Comparative religionists mock both believers and constructionists

A religious studies blog I follow, Religious Studies Project, has a rather telling April Fool’s joke today. Since they might delete it after April 1, I will take the liberty of quoting the whole post here.

BREAKING NEWS: Today, the RSP is “born again” – as the Theological Dispatch.

Due to a huge donation from the Templeton Foundation, we are now going in a slightly different direction. As of today, our mandate is to investigate how religion and spirituality brings positive change to society, and helps make us all better citizens of God’s world. We shall not rest until the Christian and the Muslim can go on a date together in a Chinese restaurant without fear of criticism.

It’s time to admit that spirituality is REAL. We hereby disown our previous cowardly epistemological agnosticism and cynical critical thinking. From here on in, our only theory is Truth, and our only method is Faith. God will be remembered long after Fitzgerald and McCutcheon are forgotten.

Donald Wiebe got it right, there is no future for the religious studies. But there is advertising revenue for theology.

Since this is a joke, the bloggers (mostly Ph.D. candidates, I believe) must think that the idea that “spirituality is REAL” is amusing in some way. That might sound like a harsh generalization, but this was the general attitude of my undergraduate classmates, who openly mocked religious groups at parties etc., and I am aware that this was also the fashion at several other undergraduate religious studies programs. Considering that someone who chooses to do a doctorate program in religious studies must be somehow attracted to the state of the academy, I think it is probably fair to say that the Ph.D. candidates writing for this blog find spirituality amusing.

Here is another joke: “As of today, our mandate is to investigate how religion … helps make us all better citizens of God’s world.” I would deeply respect someone who offered this as a mission statement for a book, even an academic publication. After all, the idea that the world does not belong to us alone, that it is “God’s world”, is something it is hard to be neutral on. A past generation of religious scholars, including Huston Smith, often embraced something like this sentiment. The current generation, though, is generally critical of this, and of any sentiment towards the world. The only truly scholarly attitude, they have learned, is an alienated one.

For example, Mama Lola, a sympathetic account of a scholar’s acceptance by a voodoo community that verges on a statement of personal belief, was published in 1991. Could a similar book be published today? An example of an academic publication recently reviewed at Religious Studies Project is Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict, which consists of a list of assertions like “people are nicer when they are being watched” and “as groups increase in size and social complexity, belief in ‘Big Gods’ or moralizing Gods increases”. It is a mystery to me how the author of this book would engage with Porphyry, Jayadeva, or Zhuangzi. But I do not think there is any attempt at understanding here, only the self-assured superiority to all human feeling that comes with “scientific” knowledge. The spirit of Mama Lola has been totally purged from the academy, which is why the Templeton Foundation gets the scholars’ scorn.

Finally, the post gets in a good-natured dig at Timothy Fitzgerald and Russell T. McCutcheon, two scholars who question the validity of the scholarly concept of “world religions”. It is true that both Fitzgerald and McCutcheon are atheists, which prompts the joke “God will be remembered long after Fitzgerald and McCutcheon are forgotten,” an… uh… imitation of Christians’ attitudes towards Nietzsche, Darwin, etc. But it seems like the author of the post does not really understand the practical meaning of constructionism. By putting into question the tools that scholars use to compare cultures, Fitzgerald and McCutcheon actually doubt the methodological superiority of scholars to believers, which is why McCutcheon calls for an open confession of atheism on the part of scholars. In fact, the great Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton made the basic constructivist argument long before Wilfred Cantwell Smith, when he expressed his skepticism of the comparative methodology employed by H.G. Wells:

[Religious studies] seeks to classify Jesus … by inventing a new class for the purpose and filling up the rest of it with stop-gaps and second-rate copies. I do not mean that these other things are not often great things in their own real character and class. Confucianism and Buddhism are great things, but it is not true to call them Churches; just as the French and English are great people, but it is nonsense to call them nomads. There are some points of resemblance between Christendom and its imitation in Islam; for that matter there are some points of resemblance between Jews and Gypsies. But after that the lists are made up of anything that comes to hand; of anything that can be put in the same catalogue without being in the same category.

G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (1925)

The post concludes with a joke that sounds slightly somber: “Donald Wiebe got it right, there is no future for the religious studies.” As my grandma likes to say, “with every joke, there’s a meaning.”

Posted: April 1st, 2014 | Secular-Religious | 8 Comments »


  • ESB

    We might actually try turning our study to practice! Just kidding! April fool’s!!!

  • Rob

    How does critiquing something necessarily mock it? Looking at the “Big Picture” is what keeps us from joining awful cults or doing the Wrong Thing in good faith.

  • Avery

    This is a post about an April Fool’s joke, so I was talking about mockery, not rational critique. I’m not really sure what the “Big Picture” is for religious studies as a discipline.

  • Anon

    Mocking bold and strange claims which are asserted without evidence isn’t unreasonable. Theism is generally believed because of faith & emotion, not reason or argument. People of greater intelligence and education tend towards secularism for this reason – how many good arguments for God are there?

    That’s an invitation, btw. Try me, if you feel so inclined. :P

  • Avery

    It is so interesting that you posted this “emotion” vs. “reason” argument today. I am writing a term paper for a grad school class about an Indian play, the Abhijñānaśākuntalam, which I think deals with that exact question. To dumb it down, what makes us think that we can solve our problems using reason? Are we to believe that reason has a good track record — that there is nothing to regret from everything that has happened since the Enlightenment?

    Obviously though I am not going to solve your issues with theism in an Internet blog comment. I can only recommend reading some G.K. Chesterton.

  • Justin

    I am an undergraduate student in religious studies, and, admittedly, as someone who doesn’t plan on making my living as an academic, I am not very invested in the controversies in the field. But I would say that the attitude that I have encountered in the department from my fellow students is not the contemptuous one described above. Rather, it seems to be full of people who have strong spiritual motivations but are unwilling to give up their modern, secular identities. I get the feeling sometimes that many envy believers and wish they could also surrender themselves to a narrative that would cause too much cognitive dissonance to them or would conflict with other aspects of their identity.

  • Avery

    I think you are on to something that I was too bitter to see for myself. Of course there must be some amount of sympathy of scholars with their objects of study. I do lament that these objects are rarely treated as equals.

  • Shy

    Every joke has a meaning — You got that right!
    I miss you and am looking forward to when you get home!
    Love
    Grandma Shy
    And I mean it!