Postmodernism has a presence that is, according to 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 he is treating). 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. Postmodernist 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.
Many scholars find value in the areas of engagement of the postmodernist scholars, particularly in the study of religion. 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. These thinkers believed power proves to be a crucial thread linking together conversations about theories of religion, post-colonialism, race, and sex/gender (5).
In the study of religion, the postmodernist approach could seem to undermine the theories and ideas of many notable historical theorists. 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. Postmodernism 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 postmodernist 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 postmodernist claims. If so, this would suggest that the postmodernist approach is underpinned by a self-defeating philosophy.
Despite these criticisms, scholars do find some value in the postmodernist 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. Postmodernist approaches tend to challenge such superiority and instill a sense of humility.
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.