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Teaching Religious Studies 14 October 2009

Posted by Todd in Uncategorized.

I am teaching a bit out of my expertise this semester a course on the interaction of religion and politics in the United States. I expected conflict with believers in the course, but was unprepared for resistance from non-believers (I don’t really know why; probably because personally I come from a religious upbringing). Several of my students are frustrated with the course because we are not criticizing or evaluating or judging the beliefs and practices of the religions we are studying. I have chosen to focus the class on a social scientific course until the last couple weeks of the semester, so I have been trying to get them to understand how adherence to a religion occurs, the kinds of experiences that it produces, and then how they act in the public sphere as a result. But the frustration of about a quarter of the students is mounting, so I felt I needed to address it directly. This is a letter I sent to them in preparation for a discussion I hope to have in class next week; writing the letter forced me to think carefully about my approach and the problematics of religious studies in general, so I thought it would be worth posting to the blog.

Several of you have come to talk to me in my office, and I’ve received a couple emails about the class, and yesterday [student] bravely raised objections publicly in class.  It feels like it’s time to revisit the purpose and method of the academic study of religion and what exactly our project is in our study of how religion and politics interact in American culture. What follows is a high-level, meta-theoretical discussion; but my experience with you as a class over the past month and a half tells me that you are capable of having this conversation, if you put in a little time to work at it.


To begin, as I’ve noted in class, there are two extreme positions possible in the academic study of religion, both of which impede our ability to study and understand a human phenomenon. On one hand, believers tend to think both that there is an exterior spiritual reality and that their version of that supernature reality is the Right One and that it is True. This leads to two problems: a) believers tend to start evaluating or judging other religious beliefs and people based on their own beliefs; and b) they tend to be incapable of social-scientific analysis because they refuse to see the social, interactional origins of religion. On the other hand, non-believers have risks of their own in the social scientific study of religion, because they begin with the assumption that religious truth claims are false and therefore religion is not in itself worthy of study. This leads to a significant analytic problem: non-believers tend to get so caught up in refuting the truth claims religions make that they render themselves incapable of a detached, social scientific study of the beliefs or the people who believe them.


I feel like there are some fundamental misunderstandings going on for some of you. To clarify and address these, let me reiterate the assumptions of the social scientific study of religion:

1) Religion is a social practice, that is, it’s something that people *do*. Religion is, then, actually analogous to “politics”, “education”, “art”, etc. Each of these human practices, however, has particular characteristics that make it different from the others; these different characteristics can be both how people *do* them (their behavior), what people *believe* about them (their minds), and what people *feel* about them (their experience). To be clear, both “art” and “religion” are social practices, but they have different characteristics that push us to put them in different categories and study them separately.

2) Therefore, contrary to religious belief, the “sacred” is made by people; that is, it’s an emergent property of human interaction, a creation of human interaction and experience. The “sacred” is *not* an empirical object, thing, person, or phenomenon of any kind; nor is the “sacred” in any way exterior or beyond or different from the human minds and bodies that make it.  In this way, the “sacred” is similar to “democracy”; it is something people make and do. But as I noted above, it is also different from other kinds of social constructions, namely because it creates a different kind of mental state, which is empirically observable and measurable by neurologists and cognitive scientists. So the “sacred” is made and created by humans through their interaction with each other and the enviornment, and it produces a particular kind of mental experience. To say this differently, to study the sacred is to study how people make the sacred; to call something sacred is to name a particular, social, human practice. Saying that you can’t call human religious behavior “sacred” because it isn’t real or true is like saying that I can’t call a sculpture or a painting “art” because art is a social construction and not real or true outside of its cultural/social context.

3) There is a fundamental, eminently important, and huge distinction to be made between, on one side, the scientifically verifiable fact (what Durkheim calls a “social fact”) that human beings create religions and have religious experiences (i.e., they make the “Sacred” and experience it); and on the other side, the claims that believers make that their religion is True, and that their experience of the sacred is Real. Those are NOT the same thing.

This bears repeating: The social fact that humans create the “sacred” through social interaction is empirically true; whether or not the truth claims made by religion are true is a completely different question.


So what is the goal of a religious studies course? What is the purpose of studying religion social-scientifically? And what exactly is the object of study?

To be honest, this depends on the approach that you’re taking. For example:

a) A biologists would be concerned with evaluating the truth claims of a particular religion regarding the origins of life. That is, a biologist would be comparing the evidence available with the claims made by a religion to see if they have scientific value.

b) A humanist might study the aesthetic or philosophical value of the beliefs and practices of a religion. Are they beautiful? Are they philosophically worthwhile? Are their beliefs “true”, useful, human?

c) A social scientist would be interested in religion as a social phenomenon, as an aspect of human behavior and belief systems arising out of their interaction in and with the world.

Each of those three examples have their own advantages and disadvantages. I’m clearly a sociologist, so I’ve been framing the class in that historical/social scientific mode. But there are problems in doing so. For example, if you have a particular political value and it is contradicted by the religious actions of the people we are studying, it could feel really unsatisfying to be focused on the question of how and why they are doing what they are doing, when you want to evaluate and refute their beliefs.


Ethics and responsibilities. In social science method, there is often a discussion about what if any ethical responsibility you have to the people you are studying. Are you obligated, for example, to leave their beliefs unexamined? Is examination, evaluation, and criticism of their beliefs and practices unethical or harmful to them? But this also bleeds into other problems; If you are engaged in criticizing a people’s beliefs, are you capable of actually studying them, of fully understanding them at all? On the other hand, are there situations when a people’s beliefs or practices ethically require you to judge and refute them?

