I spent 8 years as a joint appointed faculty member in religious studies at one of the top 10 programs (in anyone’s book) in the field. Each year, Vanderbilt churned out about 3 PhD’s a year in each of 6 separate areas: (1) Theology; (2) Church History; (3) New Testament/early Christianity; (4) Old testament (judaism); (5) Christian Ethics; and (6) History and Critical Theories of Religion (whatever that means, that was “my” group). Each year about 15 people completed their PhD’s at Vanderbilt. And, each year almost none of them got jobs. While it is nice to look back and focus on success stories like Anthea Butler, who is now tenured at Penn. My mind tends to drift to those who are working at printing presses or spending their fifth stint as an adjunct or working for religious organizations far beneath the respectability of a PhD graduate. Like all of the humanities, religious studies has overproduced PhD’s, with predictable results. It didn’t have to be like this, yet it is getting worse.
Don’t get me wrong. The study of religion is important and should be supported in any university worth its seal. But, “Religious Studies” has become a euphemism for “religious perspectives on religion” rather than the systematic study of religion. Look at Vanderbilt’s old classifications. What is “Church History” or “Early Christianity” or “Old Testament”? What they are is lowbrow history tainted by religious conviction. Now, I want to quickly add that at a top program like Vanderbilt, they were by no means low brow, and they were rarely tainted by the stench of Abrahamic conviction—but, in general, that was both the expectation and the reality. And, of course, what is theology except for religiously polluted philosophy. And, why should ethics be relegated to Christianity? Are only Christians ethical? Why should ethics even be taught in conjunction with religion? And what does that leave? Some mishmash program searching for methodological and theoretical coherence–History and critical theories of religion. Right. I still don’t know what that means. But, I know what it did—It seduced a bunch of bright and promising young scholars into getting a worthless degree. ANY of our graduates could and should have received degrees in sociology, political science, or history. With the exception of history, they would have had strong job prospects, and they would have benefited from a systematic program in both theory and methodology that would have grounded them in a discipline. Religious studies is not a discipline. And that is why it should die.
And, of course, it gets worse. The rise of conservative Christianity in the United States has dramatically skewed the occupational market for “religious studies” scholars. In conservative Christian colleges, nobody cares if your “early church” scholar can read Aramaic or has fathomed the primary texts and historical literature on the development of the movements that became Christianity. They’d be perfectly happy with someone who did a didactic using the King James Version of the Christian Bible. Things are not much better even at higher ranked religious universities, who do not really want critical scholarship on religion. Worse yet, conservative Christian foundations have pumped money into religious studies to help fuel the careers of people who worship their gods. Nobody gives a shit about studying religion, the point is to amplify religious particularisms in a manner that supports the parochial interests of funders. The few students who do get jobs in religious studies are religious ideologues who are the least deserving of their degrees.
It is unethical to continue to encourage students to pursue PhD’s in religious studies. Students who are interested in studying religion need to be trained in a systematic discipline—anthropology, history, sociology, political science, or communication. Theology is bullshit and has no place in a real university, but ethics does have a place in philosophy (and in applied programs like Business and Medicine) and theology is a part of the history of philosophy. Still, disciplines like anthropology, history, and philosophy have dramatically overproduced PhD’s in the last 40 years, and the grim job market prospects in those disciplines (though they are better than religious studies, unless you are a Christian ideologue) should make us direct our students elsewhere.
Religious studies is ALREADY dead at most universities, and it is barely alive at many where it hangs on. The holdout universities are overwhelmingly religious colleges, and they are increasingly populated by people who have minimal interest in studying religion beyond creating apologetics for their own peculiar faiths. The study of religion cannot be accomplished in religious studies.