Founding Fathers, Turtles and the Elephant in the Room: The Quest for Origins in the Scientific Study of Religion


  • Ingvild Sælid Gilhus University of Bergen



Origins, Founding Fathers, Max Müller, Theology, History, Cognitive Science, Study of Religion


The theme of the present article is the quest for origins, founding fathers and the never-ending search for identity in the scientific study of religion. Because the quest for origins and for founding fathers is intertwined with the complex relationship to theology, theology is frequently made into the significant other. The elephant is a metaphor for the preoccupation with theology. The article discusses the longing for origins, and it discusses good fathers and bad fathers, and especially Max Müller’s contribution to the study of religion. It also takes up the new quest for historical origins as well as the quest for generative mechanisms of religion and asks why the study of religion needs the metaphysical boosts of origins. A permanent preoccupation with universal patterns in the study of religion, recent developments in science, contemporary processes of globalization, a renewed general interest in religion, a wish to control the field and the continuous struggle to be different from theology are pointed out as reasons for the never-ending quest for origins. The article suggests that it might be fruitful to let go of the preoccupation with theology, and further that grand-scale comparative studies and universal claims need to be matched by small-scale studies of religion on the ground and by embracing complexity and reflexivity.

Author Biography

Ingvild Sælid Gilhus, University of Bergen

Professor at the Department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion, University of Bergen, Norway.




How to Cite

Gilhus, I. S. (2015). Founding Fathers, Turtles and the Elephant in the Room: The Quest for Origins in the Scientific Study of Religion. Temenos - Nordic Journal of Comparative Religion, 50(2), 193–214.