The Deconstruction of Religion: So What?

In his interview with the RSP, Teemu Taira refers to his work as in some sense a response to Kevin Schilbrack’s 2013 paper, “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion’, Then What?” However, I don’t find it speaking to the concerns of Schilbrack’s paper. This, is not to question the excellence of Taira’s work, scholarship, or methodology, all of which I am deeply impressed with. I want to make that clear at the outset; my aim or critique here is not of Taira’s own work or methods but rather a specific way of understanding and using deconstruction that has emerged in the study of religion. It is the take on the deconstructive project which is at stake.

Schilbrack contrasts the deconstruction of religion he finds in Timothy Fitzgerald, and I may note principle adherents such as Russell McCutcheon, with what he sees as his own approach. He identifies agreement on three main points which I may briefly gloss as follows:

  • What we call religion is created by human discourse and behaviour.
  • “Religion” exists only in relation to other terms, the most important of which is “secular”.
  • The separation of the religious and secular as distinct spheres is a modern phenomenon.

So far, so good. I imagine we are all agreed. This accords with Taira’s own discussion of these terms I think. Where I agree with Schilbrack, against many deconstructivists, is that we then have to continue speaking of religion because rather than being merely an empty signifier, or a phantasm, those phenomena we have called and termed religious, or as religions, have a reality in the world.

Taira argues that he is following Schilbrack by showing the “What Next.” As such, he gives his case studies of traditions which people have termed religion and showing the social, political, and power issues involved in claiming or employing the term. However, Taira is very clear that he never says what the term “religion” is. It is merely his object of study, or, rather, religion itself is not his object of study (how can it be when it has no real existence); it is other people’s use of the term that he studies and analyses. At several points in the interview, Taira is clear in stating that he makes no claim as to whether anything is or is not a religion, nor does he try and give any definition to the term. It remains for him an empty signifier which others fill.

It is on the refusal to try and define or even to engage in discourse about how the term may be used that I see the problem arising. Notably, my problem is not with deconstructionism itself, nor do I want to argue here what “properly” follows Derrida. I am critiquing a particular tradition, or employment of, deconstruction which is the fashionable modus operandi of many scholars in the study of religion. So why do I see it as a problem? I will break this down into four points, though each is related to the others.

First, as Schilbrack notes it becomes “an end in itself.” It says: “Look, this is what other people think religion is, but I know better: there is no religion. So, now I can uncover their power games.” Practiced simply as a tool, it fails to engage the social reality that actually exists.

Second, such deconstruction actually shows nothing new. Whether or not we had deconstructed religion we can see that there are social, financial, legal, etc. benefits to being a religion. We could also see that people claim the term or deny it (to others) to give advantage or prestige.

Third, often deconstructing “religion” becomes facile or sacred. Facile because it is common for deconstructivists to argue that we cannot separate religion from culture, however, “culture” itself is an equally problematic term of contemporary Western provenance.(Or else we are told “religion” can be analysed by relation to other deconstructable terms like law, politics, etc.); Sacred, because “religion” is set apart as uniquely problematic, constructed, and “false;” it can be analysed by reference to, or seen as a part of, politics, law, culture but only “religion” is such an empty signifier that it can have no analytic validity. (How would we show this?)

Fourth, even if we show that many terms such as politics, law, culture, society, are also constructed (generally in relation to each other) we still get no further if we simply say all words are empty signifiers (which in one sense, of course, they are). We stay with the first problem that it is a meaningless deconstruction. Once done we simply ask: “So what?”. I will suggest the reasons for this are twofold: firstly, theoretical and linguistic; secondly, political.

Theory: scholars who deconstruct without re-construction undertake a feeble version of deconstruction that undermines itself (often without realising it). Every word has a history and baggage that comes with it. If we play the deconstructivist game of showing that religion, culture, politics, theory, method, society, medicine, science and every term is unstable then simply we are left unable to speak. Indeed, the words which we used to destabilise others are themselves unstable. It is meaningless unless we must say how and why we will choose to use certain words, and reflexively acknowledge our place within a lineage of speaking (as noted, some scholars try and get round this by treating “religion” as its own sacred category).

Politics: many scholars of religion argue that to be part of a “critical”, or “properly scholarly”, tradition they must avoid any advocacy, simply being analysts of other people’s discourse. However, as Taira notes: “Analysing discourse is itself a discursive practice.” To claim, therefore, simply to be analysing other people’s discourse and never to define the term yourself is an impossible act. The discourse on the term creates discourse. Indeed, by refusing to say how it may be used, the scholar is being a political animal. To play on a well-known adage: “To refuse to speak is itself a political act;” “to refuse to be an advocate, is to support the status quo;” “to refuse to define, is itself a form of definition.” Schilbrack observes that saying the borders of nation states are arbitrary and imagined human constructs when people are fighting and dying over them is at best unhelpful. Pretending to be objective analysts of other people’s discourse and the borders of what is and is not religion is equally unhelpful. The modern scholar of religion risks becoming an academic laughing stock not because he uses an outdated and outmoded concept of “religion” but by refusing to admit that it really does exist as a social reality and to engage in discussion about how to use the term. It is bad deconstruction, bad scholarship, and bad politics.


