The Study of Religion: An Introduction to Key Ideas and Methods


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Rethinking public religion: Word, image, sound

Methods for the Study of Religious Change - Equinox Publishing

Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood have shown, for instance, that liberal secularism requires individual belief — not communal observance, rituals or embodied piety — to be taken as the essence of religiosity. Third, the secular separation between a privatized, individualized sphere of religion and a public, social, rational sphere of politics has obscured the way in which the state, the nation, and the law operate as the modern sacred. The modern sovereign state is grounded in a distinctive political theology that mobilizes the structural categories of metaphysics and theology to bolster and consolidate the higher identity of secular citizenship.

Even this cursory summary of this first approach is, I hope, sufficient to convey the force and depth of the critique of religion. The implications of the first approach have been resisted in many quarters. Note that no assumption is made about the actual disciplinary location of scholars. Much of the interesting work done in anthropology, sociology, and religious studies departments, for example, draws on both the first and the second approach. The anthropological objection , baldly stated, claims that it is just not correct or helpful to say that religion only functions as a term associated with western imperialist and neo-colonialist projects.

Like most abstract concepts, the concept of religion is a construction projected onto the world, but one consequence of this large-scale projection may well be that our world has genuinely come to exhibit it. Nor does the origin of a concept in itself discredit its uses: the concept may well have been forged in the crucible of missionary and colonial encounters, but its meanings and uses have further proliferated in non-colonial and post-colonial settings, in ways that escaped, distorted, and subverted the original discourse.

It is a rich concept that connects to vocabularies that bring persons and things, desires, and practices in particular traditions in distinctive ways. From this perspective, it would be a mistake to think that conceptual imprecision is in itself an obstacle to scholarly inquiry. It may well be true that the boundaries between religion and other cognate concepts such as tradition, culture, ideology, faith, reason, and so forth are porous and fuzzy. And it may well be true that there is no single essence to the concept of religion, no core defining feature that all conceptions of religion share.

The normative objection is slightly different. The worry here is the hard-won liberal right to religious freedom will not elicit much respect if the existence of religion itself is radically questioned. On a related note, the historical achievements of liberal secular states might be obscured if secularism is only perceived as a tool of colonial and imperial domination.

Secularism and freedom of religion, in liberal thought, are connected to moral values such as individual autonomy, moral self-determination, freedom of conscience as well as more political ideals such as non-theocratic constitutional democracy, separation of church and state, and non-establishment of the dominant religion. If we get rid of the concept of religion, can we adequately express and protect those values? As it happens, one group of influential political philosophers has tried to do just that.

They suggest that, even though historically the liberal state may have defined itself in relation to a problematic construal of religion, it has since broadened the scope of its moral concern, and is therefore less vulnerable to charges of ethnocentrism. I do not think it is, although I cannot make the full case here. Instead, I shall merely sketch an alternative strategy.

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Let me get back to the starting point of our inquiry: Is religion a valid category of scholarly research? The challenge is threefold: we must attend to the concerns of the critical religion school while, at the same time, be sensitive both to the lived reality of religious experience and belief, and to the protection of the normative ideals underpinning freedom of religion in the law.

First, different disciplines will have different answers to the question of what the concept of religion is for; and as a result they will work with different conceptions of religion. Anthropologists, for example, legitimately study a key dimension of human experience — the religious experience — in its diversity and unruliness. Theologians adopt a more content-based approach: they study the texts and dogma which capture our fundamental dependence on a greater order of things. These and others are all legitimate uses of the concept of religion. The specific question which political and legal philosophers should ask themselves is this.

Which concept of religion — if any — do we need in the law of the liberal democratic state? How can we best identify and protect the normative values which historically have underpinned freedom of religion, non-establishment and the like? Egalitarian theorists of religious freedom, from this perspective, are right to seek to identify the normative grounds on which certain beliefs and practices call for state protection or state restraint, in the case of non-establishment.

A standard line of criticism against this egalitarian strategy has been to argue that it rests on a contested understanding of religion.

Critics have pointed out that — by analogizing religion with individual conscience or conceptions of the good — liberalism reveals its Protestant, individualistic bias, and is unable to capture the fullness of the religious experience. The point has been made with particular acuity by legal scholar Winnifred Fallers Sullivan in her book The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. She shows that the First Amendment Free Exercise clause is quite incapable of capturing the popular, unruly, ritualized religiosity that she sees at work in the baroque funerary displays in a Florida cemetery.

Sullivan demonstrates that religion is too complex, too comprehensive, and too multi-faceted to be adequately captured by the law of the liberal state.


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This is an important critique, which draws on what I have called the first critical and the second anthropological approach to religion. The disaggregating approach helps us answer this critique. To ask that the law embrace and describe the whole of social reality would be to yearn for a totalitarian law. Consider an analogy with marriage. The law does not describe and regulate the full experience of marriage: the fact that, in law, marriage is a contract does not mean that marriage is, or should be experienced as, a contract.

This new guide fulfils two main aims: to introduce the history and methodology pertaining to the study of religion including ideas of key theorists and to raise and discuss the main problems in current scholarship in world religions.

Religious Studies

Increasingly, recognition has been given to the importance of methodology in the study of religion, and, with justification, methodological issues are generally taught to first year students in order to equip them for systematic academic study of the topic. Unfortunately many of the theories that impinge on methodology are explained in a highly complex way, which even advanced students find it hard to understand. This book will unravel the complexity of these issues for students. In addition to theories relating to Religious Studies, examples will be drawn from a variety of the world's historical religious traditions, spanning the range of major ones and some minor ones.

Introduction to the Study of Religion

The student will in this way gain some understanding of the fundamental ideas of the world's religions as well as an introduction to methods of study. It provides an initiation into the concerns and issues of the subculture of studying religion, so that the student can begin to fell at home in this world. Convert currency. Add to Basket. Book Description Bloomsbury Academic.

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Rethinking public religion: Word, image, sound

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The Study of Religion: An Introduction to Key Ideas and Methods The Study of Religion: An Introduction to Key Ideas and Methods
The Study of Religion: An Introduction to Key Ideas and Methods The Study of Religion: An Introduction to Key Ideas and Methods
The Study of Religion: An Introduction to Key Ideas and Methods The Study of Religion: An Introduction to Key Ideas and Methods
The Study of Religion: An Introduction to Key Ideas and Methods The Study of Religion: An Introduction to Key Ideas and Methods
The Study of Religion: An Introduction to Key Ideas and Methods The Study of Religion: An Introduction to Key Ideas and Methods
The Study of Religion: An Introduction to Key Ideas and Methods The Study of Religion: An Introduction to Key Ideas and Methods
The Study of Religion: An Introduction to Key Ideas and Methods The Study of Religion: An Introduction to Key Ideas and Methods
The Study of Religion: An Introduction to Key Ideas and Methods The Study of Religion: An Introduction to Key Ideas and Methods

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