More than tradition: Writing tips for religious studies research projects

Religious studies are not just for those who want to focus on a particular religious tradition. The topic easily integrates with liberal arts, philosophy and sociology. When faced with the prospect of completing a term paper or research project for your religious studies course, you will be able to take the project in any number of directions, all of which will allow you to explore the beliefs and passions that have been inspired by religion. Here are a few writing tips to get you started.

Global perspective

Your instructor will probably give you some ideas on how to approach your research project. The assignment may dictate a certain number of pages and topics that you are to cover in your paper. Even with a description, however, you still may need some help in narrowing the scope of the project. The subject is so vast that if you don’t find a focus before you get too involved, you could easily find yourself overwhelmed.

A good strategy for finding your focus and locating the resources you’ll need is at Questia, the world’s largest online library with thousands of full-text books, magazines, journals, and newspapers from around the world. Let me give you an idea of what it’s like to do research on Questia.

At Questia you will find that the topic of religion includes:

  • Ancient religions
  • Religion and the arts
  • Cults
  • Asian religions

Within the topic of religion and the arts is the subtopic of religious symbolism. If you follow that link, you will be led to several texts on the subject including Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art by Miranda Green. Her book examines the influence of the Romans on Celtic society in France and the Netherlands.

“The dominance of the mother-cult, and the ubiquity of her images, argues for a society in which the female principle was important. I have suggested elsewhere that women played a fundamental role within Celtic society: we have Graeco-Roman literary evidence for this, and it is interesting that polyandry was practised in Britain,” Green said.

Religious studies project

The Religious Studies Project site has articles, resources and podcasts. It posts a weekly interview with leading scholars of religious studies and related fields. The site focuses on contemporary issues and aims to present material that is relevant and approachable for students without pushing an agenda.

Students will no doubt find it interesting to read the posts of fellow scholars such as this February 24, 2012 post by Katie Aston titled, “Insider and Outsider – An Anthropological Perspective.” Aston is a graduate student working on an ethnographic study of non-religious value construction and material cultures at University of London.

Here, Aston explores the concerns of an anthropologist who holds the same beliefs as the subjects being studied. “As discussed by Blanes, ambiguities arise over the insider and the outsider, over the faith or world view of the researcher and the researched within the project. But whatever steps are taken to breach the knowledge gap, Blanes also makes the point that it often remerges in the secular project of analysis and critique,” Aston said.

Library of Congress

The Library of Congress contains several collections related to religion and philosophy. All of the collections are rich with images and documents from the times. For example, the exhibit on Religion and the Founding of the American Republic explores the religious convictions of those who settled America in the 17th century. Many who came here from Europe were on a quest to escape religious persecution and establish a home where they could worship freely.

You’ll be able to read about those who influenced the development of religious movements in America. What you find may surprise you. Did you know that colonial Presbyterians followed the practice of examining members for spiritual soundness prior to taking communion? Tokens were issued to those who passed inspection and you can see pictures of those tokens on the site.

Other resources for religious studies

There are several other resources where you’ll be able to find a wealth of information. Try starting at one of these for more ideas:

  • The Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion: an annotated guide to a myriad of electronic resources on the web.
  • Voice of the Shuttle: a jumping-off point to journals, news, and other resources on dozens of religious topics
  • The DMOZ Open Directory of Religion and Spirituality: follow the links and you’ll find such treasures as the text of the Testament of Solomon and ancient books of magic.
  • Religious Worlds: links and information on religious traditions, religion in modern times, and academic resources.
  • Academicearth.org: you will find video lectures by Yale faculty members on religious topics.

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