More Than a Shapeless Beast

beastRussell T. McCutcheon argues that there is a pernicious trend in the study of religion. Too many scholars are cutting off the “religious” from the “historical.” In this way (and following modern-liberal thinkers in the vein of Schleiermacher), religion is seen as a private, experiential affair. All religious studies can do then is to chronicle an individual belief and move on, thank you very much, no critique intended. In contrast, McCutcheon argues for the scientific study of religion, which amounts to a naturalistic, constructivist, and theoretical approach. Religion is, according to McCutcheon, never a cause but always an effect. Politics, economics, or language can shape religion, but religion (as McCutcheon defines it) has little power to affect historical forces. One can engage the “private affair” of religion if he or she is a theologian, but not if he or she is a public university scholar. The latter must generate theories of human minds and societies in order to engage in cross-cultural comparison, contextualization, and explanation. Religious studies scholars can also be public intellectuals who explain how the world works, but not how it ought to work. In this way, scholars of religion can view religious behaviors as ordinary social behaviors, not extraordinary private experiences. For McCutcheon, religious studies scholars “examine the many narrative, behavioral, and institutional devices groups employ to represent and contest differing conceptions of themselves—and to allocate access to resources based on those conceptions” (16).

*McCutcheon, Russell T. Critics not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion. Albany, NY: SUNY, 2001.

*This summary is for my upcoming comprehensive exam in the study of religion.

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