Having asked you to think about these perspectives on religion and approaches to its study, I must again emphasize that this is a very crude way of characterizing a very complex area of research. These perspectives are not watertight compartments into which all study of religion fits – life is not that simple! Some religious standpoints are themselves reductionist: for example, Anglicans in the ‘Sea of Faith ’movement regard themselves as Christians, while considering belief in the supernatural deluded. Let me stress again that methodological standpoints are not the same as personal perspectives: some theologians are not personally religious, some reductionists are, while phenomenologists range from atheists to committed believers. In terms of information gathering, there is considerable cross-over. Qualitative and quantitative methods can be seen as complementary rather than incompatible, and theologians currently employ a wide range of sources, not simply ‘insider’ literature.
There are great problems with any methodology that claims objectivity, for we can question both the basis of that objectivity (as in reductionism) and people’s ability to keep themselves out of the picture when studying religion (as in phenomenology). So, treat these categories and characteristics as rough guides only, while nevertheless trying to discern the perspectives from which different authors you encounter in your studies are writing.
These various perspectives emerged from particular contexts, and there are three aspects of religion and context. First, religion exists in a context – how it fits into, reacts against or is regarded by any given society at any given time. Second, religion provides a context – social mores, the law, science and so on can be formed and judged by the standards of a particular religion if it is a sufficiently strong force in society. Third, religion is studied in context – that is, how religion is studied will depend on the attitude of society and/or of scholars towards religion. You will encounter examples of religion in different contexts and of religion providing social context at many points in the course. In this course, we concentrate on how religion has been and continues to be studied in different social and academic contexts.
In all aspects of scholarship we need to be aware of the difference between what is being studied and how we study it. The past is different from history, for history is a way of seeing, analysing and presenting the past. It is not a neutral activity: ‘History is what we think, say and write about the evidence of the past’ (James, 1999, p.33). Likewise, the religious perspective is different from the Religious Studies perspective. As Religious Studies scholars, we are studying religion, rather than doing it. (This is not to say that one cannot both study and ‘do’ religion, but it must be recognized that they are different activities.) Studying religion assuredly is not a neutral activity, for few people (if any) approach religion neutrally.
One person’s objectivity may be another person’s subjectivity, or just a failure to understand what is happening. One person may claim ‘science’ is the ultimate authority, for example, while another would say all human activity, including science, is under the authority of some sort of divine power. Moreover, because science is an ongoing activity, some aspects of ‘scientific knowledge’ are transitory; yesterday’s science can be today’s discredited theory. It is important to remember that both knowledge and belief are not fixed – they change over time and in reaction to a huge variety of circumstances. That is one reason why we have to keep examining the basis of claims that different people, different interest groups (including religious communities and scientific communities) and different academic disciplines make for themselves.
It is only natural that, as religion changes, new approaches to studying it will have to develop, as ever more varied and individualized forms of religiosity emerge. Quantitative data, such as membership numbers or attendance at church/mosque/temple, simply cannot be collected for forms of religion that have no membership lists and no buildings. Just as religion changes, so the study of religion has to change. In Beyond Phenomenology: Rethinking the Study of Religion (1999), for example, Gavin Flood has made a number of suggestions for the future of the subject, such as drawing attention to the need for Religious Studies to learn from feminist and post-colonial theory, to engage in genuine dialogue with the people whose beliefs are being studied, and to be aware of the assumptions that the individual scholar brings to and imposes on what is being studied.
Our job as scholars and students of religion is to be aware of change in religion and of the necessity for change in how we study and regard religion, for religion is a dynamic phenomenon in constant interaction with its setting.