My Definition of “Theory” in the Academic Study of Religion

Over the past few years, I have taught an undergraduate course on “Theories in the Study of Religion” at the University of Washington. Such a course is not atypical for students – at either the graduate or undergraduate level – who specialize in the field of religious studies. Such courses often will focus upon introducing students to a range of approaches or analytical tools in the study of religion. Furthermore, an historical focus on “key thinkers” is a common approach, especially for those instructors using Daniel Pals now classic Nine Theories of Religion (3rd edition; OUP, 2015 [1st edition 1996]).

My own approach to the topic is also historically grounded, but I note a distinction between methodology and theorization. In a sense, the former is a collection of tools offered the student to go “into the real world” to study religion. The latter, however, is far more interesting (to me at least) and challenging (hopefully for students). To theorize the academic study of religion is to look at scholarship as data, data situated within contingent historical and ideological processes. In my Theories course, I try to guide my students to analyze processes of knowledge production.

In our opening sessions, after we have explored definitional approaches to religion, Enlightenment influences upon the taxon “religion”, and geopolitical articulations of “religion” (notably the East/West division arising from European colonialism), I offer the follow “definition of theory” (and like all conceptualizations, this was presented to be theorized itself):

Theorization of religion is less a set of approaches or methodologies for the study of a given data set understood as “religion”, than it is a (reflexive) analysis of the various and sometimes contending positioning acts taken in the very emergence of such a concept.

To study religion theoretically, therefore, is to study the power dynamics by which a constituted “normative” or “commonsense” object (= religion) arises for one set of social actors in relation to other sets of social actors.

In other words, we are looking at the how and “to what ends” such approaches/methodologies arise and are seen by social actors as viable tools for constructing “knowable knowledge”.

As I look over this definition of theory, the following points struck me:

  • A distinction between method and theory
  • Taxonomies establish power relations between social actors (and the roles played out or contested; here I’m reminded of Positioning Theory from social psychology)
  • Theorizing is a reflexive process; the theorist can also be theorized
  • To theorize is to look at normative processes; i.e., how abstract and constructed concepts or impressions are internalized and rendered normative
  • All knowledge (and, by extension, all theory) is historically contingent
  • Knowledge contends with other knowledge, and is often generated or modified within such confrontation
  • To theorize is not to look at what something is, but what it does (and for whom and under what social conditions)

A further view of “theory” for the study of religion was offered by Russell McCutcheon (University of Alabama) in an article that I feel deserves far greater attention in its critique of postmodernism in religious studies: McCutcheon, “‘My Theory of the Brontosaurus’: Postmodernism and ‘Theory’ of Religion,” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 26.1 (1997): 3-23.

Professor McCutcheon contends that theories are models built for comparative analysis of power relations, carrying predictive potential, and are falsifiable. Theory is not simply “a viewpoint” or “an idea” – opening the door for relativism and an “anything goes” attitude (e.g., as I’ve often seen when postmodernism is evoked in defense of theology or confessional assertions in the academy).  “Religion” (however defined) and “theory” (however constructed) are not benign descriptors for substantive realities, but, rather, are devices used in the production and explanation of contending or conflating realities.

To teach a “Theories in the Study of Religion” course is, in part, to empower students to recognize and analyze processes of knowledge construction.


9 thoughts on “My Definition of “Theory” in the Academic Study of Religion

  1. Doc,
    “All knowledge (and, by extension, all theory) is historically contingent”
    A false statement.
    That means this theory is contingent as well, therefore it is false, as well as this one, therefore all theories are not contingent.
    It means absolute truth exists.


