Bias, Context, Epoche

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Page author: Luke Burns

This page created on: 14/09/2021

Last modified: 14/09/2021

Abstract

As we enter the world of religious studies, we do so as conditioned individuals, with our own background and history, as well as the inherited values of the society within which we were raised.

Perspectives

As we enter the world of religious studies, we do so as conditioned individuals, with our own background and history, as well as the inherited values of the society within which we were raised. We cannot ‘get rid’ of these aspects of ourselves (nor should we!), but we should try to remain aware of them.

We should also be aware that within the field of religious studies itself, we may encounter an underlying tendency to view religion as a set of beliefs, guided by canonical literature, and though beliefs and texts are common features, they are certainly not the whole story!

Writing in Guide to the Study of Religion, Willi Braun makes the point that religion as a concept carries four key elements (2000, pp.6-10), which I’ve summarised below.

(1) ‘Religion’ is essentially empty of meaning, having emerged as an academic category that was ‘non-theological’, without a positive definition to provide unity of purpose or method. The positive definitions that came later were developed to suit whatever purpose was necessary.

We’re on safe ground, therefore, to say that (2) ‘religion’ is a technical concept for the purpose of interpreting social behaviour and experience, but it’s not an observable ‘thing’ out in the world. You cannot point to an object called religion.

(3) We, as (aspiring!) scholars, must take ownership of this concept and use it with self-awareness, never forgetting how and why we choose to designate something as religion or religious.

This category of religion can (4) point to ordinary / observable human practices, engaging with something transcendent and eternal, about which people talk with an authority that is claimed to be equally transcendent and eternal.

It might seem obvious to say it outright, but we can’t observe gods, spirits, or other phenomena of this kind, but we can observe the way that people create, engage with, or respond to, these phenomena. We might not be able to see the wind, but we can measure the movement of the leaves. This is not to say that we have any opinion on the reality (or non-reality) of spiritual entities, but that their existence is immaterial to our study.

Many (not all) religions are practised in a way that presumes a reality beyond humans such as gods, deities, supernaturalism. But scholars have to adopt in their approach an element of academic neutrality in this area. Indeed this may also require an element of scholarly ‘agnosticism’, by recognising that in these studies we should only claim competence in the field of experience which is known: the human world. This is not to argue that there is no ‘supernatural’ or spiritual reality beyond this, but rather that there are plenty of other interesting things to learn and think about religion without presuming (or refuting) this alternative reality.

Nye, M. (2008, p.4)

References

  • Nye, M. (2008) Religion: The Basics, Routledge, Abingdon

Image credits

Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash

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