The field of religion/worldview is a broadly defined area of study. Depending on the researcher’s perspective, it is approached in various and often quite different ways. It also depends heavily on the motives the researcher brings to his or her investigation of religious or worldview issues.
In this article we will explore six different ways scholars and researchers approach the study of religions and worldviews. Obviously some of them overlap and researchers may utilize the work of those from other approaches in making their evaluations.
Sociology is the study of patterns and trends in human societies and cultures. Researchers in this field utilize a number of sources of data including surveys, censuses, business, statistics, and others. The main purpose of the sociologist of religion is to discover with as much objectivity as possible the religious and worldview perspectives and trends in any specific people group, culture, or country. Data and evaluations of it are usually published in journals and online. For example, one of the most informative websites of this sort is the CIA World Fact Book. It is located online at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/
Psychology is the study of human and animal behavior and how thinking processes operate. Psychologists explore these areas through a multitude of methods. Some researchers simply listen to and record the thoughts and beliefs of their subjects. Some use standardized test instruments to discover a persons’ thought processes. Others may use experimental methods to test behavioral and learning tendencies in people and animals.
In the field of religion and worldview the psychologist may use the above methods to try and explain religious ideas and practices. Most psychology researchers (but not all) begin with the presupposition that religion/worldview is a product of psychological conditioning or biological brain processes. Their goal is to discover what those factors are in order to correct behaviors and thoughts that are regarded as inappropriate by society or culture.
Phenomenology, according to the Farlax Online Dictionary, is “the philosophical movement founded by Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) that concentrates on the detailed description of conscious experience, without recourse to explanation, metaphysical assumptions, and traditional philosophical questions.” In plainer words, the phenomenologist looks at religion and worldview as purely experiential occurrences in the physical life of a person. In this perspective all such experiences are regarded as having no real objective meaning except that which the individual may claim. In any case, no one experience is to be favored over any other as they are all seen as totally subjective. Thus the Christian experience of spiritual rebirth is seen as no more or less valid than, say, the mystical experience of a Hindu or Buddhist.
The historical approach applies historical methodologies to the study of these issues. The objective historian seeks to accumulate all the evidence and data he or she can to discover as close as possible to what really happened in past events. Historians, however, in the study of religion, often come to it with presupposed philosophical ideas about what could or could not have happened. For instance, many Bible historians presuppose that any miraculous or supernatural occurrences recorded in Scripture cannot possibly have happened in real history. Thus, they say, those events must be based on legends and myths or were embellished by the biblical authors. In some cases they may speculate about what happened by offering naturalistic alternatives. For example, one serious Bible skeptic has proposed that Jesus did not actually rise from the dead but was impersonated by his identical twin!
Of course, not all historians discount supernatural occurrences. In fact, many have applied historical principles to supernatural Bible events and concluded that there are no better explanations than that they happened as reported. The best example is what we mentioned above; the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even some non-Christian historians are hard put to explain the numerous circumstances surrounding that event outside of it being actually true.
Another way some researchers approach these issues is what is commonly called ecumenicalism or inclusivism. This approach simply assumes that all religions and worldviews are basically true and have equal validity. Those in this camp ignore the obvious philosophical and theological differences and stress what commonalities may exist. This approach usually considers any religion or worldview that may make exclusivist claims to be intolerant and bigoted. Many liberal Protestant denominations, unfortunately, have adopted this approach.
The evangelical method is, to first, carefully analyze the philosophical bases, the historical underpinnings, the stated doctrinal beliefs, and the practices of all religions and worldviews. Then, each belief system is systematic compared to the essential historic Christian doctrines as defined by believers from Scripture since the New Testament era. These key doctrines include the nature of God (the Trinity), the nature (God-man) and work (death and resurrection) of Jesus Christ, and the way of salvation by grace through faith in Him. Any movement whose historical claims cannot be substantiated and whose beliefs fall outside of the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy must be rejected. This is the approach we take here at Marketfaith Ministries, as do most evangelical scholars. This analysis is done, not with malice, but with genuine love for those who do not follow the only true way of salvation in Jesus.
© 2012 Tal Davis