History of Religions and Phenomenology of Religions


The History of Religions is a purely historical disciplin. It investigates the birth of religions, their development, the stages they go through, how they die or survive under other forms (the old European paganism is still surviving  in European folklore such as Carnival....).

The history of religions is very context sensitive: religions,  more than any other human  expressions,    are linked  to time-space, to their epoch, to their geographic space.

It can be divided into:

1) the particular history of each religion (i.e history of Christianity, history of Islam..)

2) the genetic history of religions: how religions are giving  bith to new religions (Judaism --> Christianity --> Mormonism, Islam + Hinduism --> Sikhism, Hinduism --> Buddhism )



It is based on the investigation of the literary sources which  are recorded in the canonical texts of holy scriptures, in the words and  the biographies of initiators of religions, in the myths, the inscriptions, the prayers, the liturgy of each religion.

A historian of religions must be above all a good linguist. He has to know not only one oriental language, but as many oriental languages as possible (Sanskrit, Arabic, Hebrew, Pali, Chinese, Tibetan....), in addition to Latin and Greek.

The linguistical skills are important, too, because a historian of religions must be able to explore as many religions as possible. This is essential because of the possibility of comparing religions. Who has no comprehensive view of the history of a maximum of religions is running the risk of falling into the trap of taking for singular something present elsewhere and of considering it typical (for instance: resurrection, which is not typical of Christianity).

One has to go on the spot, so as to become familiar  with the milieu where the studied religion is existing or has existed. When we are in presence of contemporary religions, the living contact with the representatives of these religions is a matter one cannot be dispensed with. One has to reach, if possible, a knowledge from the inside of the studied religion,  in becoming a guest of that religion.


One essential condition for the exercice of history of religions is epochê  ( Greek "taking distance"): i.e. dealing with foreign religions without any prejudice, without any projection. The historian of religion is in an attitude of listening, trying to unterstand the internal logics of a foreign religion and to recognize hidden links inside.

The history of religion is not a confessionnal history. It strives to be strictly neuter, and merely scientifical.

Phenomenology of Religions

In contradistinction with historical history of religions which aims at exploring and reporting historical facts, the task of phenomenology of religions  is to bring  together related phenomena.

It is based on the results of historical history of religions. So phenomenology of religions is seizing in the mass of religious phenomena  those phenomena which can be the object of a comparaison on a global level. In this sense, phenomenology is macroscopical, it goes out from a comprehensive view of the religieous phenomenon to grasp what is related beyond the borders of particular religions. For instance: there are holy places (shrines) in every religion, from the most primary ones (grottos...) to the most elaborate ones. Phenomenology is showing that there is an essence of holy space which is common to all the ralated shrines, whatever their elaboratedness.

Phenomenology of religions is emphasizing the unity of the religious phenomenon on a global level. The religious man, whatever may be his religion, shares the same attitude facing the world and its mysteries, whatever his religion may be, be it a primitive religion (i.e not knowing writing) or a "great" religion (knowing writing).

Religious phenomenology is insisting that the religious phenomenon cannot be reduced to any other phenomenon.  The religious phenomenon has indeed social, linguistic, economical or psychological components, but it is more than that. It is simply different. It is a phenmenon sui generis.

The most famous representative of this school is Mircea Eliade (1907-1986).


The science of religions

It includes:

- the "historical" history of religions (see above)

- the phenomenology of religions (see above)

- the religious typology

-  the geography of religions

- the ethnology of religions

- the sociology of religions

- the psychology of religions (see C.G. Jung's work)


<< Previous

Next >>

Version française

Phenomenology of religions Mircea Eliade The Holy Hierophanies and Theophanies The Sky The Holy Place The Holy Man Myth  Holy Scripture Suffering and Dying Dying and the Hereafter Contact

© Ralph Stehly, France. Prof. Ralph Stehly's lectures may be reproduced only  for educationnal purposes. Any abuse will be prosecuted.