THE BLOG
11/28/2012 02:20 pm ET Updated Jan 28, 2013

Is Nothing Sacred?

A good question to ask is whether there are some religious beliefs and practices that are off limits to any analysis whatsoever.

Though many have held, and continue to hold, this position, Mircea Eliade, a Romanian historian of religion who taught at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago and had a tremendous impact on the field of religious studies, argued for "the irreducibility of the Sacred." Not only did he believe that the Sacred existed and manifested over time, but that it, and phenomena associated with it -- religious beliefs, practices and so on, could not be analyzed ("reduced") using psychological, economic, social, historical and other social-scientific tools. So, if a person, for example, converted from one religious tradition to another, then a scholar cannot ask questions about what socio-historical factors may have led to that conversion. A scholar could not, then, "reduce" such a wonderful transformation in that person to contextual factors. Rather, as per the Eliadian lens, the transformation was documentable evidence of the manifestation of the Sacred over time.

While this might be convincing for some readers, it might worry others. After all, should there be any topic that is off limits for analysis? And is there any particular analysis or method that is also off limits? Who determines this?

It is true that scholars risk making one social scientific method "Sacred" or static. That possibility, however, should not prevent scholars from applying it. These methods are merely heuristic devices whose application can be both fruitful and futile. And, of course, what is fruitful for some may be futile for others.

In this way, I think (Buddhist puns aside), that nothing is sacred. Nothing is off-limits for analysis. In this way, I think that all analytic tools are permissible. This, I think, is the nature and glory of the liberal arts. After all, "the liberal arts [is] devoted to the intrinsic value of intellectual pursuit and governed by the highest standards of scholarly practice, critical thought, and creativity."