As Lucas and I discuss in this week’s episode, we’ve spent a good amount of time on the project of “critical religion” and what we think it does well or not so well. One of its potential faltering points is, as I mentioned in the last blog post, the claim that any approach to religion not guided by science is automatically guided by a “theological agenda.” This in turn rests on the assumption, exemplified in Segal’s essay, “Diagnosing Religion,” that what is “rational” is already agreed upon, universal, and the only mode that is properly critical.

When Segal invokes Richard Rorty, he does so to use Rorty’s characterization of the distinction between epistemology and hermeneutics in order to show that the former trumps the latter as an approach to religious studies–but also as an approach to knowledge in general. As I say in the episode, this is not Rorty’s claim. In this post, I want to sharpen one point from our discussion of Segal’s essay. We point out that Segal never discloses what the “level playing field” is on which the scholar is meant to analyze religious claims (which are also situated on this field.) In the interest of charitable reading, we might have granted that this field could include approaches that are not in the realm of the natural sciences. But upon closer inspection, that actually doesn’t seem to be the case because of what likely falls into the category (hermeneutics) with which the epistemological approach is contrasted.

In Rorty’s analysis, “the epistemological” is a fixed field. It is taken to be the “natural” way by which human beings gain knowledge: Subjects experience objects and reflect those objects in their mind–“the mirror of nature”–in order to analyze and come to “know” them. It’s safe to assume that Segal thinks this is right since he uses Rorty’s distinction between this and hermeneutics but never makes any qualifications regarding Rorty’s account of the epistemological. The hermeneutic, on the other hand, is contingent. This is what most of us in the humanities are familiar with as a kind of “anti-foundationalist” critique of epistemology. Rorty’s argument is that truth claims are never “purely” adjudicated in the vacuum of the mirror-object-subject version of epistemology. There are always other factors at play that undermine our ability to achieve that kind of purity. These other factors are then elided when, for example, Segal claims that is simply “obvious to everyone” that the traditional “empiricist” mode of epistemology is naturally the best one.

I have no clue what this picture means. I think it has something to do with Einstein, chemistry, and hermeneutics.

This brings me to my point of emphasis: The relevance of this to religious studies. In the episode, I note that the kind of search for “common ground” emblematic of the hermeneutic approach does not have the same stakes in religious studies as it does in philosophy. In other words, Rorty’s claim is that the way we arrive at what counts as truth is conversationally; however, this isn’t the kind of conversation the religious studies scholar is having when approaching religion in this way. Of course there is an attempt to understand the terms of the religious adherent without translating them into some other terms, but the purpose of that is not to come to consensus with the religious adherent on the nature of truth and reality themselves. It’s to better understand how the religious adherent understands her own world.

With that distinction made, however, we can circle back and reframe Segal’s characterization of the hermeneutic approach as an ought rather than an is question: Ought the aim of the religious studies scholar be to reach a consensus on truth with the religious adherent? This seems to be at stake in the recent AAR post we mention at the beginning of the episode, in which Ann Taves and Graham Ward are attempting to understand each other’s position (as a scientist of religion and as a theologian respectively.) This is a question to which I don’t have a readily available answer (nor does anyone I don’t think.) At one time, it perhaps seemed obvious that the answer to this question was a resounding “No”–even from the phenomenological side. Segal himself has pointed out in other essays that the phenomenologist of religion is just as reductive as the empiricist/epistemologist is. Where as the latter reduces religion to observable, material explanations, the phenomenologist reduces religion to a system of ideas completely foreign to the particulars of any one religion. Thus, even though Eliade claimed that all religions would recognize themselves in his system, this turns out not to be the case. There is no consensus.

But now that we are moving beyond both of these moments in religious studies (the phenomenological and the purely material/reductive/scientific) as exemplified in the Salomon/Walton essay, the question of whether and to what extent the nature of truth and reality ought to be a conversation scholars have with religious adherents reemerges. Or, at the very least, whether we ought to listen more carefully and take more seriously what they have to say becomes important.

Listen to Episode 7 here:


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