What Ever Happened to Religious Ethics? (Part I)

Among the many very interesting papers to be presented at this year’s upcoming American Academy of Religion annual meeting, one to be presented by Rosemary Blackburn-Smith Kellison particularly caught my eye:

Religious Ethics after the Critical Turn in Religious Studies

One reason that philosophy, and ethics in particular, has not easily found a home in religious studies is that the rise of critical theoretical approaches to the study of religion has given scholars reason to be suspicious of scholarship that takes “morality” as its primary subject matter. Critical theorists have suggested that ethicists are simply a different kind of theologian, masking the interests of a few in the universal language of “the good.” However, I argue in favor of a feminist approach to religious ethics—one that understands attention to the ways power is implicated in morality as a constitutive feature of what it means to do ethics. Religious ethicists taking this approach are uniquely qualified to offer robust critical assessments of the justificatory claims made by members of religious traditions—including those claims used to justify the structures of oppression and domination many critical theorists seek to expose.

This brief abstract of Kellison’s arguments seems spot on, and I am greatly looking forward to her presentation!

In truth, the field of religious ethics, with theology and philosophy of religion, has been said to have been on a downward trajectory for over a decade. A study of the academic job market in religious studies published in 2012 reported, “[P]ositions in theology, philosophy, philosophy of religion, and ethics grew from 2001 to 2002 and then skidded into 2008 when they started to grow again. Within this area of study, positions in ethics and philosophy of religion have declined through the decade, while positions in theology have grown steadily.” Skidding is never a term one wants to hear about one’s field of study and occasional employment!

In 2012, the Society of Christian Ethics (which meets concurrently with the Society of Jewish Ethics and the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics) undertook a study of changes in the field of Christian ethics.  The authors of the final report, published in December 2013, observed:

In conversation, we were explicitly asked to consider the production of PhDs in the field–how they were trained, where they were trained, and how many were trained. Worries were expressed to us that the job market was drying up for future (and present-day) graduates of PhD programs. To do this, we had to assess the evidence for, and consider the likely consequences of, the possibly changing shape of the job market in Christian ethics, that is, the concern voiced by some that the location of “Christian ethics” as a teaching role in a department of religious studies was the product of a certain transitional phase as traditionally church-affiliated liberal arts colleges, mostly from the Protestant mainline denominations, moved into more secularized understandings of the educational process, and for reasons related to both budget and ideology, shifted positions that had been described as “Christian ethics” into “religious ethics” or world religions . . . We were asked to reflect on what participants in the field consider the right ways to teach Christian ethics, and in what content and form such condition could go forward.

The authors of the study also reported that, as of December 2013, “the dip in ethics positions after the economic crisis of 2008 seems to be recovering” and that “there seems to be no measurable shift away from positions being entitled “Christian Ethics” or “Moral Theology” and towards positions being entitled ‘religious ethics’.”  Still, the report warned of concerns that “the field of Christian Ethics has become too firmly a ‘field’–professionally distinct and disciplinarily reflexive, in a way too much like other academic fields.”

In using the term “Religious Ethics,” rather than “Christian Ethics” in the title of this post, I am suggesting, as it seems Kellison does, that the problem extends beyond the specific field of Christian Ethics, more broadly to “Religious Ethics” and even more broadly to the study of the normative and ethical dimensions of religion within the field of religious studies.  There are many theories to explore.  Some might link the trend to the infamous split between the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature in 2003 (the organizations reunited to great acclamation in 2011), which was perceived by many as an attempt to marginalize theology, ethics, and related normative fields of religious studies from the leading professional organization of North American religious scholars.  Some defenders of that split, in their own writings, seem to disparage normative and ethical study of religion by reducing it to matters of “morality,” particularly “sexual morality”–as if sex is the only thing humans do that deserves moral scrutiny. Others seem to see more relevance for both normative and social scientific study of religion in a world affected by war, terrorism, poverty, inequality, secularism, religious and political extremism, and ongoing religious and cultural disputes over sexuality and gender–even envisioning a field of “sociotheology.”

Is “Christian Ethics” dead?  Is “Religious Ethics” dead?  If so, who or what killed them? Secularism?  Critical studies? Reduction to sexuality? In future posts, I shall interrogate some of the possible culprits, as whether Religious Ethics is really dead, dying, or simply being held hostage to other concerns.  Stay tuned!  And feel free to recommend additional possible perpetrators for the line-up.

One thought on “What Ever Happened to Religious Ethics? (Part I)

  1. Pingback: What Ever Happened to Religious Ethics? (Part 2): Social Sciences Stealing Our Thunder | Cakewalks and Climbingwalls

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