Critics or Caretakers?

“People need to understand that the way that religious studies are being taught today is largely an outgrowth of what was called in the 1960s and 1970s the ‘scientific study of religion.’ What they meant by that was teaching religion in a way that doesn’t adopt the viewpoint of the religion. And that’s what is really needed to be thought through very, very carefully,” he said.

Howell said the concept of scientific study of religion undermines the essential nature of the religion being taught.

“(Universities) have to walk a very thin line. They’ve made a choice of teaching religion by trying to be indifferent to the religious commitment,” Howell said. “Religion is one of the deepest commitments that human beings make … It’s not clear to me that its possible to remain neutral in regard to religion.”

(Former) Professor in Religion at the University of Illinois Kenneth Howell made controversy when it became known that he had written that 'homosexuality violates natural moral law' in a e-mail correspondence with a student. Regardless of Howell's antiquated beliefs, his take on the 'neutralness' of religious studies really surprises me. It is a theme frequently discussed in journals, books and religious studies classes. Howell confuses the methodological stances of non-confessionalism and having a critical distance, with being neutral and/or indifferent. This is either polemics or just sheer ignorance of the insider/outsider problem, a topic most students in religious studied should be well versed in. 

Howell's case is a perfect demonstration of the thirteenth assertion found in Bruce Lincoln's 'Theses on Method' (2005): 

When one permits those whom one studies to define the terms in which they will be understood, suspends one’s interest in the temporal and contingent, or fails to distinguish between “truths”, “truth-claims”, and “regimes of truth”, one has ceased to function as historian or scholar. In that moment, a variety of roles are available: some perfectly respectable (amanuensis, collector, friend and advocate), and some less appealing (cheerleader, voyeur, retailer of import goods). None, however, should be confused with scholarship.


  1. Lincoln, Bruce. 2005. “Theses on method.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 8 (3) (January 1): 8–12.