Exactly What Does “Religious Studies” Study?—the Evergreen Question

As discussed in my previous introductory post, MBE is republishing a piece I wrote for the Encyclopedia of American Religions about the academic field in which I spent most of my career. It will proceed in three chunks and this is the first.  I will add links to the second and third installments here as they roll out.   

“Religious Studies” is a shorthand term for a field more precisely known as the academic study of religions (ASR), typically in autonomous departments in secular colleges or, if in religiously-affiliated schools, distinguishable from units that teach theology and the practice of religion. ASR has three core characteristics: (1) it addresses a reasonably wide range of traditions (especially so-called “world religions”) using multiple disciplinary approaches (typically including some attention to sacred texts, some history, and some exposure to sociology or anthropology); (2) it is distinguished from indoctrination into any single tradition or training for roles such as priest, rabbi, or missionary; and (3) its current institutional form—organized in the American Academy of Religion—is relatively young, having crystallized and established its key institutions in the 1960s. 

These characteristics are more like a framework for debate than a foundation for consensus. People in ASR disagree about its boundaries and priorities, including whether it is a discipline of its own (and if so, who polices the boundaries) as opposed to a cross-disciplinary field (and if so, whether it has enough coherence to thrive.) They debate how much to seek general concepts of religion and/or comprehensive coverage, as opposed to stressing priority-setting and grounded particularities. They disagree about how hard to press an ideal of neutral objectivity (given that a commitment to any scholarly priorities whatsoever—no matter how scrupulously fair one’s use of evidence—presupposes some hierarchy of values), about how radically to purge Christian scholarly agendas that often shaped earlier work, and about whether to discourage students from using ASR as a vehicle to explore issues of personal meaning and commitment, insofar as such exploration is consistent with ASR’s standards of evidence. Finally, they propose diverse genealogies: there is little consensus about which scholarly precursors of today’s ASR should be forgotten, which should be acknowledged primarily as dead ends or cautionary tales, and which should be built upon for the future. 

As we explore how ASR came into being and exists in the twenty-first century, it is important to bear in mind that most scholars who work in ASR focus on topics and use analytical methods that lead them to float between ASR’s networks and at least one other scholarly discipline (history, sociology, etc.), notwithstanding a few who consider ASR a self-sufficient discipline within which they can plant both feet. Given that this encyclopedia is focused on the study of religion in U.S. history, at times we will pay special attention to how that particular subfield fits within ASR. But we begin with a general map of the larger field. 

What Does Religious Studies Study? Questions About Scale and Scope

It is far from self-evident what constitutes a “reasonably wide range of traditions” studied in an optimally “multidisciplinary” way. In practice ASR’s subject matter has centered on dominant teachings, rituals, and institutions of so-called “world religious” traditions—a variable set that usually starts from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism before expanding in diverse ways depending on who makes the list. Common expansions include Chinese and Japanese religions, Sikhs and Zoroastrians, Santería and similar traditions, relatively young religions such Mormonism or Christian Science, and sometimes things like “the religion of consumerism” or nationalism. Importantly this list includes what used to be called “primitive” or “non-literate” traditions from outside Europe and Asia (and/or the contemporary forms of such traditions, which more often than not are literate and blended with “world religions”)—an extremely unwieldy category that raises red flags when studying Meso-American and Native North American cultures, as we will discuss. 

How does one devise a satisfying account of the “dominant teachings, rituals, and institutions” of even one major tradition on the above list? It is difficult to convey the differences internal to the history of US Protestantism alone over an entire semester—to say nothing of condensing two millennia of global Christianity into a unit in a survey course. Yet ASR often aspires not solely to do the latter, but also proceeds to compare and contrast such capsule accounts of “Christianity” with other traditions, equally simplified. Especially in the nineteenth century, the precursors of today’s ASR scholars participated in a wider trend of ranking global differences within comprehensive evolutionary schemes. Typically they judged that progress had culminated with liberal Protestantism or traditions with overlapping emphases, such as Vedanta philosophy within Hinduism. Even though most people in ASR today repudiate this approach, nevertheless traces linger, baked into the underlying logics of survey texts or the background assumptions about what constitutes exemplary behavior in global religious dialogues. 

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz commented (in The Interpretation of Cultures, Basic Books, 1973, p. 18) that “nothing has done more…to discredit cultural analysis than the construction of impeccable depictions of formal order in whose actual existence nobody can quite believe.” For all of ASR’s commendable efforts to expand the knowledge of global religions with accurate information, the field has frequently risked such danger.  Do scholars demonstrate minimal competence or disreputable arrogance if they teach their students about trends in the evolution of human civilization? ASR is unsure. Nevertheless, the trend in ASR, as in many other fields, has been to turn from sweeping evolutionary models and abstract taxonomies toward grounded and focused analysis of particular cases—whether using ethnographic methods championed by Geertz, other kinds of anthropology and cultural history that place greater stress on hybridity and internal conflict than Geertz did, or kindred modes of analysis. 

Diverse Disciplinary Frameworks for Analysis

A distinction between studying religions as abstract capsules of tradition within comprehensive taxonomies, as opposed to thick descriptions of particular groups, is only the tip of an iceberg of complexities. However much ASR narrows from world religions in general to specific religions in a slice of time, the field seeks to unpack multiple layers of religious practice—psychological, philosophical, ritual, mythic, sociological, ethical, institutional, historical, relations to the economic and/or ecological modes of production, modes of communication, and so on. This constitutes its major procedural safeguard against treating its subjects in monolithic or excessively abstract ways.

