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Discourse! May 2020 with David G. Robertson, Suzanne Owen, and Craig Martin

It’s ideology, religion and conspiracy all the way in this month’s Discourse! David G. Robertson is joined by Suzanne Owen and Craig Martin to discuss the Sun’s mockery of pagans, problems with the Guardian’s headline that people are returning to the Church, coronavirus conspiracies in India targetting Muslims, and how “idiology” (or one idiology, anyway) is pushing the religion out of religious studies.

Stories discussed:
https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/11512177/boris-must-stop-breakdown-of-lockdown-or-nastier-one-on-way/

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/03/british-public-turn-to-prayer-as-one-in-four-tune-in-to-religious-services

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/13/coronavirus-conspiracy-theories-targeting-muslims-spread-in-india

https://www.jamesgmartin.center/2020/04/how-political-ideology-is-pushing-religion-out-of-religious-studies/?fbclid=IwAR2mPiNs7mejrWvc1QV14jVU2M2CJ4zboaMpZD-LhLE4CLaskpCz0Xx4Ors


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Intellectual Journeys: Insights from Timothy Fitzgerald’s Work

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.

Protected: The Problem with ‘Religion’ (and related categories) (Classroom Edit)

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The Problem with ‘Religion’ (and related categories)

Tim Fitzgerald is one of the foundational figures in the critical study of religion, and his seminal volume, The Ideology of Religious Studies, was published twenty years ago this year. In this interview – the first of a two-part retrospective – we discuss his career and how his studies in Hinduism and his time spent in Japan led him to question the relationship of categories like caste and ritual to the broader category ‘religion’. His realisation was that religion is such a broad category that it can include almost everything. We discuss the historical development of the category, and its roots in Protestant theological ideas, and the political movements of the eighteenth century. This leads into a critique of the essentialist assumptions hidden by the category, and the phenomenological ideas in its use in academia, and its function as a tool in power relations.

Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.


The Problem with ‘Religion’ (and related categories)

Podcast with Timothy Fitzgerald (17 February 2020).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-problem-with-religion-and-related-categories/

PDF of this transcription at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Fitzgerald_-_The_Problem_with_Religion_1.1.pdf

David Robertson (DR): I’m joined today by Timothy Fitzgerald, returning to the Religious Studies Project after a few years. Tim is originally from the UK but now based in Brisbane, where he is a Visiting Research Professor at the University of Queensland in the Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities. He’s one of the most prominent figures in the critical study of religion. And this interview is taking place at the 20 years since the publication of The Ideology of Religious Studies – which was a kind-of watershed text in the emergence of the critical religion. And the approach that we, at the RSP, have been pushing since day one, I guess. So first of all, Tim – welcome back to the Religious Studies Project, and thanks for making the time.

Timothy Fitzgerald (TF): Thanks for inviting me. It’s good to be with you.

DR: It’s been difficult to get this interview arranged, so I’m glad that it’s finally happening! Let’s start assuming that the Listener probably hasn’t read The Ideology of Religious Studies – or may not have read The Ideology of Religious Studies. Let’s start with a little bit of your back story. How did you get there from, you know, your first degree in RS – the same way that we all sort-of start, with whichever religion we decide to specialise in – how did you get there?

TF: Yes, well there are different possible starting points, but I agree the degree in Religious Studies that I did at Kings College London is a good place to start. I did that degree in ‘75-’77, and it was a really good degree. I learnt a lot from it. I’m glad I did it. It was well-taught. It was well-organised in a lot of ways. And it was all about religion, right? So we had eight or nine courses that lasted over the period of three years: three of them were in the philosophy of religion, one was in anthropology of religion, one in sociology of religion, one in psychology of religion. And then, in addition, we had to study two world religions. The world religions model was very well established, obviously, at that time. And that was in the mid-seventies. Ninian Smart was very prominent, and the whole sort-of Religious Studies education scene was pretty much dominated by the word religions model, as you know. Now, we did all of these studies of religion and one issue which came up for me was the question of what religion actually means. . . what it referred to. Because you know in a lot of the sub-disciplines – like the anthropology of religion, or the philosophy of religion – there’s a sort of genre of writing concerned with defining what religion is. And one of the things that struck me – and I suppose anybody else who read these different approaches to the definition of religion – one of the things that struck me was that there were so much room for disagreement. That basically the meaning of religion, the referent of religion was thoroughly contested. But that didn’t lead anybody to question whether we should have departments of Religious Studies focussed on researching a term which cannot be defined, and about which there is such a degree of (laughs) conflict or contestation. So that was really what I came out of Kings College London with. That was a very valuable thing. I think, in a way, one could say that the degree was successful because it taught me how to reflect critically. And – lo and behold! – I was reflecting critically on the very category that was at the heart of all of these studies that we were reading.

DR: Well, despite the sort-of prominence of Ninian Smart’s approach, it sounds like it was actually quite a methodological, or at least theoretical, undergraduate course (5:00) – much more so than you would find in most places nowadays, I think – with this sort-of . . . an entire course on the philosophy of religion, and entire course on the psychology of religion. You know, I don’t think courses look like that anymore.

TF: Right. Well it was good, yes. I enjoyed it. And I got a huge amount . . . .We did a lot of philosophy and, for example, we did philosophy in the sense of history of ideas, but it involved looking at particular writers, particular thinkers in some depth – and this was very much the sort-of Anglo-American analytical side of philosophy. We didn’t study any of the . . . we didn’t study many of the French or German philosophers. Of course Wittgenstein was very important, and one of the ways in which philosophers of religion and many others have tried to find a solution to this definitional problem is through Wittgenstein’s language games, and the idea that the meaning of a word comes from its uses. Those are important insights, but they don’t actually for me solve the definitional problem. And in fact I’ve had quite extended arguments about this with people like Benson Saler, who’s a great defender of Wittgenstein’s family resemblance kind-of approach to defining the meaning of words. But I think it has problems. So The Ideology of Religious Studies includes a great deal of argument about the way that Wittgenstein’s arguments are used to find a solution to the definitional problem.

DR: Well, hopefully we can get to that later on. I want to kind-of walk the Listener to there. Because I think, actually, the story of how you got there is quite interesting in itself. So we talked before about when you started looking at Buddhism and Hinduism, after your PhD, that the lack of referent in the category of religion, it began to hit home. You began to get some sort-of clear historical examples of that.

TF: Yes. I got a job in a college of higher education – Hertfordshire College of Higher Education – in 1980. It was my first full-time job. And one of my responsibilities was to teach Hinduism and Buddhism. And when I joined we had two degrees. One was the Education degrees . . . one was the Education degree for teachers. So there were a lot . . . it was a teacher training college originally, I think. And then there was a new BA in Humanities, of which the Study of Religion provided some pretty substantial segments . . . courses. So I was teaching on those two. And I mean the students would ask me . . . I was teaching Hinduism and Buddhism as a world religion, but feeling very uncomfortable with it. Because I could see the problems. And they’re vast essentialisations, aren’t they, based on texts, or on edited and selected versions of texts? And the idea of Hinduism is taught very much in the sort-of history of ideas fashion – or used to be. So, there’s a whole series of dates that you need to learn. And you need to learn the basic doctrines. But one thing that this complex construct Hinduism, taught as a religion, doesn’t do is to explain the wider context in which these abstracted textual references and concepts exist. And, of course, caste is a particularly problematic term (10:00). If you read world religion text books you will get references about Hinduism, you’ll constantly get references to caste, but nobody explains it properly. What is caste? It’s presented as though it’s a kind-of religious injunction on the division of labour, or something. It’s not . . . the actual way in which caste operates is not really explained. And in order to find that out you have to go into anthropology. So I was reading a huge amount of anthropology to supplement my world religion experience. Because anthropologists . . . and sometimes anthropologists are also interested in history. But the point is that anthropologists actually go and try and come into contact with this abstraction caste. And at that time, particularly Louis Dumont – who wrote the classic book Homo Hierarchicus – he dominated the field of Indian anthropology. But there were lots of other important anthropologists – Srinivas, for example. But I read a lot of anthropology. And this was in response, after all, to my students’ demands. Because, actually, a lot of the students were thinking in very practical ways – and perfectly legitimately. They weren’t really interested in the doctrine of salvation according to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. They were interested in why women wear a mark in their forehead, or how marriages happen, or what different people eat. They wanted to know about the actual practicalities of the village economy. How does caste actually operate within a village community? And these are very . . . further questions that I would be asked would be: how can caste operate in huge cities, like Bombay and Delhi, where there are so many people? Surely your caste identity simply gets lost? These kinds of practical and interesting questions. And here was I, teaching Hinduism and Buddhism – but I’d never even been to India! And that just seemed to me to be wrong. So I organised a research trip. It wasn’t brilliantly well organised. But basically, my research was going to be on caste, untouchability and the effect of colonial institutions. And whether the improvements and progress of liberal political economy had really helped to liberate people from the caste system. And one particular Indian leader was drawn to my attention, and that was Dr BR Ambedkar. And Ambedkar became a real source of great interest to me. So I managed to go to India for four months in the 1980s. I got some money together and I just spent four months in India, meeting people, and just trying to understand what India looks like, smells like, feels like.

