History of Religious Studies as a Discipline

By Kate Daley Bailey

Religious Studies is Not Theology:

Every religious studies major has been caught in the precarious situation of having to answer the “are you going to a preacher” questions from well-meaning peripheral family members and other semi-invested adults.  Upon telling someone that you are majoring in, studying, teaching, researching, etc. religious studies, you are usually met with a plethora of confused facial expressions.  When you try to explain that the academic study of religion requires a historical and critical approach to world religions as social forces in the world and does not require belief (or disbelief) in any religious system, the previous expressions of confusion turn to judgmental looks and usually include an awkward silence.

Your conversation grinds to a screeching halt… if you are lucky.  If not, you get to hear that person’s personal thoughts of the benefits or hazards of religious mentalities.  The only comparable question, in terms of awkwardness, is the one that ultimately follows, what are you going to do with a major in religious studies?

The “Inherited Clutter” of Religious Studies

In order to understand what the academic study of religion is (or is not), a student must be initiated into the tumultuous social, economic, and political quagmire which was the western European intellectual environment that gave birth to the discipline of religious studies.  While Western Europe in the early and mid 1500s CE was reeling from the upheavals of the Protestant Reformation, scientific and technological advances (like the printing press), religious and political challenges to the once dominant Catholic church, many European monarchs were determined to not only have domination over their own regions and resources, but also sent out missionaries and soldiers to convert and colonize recently “discovered” lands.  These social changes and interactions with indigenous peoples brought into sharp relief questions regarding the value of cultural practices and beliefs of colonized peoples and, in turn, challenged long-lived assumptions about the value of Christianity.

Daniel L. Pals, in Eight Theories of Religion, writes about the impact of the challenges lobbied against traditional Christianity by scholars, politicians, philosophers, and theorists known as Deists.  Pals notes the belief in a Creator god, and a universal, natural religion as two main staples in the ideology of notable Deists, like Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Voltaire, and Immanuel Kant.  According to Pals, Deism “included a belief in a Creator god who made the world and left it to its own natural laws, a parallel set of moral laws to guide the conduct of humanity” and its “notion of an original nature religion of humanity opened the door to a new way of explaining the many forms of religion in all conflicts and confusions.”(pg7)

While traditional Christianity often viewed alternative religious systems as deviant and heretical, Deism provided an alternative way of looking at different cultures.  While the Deist view (at least theoretically) might have been presented a more inclusive approach to what are later termed by various scholars as “world religions”, the Deist perspective often praised natural religion at the expense of revealed religion which was predominately viewed by Deists as “little more than the twisted handiwork of priests and theologians.”(pg8)  A combination of Deism’s praise of the rational and Romanticism’s adoration for the emotional and mystical might have led to an intellectual environment conducive to the beginning of religious studies as a discipline. However, due to the historical context in which this discipline emerged, religious studies will carry with it a complex and complicated history largely influenced by the values and biases of the Enlightenment era.  Jose Ignacio Cabezon and Sheila Greeve Davaney provide valuable insight on how the history of religious studies has affected its identity in the introduction to their new anthology, Identity and the Politics of Scholarship in the Study of Religion:

The way beyond competing and conflict-ridden perspectives was thought to be, for Enlightenment thinkers, a universal rationality that all humans in principle shared and whose deployment would lead to the resolution of disputes, providing the framework for modern persons emergent nation-states to live in peace and flourish. The ideal of rationality was, according to philosopher Stephen Toulmin, accompanied by the ‘myth of the clean slate,’ a myth that saw rationality as the means ‘to sweep away the inherited clutter from traditions, clean the slate and start again from scratch.’  (Intro p 1-2)

Ironically, the universalizing and “clean slate” mentalities of the Enlightenment developed research models in which the scholars of religious studies, persons with religious, political, race, and gendered identities, did not have to address their own investments (intentional or not) in their findings.  Religious studies, from its inception, as Cabezon and Davaney note, “the issue of the religious identity of the scholar in relation to the study of religion—what has been termed the insider/outsider debate—became  an ongoing arena of contestation.”(pg9)  I would venture even further and say that the issue of the scholar’s identity, their own context… religious or otherwise, informs the audience of the scholar’s “inherited clutter” which exists in each person.

