Intellectual Journeys: Insights from Timothy Fitzgerald’s Work

Craig Martin writes of the lesson he learned from Timothy Fitzgerald's work: "Reading widely outside of religious studies allows us to integrate the knowledge from different fields or disciplines, making connections where theories or claims overlap, or noting where some approaches allow us to answer some of my questions in a more sophisticated way than other approaches."

By Craig Martin

Craig Martin, Ph.D., is Professor of Religious Studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College and writes on discourse analysis and ideology critique. His recent works include Capitalizing Religion: Ideology and the Opiate of the Bourgeoisie (Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion, Second Edition (Routledge, 2017). He also edits a book series titled Critiquing Religion: Discourse, Culture, Power with Bloomsbury Academic.

Craig Martin

Craig Martin, Ph.D., is Professor of Religious Studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College and writes on discourse analysis and ideology critique. His recent works include Capitalizing Religion: Ideology and the Opiate of the Bourgeoisie (Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion, Second Edition (Routledge, 2017). He also edits a book series titled Critiquing Religion: Discourse, Culture, Power with Bloomsbury Academic.

In response to:

The Problem with ‘Religion’ (and related categories)

Tim Fitzgerald - a founding figure in the critical study of religion - discusses his career up to his seminal volume, The Ideology of Religious Studies, published twenty years ago this year.

Intellectual Journeys: Insights from Timothy Fitzgerald’s Work by Craig Martin

Above, religion as a term appears in opposition to cult in a meme.

Tim Fitzgerald’s The Ideology of Religious Studies is, in my opinion, a modern classic in the field of the academic study of religion. In graduate school I read that book and his later, equally useful volume, Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. I’ve also found value in some of his other works, including Religion and the Secular: Historical and Colonial Formations and Religion and Politics in International Relations: The Modern Myth (in particular, I highly recommend the chapter titled “Radical, Religious and Violent” in the latter book). Tim’s work has been highly influential on aspects of my own, and I’m deeply indebted to his work; consequently, it’s difficult to respond to his RSP interview, other than to say “hear, hear!” Instead of responding by offering a criticism of anything Tim said in this podcast, let me expand or highlight two of the lessons I think we can learn from his description of his own intellectual journey.

 

To start with where the interview ends, one of the most important insights I’ve learned from Tim’s work is that the various concepts opposed to “religious”—such as “non-religious,” “secular,” “science,” or, in some cases, “spiritual”—are central to the rhetorical function of the term “religious.” In general, what I find objectionable about how the concept of “religion” is deployed in particular social contexts is the (dubious) rhetorical work it does in relationship to whatever is imagined or legitimated as its (superior) opposite. Some discourses devalue religion in relationship to science, while some discourses devalue religion in relationship to spirituality. Because of the normative connotations hung on these rhetorical oppositions, the use of the term religion often entails propping up its opposite as superior by contrast. There’s nothing new about this—these uses are articulated upon the legacy of modern Euro-American discourses that once distinguished true religion from false religion, distinguished religion from enthusiasm or superstition, distinguished sincere, inward belief from outward, dead ritual, or distinguished advanced, individualist societies from backward, primitive savages who don’t realize they are slaves to the collective. All of that is to say, one thing I’ve learned from Tim is that in order to understand how the concept of religion functions in practice, we should look at what it is being distinguished from and ask whether some social practices or social formations are being privileged or condemned with the discursive contrast.

 

Above, some forms of Christianity use memes to define religion negatively and in opposition to a more “authentic” experience of faith.

 

The second lesson I think we should take away is that intellectual growth requires exposure to new ideas, often ideas from other fields or disciplines. Tim describes having traveled to parts of the globe where English is not the primary language, thereby learning how people who use a different language see or divide up the world differently. Similarly, Tim also describes reading widely outside the field of religious studies. Like Tim, I’ve attempted to read as widely as I can, particularly in those university disciplines that help us understand human societies: history, anthropology, sociology, social psychology, political science, legal studies, economics, feminist theory, queer theory, critical theory, critical race theory, and some forms of philosophy. Along the way, I’ve attempted to integrate the knowledge from these different fields or disciplines, making connections where theories or claims overlap, or noting where some approaches allow me to answer some of my questions in a more sophisticated way than other approaches. Why recreate the wheel in one field if the theoretical wheel has already been built in another?

 

A significant consequence of attempting to read so widely is that my views and my vocabulary have changed over time, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes dramatically. In addition, I’ve come to the conclusion that our views and vocabularies must change as circumstances change. Pick up a psychology textbook from fifty years ago, and you’ll see a considerably different vocabulary and set of theories than you would if you picked up one published in 2020. Things are moving so quickly in computer science that they don’t even publish books anymore—by the time a book is published, its content is out of date. Sadly, we don’t see the same growth in religious studies, where one of our best-selling and most-often-used textbooks—Huston Smith’s volume—has undergone relatively minor revisions since first published in 1958. Prentice Hall’s bestseller, The Sacred Quest, isn’t quite as old but nevertheless adopts a phenomenological approach that is just as outdated as Smith’s. There’s a reason that medical doctors no longer refer to the four humours, just as physicists no longer refer to an invisible “ether.” By contrast, we’re still utilizing a century-old theory of world religions that has been shown to have originally been built out of racist European colonialist assumptions (see, in particular, Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism, or Tim Murphy’s Politics of Spirit: Phenomenology, Genealogy, Religion). We can and should do better.

Other EPISODES YOU MIGHT ENJOY

Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature

Podcast

Is, as Sherry Ortner once asked, Female to Nature as Male is to Culture? Where does this discourse come from? How does this gendering of nature intersect with contemporary forms of ecospirituality? And religion more generally? Why does it matter? And for whom? Joining Chris today to discuss these questions and more, is Dr Susannah Crockford of Ghent University.
Straight White American Jesus, the podcast

Podcast

In this week's podcast, Skidmore College Professor Bradley Onishi speaks about Straight White American Jesus, a podcast he co-hosts with Dan Miller that blends insider religious experience with academic expertise about American Evangelicalism.
Empty Signs in an Automatic Signalling System

Podcast

In this week's episode, Timothy Fitzgerald speaks with David G. Robertson about why the history of the category “religion” should make us reconsider many other modern categories like politics, liberal, secular. Can these interrelated terms ever escape their origins in centuries of colonial epistemé?
Demystifying the Study of Religion

Podcast

In this podcast we have a group discussion about Russell McCutcheon's new book, Religion in Theory and Practice: Demystifying the Field for Burgeoning Academics. Joining us on the podcast is not only the author himself, but two young scholars who also contributed to the book, Matt Sheedy and Tara Baldrick-Marone.
“Soka Gakkai, Kōmeitō and the religious voices of Japan’s political arena

Podcast

Throughout Japanese history, religion has always coloured and influenced the matters of the state. Religious validation of imperialist aggression and Japan’s war efforts in the first half of the 20th century is just one example of this.
Climate Change(s): New Approaches to Environmental and Agricultural Ethics

Podcast

What can we learn about responding to climate change from small farms run by religious communities? In this episode, the RSP’s Candace Mixon talks to Dr. Gretel Van Wieren about her career in environmental and agricultural ethics. Climate activism has deep religious roots, so join us for practical advice about bringing the diverse approaches of Christian, Jewish, and Muslims groups into the undergraduate religious studies classroom.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

The views expressed in podcasts, features and responses are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Religious Studies Project or our sponsors. The Religious Studies Project is produced by the Religious Studies Project Association (SCIO), a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation (charity number SC047750).