Methods and Approaches to the Study of Religion


Adam Hudson

Methods and Approaches to the Study of Religion

Professor Steven Goodman



“It is not that religion is delusional by nature, nor that the individual, beyond present-day religion, rediscovers his most suspect psychological origins.  But religious delusion is a function of the secularization of culture: religion may be the object of delusional belief insofar as the culture of a group no longer permits the assimilation of religious or mystical beliefs in the present context of experience.”[1]


            Jeremy R. Carrette edits a compellation of Michel Foucault’s essays he titles, Religion and Culture, and this quote stands alone on the first page of print.  Many readings of this passage confirmed my suspicions – Foucault’s words displaced my religious convictions.  Does contemporary secularization silence the ‘religious’ portions of my experience?  Am I delusional or a victim or both?  What was I to make of my religious encounters?  Am I truly living in a world that has rejected mystery for scientific certainty and spirituality for secular self-actualization?  Is it probable that my beliefs are impossibilities and my magic is delusion?

My thinking about religion is full of incompleteness, aporias, difficulties, wonderings.  I experience degrees of clarity and I recognize that some methods of exploration are better than others.  The above questions guide my attempt to understand religious discourse, its power in my life and the inheritances I call my own.  The more research I consume the greater my conviction (religious conviction?) that no final certainty exists, that no method has a monopoly on ‘truth’.  I recognize that within experimentally defined domains ‘certainty’ will appear certain, but subjected to the immensities of time and the variability of perspective every piece of certainty is only a momentary glimpse of adequate understanding. It has been said that no matter how noble a person may become, in someone else’s story they will always play the villain.

This paper will be a candid attempt to think perspective especially as it relates to the impossibility of certainty and the practice of method – my method of approaching the subject.  It is a hope and appeal for permission to have religion – its risk, love and power, its historical traditions, revelations and sacred encounters, even its Gods – “in the present context of experiences.”[2]  If permission for religiosity has been forbidden by secular culture then this paper seeks to betray; it will break/rupture/dislodge stable narratives of religiosity, history and self.

It will begin with the power of criticism.  I argue that ‘religion’ as a stable category of knowledge is always already problematic and potentially impossible; my position challenges any methodology that approaches the ‘subject’ of religion as a pure ‘object.’  The critique grows more powerful through anthropological analysis, cultural materialism, and scientific rigor before it implodes to again affirm its instability.  Dis-stabled, precarious, and possible the category of ‘religion’ is alleviated from the struggle to be something its not.  It is freed from clear and distinct statements – it frees religion from the false pretences of science.  This approach, if it is a method, opens toward more contingencies and radical relationships; it notices difference.  It thinks the boundaries between the delusion and the really real; it is feminist, personal, historical, and convicted (with the weight its history demands) that participatory practices can be both medicine and hope.  If processes of secularization are productive of ‘delusion,’ it also facilitates discernment and sobriety, personal revelation and reevaluation, autobiographical transparency, new kinship knowledges, hope-to-come, hope for God.  As religion is freed from methods that deny experience and opens itself to methods that allow for adequate accounts of experience it becomes dangerously capable of what Jean Gebser, cultural historian and anthropologist, calls “verition,” – being-in-truth or living as truth.


Powers of Criticism

How do we think about the ‘truth’ of religious perspectives given the radical contingencies that shape religious discourse?  How does one understand the ‘phenomenon of religion’ given the predispositions to mis-represent, displace, ignore, and fragment applicable and relevant knowledge?  Are there interpretations, analysis, or methods for approaching the study of religion that lead to more ‘truth’?  My contention (conviction) is that there is no stable category of ‘religion’.  Religion is multifaceted, polymerase, playful and provocative.  Students of religion encounter a myriad of ‘facts’ concerning ‘religion’ – contending, contested, meshing, contingent; these facts shape the object of religion.  Great scholarship has shown the ‘object’ of religion to be bound by structures of power; built to discipline, subject, extract confession, obedience, conviction.[3]  Talal Asad, in Genealogies of Religion, teaches the student to read power behind the ‘truth’ of religious discourse.  Asad describes the meaning of religious phenomenon operating as “products of historically distinctive disciplines and forces.”[4]  These social powers shape the particular ways that worship, ritual, religious institutions and belief function to control, normalize, and systematize life.  Asad argues that, “there cannot be universal definition of religion, not only because its constituent elements and relationships are historically specific, but because that definition is itself the historical product of discursive processes.”[5]

