The other confessional history: On secular bias in the study of religion

History and Theory 45 (4):132–149 (2006)
Abstract
The rejection of confessional commitments in the study of religion in favor of social-scientific or humanistic theories of religion has produced not unbiased accounts, but reductionist explanations of religious belief and practice with embedded secular biases that preclude the understanding of religious believer-practitioners. These biases derive from assumptions of undemonstrable, dogmatic, metaphysical naturalism or its functional equivalent, an epistemological skepticism about all truth claims of revealed religions. Because such assumptions are so widespread among scholars today, they are not often explicitly articulated. They were overtly asserted by Emile Durkheim in his Elementary Forms of Religious Life , however, and are implicit in the claims of two other thinkers influential in the study of early modern Christianity in recent years, namely Clifford Geertz and Michel Foucault. The use of such theories in the history of religion yields secular confessional history, parallel to traditional religious confessional history only with different embedded metaphysical beliefs. If scholars want to understand religious persons such that the latter would recognize themselves in what is said about them, rather than impose their own metaphysical convictions on them, then they should reject metaphysically biased reductionist theories of religion no less than confessional religious assumptions in the practice of their scholarship. Instead, a study of religion guided not by theories but by the question, “What did it mean to them?” and which is particularized in metaphysically neutral ways offers a third alternative that avoids confessional history, whether religious or secular. When carried out consistently for multiple traditions, such an approach can reconstruct disagreements that point beyond description to historical explanation of change over time
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Gregory W. Dawes (2011). In Defense of Naturalism. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 70 (1):3-25.
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