ANTES, Peter, GEERTZ, Armin W. e WARNE, Randi R. (orgs.)
New Approaches to the Study of Religion. Volume 1: Regional, Critical and Historical Approaches, Berlin e New York: deGruyter, 2004, 559 + vi pp. ISBN 3-11-017698-X.

ANTES, Peter, GEERTZ, Armin W. e WARNE, Randi R. (orgs.)
New Approaches to the Study of Religion. Volume 2: Textual, Comparative, Sociological and Cognitive Approaches, Berlin e New York: deGruyter, 2004, 497 + vi pp. ISBN 3-11-018175-4.

por Steven Engler[*]

This two-volume collection of thirty-six papers proposes “to reflect back on what has transpired in academic approaches to the study of religion over the last two decades of the twentieth century” (1:1, 2:1). It situates itself explicitly as a follow-up to two earlier edited collections: Jacques Waardenburg’s Classical Approaches to the Study of Religion (1973) and Frank Whaling’s Contemporary Approaches to the Study of Religion (1984). (Waardenburg is general editor of de Gruyter’s Religion and Reason series, in which these volumes appear.) Different sections cover regional, critical and historical, textual, comparative, sociological and cognitive approaches. The list of contributors includes many important names in the field, with strong participation by women and by Western Europeans and Canadians. Overall, the collection represents “the state of the art” regarding a wide variety of theoretical frames and methodological approaches to the academic study of religion. The intent of these collections “is less a retrospective consideration of methods used, per se, than a consideration of the promise of new approaches that are currently being undertaken and need further methodological consideration” (1:2, 2:2). Given their considerable success in this endeavor, these two volumes are extremely valuable for scholars and advanced students with a specific interest in theory of religion and essential for libraries that cater to programs in the academic study of religion. Many (though not all) of the chapters are too technical to serve as introductory readings, but the books would work well as graduate texts supplemented by contextualizing lectures.

The two volumes offer important evaluations of central concepts, themes, and theoretical approaches in the field: comparison; gender; performance (Ronald Grimes suggests that practice theories and performance theories are compatible, though both remain fragmentary); syncretism (Luther Martin and Anita Maria Leopold argue for clearer stipulations of data and the relationships between them, explanations of acceptance and rejection of “incursions, additions/deletions, transformations and/or substitutions/combinations”, and testing against comparative data – 2:103); secularization (Karel Dobbelaere argues that defining secularization as “the particularization of the process of functional differentiation for the religious sub-system and a macro-level phenomenon” helps us to differentiate levels of analysis – 2:249); fundamentalisms; New Religious Movements; Esoterism; ideology; orientalism (Jørn Borup holds that D.T. Suzuki “systematically reversed the game of Orientalism” – 1:477); literary theory (Dawne McCance offers an excellent overview of semiotics and of the work of Lacan and Derrida); religion and culture, semantic theory (new work with the ideas of philosopher Donald Davidson is laying the groundwork for a middle ground between naïve realist and radical relativist semantics and epistemologies); rational choice theory; and cognitive theory.

A number of more specific areas are represented by excellent overviews: religion and human rights; law; media; electronic media; the Internet; translation (Alan Williams rightly chastises the study of religion for its failure to recognize the central role and theoretical complexity of translation); dance (Helga Barbara Gundlach argues that it is “a living record of the overall social conditions and historical development of a society” – 2:160); urbanization; and diaspora (Steven Vertovec explores issues of global and local religious identities, relations between generations, variant perspectives on what is essential in given religions, and trajectories of ecumenism, homogenization, and cosmopolitanism).

The section on “New Approaches in Various Parts of the Worlds” is piecemeal, in terms of both topics and regions covered, though the editors rightly note that this comparative work is “a new field of research that begs for further study” (1/2:4). The section offers surveys of the study of religion in Western Europe, Turkey, India, Australia/Pacific, North America (mainly Canada, surprisingly, with a lesser focus on the U.S. and none on Mexico), and on “Arab-Islamic Discourse.”[1]

One of the risks implicit in collections of this sort is a relativism that sees all approaches to the study of religion, or even variant definitions of “religion”, as equally valid. Robert Segal drew attention to this issue in his review of Whaling’s earlier collection, Contemporary Approaches (1984). Segal argued against Whaling’s superficial and explicitly relativistic appropriation of philosophy of science, and he found a broadly relativistic stance to be characteristic of the collection as a whole:

The most distinctive trend in the contemporary study of religion is the move toward relativism. … The trend is away from evaluating the believer’s point of view and toward simply appreciating it. … Put another way, the trend is away from a social scientific approach to religion and toward a humanistic one…. The shift is from analysis to description, from explanation to interpretation, from cause and function to meaning and significance. … The essayists not only endorse this shift but exemplify it. In continually praising the inclusion in the book of all approaches to all religions by scholars of all countries, Whaling takes for granted that no one approach to any one religion by a scholar from any one country is better than any other. For he assumes that there is no way to judge. Moreover, the issue over which there is no agreement is, as noted, one of not just method but also goal, subject, and even definition. (Segal 1986, 272-273)

Whaling’s collection and Segal’s review of it were written with the discourse of postmodernism at its high-water mark. The essays in New Approaches suggest that the tide of relativism is receding. Morny Joy points to hermeneutics as a means to move past the superficial relativism that is one aspect of postmodernism (1:187, 193, 212). William Paden notes that a key element of the “new comparativism” in the study of religion is the “attempt to defend the prospects of comparativism in an age of relativism” (2:83-84). Justin Barrett’s review of the cognitive science of religion underlines its potential to act as a bulwark against relativism (2:401). Randi Warne notes the danger of “tumbling into the abyss of utter relativism”, and she suggests that feminist and postcolonial theories might allow us to “negotiate a more satisfactory conclusion” (1:26). Bülent Şenay argues that “a major challenge facing Muslim scholarship in theology and religious studies” is the need for a “contemporary discourse … [that] will help to develop a reflexive contextualization of the religious phenomenon without going to the extreme of contextualism … [which] results in various degrees of cultural and historical relativism” (1:88, cf. 77). Rosalind Hackett’s review of the literature on religion and human rights notes that scholars from different cultures “are calling for compromise or transcending of divisive interpretive paradigms, viz. East/West, North/South, secular/religious, universalist/relativist” (2:169).

