[Part III of the series Pondering Pedagogy: Course Design; Read Part I, II, IV, V, VI]

Some university students, and many among the general public, do not know the difference between Religious Studies and Theology. In casual conversation, I will often say that I am a historian of Chinese religions; it’s just a lot simpler and doesn’t necessarily entail, from their perspective, religious commitment (…no, I’m not planning on being a monk…in this lifetime ;).

Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan has provided the wording that some scholars of religion use to help describe the difference between the two disciplines, noting that “teaching about religion” is to be “distinguished from the teaching of religion” [italics in original].[1] The former is considered the typical realm of inquiry for teachers in university institutions, while the latter is considered – at least in its legal ramifications in public schools – an unconstitutional establishment of religion. Outside of many seminaries and Theology departments, confessional religious instruction (i.e. the full, unambiguous assent to the truth of a religion) is not expected.[2]

So, in addition to non-confessional instruction, what may be expected in terms of the theory or method of Religious Studies instruction? This, not surprisingly, is understudied and complex. For example, I’ve already talked about how the interdisciplinary nature of Religious Studies can lead to different disciplinary methodologies and levels of analysis being explored and practiced in the classroom setting. Being aware of these choices can help instructors decide what intellectual and disciplinary tools to model and teach.

Recently, I have also been inspired by the work of Liam Gearon who argues that instructors need a more rigorous conceptualization of the paradigms that undergird religious education.[3] Because modern religious education is no longer based upon theological truths or a religious life, Gearon claims, there have emerged several attempts to locate new epistemological grounds. Gearon identifies six different paradigms of contemporary religious education. I discuss each briefly below with some initial ruminations:

  • Scriptural-Theological Paradigm: This follows the premise that religious education should be concerned with Christian scripture and its revelations, and as such falls in line with the “teaching of religion.” This is not so much a mode of teaching, but an expected mode of being, which would in turn circumscribe the types of questions asked and the types of evidence marshalled in support of arguments.
  • Phenomenological Paradigm: Based on the tireless work of Ninian Smart, this approach champions the use of epoché, or the suspension of (dis)belief together with the use of empathy for the subject (or subjects) of study. This was partly a product of a growing awareness of religious pluralism throughout the 1960’s, and I would argue is the basis of the call for religious studies to increase cultural and religious literacy. A more critical reading might also suggest this is the theoretical foundation for “comparative religions,” which can treat religion as a sui generis phenomenon that resists historical or cultural deconstruction. Yet, I will admit that Smart’s Six (or Seven) Dimensions of Religion proves to be a useful heuristic that speaks well to non-scholars. As such, this paradigm may work well for survey courses.
  • Psychological-Experiential Paradigm: Founded on the ideas of developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, this takes the view that religious education is beneficial to a person’s moral development. Gearon suggests this paradigm arose in reaction to the Phenomenological Paradigm, which did not sufficiently address a young person’s developmental needs because it did not appropriately evaluate diverse religious doctrines. While ethical and character development is a noble cause (for people of all ages!), I struggle to see how one could implement this in a university setting with the expectation of behavioral change. Yet, could an instructor, for example, ask his or her students to become vegetarian for a week and reflect on the experience? (As part of a section on Chinese Buddhist practice?). Now that I write this, this might be something interesting to explore, but at the same time it is also ripe with problems since many religious practices would not be so amenable. Also, would asking students to engage in meditation fall into this paradigm?
  • Philosophical-Conceptual Paradigm: Gearon describes this paradigm as the throwing off of phenomenological neutrality and the search for “truth.” While intractability inter-related, I might characterize this as the conceptual counterpart to the experiential/behavioral paradigm above. It seems that Gearon present this as the search for an objective truth, rightly problematizing this paradigm’s epistemic grounds. If I may play with Gearon’s ideas a bit, I think this paradigm could be very appealing if was not established on the search for “truth,” but on a search for well-reasoned perspectives (not “what to think,” but indeed, “how to think“). Certain religious perspectives could offer a good counter-balance to student presumptions, causing them to refine – or articulate for the first time – the reasons for those perspectives. To explore the issue from above, a student may develop arguments both for and against vegetarianism, and then decide rationally on a preference (whether or not they adopt it as practice is inconsequential – they simply now are equipped with a well-argued stance).
  • Socio-Cultural Paradigm: This utilizes ethnographic methods, and thus underpins the discipline of Anthropology (and some alignment with Sociology?).
  • Historical-Political Paradigm: Gearon highlights the political ramifications of this paradigm, and as such claims that it is also the most prevalent in education. My reading here would understand the deconstruction of power (ideological, institutional, racial, gendered, etc. – power in all of its forms) to be the primary modality of analysis. The attempt is to explain, within the myriad of culturally and historically constructed frameworks, the religion or religious phenomenon under scrutiny. (I’ll admit my wording is a bit broad, and would encapsulate the above paradigm as well). I would agree, at least in university settings, this is the most common approach. This approach was popularized through the University of Chicago and has been nicely summarized and described by Bruce Lincoln. It should be noted, however, that Lincoln pits the historical method against traditional theology and does not address other potential methodological approaches.

