If you are at a conference of philosophers, and somebody asks you what you are working on, and you say philosophy of religion ... "
Nelson Pike's observation of his experience of being a philosopher of religion, quoted in Daniel Dennett's recent book Breaking the Spell, will strike a chord with many academics and students involved in the study of religion. Since the high tide of secularisation theories in the 60s, the study of religion has often been seen as a Cinderella subject, a strange subfield in the academic world with little to do with the pressing questions of the day. A-level students thinking about degree options are still discouraged from taking a degree in religious studies by some schools, unless they are sure they want a career in teaching or religious ministry. The idea that the study of religion could be an urgent area of cultural inquiry with the potential for generating insights that are as important for our future wellbeing as the study of economics, computer science or the natural sciences still seems implausible to many people.
Given this intellectual background, it is remarkable that substantial books about religion have recently become bestsellers, such as Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and Sam Harris's The End of Faith, as well as Dennett's Breaking the Spell. Obviously 9/11 and 7/7 played an important role in stimulating this resurgence of interest in religion, as have the religious convictions of influential politicians, the religious elements of the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, and the growing debate about the moral foundations and cultural identity of British society.
But as the public debate about religion grows, it seems that old habits also die hard. We have seen the emergence of a new generation of commentators about religion who appear blissfully unaware of the field of religious studies and who feel no great obligation to engage with previous scholarship in this area. The criticisms about the gaps and imbalances in Dawkins' work have already been well made. But even in the more carefully scholarly work of Dennett there are worrying trends. His claim, for example, that religion has the potential to cause catastrophic harm to society may appeal to anxious liberals, but belies a lack of knowledge of academic work on religion, politics and violence. There are good grounds for arguing, as Steve Bruce has done, that conservative religious groups are generally ineffectual in achieving their aims, whether through peaceful or violent means. Similarly Dennett's confident definition of religion ignores the arguments of writers such as Talal Asad and Russell McCutcheon that such concepts of religion are fundamentally bound up with the historic colonialist project of managing non-western cultures and the contemporary project of writing off political stances that do not fit the strategic priorities of the west as religious extremism.
It is not professional sour grapes to observe that current bestselling books on religion engage too little with existing academic work on the study of religion. Without such knowledge there is a real danger that secular, liberal academics will paint a fearful picture of religion that could distort public perceptions and policy on religion for a generation.
There is a sting in the tail here for serious students and scholars of religion as well. All too often our Cinderella status has meant that we have conducted introverted discussions, of interest only to people in our own scholarly circles. This needs to change if we want the voices shaping the debates about religion in today's world to be better informed and balanced.
Gordon Lynch is professor of sociology of religion at Birkbeck College, University of London
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