When Hackett points to views that seek to transcend the secular/religious distinction along with that between universalist and relativist, she fails to note that this very move, seen in a different light, is radically relativist: when relativism becomes universal, all things become religion, at best an ambivalent development for the scholar of religion. Bringing this point closer to home, though the discourse of relativism has receded, its meta-theoretical implications haunt New Approaches. There has been a move away from relativism at the theoretical level, but relativism at the meta-theoretical level remains here. That is, there is little attention paid to the question of how we are to decide between the many approaches discussed in these two volumes. For the most part, as Segal wrote of Whaling’s collection. “For the essayists, no criteria exist for deciding within approaches, let alone among them” (Segal 1986, 271). We are presented with long descriptive lists of approaches, and with almost no discussion of why one would choose one approach over another, even from the limited perspective of adequacy to a given research agenda.

Fortunately, there are exceptions to this, reflecting an emerging tendency in the meta-theory of religion, a more nuanced understanding of what it might mean to be “empirical” and “scientific”. Ivan Strenski shovels another layer of soil on the grave of relativist readings of J.Z. Smith’s famous dictum “there is no data for religion” (Smith 1982, xi; original emphasis):

The question is painfully simple: are all data, in fact, theory-laden or are they not? Unless, this question can be answered in the affirmative, the principle of theory ladenness really amounts to a new kind of dogma—relativism asserted absolutely. … To reiterate, the claim of theory-ladenness means nothing unless it is seen as an empirical matter, a fact waiting to be either discovered or dismissed, rather than on of absolute principle, as, I believe, our relativizing theologians have done. (1:278)[2]

Mark Hulsether cites two important contemporary scholars as offering answers to the post-postmodern question, “where do we go from here”: Gustavo Benavides argues that

theoretical reflexiveness holds limited promise without another ingredient. This is historical thickness and specificity: a process of testing theoretical and definitional frames against “raw materials for manufacturing religion” which are roughly what [Timothy] Fitzgerald calls “case studies with historical and ethnographic data taken from the whole spectrum of the humanities and social sciences”. As Benavides puts it, “if in an exaltation of theoretical hybris, metatheory is seen as an end in itself, the result will be stagnation and boredom”. (1:360)

The “cutting edge” of New Approaches is this occasional recognition that the move beyond relativism has important implications at the meta-theoretical as well as the theoretical level (i.e., concerning choosing between theories not just concerning the general relation between theories and reality). As the editors say, in summarizing the section on Critical Approaches, “critical studies such as these are not relinquishing “objectivity” for open-ended relativism. … Theoretical explanations in the studies of religion(s) do not lead to dogmas but to explanatory theories that need to be tested and can be rejected if proven flawed or otherwise inadequate to the task at hand” (1/2:5).

This audacious work of taking a stand on the relative value of claims, methods, and theories is essential if New Approaches is to succeed in its goal of “extracting the study of religion from the vanities and wrong turns of the past and providing it with a theoretically and methodologically sound framework for a global pursuit” (2:457). But there is little of this work in this two-volume publication: it offers an impressively wide variety of frameworks, many of which are arguably valid within specific contexts; but the arguments for this validity are generally lacking; not to mention the fact that soundness is a much more ambitious goal than validity. The reflexive realism hinted at by scholars like Gustavo Benavides and Timothy Fitzgerald could very fruitfully draw upon the epistemological and semantic frame being developed by scholars like Jeppe Sinding Jenson and Nancy Frankenberry. These sorts of connection remain inchoate in this volume, as they do in the field as a whole. In this sense, the unfulfilled promise of this pair of books is a perfect reflection of the state of our art: new approaches are in the offing, and they are here in these pages and between these lines.

Obras Citadas

SEGAL, Robert A., Resenha de Frank Whaling (org.) Contemporary Approaches to the Study of Religion (1984), Zygon 21, no. 2, 271-275, 1986.

SMITH, Jonathan Z., Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1982.


[*] Professor na Faculdade Mount Royal, Calgary, Canadá e professor visitante (2005-2006, com auxílio da FAPESP) no Programa de Estudos Pós-Graduados em Ciências da Religião PUC/SP.

[1] A more complete overview of the global state of “the field” is available in the regional essays in the recently published 2nd edition of the Encyclopedia of Religion. Neither New Approaches nor the ER2 cover the study of Religion in Latin America, though this will be remedied in a volume edited by Gregory Alles, currently in process and projected for publication by Routledge.

[2] Smith continues, “Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no independent existence apart from the academy”. What he appears to mean is that there are no facts about religion that exist prior to and separate from the conceptual and theoretical frames of scholars who select these facts as “data”, on the basis of and as material for their theories. That is, reflecting post-empiricist philosophy of science, Smith rightly notes that the materials that scholars of religion work with are necessarily theory-laden. Without crying over spilt ink, it is fair to say that much confusion would have been avoided if Smith had said “there are no brute facts about religion, only data”. Strenski’s point is that this is only the starting point for the detailed work of ideological critique, of investigating how certain data are laden with certain theories in certain contexts quite possibly to the benefit of certain parties.