DR: I know that you’ve got an interest in Mary Douglas’ work. And talking about caste there, I immediately start thinking of purity, and danger, and ideas of cleanliness. And I don’t know if she’s . . . I know her ideas are applicable so much wider than simply talking about religions. And certainly the way that these – kind-of well-discussed, being the obvious thing – but, “in-group” and “out-group” structures are kind-of ritualised but mystified in cultures.

TF: Yes.

DR: It immediately jumps to mind. And I know that you’re a fan of hers. So was that where you got to her work, as well?

TF: At first I was getting it more from Louis Dumont, who also really belonged to the French school of sociology: L’École Sociologique. He was a Durkheimian in many ways, as was Mary Douglas (15:00). And Durkheim had been a big influence on me when I was doing my degree at Kings College London. And for a long time I thought of myself, in a sense, as a Durkheimian. And I read Dumont through a Durkheimian perspective. But Dumont was very much putting the purity/pollution binary as the kind-of definition – almost the central characteristic – of the caste system. So you get the Brahmins as pure, and the Untouchables as impure. And a whole number of other castes in between, sort-of lining up in relative degrees of purity and pollution. And it’s a very useful way of looking at it. Of course, there was huge debate about these things in Indian anthropology and sociology. But I think nobody would doubt that Dumont’s picking on this binary is the sort-of outside limits of what could be thought in terms of social or human relations, rather. But, yes, Mary Douglas came hot on the heels, after Louis Dumont, as one of the people that I read, and one of the people that I have really enjoyed teaching. I think she’s been generally really helpful. One point that I would like to make, actually – since we’re talking about Durkheim, Dumont, Mary Douglas, I think you can see a kind of progressive move from the sort-of empirical ethnographic approach to sociology or anthropology towards the idea of . . . well, I’m calling them signalling systems. What Durkheim meant by a totemic system, or a system of collective representations. What I think you get in all of these writers is a move towards reading signs and their relationships as being the fundamental point of understanding anybody’s collective life.

DR: Would you agree that it’s maybe a progress from a structuralist into a poststructuralist view?

TF: Well, yes. I think so. But, I mean, Dumont is usually considered to be a structuralist. And I think that’s one of the reasons why people don’t read him very much now. Or they don’t seem to. But I think his work is actually very subtle in a lot of ways. And it’s very rich. He also wrote, as well as Homo Hierearchicus, he also wrote a book . . . . Well, he wrote From Mandeville to Marx. And he also wrote a collection of essays called Essays on Individualism, where he tried to show how, whereas in India the individual is always outside the world, structurally speaking and symbolically speaking, in the European Christian traditions the individual started off as outside the world but moved to become the in-wordly individual, basically as a result of modern capitalism. Or as a characteristic of modern capitalism. Whereas individuals used to sort-of go to the desert and separate themselves from the rest of the main body of humanity, in the search for salvation or some kind-of self-discovery – you know, you think of those hermits and renouncers in early Christian Europe, and they’ve existed all the way through . . . . Well in India you get a very, very ancient tradition of renunciation, where people symbolically . . . where people renounce their family (20:00), their village, their family name, their normal activities, clothes, profession, and really, in a sense, become a living non-person: they perform their own cremation, symbolically, by cremating their old clothes and various symbols of their previous life; so they become an out-worldly individual. They become an individual because they separated themselves from the collective, symbolically and physically. And they’ve now become something rather special, and sacred, and powerful by moving out of the normal collective which in India would be very much about caste, caste membership – moving out of that, and becoming a kind-of individual. Actually, most renouncers in India join ashrams. They belong to some kind of an organisation. They often have a guru. But nevertheless, Dumont was reading this at the symbolic level: that this is a move from identity defined by the collective, to a kind-of out-worldly identity. An individual identity. So his story was that, as a result of the Reformation, and then developments of various forms of Calvinism –where there was a very strong emphasis on the lonely individual working in the world – so the individual becomes, instead of being an out-worldly value, becomes the central in-worldly value of modern capitalist society. I think that’s an interesting way of looking at it.

DR: Very much so. After your research on India and teaching at the higher education college, you then moved to Japan for three years. And again, there’s another kind-of shift in your work there. So tell us about that.

TF: Yes, sure. Well, just as India had really shocked me and given me a different perspective on the world and also on myself. . . . I think it’s quite important – not for egotistical reasons – but it’s quite important to realise that one has internalised a great deal of shared common symbolic life which constructs our individuality. And that, when you move out of that shared symbolic life, your consciousness is quite vulnerable and you change a lot. Some people call it culture shock. But it’s to do with a reorientation of values. Well, going to Japan was even more like that because Japan is completely different from India and is very different from Britain. And going to Japan to live, this is because I met Noriko my wife, who’s Japanese, in London. And we had our first, our son, James – he was born in London. But then we almost immediately went to Japan, because I’d been offered a job there. And you know, her father was asking me to go and live in Japan for a while. He didn’t want to lose his daughter to a foreigner, which was perfectly understandable. (Laughs). Just suddenly disappear to London and never be seen again! So I was lucky, I was invited to a university in Japan called Aichi Gakuin, which was in Nagoya. And I had to do a lot of English teaching. But I did also have a status as a research academic. Yes, working in Japan, I had to very quickly start learning Japanese, because I didn’t know a word of Japanese when I went there! And I was there for several years. And it was very . . . it was hugely valuable. I mean my children are bilingual. They still speak Japanese with their mother. My Japanese was never fully fluent, but by the time I left I could more than survive there. You know, for the last six or seven years I was living there alone because Noriko and the children had gone back to London. And that was a fantastic impetus for me. And I went there when I was over forty, I ought to add. I was forty years old when I first went to Japan.

DR: And I can vouch that, in your forties, trying to learn a new language is not easy! (25:00)

TF: No. Not at all. Especially when it’s a non-European one. But I did learn a huge amount. And I’ve never regretted that. I regret that I couldn’t enter into academic debates with Japanese. That was just too a stretch too far. You really need to be trained in Japanese language from an earlier age and do it thoroughly. But never the less, I learned so much. And I tell you one of the main things it did was to re-orientate me, as I was explaining about India. It doesn’t mean to say that I idealised Japan. I was a big critic of Japan as a foreigner, living in Japan, but at the same time there are lots of things I really admired about the way Japanese people do things, the way they organised . . . . There a lots of things that I learnt from being in Japan.

