In the next two class sessions, we are going to further distinguish some of the hallmarks of the academic study of religion. Just as those in the health sciences (e.g. medical doctors, kinesiologists, therapists of various kinds) practice a more robust approach to conceptualizing health than the general public, scholars of religion similarly have a more robust approach to thinking about religion than most are accustomed.

To be clear, the distinction between general public knowledge and that of the scholarly specialists should not be conflated with better or worse. But the expectations and conditions under which scholars and the general public discuss these matters are different.

Here’s an example. When my kids are sick, I may be able to make them feel better, stronger, happier, etc. by giving them popsicles, feeding them chicken soup, and letting them stay home and play games instead of going to school. They may even think I’m an awesome dad for doing so.

Feeling better is feeling better though, right?

Doing the dad thing and taking them to the doctor is essentially the same, right?

Image from the kids game Operation with a sick man in bed. He has a thermometer in his mouth and and is covered in comfort times (cupcakes, strawberries, a teddy bear) and hardware tools.
Anatomy and Physiology Diagram. Seems legit, yeah?

No, the care that I provide is different than the kind they get from a pediatrician. In fact, I’d be livid if the pediatrician prescribed these things without a check-up and diagnosing their illness.

I’ve italicized the is and essentially because in class we are going to distinguish between essentialism and functionalist approaches to the study of religion.

Essentialist approaches make categorical, summative, broad-stroke generalizations about what “religion” is. And while these have a place in some conversations, the more one practices the study of religion, the more one see how essentialist statements don’t hold up to muster.

Craig Martin will elaborate on essentialism later in his book. But I think his discussion on “my religion is true” and “religion is a belief system” approaches (pp. 19-21) details nicely the problems–for our purpose as scholars–with some very common essentialist understandings.

So, in addition to defining essentialism above, please make sure that you understand his discussion summarized in the list on page 21.

Then I’d like you to define the following terms: functionalism, methodological atheism, Bruce Lincoln (namely, his own functionalism and the point he argues), and the hermeneutic of suspicion.

Explicitly in this section, I’d like you to make a list of any questions you have about the academic study of religion brought up by the reading. We’ll discuss in class.