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Pointless debates in the scientific study of religion

Cartoon conflict resolutionThe scientific study of religion aims to study religion by using scientific methods and the tools of specific scientific fields (such as evolution, psychology, neurology, or sociology). How exactly this should be done has been a matter of hot debate. Which theories of evolution should be used? Or which methods of psychology? While this may seem like a fundamental question, Joseph Kramp (Drew University) argues that it is a pointless one: arguments over methodology reduce to the personalities of researchers and indicate the stagnation of the field.

Kramp wants to answer a question posed by psychologist Paul Pruyser: “Is religion, even among the educated and intellectually ambitious, a favorite and socially sanctioned area of stagnation, fixation, and regression?” For Kramp, arguments over methodology hold the key to unlocking the answer. As he sees it, methodological arguments cannot be resolved because of the connection between knowledge and psychological health.

In a nutshell, following Willliam James, Kramp argues that people’s personalities set the interests, purposes, and ends of their knowledge. In other words, knowledge does not exist as some abstract, universally objective entity, but only as a state of one’s personality. To those outside of psychology, this position seems radical, and in its defense, Kramp points out that knowledge comes from trying to justify beliefs, the implication being that the human person first believes something and then sets out to rationalize it. Put another way, knowledge does not exist in a vacuum but as a human pursuit—knowledge is a purpose-driven activity.

This means that the nature of knowledge will vary as widely as the personalities of the persons who pursue it. As such, knowledge will depend on psychological health. Kramp defines insanity as “moments of lacking any self-possession” and sanity as “moments of total self-possession.” Rather than saying that insanity is bad and sanity is good, Kramp instead states that both insanity and sanity cooperate within a person’s personality. Mental health requires both moments of self-control (sanity) and moments free of inhibition (insanity). Only possessing insanity or only possessing sanity leads to mental illness.

Tying this connection between knowledge and psychological health back to methodological disputes, Kramp finds that such disputes serve no purpose and ultimately stagnate the field. Scholars should use whatever methods best fits their personality, and instead of arguing against other scholars who use different methods, scholars should rather suspend their judgment. In other words, they should display a balance of sanity and insanity. Trying to dominate all views with one’s own indicates an imbalance, and thus mental illness (stagnation).

Moving forward, Kramp suggests that the scientific study of religion should focus on the language of “pleasure” rather than method. That is, focus more on the physical and tactile than the mental and abstract. Method and knowledge still have an important role to play for Kramp, but he wants both of them put in conjunction with personality.

For most, Kramp moves in an all too radical direction. Method plays a vital role in any scientific enterprise (including the scientific study of religion), and to dismiss it as the mere conflict of personalities seems extreme. On the other side, it does empirically seem to be the case that disputes over method never end. No one ever convinces anyone else (unless they already agreed, of course). In terms of leading to any sort of change, the disputes overall have been at most non-productive. If the scientific method consists in part of experimenting until something works, then perhaps Kramp’s approach is worth a shot.

For more, see “The Sacrifice of Knowledge: Vain Debates in the Social Scientific Study of Religion” in the Journal of Religious Health.


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