DR: One important one, though, I think is the idea of translating categories. Japan certainly in conversations I have in RS, it’s very useful as an example where the idea of religion in the way that we think of it generally just doesn’t really work. And yet they’ve been kind-of forced to take it on to some degree as a result of colonial forces in the 19th century particularly. And yet, our Western hegemonic classifications don’t really map onto Japanese society very well. Would that be fair to say?

TF: Yes I think that is fair. I think it’s true, and in fact that’s been one of the themes of quite a lot of published work on Japan, my own published work. You know, just to give you a practical example, when I was teaching English in the universities – it was really boring by the way, because most of the Japanese didn’t want to learn English, and I don’t blame them. Why should they? They’re perfectly happy speaking their own language. But also it’s the way that English is taught, or languages in general are taught in Japan. And so I found myself teaching a large class of twenty or thirty students who were sitting in absolutely straight lines, desks in straight lines. They would often self-gender. So you’d get the men sitting on one side of the room and the women on the other. Not always, but they’d quite often do that. It was a bit like an extension of the Japanese school system – very disciplined. You don’t ever question the teacher. And basically, the teacher is there to speak and the students are there to listen. It’s very difficult under those circumstances to have a conversation class, as they jokingly used to call them. But, because I was trying to develop confidence in speaking Japanese, I used to sometimes try to start a conversation in an English class in Japanese, which was a shocking experience for my students: (A) because, well, you just don’t do that kind of thing, and (B) because, well, they had to suffer the very unskilful pronunciation and grammatical forms that I was producing. But nevertheless, you know, it was something that I was determined to do. Because I wanted to show them that I was prepared to make a fool of myself in trying to speak Japanese in front of a lot of students, therefore I’m not going to laugh at them if they’re feeling embarrassed about their English. That’s not what I’m there for. I’m there to encourage and to help with communication skills. Stuff like that. So in these circumstances, one of the conversations I used to like to have is “What does religion mean to you?” And I would sometimes ask it in English and then ask it again in Japanese using the Japanese term shūkyō, which is the current dominant translation for religion. And the students, you know, quite often in these circumstances nobody will reply (30:00); there’s just a deathly silence. But quite often I found if I was a bit persistent, they’d say, “Oh, religion is Christianity. It’s nothing to do with me.” (Laughs) Some would say Christianity and Buddhism are religion. And I’d say, well what about the matsuri, the festivals? What about all your visits to the temple and the shrine? Are these . . .? What about the way that you pay respects to your ancestors in the home? Or these kinds of things? And they would just respond and say, “Oh no, no. That’s not religion. That’s our customs. That’s Japanese customs. That’s the way we live.” So you see, the distinction between religion and what foreign and Japanese scholars of religion will describe as religious practices – for most people they’re not. And I think that that was something that I needed to learn, you know.

DR: Yes, I wonder how . . . I mean there’s certainly a way of looking at everyday – what gets called “lived religion” or “vernacular” religion a lot of the time, now. Certainly, thinking about most of my kind-of relatives and friends growing up in a working class area in the highlands, that’s mostly the way that they talk about religion as well. “Religion? Oh it’s the wee frieze at the high kirk”, or whatever. But going to speak to your gran at the grave or, you know, these kind-of ritual behaviours around twenty-first birthdays, or Christmastime, or Hogmanay, or whatever – they weren’t really thought of as religion. But I can’t help but think if there was a sort-of 1930’s anthropologist in that situation he would be describing all of these as kind-of “primitive religious rituals”.

TF: Well, yes. Except that . . . basically “primitive”, I don’t think contemporaries would call them primitive.

DR: No, no.

TF: No. I know exactly what you mean. There’s a whole tradition of making other people’s practices look as though they’re somehow backward, lower on the evolutionary scale, less sophisticated. But I think also there is the complication that there is a kind-of meta level, say the constitutional level, the level of constitutional, and the level of judiciary concerning what religion means. And this is basically adopted from Europe. And it’s quite a long story but it involves talking about . . . . In the mid-nineteenth century, the Americans were becoming very powerful, they were quite imperialistic. The United States of America, which had liberated people from the tyranny of a European monarch . . . .

DR: I want to pick that up at the start of the next interview. Because I don’t think we’ve got time to do it justice now.

TF: No, I think it is a very long one that. Because I think we need to talk about the way in which religion because inscribed in the US constitution.

DR: Absolutely. So we’ll pick that one up there in the next episode. But for now, let’s just . . . . Whilst you were in Japan, you wrote The Ideology of Religious Studies. So tell us a little bit about the overall argument there. I mean, certainly reading that as . . . I was either towards the end of being an undergrad, or at the start of postgraduate studies. (35:00) It was the first sustained argument challenging religions, world religions, the phenomenological approach which had been so sort-of central to the way that they taught at Edinburgh. And so, just briefly sum up where you were when you wrote that monograph.

TF: Well, as you say, I was in Japan. And it was the culmination of . . . I mean I’d been publishing about Japan during the ‘90s. For example, I was reading books on Japanese religion in English but written by Japanese scholars who had either written their contribution in English or it had been translated. But one thing that struck me. There was one particular volume which was quite authoritative. I mean, it had been published and financed under the auspices of the ministry of culture in Japan. And there were five or six professors who contributed special chapters to it: one on Japanese Buddhism, one on Japanese Shinto, one on Japanese Confucianism, one on Japanese nature religion, one on, sorry, folk religion, and one or two others. One on Christianity in Japan, I think. There are very few Christians in Japan. But what struck me about all of these writers was that (A) they were all specialising in a particular religion, or a particular religious tradition, which they set out to describe for the reader. But, at the same time, every single one of them said that, actually, this is a very artificial distinction. Because, really, you can’t talk about Shinto without talking about Confucianism and Buddhism. And the same with the others. Because they’re all . . . they’re all part of our lives. We don’t really choose between them. It’s not as though “I’m a Shintoist, but not a Buddhist”. And the idea that “I’m not a Confucianist” is difficult to swallow. The point is that there was a contradiction inherent in what they were saying. And it was the same contradiction that I’d encountered . . . well I’d encountered it in India in a particular way, but also in the definitional problems, in the degree that I did: that there was a disparity between what people were saying in one part of the text and what they were saying in another part. So my first article about Japan was published . . . I can’t remember now . . . in the early nineties. Was it ‘93? ‘94? ‘95? And it was called Japanese Religion as Ritual Order

DR: 1993.

TF: 1993. Ok. And it was published I think, in Religion. And I was trying to point out what I’ve just told you in that article. I called it Japanese Religion as Ritual Order, because I was trying to find a term which would give me some kind-of a base. And “ritual” seemed to be a very useful one. Because ritual . . . we can use the term ritual to describe either side of the binary. You know, you can have religious rituals and secular rituals. But rituals was a term which I hoped I would be able to use in order to avoid using this binary religion/secular. Because it didn’t seem to me to work. So I looked at all the ways in which the Japanese ritualised their everyday lives, in all the institutions, in the household, in the schools, in the universities, in the corporations, in the small businesses, in the services. Every institutional practice is the ritual which constructs seniors and juniors, that’s one of the things it does. It’s imbued with respect language, and different levels of language. There is an issue about social space, so people distance themselves in a certain way. Bowing is an obvious example of the ritualization of everyday life (40:00). So I wanted to try and subvert this essentialising dichotomy – between religion on the one hand, and the rest of secular life on the other – and show that it’s much more like a ritual continuum. And that went in very much to The Ideology of Religious Studies.

DR: For me, the most kind-of impactful realisation in it was the critique of phenomenology, the phenomenological method, as kind-of essentialist and maybe even crypto-theological. Together with the sort-of largest critique of the category as essentially . . . without that kind-of essence to it. Like, the term was essentially meaningless, unless it was referring to this sui generis kind-of essence. And that, for me, was the most impactful part of that argument. I don’t know if that was central for you, but that was . . .

