On the importance of studying the history of religions – reflections from the EASR/BASR conference

Last week I attended the European Association for the Study of Religions / British Association for the Study of Religions conference at Liverpool Hope University. I found no shortage of interesting papers and very much enjoyed my time. However, I was struck by the almost complete lack of historical panels. A quick survey identified that only 3 panels had an exclusive focus on the past, whereas 37 had an exclusive focus on contemporary religions (late 20th century onwards). The remainder included a mix of papers. If we change the filter from ‘contemporary’ to ‘modern’, taking the latter as referring to the 17th century onwards, the situation gets even worse: only 20 of the 276 papers listed took a historical approach. Even after setting aside those papers that address issues of ‘timeless’ relevance such as methodology or key concepts, we had over 200 papers on the modern period compared with a mere 20 on the rest of human history.

So where have all the (ancient and medieval) historians gone? One possibility is that they were simply not at this conference. The conference’s theme of ‘Religion, Migration and Mutation’ might perhaps appeal particularly to those who work on recent or contemporary times (though I certainly found the theme relevant to my work too). However, even knowing as I do that many historians simply were not present (no pun intended), I can’t help wondering if the conference statistics indicate that the number of scholars taking a historical approach towards the study of religion(s) is declining. Funding biases towards issues of contemporary relevance as well as a more vocal student interest in what people do now – rather than what people did in some past time – might explain such a move.

As a text-historian rooted firmly in Religious Studies I cannot help but feel concerned by this apparent move towards a contemporary focus, if indeed such a move at this conference is reflective of a broader move within the field, as I suspect it is. I cannot understand why we should be more interested in what people are doing in 2013 than in what they were doing in the early centuries CE, or indeed any other period. It all seems rather ‘present-ist’ to me. Are we really more important than the first scholar-monks of early Indian Buddhism?!

A related issue – and another one prominent at the conference – is the push to ignore such old-fashioned ideas as texts, founders, and institutions. According to some scholars, we should only be interested in ‘lived religions’ and how they are really practised ‘on the ground’. I too am interested in lived religions, albeit primarily those of dead people, but one thing I have noticed about asking living religious people about their religion is that many of them immediately start talking about texts, founders and institutions, and that is not just the case for those in a European/North American context. As a historian I cannot interview my subjects, and so must do the best I can using the – largely textual – sources at my disposal, but that is not to say that I am uninterested in people – people are ultimately the objects of my study. I appreciate the need to rebalance after the discipline has been dominated for so long by text-historians, but this should not entail ignoring the large body of textual or other historical data that still remains to be explored. The re-examination of our methods should help us to do textual studies better than before, for example to acknowledge our preconceptions about the nature of scripture; it should not stop us reading the texts at all.

As for teaching, in my view we need to have a balance of historical and contemporary presentations, and make sure the students are alive to the issues surrounding the categories we use. Many of us fusty old text-historians already do this – for example when I teach Theravada Buddhism we read texts AND examine ritual and everyday cultural aspects as well as discuss the problems surrounding the terms ‘Theravada’ and ‘Buddhism’. Let the students learn about the ritual feeding of the hungry ghosts and the daily offerings to Buddha-statues as well as the Dhammapada, not instead of.

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About naomiappleton

I work in the Divinity School at the University of Edinburgh, where I research and teach subjects related to South and Southeast Asian religions.
This entry was posted in Academia, conferences and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to On the importance of studying the history of religions – reflections from the EASR/BASR conference

  1. Pingback: How historical do text-historians’ texts need to be? | Naomi Appleton's blog

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