In Praise of Religious Studies
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!