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Gill, The Academic Study of Religion

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Journal of the American Academy of Religion LXII/4 The Academic Study of Religion Sam Gill J. HE EMERGENCE OF an academic study of religion has been disappointing despite the boost it received thirty years ago when religion entered the curricula of state-supported American colleges and universities. The academic study of religion as envisioned here is distinguished by several bounding criteria: 1. The academic study of religion must not depend upon or require of its researchers, teachers, or st
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  Journal of the American Academy of Religion LXII/4 The Academic Study ofReligion Sam Gill J. HE EMERGENCE OF an academic study of religion has beendisappointing despite the boost it received thirty years ago whenreligion entered the curricula of state-supported American collegesand universities. The academic study of religion as envisionedhere is distinguished by several bounding criteria:1. The academic study of religion must not depend upon orrequire of its researchers, teachers, or students any specific reli-gious belief or affiliation, race, culture, or gender. 2. The academic study of religion must be sensitive to multi-cul-turalism: the awareness that there are many peoples, cultures, andreligions, none of which has any exclusive claims to be made withregard to religion as an academic subject. 3. The term religion must be understood as designating an aca-demically constructed rubric that identifies the arena for commondiscourse inclusive of all religions as historically and culturallymanifest. Religion cannot be considered as synonymous withChristianity or with the teaching of religion to members of specifictraditions. Religion must not be thought of as the essence of thesubject studied. Religion is not the sacred, ultimate concern, or belief in god (or some disguising euphemism). There is nothingreligious about religion. Religion is not sui generis. There are nouniquely religious data. 4. The methods of the academic study of religion are necessarilycomparative. Religion is a category whose subdivisions are catego-ries that demand comparison. Comparison must be understood asthe play of fit and non-fit, of congruity and incongruity, rather thanconformity with a pre-existing pattern. 5. Once it is comprehended that religion designates a significantaspect of a major portion of the human population throughout its Sam Gill is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder, Boulder,CO 80309-0292. 965  966 Journal of the American Academy of Religion history, dual motivations arise for the study of religion. On theone hand is the desire to appreciate, understand, and comprehendspecific religions in their historical and cultural particularity. Onthe other hand is the opportunity afforded by the broadly compara-tive category, religion, to learn more about ourselves as humanbeings.The academic study of religion, as distinguished by these crite-ria, has not enjoyed adequate development. As an academic disci-pline, distinct from the religious study of religion, it has failed toadvance any sustainable body of theory, any cadre of religion theo- rists, any substantial body of literature. The inability to articulatethe academic study of religion and the unsatisfactory defense ofthe place and role of religion studies in the modern academic envi-ronment have placed departments of religion at a low level of budg-etary priority and at risk in many colleges and universities.In contrast, what has thrived is the religious study of religion,that is studies in which the scholar is studying her or his own reli-gion or a religion other than his or her own primarily for the pur-pose or purposes stipulated by the religion studied rather than thepurpose or purposes stipulated by the academy. In other words,the study of any religion—whether one's own or another—in orderto find God, to transcend desire, or any other reason that religiouspractitioners have for their religious practices, including study, is areligious, and not an academic, study. These religious studies havelong American traditions and intellectual heritages spanning cen- turies. However, it will be contended that the success of thesekinds of religious studies has likely contributed to the repressedand retarded development of the academic study of religion.While there is a correlation of the academic study of religionwith the university and the religious study of religion with semi-naries and theological schools, both approaches occur in bothkinds of institutions. These approaches are presented here asclearly distinctive, yet there is no intent that either has inherentlygreater value than the other. While these approaches have differ-ent bounding conditions it is possible that some scholarship maysimultaneously adequately satisfy both sets of bounding condi- tions. This essay argues that it is important to make this distinc-tion and it focuses on the approach labeled the academic study ofreligion, arguing that this approach should be the approach fos-tered by the American Academy of Religion. When the academicstudy of religion fails to