Parsing Boer’s Concept of Religious Studies

Roland Boer, “The implicit imperialism of the ‘critical religion’ approach?” Stalin’s Moustache blog (6/5/2015) [LINK]

After co-authoring a editorial on how “approaches to religion” can be “more critical” in the most recent issue of the journal Critical Research on Religion (for the editorial, see here) Roland Boer, an academic theologian at the University of Newcastle in Australia (see here), published on his blog Stalin’s Moustache some of his reactions to the controversy that was stirred by the editorial on social media sites like facebook.

As he makes clear here and elsewhere in his blog, Boer, who is sometimes described as both a communist and a Calvinist, is overtly hostile to that approach to religious studies that he labels ‘critical religion,’ a diverse group that includes, inter alia, scholars such as Russell McCutcheon, Aaron Hughes, etc. Boer thinks ‘critical religion’ is bankrupt and counter-revolutionary. But for me, this raises a question. How exactly does he conceptualize religious studies?

Clues that point towards an answer to this question are readily available in the above cited blog post.

In the post, Boer rehearses a generalized history of how, in the 20th century, what he prefers to call the “nomothetic disciplines” (the allegedly more rigorous and “scientific” social sciences, ranging from history and sociology to anthropology, political science, and economics) “divest[ed] themselves of ethical concerns, values and political agenda,” with the result being that these disciplines ended up serving the imperial technocracy of the liberal nation-states. Alleging that the disciplines desired “not to be involved in any project that that might improve the world even a little,” Boer suggests that their flight from value led them to abandon their homes among the humanities or human sciences in order to appear more truly “scientific;” what happened next was that the disciplines came to “provide policy directions for the status quo under liberal democracies,” allowing the critic the opportunity to reasonably describe them as supporting “a new kind of imperialism.”

Boer classifies (without explaining why) the “critical religion” approach (a code for McCutcheon, et al) among these imperialistic nomothetic disciplines. In truth, he makes no effort here to show why this classification “works.” I would suggest that he ignores the actual methods and practices of the scholars he classifies so quickly. But that’s besides the point here. Boer’s posts are short, and he clearly doesn’t have time for the details of the analysis. We are forced to take his word for it.

What I am actually interested in here is how Boer’s final paragraph contains a series of phrases including the terms “religion” and “religious” that are, initially, somewhat difficult to parse. But when they are parsed, I would argue, they reveal a somewhat different conception of the idea of “religious studies” than one ordinarily finds among practitioners of the discipline. This different understanding may explain why Boer is so hostile to ‘critical religion’ as he calls it. I think, therefore, it is worth parsing his phraseology and thinking with Boer, for a minute, about what “religious studies” is or should be.

Let’s examine those the phrases and their context. Boer begins the last paragraph by calling himself “somewhat bemused” that the so-called “nomothetic” approach of ‘critical religion’ now “seeks to remove religious concerns from the analysis of history, society, politics and economics — precisely when those disciplines have become acutely aware of the importance of religion.” He goes on to claim that “practitioners in those areas are actively exploring religious questions and seeking the assistance of of specialists in religion.” He states that historians, sociologists, political scientists and economists “divested their own approaches of [sic] religion some time ago, but now realize it was a mistake,” because, Boer claims they “do not have the requisite skills to deal with [religion].” Turning to scholars of religion for help, Boer implies, they don’t get the help they seek, but instead find scholars of religion actually are engaged in an anachronistic or outdated attempt to follow the nomothetic disciplines; instead of finding what they need, they find ‘critical religion’ “trying to do to the study of religion what these disciplines did to themselves some decades ago.”

