Two LDS scholars have recently voiced their thoughts on the academic study of religion. One can be found here; the other can be found on pages 136-145 of the recent issue of the Religious Educator (14.3, 2013). I’ve brought these two pieces into dialogue for the readers of FPR.
NOTE: I have taken things out of context, but I have not changed any of the words except as marked by parentheses.
SF: Religious studies is big enough and it is not monolithic; there are all kinds of voices within the field, including those who are practitioners of various faiths writing about that faith and bringing to bear on analyses all sorts of epistemological and historiographical and ethical questions that reflect a religious worldview. There is space for all sorts of perspectives.
So religious studies is that big of a tent; it’s all over the place, methodologically, ideologically, with every conceivable perspective in terms of race, class, gender, all across the political spectrum, it’s all there—it’s a big, raucous crowd!
JG: So those in religious studies rarely discuss what the discipline is really up to. Critical thinking apparently is something applied to others, never themselves.
SF: It depends on who’s teaching—that’s part of the joy and part of the problem. Often an introductory course in religious studies becomes a way of introducing students to the wildly disparate ways of seeing religion. They might be offered readings from Sigmund Freud about religion as an illusion—very negative conceptions of what religion is. Maybe religious voices would be introduced as well, or maybe Mircea Eliade, who saw religion phenomenologically, as a part of the human experience.…
I would show students prominent theories about religion over time. I would both give them all of these perspectives and offer students ways of criticizing each, asking questions such as: What does this particular view get us ? What are its blind spots ? How would this view help one understand one’s own religious tradition versus another’s religious tradition? Would it help? Would it hurt? Then I would try to contextualize those. What about religious and intellectual history makes these theories comprehensible? What’s at stake with these various theories? I would help students hone their critical skills and begin thinking about religion thoughtfully, reflectively, and let their minds bounce off these great minds of the past as they think about religion. I think students are both surprised and excited to see that many of the great minds in history took on questions such as: Why do people believe? How do we account for the varying ways people believe and practice faith over time ? What does that mean about being a human being? These are exciting questions to students who have religious commitments. It’s exciting to students who don’t have religious commitments.
JG: So here [is] someone who [knows] a little about a bunch of different religions trying to teach a group of students about their religions about which he knows a little and they know a great deal. [You] did not know enough about their religion to know that some of the things that [you were] saying were deeply offensive. In other words, [You] knew a little, but not enough.
SF: That is one of the happy accidents of the academy as it has developed. There are certainly also downsides to this approach, but one of the upsides is that one doesn’t have to necessarily hide one’s religious commitment to write in the academy. That’s a development that’s surprising to some.
JG: It seems to me that [you have] provided two interesting insights, one intentionally and one unintentionally. The first insight, which was unintentional, is that the branch of humanities that [you] studied, religious studies, is a blasphemous parasite on the religions it studies. (This is not to say that it has to be that way or should be that way, but that mostly it is that way.) The second is that the humanities has failed to make people better people. It fails as a religion….
SF: I suppose there are drawbacks for some, but academic inquiry can as easily deepen faith as weaken it. That has certainly been case for me. Some can go through religious studies training and come to see everything in naturalistic terms, but that is not unavoidable by any stretch. I’m a better Latter-day Saint because of my academic training. I simply would not trade the experiences and perspectives I’ve gained. They have deepened and broadened my faith. We have too many encouragements in the revelations to seek learning—broadly conceived—to simply ignore the life of the mind, especially with regards to religion. Early on in my own graduate training, it struck me that there was no thought so important that I could excuse myself in failing to serve those who God had called me love. My advice to graduate students, in other words, is to do your home and visiting teaching. Don’t stop “becoming,” in the Mormon sense of the term, while you become an academic. If the ivory tower pulls us away from the communities we’re supposed to love, then there would be a problem indeed. But, as it stands, I pursue my academic work and live the faith, every day, and the rigorous thinking and the communal practice of a Latter-day Saint life exist in a kind of electric, dynamic relationship for me.
JG:[But religious studies], as presently practiced, does nothing to improve behavior and neither does the humanities. They are a poor substitute for religion or faith itself.
SF: One of the great arguments for religious studies, at least in the public university, is that religious ignorance is a problem for a democratic society. The kinds of reasoned, rigorous descriptions and analyses religious studies practitioners can offer, at least insofar as they are translated to a broader public, gives a better sense of people’s lives, practices, and worldviews. I think that’s compelling; I think that makes better national citizens and world citizens, to know something about what other people believe and practice. For religious people, ignorance is a problem. I think knowledge of other faiths helps religious people be better religious people. It has helped me be a better Latter-day Saint, a better neighbor, to know something about what other people believe and what they practice. It makes me more charitable, more patient. It humanizes people. I’m less likely to stereotype and dismiss them when I have a clearer sense of who they are and what they do, what values they have, and what matters to them.
Religious studies is a vibrant part of the American academy. The conflict of religion and academia makes for a kind of ripe, opportune, and very friendly setting in which interest in Mormonism from non-Mormons can wax. And that’s what’s happened!
JG: So the practitioners of the discipline are unhappy and cynical and the public is apathetic. This matches my experience too.