Although much of Tiele’s other work focuses on ritual and religious practice, Elements of Science of Religion argues that such studies of praxis are merely preliminary and do not represent the actual purpose of science of religion. This first lecture series deals with Tiele’s working definition of religion and the constant changes experienced in the evolution of all religions. In contrast to many modern scholars in the field who would emphasize the importance of religious practices, Tiele asserts science of religion must get beyond the ‘shell’ (forms and rituals) to what he calls the ‘core’ (religious beliefs). This is the process of working from the outside to the inside, assessing external expressions in order to better understand internalized beliefs. He defines religion as being ‘contradistinct’ from ethics, aesthetics and politics.
Lecture 1 lays out Tiele’s ‘Conception, Aim and Method’ of science of religion which must ‘not hesitate openly to proclaim the philosophical character of our science’, but as a science must maintain the all important aspect of deductive reasoning and not rest upon empirical evidence alone. Lecture 2, ‘The Development of Religion’, states the purpose of the field is not to reveal religion in its highest form, but to ‘ascertain knowledge of the fixed, permanent, and unchangeable in religion, and of its essential characteristics’. Lecture 3, ‘The Lowest-Nature Religions’, addresses the most fundamental qualities and religious concepts that serve to stimulate and animate all higher forms of religion. Lecture 4, ‘The Highest-Nature Religions’, focuses on the development of polytheist religions such as the Nordic and Greek pantheons and defines their philosophical limitations. Lecture 5, ‘Stages of development—the Ethical Religions’, suggests ethic-spiritualistic movements tend to be founded on a particular person or thinker and be monotheistic. The religious by nature of their ethical underpinning become more pan-national than more primitive forms and possess ‘an individuality vigorous enough’ to be enduring.
Lecture 6, ‘Directions of Development’, distinguishes between theocratic and ‘theanthropic’ religions; belief in the divine above us or belief in the divine within us. Lecture 7, ‘Directions of Developments in Particular Religions’, traces the divergent paths in the great religious traditions and argues that ‘Christianity introduced a completely new epoch in the development of religion’. Lecture 8, ‘Laws of Development’, formulates a general law for the development of religion: ‘All development, apart from the natural capabilities of men and peoples, results from the stimulus given to self-consciousness by contact with a different stage of development, whether higher or lower’. Lecture 9, ‘Influence of the Individual’, argues religion develops through ‘the medium of persons’, because they are ‘the most personal attribute’ of humanity and thus religion is made adoptable into human life. Lecture 10, ‘Essentials of the Development of Religion’, marks a twofold process of development: continual multiplication of varieties and continuous simplification.