First phrase: “seeks to remove religious concerns from the analysis.” In context, this phrase apparently refers to the idea that scholars of religion (or at least those in the ‘critical religion’ camp) would like to conduct their inquiries and analysis of religion without involving human “concerns” that are “religious” in nature. Since such scholars are manifestly focused on what they (or you) might call “religion,” the phrase cannot mean that they hope to study religion without studying the “religious concerns” of the people, institutions, practices, etc., that are being studied. What it must mean is that the scholars themselves seek to employ critical and analytical methodologies, explanatory theories, and metaphysical or philosophical assumptions that are not themselves “religious.” In other words, they seek to conduct research into religion as disinterested outsiders instead of as interested insiders. Boer clearly evaluates this stance negatively, so it is fair to say that Boer hopes that “religious studies” will, in the future, abandon this methodological commitment to agnosticism or atheism and will become more openly “religious.” He doesn’t want religious studies to attempt to adopt the stance of the outsider (the so-called etic stance) but to allow itself to operate from the stance of the insider (the so-called emic stance). Because he is a theologian, and theology is typically classified within the larger umbrella of religious studies as a discipline (but not without tension and controversy), it makes sense that he adopts this position. Here is a philosopher who recognizes, rightly, that ‘critical religion’ wants to make him the object of study, not to consider him a colleague.

It is worth saying that Boer doesn’t, in this article, specify anything about what “religious concerns” he thinks ought to be part of the scholar of religion’s toolbox. However, in his account of the ‘flight from value’ among the nomothetic disciplines, he did specify that they sought to “divest themselves of ethical concerns, values, and political agenda.” On my reading of Boer’s meaning here, what is implied is that the term “religious concerns” can be seen as a gloss for this trinity of human interests (ethics, values, politics), and that his main meaning is that scholars of religion should be motivated by and operate out of explicit codes or systems of such ethics, values, and politics. In this conviction he has some company, but in the main, I would say that he is out of step with the typical norms of the discipline, which has for decades (ever since Tillich, perhaps) insisted that our task is to study these kinds of systems of concerns (the “religious” dimension of human being), more so than it is to explicitly operate out of them.

Second phrase: “have become acutely aware of the importance of religion.” There is a subtle shift in Boer’s terminology here. According to Boer, historians, sociologists, political scientists and economists have, in recent decades, “become acutely aware of the importance of religion.” This appears to be a reference to the widely referred to concept of a “turn to religion” among the disciplines (just google it). The ordinary understanding of this interdisciplinary phenomenon, at least among the scholars of religion that I know, is that the so-called social or human sciences have lately come around to our position, in recognizing that human society, culture, identity, etc., is deeply shaped and influenced by discourse related to “religion,” and that what Boer might call the “religious concerns” of human beings are important to understand if one is to do one’s job as a social scientist.

In that case, Boer’s comment appears to be factual and uncontroversial on the surface. But I see his interpretation of this phenomenon as skewed. Because, coming as it does immediately after the first phrase, in which he implicitly argues that scholars of religion should embrace what he terms their “religious concerns,” what is implied here is that disciplinary practitioners in the nomothetic disciplines have not turned to religion as an object of study, but have turned to religion as a method of study, or perhaps more accurately, to religious concerns as a motive of study. But if I am right that this is Boer’s implicit claim, he is surely mistaken. He doesn’t cite examples of such nomothetic disciplinarians who have openly sought to involve the “religious” in their critical work; perhaps there are some. But ordinarily, the “turn to religion” is not a matter of the conversion of the scholars to religious points of view and methodological/analytical commitments, but rather a turn to a subject matter.

This brings us to the third phrase: “actively exploring religious questions.”. The presence of this ambiguous phrase “religious questions” tends to confirm my reading of Boer’s interpretation of the “turn to religion.” He claims that the nomothetic disciplines are lately “exploring religious questions.”

But what makes a question religious? Is a “religious question” just a “question about religion,” or it is a question asked in a way that is “religious”? In other words, is it a question like “how many people in Syria consider themselves devout Muslims?” or is it a question like, “how can I be a better Christian while doing my work as an historian?” Is it a question like “how does Christian faith impact the scholarship of academics?” or a question like “what is the best way to pursue Jihad in the environment of late capitalism?” There is an important distinction to be made between “questions about” and “questions of.”

In mainstream scholarship on religion (sometimes problematically and ambiguously called “religious studies”) we prefer to ask questions about religion; what gets classified as “religious”? who talks about “religion”? what social, political, cultural, and other forms of discourse and practice are linked to religion, and why, and with what effects? etc. Questions of religion, on the other hand, are rightly seen as matters of internal adjudication and dispute among adherents, i.e. if we are doing our jobs as scholars of religion we will be asking “questions about” the “questions of” religion. If indeed the mainstream practitioners of disciplines outside of “religious studies” are asking “religious questions” that are actually “religious” (‘questions of’ rather than ‘questions about’), we have every right to be interested in such practitioners of the disciplines as if they were in fact the subjects of our study.

