Reading: Engaging with the Issues

New perspectives

The purpose of studying religion is to make the strange familiar, and the familiar strange.

People come to the study of religion for many reasons, most of which are so obvious as to not require explication. What I want to draw to your attention is the idea of altered perception implicit in the quote at the top of this page. One of the primary goals in the scholarly study of religion is to encourage you to view the subject from perspectives not your own, and to study religions that are less familiar to you, in cultural and social contexts that you may not have lived in or experienced. We feel sure that you will find this a rewarding, if at tiles challenging, exercise. Ninian Smart, a well-known figure in the field of Religious Studies, has put the same idea well, in the narrower context of Christianity: “The beginning of understanding it is noticing its strangeness.”[1]

Insider/outsider perspectives

Social historians have long argued that we must study history “from the underside,” if we want to thoroughly understand a society. In other words, it is not sufficient to have a top-down knowledge of a society’s institutions and politics. We need also to examine how ordinary, ‘unimportant’ people operate within a culture: what influences them and what they can (and cannot) influence; how they see their role in society and how others see it. The outsider view is the view from the outside: the perspective of the (theoretically) dispassionate observer whose observation does not influence the observed. This can be called the academic view. In the academic discipline of Religious Studies, it is sometimes called the etic perspective. The insider view is that of the practitioners, the people who are engaged in and more or less committed to the group or society in which they move. In Religious Studies, the view from the inside, the perspective of the practitioners, is called the emic perspective. This is a central distinction in the study of religion. The Canadian scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith goes so far as to say that no statement made about religion can be considered valid unless an insider would agree with it.

Practice Exercises

At this point, please read “Body ritual among the Nacirema” by Horace Miner. Please make sure that you read the text and think about the questions below before reading on in this unit, because I don’t want to give away the plot! (As with all the exercises, I want to stress that you may read a text quite differently from members of the course team, and that alternative responses are possible, and perfectly feasible.)

  1. Ask yourself what this text contributes to your understanding of the insider/outsider dynamic.
  2. Why might practitioners of this ritual feel misrepresented and misunderstood, and are their objections valid?
  3. Can you think of another example of the outsider view making the familiar seem very strange indeed?

Discussion

At some point in your reading, it probably became obvious to you that this was a spoof, a parody of American personal hygiene, with certain key words spelled backwards or slightly distorted to make recognition less immediate.

Question 1

My answer would be that the example chosen in this text makes immediate the problems inherent in studying religion. The outsider, who in this example sees the bathroom shrines and has the activities carried out therein described to him, is never actually present when they are performed. He tries to put together a coherent and all-encompassing set of explanatory devices, but we as readers see that his scheme is fatally flawed, because he is so much of an outsider that he cannot understand that the motivation for these activities is not ritual propitiation of the gods, but a concern (some might say obsession) with bodily hygiene and outward appearance. In a very real sense, the outsider is never where the action is, because that is with the participants. The insiders he describes are silent. We never hear their explanations for their behavior, or their probably indignant rebuttal of his views. On the other hand, we who share many of these ritual behaviors with the Nacirema, may have been jolted out of our complacency by some of Miner’s remarks. The insider may know exactly why he is carrying out a certain practice, but may not realize how profoundly difficult it is to distance oneself from activities or beliefs that one is personally committed to. I expect that most readers identified to a certain extent with the discomfort experienced by practitioners when “studied” by an outsider who clearly lacks sympathy with their world-view. Is it that the outsider cannot really understand? Or are we insiders stranger than we realize?

Question 2

One response would be that the outsider, in his attempt to describe what he does not fully understand or have any sympathy with, unintentionally distorts it in line with his own interests. This fictional anthropologist is clearly interested in ritual actions; another anthropologist, who was interested in (for example) explanatory devices or myths of origin, might have painted a picture of the same group that made them appear completely different. As to validity, there are arguments in both directions: the practitioners presumably understand their practice better than he observer, but they may be operating in a mode sometimes called “world-taken-for-granted,” where they have never really thought about or examined their beliefs and actions. In addition, insiders may unconsciously or deliberately misrepresent their beliefs and practices in order to make them more acceptable to scrutiny.

