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How to Write an Argumentative Essay in Religious Studies: What to Do on Every Step

The purpose of an argumentative essay is clear – you choose a topic, pick a straightforward point of view on the subject matter and provide arguments in favor of this viewpoint. You should back your every statement up with reliable evidence and, if you anticipate important and relevant counterarguments, dedicate a special section to refuting them.

Argumentative essays are one of the most commonly used types of academic writing you are going to encounter throughout your education. The ability to state your point of view clearly and find pertinent evidence in its support is highly valued in all disciplines, which means that the earlier and the better you learn to do it, the more successful and less troubled your years in high school and college are going to be.

This type of writing is of particular importance for religious studies, because this field of knowledge is by definition mainly concerned with textual evidence, which is often open for multiple interpretations. One’s analysis and comparison of different sources and viewpoints of different authors can result in significantly different results and conclusions; the ability to prove the validity of one’s claims, therefore, is an essential part of doing research in religious studies. On reading this guide, you will be better equipped to do so.

Getting Ready

How to Choose a Topic

Sometimes professors assign you to write an essay simply to make sure you know the material. However, once you get to college you are mostly expected to move on your own: pick a direction of research, engage with information sources on your own, create your own ideas, be less formulaic.

At the foundation of any good essay lies a good question. Contrary to what you may think, you should not present yourself as somebody who is universally informed on the subject. A genuinely interesting essay is usually based on an honest question – something that truly puzzles and fascinates the author (and, presumably, the reader). Formulating this question is, therefore, an essential part of your work on the essay.

  • Make sure your question is ‘how?’ or ‘why?’ rather than ‘what?’. ‘What?’ makes for rather poor argumentative essay material. If you ask, ‘What is the position of the Catholic Church on the doctrine of total depravity’, there is nothing to argue about. You simply state that the doctrine is rejected, and no matter how much you elaborate, there is nothing to prove or disprove. If, however, you ask ‘Why the doctrine of total depravity cannot be proven based solely on Biblical sources?’, you have a much better foundation;
  • Your question should be relatively narrow in scope. E.g., ‘Why does the idea of predestination play such an important role in Calvinism?’ is too general and broad a topic for an essay.
    Earlier authors spent hundreds of pages trying to answer it; you cannot hope to do so in five paragraphs;
  • Your question should be connected to the evidence you have. Religious studies is heavily dependent on texts; if there is not textual evidence, there is little to nothing you can say on the topic. E.g., you can, of course, offer an argument in favor of a particular religious practice among prehistoric people, but it will by definition be mostly based on your conjectures, not solid proof;
  • Try looking for an interesting puzzle or contradiction. E.g., if you see a particular author contradicting him/herself or a doctrine he/she purportedly supports, you can focus your essay on it and try to explain why it happens;
  • Understand the difference between ‘religion’ and ‘religious studies’. Religious studies is a view on religion from outside, from a secular environment. Even though you write an argumentative essay, you should not try to prove or disprove faith-related concepts, such as the existence of God.

Here are some examples of topics so that you know what you should look for:

Tired of all the guides and never-ending instructions?
  • Can the Concept of Intelligent Design Be Reconciled with the Findings of Modern Science?
  • Should Buddhism Be Treated as a Religion or a Philosophical School of Thought?
  • Does Atheism Have the Same Characteristic Features as Religion?
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls and How They Affect Our Understanding of Judaism History;
  • A Jewish Point of View on Why Jesus Christ Was not the Messiah.

Freewriting

There are no surefire methods of starting an essay – each writer has his/her own tricks. However, the method called freewriting is usually a good approach, especially if you have trouble getting your essay off the ground.

It means that you should simply start writing down ideas without worrying if you make any sense. Once you do it for 10-15 minutes, you can analyze what you produced, cut away the superfluous and irrelevant and use what is left as a basis of your essay. The advantage of this approach is that it makes it easy to overcome the writer’s block. The problem is that you produce a lot of excessive, irrelevant or just plain wrong ideas and may have trouble getting rid of them. Make sure you are critical of what you have written and retain only the best.

How to Write an Outline

Outlining means preparing a detailed plan of your essay. Some students forgo this step believing that it would save them time, but usually the opposite is true. If you spend 15 minutes outlining your essay, you can easily save an hour you would otherwise spend backtracking to add something you forgot to mention, restructuring the text to fit an idea you just came up with and removing repetitions you made because you did not decide beforehand what and where to mention.