Kevin Schilbrack, 2013, “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion’, Then What?: A Case for Critical Realism”, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 25: 1, pp. 107-12.

20 replies
  1. Avatar
    Neil George says:

    With all due respect, you fundamentally misunderstand what Taira said, as well as the issues that are at stake.

    1) Taira never said that he agreed with Schilbrack, but rather that Schilbrack raised a question. Certainly Taira seems to be taking an approach that is different than Schilbrack’s “critical realism,” if not incompatible with it.

    2) You are presuming realities that exist behind the word religion, when that needs to be argued for. I don’t think there are any scholars out there holding the position that “religion” picks out something real or useful, while simultaneously refusing to use the word.

    3) Your insistence on these religious realities is what sets apart religion as something unique, or to use your language, makes it “sacred.” You are the one that suggests that “religion” is something special and needs to have its own word to pick it out, because it has a reality different than anything else. If you read the entire context of Schilbrack’s article, you will note that it occurs within the context of a conversation with Timothy Fitzgerald, where there is an acknowledgement that while yes, in Fitzgerald’s deconstructionist interests were focused primarily on “religion” early on, he has since expanded that focus to deconstruct a wide range of other terms. You’ve created a facile straw man argument, which ignores what is actually going on.

    4) Contrary to your bizarre assumptions, deconstructionists do not simply point and say “Look! Power!” and then wander around confused because they have no words left to use. In fact, Taira was discussing one potential way forward for deconstructionism, which you failed to engage with seriously because of the above mentioned question begging and straw man.

  2. Avatar
    Paul Hedges says:

    Thank you for the comments, Neil. Before I respond directly, one of the RSP site supervisors, Kevin Whitesides, has noted that a discussion on this has been ongoing between myself, Teemu Taira, Craig Martin, Russell McCutcheon, Kevin Schilibrack and others. He has asked that we try and do that conversation here to preserve it for posterity – I guess also to increase RSP’s footprint too 😉 – and so I will therefore try and copy and paste what of that I can over here before we all seek to engage further here if we so wish. As a note, I don’t think we will resolve it in this way, but enough people seem interested in the debate to engage it this way.

  3. Avatar
    Paul Hedges says:

    Damon Zacharias Lycourinos What is your opinion on this?
    Like · Reply · 1 · Yesterday at 5:52am

    Hide 11 Replies

    Kevin Schilbrack I agree with Hedges.
    Unlike · Reply · 2 · Yesterday at 5:59am

    Teemu Taira All of that? Or just the general argument that ‘deconstructive’ approach is not what you support/prefer?
    Like · Reply · 23 hrs

    Paul Hedges I don’t think my argument is against deconstruction (or social constructionism), rather it is about the understanding, application, and implications of such approaches.
    Like · Reply · 23 hrs

    Teemu Taira That’s fine, Paul, but I would like to know what exactly Kevin agrees (or disagrees) with, although he is free to decide whether it is worth commenting here. By the way, I will post a short comment below the RSP link of your response soon.
    Unlike · Reply · 1 · 23 hrs

    Paul Hedges Ok. I was just adding the note for clarification
    Like · Reply · 23 hrs

    Craig Martin Paul Hedges, would you make the same claims about Raymond Williams’ work on culture, Said’s work on the orient, or Butler’s work on gender? It seems to me that they all say something very useful (ie not facile or self-defeating) all while abandoning as analyticaly useless the terms they historicize .
    Like · Reply · 12 hrs

    Paul Hedges I teach both Said and Butler and so certainly see their critiques as useful and meaningful. However, gender theory and postcolonial studies is not just these two figures and has moved on. To just take Butler, while fully agreeing about the performative…See More
    Like · Reply · 1 · 7 hrs

    Craig Martin ^^Merinda Simmons, perhaps of interest.
    Like · Reply · 6 hrs

    Craig Martin Paul Hedges what about primitives and barbarians? Or madness?
    Like · Reply · 6 hrs

    Russell McCutcheon Given my interest in studying the social work accomplished by the category religion I’m hoping people keep using the term, Paul–not sure what I’d study if they had the wisdom to share my interests….
    Unlike · Reply · 1 · 6 hrs

    Paul Hedges Craig Martin and Russell McCutcheon if you are OK I will transfer/ link the debates to the RSP site as Kevin Whitesides has requested and respond there.
    Like · Reply · 4 hrs

