Religious Studies at the University of Vienna


The first chair in Religious Studies at the University of Vienna was established at the Faculty of Catholic Theology in 1955. The same year, Professor Wilhelm Keilbach (1908–1982), a theologian and psychologist of religion, applied successfully to the Federal Ministry for the establishment of an independent Department of Religious Studies. Keilbach became its first head; however, a year later he left Vienna to assume the chair in Systematic Scholastic Philosophy at the Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich. From 1958 to 1965, Walter Kornfeld (1917–1988), Professor of Old Testament, chaired the Department. Starting in 1963, he was supported by Adolf Holl (1930–2020), who, after obtaining his habilitation at the Faculty of Catholic Theology of the University of Vienna, added significantly to the Department’s teaching programme. In 1968, the philosopher and theologian, Hubertus Mynarek (b. 1929), was appointed Professor of Religious Studies. Yet his academic career ended rather quickly when, in November 1972, he became the first German-speaking Professor of Catholic Theology who was to secede from the Church (he was to marry later). In 1973, owing to continuing differences between staff members and the Catholic Church, both Mynarek and Holl were revoked the license to teach.

In 1974, coming from the University of Hamburg, Anton Vorbichler (1921–1999; he was a student of Paul Schebesta [1887–1967] in the tradition of Wilhelm Schmidt), an Africanist and ethnologist of religion, and a member of the Steyler Missionaries, was appointed Chair in Religious Studies. He also taught at the Missionshaus St. Gabriel (Mödling). His scholarly interests focused on religious traditions in Central Africa, theory of sacrifice, and the documentation of Nilo-Saharan languages (specifically, languages within the Central Sudanic group). Due to illness, Vorbichler had to retire early, in 1985. He wanted to spend his time as emeritus for further analysis of his records on Central African languages; however, this was possible only to a very limited extent because of his declining health. His scholarly estate is held at the Phonogrammarchiv of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and awaits thorough exploration. During the following vacancy, Thomas Immoos (1918–2001), a German Philologist and East Asianist, and Professor at Sophia University (Tōkyō), became Visiting Professor at the Department from March 1986 until February 1987. In December 1986, the philosopher and Religious Studies scholar Johann Figl (b. 1945) eventually filled the position of Professor of Religious Studies at the Department. His scholarly interests included secularisation and fundamentalism, Buddhism in the West, new religious movements, religious mysticism, and, in particular, atheism and Nietzsche research (cf. the critical edition Nietzsche Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, published by de Gruyter).

On November 29, 1996, Figl founded the Österreichische Gesellschaft für Religionswissenschaft (ÖGRW; Austrian Society for Religious Studies) in Vienna. An important objective of the society was the creation of an independent Religious Studies degree programme at the University of Vienna. The successful implementation of this initiative was mainly owed to the untiring efforts and administrative perseverance of Hans Gerald Hödl (b. 1959; member of staff at the Department since 1989 and Associate Professor since 2009). The diploma programme in Religious Studies was launched in 1999, allowing students for the first time to pursue such a degree specialisation at an Austrian university. The publication of the Handbuch Religionswissenschaft: Religionen und ihre zentralen Themen (Handbook of Religious Studies: Religions and Their Central Issues, published by Tyrolia in 2003)—a collaborative work of both the Department’s staff and renowned local and international specialists—enabled Figl qua editor to direct attention within the scholarly community and the public to Vienna’s Religious Studies Department. In June 2013, Figl concluded his career with the farewell lecture Spirituelle Lebensorientierungen: Erfahrungen in der Begegnung mit Religionen (Spiritual Orientations in Life: Experiences from the Encounter with Religions), retiring in September 2013.

In 2005, the Department celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. The papers given at the symposium on the occasion of the jubilee ceremony were edited by Figl and published by LIT in 2007 as Religionswissenschaft: Interdisziplinarität und Interreligiosität (Religious Studies: Interdisciplinarity and Interreligiosity). Following Figl's retirement, Karl Baier (b. 1954; Associate Professor and member of staff since 2009) served as the Head of Department until his own retirement in 2020; Birgit Heller (b. 1959; member of staff since 1985 and Associate Professor since 1999), acts as the Deputy Head. Since 2019, she also serves as the President of the Austrian Society for Religious Studies. Between 2008 and 2018, Hans Gerald Hödl has been actively involved in the Studies Programme (Studienprogrammleitung), holding, among others, the positions of Vice-Dean for Teaching Affairs as well as Director of Studies. In May 2016, the Religious Studies scholar Lukas K. Pokorny from the University of Aberdeen was appointed Professor of Religious Studies. In 2018, he has become become Deputy Director of Studies. In 2019, he has been elected Vice-President of the Austrian Society for Religious Studies. Since 2020, he serves as the Head of Department of Religious Studies. Between 2018 and 2022 he served as Vice-Dean for Research and International Affairs.