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My undergraduate degree was in sociology and geography, with a focus on urban studies. That world often seems far away from the cross-cultural philosophy that drives me now – but not always.

Since “urban sociology” existed as a subfield and seemed to be the one I was trying to study, I once did a term-paper project asking the question: what is urban sociology? The answer I found most interesting and compelling was provided by the Australian sociologist Peter Saunders, in his Social Theory and the Urban Question. Saunders pointed out: the original concerns of “urban sociology” were about the ways in which city life differs from rural life. Many of these assertions of the difference of city life had since been proven wrong; the remainder were “real but relatively unimportant”. Overall, while sociology of course still needed to study things that happened in cities, there turned out to be no real need for a sociology studying cities as such. There needed to be sociology in the city, but not of the city; whether sociologists were studying cities or the countryside turned out not to make that big a difference.

But while urban sociologists were finding out that the “sociology of the city” per se turned out to be something of a dead end, they also wound up doing something else: they studied housing, transportation, and other forms of “collective consumption”. And it turned out that there was a great need for that. Saunders pointed out that while many sociologists had spent a great deal of time studying production, few had bothered studying consumption until the urban sociologists came along:

As feminist critics of radical sociology have often pointed out, sociological theories, concepts and empirical concerns are still firmly rooted in the sphere of production. Our theories relate to changing ‘modes of production’, our concepts refer to ‘social classes’ which are constituted through relations of production… What is lacking in such work is the crucial recognition of the need to analyse inequalities of consumption, the politics of consumption and so on on their own terms. This is precisely what urban sociology has started to do over the past twenty years. (Social Theory and the Urban Question pp. 85-6)

Saunders’s conclusion: the discipline of urban sociology turned out to be useful and valuable – even though there was nothing specifically urban about it. Urban sociologists could and should keep doing the kind of work they were doing, but they shouldn’t worry about the urbanness implied by the name. Sociologists studying housing and transportation in rural areas were as integral to the work of this valuable emergind discipline as anyone studying the inner city. What to call it? “For the sake of continuity, I would refer to it as a ‘non-spatial urban sociology’, but such a label is unimportant and is merely a matter of convention and convenience.” The name “urban sociology” was a misnomer, but that wasn’t a big problem; it could and should be kept, but merely for continuity, convention, convenience. Perhaps after a few decades of work in that light it could get itself a new name and nobody would miss the old.

Many would dispute Saunders’s assessment of urban sociology in various ways, but there’s no need to go into any such dispute here. Because this isn’t a post about urban sociology. Rather, it is a post about religious studies, or “the study of religion” if you prefer. If you work in that field, you may have already guessed why I have gone into detail about Saunders’s claims on a blog that is neither particularly sociological nor focused on the urban. For people in the study of religion frequently express concerns about the category of “religion” but then reasonably wonder how the study of religion is to proceed when its key category has been exposed as unhelpful. For my part, it is Saunders I think back to as a guide on these questions. “Urban sociology” would do just fine to keep doing what it is doing even though the name is a misnomer – and the same, I would argue, holds for religious studies.

I did not enter religious studies with an interest in studying anything called “religion”. I had already been convinced by the powerful arguments of Wilfred Cantwell Smith to the effect that the term “religion” obscures more than it clarifies. It seems to me that Smith is much less widely read now than he was even at the beginning of the century, but if anything he has been displaced by people like Timothy Fitzgerald who think his critique of “religion” didn’t go far enough. We look back now on the Eliadean assumptions that forged the study of religion as a discipline in the 1950s and 1960s – that “religion” is a thing sui generis, that “religions” qua “religions” are fundamentally the same and generally good – as discredited. For my part, in the first years of this blog I made a large number of posts articulating my agreement that the term “religion” is generally unhelpful. That hasn’t stopped me from writing a large number of posts that do employ the category of “religion” at some level, but this is almost always because someone else employed the category first and I want to engage with that someone on substantive matters — matters that would be sidetracked by a critique of the term.

What I did find valuable in religious studies was a discipline that is cross-cultural (as, sadly, academic philosophy usually is not), but that still allowed serious study of philosophical texts. (A political-scientist friend of mine said she once asked a religionist colleague what makes this field different from anthropology, and he replied simply, “We read the texts.”) Would I still then see a need for religious studies (or “the study of religion”) if philosophy were to incorporate non-Western texts in the way that I hope it does? I had always thought the answer is yes, because of one other factor: religious studies takes the social context and world of those texts to matter in a way that philosophy does not. In the years since I have come to see an even larger point: living up to one’s ideals is difficult enough that it requires practice beyond merely reading and understanding texts (though the latter can be one form of practice). Religious studies focuses our attention on practices that lie outside the text itself.

And while it’s true that practice was once considered a part of philosophy’s subject matter, trying to bring practice back into contemporary philosophy curricula seems far too difficult. Similar things could be said about social context, which plays some role in “continental” thought but little in the currently dominant analytic world. It is already difficult enough to get non-Western thought into academic philosophy – and I do mean genuine intellectual difficulty, not merely the difficulties of academic politics. Trying to bringing in practice and social context would likely be too much. And it’s not necessary, when there is already a field that foregrounds such issues – one that, for Saunders’s reasons of continuity, convention and convenience, I think we may well continue to call something like “religious studies” or “the study of religion”. Let’s just not pretend that the name is actually descriptive of the kind of study that we do.