Question 3

I hope you tried to think up your own example. Here is one from David Lodge’s novel, The British Museum is Falling Down (1965), where a frustrated Roman Catholic husband is thinking etically about his experiences with the rhythm method of birth control: “he mentally composed a short article, ‘Catholicism, Roman,’ for a Martian encyclopedia compiled after life on earth had been destroyed by atomic warfare.”

Roman Catholicism was, according to archaeological evidence, distributed fairly widely over the planet Earth in the twentieth century. As far as the Western Hemisphere is concerned, it appears to have been characterized by a complex system of sexual taboos and rituals. Intercourse between married partners was restricted to certain limited periods determined by the calendar and the body-temperature of the female. Martian archaeologists have learned to identify the domiciles of Roman Catholics by the presence of large numbers of complicated graphs, calendars, small booklets full of figures, and quantities of broken thermometers, evidence of the great importance attached to this code. Some scholars have argued that it was merely a method of limiting the number of offspring; but as it has been conclusively proved that the Roman Catholics produced more children on the average than any other section of the community, this seems untenable. Other doctrines of the Roman Catholics included a belief in a Divine Redeemer and a life after death.[2]

While Lodge is pushing one aspect of Catholic custom to an extreme in order to make a humorous point, the dispassionate language of the text is a voice that is probably familiar to you. Academic religious studies scholars have traditionally adopted the outsider perspective.

Practice Exercises

Please read and consider the following quotation. Is it the view of an insider or an outsider? How can you tell?

As we all know, fools proffer definitions of religion. We, in our superior wisdom, do not even try to; but we describe and analyze religious phenomena and their functions, no doubt on the basis of some preceding [understanding …]. And though I believe that the origin and beginnings of religion (with or without a capital ‘R’) are not fit subjects for scientific discourse, I think I can venture to locate the beginning of religion: it begins wherever human beings do more to a corpse than is strictly necessary for its disposal; which is another way of saying that religion itself is an act of interpretation—of interpreting ourselves, the world in which we find ourselves, our uncertainties and anxieties, the horizon that bounds our world—and our capacity to conceive the notion that, if there is a horizon, there may be a ‘beyond’ that horizon which will always remain ‘beyond’ no matter how hard we run toward that constantly receding horizon.[3]

Discussion

I think that this quotation displays both emic and etic qualities. The outsider view is strong at the outset, where the superior tone is that of the detached scholar who does not waste his or her time on the really big question, but studies what can be studied. But by the end of the passage, the scholar, like all of humanity, is anxiously scrutinizing the horizon for clues to the mystery of life. This suggests that when studying religion, which can be an academic pursuit, or even a job, scholars cannot avoid noticing that the thing studied claims to reveal the truth about issues which are important to all human beings, and from which scholars cannot dissociate themselves. I base my judgement on whether this is insider/outsider on “tone of voice” as well as on content.

While there are many definitions of religion, and some would not agree with the idea of its beginnings as given above, the idea that “religion itself is an act of interpretation” is important. To give you a simple example of this, let us consider for a moment the historical phenomenon of “fasting girls” in Britain.[4] These were women and girls who denied themselves food and drink for periods that seemed to last far longer than human biological needs would permit. For centuries, such fasting girls were considered to be manifesting a special sign of God’s favor and grace, and were viewed as an asset to the community in which they lived. By the eighteenth century, however, suspicions of fraud and of making false claims of fasting for financial gain or self-promotion had become a prevalent way of responding to such phenomena, and it became commonplace by the early nineteenth century to set watchers around such fasting girls, to test whether they were really living without sustenance. In the late nineteenth century, the term anorexia nervosa was coined, and with it the idea that refusal of food was a psychological disorder. So, in this simple example, we see the movement of the interpretative pendulum away from religious explanations, through economic ones, to psychological interpretation, but at all times the behavior being explained was identical. The same three explanations given above for fasting girls are offered simultaneously, by friends and foes of the practice.

