Religious Studies…It’s Complicating!

From Carol Kaesuk Yoon's "Unexpected Evolution of a Fish Out of Water," NYT 2/11/2003
From Carol Kaesuk Yoon's
From Carol Kaesuk Yoon’s “Unexpected Evolution of a Fish Out of Water,” NYT 2/11/2003

To work in religious studies is to constantly ask, “What are we talking about again?..Who’s doing what?…How does that work?” There’s been a lot of cool stuff in the news showcasing what many of us think the discipline is about.

Kate Blanchard of Alma College shares the type of issues that keep us up at night.

But the lovely dream of a tidy line between “religion” and everything else is itself a historical condition, a product of Enlightenment theory and culture, still alive and well despite decades of loud and diverse critiques. Its persistence comes from being so beautifully simple, appealing particularly to the desire to put confusing things in binary categories: reason vs. emotion, mind vs. body, good vs. evil. 

Many of us are willing to ignore the overwhelming evidence that human nature and history are irreducibly complex, in favor of bedtime stories that let us sleep better at night. We blame the worst stuff on religion and dream of a better world without it, as if other factors like land, nationalism, gender, wealth, power, or the desire to be right are unique outgrowths of religiosity. As if heresy, blood sacrifice, glorified suffering, or the desire for eternal life are not equally insidious in their secular incarnations.

From 12 Essentialist Oversimplifications About Religion Badly in Need of Theory | Kate Blanchard.

Christian Christensen, professor of journalism at Stockholm University, gives a great example of the kind of discourse analysis that is at the heart of a social theory approach to religious studies.

What the so-called whataboutists do is question the unquestioned and thrust contradictions, double standards and hypocrisies into the open. This isn’t the naive justification or rationalization of murder; it is the challenge to think critically about the (sometimes painful) truth about our place in the world.

From Whataboutism Charlie Hebdo King Abdullah | Al Jazeera America.

There are a lot of ways to do religious studies, but I am glad to see this brand getting some press.

Richard-Newton Picture

Richard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at  Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures.

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