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This handout explains several common writing assignments in religious studies and discusses what is unique about writing in this discipline.

Religious studies is an interdisciplinary field

Before starting on your writing assignment, you should know that religious studies is an interdisciplinary field, a fact which will shape how you approach your coursework. The interdisciplinary nature of religious studies is part of what makes the study of religion so interesting. However, it also makes writing in religious studies challenging because your instructors will expect you to use diverse theories and methods. At the same time that religious studies uses many of the same theories and methods as other fields, it is still its own discipline with unique conventions for writing.

What’s the difference between “religion” and “religious studies”?

Writing for religious studies takes place within a secular, academic environment, rather than a faith-oriented community. Religious studies papers, therefore, should not try to demonstrate or refute provocative religious concepts, such as the existence of God or the idea of reincarnation. Such issues are supernatural and/or metaphysical; as such, they cannot be proven with evidence that is available to everyone. Religious studies, in contrast, aims to understand religion from a perspective that can be shared by all.

You may be wondering, “How do I go about investigating religious material without employing a religious perspective?” Remember—religious studies is interdisciplinary, so there are multiple modes of investigation, including literary, historical, cultural, sociological, and anthropological. These approaches tend to contextualize religious phenomena, such as beliefs and rituals. You might, therefore, investigate how Nietzsche questioned the existence of God or a particular Buddhist’s conception of reincarnation. In other words, your reader will likely be more interested in what a particular historical figure, community, or text reveals about these beliefs than in what you actually believe. Every religion arises within a particular context, which affects the development of that religion. When you explore a religion’s context, seemingly mystifying aspects of the tradition can become more comprehensible.

This distinction is especially important when analyzing evidence and making arguments. Don’t let your personal beliefs predetermine your conclusions. Always begin with a fresh evaluation of the evidence. While personal bias is unavoidable, it is critical to be alert to your own preconceptions. If you base your argument on personal beliefs rather than reasoned evidence, then it will not convince readers who do not share your assumptions. Thus, neither faith nor received tradition (such as the lessons you may have been taught in a religious institution) constitutes a valid basis for an argument in academic writing. If you do your best to set aside personal convictions, your final product should be a reasoned argument that gives no indication of your own religious beliefs.

Common writing assignments in religious studies

The interdisciplinary nature of religious studies is reflected in the diversity of writing assignments. If you are not sure about the nature of your assignment, you can consult our handout on understanding assignments or speak with your instructor—you might be working on a project that is not discussed here. Here are some common assignments:

Comparative essays

Comparative essays require that you discuss similarities and differences between the topics you compare, and that your discussion relates to particular theory. In other words, your comparative essay must be more than a list of similarities and differences. Your comparisons should support a theoretical point or issue that is broader than the items under examination. See our handout on comparing/contrasting for more on this type of argument.

For example, if you decide to compare Chinese folk rituals for honoring ancestors and Hindu rituals for honoring deities, you could explain that each ritual is similar in that they usually involve food and candles or lamps. Chinese rituals, however, usually occur without an altar, while Hindu rituals require one. In addition to describing these similarities and differences, you should also discuss what your comparison reveals about food and altars relative to a particular theory of ritual. The theoretical issues of food, altars, and rituals can form the analytical core of your paper.

A thesis sentence for the example above might read:

“Even though Chinese rituals for honoring ancestors and Hindu rituals for honoring deities both involve food offerings, the differences between these rituals regarding their need for an altar demonstrate that Rupert Hemingway’s theory of ritual sacrifice cannot account for cross-cultural variations in ritual practices.”

In sum, a good comparative essay should:

  • Describe each thing that you compare in terms of the social, historical, and cultural environment to which it belongs.
  • Explain the larger theoretical point or issue that forms the analytical core of your essay.
  • Compare each thing with the others at the descriptive level to identify their similarities and differences, and individually compare each thing with your paper’s larger theoretical issue.
  • Conclude your paper by explaining what your comparisons at both the descriptive and theoretical levels reveal about the broader theoretical point.

Critical readings of religious texts

Writing for religious studies may also involve critical analyses of sacred and/or traditionally authoritative texts. While a critical reading of a sacred text might seem irreverent, the point is not to “criticize” the text, but to respectfully “discern” the different aspects of its meaning. The concept of divine inspiration, although often associated with sacred texts, belongs in a faith-oriented environment and, therefore, is not suitable evidence in academic writing. An alternative approach involves treating the texts as literary sources. Literary texts are best understood by assessing the situation surrounding their origin. You can employ methods of literary analysis by evaluating the genre of a particular text to explain how it has been interpreted. Issues related to authorship, source material, and historical context can also be important. You can explore common themes and motifs or undertake a character analysis. A comparative study, utilizing multiple texts, is yet another possibility.

