How to Write Better Papers in Religious Studies

The first and most important rule of any academic paper is that it needs to contribute to a chosen field of knowledge. And when that field is the study of religion, the stakes are unusually high. As an author, you need to employ historical, sociological, hermeneutical, ethnographic, textual, and comparative approaches, but also forgo of your religious beliefs and examine the thesis from a holistic standpoint.

When it comes to writing papers, this field of study is considered the ultimate test of skill.

Here’s how to ace it:

    Learn how to write your paper yourself – read below.

What Every Good Paper Needs

We’ve already mentioned that every academic paper needs to add to the existing pool of knowledge on a certain field of study. In order to so, an essay must pose a problem, examine it from different views, and provide a solution that’s original, arguable, and interesting. And it all starts with a question.

  • What Makes a Great Question?
  • Unless your mentor provides one, you’ll need to generate it yourself. Bear in mind that a good question doesn’t ask what, but how and why. Such a question must be linked back to the evidence you and your readers have and must move the field forward by asking something nobody’s asked before.

  • How to Develop a Good Thesis?
  • A thesis, which is typically defined as the main idea or argument of the paper, is nothing but an answer to an examined question. As said before, your thesis should be original, arguable, and interesting. You cannot just copy-paste another’s opinion or provide an answer that’s deemed as common knowledge.

    Instead, you must come up with an analysis that’s worthy of consideration. Just like the initial question of your paper, your thesis must draw the readers’ attention, puzzle them, and make them interested in what you have to say. Most importantly, it must shine a brand new light on a religious topic at hand.

  • How to Express Your Motive?
  • In between a question and a thesis is a motive, which justifies the importance of them both. It answers why your paper is worth reading in the first place and offers an overview of the thought you’re arguing against or in support of. The motive establishes that you’ll provide a different interpretation.

  • How to Use Your Evidence?
  • Because an academic paper aims to put something that a reader already knows to a test, it must provide evidence that both introduces the argument you’re trying to refute and supports your own interpretation. Every quote must be explained and analyzed, as well as linked back to your argument.

  • How to Anticipate Objections?
  • In order to advance a certain field of study, a paper must be arguable. The very point of this discipline is not to give definitive answers, but to open a dialogue. However, an analytic oversight can easily kill your entire thesis, so always think about potential counterarguments and refute them with your own.

  • How to Conclude Your Paper?
  • A paper conclusion should not be a simple summary of everything stated in the body. Recap your main point, but do that in a way that places your thesis in a larger context or that considers your argument from a slightly new angle. The conclusion should make a great impression on your readers.

  • Writing Papers for Religious Studies
  • The interdisciplinary nature of religious studies requires you to tap into your knowledge about history, sociology, anthropology, and philosophy. But it also enables you to choose from different approaches to arguing a thesis, all of which imply different types of arguments and ways of supporting arguments.

  • How to Take a Historical Approach?
  • If you choose a historical approach to writing a paper for religious studies, then you need to read and understand as many scholarly interpretations of your topic as you possibly can. While doing so, you should search for weaknesses in these past arguments as well as for questions that remain unasked.

  • How to Argue the Philosophy of Religion?
  • You may argue for a particular interpretation, defend the original one, argue against one (or multiple) authors’ standpoints, or compare their views to examine the relationship between them. In either case, you’ll need to examine the argument you’re arguing against or in support of, and explain why.

  • How to Write a Comparative Paper?
  • In case you’ve decided to take a comparative approach, make sure that the similarities and differences you discover during your research aren’t merely listed in your paper, but actually analyzed. Choose a specific ground for comparison and use it to notice something new about the points you’re comparing.

Finally, watch your language. An academic paper should not read like a mystery novel, where the solution remains hidden until the very end. To loosen up your thoughts, use the freewriting technique. But to keep your thoughts in check, to make them concise and in support of the argument, combine freewriting with outlining. Once you’re done, reread it and delete every marginal thought.

Lesson One (in a public school): Did god create man or did man create god?

A new school year has begun and I’m back “polluting the minds of children with false ideas” (to quote my critics). I am now in my eighteenth year of teaching my course that critically examines religion & I have not been run out of town yet. Whew! Thank god?