However, fasting (more or less extended) is still commonly accepted practice in many religious traditions. Others might argue that today’s obsession with detoxing (a modified form of fasting) is, ultimately, a spiritual phenomenon, as well as an example of our current obsession with the health of our bodies. I have no doubt that the pendulum will swing back again, as it appears to be doing with the Breatharians, a contemporary movement, which actively recruits people of both sexes, and which has attracted considerable controversy with claims that people can live on ‘spiritual energy’ alone. (For more information on the Breatharians, you can visit the Breatharian Institute of America website).

You will see another, more extended example of the variety of interpretation in religion in “Rose of Lima: some thoughts on purity and penance” by Sara Maitland. The patron saint of the Americas, Rose (1586–1617) practiced extreme forms of bodily mortification, or, to use more ‘modern’ terminology, self-mutilation. Please read the instructions in the following exercise, and then turn to the text and read it.

Practice Exercises

Read “Rose of Lima: some thoughts on purity and penance.”

  1. When reading this text, please note down the varieties of ways in which Rose’s behavior has been viewed over time, and see if you can suggest some explanations for the interpretative shifts that are evident.
  2. Can you distinguish between what might be emic and etic views of her case?

Discussion

  1. One of the very interesting points made by Maitland is that we have no idea of how Rose viewed her own behavior: she—a rarity among ‘modern’ saints—left no writings whatsoever. So her sainthood, we must conclude, is based on what she did, and not on what she wrote. And what she did is profoundly disquieting to the modern reader, and may have disgusted or dismayed you as you read this account in the twenty-first century. Moving backwards in time, her nineteenth-century biographers exalted her piety and presented a pretty and infantilized image of Rose, but preferred to gloss over her actual actions. This infantilization extended to pictorial images of Rose. Earlier accounts seem to have accepted the idea that suffering is in itself meritorious, and that the suffering of the innocent can redeem the sins of the guilty. So, is Rose a parallel to Jesus, who many Christians believe died sinless to atone for the sins of others? Or is it that Christianity (viewed from another point of view as a religion based on the story of a man who was tortured to death for political reasons in first-century Palestine) skews human nature to seek what it would otherwise avoid—suffering? There are lots of other ways of interpreting Rose’s story, but as you continue to reflect on it, remember that how we understand it, and how it was understood in the past, can be profoundly different. Even in the space of a few years, Maitland has seen her own understanding of Rose’s actions and their meaning shift quite significantly. How much more do such understandings change over centuries?
  2. On the emic/etic question, I think it is quite possible to make a case for both! On one level, we cannot attain an insider view of Rose: we cannot get into her head or live in her time; she left no writings for us to read, and in her case “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”[5] is indubitably true. On the other hand, those who concentrate on the elements of Rose as a person on the margins, as a woman in a society where women were not highly valued, and as someone who concerned herself with the dispossessed, could argue that it is possible to view Rose’s situation at least partially and imperfectly from an emic perspective.

Before we move on, I want to tell you a brief cautionary tale, recounted to me by a former missionary who was teaching at an Open University summer school. When he was a very young man and had just gone to a remote mission station for the first time, he wanted to discover why the people among whom he lived had carried out a certain ritual practice. While they were no longer doing this, in living memory there had been a ceremony where each family disinterred the bones of their ancestors (buried in a large pot) once a year, and held a feast in their presence. My friend decided to question some of the members of the tribe about this practice. He asked one man, “Why did you do this? Was it to propitiate your ancestors, so that they would not return and haunt you as ghosts?” His informant said yes. Not long afterwards, the practice came up again in conversation with another member of the group, and the missionary asked, “Did you do this to honor your ancestors and show them that you have not forgotten them?” His informant said yes. He later asked a third person if it was a way of ensuring that the dead had food in the afterlife, and this was confirmed. I could continue with this anecdote, but the point has been made. (Thanks to Dr Jim Pottinger for this story.)

