the early 20th century by historians of the ancient world and the European Renaissance, who came to recognise that – although it had been ignored by previous scholarship – the impact which pre-Christian and non-rational schools of thought had exerted on European society and culture was worthy of academic attention. One of the key centres for this was the Warburg Institute in London, where scholars like Frances Yates, Edgar Wind, Ernst Cassier, and D. P. Walker began arguing that esoteric thought had a greater impact on Renaissance culture than had been previously accepted. In 1965, the worlds first academic post in the study of esotericism was established at the Ecole pratique des hautes etudes in the Sorbonne, Paris; named the chair in the History of Christian Esotericism, its first holder was François Secret, a specialist in the Christian Kabbalah. In 1979 the scholar Antoine Faivre assumed Secrets chair at the Sorbonne, which was renamed the "History of Esoteric and Mystical Currents in Modern and Contemporary Europe". Faivre has since been cited as being responsible for developing the study of Western esotericism into a formalised field. Faivre noted that there were two significant obstacles to establishing the field. One was that there was an engrained prejudice towards esotericism within academia, resulting in the widespread perception that the history of esotericism was not worthy of academic research. The second was that esotericism is a trans-disciplinary field, the study of which did not fit clearly within any particular discipline. As Hanegraaff noted, Western esotericism had to be studied as a separate field to religion, philosophy, science, and the arts, because while it "participates in all these fields" it does not squarely fit into any of them. In 1980, the U.S based Hermetic Academy was founded by Robert A. McDermott as an outlet for scholars interested in Western esotericism. From 1986 to 1990 members of the Hermetic Academy participated in panels at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion under the rubric of the "Esotericism and Perennialism Group". By 1994, Faivre could comment that the academic study of Western esotericism had taken off in France, Italy, England, and the United States, but he lamented the fact that it had not done so in Germany. By 2008, there were three dedicated university chairs in the subject, at the University of Sorbonne, University of Amsterdam, and the University of Exeter, with the latter two institutions also offering masters degree programs in it. On the basis of the fact that "English culture and literature have been traditional strongholds of Western esotericism", in 2011 Pia Brinzeu and Gyorgy Szonyi urged that English studies also have a role in this interdisciplinary field.


Agricultural spiritualism

Agricultural spiritualism or the Spirit of Agriculture refers to the idea that the concepts of food production and consumption and the essential spiritual nature of humanity are linked. It assumes that spirituality is inherent to human consciousness, is perhaps a product of it, and is accessible to all who cultivate it. The association with agriculture includes such agricultural metaphors as "cultivate" in language used by most mystics across history. Followers of this idea state the following reasons to justify this link: Agriculture was the preoccupation of the majority of the population of the world at the time that the major scriptures of the continuing religions were compiled. The approach that agriculture takes to creating the optimal conditions for production of its harvest is the same as that recommended by the traditional religions for producing insight or wisdom. Historically, the adoption of agriculture liberated part of a population to focus on understanding of spirituality.


American Academy of Religion

The American Academy of Religion is the worlds largest association of scholars in the field of religious studies and related topics. It is a nonprofit member association, serving as a professional and learned society for scholars involved in the academic study of religion. It has some 10.000 members worldwide, with the largest concentration being in the United States and Canada. AAR members are university and college professors, independent scholars, secondary teachers, clergy, seminarians, students, and interested lay-people.


Anthropology of religion

Anthropology of religion is the study of religion in relation to other social institutions, and the comparison of religious beliefs and practices across cultures.

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