What Ever Happened to Religious Ethics? (Part 2): Social Sciences Stealing Our Thunder

Over the past decade, religious ethics has been a site for the development of diversity of voices on growing number of topics. Nonetheless, ethics itself seems to be in decline as a subfield of religious studies. At the American Academy of Religion, the Ethics Section and the Bioethics and Religion Group continue to draw strong participation. Those are the only two units of the AAR that have “ethics” in their names. But particularly in the Ethics Section, the papers seem increasingly to come from outside of philosophical and theological ethics and more and more from descriptive fields of study, such as anthropology and sociology of religion.

As discussed in an earlier post, a recent AAR survey of the academic job market from 2001-2010, the “normative” or “constructive” fields of study, which include theology, philosophy of religion, and ethics have had the largest decrease in advertised positions—with ethics itself at the very bottom. More recent jobs surveys published in January 2014 and November 2014 report the continuing dwindling of jobs in ethics but do not elaborate further on the state of the normative studies troika.

This can also be seen in the aging professoriate at many institutions, with few new professors being hired and, indeed, the near disappearance of ethics faculty and instruction at some leading research and doctoral training institutions. This latter trends seems consistent with the November 2014 report’s revelation that “research institutions, which account for more positions than any other type of institution, are the locus of declines” (see p. 8 and Tables 8 and 9) in tenure-track positions in religious studies, more generally. If this

Even if ethics seems to be on the wane in the field of religious studies, interest in religious ethics and normative issues in religion seems to be cropping up in a number of related disciplines, particularly in the areas of social and political ethics. Sociology of religion, once thought to be a field on the wane, has come back, and research organizations, such as the Pew Research Center‘s Religion and Public Life Project (formerly the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life), now devote significant and sustained attention to normative issues in ethical and political life. A newer institution, the Public Religion Research Institute, founded by Emory-trained ethicist, Robert P. Jones, has been giving the folks at Pew a run for their  money for years and has become a go-to resource on religion and politics in the U.S., including many issues related to values, morals, and ethics.

Not too long ago, some people lamented the death of sociology, but the “secularization thesis” proved wrong and sociologists of religion are back in the game. It is even said that some graduate programs in ethics and other religious studies fields are allowing students to substitute statistics courses for a second academic reading language.  With apologies to fans of the language of Goethe, I would gladly have substituted statistics for German, which seems a twentieth-century holdover popular mostly in the venerable, but increasingly fusty field of theological ethics. (*Nota bene: If one has to learn German, try April Wilson’s legendary German Quickly–there is no substitute.)

In other cases, it has been the political scientists who have been doing some of the most sustained engagement of religion and its normative impact on societies around the world.  The robust Religion and Politics Section at the AAR has recently sponsored as many as six panels at annual conferences. But the American Political Science Association (APSA) and the International Studies Association have been sponsoring as many as eleven panels each on religion topics at their meetings—almost always on topics of war, peace, conflict resolution, identity, citizenship, human rights, religious freedom, globalization, secularism and other topics with significant ethical dimensions. (*Note: Observations above based on 2011 data.)

APSA has had a Religion and Politics section since 1986, and it publishes the journal Politics and Religion (incidentally, a sister journal to the Journal of Law and Religion at Cambridge University Journals–article and book review submissions welcome!). The International Studies Association also has a section on Religion and International Relations. These fields are fertile ground for many of us who do work in political ethics–but they are still largely outside of the religious studies milieu.

Perhaps it is time for the field of religious ethics and the rest of the Geisteswissenschaften , domestically but also globally and comparatively, to engage the Sozialwissenschaften–but without going purely descriptive or becoming data slaves.  This could be a way to revitalize and expand the normative study of religion and especially the subfield of religious ethics.

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