understand and to accept the demands of  Gill: Academic Study of Religion 967 being a member of the academic community, which it does rou-tinely, it embraces vagueness; it invites its own dissolution. Whenthe academic study of religion ignores the bounding conditionsstated above, it abandons its own distinctiveness.From the mid-nineteenth century the development of many aca-demic fields—namely the social sciences and, to a lesser extent, thehumanities—has emerged from and been motivated by boundaryconditions similar to those listed above. Such boundaries aredemanded of modern academic studies. Whereas such intellectualactivities as Christian studies and Jewish studies precede and par-allel the academic study of religion, there are no counterparts tothese studies in the social sciences. The social scientific andhumanistic academic enterprises often emerged by carefully andsometimes dramatically presenting positions in opposition toWestern religious views and thereby, in contrast to the academicstudy of religion, won a measure of freedom and had to respond tothe necessity to carefully distinguish and define themselves interms of theory, method, and model. The academic study of reli-gion, rather than arising as a field in its own right, has taken lessinspired and productive paths. It has either simply extended tonew culture areas the methods and theories of the pre-existingapproaches—that is, of the religiously motivated studies of reli-gion—or it has borrowed social scientific methods and theories bywhich to study religion. The former approach produces studiesmodeled largely on long heritages of the study of Western religioustraditions in which history, text, and thought are emphasized. Thelatter produces studies that are difficult to distinguish from thefields in which the theories and methods are borrowed. Neitherapproach has been much shaped by the boundary principles out-lined above.The academic study of religion has often failed to acknowledgewhat it is. It is academic; it is Western; it is intellectual. This iden-tification does not mean the academic study of religion must benarrow-minded, insensitive, irresponsible, closed, or exclusive. Itdoes mean that rational discourse is the basic mode of communi-cation. It does mean that the boundary conditions stated abovemust be respected.A brief critical discussion will illustrate the difficulties of theapproaches taken.Illustrative of the failure in developing the academic study ofreligion are the ways in which the question what is religion? has  968 Journal of the American Academy of Religion been approached. Often the question is approached by attemptingto establish a mandate by setting forth an essentialist definition ofreligion prior to the study of the subject. This strategy correlateswith the heritage of the religious study of religion where the limitsof one's study are commonly distinguished by the nature of thedata. To study Christianity, for example, is simply to study thingsChristian. Perhaps it seemed logical to extend this principle to thegeneral academic study of religion by arguing that the academicstudy of religion is the study of data that are distinctively anduniquely religious. A definition of the essence of religion wouldfunction for the academic study of religion, it might be supposed,something like doctrine or a statement of faith. But this defini-tional approach requires that the religious distinctiveness of thesubject be described and defended at the outset. The unreachablegoal towards which the study is directed, that is to understandwhat religion is, is required as a precondition to the study.Defending the sui generis character of religious data retards theacademic study of religion. The effect is a degenerating discussionof definition while ignoring the specific historical and cultural sub-jects. Theory remains aloof or is the mere restatement or explica-tion of the statement of essence. Founding the study of religion onessentialist definitions encourages discourse conducted on theauthority of vision, insight, or experience rather than rational dis-course, hypothetic inference, and the application of scientificmethod. Persuasion overshadows criticism. Academic freedom isreplaced by the requirements of conformity. Inarguable resultsproduced by relying on some religious givenness displaces aca-demic responsibility. Comparative study becomes the instrumentof academic proselytization, of exacting belonging. Diversity anddifference are unwelcome.The development of the study of religion that borrows its theo-ries and methods from the social sciences (or other disciplines)faces the problem of distinguishing itself from the sources of bor-rowed theories. The problem has been tackled in several ways.One common defense has been to place the difference in thescholar, by holding that religion scholars are endowed with somespecial sensitivity that permits them to use scientific theories to theend of studying religion non-reductively, that is, studying religiousdata as religious in contrast to some reductive interest such as thatof social scientists. Perhaps as newcomers to academia there hasbeen a failure to recognize that all academic studies are reductive.
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