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In Praise of Religious Studies

December 30, 2009

Despite its flaws—and there are many—there is one thing I really appreciate about religious studies: most people in religious studies are multi-disciplinary in their reading habits. Religion scholars read in the hard sciences, economics, political science, political theory, geography, psychology, anthropology, sociology, literature, literary theory, classics, history, historiography, philosophy, critical theory, feminist theory, and so on. Apart from the hard sciences, I can name at least a few key figures and movements in each of these. References to von Hayek, Melanie Klein, Henri Lefebvre, Malinowski, Donald Davidson, Roland Barthes, Stanley Fish, and Iris Marion Young are not lost on me.

But many scholars in these other disciplines often have no compunctions writing about religion without reading around in religious studies first—with the exception of anthropologists and sociologists. This is why we get the most superficial things said about religion in other disciplines.

For a long time I thought this was because of the limitations of different fields. I can’t very well expect an expert in economics to simultaneously be an expert on theories of religion, can I?

However, I’m retreating from this view: good scholars in religious studies don’t make claims about economics or psychology without having read around in those disciplines first. The book I’m working on right now has a bibliography including books from all of the following disciplines: history, philosophy, history of philosophy, political theory, cultural studies, rhetorical studies, linguistics, critical theory, sociology, anthropology, religious studies, and legal studies. I read around in these disciplines before I ventured claims about things that are under their areas of expertise. I don’t think it is unfair to expect the same of scholars in other disciplines.

This is directed primarily at you, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins! Take time to read  some Durkheim, Weber, Mary Douglas, and J.Z. Smith, and maybe you’ll be able to reduce the number of superficial platitudes coming out of your mouths. And no, Joseph Campbell and Karen Armstrong do not count!

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 30, 2009 3:03 pm

    The Jim West award for dilettante-hating award for the day or Dec. 30, 2009 goes to…

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 30, 2009 3:13 pm

    Heheh. Yeah, but it’s sad that major scholars with like 10 books under their belts are nevertheless dilettantes …

  3. fuzzytheory permalink
    December 30, 2009 3:41 pm

    hear hear.

    Rolling my eyes at the kinda crap people say about religion is like a reflex past-time. Especially those holier than thou New Atheists. It’s like they prove they want to be chimps for Religious Studies Jane Goodalls with every word they utter.

    Dilettante… sheesh… there’s dilettante, and there’s ignorantly spouting off at the mouth about something one knows little about. If I wanted that, I’d actually engage in conversations about religion at cocktail parties.

  4. December 30, 2009 4:09 pm

    Good post. I know the religious studies department at my University is part of the office of interdisciplinary studies so it definitely tries to be multi-disciplinary. And I felt the same way as you do after finally watching the movie Religulous – wondering how a Durkheim would add much need nuance to this critique of religion.

  5. Dr. Jim permalink
    December 31, 2009 2:34 am

    Great post!

    What we also need are more Bible scholars reading Durkheim, Weber, Mary Douglas, and J.Z. Smith, not to mention Wendy Doniger, Russell McCutcheon, et al.

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