7 How should we study religion?
7.1 Some basic principles of religious studies
Remember that in Section 4 I suggested that possible reasons for studying religion could be clustered together under two broad headings:
to understand the society in which we live, the culture we inherit and the wider world of which we are a part;
as part of a personal quest for religious self-fulfilment.
I also suggested that these different reasons might lead to different approaches to the study of religion.
To a great extent, the meanings now attached to the terms ‘religion’ and ‘religions’ have tended to promote the study of religion in order to understand the world in which we live rather than as part of a desire for personal religious self-fulfilment. In fact, the assumptions contained within this ‘modern’ use of ‘religion’ and ‘religions’ in themselves indicate something of the approach we must follow. Awareness of the breadth and variety of ‘religion’ suggests a need:
for care when looking for the boundaries of religion;
for openness to the variety of possible religious expressions;
to place forms of religion in their social and historical context;
to avoid premature judgements when dealing with questions about the truth and value of particular religions.
If we are studying religion to make sense of social customs and political events, we can do that without having to make assumptions about the nature of religion, its origins, whether it is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing and, whether it is true or false. It is sufficient that people speak about religion as a factor that affects their lives. We can choose to approach these aspects of religion in a neutral manner – that is, without intending to offer any judgement on their truth or falsity. In practice, of course, it is not possible to achieve a position of complete neutrality, but the conscious desire to minimise distortion and bias as far as possible has been a principle adopted in many branches of scholarship. You will already be familiar with this in the reporting and analysis of politics. Certain journalists and commentators evidently strive to be ‘disinterested’ (‘impartial’ as distinct from ‘uninterested’) and not to base their judgements on their own political convictions. Even so, at times their impartiality is called into question, particularly by the major political parties in the run-up to an election! Nevertheless, we know that these reporters are attempting to offer a different kind of judgement from those newspaper columnists who make no secret of their political sympathies and write opinion columns that trumpet their convictions. Similarly, the position of the impartial political commentator is significantly different from that of those senior, often retired, politicians who are invited to comment as a result of their vast experience and knowledge of the political process. Retirement may make for greater freedom in criticising one's own party, but, as viewers, listeners or readers, we know that these figures still speak as ‘insiders’ and that there are likely to be limits to the extent of their impartiality.
In the study of religion there is a comparable divide. There are those whose style of approach and methods are closely bound up with their own religious convictions or with a personal search for religious self-fulfilment. There are others who, regardless of whether they are religious or not, strive for an impartial approach not shaped by their own beliefs. This latter approach to the study of religion, sometimes known as Religious Studies, has developed in step with the understanding of the terms ‘religion’ and ‘religions’ that we have inherited from the late eighteenth century. It is still a relatively new way of studying religion and, in fact, only gained a foothold in European universities in the latter half of the nineteenth century, where it offered an alternative to theology. It is also very much the product of the European and North American intellectual traditions.