As you can see in the below photo I do not waste any time in cutting to the chase. During the first two days I introduce my students to theories regarding the origin and “purposes” of religion. For nearly all of my students, this is the first time they have ever been in discussions that critically examines religion. Needless to say, it is a bit overwhelming for some of them. Most are Christian kids. And most have never had an opportunity to look at and learn about religion in an objective, honest, and skeptical way.

In previous years I have always had the kids write an end-of-the-year reaction essay to the class. But this year I decide to have them write an essay after just three days of lecture. I was curious as to what their first impressions were and how they were feeling.In the below photo they are hard at work on the assignment. And further below are excerpts from their essays. I’m pretty sure anyone who has an interest in religion and education will find them to be eye-opening. Enjoy.


“When I first signed up for this class it was just something my counselor told me to take to fill up my schedule. Now that I’ve been in class, I’m really glad I signed up for it. Almost everything we’ve discussed so far has severely intrigued me. It makes me look at things (especially religion) in a whole new way. I have already learned so much in three days. I’m very excited to learn more.” – Amanda

“I took this class trying to have an open mind. But after the second lecture, when you showed the picture of the handicapped kids, I was furious [see below]. I had never seen such a picture, much less a teacher that had such a wrong idea of Christianity “I’m glad though that I decided to take this class so I can hear everything from a different perspective and point of view.” – Mati

[Author’s note: I use the below image as a springboard for discussion]

“This class has helped me reflect on my own religion and beliefs. I think a lot of the time people focus on Christianity and don’t care to know about other religions. I like how you don’t show favoritism or hate toward the different religions. Instead you explain concepts and meanings behind religion.” – Kristina

“Being in this class hurts my brain more than I thought it would. When I first signed up for it I thought we would just learn the history of religion. This class is almost like a different way to see the world. Is it confusing? Heck yes! It is different from any class I have ever taken!” -Dylan

“I feel like you are tearing Christianity down and building up science and Hinduism. I’m glad I am taking the class though, so I can see the way other people believe, even though I don’t agree with them. Talking about reincarnation is crazy to me. I just can’t see how people can believe in coming back as another baby when they die. I think it is ridiculous. – Terrell

“I am a Christian and most things you say would usually offend Christians, but it does not affect me at all. I love the stuff you teach us and I’m excited to learn more over the semester. The only negative: there are a lot of notes, but I understand that it helps people stay focused and on task.”– Brogan

“I was told that this was a good, fun, and interesting class by my friends, and I completely agree. You tell it how it is and it gets me thinking.” – Blake

“My family is very biased against other religions. They are Christians, but I don’t fully believe in the Christian faith. I am hoping this class gives me some insight to help me find my own path. You’re an amazing teacher – you aren’t trying to direct your students toward one religion or none. I admire that!”– Mykaela

“I’m loving this class because it makes me think about things & like did god create man or did man create god? My first thought was, & well, there is no answer to that. But, as I started thinking about it, there are many possibilities. You make me think! You are so passionate about your teaching and that’s what makes it interesting and that’s why I love this – Jessie

“Mr. Morrison, I want to thank you for sharing your knowledge and not trying to influence any beliefs I currently have.” – Ellee

“I’ve learned more about religion in the past three days than I have during my whole life – it is hard learn about religion when you grow up with the same one going to the same church.” – Claire

“Out of the three times we’ve had class I have only been here once due to illness, and I do plan on getting those notes into my notebook. The one class that I have been part of was probably the best lecture I have ever been part of. When I first came into this class I figured you were going to ramble on about God, Christianity, Luther, etc. But during that lecture you really caught my attention and I was so interested that the class period just flew by almost too quickly – when you showed the image of kids with polio and how religion and prayer did nothing, while science cured them [see image above], that really opened my eyes and made me think about things. In conclusion, this class is the most interesting class I have ever taken (so far) and I love it. It really is interesting! Oh, and can I call you by your first name?” – Tristan

Buddhist fanaticism or politics?

When we hear about religious fanatics we often think of Islamic extremists burning American flags and suicide bombers. Some people may think of fanatical Christians attacking pro-choice clinics and killing their staff, or maybe cults. But not many people think of the gentle, meditating, Buddhist monk committing suicide. Does anyone remember the Vietnam War?