  4. Avatar
    Paul Hedges says:

    Tenzan Eaghll This author makes the common error of assuming that deconstruction is a critical act performed by a ‘subject.’ No, deconstruction is the very unraveling of that metaphysical presupposition. Deconstruction is Not the denial of religion as a social reali…See More
    Like · Reply · 1 · Yesterday at 7:36am · Edited

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    Charles Twombly “This author…….” Is there an “author”? Am “I” actually writing this? Is there a “this”? Oh boy, I’m confusing myself.
    Unlike · Reply · 2 · Yesterday at 7:38am

    Tenzan Eaghll In 1967 Barthes wrote ‘The death of the author’…. you should read it. In 1969 Foucault wrote, ‘What is an author’… you should read it. I am not going to defend 50 years of post-structuralist theory here… if you want to stick your head in the sand and remain a subjective idealist that is up to you.
    Like · Reply · 1 · Yesterday at 11:00am

    Paul Hedges Please consider whether your last statement is somewhat self-refuting Tenzan.
    Like · Reply · Yesterday at 11:33am

    Paul Hedges As for your initial comment it entirely misses the point of my piece. What you claim deconstruction is remains empty. Maybe that is your point? But if so it cannot be made. Most deconstructionists need a refresher on philosophy.
    Like · Reply · Yesterday at 11:37am

    Tenzan Eaghll Empty of what? What ‘thing’ are you looking for in philosophy? Simple logical formulas? Ethical rules for action? If either, then you need a refresher on philosophy since the 1920’s.
    Like · Reply · 1 · Yesterday at 12:44pm

    Paul Hedges There are many strands in contemporary philosophy/ philosophies. Interesting also that you seem to assume a normativity for certain Western strands if I am not mistaken?
    Like · Reply · Yesterday at 1:31pm

    Tenzan Eaghll On the first point we are in agreement. On the second point, no, I assume no normativity. My only point here is the same one Derrida made in ‘Letter to a Japenese Friend’: “It must also be made clear that deconstruction is not even an act or an operat…See More
    Like · Reply · 2 · Yesterday at 3:24pm · Edited

    Paul Hedges Thanks, I will read this.
    Like · Reply · 1 · 23 hrs

    Kevin Schilbrack I like this Derrida quote becasue it says that deconstruction is not an impersonal thing and is not opposed to subjectivity.
    Like · Reply · 1 · 13 hrs

    Kevin Schilbrack And I don’t think that any position swing free of norms.
    Like · Reply · 13 hrs

    Russell McCutcheon You’re wrong!
    Like · Reply · 13 hrs · Edited

    Kevin Schilbrack It won’t be the first time, Russ. 🙂
    Like · Reply · 2 · 13 hrs

    Russell McCutcheon eternal return…
    Like · Reply · 1 · 13 hrs

    Tenzan Eaghll You can only hold to norms if you hold to the metaphysical presupposition of normativity.
    Like · Reply · 8 hrs

    Tenzan Eaghll There is only difference…. and the difference of difference in relation.
    Like · Reply · 8 hrs

    Tenzan Eaghll Kevin Schilbrack: this quote is not suggesting that deconstruction is not opposed to subjectivity, but that it is not an impersonal thing (like negative theology) that is opposed to subjectivity. Several lines later Derrida explicitly states that subjectivity–in the Kantian sense–is one of the objects of deconstruction.

  5. Avatar
    Paul Hedges says:

    Eric Steinhart I found the article hard to read and hard to understand. Too many code words, too much abstract verbiage.
    Like · Reply · 16 hrs

    Tenzan Eaghll Then study the vocabulary of contemporary philosophy… language is always moving…. it is never static; it requires constant study. It is precisely this dynamism that constantly creates the world a new… one of our few ‘gifts’ in this world is to participate in this development.
    Like · Reply · 8 hrs

    Eric Steinhart Tenzan Eaghll I’m a professional philosopher, full professor, author of four books, around fifty articles, TV interviews, etc. etc. I studied under students of Foucault and Heidegger, did my dissertation under the direction of Eva Kittay, current President of the APA. The writing in the article is typical academic mumbo-jumbo.
    Like · Reply · 1 · 5 hrs

    Kevin Schilbrack Boom goes the dynamite.
    Unlike · Reply · 4 · 5 hrs

    Russell McCutcheon Yes, I too prefer words that aren’t some sort of code.
    Like · Reply · 1 · 5 hrs

    Paul Hedges Hm. Postmodern philosophers accusing me of writing in code and obscurely? How very interesting.
    Like · Reply · 1 · 4 hrs

    Kenneth MacKendrick Russell McCutcheon Word.
    Like · Reply · 2 hrs

    Tenzan Eaghll Eric Steinhart: Haha… I was just being snarky. I’m sure you know your stuff. But if you know your Foucault from your Derrida I don’t know how you found this piece wordy. As far as blogs on Deconstruction go, this was pretty clear.

