Religion is a diverse discipline, reaching across many cultures and eras, as well as across many disciplines, such as History, Literature, Philosophy, and Anthropology. Accordingly, students can find several appropriate ways to approach the task of writing a paper for a Religion class.
However, some students come to Religion classes looking for an opportunity to consider the "eternal questions." While Religion classes do provide this opportunity, writers should not mistake their Religion papers for soul-searching opportunities.
Papers for Religion classes are, first and foremost, academic papers. Religion essays employ secular academic tools to help us understand or evaluate religious ideas and points of view. Researchers of differing faiths communicate with each other through these secular tools, and through the conventions of academic writing. By adhering to these secular tools and conventions, scholars advance academic discourse.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of writing an essay in Religion is figuring out how to analyze or criticize texts that are so authoritative and definitive. How does one presume to write about texts such as the Bible, the Qu'ran, or the Torah?
Perhaps the most comfortable way of approaching the analysis of religious texts is through the lenses of other disciplines. The methods, theories and assumptions typically employed in the Humanities and Social Sciences can be useful tools of investigation when writing a Religion paper.
For example, you might explore The Gospel According to Matthew through the lens of history, trying to understand how the historical context influenced its author. Your essay might analyze in what ways Matthew's understanding of his audience affected his relation of the life of Christ. Or you might look at the evolution of Christian beliefs, and find the impetus for these evolutions in historical events - for example, the events leading to the Protestant Reformation.
You might also turn to philosophy and logic to provide strategies for analyzing religious texts. You might, for example, write an essay that explores Nietzsche's attack on Christianity in The Antichrist. Or you might evaluate religious texts logically, taking for example a passage from The Talmud, analyzing its premises, and challenging its conclusions.
Sociology and Anthropology supply additional ways of thinking about religion. You might consider religious ideas through the lens of anthropology - considering, for example, how Islam influences the way families and communities are defined. Or you might investigate how economics, politics, race, and gender influence or are influenced by the Christian Right.
You might also explore a religious text as literature - exploring recurring themes, motifs, and characters in any religious text. Or, you may want to analyze the rhetorical conventions of a text, or do a comparative study of its translations.
Whatever strategy you choose, your purpose in writing papers in religion is to broaden an understanding of religious texts and experiences. Do your best to obey the conventions and to meet the expectations of the discipline whose "lens" you have chosen. For more information, see our pages on writing across the disciplines.
Typically, the historical essay for a Religion class discusses a particular religious period, movement, or event. As we noted above, you may wish to view the history's influence on religion, or religion's influence on history. You may investigate the historical context of a religious text, or you may wish to consider how a religious document has been understood differently, over time.
One special type of historical essay is the revisionist essay. How has history worked to revise the meaning or use of religious texts? For example, during the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King employed religious texts in order to defend the dis-empowered and to change America's understanding of religious power. A revisionist essay would explore these new uses of authoritative texts.
For more information on how to write an historical essay, see Writing the History Paper.
Dartmouth's religious faculty specialize in specific religious areas and have expertise in the associated languages and history. Everyone teaching in the Religion department is also a comparativist, and the Religion department insists that an undergraduate majoring in religion have a comparative understanding and focus.
A good comparative paper might examine the differences between religions or religious factions. Or, it might focus on similarities between religions. Even religions that are historically at odds with each other share ideas, ethics, and so on.
Consider, for example, the matter of the "soul." Christian and Hindu traditions employ the idea of a soul, but Buddhism does not. An interesting comparative paper would outline the different notions of soul in Christianity and Hinduism, and might posit reasons as to why these differences exist. Another interesting paper might explore the ways in which an absence of the concept of "soul" in Buddhism affects the path to righteousness.
Exegesis is a kind of writing that seeks to explicate meaning. Because religious texts are often debated, their passages have been ascribed multitudes of meanings over time. When you write an exegesis, you are trying to defend or challenge one of those meanings, or posit a meaning of your own.
If you choose to write an exegesis, you will have to read your passage of text carefully, consider how its meaning relates to other passages and to the text as a whole. You will have to consider how the passage that you are considering is consistent with, or inconsistent with, other passages. You will have to consider the several debates concerning these passages, and to ponder the history surrounding the passage. Then you will have to determine what you think about the passage, and state that argument in your thesis sentence.
When organizing your exegesis, use your thesis and topic sentences to focus your central idea. Then prioritize the evidence you intend to use. Don't forget to include the arguments that do not agree with your own reading of the passage. Be sure to give your reader a sense of why they should be reading your paper. In short, why is it important to consider your interpretation of the text? What do you have to say that might encourage them to think about the text in new ways? And so on.
Scholars have put considerable effort into examining how religion influences other areas of our lives. You might decide to do a paper on religion and gender, religion and art, and so on. Use your imagination, but make sure that your work follows the conventions of the discipline in which you are working, and fulfills your professor's expectations.
Last Updated: 7/11/08