The anvil, but not those hammered

The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion

May 19, 2006

The pioneering scholar Eric Sharpe completed his contribution to this volume with the words: "When all the dross has been cleared away, the fact of our mortality will remain to tantalise us until it is too late for it to matter." He died days after writing that. Such apparent synchronicities, and the religious feelings to which they give rise, seem as inexplicable now as they were when the "science of religion" movement began more than a century ago. Variously, and rather painfully, contributors remark on the irreducibility of their subject matter. Everywhere, it seems, the old claims about religion are in retreat.

Martin Riesebrodt and Mary Ellen Konieczny note the baleful truth that the sociology of religion has become a "marginal field" and wryly observe that since it "predicted the decline of its object of study scholars understandably doubted its significance". Unsurprisingly, they found themselves subsequently unable to understand "the global resurgence of religion". Judith Fox gingerly concludes her essay on secularisation by suggesting that if anyone asks whether it is occurring, they should be required to "first explain exactly what is meant by the question".

After recounting traditional arguments for the existence of God - arguments that in times gone by were rather ruthlessly dismissed by philosophers - Peter Vardy narrates some remarkable twists and variants. It seems that as long as there are philosophers of religion there will always be arguments for the existence of God. Douglas Allen avers that "a more self-critical and modest phenomenology of religion" may have something to offer.

Likewise, William Paden offers a critical view of comparative religion, explaining that it easily makes "superficial parallels, false analogies, misleading associations" - perhaps the most significant is that cross-cultural categorisations "suppress or conceal difference, giving the illusion of homogeneity". Gone are the easy categorisations, broad generalisations and dismissive claims. There is much less confidence in any of the traditional tools employed to study it. What was once said of Christianity can now be said of all religion: it is an anvil that has worn out many hammers.

David Ford offers a definition of theology as "thinking and deliberating in relation to the religions with a view to wisdom", but this starting point seems utterly removed from how Christian theology currently operates or is understood by its practitioners. A not-insignificant number of students want to study a theology that will defend exclusive claims for Christianity. Christian fundamentalism is as frightening as its rivals.

Psychology, it seems, cannot help. Dan Merkur points out that, even now, we possess a "variety of psychologies of people imagined as machines" that are "arbitrarily and artificially truncated", omitting what may be the most significant of all human phenomena, especially religious phenomena. In other words, the category of religion may serve as a means of challenging dehumanising and reductionist conceptions of humanity itself. In wrestling with the inexplicable, we may become a bit more humble.

That said, there is an obvious downside to religion and that is its association with fanaticism, cruelty, intolerance and hatred. Richard Dawkins describes it as a "powerful drug which acts directly on the central nervous system to produce a range of characteristic symptoms, often of an antisocial or self-damaging nature". Such one-liners are as unsophisticated as the clamour of devotees. Dawkins never seems to appreciate that the same critique could be made of scientific practice, since there has hardly been a species that has not been subject to the vivisector's knife.

The relation of religion to gender, science, geography, politics and art is variously chronicled, but its adverse effect on human rights generally is insufficiently documented. That is a serious omission. We cannot avoid the problem that religious devotees are more likely to support the subordination of women, oppose equal rights for gays, reject rights for children and justify animal abuse - and that is only the start. It is astonishing that a book that seeks to introduce its readers to the "key issues in the study of religion" does not address the baleful influence that many religions have had on the environment and our treatment of other species.

There is a far more radical critique of religious practice than editor or contributors seem to appreciate: it is that raised by Ludwig Feuerbach against Christianity, namely, that it has deified the human species. Most religious ethics are still anthropocentric and do not realise that exclusive moral preoccupation with the human species is looking increasingly parochial.

All of which goes to show how important it is to study religion, its nature and multifarious manifestations. It is vital that there are people out there painstakingly recording this phenomenon and trying to make sense of it, if for no other reason than that it will help us to understand ourselves. John Hinnells, the editor, should be congratulated for bringing together such connoisseurs and seasoned observers to guide us.

The volume encompasses 26 essays by newcomers as well as established scholars. If contributors are modest about the limits of their tools, then that is all to the good. The lack of triumphalism only adds to the lustre of the book. That said, the capacity of religion to inflict moral harm should not be minimised, and we need another addition to the excellent Routledge Companions series - namely, one on religion and ethics.

Whether the proposed new legislation on religious hatred will allow for an objective, robust study of the moral pathology associated with religious belief is yet to be seen.

Andrew Linzey is a member of the faculty of theology at Oxford University and senior research fellow, Blackfriars Hall, Oxford.

The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion

Editor - John R. Hinnells
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 556
Price - £65.00 and £20.99
ISBN - 0 415 33310 5 and 33311 3

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