  6. Avatar
    Paul Hedges says:

    Somewhat to the main side of the discussion but I liked this poem:
    Charles Twombly Deconstruction’s lots of fun,
    It empties lots of signs.
    It discombobulates both foes and friends;
    It messes up their minds.

    When you are in an argument,
    Which weapon should you choose?
    You’ll find that deconstruction
    Will never let you lose.

    If when your caught in back and forth
    And your rival just might win,
    Just throw in deconstruction;
    The blighter’s head will spin.

  7. Avatar
    Paul Hedges says:

    OK, having transferred the discussion from Facebook to here I will respond to various points I see hanging. I am assuming that anyone reading this has read all the stuff above and so knows the context and issues at stake.
    First, does religion refer to something? I certainly don’t argue that case here, but is one I and others have made in a number of places and which I think is basically settled against the strong deconstructionist case. As I have argued critics of religion, those who think it refers to nothing, end up resorting to other words such as “sacred” or simply the adjective “religious” to refer to some kind of territory of culture that we normally mean when we refer to “religions”. As I have rhetorically put it: we know the difference between temples and post offices! So quite simply (and it will just be this brief simple point) even the most hardened deconstructionist critic cannot escape the shadow of religion! It haunts them.
    Second, contra to both myself and Schilibrack who both are happy to use deconstruction/ social constructionism/ historicising (or whatever other name we want to put on it), the critics seem to assume it is an either or. Either you are a scholar who properly understands the situation and so have deconstructed religion, or you are a naïve simpleton who thinks that whatever devotees say about their tradition is a real actuality and must be accepted at face value. The argument is actually about what form we put on the project and where it leads us. As such, making the rather polemic/ rhetorical/ ad hominem responses that certain people’s work relies upon assuming simplistic notions of religion is not an accurate representation – but certainly is easier than actually engaging the logical flaws in one’s own argument.
    Third, as this point in my argument has not been understood I will put it in different terms. Do we assume there are such things as “race” or “gender”, certainly the latter is one Martin has brought into the discussion. We realise they are problematic and not simple terms. However, they have real social effects in the world. If we see racism or bias against people based on gender do we respond? Now, the logical corollary of the kind of deconstructivist project I am criticising is that we don’t. The scholar is never an advocate. Rather it is our job to sit back and simply observe and comment on how other people use and construct these terms. If we observe white policemen shooting black kids in the street it is simply data for us to interpret! However, I imagine most of us will be morally outraged at this; somebody who views the world in this way is seeing it wrong I suspect we will say. So, likewise, just because we have another laden and problematic term we do not sit back and pretend that some pure, neutral, and rational space of detached academia exists. It does not. Rather the scholar should be an advocate.
    As I noted, however, many try and escape this by pretending that “religion” is special in some way – and I fully accept and have engaged with Fitzgerald’s extension of his critique to secularism, capitalism, and intend we can no doubt extend it further. But that is rather the point: every word comes laden with baggage and is implicated in a network of meaning with other words (oh, that my interlocutors understood Wittgenstein!!). Once we deconstruct one word and its associates, we have to do likewise with every other related word – and as I pointed out if we want to be logical we have to engage all language this way else what we do is half-baked. As such we must attend to the problem of the word furniture, biscuit, chip (a word which Americans use entirely incorrectly) – hard to find a word which doesn’t have a contextual history, is not found for things in other languages, has no fuzzy borders where it crosses over to other terms, etc. So either we abandon all language or we go back and see which words we can actually meaningfully employ. This takes me back to my first point that the very argument of the hardliners (McCutcheon, Fitzgerald, et. al.) is marked by the haunting return of religion. Seems to indicate it may be a meaningful word after all I’d suggest? Hence the onus rests on them to show why this word is special “sacred” and above all others cannot be used and carries such weight and baggage that exceeds all others.

  8. Avatar
    Kevin Whitesides says:

    Paul, I’ve removed the Facebook comments as they belong to people who hadn’t otherwise agreed to have their comments posted here. If specific individuals would like to engage the discussion here (which we would very much like), they can do so of their own accord.

  9. Avatar
    Neil George says:


    1) It is possible to deconstruct the word religion, refuse to use it as a descriptive category, and still see things happening in the world. It is a matter of how we talk about them. We can both agree that people use these words, the only difference is that I see these identifying words as actions, or to use Bayart’s language, “operational acts,” rather than as references to things in themselves. As with Karhun kansa in Taira’s work, there are clearly consequences to using the word “religion.” That does not mean that there is a religious domain out there. All that demonstrates is that there is a word, and that words matter.

