Friday, September 18, 2015

A Brief History of Religious Studies

This brief history of Religious Studies comes from George Marsden, who previously had written a history of how the American university system had gone from Protestant establishment to establish non-belief:
The rise of religion departments in many universities during the mid-twentieth century originally had as part of its rationale the promotions of . . . broadly Christian or Judeo-Christian ideals. Religion could be viewed as a special field of scientific study, but also as a source of inspiration going beyond science. Usually the religion taught was broadly ecumenical and interfaith, allowing little room for more traditional versions of Protestantism, Catholicism, or Orthodox Judaism.

During the 1960s and the 1970s the field of religion continued to grow, but in order to establish its academic credibility, it was increasingly marked by an emphasis on the scientific study of religion and decreasingly seen as a haven in the universities, or even in mainstream church-related colleges, for religious perspectives. The leaders in the field of religious studies now more often presented it as analogous to the social sciences rather than to the uplifting humanities, such as literature. The transformation in religious studies since the early 1960s had some parallels in the field of literature. Literature was no longer regarded first of all as uplifting, as it had been in the 1950s, but rather became a field whose academic status was legitimated by technical methodologies, often evidenced by esoteric terminology. Segments of religious studies followed similar paths, transforming themselves into cultural study and the comparative studies of the history of religions.

The new religious studies raised the academic credibility of the field and brought fresh insights on many religious phenomena. From the point of view of our own inquiry, however, they must be seen as part of the wider trend of insistence that the only place for religion in the mainstream academy is as an object of study.
(George M. Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 21-22.)
In Religious Studies, as in most of academia, you are supposed to check your religion at the door.