Oughts and Ought-Nots: An Open Letter for Students of Religion
Application is something that seems part and parcel to any study. For what other reason is there to know, other than to then act? Contemporary economics, for example, studies the ways in which consumers buy, so that they can then predict, control, and otherwise influence the market. Political science, its dubious title aside, studies way in which countries function in order to influence political affairs in the future. Planetary science attempts to describe the motion of planetary bodies so that rockets can be shot into the moon. There is a purpose! The study of religion, however, is different. What one “ought” to do after the proverbial results are in, so to speak, is not a subject of valid discussion for a student of religion; such attitudes are deemed proscriptive, normative, or worse, theological. These applied pronouncements are taken up by theologians exclusively.
Anthropology, perhaps the study of religion’s closest kin in the humanities, even has an “applied anthropology” discipline within its broad boundaries–the crisis that anthropology has faced since the post-colonial critique is not whether to act in relation to one’s research, but how to best act. This implies a morality based on a universal modernistic ethical model cognate to the so-called secular humanism. Anthropological work on AIDS, mass female murders in Mexico, and the autonomy of states like Tibet all provide a direction in which the subjects should be persuaded or coerced, even tricked, into compliance with a normative ethical code of humanism; Paul Farmer provides perhaps one of the most famous and eloquent examples. The study of religion, however, has over the years severed its hand of activism and application: theology. The study of religion exists in order to…. ???
Perhaps, to foster multicultural awareness and tolerance? This would definitely be in compliance with the universal humanism that applied anthropology, UNICEF, and the Peace Corps. all proscribe and in which I would dare to say most American institutions follow. However, this “everyone should get along” kind of multiculturalism seems like a rather pedestrian end result for such a rich, complex, and neurotically reflexive field as the study of religion.
What then, IS the study of religion FOR? What does it DO in the world? Is a field only useful if in fact it has a use, or is this very question motivated by historically modernistic structures like secular humanism in the first place? Is, perhaps, the study of religion (along with its use-lessness) a field of dissent within the hallowed walls of academia?