Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

Towards a Religious Studies That Is Less Religious: The 'Words against Death' Model and the Need for a Genuine 'Science' of Religion

Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

Towards a Religious Studies That Is Less Religious: The 'Words against Death' Model and the Need for a Genuine 'Science' of Religion

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

The discipline of 'Religious Studies' involves applying assorted methods - usually sociological, anthropological, psychological and historical - to the specific area of 'religion.' Religious Studies, in practice, is a humanities subject and tends to focus, in applying these methods, on theories which assume that the reasons for differences in religiousness are primarily cultural and environmental (Fitzgerald, 2000). In British universities, for example, 'Religious Studies' is generally part of the departments of Theology. The discipline is characterized by 5 key ideas (Fitzgerald, 2000).

(1) The Sacred. Romanian religion scholar Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) argued that 'religion' was ultimately a response to the 'sacred' which was in turn defined as that which was ultimately incomprehensible (Eliade, 1957), a view first espoused by German theologian Rudolf Otto (1923), another founder of the discipline. This understanding of religion remains widespread in the discipline. It has led to accusations that Religious Studies is in fact a form of very liberal theology (Fitzgerald, 2000) which defines God as life's ultimate, incomprehensible depth; a view espoused by liberal theologians (e.g. Robinson, 1963). Moreover, this form of Religious Studies assumes that 'religion' is a separate category that cannot be reduced down any further (it cannot be understood) and is thus epistemologically pessimistic. In addition, in that it accepts there exists this 'sacred' that we cannot comprehend scientifically there is a degree to which it accepts that there may be something beyond the empirical universe.

(2) A Descriptive Approach. Dutch religion scholar Gerard van der Leeuw (1890-1950) argued that the scholar of religion must classify religion into distinct categories, empathetically understand religion from within, adopt a neutral stance as to the veracity of religion (methodological agnosticism) and clarify structural relationships between the elements of religion (Van der Leeuw, 1933). In other words, he must accurately describe religion or a relevant element of it. This will lead to a genuine understanding of the religion, a 'revelation.' The problem with this 'phenomenological' method is that its view of 'understanding' is not based on empirical evidence, but a kind of subjective revelation. It demands that scholars accept religion at face value rather than question its veracity - which might help to better comprehend it - and it assumes a kind of relativism, whereby 'religion' is a separate world, independent of culture or the empirical method, which must be internally comprehended. Again, this implies that Religious Studies is a form of theology. It also implies a rejection of grand theories that attempt broad understanding.

(3) Methodological Agnosticism. This is implicit in points 1 and 2. Religious Studies is open to the possibility that religions may be true and that there may a sacred realm. This view was strongly advocated by Ninian Smart (1927-2001), the founder of the first separate Religious Studies department in the UK (Smart, 2000). By extension, Religious Studies adopts a kind of methodological cultural relativism in which no world view is regarded as more accurate than another, something made clear by Clifford Geertz (1926-2006) (Geertz, 1984).

(4). Functionalism. Between the 1930s and 1970s, various forms of functionalism were influential in British social anthropology. These schools accepted, to varying degrees, the cultural determinist belief that 'culture' was a separate sphere from biology and operated according to its own rules but they also argued that social institutions could be compared in order to better discern the rules of such institutions. They attempted to discern and describe how cultures operated and how the different parts of a culture functioned within the whole. E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1902-1973) was leading British functionalist from the 1930s onwards. Rejecting grand theories of religion, he argued that a tribe's 'religion' could only make sense in terms of its function within society and therefore a detailed understanding of the tribe's history and context was necessary (Radcliffe-Brown, 1957). …

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