What’s Post-Modernism in the Scientific Study of Religion?

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Post-modernism has a presence which is, explains philosopher William Lane Craig, “entrenched in the university subculture in departments of literature, women’s studies, and, significantly, religious studies” (1). But what is it, and how might it differ to modernism? As scholar of religion Ivan Strenski explains, the name “post-modernism” suggests an “evolution from the “modern” to something succeeding it – “post”” (1).

Modernism’s early classical theorists approached the study of religion in an objective manner, often attempting to be free from any religious bias. Many of these theorists saw themselves as experts over the religions they were theorizing about (much in the way a doctor is the expert over the patient). Modernist approaches were also external to the study of religion which meant that the subjective conditions of the theorist and investigator were discounted from the conclusions they reasoned to. Post-modernists scholars reject these ideas, and argue that objectivity is impossible and/or that are no objective standards of truth, rationality, and logic. They also emphasize the need to study and explain religion through the subjectivities of the religious people themselves. As such, post-modernists theorists do not view themselves as scientists or historians, and they do not tend to distinguish between engaging in religion and studying religion (3). They intend to avoid engaging in a scientific examination and they believe that by entering into the subjective perspectives of religious believers they will better understand religion itself. However, many find value in the areas of engagement of post-modernist scholars, particularly in the study of religion, for their work is typically found within three broad, but interrelated, areas: race, gender, and post-colonialism (4). Strenski speaks at length about Michel Foucault’s (1926-1984) popularity with post-modernist scholars who are inspired and attracted to his thesis on power, and how power proves to be a crucial thread linking together conversations about theories of religion, post-colonialism, race, and sex/gender (5). Thus, what one finds in terms of theories of religion and race, religion and gender, and religion and colonialism will be in the works of post-modernist scholars of religion, many of whom are feminist and black scholars of religion, theologians, and philosophers.

In the study of religion, this would seem to undermine the theories and ideas of many notable historic theorists. For example, if objective knowledge is impossible then it would do away with Emile Durkheim’s idea that religion is an objectively social reality, Max Weber’s thesis that Protestantism was objectively the force behind the rise of capitalism that brought wealth to the West, and Sigmund Freud’s belief that religion objectively belonged to the realm of illusion and a fabrication produced out of a desire to fulfill a wish. Post-modernism in its denial of objective knowledge would thus undercut any theory that claims to be objective knowledge, and would essentially do away with any scientific approach to studying religions. Critics of this post-modernist approach have leveled criticisms here arguing that if objective knowledge is not possible and/or that there are no objective standards of truth, rationality, and logic, then it would undercut post-modernist claims themselves, thus suggesting that underpinning such an approach is a self-defeating philosophy.

Despite these criticisms, scholars do find some value in the post-modernist approach to studying religion because it challenges the idea that “outsiders” (scholars and theorists who are conducting the investigation) necessarily always know better than “insiders” (the religious believers themselves being studied). It is no secret that within the development of religious studies there have been many theorists whose language, ideas, theories, and characterizations have been deeply offensive, and often so from a viewpoint of an “outsider knows best” superiority. Post-modernist approaches tend to challenge such superiority, and therefore instill a sense of humility.

References

1. Craig, W. 2008. #67 Do We Live in a Post-Modern Society? Available.

2. Strenski, I. 2015. Understanding Theories of Religion: An Introduction. p. 164.

3. Strenski, I. 2015. Ibid. p. 158-159.

4. Strenski, I. 2015. Ibid. p. 168.

5. Strenski, I. 2015. Ibid. p. 159.

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