TF: I think of course it is central, yes. I mean, one of the points of my argument was that religion is actually used to describe and classify so much that it becomes empty of any specific content. And then, if you look at the actual range of usages of the term religion, there’s a religion of everything. And yet at the same time in this either/or essentialising binary with the non-religious secular. Now there’s something very interesting there, that on the one hand you’ve got a category which can be used so widely that you’re beginning to wonder: is anything not religion or religious? And on the other hand, it’s held together in this essentially either/or binary. It’s either religion or it’s not religion – which gives it the appearance of having a very determinate and definitive reference. Do you see what I’m saying?

DR: Yes, absolutely.

TF: And it also raises the question about: if we can’t define the religion side of the binary, then we can’t find the limits of the secular side either. And my work in The Ideology of Religious Studies was very much about destabilising politics and society as the generic abstraction for sociology. And a lot of the stuff was aimed at Ninian Smart, but also much more widely. I mean, I discussed a lot of different theorists in The Ideology of Religious Studies. And I wanted to undermine these grand dichotomies. But as soon as you question the limits of the secular, then you’re also questioning politics, or the idea of society, or the idea of culture.

DR: And that’s exactly where we’re going to pick up in the next part of this interview. But, for now: thank you, Tim.

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Religion as a Species of Human Activity

Andie Alexander’s conversation with Aaron Hughes on J. Z. Smith’s stature and legacy in the field of the study of religion is wonderfully ranging and thoughtful. It makes me wish I had been at the “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith” conference in Trondheim.

The conversation seems to circle around a few main questions or topics. What did Smith achieve? What was his project? Did he leave a legacy that is powerful or attractive enough to influence the study of religion in the future? How does one deal with that legacy in one’s research and teaching? Or, how can we “translate” Smith in a way that is appropriate for our analysis of our own specialized data? How do we translate Smith for our students? After all, in my own experience Smith is much easier to learn from than to teach. Smith is hardly imitable in his reach of data across time, space, languages, and religions. Nor, apart from his persistent comparatism, can one discern a Smithian method that can be followed like a recipe. In any case, he would have disdained a slavish devotion to him and trying to imitate him.

These questions are big and satisfying answers to them are too long for a short blog. So let’s start with a couple of basics that, I think, are necessary to think with Smith and easily taught to our students. Smith was a fundamentally a contrarian.  His project was to oppose and offer an alternative to two main, if not defining, tendencies in the religious studies academy. One is the pervasive influence of theology and religious belief, in whatever form, in the academic study of religion. He especially targeted a certain phenomenology of religion that has its roots in the Italian scholar Raffaele Pettazzoni (1883-1959), the first president of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR), and that came to dominate the study of religion in North America under the powerful influence of Mircea Eliade (1907-1989). At the foundational core of this phenomenological orientation is the belief (and it is a belief!) in a transcendent, ahistorical numinous reality that Eliade simply called the Sacred. From it flow manifestations or experiences or epiphanies that are universal, historical, and transcultural. Most of us are familiar with this view in general. It’s enough to say that the postulated transcendent, primordial Sacred makes religion a universal reality all its own, fundamentally set apart from other dimensions of human societies and cultures. It sets religion outside the realm of human invention and protects it from scholarly critique.

Smith had little patience with this view. Aaron Hughes says that Smith, “more than anyone, was responsible for smashing the Eliadean phenomenological paradigm.” Smith used gentler terms, but that doesn’t matter. Aaron is right. As an alternative, Smith historicized religion. “There is no primordium, it’s all history,” he used to say. Religion and the religious are human social and cultural realities. Human religiosity is not rooted in a Sacred; the Sacred is itself a human religious product. This means that religion is not its own genus of human activity, but a species of it. The study of religion thus must be the study of humans across time, place, and cultures. Like Ludwig Feuerbach long before him, Smith thought that the most appropriate study of religion is anthropological, historical, and comparative (though comparative in a much different way than the phenomenologists practice it). Hughes is also right in saying that Smith’s criticism of phenomenology was not a “smashing” success. The religious studies academy continues to be thoroughly phenomenological in its orientation – notwithstanding some, though not many in relative terms, exceptions. It seems to me that this basic contrarian postulate and posture is easily explained to students and should be a foundational feature of all religious studies course. To achieve this, I say to instructors, introduce students to Smith early and often.

The other is that Smith turned his back on the ongoing preoccupation in our field to find the value of religion/s primarily in terms of spiritual meaning. Smith was an intellectualist and thought that both myths and rituals were strategies for thinking through complex or incongruous situations. In general, religions are human products that must be studied in their historical and social contexts in order to analyze how they are complexly shaped by social entities and that, in turn provide an overall charter of the world, both human and cosmic, for these entities. This sounds remarkably like the working of ideology, a term that Smith very rarely used. Regretfully so. Other people have analyzed religion as ideology, though—most incisively Bruce Lincoln, Smith’s colleague at the University of Chicago. To quote Lincoln: “religion must be understood as the most extreme form of ideology, for religions provide arbitrary social formations and habituated patterns not merely with persuasive rationalizations of an abstract conceptual nature, as do non-religious ideologies, but with nothing less (so they claim) than sacred warrants and ultimate legitimation” (Apples and Oranges, 2018, 23-24). This takes Lincoln a little beyond Smith in terms of articulation but is nonetheless a permissible extension of his historical and social analysis of how religions work. It may be a counter-intuitive concept for our students, who often think that ideologies are false while religions are true, but it is not that difficult to understand. Studying religion as ideology too is contrarian, or at least marginal in our field, and so another way to remember and work with Smith.

Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Cliches

“Religions are belief systems”, “Religions are intrinsically violent”, “Religion is Bullshit”… these are just some of the pervasive cliches that we might hear from time to time in the English-speaking world about our central topic of discussion on the RSP, ‘religion’. In this podcast, Chris is joined by Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin, the editors of the recently published Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Cliches (Bloomsbury, 2017) to discuss these cliches, the ideological work that they do, how scholars could and should approach them, the construction of the book, and more.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for making this recording possible. The other cliches addressed in the book and/or covered in the podcast include:

* “Religion Makes People Moral”
* “Religion Concerns the Transcendent”
* “Religion is a Private Matter”
* “Religions are Mutually Exclusive”
* “I’m Spiritual but Not Religious”
* “Learning about Religion Leads to Tolerance”
* “Everyone has a Faith”

You can find a full list of contributors, and more about the book, on the publisher’s website: HERE.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Wu-Wear, previously enjoyed golf balls, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Clichés

Podcast with Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin (30 April 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Stoddard and Martin – Stereotyping Religion 1.1

Chris Cotter (CC): “Religions are belief systems.” “Religions are intrinsically violent.” “Religion is bullshit.” These are just some of the pervasive clichés that we might hear from time to time, in the English-speaking world, about our central topic of discussion on the RSP: religion. Joining me today to talk about a new book that’s coming out called Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin, neither of whom should be strangers to the Religious Studies Project. But, just to introduce them, Brad is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. He completed his dissertation at Florida State University and is currently revising his manuscript on Florida’s faith-based correctional institutions. He teaches American Religious History and the History of Christianity. And he’s primarily interested in religion and the law, religion in American prisons, and theory and method in the Study of Religion. And he’s currently serving as the president of our beneficent sponsors, the North American Association for the Study of Religion. And Craig Martin is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at St Thomas Aquinas College. And his research and teaching focuses on theoretical questions in the academic Study of Religion, typically related to discourse, ideology and power. And some of his books include, Masking Hegemony: A Genealogy of Liberalism, Religion and the Private Sphere; Capitalising Religion: Ideology and the Opiate of the Bourgeoisie; and A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion. And he is currently the editor of a book series with Bloomsbury, titled Critiquing Religion: Discourse, Culture and Power, in which this book, Stereotyping Religion, appears. So, Brad and Craig – welcome back to the Religious Studies Project!

