Differentiating between devotional expression and the study of religion
First and foremost, scholars highlight the difference between the devotional expression of particular religious beliefs as normative and the nonsectarian study of religion that presumes the religious legitimacy of diverse normative claims.
The importance of this distinction is that it recognizes the validity of normative theological assertions without equating them with universal truths about the tradition itself.
Unfortunately, this distinction is often ignored in public discourse about religion. For example, there is a great deal of contemporary debate about the roles for women in Islam. In truth, there are a variety of theological interpretations of the tradition that lead to different, sometimes antithetical practices and assertions. Equally common is that differing communities will have similar practices but with diverse theological justifications.
It is appropriate for members of a particular community to assert the orthodoxy (or orthopraxy) of their theological interpretations of the tradition, but it is important to recognize the difference between a theological assertion of normativity and the factual truth that multiple legitimate perspectives exist. The latter represents the nonsectarian study of religion. This is the approach promoted here and the one most appropriate to advance the public understanding of religion.
There are three other central assertions about religions themselves that religious studies scholars have outlined and that flow from the recognition of the distinction between devotional expression and the nonsectarian study of religion outlined above:
- religions are internally diverse as opposed to uniform;
- religions evolve and change over time as opposed to being ahistorical and static;
- religious influences are embedded in all dimensions of culture as opposed to the assumption that religions function in discrete, isolated, “private” contexts.
Religions are internally diverse
This assertion is a truism but requires explanation due to the common ways that religious traditions and practices are frequently portrayed as uniform.
Aside from the obvious formal differences within traditions represented by differing sects or expressions (e.g., Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant for Christianity; Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, for Hinduism, etc.) there are differences within sects or expressions because religious communities function in different social/political contexts.
One example is the debate mentioned above regarding the roles of women in Islam. The following assertions are also commonly repeated:
- “Buddhists are nonviolent”
- “Christians oppose abortion”
- “Religion and science are incompatible”
All of these comments represent particular theological assertions as opposed to factual claims representing the tradition itself.
Religions evolve and change
This is another truism but again requires explanation due to the common practice of representing religious traditions without social or historical context and solely (or primarily) through ritual expression and/or abstract beliefs.
Religions exist in time and space and are constantly interpreted and reinterpreted by believers.
For example, the Confucian concept of the “mandate from heaven” evolved within dynasties, geopolitical regions, and historical eras and continues to evolve today. Another example is that the practice of slavery has been both justified and vilified by all three monotheistic traditions in differing social and historical contexts.
Finally, in a more specific example, the Southern Baptist convention in the United States passed a series of resolutions in the 1970s supporting the moral legitimacy of abortion and reversed those resolutions in 2003.
Religious influences are embedded in cultures
Religions are collections of ideas, practices, values, and stories that are all embedded in cultures and not separable from them. Just as religion cannot be understood in isolation from its cultural (including political) contexts, it is impossible to understand culture without considering its religious dimensions. In the same way that race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and socio-economic class are always factors in cultural interpretation and understanding, so too is religion.
Whether explicit or implicit, religious influences can virtually always be found when one asks “the religion question” of any given social or historical experience. For example, political theorists have recently highlighted the ways that different interpretations of secularism have been profoundly shaped by varied normative assumptions about Christianity. This is just one representation of a fundamental shift in political theory that is challenging the legitimacy of the longstanding assertion that religion both can be and should be restricted to a private sphere and separated from political influence.
Modernist claims predicting the steady decline of the transnational political influence of religion that were first formalized in the seventeenth century have been foundational to various modern political theories for centuries.
In spite of the ongoing global influences of religions in political life throughout this time period, it is only in the aftermath of 1) the Iranian Revolution in 1979; 2) the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the subsequent rise vs. the widely predicted demise of religion; and 3) the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks that political theorists in the West began to acknowledge the highly problematic ways that religions and religious influences have been marginalized and too simplistically rendered.
This shift is a welcome one and paves the way for multi and cross-disciplinary collaborations with religious studies scholars across the full range of social science investigations in order to explore the complex and critically important roles that religions play in our contemporary world.
 For a full text compilation of all the Southern Baptist resolutions on abortion from 1971-2005, see www.johnstonsarchive.net/baptist/sbcabres.html.
 See Charles Taylor, The Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007); J. Bryan Hehir, “Why Religion? Why Now?” in Timothy Samuel Shah, Alfred Stepan, and Monica Duffy Toft, eds., Rethinking Religion and World Affairs (NY: Oxford, 2012) pp. 15-24; José Casanova, “Rethinking Public Religions” in Shah, et. Al., eds., pp. 25-35; and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, “The Politics of Secularism” in Shah, et. Al., pp. 36-54.