The questions we formulate, either verbally or in our own minds, can skew the answers we “find”: it would be naive to assume that we can observe (or participate in) religious behavior and then, with some kind of scholarly omnipotence, always interpret it correctly. It would also be naive to assume that explanations for any behavior, let alone religious behavior and beliefs, are normally mono-causal: multi-causal explanations, although less neat, are much more typical. (Thanks to Dr Jim Pottinger for this story.)

Theological, Reductionist, and Phenomenological Perspectives

The Theological Perspective

If we are thinking about individual perspectives on religion, there are three very common and useful terms we can employ: theism, atheism and agnosticism. In everyday parlance, ‘theism’ denotes a belief in God (or, more broadly, a belief in divine or spiritual realities); atheism denotes a conviction that there is no God (or divine or spiritual realities); and agnosticism indicates a lack of certainty or knowledge (gnosis) one way or the other. Very broadly speaking, these perspectives have been replicated methodologically in three different approaches to the study of religion: theology (dealt with in this section), reductionism and phenomenology (dealt with in succeeding sections).

There was a time when, in the universities of Europe, theology was known as “the queen of sciences,” in the context of general belief in and adherence to Christianity. Scientia (science) was understood as knowledge, and there were different branches of knowledge; theology was sacred science, ultimate knowledge. Before the eighteenth-century movement known as the Enlightenment (a movement advocating belief in reason and human progress, with a resulting contesting of tradition and authority), the European experience had been that Christianity pervaded all aspects of life, shaping how people thought about the world (that is, as God’s creation, at the center of the cosmos), about the purpose of life, about morality and about how society should be ordered. The idea of time and the age of the earth was biblically conditioned—early geologists had immense problems convincing people of the timescale indicated by their discoveries. In the nineteenth century, there were objections to the use of pain relief for women in childbirth by those who thought women should suffer, in accordance with God’s decree after the biblical Fall from grace brought about by Adam and Eve, as described in the Book of Genesis. The continued influence of Creationism (a literal belief in the biblical account of the Creation and rejection of the theory of evolution) in the USA is an example of the extent to which the theological perspective can still have an impact on society, knowledge and belief generally. Until comparatively recently in the West, the theological viewpoint had an effect on all aspects of life, and there are still societies that are to all intents and purposes theocracies: that is, societies in which religion determines how they are organized and run.

However, we need to remember the distinction between theology as an academic discipline and theology as a way of life. The theological perspective starts by assuming that the divine, however defined, is real and that religion is a response or approach to spiritual realities. At the very least, the theological perspective is willing to entertain the possibility of the existence of God. Crudely put, from a theological perspective, there is the working assumption that, when a believer prays, a divine being hears; when a believer performs a good action, this will have implications for a future existence. The material on which theological studies tend to draw consists largely in authoritative texts and tradition—what might be characterized as “insider” literature and reflection. Theology (Christian, Jewish, Islamic), Buddhology and similar studies aim to deepen understanding of religious truth and its implications for individuals and society. There is the assumption that (at least one) religion is true. The theological approach to the study of religion has therefore been called by some scholars methodological theism.

The Reductionist Perspective

Although theology had been thought of as ultimate knowledge, in post-Enlightenment thought, religion came to be seen by many in the West as a hindrance to progress and the advancement of human knowledge. Some came to believe that a rational and scientific way of looking at the world, unconstrained by religious belief and “superstition,” would lead to religion becoming redundant.

In the nineteenth century, this idea was boosted by Darwinian theories of evolution. Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species was published in 1859, and before the end of the nineteenth century “evolution, from being a theory, had become an atmosphere.”[6] Scholars were thinking in terms not just of biological evolution but also of cultural evolution. There was a definite view of progress, which affected not only biology and technology but also ideas, including specifically religious ideas. It was assumed that there would be a universal and predictable progression in culture, regardless of time and space, from irrationality to rationality, from ‘primitive religion’ to ethical monotheism and, many thought, beyond that to scientifically informed atheism.

Reductionism emerged as the focus shifted from the ultimate truth of religion to attempts to understand the origins of religion, and to explain religion in terms of its significance and function in society. For example, the neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) concluded that religion could be explained in terms of “universal obsessional neurosis,”[7] and was confident that human society could ultimately mature and grow out of religion. Sociologists were interested in religion’s role in society; by understanding religion’s function, they felt they would have the key to religion.

