Questions to ask in the study of religion

Some things that can help us to get started on what is religion and what are we trying to do with it

The primary question is:

What can we learn here through exploring categories of race and gender?

Finding useful answers (and deeper understanding) is not always simply about knowledge.

There is always more to learn and know about — the more we learn, the more we realise how little we know.

To understand, it is very important to asked one fundamental question:

  • What are the best (most useful) questions to ask?

Here are a few to reflect on.

Think of any context, explore any situation — real or fictitious, at home, or elsewhere.

And ask some or all of these questions and try to think about the answers that emerge…

  • How is the word religion being used?
  • What is it used to mean (and not mean)? In what contexts, by whom?
  • If in another language, is the word we assume to translate as ‘religion’ being used similarly to how ‘religion’ is used in English?
  • What are the historical issues that have shaped the current situation? Not only for the people involved, but also for us as we observe and try to understand the context?
  • This leads to questions of how the peoples’ — and our own — assumptions have been shaped by colonial and postcolonial history?
  • What is the politics of the situation: how is power being used by the people involved?
  • Who has the most obvious agency and who has the least?
  • Are there forms of agency that go against the main forms of power?
  • How do ideas of gender/sexuality/race shape the situation?
  • In particular, how do categories of gender/sexuality/race shape power?
  • And how does power shape categories of gender/sexuality/race in the situation?
  • How does what we assume to be religion shape understandings and practices of gender/sexuality/race?
  • Related to this, how does the focus on gender and genders help us to understand the many forms and discourses of religion within a context?
  • Likewise what do we learn from a focus on sexualities?
  • And similarly, what do we learn from a focus on race and racial differences?
  • How do religious ideas, practices, and discourses make gender, sexualities, and race appear to be ‘natural’ and/or unquestionable?
  • How is whiteness represented and put into practice?
  • How are other representations of race part of the politics of the situation?
  • How do each of these — gender, sexualities, race, and religion — intersect within the context that we are exploring?
  • What do such intersections tell us that we do not see by focusing on a single issue alone?

Malory Nye is an academic and writer who teaches at the University of Glasgow. He can be found on Twitter (@malorynye) and on his website,

He produces two podcasts: Religion Bites and History’s Ink.

Malory Nye is also the author of the books Religion the Basics (2008) and There Shall be an Independent Scotland (2015).

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