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Carl Olson offers a compelling and provocative argument against the application of postmodern thought to religious studies, showing how such radically skeptical thinking undermines, subverts, and distorts the study of religion.
Religious studies is a newly and artificially constructed field for the scholarly study of religious narratives, thoughts, actions, and phenomena. It is an ongoing experiment with various types of methodological approaches to the study of religion, which is itself a human construct with limited cross-cultural application. Without a commonly agreed-upon method for the study of its subject, religious studies is characterized by the use of multiple methods, which tend to be adopted based on the latest trends in the field. Most recently, notes Olson, these trends have been dominated by postmodern thought. Because the discipline of religious studies is a product of the European Enlightenment with its values and representational mode of thinking, he argues, it is challenged and even threatened by postmodern thought, which calls into question many of its values, basic presuppositions, and convictions.
After reviewing the many fads and fashions of religious studies, Olson examines various postmodern positions related to the study of religion, including those of Georges Bataille, Jacques Derrida, Marcel Mauss, Michel Foucault, and Edward W. Said. Olson contrasts the thought of more traditional history of religions scholars Mircea Eliade and Wendy Doniger with selected postmodern thinkers on the topics of hermeneutics, comparison, and difference. The Allure of Decadent Thinking concludes by exploring the postmodern challenges to such accepted concepts of religion and considers the long-term implications of a scholar's adoption of postmodern methods. Regardless of whether they are transformed by postmodern thought, Olson suggests, all methods and concepts should be subject to pragmatic review.
Carl Olson is Professor of Religious Studies at Allegheny College. He has published numerous book reviews and essays for academic journals, books, and encyclopedias and has authored or edited books on Hinduism, Buddhism, comparative philosophy, and method in the study of religion.