Scholars Return to Studying Religion:
Jürgen Habermas, talking about John Rawls, once said “[that the latter] did posterity a great service in thinking at an early date about the political role of religion.” (2008:20). Today, the same can be, and in many ways surely is, said about religion in academia, or to paraphrase Habermas about the political role of religion in the academic sphere. It was once believed, that the university is a very, if not the most, secularized space in American society. This idée recue is now challenged by many scholars, and according to Schmalzbauer and Mahoney (2008: 1) “a new story needs to be told about religion in the academy”.
The reason for this new interest in religion is due to many reasons. Among these various reason one can easily distinguish two main rationales: First, a growing number of scholars are starting to challenge the boundaries between faith and knowledge. Relating their claims of course to poststructuralist ideas about the concepts of truths as well as the epistemological questions of how do we get to knowledge? How do we know what we know? If it is not through some already established systems of beliefs. The second reason and one which is less philosophical is the acknowledging of the importance of religion as a social phenomenon.
Mahoney and Schmalzbauer, in an article entitled “Scholars Return to Studying Religion”, argue that until the late 19th century religion exerted a powerful influence over American higher education. It was only until the 20th century that the process of secularization started to cast doubt on the religious understanding of reality, mostly basing their beliefs on the works of intellectuals like Sigmund Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin and others. Fact which led the Academic disciplines to get more and more specialized. Historians James Turner and Jon Roberts, as quoted in the article, explain this fact by arguing that the aim of Academia was to “think small: to ask questions for which there were determinate and publicly verifiable answers.” (2008: 17)
In their next interesting argument, the writers of the article make a distinction between two main kinds of interest in religious studies. They claim that for some scholars, religion is seen as being a mere object of study; which presupposes claims of total objectivity. An example of this view, may be taken from social work and medicine, where researchers like Ram Cnaan and Herbert Benson have explored the ‘statistical’ effects of religion on well-being without adopting the beliefs of their clients. This view was criticized by Habermas as he qualified it as being “idealistic”. The other group of scholars, promotes a more overt connection between religion and knowledge, incorporating personal religious convictions into their research. This view, for me at least, seems more ethical and realistic, because if we relate this to Michel Foucault’s discussions about objectivity, discourse and reality and the intermingling of these, we understand that one simply cannot exists outside discourse. That it is through discourse that humans come to view the world, and that their view is the result of very complex ideological and discursive process rather than a mere access to an objective reality.
The first group, which claims to analyze religion as an object of study presuppose the possibility of viewing a religion as being outside of oneself without looking at it as being strange. Suppose a Muslim scholars is studying “Peyote Religion” which is a ‘native’
American religion that involves for example the use of the Lophora plant for psychedelic purposes. No matter how much this Muslim researcher will try to remain objective, he or she will end up looking at this religion as being inferior at worst or “other” as best. On the same regard, if a Peyote American is investigating his/her own religion as an object of study, he or she will not be able to fully distance and dissociate their person from their own personal beliefs. The same can be said about an Atheist studying Peyote religion, because after all what is atheist if not another religion. Therefore, the view which claims that religion is something that must be overt in scientific research, seems to me to be more appropriate and on the opposite of what many would think: very productive. One would talk for example about how Peyote religion is represented by a Muslim scholar. Which would presuppose the existence of a Location (to use Homi Bhabha’s term) or perspective, which to my opinion can only give a work more credibility.
Yet another important notion that Mahoney and Schmalzbauer bring up in their article as having played in favor for the return of religion to the academy is the blurring of departmental limits. The writers argue that research nowadays is supposed to exceed the very rigid departmental limits to answer its most urging questions. Multi-disciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and even the new concept of transdisciplinarity are in vogue in the American university. This pluri-disciplinarity surely did play a very important role in the development and inclusion of religious studies in many departments. What is even more striking is that this blurring of departmental limits does not concern the humanities and social sciences only, but even some disciplines that are thought about as ‘pure’. According to the writers “the number of medical schools offering religion-related courses has grown from five in 1992 to 86 in 2002” (2008: 20) and one could easily assume that today in 2013 this number can only be higher. On the same regard sociologist José Casanova is quoted saying that in addition to “the growing visibility of religion in American politics, the post- 1965 increase in non-western religious groups, and the newfound vitality of global Islam [simply] make it impossible for scholars to ignore the influence of religion in contemporary society.” (2008: 20)