If you asked me what the academic discipline of Religious Studies is (good) for, I’d probably begin by directing your attention to two effectively succinct essays: (1) Russell T. McCutcheon’s “What is the Academic Study of Religion?” and (2) “Why the World Needs Religious Studies” by Nathan Schneider.
One thing Religious Studies is (good) for, both authors suggest, is that it helps you make sure you know what you’re talking about when you’re talking about what people (think they) are doing when they’re being religious. The immediate purpose of Religious Studies isn’t to help you adjudicate truth claims, deciding who’s right and who’s wrong; it’s about accurately describing and interpreting (explaining and understanding) what the various truth claims actually are. You may argue for or against (the efficacy of) any religious belief, experience, or ritual you like, but if your argument is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the issues involved, all you’re really doing is farting at straw men (not to put too fine a point on it). First you need to learn how to ask the right questions; then you need to learn how to shut up and listen, because that’s the only way you’ll learn how to ask better questions.
Religious Studies is a humanism: according to McCutcheon, it is anthropological (about what people do), not theological (about what God/the gods do); descriptive (about what people actually do), not normative or prescriptive (about what people should do); it is non-evaluatively comparative, suspending judgment (what Schneider refers to as epoché) for the time being, pending adequate understanding. It is, after all, the field’s humanism that makes all the difference between appropriate “instruction about religion” and inappropriate “religious instruction” (catechesis) in the US Supreme Court’s 1963 Abington School District v. Schempp decision regarding the study of religion in public education.
But Religious Studies is no zero-sum Insider vs. Outsider game, either. Schneider argues, from experience:
Walking around [at] the A[merican] A[cademy of] R[eligion annual meeting] each year, I feel like I’m seeing Isaiah’s vision about wolves and lambs [Isa. 11.6] coming true—aside from the considerable academic bickering, of course. I love it. There are people in collars and saffron robes and turbans among the tweedy professors. It’s full of rational and fascinating discussions about the loftiest subjects that anyone can think of, but with no suicide bombers, no ordeals by fire. Again, this isn’t supposed to be possible, but it is. The world needs more of it.
What it is, is seriously dialogical, and without that, without a principled commitment to empathetic, open-ended, respectful, rigorous conversation between responsive and answerable Insiders and Outsiders—both learning how to view oneself as another and the Other as oneself—nothing of any practical value would come of it. And that practical value turns out to be not so much a means for adjudicating truth claims as a foundation for lasting community building and peacemaking. In the dialogic process, the urge to judgment ends up giving way to the lure of relationship.