Studying religion
Studying religion

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Studying religion

7.5 Religion: a ‘good’ thing or a ‘bad’ thing?

In considering the value of religions, we can begin by saying that one of the first tasks of the critical student should certainly be to test the basis of judgements offered by other commentators. We saw earlier that the Church of Scientology has had problems gaining official recognition as a ‘religion’ in a number of countries and that these judgements have been tied up with official views that Scientology is ‘socially harmful’.

Dramatic events like those surrounding the mass suicide of a religious group or an armed stand-off between a religious group and a government agency need to be understood and explained. To this end, students of religion use methods of historical, psychological and sociologial investigation. Sociological and psychological analysis may also help us to understand why individuals are drawn into religious movements and the effects of joining upon both them and their families. This is a particularly pressing question for those who have seen a relative or friend become part of a religious community that closes its members off from those who do not share the same beliefs.

Similarly, claims made about the effects of different techniques of meditation are open to a degree of clinical testing. Many clinical tests have been carried out to measure the effects of different meditative techniques upon rhythms in the brain and upon blood-pressure. In examining this kind of evidence as critical students, we may be acting little differently from someone who is considering taking up a meditation practice but who first wants to know whether it can bring benefits.

To argue, as I have done, that Religious Studies stresses the need to understand beliefs and practices in their context is not to say that the student may offer no judgement upon these. As we have seen, many of the practical consequences of religious codes of conduct are open to observation and investigation, and the justifications for different codes can be tested for coherence. The judgements we pass, however, should be informed by understanding this behaviour within its historical and social context, and not simply exercised on the assumption that our own moral code provides a universal standard against which all else may be judged. Think, for example, about the way in which monogamy and polygamy have been regarded as the norm in different societies. Similarly, the age at which it is thought appropriate for young people to enter into full sexual relationships varies considerably. So, although one society might seek to promote or even enforce one standard, as critical students we have to recognise that such standards do vary, and often for good reason, between societies.

Exercise 13

In the light of what has just been said, are there claims made or issues relating to the lifestyles described in the video clips that you would want to subject to more searching, critical enquiry? Please identify at least one issue in the clips and list two or three questions you would want to pursue.


There are many issues that you might have listed. This is one example that caught my attention because it surfaced a number of times. The religions that figured in the videos appeared to offer women a more restricted role in the life of the community. In certain instances, communal worship was largely if not exclusively centred upon the needs of men and key roles seemed to be reserved for men. This was evident in the roles played by men as priests in Christian churches, even though women are now ordained in some denominations. While it was claimed that women were more innately religious than men, often in practice they seemed to be confined to subordinate roles whether in the home or elsewhere. Jews and Muslims downplayed the need for women to attend communal worship and prayer. The domestic role undertaken by Hindu women has been likened to a service offered up to the deities. What part does religion play in the social construction of the roles assigned to the two sexes? What effects has this had upon the lives of men and women and their respective places within society? Is this influence different from social convention more generally, or does religion play a major hand in creating and maintaining social conventions? These are the sorts of question that we should be asking as critical students. I think I would also want to ask further questions about the meaning and value that religious people assign to these roles as a prelude to attempting to answer my other questions.

Religious Studies, then, is not simply a mix of bland and evocative description, but is concerned to understand and analyse the part that religion plays in the lives of people. Our current inability to resolve which religions, if any, are true is a source of frustration but it also vitalises the discipline. After all, if we knew the answer to this question, we would probably be at the end of our need to study religion and some of us would be out of a job. This limitation should make for humility but not paralysis. Religious Studies is not the only discipline you will meet where questions of truth remain to be resolved.

Now that we have a clearer view of the concerns of Religious Studies and some of the problems associated with using the term ‘religion’, I want to move beyond the confines of British society and shift our attention to India and the religious tradition widely known as ‘Hinduism’. We are taking this as our next example because Hinduism historically has taken many different forms, and thus defining Hinduism as a ‘religion’ poses particular problems. Taking the different contexts of India and Britain should also make us less inclined to slip into an unthinking acceptance of the assumptions made about religion in one culture and about how to study it. I realise that some of you may know Hindu India well, but my discussion assumes that this will be unfamiliar territory for the majority of you. During this more extended study of religion in context, you will have the opportunity to get a fuller flavour of studying religion and to practise some of the skills you have developed up to this point.


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