The social and economic theorist Karl Marx (1818–83) famously regarded religion as “the opium of the people,”[8] but went on to argue that in the state of human suffering caused by capitalism such an alleviation of pain was vitally necessary.

The sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) saw religion as having a very important social function as a sort of social cement, with shared rituals and beliefs producing “effervescence” (a powerful group religious experience) and binding people together. He therefore considered that religion (regardless of the focus of devotion) was an important force for integration in society; it conferred authority on the institutions of society, a process known as legitimation. (For a sociological introduction to approaches to religion, See Thompson and Woodward, 2000.)

Reductionism was originally very influenced by cultural evolution, and the idea that just as the Age of Magic gave way to the Age of Religion, so the Age of Religion would give way to the Age of Reason or the Age of Science, in which religion would be rendered redundant. The understanding of science shifted from the view of science as knowledge, to the post-Enlightenment view of science as observation plus hypothesis, with the non-empirical regarded as inadmissible evidence. Thus, sociology of religion, emerging from this milieu, has tended to favor empirical observation, and largely quantitative data.

Very much in the Enlightenment spirit, then, the early reductionists’ approach was to explain religion ‘scientifically’ (as they saw it). Because reductionism has tended to explain or describe religion in non-religious terms (such as those of psychology or social function), it is sometimes described as methodological atheism. Some reductionists conflated (and continue to conflate) atheism with objectivity and science; that someone could be both scientific and religious makes no sense from this perspective, a common viewpoint in some of western society’s attitude to religion.

However, we must again remember the distinction between atheism as personal belief and methodological atheism. In his article “In defense of reductionism,” Robert Segal argues the practical point that, “Whether or not reductionist interpretations themselves refute the reality of God, nonbelievers, as long as they are nonbelievers, can use only them.”[9] Or as the sociologists Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge comment:

Science is completely helpless in the face of claims made on behalf of a being, world, or force beyond the natural world. . . . It is not our intent to suggest anything about the truth of religion. We seek only to discover its visible aspects—the social forms it takes in the world we all can see.[10]

Most contemporary sociologists of religion are careful to avoid reductionist questions and tendencies, such as those relating to the origins or causes of religion.

The Phenomenological Perspective

The term phenomenology is a good example of polysemy, as it has different meanings according to the academic context in which it is found. There are scientific phenomenology and philosophical phenomenology, for example, and the sociologists Ken Thompson and Kath Woodward describe phenomenology as, “The development in sociology of a philosophical approach which focuses on people’s consciousness of their experiences and how they interpret the world; the meaning it has for them.”[11]

In talking about phenomenology here, however, I am using the term particularly in connection with the approach taken by Ninian Smart at Lancaster University, when a Religious Studies department was established there in 1967 (for a good account of the early development of Religious Studies, see Sharpe, 1986). This developed out of the field of history of religions in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and it is an approach that accepts religion as an enduring human phenomenon, which can be studied and appreciated as a phenomenon, on its own terms, but without making a judgement as to whether it is true or false. Thus, from the phenomenological perspective, when a believer prays, what matters is that the believer believes a divine being hears; when a believer performs a good action, he or she believes that it has implications for a future existence. As Smart puts it, “God is real for Christians whether or not he exists.”[12]

To appreciate the power and significance of religious belief for the participant, Smart claimed, the student needs empathy, which he described thus:

It is a kind of warm distance. For instance I have a love of Buddhism and I feel sometimes I can understand parts of it, and enter into its meanings through people. But I am not thereby a Buddhist (actually I am an Episcopalian). Distance is perhaps especially difficult for Westerners with regard to Christianity. Paradoxically, their closeness may prevent a good understanding of the religion in its diversity. I know people who, believing Christianity to be false, think it is unimportant; and others who, believing it to be true, identify it with their image of it. Both reactions, naturally enough, are short on empathy and a sense of proportion.[13]

Thus, individuals are asked, when studying religion, to “bracket off” their own belief or disbelief (a process known as epoche) and concentrate on what is happening for the believer. Smart called for “empathetic objectivity” and “neutralist subjectivity”; he spoke of phenomenology as a “warm science”, a science that requires a sensitive and artistic heart. In trying to steer this middle course between methodological theism and atheism, phenomenology has been characterized as methodological agnosticism.

