A New RaT Research Cluster, an Old Question, and an Ongoing Academic Endeavor: Theories of Religions in Past, Present, and Future

RaT has recently launched a new research cluster entitled “Transformation of Social Scientific Theories of Religion: Past, Present, Future” in which a number of international scholars and RaT members have eagerly joined forces. The cluster is focusing on an ongoing scholarly discussion in the academic study of religion pertaining to the now centuries-old enterprise of explaining religion. But for the versed and curious reader, already a number of questions arise in conjunction with some of the terms mentioned that beg for further elaboration and clarification: social scientific theory, religion, explanation—to mention just the most evident ones.

Theories of religion are but generalizations addressing the core questions of how and when did religion occur (viz. the origins of religion) as well as to what end (viz. the function of religion). Nevertheless, these rather broad questions are typically accompanied by a number of additional elements that require further examination, such as:

  • the difference between the historical origins (e.g., when and how did religion occur in human history for the first time) and the recurrent origins (e.g., when and how does religion occur every time it does so across time and space);
  • the specific properties and/or conditions that make “religion” a distinct cultural phenomenon (i.e., the typical features/components of religion);
  • the structure and/or structural elements of religion that allow for the theoretical generalizations to occur in the first place (i.e., the necessary condition[s] and/or the design of religious traditions)

The above do not exhaust the issue, as one may readily surmise. Theorizing about religion is a rather complicated and multilayered undertaking, which, since its initial steps, has been characterized by different motivations, questions, and end goals. For example, in the ancient Greek and Roman world, the phenomenon was approached, discussed, and examined by thinkers that today would qualify as merely philosophers. Thus, the so-called Presocratic philosophers (such as Prodicus of Ceos, Protagoras of Abdera, Democritus, Anaximander, and more) were interested in the phenomenon of religion as a means of (primarily but not exclusively) explaining the natural world. Plato and Aristotle, on the contrary, mainly preoccupied themselves with what became known as “metaphysics”—which would, later on, inform the early Christian discourses on religion. Roman thinkers, on the other hand, were primarily interested in the nature of the gods as the quintessential feature of religion, with Cicero being the most prominent example among them—without, of course, excluding other thinkers such as Lucretius.

The early Christian thinkers were not less sophisticated when it came to accounting for religion. Especially the early apologists were not only versed in the Graeco-Roman inquiries on and about religion, but themselves participated in such debates bringing forth their own conceptions of what religion is and does. As a matter of fact, it is rarely the case that scholars have approached those thinkers (such as Athenagoras or Justin Martyr) as potential theorists of religion—at least not beyond the limits of (Christian) Philosophy of Religion. Whether once could approach those figures and their works as theoretical inquiries into the origins, nature, and function of religion from a social scientific perspective is a discussion to be had and an appealing part of this research cluster run by RaT.

By far, the most important as well as popular theories of religion sprang after the Enlightenment and especially during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and for the better part of the twentieth century. A number of (now considered) founding figures of many disciplines, including that of Religious Studies, such as Edward B. Tylor, James G. Frazer, F. Max Müller, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, Bronisław Malinowski, Claude-Lévi-Strauss, Sigmund Freud, Victor Turner, William James, and more offered theories that were in one way or another addressing the core question of origins and/or function, all maintaining that religion is a response to a human need which religion answers and fulfils. One could claim that the answers offered were as diverse as religions around the world themselves. Religion explains the natural world; it is the counterpart of science; it brings together a social group and strengthens its cohesion; it brings humans in contact with their unconsciousness; it fulfils physical and this-worldly needs, such as for food, clothes, and shelter—to name just a few.

The second part of the twentieth century could be deemed the era of the solidification of the discipline of Religious Studies (primarily in the western world) and the emergence of new theories, this time also from within the now separate discipline. Undoubtedly, figures such as Mircea Eliade and (earlier) Rudolf Otto combined the methods from the social sciences and the data available from within the religious traditions, thereby formulating theories that saw religion as an end in itself, that is, religion as fulfilling the need for religion (which, essentially, meant to come into contact with god[s], salvation, afterlife, etc.). Their views, in many respects, were also promoted (albeit in a more sophisticated manner) by other important figures, such as Ninian Smart, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, John Hick, or even Rodney Stark (the latter from the field of economics). It could be argued that, in some ways, the religionist theories—as they are sometimes referred to—were virtually theological or theological-like responses to the question of the need and the exploration of the nature of religion, rather than dealing with the phenomenon as a human creation as the social sciences have overwhelmingly done so.

The last part of the twentieth century also brought about a new set of attempts to theorize about religion, this time from a subfield known as the cognitive study of religion (CSR). Focusing on the human mind, CSR scholars seek to demonstrate and explain how the human mind, based on our species-specific evolutionary past and dispositions, generates, maintains, disseminates, and reinforces ideas and practices that are deemed religious. With the danger of oversimplification, one could argue that CSR locates the need for religion in the way the human mind is wired. Notable CRS scholars who have formulated such theories are Harvey Whitehouse, Stewart Guthrie, Justin Barrett, E. Thomas Lawson, Pascal Boyer, and more. Concurrently with the CSR, a number of theories from the cultural studies have also emerged, this time asking questions related to power and oppression, colonialism and postcolonialism, feminism, and more. From Mary Douglas and Catherine Bell to Judith Butler and Saba Mahmood, religion is also approached from within the so-called postmodernist turn in the academic study of religion—the most current and enticing new theories for many scholars primarily in North America and Western Europe.

The newly established cluster, therefore, aims at examining all these trends of both past and present, but also seek their interconnections, how theories evolved, changed, transformed, and also readjusted to new schools of thought and preoccupations, as well as what is their future in a constantly changed world. Below, some indicative (introductory) works dealing with theories of religion are provided (without including at this stage the formative works themselves, such as Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life or Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, to give two examples), with the aim to eventually produce an extensive bibliographical data base on theories of religion past, present, and future.


