The Journal of Applied Impossibility
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The Objective Study of Religion
From somewhere in my pile of notes, on one of the myriad pages of semi-waterproof paper I use when an insight strikes me in the shower -- pages that should eventually make their way into my commonplace book, is this fragment:
The "objective" or "scientific" study of religion is the attempt to answer (without ever asking) the question, "Why do so many people believe the wrong thing?"
Every so often, I do something like this to myself. What on earth did this guy mean? And if he doesn't know, how does anyone else stand a chance? On reflection, I think I understand now what I meant, and I will boast that, if taken seriously, it would upend religious studies, and anything downstream of it -- which is most of the academy.
Historically, most universities started as seminaries -- that is, they were established with a very particular end in mind, which was to train clergy. The significance of this is hard to overstate. In my mind, if I were at a party and I were to say that I'm in a Master's program in sociology at State U (second town), you would think that I'm smart enough to have earned a college degree and gotten into a graduate program. But if I were to tell you that I'm doing a PhD in theoretical physics at MIT, that information would land differently. There's something about physics that has an aura of smarty-pantsy-ness to it.
Can you believe that at one time this was how everyone thought about theology? Strange.
The thing is that religious studies is not theology. What's the difference? Theology presupposes a tradition on which one stands, and from which one views the body of knowledge with which one interacts.* In contrast, religious studies is the attempt to separate the believer from his belief, the faith from the object of faith. Where theology might ask, "How can we prove the existence of God?" Religious Studies asks, at the first remove, whether we can prove the existence of God. And then further along, why it is that someone would believe we could prove the existence of God. Once you get far enough along, everything becomes a kind of anthropology: "Look what this strange, benighted culture believes!"
This kind of talk is deemed offensive when it is about pagan islanders. But when it is about Europeans who are Christians, it is called "objective." I feel obligated at this point to make a remark to the reader (however hypothetical my readership is): I do not think that the pagan island people are savages.⸶ But I do think that (some) promoters of "religious studies" think that they are. It is, of course, gauche to say such things, and so they do not say them. Nevertheless, a view like this is (however uncomfortably) implicit in an attempt to study religious questions "objectively."
A theologian concerned with apologetics -- concerned with the promulgation of the gospel -- might wonder what it is that the people on this island believe, and may wonder how best to share the Truth of the Gospel with them. But the theologian does not pretend to believe that the Gospel is on equal footing with the pagan beliefs of the Islanders. The theologian does not act as though one can study these beliefs apart from the question of whether they are true.
The pagans believe something which is untrue. And theologians, that which is true. Full knowledge of what it is that the pagans believe must include the knowledge that it is false (or that it is true, if it is true). It is precisely this that the allegedly "objective" scholar of religion cannot know, because such a scholar cannot admit that religions are false, or else must believe that all religions are false, which is to say the objective scholar cannot admit that some religions are true or might be true.
This is a very peculiar element of religion scholarship. If it were the case that everybody went around believing false things, one would expect that someone (such as, say, a scholar) who is allegedly devoted to the spread of knowledge, would be in the business of correcting the benighted souls on this island who believed false things. In fact, that is what the theologians believe that they are doing: correcting falsehoods! Who then is more interested in the propagation of knowledge? The theologians who will come clean about the fact that they are teaching the pagans on this island something true in place of something false? Or the "objective" scholars, who are simply interested in placing the Islanders, their pagan beliefs intact, in a kind of Zoo to be gaped at like so many animals of rare stripe?
Of course, the moment the objective scholar of religion raises the point that someone's religion may be false, we have entered the realm of discourse. We can now discuss whether this religion is false or whether it is true; whether any religion might be true. But this is the thing that the scholar cannot have. For by engaging in such scholarship, one is really engaged in a kind of theology. The entire enterprise of religious studies rests on a rejection of theology. This is not what we do anymore. Theology is apologetic in nature, or stands in service to apologetics. By contrast, what we do is scholarship.
Such an approach is disingenuous and cowardly. It is pretending to not have a view, when in fact, one cannot avoid having a view. To pretend that one is objective, and that objectivity would be compromised by having an answer to the questions, "Is there a god?" "Which God?" "What does God want from us?" To pretend not to answer this question is, in the final account of things, to answer it in the negative. Pascal is right. There is no alternative to staking a claim. We are already embarked. Any other approach, then, is disingenuous at best.
To act as though I can take the wisdom from a tradition on this island for my own, to hold it as abstract knowledge about what they believe and to not offer forth in return the knowledge that I have: that my belief is true -- this is the epitome of selfishness. And it is damnable.
I truly mean this. An attempt to avoid asking and answering the theistic question is an attempt to be lukewarm about the most important matters that could ever possibly be. It is little wonder that religious studies is result is relegated to irrelevance. It cannot be relevant if it will not do its job! If the definition of objectivity is not to take a stand, and if there is no alternative to taking a stand, then such "objectivity" is overrated. I have no nicer terms in which to put things.
* My degrees are in the philosophy of religion(s). The layman often confuses this with theology, and it is a perennial question for those in that area just what the difference is. My former colleagues who study Buddhist philosophy or Chinese philosophy have an easier time of this than I did, when I would tell people that I studied Western (usually Christian) thinkers. Still, I think a not-entirely-inaccurate rule of thumb would be this: A philosopher of religion who stopped believing in God would be an atheist. A theologian who stopped believing in God would (or at least should) be unemployed.
⸶ I have mentioned "pagan islanders" in contrast to "Europeans" as though they are not the same. In fact there were pagan islanders in Greece, and Britain before they converted. I used this phrase to be provocative -- to suggest a kind of chauvinism which actually belongs to the anti-apologist crowd, though this fact is misunderstood.
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