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Who Speaks for Religion?

If I went around my neighborhood asking friends and neighbors just what evolutionary biology was all about, then went and found an evolutionary biologist and asked him to defend the comments of all the “evolutionists” in my neighborhood, I think he would be justly annoyed. He would probably tell me that these people didn’t understand the details of the field and in fact that most of them didn’t understand the broad outlines. He would certainly define terms differently than they did.

Suppose, in turn, that I chastise him for using eccentric terminology and not understanding the real issues involved in the field because, after all, this is the way that regular people, folks who haven’t been to university and studied such stuff, understand the terms. How dare he refuse to defend their viewpoint? After all, one must defend this activity as it is actually understood out there among the masses.

Pretty stupid of me, no? Well, that’s a slightly exaggerated version of how I felt upon reading the post Saving Religion from the Religion Scholars. What is a “religion scholar” anyhow? Can I start referring to evolutionary biologists as “science scholars”? Probably not. I’d get accused of failing to comprehend the many and various disciplines involved, the terminology used, and the interests and perspectives.

I’m not here to defend the particular “religion scholar” referred to in the post (nor to attack him, for that matter). That’s not the major issue. I would point out that I could always find one biologist who says really dumb things (I think Answers in Genesis and Reasons to Believe could provide me with a couple), and declare as a result that we should rescue science from scientists in general.

The simple fact is that religion is not a single entity, the study of religion is not a single field, and the arguments against one sort of religion are not effective as arguments against another sort. You may want to make it so for convenience, but it really doesn’t work. I don’t get worried when an atheist chooses to argue against someone else’s beliefs and then demand that I defend them. I simply shrug and move on to more productive pursuits.

Now most atheists with whom I have interacted have taken the time to hear what I’m saying, just as I try to take the time to hear what they’re saying. It should shock nobody to discover that not every atheist has the same set of beliefs, and not every person who has some religious beliefs shares the same set.

It should similarly come as no surprise that those who spend their time studying one scholarly discipline that is part of the broad field we call religion will have specific vocabulary and ways of talking about the subject that those who are not specialists don’t share.

To use myself as an example, I am often called a “theologian” by laypeople. I’m not a theologian. I don’t claim this, as some think, because I don’t like theology, but because I am not trained as a theologian, and haven’t researched or taught in that broad set of disciplines grouped under “theology.” My actual training is in Biblical and cognate languages, a field which requires no religious commitment, just a scholarly one. My actual work, to the extent I’m involved in religion, is popularizing, but that still doesn’t make me a theologian.

Within Biblical studies and theology there are again many subfields. Just as I am annoyed when a “scientist”–a physicist, for example (with reference to nobody in particular)–claims to speak authoritatively regarding biology, I am annoyed if someone whose training is in pastoral ministry claims to speak authoritatively on issues of Hebrew grammar. Each person will have some knowledge of other fields, but we must each be careful.

Thus nobody speaks for religion, and it’s even less likely that anyone could than it is for science in general. If we are to have dialog on these issues, then we will have to take the time to find out the specific nuances of our opponents’ views. If those hardliners on either side of the issue don’t want to do so, that is their loss.

(Note: James McGrath has also blogged on this issue.)

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One Comment

  1. Peter Kirk says:

    Worse still when a journalist (even one with a hereditary peerage) presumes to pontificate on climate science and mathematics, and a pastor believes him – but see my comment, no response to it yet.

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