Too often the discourses which think the category of religion are already prioritizing a relationship to ‘truth’.  Any commitment to ‘truth’ must be reviewed and critiqued; its ties to power illuminated for the sake of justice, emancipation and transformation.  Every answer to ‘truth’ always already validates a specific history, present attitude, and future need.  Thus, the question of methodologies must first commit to some questions over others, some worlds and not others.  Not “What is True?” rather “How does this ‘truth’ live?”  “What does this ‘truth’ do?”

In his attempt to ‘name the game’ Marvin Harris provides a good starting point to think about these questions, “ONE TEMPTING answer to Pontius Pilate’s ‘What is truth?’ has always been that truth is whatever people can be persuaded to believe.  If we stop to ponder the further question ‘What persuades people to believe?’ sooner or later some impatient soul will answer ‘Power.’”[6]  Power is the answer to how ‘truth’ lives, what methods do what and for whom.  The ‘truth’ of our answers to religious questions shape worlds through the production material effects – ‘truth’ communicates relationships to power.  Indeed, in many instances ‘truth’ is a just a bad name for power.”[7]

The history of religious studies has constituted a great deal of inspiration on the part of ‘truth’.  Approaching the study of religion with a critical eye attentive to mechanisms of power offers this thinker more clarity and interpretive flexibility.  Critical thinking is not targeted against inspiration, revelation, or the sacred encounter.  Critical theory stands against the propagation of ‘truth’ that distances and masks methods of knowledge production that materialize the relationships of production and consumption, political exploitation, and social inequalities.[8]  Marvin Harris in Cultural Materialism, reminds the religious thinker to consider the legacy of Marx before producing religious theory.  Marx, like Darwin, taught that what was formally understood as ‘given’, ‘inscrutable’, or ‘a direct emanation of deity’ could be understood materially and demonstrated scientifically.[9]  For Marx, culture, religion, institutions, and wealth could all be methodologically tied to the material mode of production in a society.  Harris directs his methodology – “cultural materialism” – as a challenge to the tendency of anthropological theory to critique science as a culturally embedded product by exposing its development within the Modern Western world.  “Cultural materialism grants that scientific truth is a social product, but it denies that the corpus of scientific theory necessarily differs from culture to culture…”[10]

Harris’ rigor challenges many attempts to study religious phenomenon.  Ascending the steps of critical thought seeking adequate methods for knowing the ‘object’ of religion finally faces comparison with scientific knowledge.  If the study of religion seeks those degrees of clear and distinct knowledge that grace the scientific disciplines it must risk a great deal.

Karl Popper, a 20th century philosopher of science, sought to distinguish between science and pseudo-science.  He was convinced that many ‘social-sciences’ attempted to use empirical methods but they still failed to meet the standards that science set.  He compares Einstein’s theory of relativity with Marx’s theory of history, Freud’s theory of psycho-analysis and Alfred Adler’s so-called ‘individual psychology’ and I would insist on adding Asad’s theory of religion as an anthropological category.  He asked what was wrong with Marx and Freud.  I encountered their theory and underwent a sort of conversion:  “The study of any of them seemed to have the effect of an intellectual conversion or revelation, opening your eyes to a new truth hidden from those not yet initiated.  Once your eyes were thus opened you saw confirming instances everywhere: the world was full of verification of the theory.  Whatever happened always confirmed it…”[11]

Easy to verify and confirm, Marxism supplied a framework wherein every case presented could be interpreted in the light of its theory.  This precise circumstance, Popper notes, is its weakness.  “It was precisely this fact—that they always fitted, that they were always confirmed—which in the eyes of their admires constituted the strongest argument in favor of these theories…that this apparent strength was in fact their weakness.”[12]

