There’s no such thing. Religious studies, that is. I first heard this a decade ago while working as religious studies editor for Routledge. My supervisor stared at me with such knowing eyes that all I could do was nod. I figured that since I’d spent my entire career in religious studies I’d probably know if it existed or not. I’ve heard the statement a number of times since then and have come to realize that what it means is this: unlike other academic disciplines, religious studies has no single, central topic of study and no agreed upon methodology. It consists of scholars trained in a variety of fields looking at different aspects of religion from different perspectives. There’s even little agreement as to what religion is.
Religious studies is an outgrowth of biblical studies. Studying the Bible was a long preoccupation with Jews and Christians. Long before there were universities there were places you could study the Good Book in depth. When enough time had passed history of Christianity and theology were added to the mix. It was only fairly recently, about the late nineteenth century, that scholars of Christianity began to wonder about other religions. The earliest religious studies were Christians studying other faiths. Now, of course, religious studies exists in a number of universities and colleges (but by no means all of them) and nobody really stops to think how this came to be. Students are very interested in religions, but as a major it offers few career options (yours truly is a case in point). It’s a discipline under duress. Pretty stressful for something that just doesn’t exist, isn’t it?
My suspicion is that many who entered this limbo started out as I did—a curious Christian wanting to know as much as possible about what I’d been taught. You learn to think along the way, with somewhat predictable results. Sometimes it takes years to dawn on you. In other words, I doubt that many entered this field consciously thinking “I want to learn religious studies as a discipline.” Like a pitcher plant, however, once you fly in there’s no way out. Instead we have to find tools to study this strange and slippery environment into which we’ve fallen. Otherwise we’ll simply be digested. I made it through three degree programs in this field without ever encountering this idea that apparently has been long known. Numbers are declining, which makes those of us in here how long our odyssey might continue. If it even exists.