05 September 2007

A Lion in the Christians' Den

As some of you might know, I'll be starting my master's program next week at Harvard Divinity School. And as with any new step in life, I'm feeling apprehensive, nervous, excited, nauseated, happy, hungry, and grumpy - and I don't think this is at all out of the ordinary. However, now that I have your attention, I want to take this opportunity to vent a little bit of preemptive frustration with the fact that my discipline, Religious Studies, essentially has gotten repeatedly shafted in the greater hierarchy of academic disciplines.

Very few people know it, but the Academic Study of Religion - or Religious Studies - is above all a social science: its goal is to understand the origin, development, and mechanics of the cultural phenomenon generally classified as "religion" (and, as the social sciences often do, it also spends a considerable amount of energy trying to determine exactly what behaviors ought to be called "religion" in the first place). The field primarily consists of the subdisciplines History of Religions, Religious Anthropology, Psychology of Religion, Sociology of Religion, and the like. (There are some who would say that the "Philosophy of Religion" also belongs in this category. I generally do not.)

Religious Studies, moreover, is often defined in terms of what it is not: i.e. Theology, or any other discipline that treats religion as a viable way of knowing about and living within the world, rather than a manifestation of human culture. In other words, whereas a theologian would ask"how can there be suffering in a world governed by a loving God?", the religionist would ask "why do cultures continually posit the existence of an omnipotent deity in the face of suffering?" Actually, in my experience, if a religionist even bothers to think about suffering at all, it tends only to be in terms like "I wonder what kinds of rituals or talismans these people used as prophylactics against suffering..."

What I hope should be clear from the above is that, whereas the discipline of Theology is built on the explicit presupposition of the existence of a deity (whichever deity the theologian himself believes in, of course), the discipline of religious studies, although it has traditionally never explicitly declared itself to be an atheistic discipline, requires at least the tacit assumption that the absolute truth value of religious propositions are inherently false (anyone who says differently doesn't want to jeopardize his tenure). The great, fundamental discovery that underlies all research in the field of religious studies is that people don't always believe things that are true, but the belief-systems they create for themselves nevertheless have a remarkable degree of internal cohesion and exert a formidable effect on the cultures of their adherents.

The trouble is, however, that this secular discipline of religious studies has only been around since the late Victorian era, when Europeans first started thinking systematically about the religions of others (and then only later turned the lens on themselves). Thus, whereas the Theologians have had a home in their various Divinity Schools (read: seminaries) for as long as there have been universities in the Christian West, the nascent discipline of religious studies has had to carve out a space for itself in a number of different faculties, particularly (and ironically) within Divinity schools themselves. Unfortunately, rather than eventually striking out on its own and defining itself as an independent discipline in its own right, faculties of religious studies have continued to grow under the organizational aegis of Divinity Schools, where they unfortunately continue to play second fiddle to theological pursuits.

Now, whoever thought it was a good idea to combine Theology and Religious Studies under the same administrative umbrella clearly has no idea what he was doing. Just because they both 'have to do with religion' doesn't mean that the disciplines are anything alike. Indeed, no two disciplines could be more diametrically opposed. It is as though one were asking the great (late) E.E.Evans-Pritchard to teach a course on witchcraft beliefs of the indigenous Sudanese at the Divinity School of Zandeland University (Home of the Fightin' Azande!) right down the hall from "Mangu and You," "How To Tell if your Neighbor is a Sorcerer" and "The Benge Oracle 101: Determining Truth or Falsehood by Poisoning Baby Chickens." Or, to put it in a way our regular readers can better relate to, it would be like sticking a faculty of quack New-Age healing practitioners in our top Medical Schools because they both "have to do with illness and the body." These both may seem a little more absurd than, say, offering a course on Biblical Archaeology down the hall from advanced seminars on Aquinas and Tillich - but as far as I'm concerned, the situations are exactly equivalent, because one discipline treats a system of false beliefs as an object to be studied while the other treats them as true.

So you can understand why I am more than a little bit apprehensive about starting up at HDS next week. True: HDS has a long tradition of being Unitarian - the most milquetoast of the liberal liberal Protestants - and it's not like I'm attending Liberty University or Baylor (or even Princeton). But that doesn't change the fact that, according to one poll I saw, only one student at HDS chose to be identified as non-religious. It's not just that most of my colleagues will be taking religion seriously (because, let's face it, that's the reality wherever you go). What really gets me is the fact that they will be spending $30k/yr in order to show how seriously they take religion, many of them with the intent of going on into the ministry after graduation. How, exactly, will I be able to take my peers seriously when they are not only casually committed to the idea of a deity, but are pursuing this intellectual folly on a graduate level? And, failing that, how will I prevent myself from coming across as an arrogant, unfriendly anti-theist, when all I really want to talk about is how interesting and compelling religion is when studied from a secular perspective?

I hope against hope that I'm proven wrong, but withal I am bracing myself for two years of intellectual isolation (from my peers, that is, not my professors - whom I already know to be respected and intelligent secular religionists) until I can blow this pop stand and apply for a PhD program through a non-divinity-affiliated Committee for the Academic Study of Religion.

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