Fourth phrase: “seeking the assistance of specialists in religion.” In fact, I don’t think that mainstream historians, economists, etc., have begun to abandon their methodological naturalism and empirical scientific methodologies in order to embrace religious motives in their work. And so I don’t think that they have, as Boer implies, turned to the religious studies people for guidance in such matters, but rather, they sometimes seek out theoretically and methodologically rigorous scholarship on religion to assist them in their studies. Like scholars of religion, they rightly interested in those social and cultural phenomena that people tend to label as “religion” or “religious,” and they figure, correctly, that the discipline of “religious studies” offers rigorous approaches to religion.

But what Boer implies is that they are disappointed by what they find, as if, in seeking out “specialists in religion,” what they were hoping for were people who could help them ask “religious questions” “religiously,” i.e. in Boer’s terms, to incorporate “ethics, values, and political agendas” back into their work. That this is an unlikely scenario hardly needs explication. What it does tell us, however, is that Boer conceives of religious studies as being a place where “specialists in religion” tell other specialists in other areas how to be better at being religious in their work and lives. We have a name for such professionals; we call them priests and ministers, rabbis and imams, clergy, the Sangha, and theologians, etc., etc., etc.

While many such professionals do work as professional scholars of religion, it is far from clear that they act, qua scholars of religion, in their professional capacity as scholarly religious practitioners. The difference is subtle, but important. A scientist may of course be “religious,” but he doesn’t thereby pursue “religious science.” And just because a scholar of religion is religious, doesn’t make that person’s scholarship religious. That’s a decision that is determined by questions asked and methods followed, theories applied, etc.

The main problem I have with Boer’s account of what religious studies ought to be or is better off being is that he seems to exclude the non-religious, or the non-religiously-motivated scholar of religion from religious studies precisely on that basis. But like any public discipline adhering to public norms and practices, our first commitment is to argument based on reason and evidence. As Margaret Mitchell, dean of the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, told an incoming class of students in 2013, “[t]he purpose of the academic study of religion is to teach people to think and talk reasonably about religion in public, to realize that all claims made are subject to proof, and to give them some tools for adjudicating claims. That is our work.” (See page 17 of the Spring 2015 issue of Criterion, available here).

Final phrase: approaches of religion.” As of my reading of Boer’s piece, this phrase appears just so, “approaches of religion.” I don’t know whether this is a deliberately chosen phrase or a typo. If it appeared in a student paper, I would mark it as suspect or awkward, but if it is intentional, then, fine, let it be so and let us criticize it as it appears. An “approach to religion” would be a way of addressing and studying whatever it is we call by that term, “religion.” The methods and aims of such approaches are, as Boer’s piece shows, contested. But an “approach of religion” would be, again, an approach by religion as if by a person (subjective genitive) or an approach that is constituted by religion (genitive of substance) or an approach that is from a position located in religion (partitive genitive, or genitive of source or origin). Is it the case that,as Boer argues or implies, the nomothetic disciplines have come to regret abandoning their “approaches of religion,” and are disappointed to find the ‘critical religion’ folks urging exactly that divestment?

I have yet to see any evidence of that at all.

  1 comment for “Parsing Boer’s Concept of Religious Studies

  1. Bob H
    June 7, 2015 at 8:27 am

    You can trace the ideas back to this debate between McCutcheon and Boer:

    There are also comments on McCutcheon and Smith which are put to one side but reveal a lot: “(I leave aside the strange desire to foster an objective, apolitical, analytical and ultimately revived historical critical analysis of the ‘Bible’, as one among any number of sacred scriptures. And I leave aside the curious effort by McCutcheon to insert Jonathan Zed Smith (who should always be given a zed) into the debate, since all that did was reaffirm my sense that Mr Smith is less an innovative scholar than an extraordinarinarily – and that’s a very emphatic extraordinarily – traditional one).”

what do you think?

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