Changes in religious studies departments: Promoting enrichment or entrenchment?

Justin Lane
Jun 10, 2018 · 10 min read
Boston University, College of Arts and Sciences, at night

The 2017–2018 academic year marks a milestone in the study of religion. Boston University’s religious studies department, the home of America’s oldest scientific study of religion program (the graduate level “Track 4” program), has turned its back on scientific inquiry. In a recent departmental review, a panel of experts — none of which had training or expertise sufficient to review such a program — suggested that it was unimportant. In a move to consolidate the department as one which is exclusively focused on the “humanities”, the department agreed, and has ended the scientific study of religion within its department.

It is important to keep in mind that this pattern of rejecting science for interpretation based on outdated science is not unique to the field of religious studies. In 2010, the American Anthropological Association removed mention of the word “science” from its mission statement, siding instead with a more humanistic endeavour: “understanding”. This of course reflects directly on the study of religion, which is often carried out in anthropology departments throughout the world.

This move comes in close succession after UC Berkley shut the doors of incoming religious studies students in 2015 due to low enrolment. Given the unending headlines concerning religion in the media and its effect on everyday life from conflicts in Palestine to interfaith dialogues promoted by Pope Francis and the Dalai Llama, religious studies scholars must ask ourselves: what are we doing wrong?

Given that the world is fascinated by religion today, low enrolment numbers appear anomalous. Boston University has about 8 majors enrolled as of last year (and its been reported that they only graduated 1 student this year). How is it then that the department wishes to stay open and attract new majors by offering less diverse options of study? Not only that, this rejection of scientific approaches comes at a time when new online courses appear to demonstrate the interest in the scientific study of religion. For example, UBC’s Cognitive Science of Religion course had 20,000 students sign up the first time it was offered (take a look, its free! Here’s a link). So it appears that it is not for lack of interest in the subject that religious studies departments are entrenching themselves. Rather, it appears that the humanities faction of the field — which is the overwhelming majority — is entrenching itself from an attack of scientific approaches. It should be noted however, that this attack is only perceived by one side. Scientific approaches largely call for cooperation, collaboration, and consilience. It is also worth noting that at most major conferences of religion, there are panels discussing the “science and religion debate” to address how to best create harmony between these two ways of understanding the world. Meanwhile, at scientific conferences, the discussion is a non-issue and you’ll almost never see such a panel. The extent to which this is due to religious studies (which has its roots in theology) feeling threatened by the research programs in the sciences, whereas the sciences feel no similar threat is an idea worth pondering.

The current entrenchment of the field is likely related to its own struggle to define what is the target of a religious studies department, i.e. the field still struggles to define religion. Many in religious studies, such as J.Z. Smith (Smith, 1982) and Pascal Boyer (Boyer, 2001), have denied that Religion (capital R) exists, and that the historical observation that most people in the world didn’t separate their religious from cultural or political practices until recently is evidence that it is a western academic abstraction. Is it a useful abstraction? Most believe so. Is it an easy to define topic to study? Most definitely not.

This has been a serious issue as it doesn’t give a clear target of study for religious studies departments. However, there also isn’t a clear set of methods that religious studies adheres to. Typically, they tend to look at religious texts and history, and some even engage in the philosophy of religions. This lack of unique method, and difficulty in defining the target of the field, can facilitate serious questions concerning the usefulness of departments for religion. This is particularly important when budgetary constraints raise questions as to why this scholarship can’t be done in other departments with better enrolment. Particularly if they already employ methods from another field such as anthropology, history, or political science. This question is only made more threatening by the fact that these fields also address the topic of religion. However, if this is their worry, it appears to be nonsensical to deny the scientific study of religion, which is able to receive funding from large foundations and philanthropies to create financially self-sustaining research projects that can publish in journals with much higher impact. It is worth noting that religious studies journals have impact factors that are an order of magnitude lower than some scientific journals (such as science and nature) which do publish papers on religion that use scientific methods.

Perhaps the entrenchment of religious studies helps to perpetuate the idea that studies religion is a sui generis phenomenon, only accessible to the humanities as it is too complex for the sciences. This in turn can be used to defend the existence of departments and faculty members in the field — as opposed to collapsing the department and re-housing the faculty in already-existent departments with higher enrolment. However, this line of argument has a serious uphill battle in front of it as it then has to demonstrate (not just state) that science is unable to address religion as a topic and the impact of the scientific study of religions would seem to suggest otherwise.

Very few departments promote scientific studies of religion — and that number has shrunk by one as of this year. The scientific study of religion is broad and uses survey studies as well as lab studies in psychology and field experiments. It has journals in the field, such as the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and work also appears in interdisciplinary journals, such as the Journal of Cognition and Culture and even in Nature and Science.

So again, why take one of the most successful parts of the field and deny its importance within a department? In my opinion, this is circling the wagons; little more than irrational career protectionism. Undergraduate students are trained in a STEM-heavy world. Their lives are ruled by technology and their news feeds include the latest and greatest discoveries. Science is a critical part of the zeitgeist of today. Religious studies, when refusing to engage with this trend, is refusing to admit that science can create useful knowledge about religion. This is only exacerbated by the fact that religious studies seems totally unwilling to make discoveries. The hyper-relativism of the post-modernists has left “facts” and “discoveries” to be rare and small embers from the fire of nonsense that burned unchecked through the field in the past 30 years. Many religious studies scholars could not honestly answer the question “what have you discovered” without stating caveats and partial retractions that are longer than the thesis itself.

