Methodological Atheism and Agnosticism in the Study of Religion

Methodological Atheism and Agnosticism in the Study of Religion January 17, 2016

Academic study focuses on the world of cause and effect, on evidence and probability. And so there has been much discussion of methodological naturalism in the sciences, at least among those who are disgruntled by the fact that the sciences don’t make room for God or provide evidence for God.

The same discussion can be had in relation to the study of religion – and indeed, it might be wiser to speak of methodological naturalism in that context, too. But a recent discussion between Zeba Crook and Carl Stoneham prefers the terminology of atheism and agnosticism. Here is a quote from Stoneham to whet your appetite:

The problem with MAtheism is that it assumes that at least one plausible answer to the question cannot be an answer to the question but it cannot prove that said answer can’t be an answer. As such, it runs afoul of the very same thing that it accuses confessional scholars of doing: proceeding from a position it cannot support through an appeal to a certain set of “this-worldly” critical tools. To be perhaps a bit too flippant, MAtheism justifies itself because… MAtheism. I think MAgnosticism takes a more honest position insofar as it acknowledges that the religion scholar is not equipped with the tools to adjudicate that sort of truth claim, so it brackets them and looks for information in other areas. MAtheism doesn’t bracket the question, but answers it quite clearly.

‪I’m not suggesting that because the theological claim cannot be disproved, it *has* to be acknowledged as a possibility. Instead, I just want to be more careful about how we treat that claim. Methodologically, atheism does not seem to be the appropriate response, especially insofar as we might one day have the tools to adjudicate these claims. Methodological agnosticism seems to be more “future proof,” if you will.

Click through for the rest of a fascinating discussion about the appropriate starting stance for those engaged in the academic study of religion to adopt!

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