    2) As for myself, and I suspect many of the deconstructionists you’ve mentioned as “hardliners” would as well, I am not interested in casting off the word “religion” only to replace it with an equivalent, such as “sacred” or Daniel Dubuisson’s “cosmographic formations.” It doesn’t need to be replaced with a synonym with supposedly less baggage, it just needs to be cast off. What difference is there between “religious activity” and “activity”? “Religious belief” and “belief”? I don’t see any difference, and so I don’t use the word “religion” or any variant of it. This is why I suggested that you are the one that sees religion as special, because you see some special quality that many of us do not. The same principle can apply to other concepts, religion is not special in this regards. This approach does not mean that we stop talking, it just changes how we talk.

    3) Your moral outrage holds no interest for me. “Most people believe x” is not an argument or an endorsement for anything. I seem to recall my parents asking me as a child a question about what I would do if all my friends jumped off of a bridge. I think you misunderstand the point made by McCutcheon and others, when there is a distinction made between critics and caretakers. Certainly, as a human being, I find various things abhorrent. I also agree that there is no magical perfectly rational and objective place from which academics operate. Part of being critical is being able to recognize and analyze one’s own complicity. That said, if I was studying the rhetoric of Black Lives Matters, the moral implications seem to me to be academically irrelevant. I might have trouble bracketing off my scholarship from my personal feelings, but that doesn’t mean they belong together.

  10. Avatar
    Paul Hedges says:

    Noted, thanks very much Kevin. I tend to see FB as a public domain – and am certainly aware it has, as a I understand although not my specialism, a legal status as such. Quite understand though that some people may wish to post some stuff there which they may not want to state elsewhere. Hopefully my replies to various points will therefore make some sense without the context to what I was answering, but hopefully will be clear to people familiar with the debates.

  11. Avatar
    Paul Hedges says:

    Just to add a further response made on FB. I was challenged because I took up the theme that some scholars say that “culture” can be used but “religion” cannot. The basic argument by my interlocutors there (both well regarded scholars whose work I use in teaching, etc.) was that culture could be rescued from some past misuse but religion for reasons that were not clear to me was not. Anyway, here is my response:
    “I am not convinced. You say you use it in nuanced ways yet it seems to be a brute fact of existence. You are sure culture exists. Yet, as I understand, before the C19 it was never used the way it is now. So a certain Western liberal traditon makes it something every people/ country have as a universal feature of humanity. What we now call culture and lump together under this term does not equate to indigenous terms in other languages. You see, I see this as distinctly equivalent to religion in many ways. Similar genealogy, similar problem. Now I agree that reflection on the term culture tends to be deeper and is certainly much reflected on. However, this seems to me your main reason for assuming it is fine – some of the problematic assumptions are less common and you have some established theory to help rehabilitate this term. I suspect many students wandering into the classes of Raymond Williams over the years held high and low culture assumptions but he didn’t throw his hands up in despair and say there is a folk meaning to this term let us abandon it. As I and others have argued elsewhere there are also many reasons practical and theoretical to keep using religion. But to respond to this point all I see is another instance of the “sacred ” status of religion amongst the historicising/ pomo/deconstructive/ social constructivist hardliners. Religion is a uniquely bad word that can never be rehabilitated unlike culture and many others. Btw, your basics book has been very useful to give students over the years Malory.”
    Of course, if either wishes to follow up here glad to take it further.

  12. Avatar
    Paul Hedges says:

    Thanks for the further comments, Neil, I have only just seen them as a perfect storm has been kicking off on FB about this and I have mainly been responding to comments on there. I think a couple of my responses there, one mainly to Malory Nye the other mainly to Russell McCutcheon answer most of your points and I will post them here – Malory has also agreed to have his comment to which I respond posted here. As for your further point on the ethics I will address that too.

  13. Avatar
    Paul Hedges says:

    From Facebook, a response from Malory Nye (posted with his permission) and my further response:
    Malory Nye I hadn’t intended my response to be so long, but here goes…

    1. Yes, both ‘culture’ and ‘religion’ are both contested, historical terms that do not describe any particular ‘thing’ or essence. That is the point. They are terms that have come to have particular points of reference, very often racially, and are deeply embedded in colonial and postcolonial ideas and discourses.

    2. That being said, the term ‘religion’ is often held in popular discourses to be about some ‘thing’/somewhere above or separate from culture. Contemporary theoretical arguments about ‘culture and religion’ are often merely about trying to explore this idea, and that show that these are discourses for analysis. They are not in the themselves the analysis. That is, people may *tend to think and act as though* ‘culture’ and ‘religion’ are separate. As neither terms have any particular reality in themselves (they are part of discursive traditions not things in themselves) culture and religion are neither separate or the same, apart from in the ways in which people talk and think about them, and practice such discourses.