Andresen, Jensine, ed. 2001. Religion in Mind: Cognitive Perspectives on Religious Belief, Ritual, and Experience. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Banton, Michael, ed. 1966. Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion. London: Tavistock Publications.

Bloesch, Sarah J. and Meredith Minister, eds. 2018. The Bloomsbury Reader in Cultural Approaches to the Study of Religion. London and New York: Bloomsbury.

Bloesch, Sarah J. and Meredith Minister, eds. 2019. Cultural Approaches to Studying Religion: An Introduction to Theories and Methods. London and New York: Bloomsbury.

Boyer, Pascal. 1994. The Naturalness of Religious Ideas: A Cognitive Theory of Religion. Berkeley, CA and London: University of California Press.

Capps, Walter H. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Minneapolis, MI: Fortress Press.

Clark, Peter B. and Peter Byrne. 1993. Religion Defined and Explained. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Deal, William E. and Timothy K. Beal. 2004. Theory for Religious Studies. New York and London: Routledge.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1965. Theories of Primitive Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Godlove, Jr. Terry F., ed. 2005. Teaching Durkheim. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hedges, Paul. Understanding Religion: Theories and Methods for Studying Religiously Diverse Societies. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Hewitt, Marsha Aileen. 2014. Freud on Religion. London and New York: Routledge.

Jensen, Jeppe Sinding. 2020. What Is Religion? 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge.

Josephson Storm, Jason Ānanda. 2017. The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences. Chicago, IL and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Josephson Storm, Jason Ānanda. 2021. Metamodernism: The Future of Theory. Chicago, IL and London: The University of Chicago Press.

King, Richard, ed. 2017. Religion, Theory, Critique: Classic and Contemporary Approaches and Methodology. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kunin, Seth D. with Jonathan Miles-Watson, eds. 2006. Theories of Religion: A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Levy, Gabriel. 2022. Beyond Heaven and Earth: A Cognitive Theory of Religion. Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press.

McCutcheon, Russell T. Studying Religion: An Introduction. 2nd ed. London and New York: Routldge.

Molendijk, Arie L. 2016. Friedrich Max Müller and the Sacred Books of the East. New York: Oxford University Press.

Molendijk, Arie L. and Peter Pels, eds. 1998. Religion in the Making: The Emergence of the Sciences of Religion. Leiden: Brill.

Olson, Carl, ed. 2003. Theory and Method in the Study of Religion: A Selection of Critical Readings. Belmont, CA: Thomson and Wadsworth. 

Palmer, Michael. 2023 [1997]. Freud and Jung on Religion. London and New York: Routledge.

Pals, Daniel L. 2022. Ten Theories of Religion. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Parsons, William B., ed. 2016. Religion: Social Religion. Farmington Hills, MI: Macmillan.

Raines, John, ed. 2002. Marx on Religion. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Rosenhagen, Ulrich and Gregory D. Alles, eds. 2022. The Holy in a Pluralistic World: Rudolf Otto’s Legacy in the 21st Century. Sheffield: Equinox.

Sawai, Yoshitsugu. 2022. Rudolf Otto and the Foundation of the History of Religions. London and New York: Bloomsbury.

Schewel, Benjamin. 2017. 7 Ways of Looking at Religion: The Major Narratives. New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press.

Stausberg, Michael, ed. 2009. Contemporary Theories of Religion: A Critical Companion. London and New York: Routledge.

Strenski, Ivan, ed. 2006. Thinking About Religion: A Reader. Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell.

Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Understanding Theories of Religion: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Malden, MA and Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.

Thrower, James. 1999. Religion: The Classical Theories. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Tremlett, Paul-François, Liam T. Sutherland, and Graham Harvey, eds. 2017. Edward Burnett Tylor, Religion and Culture. London and New York: Bloomsbury.

Waardenburg, Jacques, 2017. Classical Approaches to the Study of Religion: Aims, Methods, and Theories of Research. Introduction and Anthology. 2nd ed. with a Foreword by Russell T. McCutcheon. Berlin and Boston, MA: De Gruyter.

Wheeler-Barclay, Marjorie. 2010. The Science of Religion in Britain, 1860–1915. Charlotesville, VA and London: University of Virginia Press.

White, Claire. 2021. An Introduction to the Cognitive Science of Religion: Connecting Evolution, Brain, Cognition, and Culture. London and New York: Routledge.

Whitehouse, Harvey. 2004. Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.

Wedemeyer, Christian K. and Wendy Doniger, eds. 2010. Hermeneutics, Politics, and the History of Religions: The Contested Legacies of Joachim Wach and Mircea Eliade. New York: Oxford University Press.

Woodhead, Linda with Paul Heelas and David Martin, eds. 2001. Peter Berger and the Study of Religion. London and New York: Routledge.

Xygalatas, Dimitris and William W. McCorkle Jr., eds. 2014. Mental Culture: Classical Social Theory and the Cognitive Science of Religion. London and New York: Routldge.

Photo credits: Maksim Goncharenok from Pexels: https://www.pexels.com/photo/two-people-holding-pineapple-fruits-against-a-multicolored-wall-4412925/

RaT-Blog Nr. 01/2023

Nickolas Roubekas

PD Dr. Nickolas P. Roubekas is Universitätsassistent at the Department of Religious Studies, University of Vienna. He is the spokesperson of the RaT cluster Transformation of Social Scientific Theories of Religion: Past, Present, Future and editor-in-chief of NUMEN: International Review for the History of Religions. His most recent publication is The Study of Greek and Roman Religions: Insularity and Assimilation (Bloomsbury, 2022).