During my first semester of graduate school, I was told a cautionary tale. It was about a Christian pastor who went back for a PhD in religious studies. But one day he had had enough. He stood up from the seminar table and exclaimed, “That’s my Jesus you’re talking about!”
The pastor’s reaction is the typical believer/practitioner one. He expected his advanced studies to “strengthen his faith,” perhaps. He resisted setting aside his Christian truth claims, “bracketing them out,” to use the common expression.
Read this post at the Religion in American History blog about an attack on a professor of Catholic Studies who criticized the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The comments, thus far, are intelligent.
The problem, however, is a constant one—even between Pagan practitioners (I don’t like the term “believers”) and scholars in Pagan Studies, who are indeed mostly but not all Pagan practitioners themselves, in some way, shape, or fashion.
Religious studies is not-theistic, nor is it atheistic. But it is not theology. There is some tension between the two approaches. (I should point out that the AAR includes theologians too, although some think that the academy is plagued by dangerous religious liberalism.
(On a somewhat bookish online discussion group someone recently claimed that scholars in Pagan Studies pursued their intellectual interests only to gain stature within the Pagan community. Not hardly. For every fan that you may gain, there probably is someone else ready to denounce you as an enemy of true Paganism.)
For instance, when I wrote Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America, one of the question that I wished to attempt to answer was, “What do we (Pagans) mean when we talk about nature religion.”
You will get a different view with a different “we” if you read Bron Taylor’s Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future.
So if I were revising Her Hidden Children (I have no plan to do so), I would have to take his ideas into account. The conversation would continue. Not that I am right and he is wrong, or vice versa, but I would have to sort out the differences and similarities, intellectual influences (e.g., he gives Henry Thoreau much more space than I do), and so on, because I think that Dark Green Religion is a significant book, and it would be a glaring omission to ignore it now.
These are just two books, against the flood of practitioner-oriented texts coming out from Llewellyn and other publishers. And neither I nor Bron (so far as I know) are teaching workshops on “How to be a better nature-religionist,” complete with breathing exercises, movement, and song. Other people could do that much better. Audiences want to hear a speaker with a schtick.
We do what we do because we like to think about these things, trying to find paths through the intellectual underbrush. (“Eliade used to go up the hill this way. Is that path still useful?”)
Meanwhile, you learn to argue whether there is such a thing as “religion,” even while continuing to use the term.