Brad Stoddard (BS): Thank you.

Craig Martin (CM): Thanks so much.

CC: And I should say that we are conversing via the wonders of Skype. So maybe – just to set the scene here for me – if you want to tell me, how did this book come to be? Why did it come to be? What’s the point here?

CM: Brad, can I field that one to begin with?

BS: I think you should!

CM: (Laughs.) So, the initial idea for this book project came to me when I was working on my dissertation at Syracuse University. I was thinking about all the stereotypes about religion that my students came into the class with, and that I found frustrating to know how to deal with – and not just students, but also friends and family members who would repeat these clichés. And it was like, I couldn’t think of an obvious scholarly source to point them to, to say, “OK. In a nutshell, here’s why scholars try to avoid this cliché.” So, through conversations with my friends Donovan Schaefer and Jeremy Vecchi  . . . Schaefer’s now at – I’m going to get this wrong. He’s either at Penn State, or the University of Pennsylvania – I can’t remember which.

CC: (Laughs).

CM: But, I reached out to Donovan Schaefer and Jeremy Vecchi and I said, “You know, I think we could write this book really quickly and easily, because we already know what we want to say about each of these stereotypes.” And we produced three chapters, and I graduated and moved away, and the thing just kind-of languished and was never picked up and continued. So a couple of years ago I was like, “You know, that really was a good idea for a book. There should be something on clichés and stereotypes.” So I reached out to Brad and said, “Hey, are you interested in helping me edit this?” And he jumped on board, and then we ran with it.

CC: Wonderful. And it’s really great when that sort of thing happens, when you get to revisit an idea that you had – and no one else has stolen it! Yes.

CM: (Laughs). Yes. Well in ten years of it sitting, nobody else stole the idea. And I think that the stereotypes we chose are so pervasive that we didn’t have any difficulty getting people to sign up for the project. People were immediately, “Oh yes! That’s a great idea. Can I address this one?” Or, “Can I address that one?” So, yes we were pleased with how quickly it came together, and how great our submitting authors were.

CC: On that note . . . . So, you say you found it quite easy to come up with the list of clichés: did you present a ready-made list and then try and find contributors? Or did contributors come to you with clichés they particularly wanted to write about? And were there ones that you had wanted to include, that you couldn’t?

BS: As I recall, Craig and I . . . when Craig approached me with the project we sat down, you know, over the phone or email and went back and forth to create a list of about ten clichés that we agreed on. And then we started looking for people to write about the individual clichés. And in conversations with the individual authors at least one or maybe two of the clichés changed, because the author would say, “Well that’s good – can I approach it from this angle” And of course, when it made sense, we gave the individual authors the freedom to run with the cliché. But the bulk of it, I think, came from a few conversations where Craig and I just identified: these are the main clichés we see in society and politics. These are the main clichés we encounter in class. And so we had this list of clichés – and it just changed a little bit, but for the most part we ran with our list.

CC: Fantastic. I’ll ask you in a moment to take me through a few of them. But, in the introduction you set out the context for the book, but also the context in which the clichés are operating. So you talk about liberal political theory, idealised Protestantism, secularisation theory and so on. Maybe you could – just for the listeners – lay out the context that we’re talking about, in which these stereotypes are operating?

CM: I think a lot of that stuff in the intro was from me. Because when we were finishing edits to the various chapters, and I was reading through them and thinking about, you know – would my students be able to follow these or not? Because we wanted this to be accessible at an undergraduate level. I realised a common theme that went throughout a majority of the chapters were those three things that you mentioned: liberal political discourse that says religion is a private matter, the discourses on secularism and the discourses on New Atheism. These didn’t pop up in every single chapter, but in a majority of ones. So I was like, you know: we should give some background to the consistent themes that were going to pop up as the reader moves through the book.

CC: Yes.

CM: So that’s why I used those in particular: because I thought that they would help the readers understand the chapters.

BS: The only thing that I would add to that – I think you also mention in that section anti-Catholic propaganda, or anti-Catholic Protestant propaganda, about religion being a private matter. Or some of the other clichés: that they have a Protestant bias built into them. And, of course, the colonial context. Those are two other factors that we saw as common themes in the history of the general clichés.

CM: Yes, for sure. Exactly.

CC: Fantastic. So, I’m wary of asking you pull out favourites or anything, because we’ll not have time to get through every cliché. But perhaps you could take us through one or two of them, and just show us some of the analysis in action?

BS: Do you have any ones you want to pull out, Craig?

CM: I’ll wait till after you go.

CC: (Laughs). I like that.

BS: I have a soft spot for Steven Ramey’s piece. Steven Ramey writes about religions being mutually exclusive. And I think Steven’s was the first . . . . The reason I have a soft spot for it: I think it was the first one that came back to us; he was the first to submit it, that is. And I read it and I thought, “This is exactly how I want this book to look.” So, Steven Ramey addresses the cliché that religions are mutually exclusive. And so he introduces the chapter with I think the opening sentence, “What is your religion? Check one box.” And this is something that all undergraduates have seen in some version, right? What is your religion? They get it here. They have the option to check that box when they apply for admission. So I know they’ve at least seen it once, but probably many times before. So he introduces the cliché. In the introduction he talks about how this is not . . . this cliché that religions are mutually exclusive is not just academic navel-gazing, but that there are real political and legal implications. And he addressed some of the legal and political implications. And he continues . . . . In the chapter he talks about places where you encounter this cliché. Where do we see it? We see it in popular culture. We see it in politics. We see it in Law. Of course, he doesn’t mention this, but for example in the work I do in prisons: when you’re an inmate in America you check “Which religion are you?” You have to check one. And in Florida, where I did the bulk of my research, you can only change your religion once every six months. And it dictates where you can move about in the prison, which groups you can attend, which study groups, which religious services. Steven doesn’t address that part, but these are some of the examples. Steven mentions different types of examples like this. You know, this idea that religions are mutually exclusive: it does have political and legal implications. So then he moves in, and he talks about the development, the historical development of the cliché. Talking about, of course, the European context in which the cliché emerged. He talks about the colonial context. I believe he mentions the Protestant Reformation. He talks about places like India, where the distinction between Buddhism and Hinduism is not as rigid as we would imply. Or some other Asian countries where Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism or even Shinto – these alleged, so-called separate religions – the boundaries are just so much more malleable. So, long-story-short, by the time you read Steven’s chapter you get the history of the cliché, you get the political work that it does, and you realise the areas of the world where that cliché becomes quite problematic.

CC: Exactly. And it’s worth noting, here, that the book isn’t attempting to sort-of put something in the place of these clichés. Because the opposite example of religions being mutually exclusive, would be that, I guess, religions are all one and the same – which is another one that is dealt with in the book. You’re not so much asking these authors to say, “This is wrong, and this is right.” You’re rather pointing out that clichés, in and of themselves, never tell the full picture and are always doing ideological work.

BS: That’s true. We highlight that in the introduction, where we make a point of saying that we want to make it clear the work is not to replace these old clichés with new generalisations about religion, or better generalisations about religion. Instead, we’re suggesting to the students, or to the readers, that any cliché about religion or any generalising statement can similarly be interrogated, historicised, etc.

CC: Fantastic. So, Craig, you’ve had a long time to think, there, about which you’re going to pick out!

CM: Well, I decided I can’t pick one. I think – there are so many great chapters in here, in my opinion.

CC: You’ll never hear the end of it if you pick . . . you know, whoever you pick!

CM: Yes. (Laughs). Well, ok

BS: Delete my answer, then!

