Religious Studies and Christian Agendas

Religious Studies and Christian Agendas January 23, 2013

In a blog post on the Religious Studies Project website, Raphael Lataster, a postgraduate student at the University of Sydney, has suggested that there is a Christian agenda behind even the supposedly secular study of religion. And he makes that claim because of his own experience of wanting to research mythicism at university.

From what little one can learn online about Lataster, he is someone who previously subscribed to the Aramaic primacy view of the New Testament. And so he is hopefully aware that one can find certain arguments persuasive, and yet eventually come to critically examine them and find them wanting. Whether the same will turn out to be true with respect to Jesus mythicism remains to be seen.

Be that as it may, Lataster's blog post points out that there are Christians involved not only in the theological articulation of their own tradition, but in religious studies.

My initial reaction is that this is not news.

What makes history, or science, or politics, or religious studies secular is not that the person engaging in it has no stance on relevant issues or no vested interest in the conclusions. People regularly have a vested interest in the outcomes of their work, and it can skew the results. That can be the case when someone engages in the study of religion and has a heartfelt desire to see their own tradition turn out to be unique, and it can be the case when someone hopes to find that there are no genetic or anatomical differences of significance between people from different parts of the world or ethnic backgrounds. What distinguishes secular study from ideologically-driven apologetics is that any results are offered to the wider scholarly community to be fact-checked, analysed, and evaluated, with the potential that our claims will be overturned. And what distinguishes secular study is not that those who work in a particular academic field have no biases, but that the tools seek to compensate for them, and do not require a particular bias in order to use them. And it is these two features, when combined, that contributes to the strength of scholarly study in the range of disciplines and fields that we investigate.

Lataster's own successful undertaking of a Masters of Arts by research with the title “Jesus scepticism: An examination of the arguments for various ‘Jesus as a myth’ theories” demonstrates that, whatever reluctance some may have expressed about his topic, it is possible to study this question. Indeed, many of us have emphasized that, if those who are skeptics about the existence of a historical Jesus of Nazareth are to be taken seriously, they need to do precisely this. But as with anyone who proposes research on a topic that has thus far been the purview of cranks and crackpots with no relevant credentials, and whose publications have been self-published books and web sites rather than scholarship, academics will offer cautions. So too we will offer cautions to students who think that they have insights which will prove that almost everyone who studied a topic before them was wrong, emphasizing that in fact, most of the time, it will turn out that they are wrong and not the prevailing consensus. Not always, but much more often than not. I can't help but wonder whether Lataster mistook such legitimate academic concerns for concerns that were founded in religious assumptions and biases. I also cannot help but wonder whether Lataster assumes that, because he is an atheist, he is above being driven by ideological motivations that could skew his conclusions.

If so, the good news is that the secular study of history, and of religion, is well poised to evaluate whatever results he may produce. I look forward to reading them, if and when when chooses to publish them.


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