    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to not only read my post, but also to engage the ideas with your comments. I really appreciate the invitation to engage in a discussion. What your comment nicely illustrates is a common perception—or misperception—that arise in critiques of constructionist approaches to epistemologies. Your comment would be true if (1) theory stood apart from data (i.e., theory as static and data as contingent), and (2) if contingency necessarily equated with falsehood. The former is clearly not my position, as the other points listed clearly indicate. Theories are also discursive objects that are contingent and, thus, open to theorization. The latter, however, is perhaps the more important one. If contingency equated with falsehood, then yes we would end up in an eternal regression of affirmation and denial, resulting in an endless contradiction. However, contingency need not necessitate falsehood. That is a common flaw in dismissals of “relativism”. Relativism has often been invoked as harbinger of Pyrrhonism, an extreme approach to skepticism that results in a contradictory dismantling of all truth including, of course, the very act of dismantling. But such skepticism is not necessarily what contingency implies, unless, of course, we make the mistake of equating contingency with falsehood. What we are looking at, rather, is not “absolute truth” but the conditions by which social actors establish claims of absolute truth or knowledge, be those claims “true” or not (indeed, the truthfulness of claims is not even relevant in such analysis as that is not the end goal of such analysis). And we need to be cautious about conflating “knowledge” with “truth” (especially “absolute truth”) (and here I’m reminded of Bertrand Russell’s insightful distinction of truth and knowable knowledge in Our Knowledge of the External World [1914: “We have been considering, in the above account, the question of verifiability of physics. Now verifiability is by no means the same thing as truth; it is, in fact, something far more subjective and psychological. For a proposition to be verifiable, it is not enough that it should be true, but it must also be such as we can discover to be true. Thus verifiability depends upon our capacity for acquiring knowledge, and not only upon the objective truth” (p. 116); it’s not just a matter of if something is true, but rather how do I know that it is true—the latter, of course, shifts the focus from making true claims to explaining processes by which truth claims are made). I want to be careful, however, to not slip into sui generis discourse (specifically, transhistorical essences and historical manifestations—a common approach in what is often called phenomenology of religion). Instead, I think it useful to look at relational matrices of knowledge construction rather than specific substantive claims of such knowledge. To shift from object to process is to look at such questions as: Why do people highlight particular concerns through the knowledge structures that they utilize? How is knowledge (and theorization of knowledge) shaped to meet contingent needs? When I look at theories of religion (i.e., as a product of academia), I am constantly struck by how little I learn about “religion” and how much I learn about the scholar—or school of thought or social context of such scholarship—as she or he creates a data set (the re-description of human activities), frames that data set, and utilizes that data set for (perhaps even unrecognized) end goals. For example, there is no established definition of “religion”. There are multiple definitions that contend with each other for normative status, so as to establish a substantive “thing” (a thing that is a reified concept, of course). Power dynamics certainly come into play, so that we can look at how such relational—or social—processes are played out. Such dynamics are clearly illustrated by colonial uses of “religion” in European empire building (cf. Chidester’s excellent overview in the Guide to the Study of Religion [Cassell, 2000]). But even on a less grand scale, look at how definitions reveal the interests, theoretical (and methodological) preferences, and cultural biases of researchers. William James’ highly individualized, apolitical definition of religion stresses his interests in not only psychology (as a functional rather than structural study) but also his philosophy of pragmatism. It also makes sense in the context of early twentieth-century American ideology of heightened individualism and pragmatism. And his approach to “religion” (especially in “The Will to Believe”) strongly engages his personal concerns over—and reject of—Darwinian biological determinism in preference for free choice. What we gain in theorizing this theorist is the insight that James’ theory of “religion” is very much a product of the concerns of his personal, cultural, and historical context. Does that make his study of religious experience false or true? Not at all. It is contingent, being neither false nor true. (It could still be false or true, but that is not what contextualizing the emergence of knowledge systems gives us.) The question is not whether a given truth claim is right or wrong, but rather how and why did social actors come to such truth claims, shaping and internalizing those truth claims as “obvious” vis-à-vis other truth claims and, of course, to what ends? And yes even the theorization of theorization is open game. That’s where the reflexive side of theory comes into play. And such an extension of contingency (without the equation of falsehood) does result in an eternal regression or spiral. Everything can be turned into data and theorized, even theory.