    3. This is the problem, we are looking for things (religion/culture or something else altogether), when it is discourse and practice *all* the way down.

    4. Such discourse and practice is shaped by a lot of influences, including history, power relations, and manifestations of such in other discourses on issues such as race, gender, sexuality etc.

    5. There is no doubt that both the terms religion and culture are folk categories from certain particular European and north American contexts that have been used in universalising ways by a range of scholars, including anthropologists and cultural theorists such as Williams. But also see above. If you take Tylor’s approach to culture, you get ‘their culture over there is like/different from what we have got here’ (thing A is like/different from thing B). Very few cultural theorists or anthropologists would pursue such an approach today.

    6. In contrast, there are quite a lot of religion theorists and religionists who are still saying things like ‘religion X’ is a thing. This *seems to be* (I may be wrong here) what the de-deconstructionist and ‘reconstructionist’ approach seems to be saying.

    7. Whether what I (and others) do is pomo, post-structuralist or any other ‘othering’ label, my argument is that religion is no such thing. Scholars talk about how others talk about religion, we don’t talk about religion itself, because it is not an it.

    8. And so when working in other cultural/social/geographical/linguistic contexts the discourses of religion that western theorists study as discourses on religion do not always work. Very often, the idea of religion (a western folk category) obscures the analysis of the discourses at play/work.

    9. The idea of sacredness is similarly a read herring. I don’t know any analysts of discourses on religion who are substituting sacred for religion. There are plenty of discourses on sacredness going on, but again scholars look at the discourses/practices as the ‘reality’/data, not the things that these discourses are attempting to construct. Thus, again, there is nothing to be gained by removing the term religion (as a thing) to replace it with the sacred (as a thing). That does not work.

    10. Very few scholars are actually arguing for a moratorium on the term religion. If we are analysing discourses on religion, we cannot avoid talking about (how others use) the term religion. But as I said in my de-de-deconstruction piece, we don’t have to do the work for others of saying the term religion is a thing in itself.

    11. I am not sure at all if the term ‘hardliners’ is useful here. I think as academics, we are all hardliners in some way or other. If there is a particular scholar we are wishing to argue against, then should name them and argue against them — or at least the part of their work that we are disagreeing with. Otherwise our argument becomes a generalisation rather than an argument. (I guess we all do that to a degree, it’s just the term ‘hardliner’ seems to obscure and generalise too much.)

    12. As for the RSP discussion, yes I see that some of this debate has been brought back to that source — it is obviously helpful. I have no problems with my points here being cross posted back to there.

    Paul Hedges Malory Nye I find myself in agreement on a lot here. Certainly I think specific scholars need to be responded to here,a nd in various papers (book chapters, journal articles) I have made specific responses to the work of Russell McCutcheon, Timothy Fitzgerald, and Tomoko Mazuzawa amongst others. I am not sure that FB is the right place for such detailed point by point rebuttals. Again, I agree that few people actually abandon “religion” in the way their arguments claim. It seems very clear in the writings of some figures (I have argued this especially in “Discourse on Discourses”, Journal for the History of Religions) that they think the term should be abandoned altogether, but when I have discussed from them they seem to back down from what they write in black and white. Or, as noted in my RSP argument they substitute other terms (it is Fitzgerald who definitively says we should replace religion/ religious with sacred), while others have argued the adjective religious seems useful still. As such, the argument again seems to flounder. So while I agree there is no “thing” out there or genus that we can pin down, even the most cited and renowned critics of the term “religion” cannot avoid saying that some specific arena of culture (as you rightly note this is a really confused set of terminology in the nexus of the terms) does relate to what we call “religion”. Further, actual traditions do exist (certainly not unified by an essence and always syncretically porous at the borders and spilling over into other things like economics, law, politics (all again equally created and contestable terms in various ways and none clear cut). But to say that, for instance, there is no such tradition as Islam is simply nonsensical. And Islam of course, long before Western scholars started dividing the world into “religions” had considered the question as to whether Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and Buddhism were all “peoples of the book”. As such part of the data for considering what we call “religions” as traditions which relate to each other as in some sense of equivalence far predates any liberal Christian Western scholarly tradition. This of course does not show that these things are anything like the “world religions paradigm” nor even that religion is the best term for them. However, it does help lay low the fallacious argument that seeing some comparison between such traditions is a Western Christian imaginary. Again, as I and others have argued, we see other patterns and interactions. Of course none of this shows that there is a common genus nor even any common linkage. It does though give pause for thought at least, and say that religion seems useful to help give a term, however inadequate (all language is) to sets of meetings, traditions, and interactions. The problem comes when we impose one patterns or think there is some common essence – however, I am not sure how you and others definitively deny any such essence exists? I think that is outside the scholarly domain and again if someone can explain their outside the world view on this I would be interested. As such, contra your point 6 saying that we can meaningfully use the term religion to point to historical data does not entail some gross essentialism as you seem to imply. One can speak of actual traditions which may be termed religions without thereby reinstating the WRP (world religions paradigm). This is already way too long for a FB post. As you are happy for your post to go to the RSP site I will copy both over later (Kevin Whitesides please note for moderation Mallory’s comment above).

