The first thing to understand when approaching an essay in religious studies is the unique nature of the discipline. Apart from its distinctive subject matter, the interdisciplinary nature of the field makes the study of religion both fascinating and highly challenging.
The academic study of religion requires more than knowledge of individual texts, beliefs and practices, and may draw upon fields as diverse as history, sociology, anthropology, hermeneutics, and linguistics. For this reason, your instructors will expect you to familiarise yourself with and be able to employ a variety of different theories and methods. The interdisciplinary nature of the subject is also reflected in the various kinds of essays you will be asked to write, which may include a mixture of comparative, textual, ethnographic, hermeneutical, sociological and historical approaches.
The academic study of religion takes place in a secular rather than a faith-based context. Since it aims to understand religion from a perspective that can be shared by all, and limits itself to evidence that is available to all, you will not be required to try to prove or refute particular religious beliefs.
As an interdisciplinary academic subject, religious studies employs historical, textual, cultural, sociological and anthropological methods to contextualise, interpret and understand religious beliefs, practices, traditions and communities. As such, it is important not to let your personal religious beliefs influence your conclusions. In the context of academic writing, neither faith nor tradition constitutes an adequate basis for an argument.
Whether the essay you are asked to write requires a textual, comparative, historical or ethnographic approach, or some mixture of each, your first task is to make sure that you understand the question and how it relates to the course material. The question you are given will be set for a reason and so should not be understood as an invitation for you to write about something only loosely related to it that happens to interest you.
Make sure your reading is always guided by the essay question in order to produce focused notes, and only include in the essay what is relevant to answering the question. Keep the essay question in mind as you read and write, and make sure that everything you include in the essay contributes towards answering it. Avoid introducing irrelevant information, however interesting you may happen to find it.
In most cases a religious studies essay will be organised around a clear problem and comprise a single basic thesis or argument.
Essays should present balanced arguments in support of the thesis while drawing upon relevant texts and evidence to lend it plausibility.
All essays require a clear introductory section circumscribing the parameters of the topic and the way you intend to tackle it.
This should be followed by the main body of your argument, comprising well-structured paragraphs each of which should provide a step forward in the argument.
Your arguments should be set out in a logical and cogent manner, making it easy for the reader to follow your thought processes. The relationship between one idea and the next should be made clear by the use of transitional phrases and sentences.
Ensure that each step in the argument is clearly signposted so that the reader is never left wondering why a particular point is being made.
Substantiate your claims with arguments and evidence, avoid over-reliance on particular texts, critically evaluate your sources, demonstrate awareness of different points of view, and be sure to anticipate counter-objections to your claims.
Your conclusion should draw together all of your arguments and demonstrate how they support the original thesis set forth in your introduction.
Carefully proof-read, revise and edit your work (or have somebody else do it for you) to ensure correct spelling, grammar and punctuation, and be sure to format and reference it in accordance with your department's preferred specifications.
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