Studying Religions with the Iron Curtain Closed and Open

The Academic Study of Religion in Eastern Europe

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Tomáš Bubík, Henryk Hoffmann
Numen Book Series, volume 149
  • Boston, MA: 
    , April
     347 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The essays in Studying Religions with the Iron Curtain Closed and Opened originated in a grant project supported by the Czech Science Foundation entitled “Development of the Study of Religions in Central and Eastern Europe in the 20th Century.” The book is an effort “to provide the international community of scholars” with a “systematic and thorough” report in the English language on the history of the development of the academic study of religion in Eastern Europe. Three stages of development can be seen: the historical evolutionist phase; the Marxist phase; and the “more ideologically neutral academic study” after the Marxist period. The modern-day academic study of religion is considered a neutral subject in contrast to the anti-religious propaganda promoted by the scientific atheism of Marxist communism and to the study and explication of theology by theologians in the various religious traditions (xiii).

The editors note that the individual essays in this book use different English terms to describe the academic study of religion: “Study of Religion, academic Study of Religions, Academic Studies of Religion or Religious Studies, or [the] German term Religionswissenschaft” (xv).

The academic study of religion, begun with the pioneering work of Max Muller and Cornelius P. Teile about 140 years ago, quickly spread into Eastern Europe. Scholars there then began translations of religious texts, pursued the academic study of the origins of religion, and investigated the interrelationships of religious studies with other academic disciplines like philosophy, anthropology, archeology, linguistics, and history.

In its early days, the academic study of religion was influenced by historicism and evolutionism. Three “basic approaches” to the subject were developed: the first was to emphasize the study and existence of religions other than Christianity, from the pre-Christian to the Oriental. The second focused on the Middle East and on studies important to the genesis of Christianity. The third came from a freethinking perspective that viewed modern expressions of religion as an anachronism, something that developed at a certain period of human evolution, but which is not really relevant for the modern day (xi). During the Marxist era, the study of religion was mainly driven by ideology and an opposition to religious beliefs. When the Soviet era ended, the academic study of religion again flowered in Eastern European academia.

The essays in this book generally follow this broad pattern, surveying the early history of the academic study of religion, the Marxist phase, and the modern phase up to the present day. These essays also identify individual scholars and the varied methods used to approach the academic study of religion in each country. The countries included in this study are the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, the Ukraine, and Russia.

The early history of religious studies reveals a high interest in the study of Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Orientalism, pre-Christian folk religions, mythology, and witchcraft; as well as the beginning of the comparative study of religion. These early studies led to the publication of many books which were then shared and studied by other scholars. Some studies involved attempts at a non-theological definition of religion as well as efforts at defining religion in ways that reached beyond monotheistic Christianity. Investigations of pre-Christian religions also involved an examination of the origin of religious beliefs, and the relationship of those beliefs to nationalism. Ancient religious texts were translated into the languages of these various countries. Linguistic studies often accompanied the comparative study of non-Christian religions.

Scholars examining the study of religion and anti-religious propaganda during the communist era will find information in each essay about scholars of the Marxist era and digests of studies in Soviet scientific atheism. The essay on Russia emphasizes the fact that Soviet scientific atheism had three broad fields: “the study of religion, the study of atheism, and the theory of scientific atheistic education” (293). Not all studies of atheism are restricted to the Marxist period of time, however. Some of the current academic studies of religion include the study of atheism or freethinking as well as studies of spirituality in comparison to religion.

These essays alert Westerners to the work of contemporary Eastern European scholars engaged in the academic study of religion as well as to the existence of contemporary institutes of and organizations for religious studies, such as the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR) and the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR). Many national organizations and academic journals from Eastern European countries are mentioned as well.

The latest trends in the academic study of religion are seen to be the sociological study of religion (Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary), religious anthropology and folklore (Slovakia, Estonia, and Latvia), and the relationship of church and state as well as well as religious dialogue (Ukraine and Russia) (xiii). Scholars in these countries have increasingly networked on an international scale with other academic religious scholars.

Studying Religions should be read by academic religious scholars, especially those interested in the history and content of the academic study of religion in Eastern Europe. This is a book for students and scholars and should be in every university and seminary library worldwide.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Armand J. Boehme serves as Associate Pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Northfield, Minnesota, and formerly taught at People of God Evangelical Lutheran Seminary in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Date of Review: 
November 14, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Tomáš Bubík, Ph.D. (1967) is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pardubice. He has published a number of works about history and methodology of Religious Studies, including České bádání o náboženství ve 20. století (The Czech Study of Religions in the 20th Century, Červený Kostelec 2010). He is also the editor in chief of the journal Pantheon.

Henryk Hoffmann, Ph.D. (1953) is Professor of Religious Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. He has published number of works about history and methodology of Religious Studies, including Dzieje polskich badań religioznawczych 1873-1939 (The History of Polish Religious Studies 1873-1939, Kraków 2004). He is also the editor in chief of the journal Nomos. Czasopismo religioznawcze.



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