Looking for an example of how not to study religion? Then consider the case of hypocrisy that recently swept through the internet.
As described in the opening to a recent Mother Jones article:
The problem here is that the analysis — which obviously has a dog in this fight, explaining the sort of approach the author opts for, one that is well suited to the venue of publication, of course — presumes it is all about consistency. That is, it takes for granted, and thereby reinforces, the rhetoric of principle employed in the debate, thereby taking its side in the tennis (or shouting?) match. For it is all about deeply held religious beliefs, we’re told, so deeply held and personal that the government can’t mess with them — and then it plays a game of “gotch’a” with the principled protagonists, trying to undermine the sincerity that supposedly drives the debate.
It strikes me that scholars, at least, can do so much better than that.
For, instead of thinking that the issue is about consistency and sincerity — making the debate all about either demonstrating it or undermining it — why not shift the ground considerably and, instead, study the game itself by hearing claims of consistency and sincerity, not to mention claims of hypocrisy and principle alike, as nothing more or less than rhetorical conventions, a form of performance art (like public prayer vigils or protests), that do or do not try to draw attention to what social theorists have long known: all social formations are based on contradictions. That is, why not (1) find the contradictions, (2) examine the means by which they are either papered over or highlighted (all in order to authorize or de-authorize the group), and then (3) identify the practical things at stake for the social actors involved in strategically playing with consistency and sincerity?
So why not hear claims of sincerity and claims of hypocrisy not as conclusions reached but as a means to produce the impression of a conclusion? They’re nothing more or less than identification techniques.
Of course this isn’t the approach to take if you’re trying to undermine those with whom you disagree, all in order to advance a specific agenda of your own, but I’d hope that scholars studying this affair — rather than journalists writing about it — are doing something other than working hard to advance one side or the other.