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Guide to Research and Writing for the Academic Study of Religion

Identifying Interests

It is important to select a topic that intrigues you. If you are actually engaged in what you are researching you will find it much easier to stay motivated and your final paper will be much more interesting for others to read. Think about writing a research paper not as a chore to do to get the marks you want, but as an opportunity to explore your own interests beyond what is covered in class.

Some people already will have an idea of what they want to research when they register in a course; for others coming up with an initial idea is the hardest part of the task. Though this can be accomplished by reading the Encyclopedia of Religion from cover to cover, there are many more effective and efficient ways to begin. The following general starting points should help you to come up with some ideas that genuinely interest you.

  1. Previous Interests
    Ask yourself what previous interests you could explore in the context of the class. What books do you read for interest and what topics do you like to discuss? For example, if you are always finding yourself in the women’s section of a bookstore and discussing women’s issues with friends, look for issues pertinent to women within the limits of the assigned topic. If you are attracted to films and books about India, try to come up with a topic in line with that interest.

  2. Classes
    Listen for ideas that interest you in class, including classes other than the one the paper is for. You may see connections that you would like to pursue. If you are fascinated by your ritual studies class you might want to analyze a Taoist ritual for your Chinese religions class.

  3. Textbooks
    Scan tables of contents, indexes, and bibliographies in your textbooks. If your religious experience class used Psychology of Religion: Classic and Contemporary Views [1], in the table of contents you might find “Chapter Four: Religion in the Laboratory” interesting, especially the subheadings on the experimental studies of prayer. In the first half of the index alone you will find the following topics, all of which could be pertinent to the class:

    • Aggression – religious support of
    • Bach’s Mass in B Minor
    • Compassion
    • Dance
    • Environmental concern and Christian conservatism


    Even if a topic is mentioned only once, it may be a great starting place for deeper examination.

    In the bibliography of the same book, your curiosity may be piqued by the title of Zaleski’s book, Otherworld Journeys; Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times or Zaehner's Zen, Drugs and Mysticism. Either could be a starting point for you in developing a topic.

  4. Brainstorm
    Use brainstorming techniques to come up with as many ideas as possible within a set amount of time. Remember, the more ideas you have the more likely you will find one worth developing. The key to brainstorming is allowing yourself to write down even your worst ideas without judging yourself or the ideas. Before you begin brainstorming, you should expect 90% of your ideas to be unusable.  

    For people who work visually, mind mapping can be a useful brainstorming technique. Mind mapping works in much the same way as brainstorming but your ideas are recorded in a visual manner. If this appeals to you, there are many resources for mind mapping. Check out  Florida Atlantic University  guide to mind mapping or look up mind mapping on the web. One  free mind mapping software is  Free Mind.

    Once you have come up with an area of interest that is appropriate to your assignment you will have to ask if your topic is controversial and if there are enough sources to answer your question effectively.

  5. Wait, watch and listen
    Sometimes the best way to develop ideas is to let them come to you unbidden. Keep a notebook handy to jot down ideas when they occur to you; you may find that the best ideas come to you while riding the bus, taking your morning shower, or eating lunch.

This process will take time so start early in the term! As soon as you know you have an assignment due, start recording any ideas you have, no matter how unfeasible they may seem. Just as with brainstorming, many of your ideas will be discarded but the more you write down, the more likely you will have one or two that will lead to a great question.

TIP - Keeping an ongoing list of interests can be helpful for future assignments.





[1] David M. Wulff, Psychology of Religion: Classic and Contemporary Views (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1991).