To be honest, I have used Gearn’s paradigms more as things “good to think with” (bonnes à penser) than attempt to fully explicate, or even understand them (so, my apologies for any misinterpretation). Nevertheless, I would argue that the final two paradigms, the Socio-Cultural Paradigm and the Historical-Political Paradigm, align most cosely with my experience as a student and instructor of Religious Studies (Clearly Anthropology and History, but also a range of Area Studies fields). If we consider the Philosophical-Conceptual Paradigm more broadly as critical inquiry (identify assumptions, assess evidence, analyze claims, etc.) in the search for well-reasoned stances, this could also align with the goals of university education more broadly and specifically the with the aims of Philosophy.

Gearon’s description of Psychological-Experiential Paradigm appears to move beyond the mere description and explanation of psychological phenomena (the domains of many scholars) and towards the practice of psychology. In other words, instead of analyzing the minds of religious practitioners, here instructors would mold the actions and thoughts of the student so as to be like those religious practitioners. Clearly, this may be objectionable to many since it sounds like missionizing in the context of Religious Studies. Yet, I wonder if this could be done in limited ways with much though and care? I’ll have to leave that for further reflection. In some ways, this is not so different from the Philosophical-Conceptual Paradigm – both ask the student to inhabit the perspectives and worldviews of the religion under analysis. It seems to me that while a philosophy course could change your life, a religious studies course doing the same thing might raise a few eyebrows?

The Phenomenological Paradigm, which to me entails the comparative endeavor, is a pretty common approach to university courses in Religious Studies, especially in introductory or survey courses that aim to expose a student to a range of beliefs and practices.

Grist for the Mill: Each of these paradigms function as ideal types, and I think any course in Religious Studies would jump between several of them (save for the first). For me, I think it is helpful to identify which paradigm I am presupposing when I design class activities and course work – in addition to deciding how I will assess student work. This schema also allows me to add variety to how I teach, providing a convenient means to conceive of a differnt type of activity or assignment in order to break any potential monotony.

I’ll end by noting that I think the presumption of some students – often derisively called “spiritual seekers” – will assume the framing of the Philosophical-Conceptual Paradigm or even the Psychological-Experiential Paradigm (there are far less at my university who assume the Scriptural-Theological Paradigm). While I am comitted to the general scholarly apparatus of deconstruction, and think these student can find vaule in that form of critical thinking, I do not think that has to be the only agenda for every lesson plan, every activity, and every reading.


*This is part of a series where I discuss my evolving thought process on designing a new university course in Religious Studies. In practice, this process will result in a syllabus on Japanese Religions. These posts will remain informal and mostly reflective.

[1] In a very insightful piece, Sarah Imhoff has noted that this particular linguistic distinction is older than Brennan’s remarks of 1963.

[2] And while it is unconstitutional to teach “of religion” in US public schools, there is no legal standing against it in private Christian schools or homeschooling. As far as I am aware, a mandate of non-confessional instruction in university Religious Studies departments is not explicitly upheld by the Supreme Court’s 1963 decision in Abington School District v. Schempp, of which Brennan penned the concurrence. Nevertheless, non-confessional instruction is the unquestioned norm (if not written into the mission of individual departments).

[3] Gearon’s analysis is primarily based on the current political and legal realities of England, but his observations work well for the situation in the United States. It would take us too far afield here, but addition to Gearon’s views we could include more overarching learning theories, such as behavioralist, cognitivist, or constructivist approaches.


  • Gearon, Liam. 2014. “The Paradigms of Contemporary Religious Education,” Journal for the Study of Religion, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 52-81.
  • Gearon, Liam. 2014. On Holy Ground: The Theory and Practice of Religious Education. London: Routledge.

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