Discursive Study of Religion: From States of the Mind to Communication and Action

In: Method & Theory in the Study of Religion
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This article addresses the predicament of the academic study of religions and directs the debate into more fruitful fields of research. After a brief account of the most important problems - identified as the "crisis of representation", the "situated observer", and the "dilemma of essentialism and relativism" - I argue that, in order to cope with these afflictions, we should scrutinize religions as systems of communication and action and not as systems of (unverifiable) belief. Not inner states of the mind or speculations about the transcendent are our issue, but the analysis of publicly communicated constructions. The term "fields of discourse" is introduced to denote both the coherence of these cultural arenas and the "recursive" involvement of scholars who are themselves actors in them. As a meta-theoretical instrument, the ideal type of "discourse" makes visible multiple perspectives on religious phenomena and - although the analysis' contingency and ethnocentricity is acknowledged - allows for the description of long-lasting traditions.

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