Would you like a moat with your gate?

I follow several blogs devoted to the study of religion, as well as blogs oriented around the study of gender, feminism, and/or sexuality studies, anthropology, and higher education. It’s a long list and I don’t always read every post as closely as perhaps I should. The posts from the Religion Bulletin usually capture my attention though – they’re informative, on timely topics, and are generally written in an academic-yet-readable style. A recent post by Simon Frankel Pratt regarding Reza Aslan is one such attention-catching post, although not necessarily just for the reasons I mentioned.

In his post, Pratt takes Aslan to task for representing himself as a “scholar of religion” when, in Pratt’s view, Aslan is not. While Aslan holds a PhD in Sociology (Pratt does not mention from what institution), Pratt focuses on the point that Aslan’s PhD is not in the subfield of Sociology of Religion, nor has Aslan been published in any refereed academic forum in sociology, religious studies, or even anthropology (of religion). In Pratt’s view, Aslan’s publications as an “educated popular author” do not qualify Aslan to use the designation of scholar. Scholar should be reserved for those who “publish in scholarly journals or present at scholarly conferences,” presumably in addition to having their PhD. Since Aslan has “retreated from scholarly conversation and from the academic spaces in which scholarly research is produced and discussed” he does not fit the standards of a scholar.

Well then.

Broadly speaking – very broadly – I agree that someone representing themselves as a scholar of religion should have some form of academic training and maintain a familiarity with the literature of their chosen field(s) of interest. I also agree that Aslan should be held accountable when he writes or says something that is factually incorrect or unsupportable based on available evidence.

And yet, I find myself feeling alienated and dismissed by Pratt’s narrow definition of scholar. After I finished my Master’s degree (in Religious Studies), I devoted a considerable amount of thought to how I would represent myself as a professional. Ultimately I chose not to refer to myself as a scholar because I felt it too weighty a title and implied a level of understanding, knowledge, and wisdom that I had not yet achieved in my chosen fields of study. And, as with many alternate academics or researchers outside of academia, I struggle with having the confidence to engage in academic discussions.  However, my ‘lack’ of a PhD – which I do not view as a ‘lack’ at all – has not prevented me from giving several papers at conferences, writing several book reviews for publication in peer-reviewed journals, contributing a blog post to the Feminism in Religion blog, or submitting a section of my Master’s thesis for publication as part of an edited volume. Nor will it prevent me from submitting journal articles for publication in peer-reviewed journals or potentially, manuscripts for publication by academic publishers. Furthermore, my degree in Religious Studies does not render me unqualified to speak about gender and religion, or some other related topic. My research work ethic demands that I educate myself on the subjects that were not covered in my formal education before I express my ideas on them in a public arena, whether that’s a peer-reviewed journal, academic blog, or this blog.

Opinions like Pratt’s only reinforce the idea that true scholars can only exist within the boundaries of academia. I, quite clearly, disagree. As I was reading Pratt’s remarks, I wondered what he thinks about Karen Armstrong’s work. While some academics may disagree with Armstrong’s perspective (see a recent post by Carol Christ for an example), her books are carefully researched and still appeal to a popular audience. By Pratt’s definition, is she a scholar? (I imagine not – she does not have a PhD, nor does she contribute to peer-reviewed journals that I know of.) Should the academic community dismiss her work simply for those reasons?

More importantly, on a larger scale, where does this boundary-drawing get us?

Pratt writes, “I also have an interest, as an actual scholar (albeit of most junior level), in policing the boundaries of the term, and of keeping it distinct from popular commentaries.” A few sentences later Pratt acknowledges that “you don’t have to be a scholar of religion to make valid and helpful points about it.” In other words, those non-scholars who have an interest in religion may have something useful to say, but that doesn’t mean it’s suitable for an academic conversation. So where does that leave someone like me, who is a semi-academic? Or, if in the future I choose to devote my research and writing skills to educating the public about religious traditions in the United States (which is one of my long-term goals), does that disqualify me from the designation of scholar, no matter how much knowledge or wisdom I may have acquired about my fields of interest?

To take it a step further…why should I care? On the one hand, I don’t. The attitude at the core of Pratt’s remarks is indicative of the attitudes I intentionally left behind when I decided not to pursue a PhD. In that sense, if Pratt and others of a similar mindset wish to reserve the idea of scholar for a select few, so be it. If holding an opinion similar to Pratt’s is necessary to be considered a scholar, I do not wish to be accorded the title.

On the other hand, if Pratt is as he says, a junior scholar, that means that he is relatively early in his career. This is unfortunate as it means that he is reproducing and reinforcing antiquated and exclusionary attitudes that have no place in education. As long as sharing knowledge with the general public – as opposed to a limited, rarified set of peers – is seen as unworthy of academics, the general public is unlikely to a) understand what it is academics do (and therefore, why the humanities should be funded and supported), and b) become better informed about religious traditions and the people who practice or find meaning in those traditions. Is that really what we want for our future?

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