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    Paul Hedges says:

    I am also posting here two responses I have made to Russell McCutcheon also on FB, generally taking the debate about culture further:

    Paul Hedges Russell McCutcheon You say above you have no idea what a “better usage” would be or who decides, yet you seem to have no trouble determining what a “better usage” of culture is. This is the kind of shifting standards I find problematic in the project/ approach to “religion”. Indeed, you seem sure that lots of people can decide the best usage of culture without issue – but I can see no rationale beyond what I suggested above and to which you have not replied.

    Paul Hedges Good. That may seem an odd way to start off a reply in which you accuse me of not being a careful reader, but it seems we now have a sound basis on which to agree and disagree. I note well what you said, Russell, however, what people say and what they do may be different. This gets to the crux of my issue with part of what I see happening with Teemu in his interview and also some of your work. You claim that “religion” is useless as a term and so can only be analysed via other means, and then you do so via a host of other signifiers such as culture, politics, society, economics, etc. But you see, I agree with a lot of what you have just said (and what Malory said in his response to some of my earlier points). All of these are to some extent terms whose meaning is entirely socially constructed and which also depend upon for their meaning to their interconnection to other terms. I think, as in my initial response to the RSP podcast, we all agree here. I certainly hope that I do use religion and culture in my work in the way that you outline above.

    Yet, I think that means arguing that religion can, as the other terms, also have an analytically useful meaning if we can get rid of some baggage. You seem to be agreeing here that this can be the case. So I think to some degree we are all singing from the same hymn book, so to speak.

    Where we differ, and here I see my work relating to Kevin Schilbrack’s critique as well is some of what this means. Where I must fundamentally disagree with you, Russell, and this is about what some may term ontology or epistemology is your individualistic streak. You say that this is your word, that you create the meaning, and it is up to you to define it in ways that make sense to you. Now, you steer clear of total solipsism by noting that as long as you relate to some colleagues you think what you say may make some sense. This is a very modernistic, Western, individualist position. I do not believe that individuals can create meaning for themselves (cf Wittgenstein and Gadamer amongst others). The term “religion” is not your word but also a word created in a socially related tradition (Gadamerian hermeneutics) based upon prejudices (used in Gadamer’s non-perjorative sense) which are not your own, or solely yours, but come from the tradition in which you are embedded. Now here I differe from the very Derridean-inspired tradition (whetehr it is his concept or not is another matter, while it also has other roots) which sees everything as being solely language all the way down (a point Malory made about his stance) which relates to social realities. Anybody who thinks the whole world is just a lingusitic reality needs to stand in front of a bus. Obviously a rheteorical point, nobody really believes this or acts this way. We all have to live in relation to the solid cold facts of reality. Our knowledge is thus created at an intersection of facts and language, society and individual experience. Now, this is where I think religion comes in. It is not a fact, in the same way that well thrown half brick is. However, it is somewhat like furniture. Now furniture as we all know doesn’t exist. It is a generic term for various sets of stuff which we usefully group together – there is no platonic ideal form of furniture. However, if you behave as though furniture doesn’t exist you will end up with bruised legs. I assume you see the analogy I am pointing at here. I would suggest that those things we term religion exist as social relatities – I don’t think anyone disagrees here. As I noted in brief in my reply to Malory in a different thread I think there are good conceptual reasons to see the term as something more than a modern scholarly fantasy. Rather, I suggest like culture, politics and furniture it describes something at the meaningful intersection of reality, social reality, and description/ analysis. I may be old fashioned but I actually think it is a helpful term such that we would be worse off if we didn’t have it. Indeed, when we start analysing social realities (I am not going to atempt to try and explain how things like rocks and social relaities and our experience and description of them relate) I think if we don’t have the term we actually end up with problems. Of course, if as you say people use it in ways which are not self-reflexive (I spend endless hours banging on to my students about this) and then we have problems, or rather data for analysis. However, people don’t tend to get worked up about the fact that when we travel the world we describe all sorts of things which look like us as furniture ignoring the fact that many of the lingusitic cultures (to note here, I also think culture is helpful if used self-reflexively) we are relating to do not have terms that would group together all the things we describe as their furniture under a similar common rubric. That is just part of language. People really need to get used to it. Religion however carries far more @weight@ in various ways, but analytically I don’t see that much difference in pure philosophical terms. Clearly very different effects in social reality. So absolutley I think Teemu’s work in looking at the way that people use and employ religion for various agendas is very important. I thought we all agreed on this. I was trying to get to the “what next” question, but we seem to be arguing about the basics.