In the above photo (taken in Saigon on June 11, 1963), Thich Quang Duc, age 67, is “protesting” by means of self-immolation. Duc was protesting against the Roman Catholic persecution of Buddhists by South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem’s Roman Catholic administration. The Catholic and corrupt regime had cracked down on practicing Buddhists by banning the flying of the traditional Buddhist flag; prohibiting Buddhists from exercising the same religious freedoms as Catholics; and the detainment of Buddhist monks and nuns. Ironically, in a land that was 95 percent Buddhist, Diem was the leader the United States financially and militarily supported as President of South Vietnam (1954-63) – obviously one of the many mistakes the United States made during war, and clearly one of the big reasons why the National Liberation Front (aka Vietcong) was able to gain support.

Like many other religions, Buddhists celebrate their martyrs and human relics. And, if you think self-immolation as a method of protest is a thing of the past, you should see what is happening in Tibet. It would appear that Vietnamese Buddhist monks from the 1960’s have inspired a whole new generation. Self-immolation is currently going on in Tibet where over 120 people, mainly youth and Buddhist monks, have taken their lives in protest of the Chinese control of their country. The Tibetan Youth Congress website states that “These brave men and women who set themselves on fire have called for the return of the Dali Lama to Tibet, Independence for Tibet, and Freedom in Tibet.” My concern, if the brave youth of Tibet are killing themselves off in protest, who will be left to carry on the struggle for Tibetan independence? And, more importantly, what does it say about any faith or religion that condones suicide as a method of political protest?

Teacher reprimanded for telling Jesus joke.

Several years ago I was reprimanded for telling a joke in class about Jesus. I thought the joke was harmless. Why can’t Jesus eat M & M’s? Answer: He has holes in his hands. I delivered the joke during my lecture about the crucifixion and resurrection theology. At the time it seemed like the perfect time and place for it. But apparently I was wrong. The next day an angry conservative Christian parent called the administration and complained that my joke was disrespectful to Jesus and the Christian faith. Ironically, just a year earlier, the keynote speaker at my school’s district-wide meeting was an expert on “the importance of humor in the classroom.” His message: Humor Enhances Learning! However, when I brought this up with the principal and the superintendent during the meeting that I was being reprimanded in, they sternly told me that religion was entirely “off-limits.” I tried to argue that the joke was not insulting to Jesus, but to no avail. I was told to “cease and desist all jokes pertaining to anything religious, especially Jesus.”

Is Jesus really “no joking matter”? Is it truly offensive to conservative Christians to make any little joke about him? And if so, why? And more importantly, WWJD?

James Martin is a Jesuit priest and author of Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. In his book he argues that Christians have developed an almost unhealthy perception of Jesus as an intensely serious person who totally lacked any sense of humor; thus explaining why Christians are so dead serious about Jesus being “no laughing matter.”

Last year (January 25, 2012) CNN ran an article about Martin and his book. Below is an excerpt. (For the entire article, which includes a clip of him on the Colbert Report, scroll down to the very bottom of this page and click on the link.)

Besides, what kind of a person has zero sense of humor? I asked Eileen Russell, a clinical psychologist based in New York who specializes in the role of resilience, how she would describe the psychological makeup of a person without a sense of humor.

“A person without a sense of humor would lead to that person having significant social problems,”? she said. “He would most likely have difficulty making social connections, because he wouldn’t be able to read signals from other people, and would be missing cues.”?

That’s the opposite of what we know about Jesus from the Gospels. Yet that’s just the kind of one-sided image that many Christians have of Jesus. It shows up in Christian books, sermons and in artwork. It influences the way that Christians think about Jesus, and therefore influences their lives as Christians.

If part of being human includes having a sense of humor, and if Jesus was “fully human,”? as Christians believe, he must have had a fully developed sense of humor. Indeed, his sense of humor may be one unexamined reason for his ability to draw so many disciples around him with ease.

It’s time to set aside the notion that Jesus was a humorless, grim-faced, dour, unsmiling prude. Let’s begin to recover his humor and, in the process, his humanity.

