What Is Religious Studies? Or: No, Grandma, I Am Not Going to Be a Pastor

What Is Religious Studies? Or: No, Grandma, I Am Not Going to Be a Pastor October 26, 2018

Religious studies

I have a Ph.D. in religious studies. This makes for terrible conversation at parties. Secular friends start nervously edging toward the nearest door, sure that I’m about to try to make converts of them. People who have degrees in more lucrative (or at least identifiable) fields give me a sort of hard, pitying look, as if unsure whether I’ll ask them for money. And religious friends often blink uncomprehendingly – until I explain what religious studies is, at which point they start looking just as nervous as my secular friends, fearful that I’m about to try to convert them to atheistic materialism. It’s a mess. This is why I don’t go to parties anymore. So what is religious studies, anyway?

First things first: religious studies isn’t theology. This is important. Theology is the study of religious questions from within the frame of a particular religious tradition. Catholics study Catholic theology. Buddhists study Buddhist scriptures. And so on. So, for example, a student of Catholic theology might spend her time reading what Augustine and Athanasius had to say about the Trinity, in order to compare their ancient doctrines with modern Catholic thinkers like Karl Rahner. Throughout the whole process, she’ll be taking for granted that the Trinity is something it makes sense to write about in the first place. Her writing will be confessional – grounded in the beliefs and claims of her particular religious community. So theology is, roughly, what Anselm of Canterbury called fides quaerens intellectum, or “faith seeking understanding.”

Religious studies, by contrast, is not like this. Religious studies is a secular academic discipline, dedicated to understanding religion as a historical, contingent, human phenomenon that can be taken apart and described. From the get-go, religious studies has been a multidisciplinary field, drawing on tools from philology, history, anthropology, sociology and other fields to better understand human religiosity from an objective point of view. 

The History of Religious Studies

In fact, sociology and anthropology were historically entwined with religious studies. In the 19th century, the first-ever professor of anthropology at Oxford University, E.B. Tylor, primarily focused on the evolutionary origins of religious beliefs. Arguably the two most important founders of sociology, Max Weber and Émile Durkheim, were also key contributors to early theory of religion: Weber’s book The Sociology of Religion and Durkheim’s magnum opus The Elementary Forms of Religious Life are both core texts for students of religious studies today.

Comparative languages and literature were also key. The early German philologist Max Müller helped inaugurate the use of secular and comparative methods for investigating religion by studying the Vedas – an important set of ancient Hindu scriptures – during the waning decades of the British East India Company’s rule over India. Müller’s work was focused on the historical connections between Sanskrit and other Indo-European languages, such as Latin and Persian. Recent scholarship had reconstructed the historical divergence of these root languages, showing that seemingly separate cultures develop and grow out of common historical ancestors. This insight spurred Müller’s interest in comparative religion: the study of different religions with an eye to understanding their common similarities and historical connections.

Following Müller’s lead, many other scholars became interested in cross-cultural approaches to religion. Unfortunately, this meant that early religious studies fell victim to one of the ugliest bogeymen of 19th-century scholarship: macho Spencerian evolutionism, which I just named right now after English philosopher Herbert Spencer (and which is more usually called social Darwinism). Social Darwinism wasn’t careful, scientific Darwinian theorizing; it was a fantastic tall tale about the inevitable development of human culture into better and better forms, culminating (surprise!) with industrial, scientific Europe. Many early texts in comparative religion played a similar hoax on their readers, attempting to prove that all religions, primitive and complex alike, were more or less attempts to converge inexorably on the most “highly developed” type of religion: Protestantism.

So many early attempts at secular religious studies sort of failed, because they were, in fact, Protestant theologizing in disguise. This wrestling match between theology and religious studies has continued to the present day, as religious studies scholars try to correct for the errors of the past and to free themselves from normative bias. The term “religious studies” itself became widely used around the 1960s, when many departments of religion in universities were trying to conclusively differentiate themselves from theology departments. This was particularly important in the United States, where the Constitution made it pretty well impossible to form a theology department in a public university. If postwar Americans wanted to study religion in the fast-growing state universities, they needed a way to do so that wouldn’t violate the separation of church and state. Secular religious studies provided the answer.

Religious Studies Today: Or, Will the Last Person Leaving the Humanities Please Turn Out the Lights?

Today, religious studies is a field in a bit of a pickle. Despite its roots in the social and historical sciences, its perceives itself mostly as a humanities discipline – more similar to history or literature than to psychology. Many doctoral students in religious studies are encouraged to pitch themselves as area studies experts – scholars of religion in a particular time and place, such as 18th-century Ottoman Sufism or 15th-century Thai Buddhist monasticism. The goal is to be extremely particular – to show that you know your little corner of the religious world better than anyone else, living or (probably) dead. The flip side, though, is that if you show too much interest in cross-cultural generalizing, you’ll have trouble finding a job. Religious studies departments don’t want big-picture theorists. They want focused, humanities experts with reading skills in three ancient languages and a healthy fear of unemployment.