      1. Postmodernism, in short.
        It ignores the law of Non- contradiction. (No two contradictory things can both be true at the same time.)
        Such as the false statements this form of reasoning that you are sharing here must have in order to appear a solid form of logic. But it isn’t solid. It is separated by several false statements.
        Shall I point them all out?


      2. There is no violation of the law of non-contradiction, unless we accept your premise that contingency necessitates falsehood, which it doesn’t. What I am saying is nothing radical. It underlies most of modern sociology, social psychology, communication studies, literary theory, and critical theory. It is simply an extension of sociology of knowledge to acts of theorization, thereby contending that “theory” is a kind of knowledge construction while also a process of studying such knowledge construction. Postmodernism, furthermore, is a problematic term, almost a meaningless term that has become a generic umbrella for a diverse range of theories often being affirmed or dismissed as simply relativism. “Postmodernism” as a taxon often serves more rhetorical than explanatory purposes (so also the label “relativism”). See McCutcheon’s article cited in the original post.


  2. I think there is also a dichotomy being set up between universals (absolute truth claims) and particulars (historical contingencies) that might be a problem for you, if I’m reading your comments correctly. If I’m following you, to claim that “all knowledge is historically contingent” is a universal claim that, when applied to itself renders it historically contingent. This would seem to be a contradiction between a universal and a particular. But let’s consider two other possibilities. Firstly, let’s consider for the moment that the universal and the particular need not be opposites but rather two aspects of a class (in this case “knowledge”) that support the validity of the class rather than counter that class. What makes a universal claim false is when we find an exception. I can think of no exception to the claim that knowledge is contingent, in part because of my understanding of the term “knowledge” (i.e., as a category of human production of “knowing”; thus, the class itself requires contingency, contingency in the sense that “knowing” is socially constructed and arises under social or cultural conditions). Consider the analogy of biological and physical taxonomies. We have specific examples of cats (particulars) and a universal category of cat. While there is tension between the specifics and the universal (along lines of determinacy and indeterminacy of definitions), such tension does not result in a contradiction or the negation of “cat”, but rather a fluidity between class and members of a class where they are heuristically related (and then the conditions of such relations need to be studied, which brings us back to sociology of knowledge). Secondly, let’s consider the analogy of a “game”. This is partly what McCutcheon advocates in that article. Within the boundaries of a given “game”, that is the rules by which we play and determine outcomes and roles etc., there are universals; i.e., the rules of the game. That “universal” is only universal within the confines of that game. If we leave that game, then the game rules no longer make sense. Imagine applying the rules of baseball to a tennis match. But within the game, the rules (the universal conditions specific to that particular game) allow us to know what a play is, when someone is out (and what that means), how teams score (and what constitutes a “team”), etc. Theory is a kind of “game”, not, as is often presented by so-called postmodernism (as popularly understood), a free for all (= relativism).


  3. You wrote: “A relativistic thinker would naturally deny concrete definition of terms.”

    As I’ve tried to point out, I’m not advocating relativism (at least not in the sense that I think you are using the term). But several questions come to mind with your comment: When did a given concrete definition of terms arise? Or was it always there? When did we realize that it was always there? What conditions led us to these conclusions?

    We could even ask: Under what conditions would “a relativistic thinker … naturally deny concrete definition of terms”? Or was there always a relativist thinker? And always a denial of concrete definition of terms? How did we determine that such denial is essential (“natural”/essentialized) to a relativistic thinker? When did we come to that conclusion?

    And I think we need to ask the further question: Are we conflating definitions with what is being defined? How does this conflation relate, for example, to Russell’s Paradox?

    Finally, here’s the kicker for me: Why are these questions even important to us? By raising these very questions and lines of argument, what does that tell us about our own historical and cultural situation?


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