The phenomenological perspective developed in the 1960s and 1970s in the context of increasing religious and cultural pluralism in the West, when there was a need for ways of talking about, teaching about and thinking about religion in a non-competitive, nonjudgemental manner. Attention is paid to what believers consider to be the authoritative texts and traditions, and to their accounts of their religious life and experiences; qualitative methods such as interviews and participant observation have frequently been employed. This seemed the only logical way forward in an increasingly relativistic and pluralistic milieu, and phenomenology was claiming that this, rather than reductionism, was an objective or non-biased way of looking at religion.

In presenting these three very roughly characterized approaches, I am simply signalling that there are a variety of ways of looking at religion and that what seems a logical approach to one person may well appear deficient to another.

Practice Exercises

Having outlined three broad methodological approaches to the study of religion, however imperfect, it would be a useful exercise to consider their relative advantages and disadvantages. What might be the advantages and disadvantages of the theological, the reductionist and the phenomenological approaches? You might like to write down some ideas at this point.

Discussion

  1. Theological approach. Some would argue that as theologians are normally practitioners of the religions they are examining, they know the traditions from the inside and therefore understand them better and can represent them better to others than outsiders. As theologians are generally concerned with deepening understanding of particular traditions, they are not distracted by competing truth claims and have nothing to prove, and as believers are better able to understand and empathize with other believers. Also, as they are studying the process of belief and trying to understand not only what but why people believe, having some sort of faith will be an advantage. Alternatively, it could be argued that, as theologians are working from within particular traditions, they will be incapable of seeing them clearly and might have a tendency to dismiss not only other religions but also other branches of the same traditions, thus giving a biased, incomplete account of them.
  2. Reductionist approach. One advantage of this approach might be that it is good for gaining critical distance, to identify important social or psychological factors that would not be recognized by insiders. As disinterested observers, reductionists are not hampered by sectarian interests, or the competing truth claims of different religions, and can therefore provide objective accounts of what is going on. As they deal purely with what can be studied—empirical evidence—they are less likely to be sidetracked into fruitless speculation and can both comment on and predict social trends and conditions on the basis of their research. Alternatively, if reductionists start with the view that religion is not what believers think it is, it might be argued that they will be incapable of understanding what is happening to or for the believer and of representing that religion fairly or accurately.
  3. Phenomenological approach. The advantage often claimed for phenomenology is that it does not engage in or become distracted by competing, non-provable truth claims. As it does not try to explain religion and accepts religions on their own terms, it is believer-centered and fair. Conversely, it can be argued that phenomenology is merely descriptive, and that only a believer can truly understand what is happening in any religion. Furthermore, it is generally recognized that it is impossible to be impartial, for no matter how hard researchers try to ‘bracket off’ their own beliefs and opinions, they bring their own perspectives and agendas to the phenomenon. It could also be said that as phenomenology is relativistic, it is itself reductionistic, seeing religion only in terms of its meaning for the believer.

Conclusion

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 unit, 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, analyzing and presenting the past. It is not a neutral activity: “History is what we think, say and write about the evidence of the past.”[14] 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.


  1. Smart, 1979, p.312
  2. Lodge, 1981 edn, pp.11–12
  3. Zwi Werblowsky, 1992, p.6
  4. Vandereycken and van Deth, 1994
  5. Hartley, 1953, p.9
  6. Sharpe, 1986, p.89
  7. Freud, 1995 edn, p.43
  8. Marx, 1970 edn, p.131
  9. Segal, 1999, p.158
  10. Stark and Bainbridge, 1985, p. 14
  11. Thompson and Woodward, 2000, p.51
  12. Smart, 1973, p.54
  13. Smart, 1979, p.8
  14. James, 1999, p.33