The Critical Questions Series is a new feature with the Bulletin, where a variety of scholars address controversial issues within the field of religious studies. Today’s response is from Craig Martin, assistant professor at St. Thomas Aquinas College.
It is well known, at least amongst insiders, that the study of religion is internally divided in many ways. One of these divisions includes what we might term confessional versus non-confessional approaches to “religion” (e.g., as a form of practice, as an object of study, etc.). What is your sense of how this tension plays out and what it might suggest, positively or negatively, for the discipline as a whole?
While I find the terms “confessional” and “nonconfessional” to be a bit crude, they are nevertheless useful shorthand for something more specific. When I use the term “nonconfessional,” I employ it to denote approaches with a commitment to 1) methodological naturalism, 2) reflexivity about the taxa or grids of classification we use, 3) historicizing—and therefore denaturalizing—both the taxa and the data under consideration, 4) resisting the subordination of scholarly standards to social or political agendas.
I chafe at those approaches I might loosely identify as “confessional” insofar as they lack one or more of the four things above. Some confessional scholars make overt or covert supernaturalist claims, some of them lack any awareness of the normative baggage their taxa carry, and some of them tend to naturalize or reify their own practices of classification or the things they classify.
The fourth is more complicated. By no means do I want to suggest that authentic scholarship should be “objective,” if by “objective” we mean “disinterested.” On the contrary, as someone greatly influenced by Marx, Nietzsche, the American pragmatists, and Foucault, I think power relations are constitutive of knowledge, that claims about the world do something, and all knowledge advances or retards social agendas (whether implicitly or explicitly). As a teacher and a scholar, my primary goals are to demonstrate that societies are never set up in ways that serve everyone’s interests equally, and, second, to identify who benefits and who does not and how disproportionate social structures are legitimated and maintained. My interest in feminist theory, queer theory, or capitalism stems from my sympathies for those who are dominated.
However, I do not think that social or political agendas should “wag the dog” of scholarship, so to speak. Scholarship at its best conforms to academic standards of argumentation, methodological naturalism, reflexivity, and historicization. When social or political agendas override these academic standards, something is awry.