The greatest innovation in the field of religious studies is the very invention of the whole discipline. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, most faith traditions were so insular in outlook and complacent about their own rightness, that the idea of the open-ended study of religion as a phenomenon hadn’t crossed anyone’s mind. Theology - the assertion, often backed coercively, of what one already believes to be true - was the only type of religious discourse in town.
But the accumulated effects of cross-cultural contacts changed all this and the need grew actually to learn what other systems of belief - religious or otherwise - were really saying. The simplistic and pejorative categories of the apologists were no longer seen as sufficient or even helpful. It was becoming increasingly apparent that people who had previously been written off as ‘heathens’, ‘schismatics’, or some such label, actually had worthwhile things to say.
And so over the past century, the discipline of religious studies has grown from nothing into an important vehicle for understanding the beliefs of other cultures. Unlike theology, religious studies starts with no sacrosanct doctrinal assumptions. It is, by contrast, a standard academic discipline, which, in a spirit of questioning, looks at how people actually live and what they actually believe. It seems pretty clear that it is a discipline that will be fully occupied in the next half-century or so.
Bill Cooke is senior lecturer, School of Visual Arts, University of Auckland at Manukau, New Zealand, Asia-Pacific co-ordinator, Center for Inquiry, Amherst, NY, fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion, Editor in Chief, The Open Society