The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting can be a heady place. Religionists tend to be “big picture” people, looking at things from the perspective that this is what life is all about. How much bigger can you get? Religion is, after all, a matter of perspective. As quickly becomes clear from glancing across the crowds—there is a literal myriad here—a great diversity exists. Ironically and irenically violence, beyond an occasional rudeness, is absent. There are believers and non-believers and they actually talk to each other civilly. They want to understand, and in an increasingly polarized world understanding religion seems like a very sensible thing to do.
It feels, however, like an industry to me. Religion evolved out of primal fears. Nobody knows for sure where it started, but someplace (or someplaces) along the course of human development, the idea took hold that humans weren’t the final word in terms of power or direction of their own destiny. There is something beyond us. It may be a tao, or it may be a god, or it may be something we haven’t even conceived yet, but there is something larger than us. The scientific paradigm, on the other hand, starts by assuming human superiority, at least in terms of rationality, over the entire universe. Teasing things apart, looking at the smallest units and building up a big picture from there, it all comes down to equations and concepts understandable in empirical terms. If there is a tao, or gods, and if they don’t leave some physical footprint, they must be left outside the frame. Until the religion industry arrives.
Every field of study has its crackpots, but those thousands milling about me as I stand in a booth with knowledge for sale are mostly sincere. The official study of religion takes place in higher education. Its practice is left elsewhere. The Dalai Lama is not here. The Pope is not passing through adoring crowds. Even Mike Huckabee hasn’t put in a guest appearance. We are not always the friends of those who do religion, for this is a complex industry. Our role is to ask how religion works. Beyond that, we try to fit it into a larger picture—one that expands beyond the universe itself. Out to where a mysterious force may lurk. A force that reminds us that human effort, as strenuous as it may be, must acquiesce in the presence of the unknown.