Vestigial Superstitions? Thoughts on the rejection of religion in modern thought

I am currently in the process of preparing a paper for submission to a religious studies journal. The preparatory reading has, inevitably, resulted in THOUGHTS, and I have decided to bless you all with a little treatise rant on why modern scholarship has erred in its general rejection of religion and theology.

Firstly, a clarification and departure point. My own interest in religion has been spurred by a personal quest to comprehend and come to terms with my identity as a ‘cradle Catholic’ who holds a variety of opinions and views which are contrary to official church doctrine and (some) dogma. So, I have been searching for a form of personal enlightenment, to borrow terminology from another faith tradition. I have often found my parallel research in sociology/philosophy/social theory etc. to be helpful in this regard and have never discovered any inextirpable* contradictions between general philosophical-theoretical discussions and my own understanding of my faith. That is to say: I have not experienced any ontological or epistemological crises of faith.

*I read this word in a book today and I liked it

Glossary of terms:
Theology: the study of the nature of God and religious belief
Theologies: religious beliefs and theory when systematically developed
Doctrine: a belief or set of beliefs held and taught by a Church, political party, or other group
Dogma: a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.

Of course, there are thinkers with whom I disagree, schools of thought which I dislike, and doctrines I think are stupid. But continuous reading and intellectual growth has shown me that it is perfectly fine to pick and choose those intellectual inputs which suit you; we naturally (assuming you are reflexive and conscious of your intentions) gravitate towards writers and thinkers who have similar ontological and epistemological foundations to our own. This does, of course, create an intellectual bubble effect – similar to the ‘social media bubble’ that so many fret about these days. But rather than cause myself anguish and consternation by fretting about which thinkers I am excluding and which intellectual traditions I am ignoring, I choose to aim for a path which, little by little, will add to my own happiness and self-understanding and which, in turn, will contribute to the broader goal of comprehending the world around me: necessarily through an understanding of my relation to that world. [Since one cannot come to an understanding of the world while bypassing one’s own world-self relationship, as it is the means through which we access the world. There’s a little metaphysical hocus-pocus for you]

Early in my research career, I was made aware of how religion is tacitly construed as a non-issue in the social sciences. Senior professors in my department made disparaging remarks about religions, those who are religious, and so on, and other colleagues let slip their total lack of knowledge and lack of a desire to learn. I found this extraordinary: regardless of one’s personal position on the existence of a deity or the choice to participate in elements of a religion, it is undeniable that religion has always been, is currently, and will likely continue to be, a motive force in societies worldwide. Even in those parts of society which consider themselves ‘atheist’ or agnostic – those positions are only available because of the existence of theistic positions.

Religions impact every aspect of our lives, whether we believe or not. For a planner to not consider, for example, the placement of worship spaces when considering the distribution of certain social groups in an urban agglomeration, seems ridiculous. Planners consider transport infrastructure, economic infrastructures, and retail proximity… when considering the cohesiveness of a community or society, it makes sense to include religion. Yet this is not common practice, outside of box-ticking exercises to collect basic data.

I have come to the conclusion (after years of consideration but no real research #INeedFunding) that in the UK at least, this is due to a lack of knowledge. The lack of knowledge itself can be understood as the result of various processes which include the reduction of participation in religion by the bulk of society since the great historical rupture of the World Wars, and the effect of the Enlightenment both generally (in terms of opening up new arenas of thought to more people than ever before #DefinitelyAGoodThing) and specifically with regards to academia (in terms of the specific intention to divorce social thought from religious thought, and the subsequent learned behavior of ignoring anything which resembled that ‘vestigial superstition’ #NotSoGreat).

ANYWAY. Needless to say, I am dismayed. So many intellectual (and social) doors could be opened if those who make it their business to study ‘society’ were to actively seek recombination with religious social thought. For a start, they would discover that theology is a living, breathing, intellectually rigorous and combative discipline which has continued to progress, covering much of the same ground as secular philosophers and social theorists. I have discovered numerous instances where a social-scientific discipline has covered the exact same ground as a theological or religious studies discipline and marvel at the parallel arguments and the missed opportunities for advancement. One example that springs to mind is the issue of ‘eco-guilt’: environmental psychologists and religious studies scholars have both been actively considering the mechanisms through which people can be encouraged to change their behaviour – in this instance, to become more eco-conscious in their daily lives. Yet neither literature access the other – they operate in total isolation. Imagine what could be achieved if those psychologists were to reach out to a scholarly tradition which has been considering guilt and behaviour change for millennia – and if those interested in religion felt they would be positively received instead of derided.

Of course, there are disciplinary exceptions, like ‘sociology of religion’ and ‘religion and science studies’ – but these ivory towers seem relatively isolated within their own parent disciplines (sociology and religious studies respectively). I seek a more holistic reconsideration of the place of religion and religious thought vis-à-vis the social sciences.

To summarize: the social sciences tend to ignore religion. This is problematic because religion is an active and important social force. It is also intellectually frustrating because a wealth of social thought is also being ignored.

This state of affairs is personally very irritating because as a social scientist who seeks to embody this recombination with religious thought in my work, I’m very difficult to ‘market’ to prospective employers and funders. No-one knows what to make of me. At least I’m on the path to discovering what I make of myself…

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