Why the emphasis on area studies instead of theory? Well, today’s distaste for general theory is, in part, a direct result of the field’s reaction against its quasi-theological origins. Religious studies scholars are really, really keen to convince the world (and each other) that they’re not another Max Müller trying to prove that Christianity is the most evolved religion or to advance Western imperial interests. This line of thinking associates Western imperialism and Christianity with each other, and stereotypically personifies them both in dead white men who thought that their unique perspective on the world was actually a universal and objective one (like, oh, Max Müller). So the best way to show that you’re not secretly a servant of imperialism is to run as fast as possible in the opposite direction: to repudiate objectivity and universality, and embrace particularity and subjectivity.

So most religious studies scholars of the 21st century try to get to know a unique corner of some religious tradition very, very well, and they generally don’t try to draw larger conclusions from it. Most of all, they definitely don’t try to explain it – that is, they don’t apply causal reasoning and general theory to show how it came to be. That’s the job of scientists. 

If you’ve followed the story so far, you’ve realized that there’s a real paradox here: by trying to rid themselves (ourselves?) of theology, religious studies scholars have also banished science and scientific explanation. Both theology and science, for whatever their other differences, claim to have access to universal, unconditioned truth. Theologians and scientists both pursue what they think are universal truths that apply everywhere, across times and places. But today’s humanities scholars don’t think that way. They want to understand religious phenomena from the inside, not explain them away. The sordid history of 19th- and 20th-century imperialism makes them deeply skeptical of people who claim to believe in capital-T “truth.” In their eyes, the guy who claims to have a universal truth is usually just squashing someone else’s worldview just offstage. 

Now, I happen to think it’s extremely valuable to protect the humanities’ interest in particular places and traditions, and I think much of their skepticism of science is healthy. Human phenomena are really complex, and a lot of the time when we try to scientifically explain something as weird and complicated as Buddhist monasticism, we just end up laughably misunderstanding it. Scientists, like theologians, often have little ability to see beyond their own cultural context, and, unfortunately, the scientific context isn’t well suited to understanding complicated human things. It’s suited to understanding physical things – and even the most complicated physical things, like galaxy clusters, are still light-years less complicated than Buddhist monasticism, and way easier to model using mathematical formulae.* 

At the same time, by forbidding almost all explanatory investigation within their departments, religious studies scholars have let the train leave the station on a lot of cool research. For example, cognitive anthropology and bio-cultural approaches to religion – both of which many of my colleagues and I use in our studies – are helping people understand, say, why human children learn differently from other great ape infants. Take the work of developmental cognitive psychologist Christine Legare, at the University of Texas. Her research has showed that human babies are primed to imitate all kinds of non-utilitarian actions. By contrast, great apes and their infants are perfectly capable of mimicking a practical action – like unscrewing a jar to get a treat – but they won’t mimic ritual or conventional behaviors like tapping the jar lid three times before unscrewing it. If human kids see the experimenter tap the lid three times, then by gosh, they’ll do it too, despite knowing perfectly well that it’s not a necessary for getting the treat. This difference is absolutely critical for understanding religion! Why? Because religions are built on ritual behaviors, which by definition don’t have an obvious practical purpose.

Such research in the cognitive and evolutionary sciences is telling a fascinating story about how humans came to be homo religiosus. In part, it seems that we’re primed for ritual – that is, to watch our elders do apparently purposeless things like circumambulate a rock or paint red ochre carefully on their faces, and then to faithfully copy those actions. Great apes, as smart as they are, don’t do this. They’re, like, proto homo utilitariansis. In this way, human kids learn to be members of particular symbolic groups and tribes, to develop a sense of particularistic identity, and to step into religious worldviews.

You’d think religious studies scholars would want to know about this, or even to have some of this work done in their own departments. But the unfortunate twists and turns of history and academic politics mean that most of the really good (and, to be fair, not-so-good) scientific research into religion is happening in departments of psychology, cognitive science, and evolutionary human biology. And just as unfortunately, some of these scientists, as brilliant and disciplined as they are, don’t know all that much about actual, lived religions. So their work, rich in explanatory value, isn’t always well-grounded in real religious phenomena.

In my experience in grad school and postdockery, I’ve found that undergrads love the scientific approaches to religion. They eat them up. And – this is key – after a couple of semesters of learning about cognitive approaches to ritual or evolutionary theories about religious belief, they often come to be more and more interested in particularistic questions: how does cognitive theory X apply to contemporary Sunni Islam in Detroit, or to Korean Christianity? So scientific approaches to religion can be a sort of back entrance to the more richly interpretive humanities. I know they have been for me – the more scientific work I do, the more and more thirsty I am to return to the classical texts, and maybe even, I don’t know, learn Hebrew. 

A lot of religious studies departments are in trouble, losing students and failing to attract undergrads who want to major in religion. The religious studies program at the University of California at Berkeley – the top public university in the United States – recently shut down. In part, this shutdown was just another victim of the much-ballyhooed crisis of the humanities that’s sweeping over academia. But it was also a symptom of the challenges that religious studies faces as a weirdly interdisciplinary field that’s isolated itself from one-half of its historical legacy. Scientific approaches to religion may have been relegated to the discipline’s past, but if present trends continue, they may also be its future. In the best scenario, that pendulum won’t swing too far – area studies and texts and traditions would complement, rather than fight against, those cold, contextless sciences.


* Easier to get funding for, too.


If you don’t know the YouTube channel Religion for Breakfast, you might want to check them out! I linked to their short video about the field of religious studies above. 

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