Usually (although not always) argumentative essays are structured in the following way:

  • Introduction:
    • Hook – the first sentence that introduces the general topic and leads up to your research question. It should, ideally, immediately attract the reader’s attention and be interesting enough to motivate one to read on;
    • Background information – basic information the reader should know to follow your argument;
    • Thesis statement – see below;
  • Body – consists of multiple paragraphs, each of which should contain:
    • Topic sentence – the first sentence that introduces the point discussed in the paragraph (you should never introduce more than one point per paragraph);
    • Evidence – proofs that support your argument. In religious studies, these will mainly be quotations from textual sources;
    • Counterarguments – if you anticipate disagreement with your points, introduce these potential counterarguments along with your refutations of them. Alternatively, you can list all potential counterarguments in a separate section;
    • Summary – long and complex paragraphs may require you to sum up what you said so far;
  • Conclusion – here you bring together everything you said so far and emphasize the main points of your argument and why it is right.

How to Write a Thesis Statement

Thesis statement is the main idea of your essay, and if you want to make a good argument, you should approach its choice and formulation carefully. The three usually covered characteristics of a thesis are conciseness, straightforwardness and specificity. They speak for themselves – it should be short (one mid-sized sentence), unambiguous (impossible to interpret incorrectly) and specific (focused on a narrowly defined topic). However, a good thesis statement should also be:

  • Original. You cannot borrow a thesis from another work. Ask your own question and use evidence to find an answer;
  • Arguable. You should have access to the evidence supporting your thesis and possibility to process this information. If there are no relevant sources, no access to them or too many of them for you to process in ten years, such a thesis is not a very good choice, however interesting it is;
  • Falsifiable. If your thesis states something that no sane person would argue with, you do not say anything new or interesting but simply state a fact. E.g., “The New Testament is the central text of the Christian tradition” is true but self-evident.

The Writing Process

Define Key Words and Explain Main Ideas

Before you go any further, you should establish the system of coordinates you are going to use. If you are going to use terms that may not be obvious to the readers, specify what you mean by them. If some ideas are central for your argument, explain what you mean and how they are related to the topic.

Do not Be Afraid of Going over the Word Limit

Do not try to fit your essay strictly within the allotted word limit. It may even be beneficial to go over it – no academic text is pure gold through and through. To improve it, you will have to throw things away: superfluous words, sentences and entire paragraphs. If you have a lot of raw material to work with, you will have a better selection of good passages to leave and will not have to stick to second-rate ideas.

Do not Limit Yourself to Citing Sources

Religious studies is heavily dependent on texts – absolute majority of evidence you will work with belongs to either primary textual sources or their interpretations. However, using texts as evidence is more than just riddling your essay with quotations from them and believing them to be self-evident. After all, if you can prove your thesis by merely quoting a source, you do not say anything new or interesting to begin with.

Using textual evidence means analyzing the sources and explaining what this or that quotation means. Sometimes you will have to prove that your interpretation is correct, rather than a more obvious one. Therefore, after making a quote, you should:

  • Clarify what the quotation means;
  • Analyze it;
  • Explain how and why it supports your viewpoint.

Do not Use Quotes out of Context

Even if it is sometimes tempting to cut a quotation out of context because otherwise it does not suit your argument very well, do not do this. Sooner rather than later, this trick will come to light, and it will not add to your credibility. This is why you should be careful when using ellipses: do not use them to remove inconvenient parts of the text or to connect segments that should be quoted separately into a single quotation.

Anticipate Counterarguments

An argumentative essay, by definition, covers a subject open to argument. Therefore, you can expect disagreement with your point of view. Demonstrate that you understand potential weak spots in your viewpoint and address them in your essay: either at the end of each paragraph that introduces a new point or in a separate section before the conclusion.

Write a Memorable Conclusion

By the time you get to this point you are probably feeling like adding a couple of perfunctory sentences and calling it a day. Do not fall to this temptation – conclusion is the last part of the essay the audience reads, which means that it is going to define the impression it makes. You may recap your thesis statement, but do not simply repeat what you said before. You may try to prove what your argument does better than other interpretations of the same topic. You may put your work within a larger context and propose further research.

Editing & Proofreading

Revise and Cut Mercilessly

Do not get too attached to anything you write. If something is not 100 percent relevant to your argument or does not move it forward enough, get rid of it. It may be particularly difficult to do when you come up with a brilliant (or what you think brilliant) turn of phrase. Unfortunately, these phrases are often off-topic, and you will sometimes twist the essay to better fit them rather than recognize they are useless and remove them.

Check the Essay for Logical Consistency

Reread your essay and see if all the points you make contribute to your thesis, logically follow one from another and are coherently structured within themselves. Check if you used proper transition words and phrases to connect individual paragraphs and sections of the paper to each other.

Make Sure Introduction and Conclusion Work with Each Other

Check if the conclusion supports your original thesis and properly ties in with the points you made throughout the paper.

Check if You Missed Important Counterarguments

After you set aside your essay for a while (ideally for at least a couple of days), reread it and ask yourself if you missed any potential counterarguments against your thesis. If you are not sure, ask somebody whose judgment you trust if he/she can point out such objections. Address them.

Writing an argumentative essay in religious studies is a challenging task that requires deep knowledge of the associated literature and the ability to work with sources, but with the help of this guide you will be able to overcome this obstacle.