CM: I really enjoyed Tenzan‘s chapter on learning about how religion leads to tolerance – in part because he did a bunch of research into Ninian Smart’s work that I didn’t have a lot of prior familiarity with. So I actually learned a lot about Ninian Smart by reading his chapter. You know, Ninian Smart reproduces a stereotype that if you learn about religion, or if we teach about religion in public schools or in colleges, then people will be more tolerant and accepting and forgiving of one another. And one of the things that I felt was really important about the book was that I felt that we needed to address how theses stereotypes appear not only in popular culture, but also in scholarly literature. And Tenzan just did a fantastic job of showing, you know, how even a sophisticated scholar like Ninian Smart reproduces some pretty blatant stereotypes. But I really thought he nailed Ninian Smart – that’s probably why I liked it so much.

CC: Yes. When I was reading it I did highlight three or four pages to come back to, the next time I have to teach about Ninian Smart.

CM: I had a chance to teach him in my Intro to Religious Studies class. I taught this book last semester. And literally, the day . . . . So, this was a 9 o’clock in the morning class, and we’d addressed Tenzan’s chapter that education about religion leads to tolerance. And then, literally a couple of hours later, one of my students who was in that class went to one of her other classes where they had a guest lecturer – who showed up to talk about how education about different religions leads to tolerance! So the student came back to me in office hours the next day and said, “You know, Professor, I was arguing with this presenter in my head, and I was pretty sure I won the argument, based on what we had learned in class earlier that day.”

CC: (Laughs).

CM: So it was fun to see . . . . You know, we addressed this cliché and then two hours later, literally, she encounters the cliché in the classroom. It’s fun!

CC: Fantastic. And we’ll talk, hopefully, before we finish about that experiment of using it in the classroom. But you’ve touched on, there, learning about religions leads to tolerance. That sounds like a quite a positive cliché. In one of the chapters, I think it was Matt Sheedy’s on religion being violent, he brought up Karen Armstrong, and others, insisting that proper religion is peaceful, and religion is a peaceful, nice thing. Is there a danger that by critiquing positive clichés we’re doing society a disservice? Or is there such a thing as a positive cliché?

CM: I want to answer this question pointing to what I think is an excellent book on phenomenology of religion, Tim Murphy‘s The Politics of Spirit. And in that book Murphy looks at the history of phenomenology, a lot of which puts a positive spin on religion: that religion is getting in touch with the transcendent; religion is a sort of happiness, etc. Phenomenology of religion tends to think positively about religion. But what Tim Murphy does is show that each one of those phenomenologists uses their rhetorical framework to rank religions and to denigrate some in relationship to others. So that someone like Rudolph Otto says, you know, religion is getting in touch with the transcendent, and that Christianity most beautifully gets us in touch with the transcendent. But, of course, Islam doesn’t do so well, and primitive religion is terrible at it. So I think that even the positive clichés . . . like Karen Armstrong – she also has a ranking system built into her framework. So that the things that she likes she can call authentic religion, and the things that she doesn’t like she can dismiss as inauthentic religion or political religion – or maybe, for her, political religion isn’t even religion. So perhaps it’s ok to bomb the ship in the Middle East, because they’re not good religious people, they’re bad religious people? So I think that even the positive clichés have the potential to be used in that kind of ranking system, where people can favour one and dismiss others. And that can often-times lead to what I consider to be negative effects.

CC: Absolutely. And, indeed, Leslie Dorrough Smith writes in the book about the idea of religion being about transcendence. And I pulled out this quote where she says that cliché can “simultaneously normalise the existence of the supernatural, identify an enemy, justify a political cause, amplify the seriousness of one’s position and unite a group of people under the banner of their own moral worth.” And that’s not even a complete list! So in that . . . . You hear, “Oh religion is just about the transcendent, the supernatural, the ineffable,” and it doesn’t sound harmful. But when you look at how it is deployed, it’s doing real ideological work. So let’s talk about the classroom setting, then. So, as I was saying earlier to you: this is certainly going to be a very useful resource when I’m coming to teaching – not only about Ninian Smart, but any time you casually mention these clichés – it’s going to be fantastic to just pick up the book and find a few examples. So I can see it being a really useful teaching resource, in that respect. But, Brad – you used it in the classroom, then. So how did that go down?

BS: Yes, I used this book in my Intro to Religious Studies class, where we start by reviewing the so-called canon of important or influential Religious Studies scholars, and then we supplement that with people who are omitted from the so-called canon. And then the benefit of that is that the students got a wide survey of theories about religions, approaches to religion, methods, methodologies, etc. And then we ended the semester by reading and discussing Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Clichés. And since it was the first time I taught from the book, I organised it as this: we’d meet three days a week, and I asked groups of students to present for a half hour. And so, you had two or three students each presenting a chapter. And they presented for about twenty minutes, and then we’d open up for Q and A for about ten minutes or so. And then I had some closing comments at the end of the class. And what I like about it is that it allowed me to see what the students took from the book, and what I thought they omitted. And it led to some really good discussions, because the students thought…or the students said, “Yes. Some of the clichés that we’ve identified, I embrace them.” Pretty much the entire class! And so to have someone call them out, and point out the history, and point out the problems with it – it did a lot of work in the class. It helped the students, because it overturned some things that they had just taken for granted. And actually, on the last day of class, we discussed the entire book. And the students tended to agree – obviously they knew that I was one of the editors, so they weren’t going to say too many harsh criticisms; they weren’t going to criticise it too much! But they thought that it was nice to end the semester by addressing these clichés, for the simple fact that it changed the way they were thinking, or that they had thought about religion, you know, for their young adult life.

CC: Fantastic.

BS: Not to over-romanticise it, right?!

CC: Oh, no.

BS: But they did find value in it.

CC: Excellent. I can totally see myself, the next time I’m marking a pile of essays . . . . And you see these clichés coming up all the time. One that’s not in the book is, you know: “Religion has been around since the beginning of time . . .” They’ll sort-of begin with that. But plenty of other ones come up. And I can imagine, immediately, just copying in a URL to the chapter on the library website, for any of these – rather than having to spend my own time deconstructing it! Just say, “Read that chapter, and then come back and write it again.”

BS: That’s a good one! Craig, take note: we should include that in the next edition, if there is one!

CC: Yes! (Laughs). Well, if there’s another one: “Religion is a choice” – you always hear that. People choose to believe, or choose to have a certain religion. So, yes, I’m already filling up the next volume! I guess an obvious question that would come up on the RSP quite often, is: why religion, here? Obviously this is our area of interest. We teach courses on this. But could you do a similar book for say stereotyping sport, or stereotyping gender, or, you know – is religion particularly problematic?

BS: Yes, you could. And I hope other people do!

CC: (Laughs).

BS: So, I have a little more of a substantive response to that question.

All: (Laugh).

BS: I think that, yes, obviously you could write such a book about any subject matter: stereotyping politics, stereotyping gender, stereotyping race. What I think sets Religious Studies apart is the fact that post-structuralism reached Religious Studies twenty years later than it hit all those other fields. And the popularisation of post-structuralist approaches is lagging. I don’t know, apart from Malory Nye‘s intro book, in Russell McCutcheon’s new book, I don’t know of any introductory material in Religious Studies that actually comes from a critical, poststructuralist perspective. And I’m pretty sure that people have been teaching poststructuralism to undergrads since the 80s. So it’s time that we went ahead, and picked up our slack, and tried to catch up by having some undergraduate literature to present. I mean it’s not like post-structuralism is brand new. It’s 50 years old, now! Our introductory textbooks still tend to ignore those types of critical approaches.

CC: Yes. So there are disciplinary reasons why such a book may not be written, necessarily, in other fields. And then also, like it or not, “religion” – this constructed political category – is something that has a lot of power in the modern Western world. To write a book called, I don’t know, “Stereotyping Golf”, or “Stereotyping Stamp Collecting”, whilst it might be interesting . . . . Unfortunately, stereotypes about stamp collecting probably aren’t quite as pervasive, or potentially harmful, as these clichés about “religion”. Every time I say “religion” it’s in scare quotes. But we all know that. We are coming up on about 25 minutes, here. So I’ll be wanting to wrap up, fairly soon. And I’m going to close the interview with Rebekka King‘s close to the book. But I just wondered if there’s anything more on this topic of prevalent stereotypes about religion that you would like to say, or that you’d hoped you were going to say?