Friedrich Max Muller (1823-1900 c.e.), the German philologist and scholar of ancient Vedic texts, is often credited as being one of the founders of the academic study of religion.  In his famed lecture series, later published under the title Introduction to the Science of Religion, Muller “reminded his listeners that the words of the poet Goethe on human language could also be applied to religion: ‘He who knows one, knows none’.”(pg6)  While many Christian theologians of the time were aghast at Muller’s declaration, Muller’s background in philology (linguistics) gives students insight into why he might have adopted this view.  Any introductory level theory course will delve into the historical context of a theorist before sifting through that scholar’s work.  Because history plays a vital role in a person’s scholarship, students of religious studies cannot afford to dismiss a scholar’s context.

Religion in the American Public University:  Separation of church and state—how can you teach religious studies in a state funded school?

According to Cabezon and Davaney’s introduction, prior to 1963, “religion was rarely studied in public institutions because of the American tradition of the separation of Church and state.”  Cabezon and Davaney go on to write that

in terms of sheer numbers, for many decades such institutions as divinity schools dominated the advanced study of religion in America, while the undergraduate study of religions took place mostly in religiously affiliated colleges and universities. In 1963 this all changed when the Supreme Court decided in the case of The School District of Abington v. Schempp that religion could be taught as a legitimate field of study as long as the goal was not indoctrination or the furthering of religious aims. (pg11)

The public university is now a more dominant player in religious studies research.  Still the discipline, as a relative new comer to the public university system, often produces scholars who are reticent to disclose their religious identity.  Why?  Because having a religious identity might jeopardize your objectivity.  As Cabezon and Davaney explain:

Sometimes there is even an overt hostility toward any religious affiliation that the scholar may have, since religious self-identification is seen as comprising objectivity (once again, a legacy of the Enlightenment ideal of the detached, neutral scholar).  pg11

But is there such a thing as a “neutral” scholar?  Cabezon discloses in his own chapter, “Identity and the Work of the Scholar in Religion”:

After Gadamer, Said, and the feminist and postcolonial critics, there can be no question about the role that subjectivity plays in scholarship. No one (certainly no scholar of the humanities) can today seriously maintain that there is such a thing as value-free, neutral, objective scholarship.  (pg45-46)

While religious studies scholars may not promote or denigrate any religious tradition from the academic soapbox—the public university is not a value-free place.  Public universities have obligations to their communities, honor codes, and codes of conduct. If who we are, as students, teachers, and scholars, affects what and how we see phenomena, then should scholars of Religious Studies “out” themselves, regarding their personal values, practices, and ideals, if such disclosures were done in the name of transparency?

Religious Studies and the Scholar

In another chapter, titled “Religious Identity, Scholarship, and Teaching Religion”, Rita M. Gross presents her encounter with the so called ‘value-free’ position:

There is no question as to whether or not there is a relationship between identity and scholarship, broadly defined; the real question is what that relationship is or should be ideally. I have narrated several times how discovering in the late sixties the androcentrism of the methodologies of conventional religious studies shattered once and for all, for me, the illusion that scholarship in religious studies is or could be ‘objective’ and value free… Even the purported ‘value-free’ outlook of the European Enlightenment is also a position, not a neutral no-place. (pg114)

Gross advocates for disclosure of personal investments:

I have long suggested that the closest semblance to neutrality we can achieve is to be aware of and self-conscious concerning the identities that influence our teaching and scholarship, to state those positions and identities appropriately, and then to argue their pros and cons with other scholars.  Such a course of action is far more honest and less self-delusional than trying to hide our identities from ourselves while only pretending to other scholars that our positions and identities are irrelevant to our choices of research topics and our conclusions regarding these topics. (115)

Ninian Smart, in Religion and the Western Mind, advises something called “epoche”, cross-cultural bracketing.  Smart defines this practice as somewhat “dialectical” and “involves trying to present the beliefs, symbols, and activities of the other…  from the perspective of that other.”(pg3) Smart explains the reason for this is “that we have to make his or her ‘other’ worldview and meanings available to the consciousness and culture of ourselves.”(pg3-4)

While we can acknowledge that these concepts represent a spectrum in academia.  Each student of religious studies must confront this question: What is the role of a responsible scholar and teacher of religious studies?

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