The Phenomenology of Religion as Philosophical Anthropology

Project Director

Professor Gavin Flood FBA

Project outline

The Phenomenology of Religion has virtually disappeared as a serious intellectual endeavor having been subjected to sustained political and philosophical critique primarily on three fronts: from (a) what might broadly be called a socio-cultural constructivist stance, from (b) the Neuroscience of religion, and from (c) Phenomenological Theology.

(a) The socio-cultural critique has highlighted that the Phenomenology of Religion either has no explanatory power because it is in thrall to the categories of religions themselves in its declared attempt to be descriptive or that it contains an implicit theology that ignores power structures in the histories of civilizations. On this view the study of religion should be critique, a critique whose origins lie in a Critical Theory perspective (and partly in Deconstruction), which has, at the end of the day, an emancipatory agenda in exposing the structures of power and oppression, particularly of women and the colonized other.

(b) The neuroscience of religion has been unabashedly reductionistic with the high ambition of explaining the cultural fact of religion through individual neurological processes.

(c) Theological Phenomenology has drawn the Phenomenology of Religion away from its agnostic or secular presuppositions towards an exclusively Christian theological orientation. In contrast to (a) and (b), the appropriation of Phenomenology by (mostly Francophone) Theology, has sought to redescribe Christian thinking in terms of phenomenological categories – such as Being, body, world – that is in the articulation of Christian truth. This absorption of Phenomenology by Christian Theology is an implicit critique of the Phenomenology of Religion on the grounds that the latter disclaims truth in the service of agnostic description. 

There are, however, problems with these forms of critique. What we might call the ‘power critique’ of the Phenomenology of Religion as well as the Neuroscience perspectives are too reductionist in not taking seriously emic claims and in not regarding human aspiration to verticality as having explanatory force. The Theological critique becomes too specialized, restricted to Theology, and loses relevance to the wider society and pluralist communities in which we live; it becomes the pursuit of privileged elites. 

The Phenomenology of Religion as Philosophical Anthropology: A Colloquium

4th October-6th October 2021 
A Virtual Colloquium

The purpose of this colloquium or extended seminar is to examine these issues with a view to an intellectual reinvigoration or repristination of the Phenomenology of Religion not as its former incarnation of an attempted neutral description of religions’ doctrines, practices, and histories, but with a view to its explanatory potential as a form of philosophical analysis that drives to the heart of what it is to be human. If what we might call ‘the religious impulse’ or less controversially ‘the vertical attraction’ present through the histories of civilizations is central to the humanum, then a Phenomenology of Religion is an intellectual practice that seeks to expose its parameters. The Phenomenology of Religion is thus a philosophical discourse about what it is to be human and a way of offering an account of religions (in the plural) through history. A Phenomenology of Religion on this view is a kind of Philosophical Anthropology. 

In concrete terms, such a programme might entail an initial level of description that draws on the ontic sciences such as Psychology or Sociology but in particular, perhaps above all, Philology. The Philological study of religious documents sets Phenomenology at a coal face of religious articulation and the evidential ground of the history of civilizations. A higher-level Phenomenology that assumes the first level will ask questions of meaning and raise the necessity of the specification of constraint in any given instance and might constructively interact with the hard sciences, such as Evolutionary Anthropology.

A further level might raise questions of truth, would be a primarily ontological inquiry, and might interface with the Philosophy of Religion. The first level Phenomenology is close to what in Anthropology has been called the Ontological Turn, although this current proposal is focused on ontologies exposed through deep textual study. Here Philology comes into its own as the way in which a civilization can show itself through the texts it produces. This is to privilege text as the most important site of cultural production and to rejoice in the method that allows what shows itself to be seen. Our extended seminar will begin to explore the enterprise that is the Phenomenology of Religion, as being richly human and as being simultaneously detached and engaged. 

A new Phenomenology of Religion is actively and joyously dialogical in the fields of its production (textual or even ethnographic) and concerned above all with exposing human truth and articulating a Philosophical Anthropology that must re-vision the human in the contemporary situation of the post-global pandemic and the environmental imperative to change our habits. This new Phenomenology of Religion will be relevant in its cultural fields of production and at the end of the day, needs to offer more than description but a deeper, contemporary account of what it is to be human. A small honorarium will be made to participants (precise sum yet to be decided within budgetary constraints).  


The colloquium is jointly sponsored by Campion Hall, Oxford University and the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies (OCHS). There will be dedicated internet presence hosted by the OCHS and the website will be in a condition of constant development.