Should the study of religion be left to religious people? Write an essay of not more than 1200 words.
Assuming that religion here has the same meaning as one of the definitions referred to in O U Block 4 Unit 14 (and in particular is an activity caught by Ninian Smarts The Nature of Religion, A5 Resource Book 3) we still need to know what is meant by religious people before we can properly answer the question posed for this essay. By religious people, presumably the question is not referring to theologians but ordinary people who follow a particular religion. If that is the case then it is felt that the study of religion should be left to religious people. However, this is not without its problems.
One of the problems in leaving the study of religion to religious people is in determining whether they will be objective. Will a Christian when studying, say, Islamic Fundamentalism, be prejudiced in favour of his own faith or will he treat the Islamic religion impartially? Until the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, Christians referred to, for instance, Judaism as being false or devilish. It was only after the Enlightenment that Europeans gave names to religions other than those found on the continent and although these were European inventions they were not always right. For example, according to Bill Heilbronn (an authority on Hinduism) , Hinduism was wrongly named and should have correctly been referred to as the Vedic religion.
It could be argued that non religious scholars are better placed to study religion.They are usually analytical, dispassionate and, because they have no affinity to one particular, or indeed any religion, can study religion without fear of being accused of prejudice or bias. But what happens when they come up against so called miracles will they remain dispassionate? Take the case of the woman who became pregnant and gave birth after having received a liver transplant (apparently believed to be only the third woman in the world to have had a baby after such a transplant).Her obstetrician is reported as sayingdoctors are supposed to be cool and professional. But when we come into contact with miracles we find ourselves asking questions about the mystery of life. : see The Times, 11th June 1998, p 1.
Will non religious people have a feel for a religion? Whilst they will be able to study a specific religions beliefs, ceremonies, artefacts, dogma etc. will they be aware of the nuances or idiosyncrasies of that religion or have sympathy with it? Take David R. Kinsley writing about Hinduism (or should one now say the Vedic Religion?!) in Introduction: Benares. Here, Kinsley can be said to be non religious in that clearly he is not a Hindu. His witting testimony is there for us to read: for instance his description of the great number of ascetics to be found in the city of Benares and of their activities. His unwitting testimony, however, is more interesting. He unwittingly shows himself to be a non Hindu, an outsider if you like, by phrases such as transience of the worldly life they the ascetics have renounced or their only possessions are a pot and a staff . A Hindu writing about his own religion would feel no need to comment on these matters raised by Kinsley the Hindu (the religious person in this context) would be only too well aware of their significance; in other words be well aware of the nuances of his religion and can therefore bring about a better understanding of it.
According to the prospectus from Cambridge University for its Theological and Religious Studies Tripos
religion is still a crucial factor for many nations and communities, as well as for individuals searching for meaning, or confronting fundamental issues of war and peace, freedom and bondage, good and evil. With so much at stake, can the study of religion safely be left to anybody but a religious person?Can such study be left to a person (i.e. a non religious person) who has no faith in anybody or anything but himself? I think not. This line of thought is following the argument that because religion can be said to be a totally distinct and unique category of human experience it is beyond the comprehension of those who have not felt this experience directly. This is put most succinctly by Otto when he says:-
The reader is invited to direct his mind to a moment of deeply-felt religious experience, as little as possible qualified by other forms of consciousness. Whoever cannot do this, whoever knows no such moments in his experience, is requested to read no further; my italics for it is not easy to discuss questions of religious psychology with one who cannot recollect the emotions of his adolescence, the discomforts of indigestion, or, say, social feelings, but cannot recall any intrinsically religious feelings
Otto. R. (1970, 2nd edn) The Idea of the Holy, Oxford University Press
Of course, there are those people (according to Gwilym Beckerlegge writing in Section 6 of Units 14/15) who, regardless of whether they are religious or not, strive for an impartial approach not shaped by their own beliefs. But this takes us into the realms of Religious Studies something which, it could be said, is not within the parameters of the question which has been set here.
Most religious people are devout, serious, honest and trustworthy. If they carry these attributes into their study of religion then surely their work on religion will be all the more worthwhile and respected. With faith in their own religion in particular, and understanding of religious concepts in general, not only can they better study and appreciate their own religion but will bring to the study of other religions an insight and perception that might not be the case with a non religious person studying religion.