Needless to say, I wish that I could have consulted with Mr. Martin while being scolded for bringing some “Jesus humor” into my classroom. Perhaps he would have told my disgruntled administrators, along with the student who I “offended,” that Jesus would have been the first one laughing at my little joke. And if you read the CNN article (bottom of this post), you might be inclined to agree; Martin really paints a picture of Jesus as a master of comedy and wit.

So… do any of you find the below images and products “offensive”? Is South Park Jesus “going too far”? Or would Jesus be the first one crying with laughter? You tell me!

The one “weird” Mormon belief that is not on anyone’s list.

Since the election of 2012 people have become more aware of some of the Mormon beliefs that set Latter Day Saints apart from mainstream Christians. If you google “Weird Mormon Beliefs” a plethora of sites pop up. I have read most of them, and they all list the same “weird” things. To name just a few, see below.

What I find interesting is that most of the lists of “Strange Mormon Beliefs” exclude one of the most distinguishing features of the Mormon faith: their celebration of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden. That’s right, celebration! This is truly a unique Mormon idea, and certainly more intriguing than Jesus preaching in the Americas or “protective underwear.” Why? Because Christians around the world find no redeeming value in Adam and Eve’s disobedient act of eating from the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” – it’s all bad to Christians! The official catechism of the Catholic church enumerates the “tragic consequences” in no uncertain terms (and Protestants are in general agreement). Here are a few taken from the Vatican website:

“After that first sin, the world is virtually inundated by sin.”

“. . .the harmony in which [Adam and Eve] found themselves. . . is now destroyed.”

“. . .visible creation has become alien and hostile to man.”

“. . . the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination.”

Now lets compare the above statements of the Catholic Church to the actual words in the Book of Mormon that speak to this issue. The below passage comes from the Second Book of Nephi, chapter 2. As you will see, there is a huge difference between the Mormon perspective and the traditional Christian perspective . Huge!

For me personally, the Mormon idea of celebrating Adam’s fall from grace holds my attention. I’m drawn to it’s allegorical message (I do not read the story literally). It says that without the knowledge of good and evil we cannot know the goodness of joy and happiness. It makes ontological sense. I get it – without pain we cannot know joy. But here is the million dollar question for those who read the story literally: Why would God – assuming he is good and cares about us – not want us to have knowledge of goodness? The idea of God wanting us naive and ignorant about what is good and what is evil suggests that God wanted us trapped forever in a childhood nursery, never knowing right from wrong, and stumbling around in the dark as diaperless toddlers. If that was God’s intention, then yes – rhetorically speaking – thank you Adam and Eve. Thank you! Because we all know what happens to people who have no knowledge of good and evil; they eventually grow up and become a danger to themselves and others, and often end up in padded cells with finger paints. Your thoughts? Are Mormons way off base with this idea? Do all humans need to first feast on the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil to experience joy?

That “one awkward thing” cannibals and Christians have in common?

My students have a hard time embracing any symbolic ritual that, if done literally, would be horribly taboo. Take barbecuing a kitten. To literally or symbolically roast a sweet little kitty on a George Foreman Grill (for whatever reason) seems tabooishly wrong no matter how you look at it. Of course there is no ritual that requires a kitten – literally or symbolically – to be roasted (at least not here in America). Whew! But we do have a well-established ritual that requires people to partake in a sacrament that employs the cultural taboo of eating human flesh. It is known as The Eucharist, or Holy Communion.

I recently read an article in Psychology Today about serial killers and cannibalism. I was struck by how similar the motives of a cannibal are to those of Christians partaking in Holy Mass. If you go online to the Catholic Education Resource Center(CERC) you will read that one of the benefits of eating the body of Christ is that it “strengthens our union with Jesus; he lives within us in a special way.” Keep in mind, for Catholics this is not symbolic, it is a literal eating of the body of Christ (known as transubstantiation).

Below are excerpts from Psychology Today and the Catholic Education Resource Center. When read together they are, to say the least, “eye-opening.” Is it possible that a cannibal and a Christian share a common appetite to ingest flesh and blood? Is it possible that Christians feel close to God through the Eucharist in the same way that cannibalistic serial killers feel close to their victims? And what did Jesus really mean when he said “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him”? (John 6:55-56). I’ll let you decide. But first, a quote from the convicted murderer and cannibal, Armin Meiwes (convicted in Germany in 2004):

“At the age of 12 I began to fantasize about eating my friends so that they would become part of me and stay with me forever.”