CM: I think I would just want to say thanks to Donovan Schaefer and Jeremy Vecchi for working with me on this project in the ancient past, and thanks to Brad for joining the project when I decided to resurrect it. And also thanks to Lalle Pursglove at Bloomsbury publishing, for showing some interest in the idea and taking me up on the offer.

CC: Absolutely. And it’s brilliant to see the sort of critical religion approach applied in this sense, sort-of applied systematically to a variety of clichés that . . . . When I was reading it myself I was doing a lot of, “Well, yes. Yes, that makes sense.” But there were a lot of things that were thoughts that I’d had, but were never actually put down on paper. And lots of interesting examples, and plenty that I’d never thought of before. And I can see it being really useful, both for students and to point students to – and potentially to do the sort of thing that Brad did, sort-of structuring some teaching around it. So do check out the book, Listeners. It’s called Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Clichés, edited by Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin. It came out in paperback immediately, so it’s nice and . . . It’s not a typical academic book price, so you can get your hands on it quite easily, hopefully. And you can find the full list of all the stereotypes and clichés . . . we’ll put them on the page with this podcast. I just wanted to end with Rebekka King’s chapter on “Religion is bullshit”. And she begins by talking about how even the desire to correct the statement “religion is bullshit” is, in itself, bullshit. And she closes the book with the following words, which I thought would be a nice way to end the episode: “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether or not religion is bullshit. The term is an empty signifier. What matters is your ability to weigh evidence, locate sources and pay critical attention to both your scholarly process and product. You may find yourself mired in shit, but at least you’ll be in good company.” And I hope you’ve been in good company today. Thanks so much Craig and Brad.

CM: Thank you.

BS: Thanks so much for having us. We appreciate it.

Citation Info: Stoddard, Brad, Craig Martin and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Clichés”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 30 April 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 25 April 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/stereotyping-religion-critical-approaches-to-pervasive-clichés/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

No, Secularism is not a World Religion

No, secularism is not a world religion. That is my response to the question posed to Donovan Schaefer concerning the relationship between secularism and religion. In this podcast, Schaefer suggested that incorporating secularism as an “object of study” within the world religion paradigm could be a useful pedagogical tool to challenge it from within, but I think this is the wrong approach. The reason for my rejection of  Schaefer’s solution is not because I think incorporating secularism in the world religion paradigm would muddy the sanctity of the category, nor because Schaefer’s proposal fails some more critical definition of religion, but simply because it would only end up reifying religion even more. In my view, incorporating secularism in the world religions paradigm doesn’t challenge this paradigm from within, as Schaefer suggests, but merely gives it more life by expanding its scope and reach. Committing this error would be the same as trying to fix the eurocentrism implicit in the world religion paradigm by expanding the various cultures and histories that fall under its domain, which is exactly the same error that thinkers made in the middle of the twentieth century. In contrast to Schaefer, I would suggest that the way to challenge the world religions paradigm is not by incorporating more diverse―and possibly anti-religious―phenomenon into its structure, but by simply historicizing the category and showing how it operates at an ideological level.

To begin, let me assert that I recognize and respect the general scholarly position from which Schaefer  is coming. At the beginning of the podcast he notes that a lot of recent scholarship has challenged the idea that secularism stands in contrast to religion, and on this point he is certainly correct. In the past century, prominent theorist like Karl Löwith, Hans Blumenberg, Charles Taylor, and Marcel Gauchet have all challenged the traditional narrative that pits modernity against religion and frames Western history as an increasing process of secularization that is liberated from religion. For instance, Blumenberg tries to expose the unique legitimacy of the modern age that recognizes but does not reduce it to its Christian legacy, and Taylor takes the extreme position of suggesting that the modern secular age was brought about by developments latent in the Jewish and Christian traditions. Indeed, for Taylor, the generative seeds of modernity don’t begin with modern developments in science and philosophy but with various Judeo-Christian influences that we can trace back to the wider Mediterranean civilization from which they emerged. This implies that secularism is not some anti-religious movement in the West but is deeply intertwined with the rise and fall of the civilization that once called itself “Christendom.”

Indeed, as both Schaefer and Cotter acknowledge during the course of the pod cast, both “religion” and the “secular” are categories that emerge out of a certain “Christian”―or more broadly stated, “Western”―provenance. In regard to religion, thinkers such as Talal Asad, Timothy Fitzgerald, and Tomoko Masuzawa have all noted that it was only after the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century that the word “religion” began to take on the connotation of personal belief in a subjective sense, and to denote a universal human sense or capacity for religion. In Roman and early Christian Latin literature the nouns religio, religiones, the adjective religiosus, and the adverb religios were mainly used to describe the performance of ritual obligations. This early use has more in common with the Latin Pietas than with our modern notion of the word “religion,” which has acquired the sense of inner belief or faith. The invention of religion in this modern sense took place because various thinkers―from Jean Bodin to G. W. F. Hegel―argued that true religion is a matter of proper belief, not just cultic participation. Moreover, it occurred when this idea was carried around the world by the forces of colonization and globalization, which eventually led to the normative divisions of the subject that make up world religion textbooks (i.e. the division between Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.)

Similarly, the secular was also invented in the context of Christians―or Christian critics―struggling to make sense of the post-reformation world. In fact, the first modern use of the word “secular” can be traced to the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which brought an end to the wars of religion. The treaty uses the term “secularity” to describe “the conversion of an ecclesiastical or religious institution or its property to sovereigns, princes or lay people.” In this manner, the secular emerged as a space of worldly authority that was distinct from, yet deeply interconnected with, Western religious institutions. From this perspective, as Schaefer notes, secularism can be viewed as “an offshoot of Christianity… as something that Christianity does.” When we view the history of the West from a broad lens it is possible to see the great schisms between the various Christian orthodoxies and the “secular” forms of thought that took inspiration from them as “part of the story of Christianity.”

Where I disagree with Schaefer is in his attempt to see these intertwined genealogies through the cross-hairs of the world religion paradigm. Once we acknowledge that the invention of religion as a universal category and its subsequent critique by the forces of secularism took place under a certain Western provenance, why would we continue expanding the scope and reach of the world religion paradigm? I agree with Schaefer that this paradigm is not “evil,” as he puts it, but it is incorrect; it does not adequately describe the phenomena, so why would we continue to expand its application? From my perspective, to do what Schaefer is suggesting would be tantamount to the same error made by Ernst Troeltsch or Ninian Smart in the twentieth century, as it would try to correct the study of religion by expanding its scope. Smart, for instance, always tried to instruct students in a “broad religious outlook” by showing how religion is constituted by cultural difference,  and I think what Schaefer has suggested would end up being very similar. Recall that Smart’s classification of world religions included not just Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, but various indigenous traditions and even Maoist communism. In this light, incorporating secularism within the world religion paradigm is no different than attempting to challenge the paradigm by incorporating non-traditional or atheist forms of religion within the classroom.

For instance, Schaefer cites the work of Janet Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini, and suggests that one way to critically challenge religion from within is by showing how there is not just one type of secularism, but multiple secularisms. Like Talal Asad and Charles Taylor, he suggests that there are different formations of the secular that emerge out of different cultures and contexts, and that they expose the diversity at the heart of our models of religious classification. In this light, Christian, Islamic, and Hindu cultures (etc.) give rise to different types of secularism, and there is even a difference between Hindu forms of secularism in India and Hindu forms of secularism in America. Now, to be fair, I do think this is a good way to understand different cultural forms in light of globalization, but why try to incorporate these secularisms within the world religion paradigm? In contrast to Schaefer, I am worried that including non-religious or atheist forms of culture within the paradigm doesn’t challenge it from within, but merely revitalizes it by incorporating more data within its fold.

