How to Study Religion

Robert A. Segal

In memory of Harold Shipman

The most common metaphor for the study of religion is that of conversation. The scholar learns from the believer. Conversation does not mean interrogation. Conversation means clarification. The scholar can ask questions of any kind. The questions can be tough and critical. The believer can be asked to say not only what the believer’s religion asserts and does but also why. The believer can be asked to defend controversial beliefs and practices–for example, why the religion claims that miracles happen or why it refuses to ordain females. The believer may not have all the answers and may have to appeal to “This is just what we believe and do.” Asked the same question, two believers may disagree on the answer. Differences among believers may reach, or have reached, the point of factionalism.

No matter. The metaphor of conversation means deference to the believer. The aim of conversation is to find out what the believer knows. The aim is not to challenge or to second-guess the believer. The scholar knows only as much about the religion as the believer divulges. Indeed, there is nothing more to be known. The scholar can prompt the believer to think about the religion in new ways. But it is up to the believer to do so. The believer knows best.

The metaphor that I prefer for, to paraphrase Pope, the proper study of religion is that of diagnosis. Here, too, someone knows best, but it is the doctor, or his equivalent, the doctor of philosophy. Comparing the study of religion with diagnosis is not meant to make religion an illness, though for some scholars, ranging from William James’ “medical materialists” to Freud, it is. Comparing the study of religion with diagnosis is meant to shift authority from the subject of study to the student.

When a doctor examines a patient, the doctor undeniably defers to the patient, but only to gather information. In anthropological lingo, the patient is the informant, and the field-working anthropologist remains as much observer as participant. In scientific lingo, the doctor uses the patient to collect data, which become part of a case history.

The patient arrives with symptoms. Fine. But often they are insufficient for a diagnosis. The doctor must still perform tests. The patient may come with symptoms that point to one illness, but tests may reveal another illness that is asymptomatic. What counts is that the doctor, not the patient, makes the diagnosis. That the disease is the patient’s does not make the patient the authority on the disease. So, analogously, the fact that the religion is the believer’s does not make the believer the authority on the religion.

Of course, doctors can misdiagnose or fail to diagnose. Doctors may confer with colleagues and may even defer to them. GP’s may refer patients to better qualified specialists. GP’s and specialists may disagree, and over the diagnosis itself, not just over the treatment. Some GP’s and some specialists are doubtless better than others, some of whom may even be incompetent (or, worse, incontinent). So what? To grant that doctors are fallible is not to deny that doctors are the experts. Fallibility occurs within the community of experts. To grant that there may be disagreements is not to deny that disagreements are among the experts, for whom the patient’s opinion is irrelevant.

Patients may, of course, come with their own diagnosis, which may even prove to be correct. But the evaluation of their hunch is made by the doctor. If the patient guesses correctly, that is a happy coincidence, not a second opinion. The patient has no medical training and therefore no expertise. Who cares what the patient suggests? The doctor who disregards the patient’s own assessment is not being callous or contemptuous–or ethnocentric or worse. The doctor is simply being the doctor. Even when doctors are themselves patients, they rely on colleagues to diagnose. Like defendants in court who defend themselves, doctors who would diagnose themselves would have fools as patients.

Underlying the metaphor of conversation is the conviction that the aim of religious studies is merely to describe religion. Underlying the metaphor of diagnosis is the conviction that the aim of religious studies is to explain religion. The two aims are not at odds. Explanation requires description. Description provides the subject matter. Explanation accounts for that subject matter. When a patient comes to the doctor complaining of a severe headache, the doctor does not disregard that complaint but seeks to make sense of it. The diagnosis is an explanation of that complaint, if also a prediction of the course of the diagnosed ailment if treated or not treated. Similarly, when a believer says that “We worship hippos as our gods,” the scholar does not ignore that information but seeks to make sense of it. But the cogency of the sense made is determined by the scholar, not by hippo worshipers. The scholar’s account may fail or fall short, but it is not up to the believer’s community to decide. It is up to the community of scholars.

When the anthropologist Derek Freeman ridiculed Margaret Mead’s romantic depiction of the life of Samoan adolescent girls in his The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead (1999), he did not present his findings to the Samoans for their assessment. He relied on them for his information, but he deferred to his fellow anthropologists for their assessment. He claimed that Mead had been duped by two travelling companions. But Mead’s failing lay in her failure to check the sources on which she had relied. She had mischaracterized Samoan life not because she had ventured beyond what she had been told but because she had been told falsehoods.

Mead was like a doctor who misdiagnoses, not because the doctor fails to listen to the patient but because the patient lies and the lie goes undetected. Scholars of religion are beholden to believers to tell them about their religion, but it is up to scholars to assess the veracity of what they are told. But the veracity of what they are told means the accuracy, not merely the sincerity, of what is reported. Believers can be wholly truthful and still wrong. They can be right but limited in what they know.

Since the emergence of the social sciences in the last century and a half, it has become clear that persons know only a fraction of what is going on in their lives. Anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, economists, and political scientists are trained to identify and to explain aspects of life that persons never recognize and could never explain. The time for religious studies to follow the lead of the social sciences is long overdue. Put simply, if not simplistically, it is time for religious studies to cease approaching religion from the standpoint of the humanities and to start approaching it from the standpoint of the social sciences.


Related Compass articles:

$1.99 - small Cognitive Science of Religion: What Is It and Why Is It?
By Justin L. Barrett , University of Oxford
(Vol. 2, September 2007)
Religion Compass

$1.99 - small After Freud: Phantasy and Imagination in the Philosophy of Religion
By Beverley Clack , Oxford Brookes University
(Vol. 2, November 2007)
Philosophy Compass

$1.99 - small Exporting the Local: Recent Perspectives on ‘Religion’ as a Cultural Category
By Daniel Dubuisson , CNRS-Université Charles de Gaulle-Lille 3 (Translated from the French by Arthur McCalla)
(Vol. 2, November 2007)
Religion Compass

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