Religious Behaviour.

An inquiry into the possibilities for the investigation of

religious behaviour in Dutch science of religion, primarily

on the basis of the work of Th.P. van Baaren



From its start in the nineteenth century science of religion has in its study of religion focused primarily on religious concepts - gods, myths, holy texts and the hereafter. It has given relatively little attention to the various forms of actual religious behaviour, like praying, sacrifice, attending religious gatherings and passing through life cycle rituals. In the last few decades the interest in religious behaviour has grown, but even now science of religion hardly investigates religious behaviour empirically. Although there is a growing consensus that the description of religious behaviour necessarily forms as valid a part of science of religion as the description of religious concepts, almost no such systematic description has been written until this day. Therefore, we ask ourselves in this thesis: is science of religion capable of systematically and empirically describing contemporary religious behaviour? And, if not, what could be done about it?

            To explore the problem we analysed in Chapter two a recent Leiden thesis in the field of science of religion on changes in present day Islamic life cycle rituals in the Netherlands (Dessing 2001). This dissertation shows that the study of religious behaviour by science of religion is using almost exclusively methods and theories of other disciplines. Doesn’t science of religion have, in this respect, any methods and theories of its own?

            In Chapter three we examine the possibilities of science of religion, concentrating on Dutch science of religion, which came into being as part of the protestant theological curriculum in 1877. Science of religion basically developed and employed three valid methods for its research of religions: the historical method, comparison of (elements of) religions and the investigation of the contents of religious concepts. The methodological possibilities of science of religion remain therefore mainly interpretative in character. It developed almost no empirical possibilities, in the sense of methodically observing and describing human behaviour.

            Theoretically science of religion has a tendency to reduce its object – the religions of the world - to something else. In the past, it was inclined to reduce religion to a theological approach to God. Nowadays, the orientation toward the social sciences is the dominant theoretical influence and, accordingly, modern science of religion is disposed to reduce its object to an attribute of man or society. For the study of religious behaviour the turn to the social sciences could have been beneficial because the social sciences have developed empirical methods to study human behaviour empirically and statistically. However, science of religion did borrow some social theory, but it did not integrate these methods of empirical investigation into its curriculum. For this reason it does not have the methods for an empirical study of human behaviour, and we conclude that science of religion is now incapable of studying contemporary religious behaviour in an empirical manner.          

            In Chapter four, we try to clarify the present position of science of religion by setting it apart from other sciences that study human behaviour: the social and the cultural sciences. There appears to be a gap between the social and the cultural sciences. On the one hand, the social sciences are fully equipped to investigate human behaviour empirically. But their study of cultural facts, such as religious behaviour, often involves a reduction. Furthermore, it is frustrated by the dilemma inherent in any socio-cultural study of human behaviour of how to combine in a valid way social and cultural data: the so-called institutionalisation dilemma. The cultural sciences on the other hand, do have ways to study cultural phenomena in a sui generis manner, but their methods are usually only interpretative in character and they have almost no methods for studying human behaviour empirically. With its traditionally strong orientation on studying languages, history and philosophy and its interpretative methods, science of religion is obviously a typical cultural discipline. And like the other cultural sciences it developed almost no empirical methods to study human behaviour.

            When we ask, therefore, how science of religion can best study religious behaviour in a scientific manner, our tentative answer is the following. First, science of religion needs to recognize clearly its own character as a cultural science. Accordingly, it can avoid reducing its object and put all its energy in considering religion as a cultural phenomenon in its own right. Then it has to face the problem: how can we empirically study human behaviour within the cultural studies?          

            In our study, we found that a purely cultural science of religion is already existing: the artist-scholar Th.P. van Baaren (1912-1989), professor for the history of religions and the comparative study of religion (science of religion) at the University of Groningen from 1952 until 1980, has developed a non-reductive cultural science of religion. In Chapters five and six we discuss his work and we conclude that Van Baaren’s approach in the long run avoided a theological and social reduction of its object. His investigations are based on a broad scale of sound cultural methods and techniques.

            In our final chapter, we developed a model for the study of religious behaviour in science of religion with sociolinguistics as an example: by combining the empirical methods of the social sciences with the science of religion of Van Baaren, focusing on behaviour. First, we extracted Van Baaren’s views on religion. Based on this, we formulated a definition of religious behaviour: institutionalised actions and avoidances with direct or indirect reference towards concepts of superhuman beings. Then we formed a synchronic view of religion, aiming at religious behaviour by reformulating all of Van Baaren’s elements of religion into either religious actions or religious avoidances. In the definition and the reformulation of elements, the hitherto unrealised importance of the avoidances in a behavioural view of religion came out as a surprise.

            A systematically sound empirical description of religious behaviour (a religiography) proves to be the exhaustive description of all existing religious behaviour within a given local religious community during at least one year. For such a description, an unbroken research period of at least one year is needed, with a possible extension for life cycle rituals and crisis rituals. An added result of the developed model is its applicability to the field of history of religion, where it can work as a scheme to evaluate the reach of the already known information on religious behaviour. Finally, we briefly discussed the possibilities for the different kinds of research on religious behaviour.



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