As a religious studies grad student, I used to joke that if you wanted to say someone was a bastard, you called him a Protestant. If you wanted to say he was a filthy bastard, you called him a liberal Protestant. And if you wanted to say he was a dirty rotten filthy stinking bastard, you called him a nineteenth-century liberal Protestant.
I said this because the trendy scholars in religious studies (especially performance theory) tended to view “nineteenth-century liberal Protestantism” as the root of all evils in the field. Religious studies, I heard over and over, had been too dominated by the study of texts and scriptures and ideas, all the pernicious influence of nineteenth-century liberal Protestants like Friedrich Schleiermacher. We needed to be exploring “lived” religion (with the implication, it was admitted in more candid moments, that the study of texts amounted to “dead” religion). For most people in history, they said, religion is not about texts but about ritual, performance, history, society, supernatural beings. Colleagues cited Vasudha Narayanan‘s JAAR article entitled “Liberation and lentils,” in which she recounted how Indian traditions like her family’s, involving rituals like picking the most auspicious lentils to eat at particular holidays, had been marginalized in favour of philosophical claims about liberation, or the myths in the Vedas. Religious studies, it was said, needed to focus more on lentils and less on liberation, more on ritual and less on philosophy.
I didn’t and don’t buy a word of this argument. To begin with, it relies almost entirely on the obscuring and pernicious concept of “religion,” a highly unfortunate term that leads us to emphasize the wrong differences, to give some beliefs a legal privilege they don’t deserve, to underplay similarities between “religious” and “secular” phenomena. The assumption is that what we had in common in religious studies was that we intended to study “religion.” Which, in my case, was completely false. I had no interest in “religion”; I was there to study Asian philosophy, which is marginalized if present at all in the vast majority of philosophy departments. But because the departments where one could study Asian thought were called “religious studies,” we were told that the concept of “religion” should have a normative value in deciding what we consider worthy of study.
Beyond the word, there’s an unspoken populist criterion of value underlying the anti-textual argument: the fact that more people do ritual than texts is taken as implying that ritual is therefore more worthy of study than texts. Such a view, I think, is one of the factors behind the current tendency to study other people’s ethics and act as if one is doing ethics oneself. But why, again, should this be so? More Americans, at least, believe in creationism than in evolution. By the populist criterion, it would seem that the sociology of creationism is more worthy of study than is evolutionary biology.