Saturday, January 22, 2011

The importance of openness and alternatives

Thus, according to Ninian Smart, “all worldviews are open to question and debate” including “the evolutionary model … we cannot dogmatically assert any one worldview to be established” (Smart 1989:9). Stressing one of his basic educational principles, he argued, “It is I believe a principle of education that you should, where there is doubt, point out alternatives.” (Smart 1989:10). Praising both Gandhi and Popper for their openness Smart argued that what is needed is academic “openness” adding “I count myself a glasnostic” (Smart 1989:10).

Ninian Smart at a conference in Washington, D.C.

This led him to declare “If we wish, therefore, to teach British history creatively, we should emphasize the progress towards openness, criticism and democracy which we have made: and indeed towards internationalism. We do not want to stick to utter tradition, but to find in tradition modern values” (Smart 1989:13).

He wound up his paper by re-asserting his views about the nature of religion, Religious Studies, and its value to society. Then he compared the study of religion to the study of nationalism urging that one enlightened the other. Finally he declared that Religious Studies “is a wonderful subject” and that 60 Lancaster Religious Studies graduates were teaching in universities worldwide.

Eight years later, in 1997, the "Council of Societies for the Study of Religion" published several papers in its "Bulletin" on the relationship between religious studies and theology to which Ninian Smart and his former colleague Eric J. Sharpe contributed. Once again Smart displayed an almost missionary zeal by restating the aims outlined in his inaugural address. Although he made a strong plea for a “multidisciplinary” approach to the study of religion that of necessity involved the interaction of several disciplines he never really fully explained here or elsewhere how he saw this approach working in practice.

At the same time he clearly recognized growing concerns about the development of Religious Studies but failed to address them adequately. Instead he simply restated that “Religious Studies is a field which is aspectual, cross-cultural, multidisciplinary (polymethodic), and non-finite” which he argued is “an important social science and humanities subject” (Smart 1997:68). The closest he came to addressing problems within the field was when stated quite bluntly that “Too much of academe is swayed by propaganda, notably in the humanities and social sciences” and asserted his belief in the importance of “professionalism” (Smart 1987:68).

Smart, Ninian: Religious Studies & Some Contradictions in Mrs. Thatcher’s Policies, Lancaster 1989.

Smart, Ninian: “Religious Studies and Theology”, in: The Council of Societies for the Study of Religion Bulletin, vol. 26, No. 3, 1968, pp. 66-68.

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