Thursday, 30 December 2010

Ninian Smart and the origins of Religious Studies

The issues raised by Adolf Harnack came to the fore again in the 1960’s with the development of religious studies as a newly formed academic discipline. For example, Ninian Smart founded Britain’s first department of Religious Studies full of hope in 1967. A year later, in 1968, he delivered his inaugural address in which he attempted to articulate his vision for the field by outlining both its scope and the methods he thought most appropriate for studying religion and religions.

Smart began by locating his new department in a historic and disciplinary context akin to both anthropology and history. The study of religion, he argued, requires that scholars describe religion in its historical and what he called its “structural” forms. By, historical he meant its many manifestations through history. By structural forms he meant its social manifestations as observed by anthropologists and sociologists. To perform these tasks Smart further argued “the study of religion must be comparative” (Smart 1968:3-4). That is one must study religions not simply one particular religion.

His next point was that to study religion involved understanding the discourse of religious people and texts. As a result “It follows, therefore, that the logic of the study of religion itself impels one towards taking the philosophy of religion seriously” (Smart 1968:6). Smart then made the shrewd comment that “the understanding of others, whether in the past of one’s own tradition or other cultures, requires self-understanding”. This he rightly observed is because “the observer is not wholly detached” (Smart 1968:6). Therefore, he correctly noted that without appreciating the logic involved in studying religions the exercise becomes meaningless.

More to follow next week.

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