    In part I think it is because Russell and others say most people don’t use the term “religion” in the way they think it should be used. However, I think this is part of the basic accepted building blocks of the dsicipline these days. I am not really aware of any scholars who don’t accept the social construction of religion argument. Maybe somebody could tell me who these people are who don’t accept it? Hence maybe we are fighting different battles.

    What I ahve tried to say here is that I think we are 85-90 per cent agreed. However, we seem to have an epistemological foundational disagreement which explains some other stuff. This may partly explain why we differ on whether we think religion is simply something which refers to a social reality either imaginatively (placed upon it) or descriptively (taken from and placed upon it). Neitehr assumes an ontological reality, but it suggests a different emphasis of understanding.

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    Paul Hedges says:

    I will be brief, Neil (meeting in a few minutes) but hopefully get my main reasons across. Scholarship does not exist divorced from the rest of the human world and action. To pretend it does is false. It has real consequences in the world. Now, to some degree I fully concur that scholars do need to sit back and analyse discourse, language and motives in a somewhat dispassionate sense (we are not journalists). However, as noted, we are also not divorced from the world. I think you would be hard pressed to find a sociologist who didn’t have some advice about society. Likewise, an international relations scholar who didn’t have some comments on politics would be an odd beast. A physicist who couldn’t contribute to developing an understanding of the world wouldn’t be doing his job right. However, there is a fashionable trend that says scholars of religion must never be involved or be able to offer constructive advice without abandoning their scholarly stance. Nonsense. As I mentioned in my initial reply to refuse to act or speak is itself a political stance that maintains the status quo. It is complicity with the existing order. In short it is part of the world and has to take the consequences of being part of it. If you can show me the pure imagined scholarly realm that floats free from the world then let me know, I will come there and simply be a discussant on other people’s discourses. However, I am not a Platonic idealist. Your discourse is a political act and statement already whether you like it or not. The question is how we deal with this.

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    Paul Hedges says:

    Another contribution into the debate from Richard Newton:

    To cite my reply on FB:
    “Just to note while I obviously cannot restrain how people interpret or represent me, I feel that this post misrepresents my position and argument. First, it seems to attribute the concept that religion is an entirely empty signifer to me, whereas I am arguing that it can be usefully employed. Second, I think it implies (and here I am not quite sure if this is quite what is said) that I do not think that looking at relations of religion and culture is useful, although I do see the kind of stuff that Richard Newton talks about here being very useful. Actually, I generally agree with most of this blog.”

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    Paul Hedges says:

    Just in case anyone on here is interested and because there does seem to be some misunderstanding of my position and arguments (certainly I was limited to a short response to Teemu Taira and FB discussions and never the best place for detailed argumentations). I will note some of my work on this:
    (Note: for ease of reference I am citing open access drafts on my site so that people without journal access, or the books, can get them, but the final versions are of course available in full for those who wish.)
    1. “Discourse on Discourses” (2014, Journal of Religious History) is a paper which while specifically taking on 2 of Tim Fitzgerald’s work takes issue with the whole question of why taking social constructionism too far ends up being problematic:
    2. “Can we Still teach ‘religions'” (2010, edited book): this largely engages Russell McCutcheon’s work and works towards a provisional and non-essentialist definition of religion:
    3. “The Old and New Comparative Theologies” (2012, Religions): This engages with Tomoko Masuzawa on the world religions concept and in which I argue that we do not just see the imposition of Christian data onto other religions to see the creation of the concept “religion” but also we see the Christian worldview being challenged (I realise some Religious Studies may struggle with this as it is about theology, and I am writing with my more theological hat on – I wear several depending on where I am and what I am doing and with whom):
    4. “What is Religion” (2014, edited book): This I co-authored with Prof Anna King an anthropologist. It aims to give a decent student introduction to the debates on the concept of religion. It also introduces my provisional definition of religion found in the 2010 paper above and critiques it:
    5. “IS the Study of Religion Religious?” (2014, edited chapter): co-authored as the previous one and asks about how we study religion which is obviously tied into the question of what we think religion may be. It also relates to some critiques which have come out about my designation as doing Interreligious Studies and why I think scholars are politically implicated whether they want to be or not (also whether they realise it or not):
    Apologies for lots of self-promotion of my own papers, but seeing as it may help clarify some of the debates and discussions is here for those with an interest 😉


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