Tag Archives: religious studies

R is for Religion

What is religion anyway? Well, I don’t think it is anything in particular, in the sense that it doesn’t have a single essence to which one can refer. Historically, things as mostly described as religions if they are relevantly similar to Christianity – Christianity was the first religion to be described as such, and other religions are only later included in the category. To this day, some things which I might think of as ‘religions’ are only dubiously in that category because they are generally considered insufficiently similar to the other ‘world religions’ – several of which need to be described in particular, not necessarily accurate, ways in order to show up their similarity with Christianity and hence their place within the category of ‘religion’.

Anything you say about religion can usually be given a counter-example: religion is about God, except Buddhism, which isn’t; religion is about the next life, religion is about worship, religion is about morality… The concept of ‘religion’ does show some cohesion – two things called religions will have some things in common, but not automatically the same list of things every time.

To get around this a little bit, I often talk instead about ‘religious traditions’. Where most people use the term ‘religion’ to talk about the ‘big six’ (or big five, or seven – it’s not clear, and often depends which school curriculum you were offered rather than any facts about the religions themselves), the term ‘religious tradition’ can cover smaller communities. ‘Hinduism’ might be a religion (or not; it’s one of the most artificial, least-recognised-from-inside entries on the Big Six list), but a group like the Hare Krishnas (ISKCON) can be called a ‘religious tradition’ without trying to decide what counts as ‘a religion’ (and without importing potentially prejudiced or Christian terminology, like ‘sect’ or ‘denomination’, which can otherwise be tempting especially in conversation).

You might notice, though, that in the description above I did make an assumption about religions – that they are about groups of people, and consist in communities. Some views of religion would rather think of ‘a religion’ as a set of beliefs, or a collection of claims, but I think this isn’t very helpful – it might be useful as a base for doing analytic philosophy of religion,  but it doesn’t help us to understand actual religions which are practiced by people. ‘Religion is social’ doesn’t tell us very much about religion – it doesn’t distinguish it from, for example, language, football, or culture – but it does give us a starting point.

Overall, religion might be thought of as a family resemblance concept – each having some points of similarity with other members of the family, but no two alike. Another approach, good enough for many conversations, is simply to note that we know religion when we see it: we can apply the word to, for example, a collection of subjects for study, without needing to be specific about the boundaries of what is out and what is in. For many purposes, this will be enough – and for those cases where it isn’t, using another term as well as or instead of ‘religion’ will help to clarify the use which is current in a particular context.

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So what’s your field?

I get asked this fairly often, or a variant of it. What do you teach? What area is your research in? What’s your discipline?

Sometimes I have a fair idea what background people are coming from when they ask me, and I can tailor my answer accordingly. I tell Quakers that I work on ‘Quaker religious language’, for example. The actual situation is more complicated, because my work spans several disciplines as usually recognised. For my MA, I studied at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies, which suited me perfectly, and my BA was joint honours (Philosophy and Theology), so I’ve never really settled on one subject.

I can remember, once upon a time, planning that I was going to be a vet. By the time I had a careers session in year 9, I was going to be an archaeologist. (The poor RE teaching taking this session had to ask me how to spell that, because everyone else in the room was going to be a football player or a ballet dancer.) Unfortunately, by a fluke combination of historic school planning and ill health, I was prevented from taking any science A-Levels alongside English, which I would have been stupid not to take since it was my best shot at a top mark. I chose to take English at school, picked the next nearest downstairs classroom and took Religious Studies, and later added Classical Civilisations by distance learning. I fully expected to hate RS, having been punished some years earlier for carefully and thoughtfully colouring the disciples’ robes the wrong colour, but it turned out to be quite interesting.

Like many people on Religious Studies A-Level courses today, I did a module in Philosophy of Religion (the other main one was Hinduism, and one of my course work pieces was about the ordination of women – this theme will reappear). Advised by one of my English teachers (in advice I would not now give to someone else) that English courses were too hard to get into and the best thing to do was to apply for something more obscure and take optional modules in English, I decided not to apply for English at university. I was unable to choose between Philosophy and Religious Studies/Theology, and also dissuaded from taking Women’s Studies because it sounded too trendy and not academic enough (sounds like Media Studies, allegedly, which by the way is also a perfectly good academic discipline).  Not fully realising that a joint honours course would have no room for optional extra modules, I applied for both Philosophy and Theology.

I enjoyed both, and I didn’t even really mind having to learn two completely different referencing systems for my two departments. I did get fed up with the fact that the ‘Introduction to Feminist Philosophy’ module was also the only feminist philosophy module, and that ‘women in Judaism’ was the disposable lecture to be dropped when other topics overran, and that student requests for ‘more female scholars on the reading list’ were met with the objection that this was ‘so twenty years ago’. At the end of my final year, I wrote two dissertations: the Philosophy one was called ‘What is Gender?’ and the Theology one was a history of Jewish feminism.

At this point, it seemed logical to follow the signposts, so I went to Leeds to do an MA Gender, Sexuality and Queer Theory. I got a lot of funny looks. I kept a list of the strange responses I got when I told people what I was studying. It was a brilliant year for me, and confirmed that studying is one of my passions. I couldn’t stay away from religion entirely, either: my MA dissertation was about Christian and Jewish feminists and their uses of language and ritual from other religious traditions.

We’ll skip over a year where I didn’t get PhD funding – it just is very competitive. Once I did start, my PhD project brought together strands from all through my previous work: Wittgenstein, whose thought I’d first encountered in an undergraduate module; philosophy of religion, some of it going back to my A-Level work; Quakers, whom I’d been trying to explain to friends and classmates since primary school; sociological work on religion, often more akin to what I’d been reading on gender than anything I’d read before about religion; language, including insights from English Literature and my own writing practice; feminism, as much in the approach as the content; and added a lot else – like modern Christian theology, which I’d skipped as an undergraduate because the bit before the Reformation was boring, and Quaker Studies (itself almost inherently interdisciplinary, although stronger on historians and sociologists than philosophers or theologians!), which I’d not really encountered as a separate entity previously.

What discipline is my work in? It’s in the interdisciplinary space between Philosophy of Religion, Theology, and Religious Studies, with interests in Quaker Studies and Gender Studies. I know that makes it hard to put me in a box. It makes it hard for me to decide what conferences to attend. It also offers me so much fruitful dialogue between disciplines, so much to learn by bringing tools or information from one sphere into another, and so much richness of reading and research and results, that I can’t see myself settling into any one of them any time soon.