Regardless of how you may view the act of eating the body of Christ, I can assure you that teenagers, especially those unfamiliar with Christian sacraments, find it “weird” and “gross.” They want nothing to do with it. They see it as taboo as barbecuing a cat; and it doesn’t matter to them if it is literal or symbolic.

Despite their disdain with the idea of eating flesh, I do try to help my students understand that “ingesting the body of a savior” is a world-wide practice. For example, the Plains Indians see the Buffalo as a savior-like god, and they ceremoniously ingest the heart of the Buffalo to both honor it and put its divine power literally into their bodies. The Inuit (Eskimos) do the same with the whale, as do Hopi Indians with corn. But, as my students are quick to point out, buffalo, whale, and corn are “not as taboo” to eat, at least not to them.

Regardless of how young people feel about Holy Communion, Christian churches are clearly not going to give it up any time soon. So, perhaps Christians are really just stuck with this “one awkward thing” that they will always have in common with cannibals. Just how appealing this will be to future generations remains to be seen.

My students roll their eyes at “drinking the blood of Jesus.”

My students have a hard time wrapping their brains around the ritual of “drinking the blood of Jesus.” They struggle with it, especially my non-Christian students. “Gross” and “weird” are words I often hear in class when introducing students to the Sacrament of the Eucharist, and rightly so. On the surface holy communion smacks of ghoulish vampires and blood-thirsty cannibals. Even some of my Christian students have expressed their “disgust” with the idea, and many of them think it is time for the church to “let go” of this “outdated” sacrament. Or, as one of my students stated, “at least change the metaphor to make it more appealing to kids.”

To help my students understand this concept I explain to them that blood in the ancient world was much more magical, mysterious, and supernatural than it is now. To see blood drain from a body during the Bronze Age was to watch it mysteriously die; blood was life, it was “life-saving,” and to lose it meant certain death. Hence, it makes perfect sense for God to order the Hebrew slaves (in the Exodus story) to put the blood of a lamb on their doorposts so they could be saved from the angel of death. Blood saves!

When reading the Bible it is impossible to not see the magical importance people before the Age of Reason attributed to blood. Clearly the Christian faith is built upon the idea of salvation through the blood of Jesus. According to the New Testament, “The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all sin.” (I John 1-7) Jesus himself said “He who drinks my blood has eternal life.” And Paul wrote that in Jesus “we have redemption through his blood.” Once again, blood saves!

Some scholars argue that “the blood of Jesus” is a metaphor for his suffering and dying on the cross to bring about human salvation. In other words, Jesus’ blood has literally nothing to do with being saved, but rather his death and dying for the sins of the world. However – and this important to note – the Catholic Church still holds to the idea that during communion, the wine literally turns into the blood of Jesus (aka transubsantiation). This long-held Catholic belief (false or not) does speak to the enduring idea that blood is literally and magically connected to salvation. But either way, most of my students find the idea more archaic than believable. Hmmm…I wonder if the new Pope will address this issue? Your thoughts? Oh, and in my next post, I’ll address how my students react to the idea of “eating the flesh of Jesus.” More fun on the way!

A little rant about lobster bisque and other succulent abominations.

I wonder if the God of Western civilization is angry that no one is really taking seriously the biblical abomination of eating shrimp scampi and crab cakes. For Pete’s sake, Leviticus 11:9-12 is very clear on this issue: “It is an abomination to eat from the seas anything that has not fins and scales.” Seriously, why aren’t God-fearing and Bible-believing zealots protesting and demonstrating outside of Joe’s Crab Shack? If anti-gay groups condemn homosexuality because the Bible calls it an abomination, doesn’t it then follow that they should also be spearheading a grassroots campaign to shut down Red Lobster? And why do they turn a blind eye to some biblical abominations and focus on others? Is it because they like some abominations (such as tender crab dipped in garlic butter), but don’t like others (such as a man lying with a man)? Oh, wait… I guess that probably is the answer. Never mind. For a second there – and yes my tone is a little sarcastic – I thought that religious conservatives were expected to “not play favorites” with biblical abominations. Sorry… kind’a spaced out there for a moment. How embarrassing.

