My Definition of “Theory” in the Academic Study of Religion

by Philip L. Tite

Note: This post originally appeared not the author’s blog.

Over the past few years, I have taught an undergraduate course on “Theories in the Study of Religion” at the University of Washington. Such a course is not atypical for students – at either the graduate or undergraduate level – who specialize in the field of religious studies. Such courses often will focus upon introducing students to a range of approaches or analytical tools in the study of religion. Furthermore, an historical focus on “key thinkers” is a common approach, especially for those instructors using Daniel Pals now classic Nine Theories of Religion (3rd edition; OUP, 2015 [1stedition 1996]).

My own approach to the topic is also historically grounded, but I note a distinction between methodology and theorization. In a sense, the former is a collection of tools offered the student to go “into the real world” to study religion. The latter, however, is far more interesting (to me at least) and challenging (hopefully for students). To theorize the academic study of religion is to look at scholarship as data, data situated within contingent historical and ideological processes. In my Theories course, I try to guide my students to analyze processes of knowledge production.

In our opening sessions, after we have explored definitional approaches to religion, Enlightenment influences upon the taxon “religion”, and geopolitical articulations of “religion” (notably the East/West division arising from European colonialism), I offer the follow “definition of theory” (and like all conceptualizations, this was presented to be theorized itself):

Theorization of religion is less a set of approaches or methodologies for the study of a given data set understood as “religion”, than it is a (reflexive) analysis of the various and sometimes contending positioning acts taken in the very emergence of such a concept.

To study religion theoretically, therefore, is to study the power dynamics by which a constituted “normative” or “commonsense” object (= religion) arises for one set of social actors in relation to other sets of social actors.

In other words, we are looking at the how and “to what ends” such approaches/methodologies arise and are seen by social actors as viable tools for constructing “knowable knowledge”.

As I look over this definition of theory, the following points struck me:

  • A distinction between method and theory
  • Taxonomies establish power relations between social actors (and the roles played out or contested; here I’m reminded of Positioning Theory from social psychology)
  • Theorizing is a reflexive process; the theorist can also be theorized
  • To theorize is to look at normative processes; i.e., how abstract and constructed concepts or impressions are internalized and rendered normative
  • All knowledge (and, by extension, all theory) is historically contingent
  • Knowledge contends with other knowledge, and is often generated or modified within such confrontation
  • To theorize is not to look at what something is, but what it does (and for whom and under what social conditions)

A further view of “theory” for the study of religion was offered by Russell McCutcheon (University of Alabama) in an article that I feel deserves far greater attention in its critique of postmodernism in religious studies: McCutcheon, “‘My Theory of the Brontosaurus’: Postmodernism and ‘Theory’ of Religion,” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 26.1 (1997): 3-23.

Professor McCutcheon contends that theories are models built for comparative analysis of power relations, carrying predictive potential, and are falsifiable. Theory is not simply “a viewpoint” or “an idea” – opening the door for relativism and an “anything goes” attitude (e.g., as I’ve often seen when postmodernism is evoked in defense of theology or confessional assertions in the academy). “Religion” (however defined) and “theory” (however constructed) are not benign descriptors for substantive realities, but, rather, are devices used in the production and explanation of contending or conflating realities.

To teach a “Theories in the Study of Religion” course is, in part, to empower students to recognize and analyze processes of knowledge construction.

This entry was posted in Pedagogy, Philip L. Tite, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *