Religion Snapshots: Methodological Atheism vs. Methodological Agnosticism


Religion Snapshots is a feature with the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, where a number of contributors are asked to briefly comment on popular news items or pressing theoretical issues in the field, especially topics relating to definitions, classification, and method and theory in the study of religion.

Editor’s note: This post is based on a Facebook thread, where two scholars debate a recent essay that appeared in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion entitled, “Must a Scholar of Religion Be Methodologically Atheistic or Agnositc?” by  Michael A. Cantrell.

Carl Stoneham: The abstract is correct that it’s neither neutral nor objective. Theology is theology, regardless of its methodological intent. Methodological agnosticism is a much more coherent position for the religion scholar, imho.

Zeba Crook: The claim that MA is not neutral is a red-herring claim. No one claims that methodological atheism is neutral. We claim that it’s simply a feature of the discipline of the academic study of religion. The study of religion is analytical/etic, it is not experiential/emic. A friend of mine puts it this way: a zoologist doesn’t ask an elephant what it’s like to be an elephant; she studies the elephant. A biologist doesn’t try to imagine the experience of a frog before cutting it open and trying to understand how it works. Religion can be studied analytically, etically, from the outside, as in other analytical disciplines. It can also be studied as a member, supporter, and practioner, honoring the experiences of one’s fellow members, and honoring the claims of authority within it. But that’s an entirely different discipline from the Study of Religion. It’s not about neutrality, but about disciplinary boundaries.

Carl Stoneham:‪ Atheism–even when employed methodologically–is not an “outside” position (at least insofar as it offers a clear answer to the question of whether God exists). The biologist does not assert that the frog has no experiences.

‪And while I’m not sure I agree that the question of methodological neutrality is a red herring, I’m with you on of the question of disciplinary boundaries. Well said.

Zeba Crook:‪ Nor does the MA scholar of religion deny that people have religious experiences! Who makes such a claim!? Of course people have experiences that they tag as religious. The job of the scholar of religion is to analyze and contextualize the claims and descriptions of those experiences (if that’s what one is interested in, which I happen not to be).

Carl Stoneham:‪ The biologist analogy doesn’t address methodological atheism well to begin with (it’s more apt to methodological agnosticism), so before I reply further, which are we talking about? The article referenced above speaks to MAtheism, but your analogies are examples of MAgnosticism (my counter-example was an attempt to bring it back to MAtheism).

I should also add that this may be a debate that boils down to nothing less than Berger’s use of the term “atheism,” which is really better-described as agnosticism. (i.e. atheism does not bracket religious truth claims, instead declaring them to be false).

Zeba Crook:‪ Interesting. Really illustrates the need to and difficulty with definitions. To my mind, MAtheism is the position that all explanations and analyses have to be carried out or arrived at *as if* there is no god. So, for example, in trying to explain why the messianic religion following Jesus survived and other messianic religion did not, “the resurrection” is not an explanation. The scholar must work from the position that dead people stay dead. That’s when we can start asking the really interesting questions: why did some people experience Jesus as resurrected; how can we understand/analyse/contextualize their experiences, and their claims; what models exist for explaining the survival of this religion but not the others; how do the claims of resurrection experiences function rhetorically, and so on. None of those questions are necessary if simply God raised Jesus from the dead. I think MAgnosticism might not be strong enough. And yes, the biologist is not “agnostic” about whether divine design explains some mystery of frog-physiology. The biologist, who may well be a Christian, probably assumes as a matter of disciplinary principle, that the explanation of that froggy-mystery lies in genetics, evolution, environment.

Carl Stoneham:‪ Those are excellent points, so let me flesh out my position a bit better than I have so far:

‪As I see it, the problem with MAtheism is that (for example) the explanation for why the Jesus-religion survived and others did not could actually be that Jesus was the Messiah and others were not. This isn’t my own position, but it’s nevertheless logically possible. What’s more we don’t have the tools (as far as I’m aware) to show that the Jesus-religion *didn’t* survive because of Jesus’ status as the actual Messiah. As a result, the religion scholar is in something of a bind when trying to explain the survival of Christianity and not, say, Maccabeism. The problem with MAtheism is that it assumes that at least one plausible answer to the question cannot be an answer to the question but it cannot prove that said answer can’t be an answer. As such, it runs afoul of the very same thing that it accuses confessional scholars of doing: proceeding from a position it cannot support through an appeal to a certain set of “this-worldly” critical tools. To be perhaps a bit too flippant, MAtheism justifies itself because… MAtheism. I think MAgnosticism takes a more honest position insofar as it acknowledges that the religion scholar is not equipped with the tools to adjudicate that sort of truth claim, so it brackets them and looks for information in other areas. MAtheism doesn’t bracket the question, but answers it quite clearly.

‪I’m not suggesting that because the theological claim cannot be disproved, it *has* to be acknowledged as a possibility. Instead, I just want to be more careful about how we treat that claim. Methodologically, atheism does not seem to be the appropriate response, especially insofar as we might one day have the tools to adjudicate these claims. Methodological agnosticism seems to be more “future proof,” if you will.

Zeba Crook: I think you’re confusing matters here, Carl. Methodological Atheism, to my mind at least, is about whether God is an explanation for things, not whether we accept all the truth claims of believers. It’s Methodological Atheism to say that we need to explain the survival of Christianity in a way that does not rely on the power of God. The claim that Jesus was not and cannot have been the Messiah is a theological claim. I think the only people who make that blunt claim are polemicists, not scholars of religion. So your point that MAtheism eliminates potential explanations (e.g., that Jesus really was the Messiah) is not an example of MAtheism.

Carl Stoneham: Again, the answer to your question could very well be the one you’ve ruled out: God. If the goal for our chosen methodology is to bracket our own beliefs as much as possible, why do we choose a methodology that inscribes one such belief in all of our scholarship. It’s effectively the other side of the same coin with which we accuse apologists: ruling out a given possibility (in their case, that God ISN’T behind everything) without proving that such a possibility cannot actually be the answer. If we can fault them for dismissing, e.g., sociological factors for the rise of Christianity, surely they can fault us for dismissing divine factors?

‪This is why I advocate for MAgnosticism. It explicitly acknowledges the limitations of our critical toolset and allows that there is always an additional possible solution that might complement/overturn our own theories. It is closer to actual science insofar as it does not rule out those possibilities that its toolset is not designed to address, and instead brackets them. I don’t see that MAtheism actually succeeds in bracketing anything.

Zeba Crook: Carl, you asked: “if the goal for our chosen methodology is to bracket our own beliefs as much as possible, why do we choose a methodology that inscribes one such belief in all of our scholarship.” That’s easy! Because it’s the job of scholarship to build disciplinary boundaries. And one of the boundaries that distinguishes the academic study of religion from the support, defense, appreciation, and practice of religion (all noble causes) is and should be Methodological Atheism. And why not? Again, biologists can be Christian (or Jewish or Muslims) but it’s not within the disciplinary boundary of biology to use God to explain biological mysteries or processes. It’s not even up for debate in any field other than Religious Studies. We spend so much time arguing about something that every other discipline takes for granted, and only because religious people get their knickers in a twist at the prospect that their beliefs aren’t accepted at face value.

Carl Stoneham:‪ [I think I’m probably going to range too far abroad on this one, but I’m going to put it up anyway.]

‪”…scholars of religion should not have to operate differently from scholars of other disciplines.”

‪True, but scholars of religion are the only ones studying subject matter that is explicitly about ‘God’ (however we want to conceptualize that) and that ‘God’s’ role in history, so surely our tools must be capable of handling that, rather than simply declaring it off-limits. If all we’re after is studying the archaeological remains of a Hindu temple, or asking how best to translate a marginal inscription in an ancient Hebrew text, we really have no need for methodological atheism, right? We already have those disciplines and they’ve already established boundaries. Whether God exists has no bearing on whether I correctly translated “ruach” or realized that this obelisk pointed East because that’s where the Sun God presumably rose. So why the need for “methodological atheism” at all? I can see how the presence of the Roman Empire, etc, etc, etc helped spread the Gospel, so on and so forth, without the need for any sort of methodological atheism. It’s not not like the question was “why was the Gospel so compelling?” The very places where we might need to employ a methodological atheism are when we tread on ground where “religious” answers carry a high degree of plausibility. As such, if we’re establishing disciplinary boundaries by drawing lines that categorize a certain subset of plausible answers as off-limits, we may instead be establishing disciplinary blinders. At least with methodological agnosticism, we acknowledge the plausibility of those answers and bracket them until such that we have the tools to consider them. (Or course, theologians say we already have those tools, but whatever).

Zeba Crook: “True, but scholars of religion are the only ones studying subject matter that is explicitly about ‘God'”

‪This is a great conversation, Carl (but why are we the only ones having it!?).

‪Here is the rub! Religious people often want Religious Studies to operate differently from other disciplines for that very reason: because it’s about God. Which is odd, because if you believe in God, you can easily claim that everything is about God: society, economics, health and medicine, the beauty of literature and music, mathematics and physics, etc. But they generally allow that disciplines associated with those things can operate differently. And, yes, translation can indeed be deeply theological. Koine used to be (perhaps still is by some) imagined as God’s unique form of Greek designed to communicate with the non-elite of the ancient Mediterranean. A great miracle had to be devised to legitimize the LXX. God is in everything!

‪But it is a claim that I wholly reject. The people I study believe that God is active in history. They possibly even believe that God favored the Allies in WWII. Surely, as a historian, I can simply reject that claim. I don’t have to bracket it politely with MAgnosticism! Those same people believe that the same God as favored the Allies also raised Jesus from the dead, which accounts for the stunning success of Christianity when other messianic movements failed. So, why is the historian allowed to summarily discount a theistic explanation for world history, but I’m not allowed to discount theistic explanations of religious history? I think it’s incumbent upon scholars of religion to fit in the academy, not to hive themselves off in some special corner of the academic world because they think their subject matter is inherently different.