Seriously – and I really am being serious – how can any religious argument against the gay and lesbian lifestyle have any credibility in 2014 when snacking on crab fingers and escargot are biblically deemed the moral equivalents of “a man lying with a man”? It obviously can’t. It’s a joke! And even the conservative state of Utah gets it – way to go Salt Lake City! Clearly any holy book that condemns my wife’s love of crab, and expects her and my three daughters to “learn in silence and be submissive to men,” is not going to automatically be my first go-to-book when I am seeking moral guidance – no way! But this is not to say that I outright reject all holy books. As I tell my students, I approach holy books as I do going to a yard sale; I don’t go expecting to buy everything, but if I rummage around I might find something useful, or maybe not. But it’s worth the look. Anyone hungry for seafood? Happy New Year everyone!


Is Thomas Jefferson a friend or foe of Christians? Or neither?

If you are looking for proof that Thomas Jefferson was a militant secularist, you can find it, the evidence is there. Ironically, if you are looking for proof and evidence that he was a committed Christian, you can find that too. Either way, some “cherry picking” will be required. The truly interesting thing about Jefferson is that he does not fit neatly into any of our modern-day-culture-war categories. Many textbooks label him as a deist, but many scholars argue that he wasn’t a true deist because he clearly believed in a god that intervened in history (see below). He clearly rejected Christian theology and the divinity of Christ, and wrote scathing criticism of New Testament writers (see below). But at the same time he considered himself a “real Christian.” He obviously celebrated Jesus, but not as the “Son of God,” but rather as a Jewish sage. Dammit! Does this make him a rogue Christian, or a kind of dazed-and-confused Jew? It’s hard to imagine any group in 2013 that can honestly claim Jefferson as one of their own. Perhaps he is truly, as he himself put it, “a sect of one.” Your thoughts? Any Jefferson wannabes out there?

Autosuggestion + Church = Spiritual Experience?

I’m sorry… I know I’m supposed to be objective and tolerant of religious diversity and be open to varying view points, but can I still occasionally laugh? Honestly – and I really am being honest right now – I literally don’t know what to do aside from chuckle in utter dismay when I look at the video of the Christian minister, Benny Hinn, conducting his “Slain in the Spirit” alter call. Hinn has gathered millions of followers and people by the hundreds are knocked to the floor unconscious (aka “resting in the spirit”) during his “Miracle Services.” What is more impressive – if you watch the last two seconds of the video you will see this – is that he can render unconscious a large number of people with one swing of his jacket. Seriously, it’s like he just bowled a strike! What is even more unbelievable is that the people can be unconscious for up to thirty minutes. Damn! At times religion is literally incredible. Truth be told, the Benny Hill theme song pops into my head every time I watch this video.

Skeptics (and I’m one of them) argue that the event of people collapsing under these circumstances is a kind of self-hypnosis or autosuggestion. In other words, the participants are people who truly want this event to happen and truly believe it will happen, and it does – similar to hypnosis. And it is worth noting that it is a fact that people who do not want to be hypnotized cannot fall under the influence of a hypnotist; I’m certain the same is true for being “slain in the spirit.” If it wasn’t true, I’m pretty sure every police officer and soldier would be trained in the “Hinnian method.” (Say goodbye to tasers?)

So what is really going on here? Honestly, I don’t think I’m conscious enough to truly know. The cynical and judgmental side of me is telling me that Hinn is a clever millionaire charlatan preying (not praying) on the hopes, dreams, and wallets of people seeking spiritual experiences, and people (especially children) need to be warned. The noncynical and disconnected-rational-observing-social-scientist side of me is telling me that Hinn is simply supplying a service (literally) that is meeting the emotional demands of people seeking an experience for what they hope and believe to be spiritual. However – and this is a huge “however” – in between these two sides is my gut. And my gut feeling is telling me that this is something I would never let my children get involved in. And again, being totally honest, I always go with my gut. Always! How about you? Any thoughts? Are some white jackets a clear sign of “danger”?