Einstein’s theory is of a strikingly different order.  His theory risks so greatly the possibility of error that when confirmed it remains verifiable to the point of certainty.  “A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is non-scientific.  Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice…Every genuine test of the theory is an attempt to falsify it, or to refute it.  Testability is falsifiability; but there are degrees of testability: some theories are more testable, more exposed to refutation, than others: they take, as it were, greater risks.”[13]

The critique is one that Karl Popper posts as a philosopher of science.  Any theory must be able to be tested – if a theory takes no risks in allowing itself to be wrong then that is its weakness.  In a word: Falsification.  If the conditions of testability aren’t present then there is never room to maneuver outside of its field, a theory then stands the danger of becoming dogma.  This is a rigorous challenge if applied to the study of religion.  It is a rigorous challenge and a great ill, a disservice.

Like so many social sciences, the study of religion suffers from physical envy.[14]  Science assumes that it studies a stable, unchanging object.  The object is rigidly physical, like a rock, and it can be relied upon to be consistently there, unflinchingly timeless.  The stuff (study) of religion transcends the comfort of material and suggests that the immaterial must be studied and perfected; as the specialized sciences aim to perfect material management so should religion perfect, justify, and protect those immaterial forces of religious significance.  Even Popper admits that science also errs and pseudo-science stumbles on truth.  Still, I refer the reader to the conviction and critique A. N. Whitehead makes concerning philosophy (here fully applicable to the study of religion): “Philosophy (religion) has been haunted by the unfortunate notion that its method is dogmatically to indicate premises which are severally clear, distinct, and certain; and to erect upon those premises a deductive system of though.”[15]

In this case, if I do not intend on releasing ‘religion’ to the leveling scientific reductionist critique in need of certain domains and degrees of distinctness then I find my allies elsewhere – literally removed and removing illegitimate claims of stability and weak objectivity.  Efforts to construct ‘stronger objectivity,’ as Donna Haraway insists, refuse to narrow analysis in the way Popper’s convictions sought while remaining loyal to situated knowledge, perspective and reciprocal relationship.  Thinking with the feminist philosopher of science Sandra Harding, Haraway adopts/re-births her genius as she subjects objectivity to strength:  “A stronger, more adequate notion of objectivity would require methods for systematically examining all of the social values shaping a particular research process, not just those that happen to differ between members of a scientific community…”[16]  What this means is that Popper’s ideal science is never simply that – its allowed to live in specific ways, linked to specific worlds, producing specific results, for specific people.  Here ‘strong objectivity’ does not dodge is implicatedness, contingency or context.  It becomes messy by affirming some worlds and not others – looking for justice, attentive to the moral dimension.  In this way it becomes useful as a contributor for understanding religious matters; it allows the study of religion to be what it is – unstable, flighty, precarious, polluting…selfish, absent, inheriting and the continuing part of human history concerned with compassion, care, hospitality, revelation, justice and love.

[1] Foucault, Michel [1962], Mental Illness and Psychology.  81.

[2]  Foucault, Michel [1962], Mental Illness and Psychology.  81.

[3] Here I’m referring broadly to Michel Foucault’s work in Discipline and Punish and specifically to his essay, “Pastoral Power and Political Reason” in Religion and Culture.  ed. Jeremy R. Carrnette. 135-152.

[4] Asad, Talal.  Genealogy of Religion. 29.

[5] Ibid. 29.

[6] Harris, Marvin.  Cultural Materialism.  340.

[7] Goodman, Steven.  Methods of Religion.  Class lecture.  9/22/08

[8] Harris, Marvin.  Cultural Materialism.  XI.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Marvin Harris, in Cultural Materialism.  318.

[11] Popper, Karl. “Science: Conjectures and Refutations.” 5.

[12] Popper, Karl. “Science: Conjectures and Refutations.” 6.

[13] Ibid.  7.

[14] A. N. Whitehead, in a similar grievance notes that, “Philosophy has been mislead by mathematics.”  Process and Reality.  8.

[15] Whitehead, A.N. Process and Reality.  8.

[16] Haraway, Donna.  Modest Witness. 36.