Social-Scientific Relativism: Methodologically speaking, researchers/students must acknowledge and be aware of their own values and world views, these must be brought into consciousness and addressed, or it will inevitably distort the results of your study. That is, researchers are ethnocentric, and at the base level, they must confront and, as much as is possible, lay aside their own values in order to understand people who are different from them. This should be reinforced by colleagues and experts who can often point out our biases when we are blind to them. It is, as all things are, a social process that moves toward an end-in-view that we never fully get to. But it is a worthwhile and fruitful goal to work toward.

How do you study people you don’t like or who you think are full of shit? That is really the fundamental question for some of us in this class, myself included. In the next section of the course, you see that we will be studying people who are actively involved in the political sphere attempting to keep me and people like me from full and equal participation in the American democracy. In many ways, they are my political enemies. This goes well beyond whether or not I believe in the supernatural. So the question remains: How do you study people you don’t like or who are enemies? And further, is it even worthwhile to do so?  To say this yet another way, is there any value to a detached, social-scientific approach to studying religion that we find abhorrent, wrong, or evil?


For next week: Please come to class prepared to discuss the following questions.

a) what exactly is the object of study in a class on religion and politics in America? What should be our object of study?

b) how can you maintain the distinction between social fact of religion and the truth claims that religions make?

c) what is the goal of our study? why are we even engaged in this project in this course?

d) what, if any, ethical obligations do we have to the people we are studying?



1. Leigh Ann Hildebrand - 23 October 2009

Thank you for posting this. I’m an upper division RELS major in your department. Just today I was going on about my dislike of the sociological approach, which stems from my focus on experience of individual believers. I agree that it can be very hard to “study people you don’t like.” It takes some creative reframes, but mostly what works for me is that focus on the individual in their smaller personal context. Of course, the disadvantage to that is the myopia that can dull one’s sensitivity to the effect that each believer can have on the larger social reality. Ewf — it’s a balancing act, that’s certain.

2. Mark - 20 November 2009

Love to hear your thoughts and/or response to this post and clip:


3. Jeffrey W. Danese - 16 December 2009

Hey Todd! Wish I had seen this sooner. When I am presenting the Religious-Studies-in-academia perspective(s), I usually break it down into the several purposes (responsibilities) for scholarship on religion along with some examples of methods (and criteria):

1) description – ethnography, phenomenology, history (comprehensive, accurate)

2) interpretation – text translation, participant observation, narrative (intelligible, understandable)

3) explanation – psychology, sociology, behavioral economics, cultural theories (predictable, accurate, meaningful, comprehensive)

4) evaluation – And, as you say, and as some comments indicate, this is the political and often most deeply personal one that most professional scholars try to avoid as any criteria will reflect a moral or political conviction reducible (or deconstructable) to arbitrary socio-cultural circumstances (or metaphysical faith commitments) without academically defensible claims to universality, perfect objectivity, or righteousness (!). Sure.

So how to proceed? Taking a cue from Cathy Albanese, I start by adopting a value that is so general that most or all people can agree on it: human life. Religions that foster it are “good religions” and ones that advocate for killing or otherwise stifling human life are the “bad religions.” Sure they are broad categories, but it starts the process of clarifying terms like “fostering” and “stifling,” etc. Next I remind myself and my students that our mental frames, attitudes, feelings, discourse and rationales are occurring in the context of a wider culture war being waged all across the country in politics, courtrooms, and in the media, and that we can choose to participate (and continue the polemics right here in our class) or not participate (and find a perspective where surprising similarities are found between “us” and “them” – a shared sentiment or value, a similar moral indignation that invites respect even, or a shared sense of existential fear (or joy) behind the rhetoric).

How to get there? Two ways that I can think of: 1) by being exposed to good scholarship that does 1, 2, and 3 above + honestly recognizing one’s own biases and where they come from in terms of life experience, personal development, or religious formation + open-mindedness + imagination; and 2) by modeling that perspective in lecture and class conversation.

For instance, sure, I think the gospel of prosperity is bunk, but I can also admire its utility for enculturation and acculturation. I can appreciate what it reveals about American culture in general and the “flexibility” with which evangelical preachers wield Christian ideas to generate a community of shared feelings. I might not like the political agenda of militant fundamentalists, but I can sympathize with their anxieties about loss of moral agreement and loss of the sacred, and can even empathize with the relief and celebration they experience in the comfortable and confident space of their religious communities. What could be more human? And I remind myself and my students that the inclination to reduce religious faith, ideas, beliefs, or commitments to (publicly verifiable) propositional truths is itself the result of socio-cultural conditions and a (often unacknowledged) faith commitment to scientism (or logical positivism) that operates functionally to occlude a vital part of our own humanity. Karen Armstrong would say that vital part consists of a recognition that modernity or modernism has been a failure, and I would add another part: the painful realization that technology (alone) will NOT solve the ecological problems we face – and indeed, more generally, that science (alone) will not and can not repair the moral community.

The perspective that finds an alternative to cultural warfare (or worse) is one that recognizes the unique powers, importance, and utility of BOTH science AND religion, both mythos and logos. A balancing act indeed, as Ewf says above, but one that ANYONE can learn, practice, and get good at!

Jeff Danese

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