chapter  1
Religious Ethics, Ideology, and Culture
Pages 10

The British philosopher and historian of religion Ninian Smart once observed that there seems to be a natural tendency for students of religion to overly “spiritualize” their subject matter. Our attention is often drawn to such overtly “religious” topics as conversion or enlightenment experiences, exotic myths and rituals, or theories and doctrines about gods and the afterlife. This is unfortunate for religious studies because, as Smart explains,

the process of Christianization of northern Europe [for example] is imperfectly understood unless it is clear why rulers found the new faith a useful ideology for shaping political power, and often Buddhist origins are seen independently of the socio-political changes occurring in the Gangetic region …

(Smart 1983: 273)

Following up on Smart’s comments, I would add that there appears to be a corresponding tendency among students of ethics to overly “rationalize” or “philosophize” their subject matter by concentrating on such overtly “ethical” topics as the rational structure of moral argument and the justication of moral claims. This is unfortunate for the study of ethics because it obscures the nature and function of religious-moral discourses as “languages of persuasion,” which, along with the threat or exercise of force and violence, are a primary means by which patterns of power, interest, and inuence are either maintained or subverted, legitimated, or challenged (Bird 1981). In other words, students of religion and ethics often lose sight of politics.