That last claim is admittedly strong and is worthy of unpacking a bit to create a greater “understanding”. For religious studies, understanding is key. By and large, religious studies departments aren’t about explaining (the aim of science) rather, they want to describe and understand religious groups. And in order to do so, they often maintain that only close readings and deep understandings can make sense of religion and religious experiences. Therefore, the scientific approach, which seeks to empirically uncover patterns and generalities, is not appropriate, because generalizations aren’t what is important, the unique aspects of religious traditions are important.

Yet, religious studies is inherently reliant upon generalizations. Religious studies departments are in themselves generalizations! They state that there is something (however real or abstract) that we can generally call “Religion” and thus study it within a departmental framework. If religious studies doesn’t make at least this basic generalization, then it appears totally unable to defend the existence of a religious studies department. If there isn’t this generalization — the biggest of all generalizations in the field — why not send the ethnographers to anthropology the historians to history or classics, or the text scholars to linguistics departments? Because it can be a useful generalization, and it takes a community to study this generalization.

Given the expulsion or exclusion of scientific methods in departments such as BU’s, one would be tempted to say that religious studies departments don’t use science. However, upon deeper inspection it is clear that they do. For example, many religious studies scholars use the work of Freud, Jung, and William James (all psychologists), to understand religion. These three scholars alone have well attended panels at their sections at the American Academy of Religion (one of the largest academic organizations in the world) and the number of volumes that use Freud, Jung, and James’s to understand religion currently fill the bookshelves of religious studies scholars. So it is not that they don’t use scientific work, it’s just that they don’t — themselves — do science. Instead, they wish to interpret what they see in light of the work of scientists: a trend that has gone on for decades. It is an age-old epistemological issue. Few realize that it wasn’t Galileo’s position on the heliocentric model that got him imprisoned, it was his suggestion that empirical (not revelatory) methods could reveal truths of nature that put him in contention with the church. Today, it seems that religious studies has not only been unable to wretch itself from this theological history, it is actively perpetuating it to this day.

From https://danielmiessler.com/blog/antiscience-left-right/ (also worth reading)

Utilizing science without participating in science relegates religious studies to be perpetually behind the curve. The texts they read are generally static. The beautiful dynamics of human religiosity in the real world is the result of the psychology of people that use them.

So, given that religious studies is using scientific knowledge, but not participating in producing it, we have to question the motivations for this decision. As suggested above, it appears that this is entrenchment.

Entrenchment and disagreements over the role of science in religious studies has been a problem in recent decades. In the 1980’s the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) split from the American Academy of Religion because of a feeling that the American Academy of Religion (AAR) had failed to create a field of study that was not theologically biased. Inherent in this split was a push toward a “science” of religion. Then again, around the year 2000, the International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion was formed (by former NAASR members — including at least two of NAASRs founding members) in order to promote a scientific approach toward religion rooted in cognitive psychology; this pushed against NAASR’s tacit acceptance with post-modernist relativism that was inherently incompatible with scientific generalizations — the very issue at BU (Lane, 2017).

This entrenchment seems to be due to a lack of understanding. Religious studies scholars are — by and large — not trained in scientific methodologies. They may be trained in understanding scientific findings, but the epistemological modality of the scientific method and the vast literature of the philosophy of science is often considered irrelevant, as the goal of most religious studies scholars are to understand — thus the debates in philosophy of science are beyond the scope of their research agenda. As they are untrained in scientific methods, they are unable to teach scientific methodologies.

As discussed above, this has not apparently stopped the rise of scientific interest in religious studies? This interest comes both from outsiders (anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, etc.) who are interested in studying religion as well as from insiders who are interested in supplementing their own work with that of anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, etc. It appears that, to combat this perceived external threat, religious studies departments wish to survive by redefining their own field as non-scientific in order to mark their territory.

In my opinion, I regret to say that BU’s recent incident of science denialism is likely to be found in other departments. As students become more interested in science, and the scientific study of religion finds its home in departments such as psychology, cognitive science, and biology, the pattern of closing religious studies due to low enrolment is likely to continue. Sadly, in a day-and-age when our political realm is rife with scientific denialism for political gains regarding climate change and economics, it is sad to see such a similar mechanism at work in our universities. Such acceptance of anti-science and social constructionism of facts and truth lead down a dangerous path in our “post-truth” and “post-fact” cultural milieu that universities should have no part in perpetuating; implicitly or explicitly.

The question for religious studies moving forward is: given the current cultural trends (internally and among its students), will religious scholars be happy carrying out its research in other departments or will it wise up and accept that interdisciplinary approaches to religion, that utilize science as a method of inquiry, are legitimate ways to understand and explain one of humanity’s most interesting, and unique, phenomena?


Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Lane, J. E. (2017). Looking Back to Look Forward: From Shannon and Turing to Lawson and McCauley to…? In L. H. Martin & D. Wiebe (Eds.), Religion Explained?: The Cognitive Science of Religion after Twenty-Five Years (pp. 169–180). London & New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Smith, J. Z. (1982). Imagining religion: from Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Justin Lane

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I'm a researcher and consultant interested in how cognitive science explains social stability and economic events. My opinions are my own and only my own.

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