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Guide to Research and Writing for the Academic Study of Religion

Research Question and Thesis

If you have followed all the previous steps, you should be very close to developing a good question if you haven’t already. Here are a few examples of good and bad questions to help you distinguish an effective research question from an ineffective one.

Example #1: Why has religious fundamentalism arisen in North America?

There are many reasons why this is not a good research question, all having to do with the question being too vague. The type of religious fundamentalism or the area of North America could be narrowed down to give more focus. However, much more fatal for this question is that it begins with a “why”.  Why questions are always vague since “why” can be interpreted in so many different ways. The rise of religious fundamentalism could be traced to the influence of key figures in certain movements, to a widespread psychological need for certainty in the face of uncertainties encountered in early twentieth-century American culture, or to sociological and economic factors that a Marxist analysis might uncover. The point is that the significance or direction of the 'why' must be made explicit before any serious thinking can be done. What kind of reason are you looking for? When you start with a why question, try to reformulate it to make its meaning and direction clear.

Example #2: What is the relationship between theology and religious studies?

This is a good start, but it is much too general.

What does Donald Wiebe say about theology and religious studies?

This is more specific but you still need to bring the controversy to the forefront. As it stands, it invites a mere summary of Donald Wiebe's position.

Good research questions on this topic might be:

  • Are there any conceptual problems with Wiebe's distinction between theology and religious studies?
  • Does Wiebe's position on the distinction between theology and religious studies represent a radical departure from previous understandings of the relationship between the two?
  • Does Wiebe's agenda to eliminate theology from Religious Studies have any unforeseen or undesirable practical implications?


All three of these questions have a narrower focus and can be answered in a variety of ways. Answering any of these questions will generate a thesis statement. Remember, the answer that you give to a research question is your thesis statement.

For further examples of good research questions, see Research Strategies by Badke.

TIP – If you have done all your preliminary research and have developed a question, it is a good idea to get it approved by your professor even if it is not required. Most professors will be happy to discuss your topic and help you refine your question. Just make sure you have done your background work already and are not expecting them to develop a question for you!

The Thesis Statement

Your thesis statement directly answers your research question, and takes a stand (rather than announces the subject) that others might dispute. In other words, it is provocative and contestable. A strong thesis clearly asserts your position or conclusion and avoids vague language (e.g. “It seems…). Your thesis should be obvious, easy to find, and clearly stated in the opening paragraph of your paper. The rest of your paper is devoted to substantiating your thesis by offering evidence in support of your claim. Remember, that it is perfectly acceptable to change your thesis if the evidence leads you to an alternative conclusion.

For examples of strong thesis statements, look for abstracts and articles from peer-reviewed journals and books, and attempt to find the thesis in each of these sources. The author(s) of these sources typically state their conclusions in several different ways.

Examples of thesis statements are italicized in the abstracts provided below.

“Stating the problem under discussion as "Islam and Science" is false because this formulation implies that there is such a thing as a reified and ahistorical and hence immutable "Islam" that is responsible for advancing or impeding scientific activity, both past and present. In fact, Islam, like all other religions, is the specific ideology of a particular, historically determined society (i.e., Islam in Baghdad in the 830s, in Damascus in 1300, in Cairo around 1000, etc.) and has itself no historical agency; what that particular society accomplishes in the way of science wholly depends on who is using that ideology (if it is being used) and to what ends. The analysis of scientific activity in Islamic societies, therefore, can proceed only from the investigation of the social and political factors at play in each particular case. Injecting the notion of “Islam” into these discussions merely obfuscates the issue and confuses students, distracting them from historical analysis and political action.”
Source: Gutas, Dimitri. 2003. “Islam and Science: A False Statement of the Problem.” Islam & Science 1, no.2: 215-20.

“In this response article, some of the most challenging aspects of Islam and science discourse are discussed. Responding to the specific issues of the relationship between Islam and science and the normative Islamic tradition, the article explores the claims of a secular view that there is no such thing as essential Islam and that there is no relationship between Islam and the scientific tradition that arose in the Islamic civilization. This view is refuted on the basis of historical, logical and internal evidence.”                                                                                   
Source: Iqbal, Muzaffar. 2003. “Islam and Science: Responding to a False Approach.”  Islam & Science ,  1, no. 2: 221-34.

“This rejoinder is a further contribution to the debate begun by M. Iqbal and D. Gutas on the differing perspectives and methodological assumptions of faith-based and secular approaches to the study of the history of science in religious cultures. While the arguments presented are to some degree ad hominem, they do aim to highlight certain logical inconsistencies in the conceptualization of the role of religion in the study of science and in the revisionist portrayal of as a causal agent that functions independently of its adherents.”
SourceReisman, David C.  2004. “An Unfortunate Response: Iqbal on Gutas.” Islam & Science 2, no.1: 63-73.