Theology turns the other cheek

November 27, 1998

Last week's letter-writers all assume that the study of religion is either: done in departments of theology by people whose study assumes the truth of at least some of the views they explore and develop; or should only be done as a facet of other subjects.

This dichotomy overlooks what is generally called religious studies in the UK, the multi-disciplinary exploration of religions, without assuming either their truth, or falsity, to understand their nature and interaction with other aspects of human culture. For such a study to be disaggregated into departments of history etc. would lead to a series of mono-disciplinary squints at religion that would fail to gain an integrative understanding of the nature and dynamics of religions in their full richness.

Chris Lote's assertion that "We know all religions are myths" has the flavour of a fundamental world view. He sees a key function of religion as that of justifying inhumanity to "outgroups". Undoubtedly religion has sometimes been distorted to this end, but to characterise religion primarily by this would be akin to saying that a key reason for science is to "justify torture of laboratory animals": not a characterisation that any scientist would be willing to accept.

In his world view there is an "outgroup", namely religious believers, who, in the nicest possible way, no doubt, should be eliminated by such means as psychiatry and genetic engineering. May I suggest that he uses his human ability to "know what it is like" to be another person to learn what religious commitment and practice is actually about? Much of it seeks to enhance the qualities of consciousness and conscience that he values.

That religion has sometimes been used to override these qualities is certainly to be regretted, but then any other "justification" for doing so is to be regretted, and should be opposed by all people of goodwill. The people best equipped to argue against religious extremism are those who have a good, balanced understanding of the nature of religions and specific religions, be these theologians and other mature religious adherents or specialists in religious studies.

Peter Harvey

Professor of Buddhist studies University of Sunderland

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