Carl Stoneham:‪ “This is a great conversation, Carl (but why are we the only ones having it!?).”

‪Ha! I had it ad nauseam at Southern Methodist University, and I was usually arguing the side you’ve taken up.

‪”…they think their subject matter is inherently different.”

‪It’s not so much that the subject matter is inherently different, rather that the tools we employ may not be of sufficient scope to cover the subject matter. This may be a silly analogy, but what springs to mind is a biologist who practices “methodological a-microscopism,” choosing to study microbes using only the naked eye. I certainly wouldn’t argue that the biologist can make no meaningful contribution, but surely that contribution is hampered by an incomplete toolset. This is what I consider MAtheism to be doing. Now if the biologist said something to the effect that “microscopes just aren’t compelling to me, so I’m going to study microbes with the naked eye, but I acknowledge that I might very well be missing some important things,” I feel like a more honest approach has been articulated.

‪To be clear, I’m not saying that, as a religious historian, you have to factor in Jesus, the Really-Messiah into your work. I would push back, forcefully, against those who would demand it of you. At the same time, I do think your history should stop at the theological questions with an agnostic approach rather than an atheistic one.

‪”So, why is the historian allowed to summarily discount a theistic explanation for world history, but I’m not allowed to discount theistic explanations of religious history?”

‪If by “discount” you mean to ignore it because it lacks credibility, then it seems to me the answer is that it has not been shown to lack credibility. This is where I think the “atheism” part of MAtheism runs aground. If you chose to pass over theistic explanation because your particular toolset simply wasn’t equipped to consider them, I don’t see where you’d be much different from the biologist who doesn’t consider acceleration due to gravity of an elephant in orbit. (That was dumb, but perhaps I made my point anyway). This is what I think MAgnosticiam is doing: acknowledging that the toolset simply isn’t equipped to answer those questions, but that the explanatory scope *may* have been diminished as a result. MAtheism seems to state that there is no diminishing because theistic explanations offer no insight.

Zeba Crook: I think I haven’t been clear. That belief in God causes people to act is obvious. That belief in the resurrection likely accounts in part for the survival of Christianity is also obvious. The MAtheist doesn’t discount that people believed in the resurrection. And she doesn’t discount that beliefs among American Christians inspired anti-interventionism. MAtheism discounts the claim that God raised Jesus from dead as an explanation for why people believed in the resurrection. It’s just not in the cards. That they believed is certain, and matters. That it actually happened is fodder for theologians to explain their religion, but it’s not acceptable to explain history. Is that clearer? As a MAtheist, I don’t discount THAT people believe things. It’s the difference between “Christianity survived in part because people believed in the resurrection” and “Christianity happened because Jesus rose from the dead.” The first statement is consistent with MAtheism, and doesn’t discount people’s religious experiences. The second is theology; a fine discipline, but different from the study of religion, and by no means required to adopt MAtheism.

Carl Stoneham: That’s a helpful clarification, though I think I just accidentally rubbed my hands together in an evil genius sort of way.

‪I don’t want to play my hand just yet, preferring to sleep on your last comment. I’m still inclined to disagree that “people believed because it happened” is “not in the cards” (e.g. I believe in any number of things because they happened) and that, by denying this as a possible explanation, you prevent yourself from being able to explain why at least some people believed (or perhaps you could show it *didn’t* happen and then you’d have good reason to say that it’s not in the cards). But like I said, I want to sleep on this and revisit it tomorrow to be sure I’m going down the right path. (And if you want to head me off before I even get there, feel free to respond to my the outlines of a rebuttal I’ve just offered).

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3 Responses to Religion Snapshots: Methodological Atheism vs. Methodological Agnosticism

  1. Matt Baldwin says:

    It’s fun and interesting to read this thread, but I fail to see where Methodological Atheism and Agnosticism have been adequately distinguished from one another. Neither position admits theistic, magical, or supernatural explanations for historical phenomena. Neither methodological position can observe the supernatural in the objects of study, in the data, and so neither position makes indicative claims such as “Jesus was resurrected in Spring of AD 30,” etc. Neither position would rely on an “explanation” of observable phenomena (such as eg the early Christian kerygma that Christ had risen from the dead and appeared to his disciples) by making a statement that presumed unobservable phenomena (eg a human being actually rising from the dead)

    To my mind they differ only in metahistorical judgements, that wouldn’t impinge on their actual explanations, which would be, in my theory, isomorphic, because both employ only naturalistic explanatory schemata.

    The atheist then goes beyond the data that is being analyzed to make dogmatic assertions as to why we don’t have certain kinds of data to explain. This is a constructive philosophical application of the research and is therefore a species of theology (after all atheism involves making explicit certain logoi regarding the theoi).

  2. Pingback: Methodological Atheism and Agnosticism in the Study of Religion – Patheos (blog)

  3. Pingback: Studying Religion Without God |

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