In the recently published article “Religious Studies as a Scientific Discipline: The Persistence of a Delusion,” Luther H. Martin and Donald Wiebe continue to express disappointment at what they consider to be a lack of productivity in the field of religious studies. According to Martin and Wiebe, a productive enterprise is necessarily a scientific one, and as they lament, “The historical record (…) shows that no undergraduate departments of religious studies have fully implemented a scientific program of study and research since such an approach was first advocated in the late nineteenth century.” The essay echoes, as the authors acknowledge, similar statements made by Wiebe over 25 years ago in his essay titled “The Failure of Nerve in the Academic Study of Religion” (which I dealt with in another essay posted here in 2009), so it would appear that we have made little in the way of “progress” since then.
According to the disgruntled authors, such a program of academic study and research on religion should reconceive religion in strictly scientific terms and should, for the sake of academic integrity, avoid any consideration or evaluation of the objects of religious belief. Indeed, Martin and Wiebe seem quite allergic to the word “theology,” as if the point of religious studies was for it to be anything but. Martin and Wiebe bemoan that the very notion of reason emanating from the European Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is being vitiated within the current practice of religious studies. For Martin and Wiebe, despite the best efforts of the founders of the scientific approach to the study of religion (Müller and Tiele are named), by the middle of the twentieth century “the scientific objectives of the new discipline had become seriously compromised by extra-scientific and non-epistemological agendas.” The authors accuse “extra-scientific agendas” of continuous infiltration into the field, stating that “the academic study of religion remains subservient to theology (…) by continuing to support a learned practice and/or appreciation of religion rather than by any scientific study of religion.”
On the matter of theology, as Charles Davis pointed out in “The immanence of knowledge and the ecstasy of faith,” Wiebe’s indictment of theology as authoritative, and therefore unsuited to rational and scientific investigation, fails to account for the effect of the Enlightenment on theology. While Martin and Wiebe acknowledge the rise of reason due to the Enlightenment, they fail to consider to what extent theology might itself have been affected by this. As Davis explains, “to take one’s stand with the Enlightenment upon reason, not authority, is to regard reason alone as competent to make truth-claims. Authority may establish a context for social collaboration and thus create a tradition. What it cannot do for post-Enlightenment scientific people is to impose belief as true and demand assent.” For Davis, the Enlightenment caused the authoritative power of theology to be diminished in favor of reason, such that there is no longer a discernible difference between theology and philosophy of religion, a discipline that emerged historically “when revealed theology as invoking an authority higher than reason was no longer a viable option to those accepting the Enlightenment autonomy of reason.”
What Martin and Wiebe would like to see as a product of the academic study of religion would appear to be some kind of all-encompassing cognitive scientific theory that may explain religious behaviors and phenomena in wholly empirical and experimental terms. In accordance with the typical scientific approach to explaining human and physical phenomena generally, the authors expect that mankind’s religious instinct and the resulting behaviors and attitudes should be attributable to specific psychological processes (and perhaps chemical factors in the brain), and as such have nothing to do with the spirits and deities which constitute the objects of religious belief. While it is unfair to criticize Martin and Wiebe for desiring, as a matter of personal preference, empirically-driven scientific theories of religion, we can criticize them for suggesting that such theories are the only ones that count, and that efforts devoted to the study of religion are otherwise “unproductive.”
Rather than embracing scientific theories as the ultimate from of knowledge when it comes to human attitudes and behaviors, one might view the researcher’s objective as rather to unmask and analyze the various force relations at work in the production of such theories, revealing in this way the genealogical character of the knowledge associated with them. In my essay called “Foucault, Power, Knowledge,” I explain that, for Michel Foucault, scientific investigation within the realm of the social sciences “is as much about exclusion as it is about enlightenment, since specific theories or ideas can only be promoted to the status of truth at the expense of other, competing ideas and possibilities.” While it is not my objective here to outline Foucault’s genealogy in detail, it should suffice to explain that knowledge in the social sciences emanates from discourse, and as I explain in my essay cited above, “through a careful analysis of the enunciations which comprise the discourse, including the sources and the particular contexts of those enunciations, and by paying special attention to the silenced and unspoken ones, one may begin to decipher the outlines of a broader strategy of power being deployed.” Viewed in this light, what Martin and Wiebe are encouraging then is a scientific discourse that, through a complex system of force relations and acts of exclusion, generates “legitimate” knowledge regarding religious phenomena.
So while Martin and Wiebe complain about the so-called continuing influence of theology on the academic study of religion, they fail to acknowledge that any theory of religion, including the cognitive ones they seem so eager to embrace, are necessarily supported by discourses that, upon closer scrutiny, can be shown to constitute certain power relations. The testable hypotheses and empirical generalizations they advocate are not as neutral as they might appear, since they constitute power mechanisms which selectively elevate certain propositions or hypotheses to the status of “truth” or “knowledge” while purposely concealing alternative and contradictory ones. Martin and Wiebe use strong language to qualify the current state of religious studies – they speak of “intellectual bankruptcy” and a lack of theoretical coherence and scientific integrity – yet these qualifications, or attacks one might call them, merely expose their unquestioned support for a particular discourse, a discourse which excludes theological considerations as matter of principle and which seeks explanations for religious phenomena in other, quite specific places such as the cognitive sciences. Should the relations of power eventually work in favor of the approach advocated by Martin and Wiebe, the knowledge and truth produced by religious studies shall be similarly circumscribed.
Davis, C. (1986) The Immanence of Knowledge and the Ecstasy of Faith. Studies in Religion/Sciences religieuses, 15 (2).
Martin, L. and Wiebe, D. (2012) Religious Studies as a Scientific Discipline: The Persistence of a Delusion. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 80 (3).
Thinking about Religion & Society (2012) Foucault, Power, Knowledge. [online] Available at: https://jmreligion.wordpress.com/2012/09/08/foucault-power-knowledge/ [Accessed: 5 Jan 2013].
Thinking about Religion & Society (2009) Religious Studies & Metaphysics. [online] Available at: https://jmreligion.wordpress.com/2009/10/31/religious-studies-metaphysics/ [Accessed: 5 Jan 2013].
Wiebe, D. (1984) The Failure of Nerve in the Academic Study of Religion. Studies in Religion/Sciences religieuses, 13 (4).