The opening chapters of the biblical book of Genesis, for instance, provide various possibilities for literary analysis. The text actually depicts not one, but two creation accounts. Setting aside the question of whether or not they are reconcilable, you can explore the distinctive features of each. Different authors composed them during different historical periods, and, consequently, they reflect unique interests. The historical context of one account can help you understand its unique themes. Comparing them is another option. You could also investigate the manner in which the two accounts were eventually placed side by side.

The study of religion does not rely exclusively on sacred texts. Your evidence can include non-sacred religious and secular literature, including fiction. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for instance, reveals aspects of popular medieval Christianity, while Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory depicts the political repression of Catholicism in modern Mexico through the tale of an alcoholic priest.

For more suggestions on treating religious sources as literary texts, refer to our handout on writing about literature and our handout on poetry explications.

Ethnographic studies

Ethnography is a research method that involves observing religious actions and interviewing participants. Ethnography is useful when you want to know how contemporary religious actors and communities behave and think. Ethnographic writing is challenging for three reasons:

  1. Ethnographic writing actually includes different kinds of writing, including fieldnotes, interview notes, scene notes, and the final paper itself.
  2. The primary sources for ethnographic writing come from your own experiences, observations, and interviews with subjects in a fieldwork setting.
  3. Ethnographic writing demands your ethical commitment to protect the well-being of the people you are studying.

See our handout on anthropology for more information on ethnographic studies.

Historical analyses

History is a common component of religious studies, particularly at UNC. Similar theories and methods can be applied, for instance, to the study of American religious history and American political history. The historical study of religion may be further divided into specific sub-fields. You can, for instance, examine the social history of early Christianity or the literary history of Persian religious poetry. Primary sources, which include both documentary texts and material remains, are essential to historical analysis. See our handout on writing in history.

Certain aspects of religious traditions, by their very nature, are not susceptible to historical inquiry. For instance, miracles are by definition inexplicable and thus not open to historical investigation. If you undertake an historical study of Jesus, the question of whether or not Jesus experienced a bodily resurrection (a miracle), though significant from a theological perspective, requires an alternative approach. While the mystery of the miracle remains, the literary evidence reporting the resurrection possesses value for historians. An historian could investigate the manner in which early Christian writers depicted the event and make an historical claim related to the development of early Christian theology. A fruitful historical inquiry could consider how early Christians interpreted the resurrection; such an argument constitutes an historical claim.

Journal entries

You can use academic journal entries to analyze your own thinking as a student by raising questions about course materials and experimenting with potential answers. Journal entries are less formal than a fully developed research paper. They give you the opportunity to sharpen your critical thinking skills by cutting to the core of issues quickly and succinctly. Journal entries don’t need to be finished products; rather, they should reflect your current thinking, even (and especially) when you are still puzzling through questions and possible solutions.

Here are examples of questions that can form the basis of your journal entries:

Questions about individual source materials

  • What are the main issues raised by your sources? Are these issues handled adequately by your sources, or are there shortcomings? If so, what are these shortcomings, and what strategies could you use to remedy them? What are the strengths and weaknesses of your remedies?

Comparative questions about your sources

  • How do course materials compare with each other? What are the major points of agreement and disagreement? Why do they agree or disagree? Is there a difference or similarity in theory, method, topic, data, or approach? How would you evaluate the relative strengths and weaknesses of each source’s point of view, and which criteria are you using to evaluate them? How would you use the sources to construct an argument? What are the strengths and weaknesses of your point of view?

Questions about your own thinking

  • What are your reactions to the course materials? Why do you find some sources interesting? What do you agree or disagree with? Can you find support for your views, or are your reactions driven primarily by factors beyond the course materials? If the origins of your reactions come from other sources, how will you manage them relative to the core issues raised in your course? Can they be an asset to you as you think through your coursework?

Terminology in Religious Studies

Writing effectively in religious studies depends on vocabulary. To use key terms appropriately, make sure that you thoroughly understand the specialized vocabulary in your course readings. In addition, you may want to use more general religious terms in your writing. For the definitions of terms such as belief, deity, faith, holy books, ritual, and tradition, you should consult either the Oxford English Dictionary or the Harper Collins Dictionary of Religion.

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial. We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

Smith, Johnathan Z., and William Scott Green. 1995. The HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion. San Francisco: Harper.

Tucker, Dennis C. 2000. Research Techniques for Scholars and Students in Religion and Theology. Medford, NJ: Information Today.

Vyhmeister, Nancy Jean. 2014. Quality Research Papers for Students of Religion and Theology, 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

This work is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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