When I attended my new faculty orientation, one of my lunch table-mates, a scientist, asked me whether my department trained people for ministerial careers. Yesterday on the bus I got to talking to the lady next to me who--when she found out that what department I'm in--asked me about how we taught religion in a public university. When people find out I teach about Judaism in a department of "Religious Studies," they often ask if I'm a rabbi. Almost anyone who works in my field can tell similar stories. Generally, when people ask what I do, I say I'm a historian. This is true on a number of levels--my Ph.D is in History and methodologically, what I do is exactly what my colleagues in the History department do. But I really say it to try to forestall questions like these.
People are confused about what "Religious Studies" is and I can see why.
"Religious Studies" is one of the common names for departments and programs in North American academic institutions that study religion. The people in those departments break down into a few broad types. Some are religious people and study their own religious tradition and often "represent" that tradition in some ways (as theologians, as church historians). That is to say this group often speaks as "insiders" (in Religious Studies parlance). Members of a second group may study their own tradition or not or not (or may or may not be religious), but have some sensibility that "religion" represents some kind of "real" thing out there in the world. They don't necessarily believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, but they often speak of the field of Religious Studies in terms of studying the "really real" or the "numinous." Russell McCutcheon calls this second way of speaking the "sui generis" discourse on religion, i.e. the notion that the way one studies religion should be different somehow than the way one studies other cultural and social phenomena. (I should also say that sometimes it's hard to distinguish between the first type and the second type. The first type tend to be clergy and the second type tend not to be, for one thing; the first type is more often at church-related or other sectarian institutions and the second type more likely at non-sectarian private or public universities. But these generalizations don't always hold.)
McCutcheon is one of the main proponents of a third type of Religious Studies, one that I would identify myself with. We see "religion" as a human cultural and social product that should be studied using the same tools that historians or social scientists use to study other aspects of the human experience. Folks in this group often get called nasty things like "reductionist" or "naturalist" but in our (or at least my) view this approach is what separates "Religious Studies" from Theology or religious practice (in the sense of study as ritual in the rabbinic Jewish tradition).
Institutionally, this is all very confusing because departments and programs that study religion come under lots of different names in the English-speaking world: "Religious Studies," "Religion," "Study of Religion," "Divinity," "Theology," "Comparative Religion," etc. And people who practice all three types of scholarship can be found in all of the variously named entities.
Perhaps the fact that most English universities include the study of religion primarily in faculties of "Divinity" is is part of what confused Mary Beard when she went off to a graduate student conference in Religious Studies and discovered that not all the PhD students were religious or stodgy.
Meanwhile, I've just read an article in The American Scholar by Robert Orsi (who I would place in the second group above) arguing a position with which I simply can't agree, and which I am loathe to call a historical argument:
"It is customary in the study of religion when we encounter people who have had experiences like this to say that these people believe what happened to them to be real and their belief in its realness is all that interests us. But belief has nothing to do with it, and in any case I want to move across this border in order to think about how the really real becomes so. The challenge is to go beyond saying “this was real in her experience” to describe how the real—whether it’s the Holy Spirit at a Pentecostal meeting or the Virgin Mary on a hillside or a vision of paradise so compelling that people will kill for it—finds presence, existence, and power in space and time, how it becomes as real as guns and stones and bread, and then how the real in turn acts as an agent for itself in history."
Why does "belief" by the human actor have nothing to do with it? (Also, what is "it"?) When John Doe acts after having experienced the Holy Spirit at a Pentecostal meeting, does Orsi really mean to say that God acted? If not and he simply wants to emphasize that John Doe acts because of an experience that feels quite real to him, the point is banal. But if John Doe's "beliefs" are said not to matter, then just what does Orsi mean by saying that the "real in turn acts as an agent for itself in history"?
A non-banal interpretation of Orsi gets us awfully close to providential history. Now, I don't begrudge anyone who wishes to argue a theological point or any journal that wishes to publish it. But when one of the leading journals in American intellectual life publishes this sort of thing from a "professor of the history of religion at Harvard" it tends to reinforce the notion that the first and second groups speak for all historians of religion. And it makes it much harder for those of us in the third group to explain ourselves to faculty colleagues and to the wider public (that perhaps wishes to know why a public university has a department of "Religious Studies").
(A response by Russell McCutcheon to Robert Orsi on related matters can be found here, by the way.)
UPDATE (May 11): While googling something else, I ran across this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education from January whose author offers a similar tripartite division of Religious Studies scholars. His criteria has a little less to do with the the working definition of religion that scholars employ and a little more to do with the institutional issues that I touch on above.