In his Beginner’s Guide to Religious Studies (Continuum Press, 2007), a book that began as a website of the American Academy of Religion, Bradley Herling offers a concise list of theorists commonly employed to tackle this problem. One chapter introduces two anthropologists (Geertz and the theorist of ritual process, Victor Turner), two psychologists (William James and Rudolf Otto, both interested in mystical or numinous experience), and two sociologists (Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, who explore how religion relates to social identity and cohesion).  

In another chapter, Herling slices a similar “pie” of multiple disciplines with a different cutting scheme—on a continuum between debunkers in many fields versus diverse scholars who are critically appreciative of religious insiders. Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx lead his debunking team, presenting religious claims as illusory projections rooted in the unconscious and/or material mode of production. At another other pole, theologian Paul Tillich defines religion as “ultimate concern” and William Cantwell Smith stresses the importance of individual faith. Between these poles lie Carl Jung (a psychologist impressed by the collective and constructive aspects of the unconscious), Ninian Smart (a comparative philosopher known for his analyses of multiple religious dimensions) and Mircea Eliade (an eclectic scholar who pursued cross-cultural comparisons of religious themes, especially “heirophanies” or manifestations of sacred presences).

In subsequent chapters Herling introduces key emergent themes—gender and sexuality, war and peace, fundamentalisms, globalization, ecology, race/ethnicity, emerging media, and religion and science. These extend both ASR’s subject matter and disciplinary lenses, not least by calling attention to how each theorist mentioned above is both a white male and hotly contested by younger generations. It would be easy to quibble about Herling’s lists—indeed any self-respecting ASR scholar would lobby for his/her chosen additions and subtractions—but we can take his summary as fairly representative of widespread approaches.  

Seeking a Workable Umbrella Definition of the Religious

Does ASR, as described so far, have sufficient minimal common language to be coherent? The simple fact that many religions appeal to gods, revelations, ancestors, and/or mysterious presences—things that are often unverifiable through Enlightenment methods and evidence—raises complications all by itself. To see why, suppose we provisionally propose a rough and ready working definition of “religious data.” Suppose we say it centers on ideas and ritual practices that appeal to this set of supernatural presences. Clearly such appeals do exist and have important consequences in the world; even an atheist would grant that. And clearly there have been attempts to defend at least such some appeals philosophically, although it is hotly debated whether one can do such a thing “scientifically.”

It is already immensely complicated to sort all this out, but even such complications may only be the tip of an iceberg. Is this provisional definition, despite its very high degree of abstraction, broad enough? Most ASR people would emphatically say no, it is not broad enough to be a neutral umbrella under which one can compare even all “world religions”—including classic atheistic forms of Buddhism—nor to speak of things like “the religion of consumerism.” ASR stresses that ideas and ritual practices directed toward gods are only two among many other dimensions of religious life—and are not always most significant ones when we get down to lived cases. 

But then how can we be certain, as we get down to these cases, that we are dealing with “religious” as opposed to “non-religious” cases? Depending on the background definitions of various scholars in ASR, they sometimes approach “the religious” so broadly—as anything that a culture values deeply—that it becomes hard for them to identify anyone who is less religious than anyone else. Conversely, other scholars may define “religiousness” so narrowly (whether uncritically or in with conscious effort to stipulate useful working definitions for a focused study) that huge territories of what ordinary people call religion become invisible within their scholarly frames. Moreover, lurking in this same neighborhood is a major complication—many languages and societies have no native category that corresponds to the term “religion” as commonly used in vernacular US speech.  

Thus there is ample room for slippage among scholars who define “religious data” in incommensurate ways—and then by extension for other scholars who want to tidy up and police the definitions. The closest thing to consensus about this in ASR is an idea that scholars must use the term “religion” self-consciously, as a second-order definition carefully stipulated in their research to organize specific ranges of data for scholarly purposes. There is no self-evident data of “religion” sitting there waiting to be analyzed—or more precisely there is so much such data, of so many different kinds, perceptible (or not) under incommensurate definitions, that trying to analyze all of it guarantees gridlock and paralysis. 

Sometimes ASR’s debates about definition and method proceed at levels of abstraction that are off-putting to students and outsiders. Still, we must not underestimate the importance of these debate as a language to clarify what diverse scholars hope to accomplish and how they can compare insights with each other. Methodological debates are like a train station at the center of a network connecting different parts of ASR; minimal skills of navigating within it are as important as the ability of travelers/researchers to choose a train track leading where they actually wish to explore. Moreover, there are often “real-world” consequences at stake in these debates; for example, under US law people often claim “religious freedom” rights and privileges as a warrant for various forms of controversial behavior. Which of these behaviors are legible as “really religious?”

No one in ASR tries to tackle all its routes. Rather the point is that the field includes interlocking conversations that cover all of the above complications and more. There is a widespread presumption that most ASR people should take account of at least two or three “dimensions of religion” or analytical lenses (ideas, rituals, social structures, historical changes, etc.) as applied at least one broad tradition (Islam, Buddhism, etc.), and to give reasonable attention to how their particular research foci fit within a larger picture.

All of this is fully commendable as a general framework for teaching and research—but it does lead naturally, and indeed urgently, into questions about priorities for focus in the practice of any given scholar.  In the second and third sections of this article, I will turn to some of the patterns that have emerged in the field over time as people try to defend their priorities.   

MBE standard notice: The time I spend on this blog is not in addition to a Twitter and FaceBook presence, but an alternative to it.  If you think anything here merits wider circulation, this will probably only happen if you circulate it.

2 thoughts on “Exactly What Does “Religious Studies” Study?—the Evergreen Question

  1. Pingback: Creation Myths of Religious Studies: Starting Over Near a Dead Tree Vs. an Evolving Garden with Old and New Roots | MBE: Mark's blogging experiment

  2. Pingback: Pros, Cons, and Whiplash: Studying American Religions from a Home Base in Religious Studies | MBE: Mark's blogging experiment

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