To put the matter plainly, I think we need to push the genealogy and historical situatedness of religion and secularism further than Schaefer proposes. Schaefer suggests that he wants to deconstruct the world religion paradigm by destabilizing it from within, yet I don’t think he goes far enough in this regard. He is right that deconstruction always takes place within the very thing under analysis, but this doesn’t mean that we should proceed by expanding the same old reified categories at a wider level. I follow Jacques Derrida in thinking that we need to question both our students and ourselves (as scholars) whether religion and secularism exist at all outside of their Western contexts, and thereby attempt to limit their further application. In Above All No Journalists! Derrida states this bluntly when he asks what a non-Christian is doing when they say “Islam, or Judaism, or Buddhism is my religion.” Is there even a word for “religion” in Arabic, he questions? Certainly not an adequate translation of the Latin. Moreover, what really characterizes Judaism as a religion, or Buddhism? What we know for certain, Derrida suggests, is that the history of the concept religion is wrapped up with a “political and ideological space dominated by Christianity,” and that “to engage in the obscure and equivocal strug­gle in which the putatively “universal” value of the concept of religion, even of religious tolerance,” is to engage in a semantic space appropriated by Christianity.  According to this approach, deconstruction occurs by exposing the limits of traditional modes of classification and retreating from their normative application, not applying these norms to even more phenomena.

For these reasons, I would suggest that the best way to challenge the world religions paradigm is simply by historicizing the category and showing how it functions at an ideological level. I am all in favor of deconstructing something from within “in order to destabilize it,” as Schaefer suggests, but we can do this without expanding the scope of the same old categories along the way. Hence, rather than merely incorporating more diverse―and possibly anti-religious―phenomenon into the world religions paradigm, I think we need to expose the ideological forces at play and thereby challenge their application on a global scale. Schaefer is correct that there is “only so much we can do to destabilize the way that students think,” but if that is the case then let’s expose the limits of the normative forces at play by properly situating them within their ideological contexts.

 

 

 

 

Identity and Capitalism

This interview with Craig Martin explores the limits of identity formation under modern Capitalism. Martin’s work Capitalizing Religion: Ideology and the Opiate of the Bourgeoisie focuses on the ways in which culture and religion are produced for consumption.

Have we ignored the ways in which identity is produced and reproduced under capitalism’s pressure? The casual use of the term “spirituality” today has become one way literary works have created a space where the social conditions of religious identity appear as identity forming. Cultivating spiritual cache may seem benign, but Martin argues here for a critical gaze about the ways in which even our most basic claims about religious identity are constructed in ways that obscure rather that clarify the cultural pressures and structures that surround us.

Social Constructionism, and Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religion, as well as Craig Martin’s previous podcast appearances. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Gilbert & Sullivan librettos, ruby slippers, and more.

Podcasts

Discourse! May 2020 with David G. Robertson, Suzanne Owen, and Craig Martin

It’s ideology, religion and conspiracy all the way in this month’s Discourse! David G. Robertson is joined by Suzanne Owen and Craig Martin to discuss the Sun’s mockery of pagans, problems with the Guardian’s headline that people are returning to the Church, coronavirus conspiracies in India targetting Muslims, and how “idiology” (or one idiology, anyway) is pushing the religion out of religious studies.

Stories discussed:
https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/11512177/boris-must-stop-breakdown-of-lockdown-or-nastier-one-on-way/

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/03/british-public-turn-to-prayer-as-one-in-four-tune-in-to-religious-services

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/13/coronavirus-conspiracy-theories-targeting-muslims-spread-in-india

https://www.jamesgmartin.center/2020/04/how-political-ideology-is-pushing-religion-out-of-religious-studies/?fbclid=IwAR2mPiNs7mejrWvc1QV14jVU2M2CJ4zboaMpZD-LhLE4CLaskpCz0Xx4Ors


Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.

 

Intellectual Journeys: Insights from Timothy Fitzgerald’s Work

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.

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The Problem with ‘Religion’ (and related categories)

Tim Fitzgerald is one of the foundational figures in the critical study of religion, and his seminal volume, The Ideology of Religious Studies, was published twenty years ago this year. In this interview – the first of a two-part retrospective – we discuss his career and how his studies in Hinduism and his time spent in Japan led him to question the relationship of categories like caste and ritual to the broader category ‘religion’. His realisation was that religion is such a broad category that it can include almost everything. We discuss the historical development of the category, and its roots in Protestant theological ideas, and the political movements of the eighteenth century. This leads into a critique of the essentialist assumptions hidden by the category, and the phenomenological ideas in its use in academia, and its function as a tool in power relations.

Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.


The Problem with ‘Religion’ (and related categories)

Podcast with Timothy Fitzgerald (17 February 2020).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-problem-with-religion-and-related-categories/

PDF of this transcription at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Fitzgerald_-_The_Problem_with_Religion_1.1.pdf

David Robertson (DR): I’m joined today by Timothy Fitzgerald, returning to the Religious Studies Project after a few years. Tim is originally from the UK but now based in Brisbane, where he is a Visiting Research Professor at the University of Queensland in the Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities. He’s one of the most prominent figures in the critical study of religion. And this interview is taking place at the 20 years since the publication of The Ideology of Religious Studies – which was a kind-of watershed text in the emergence of the critical religion. And the approach that we, at the RSP, have been pushing since day one, I guess. So first of all, Tim – welcome back to the Religious Studies Project, and thanks for making the time.

Timothy Fitzgerald (TF): Thanks for inviting me. It’s good to be with you.

DR: It’s been difficult to get this interview arranged, so I’m glad that it’s finally happening! Let’s start assuming that the Listener probably hasn’t read The Ideology of Religious Studies – or may not have read The Ideology of Religious Studies. Let’s start with a little bit of your back story. How did you get there from, you know, your first degree in RS – the same way that we all sort-of start, with whichever religion we decide to specialise in – how did you get there?

TF: Yes, well there are different possible starting points, but I agree the degree in Religious Studies that I did at Kings College London is a good place to start. I did that degree in ‘75-’77, and it was a really good degree. I learnt a lot from it. I’m glad I did it. It was well-taught. It was well-organised in a lot of ways. And it was all about religion, right? So we had eight or nine courses that lasted over the period of three years: three of them were in the philosophy of religion, one was in anthropology of religion, one in sociology of religion, one in psychology of religion. And then, in addition, we had to study two world religions. The world religions model was very well established, obviously, at that time. And that was in the mid-seventies. Ninian Smart was very prominent, and the whole sort-of Religious Studies education scene was pretty much dominated by the word religions model, as you know. Now, we did all of these studies of religion and one issue which came up for me was the question of what religion actually means. . . what it referred to. Because you know in a lot of the sub-disciplines – like the anthropology of religion, or the philosophy of religion – there’s a sort of genre of writing concerned with defining what religion is. And one of the things that struck me – and I suppose anybody else who read these different approaches to the definition of religion – one of the things that struck me was that there were so much room for disagreement. That basically the meaning of religion, the referent of religion was thoroughly contested. But that didn’t lead anybody to question whether we should have departments of Religious Studies focussed on researching a term which cannot be defined, and about which there is such a degree of (laughs) conflict or contestation. So that was really what I came out of Kings College London with. That was a very valuable thing. I think, in a way, one could say that the degree was successful because it taught me how to reflect critically. And – lo and behold! – I was reflecting critically on the very category that was at the heart of all of these studies that we were reading.

DR: Well, despite the sort-of prominence of Ninian Smart’s approach, it sounds like it was actually quite a methodological, or at least theoretical, undergraduate course (5:00) – much more so than you would find in most places nowadays, I think – with this sort-of . . . an entire course on the philosophy of religion, and entire course on the psychology of religion. You know, I don’t think courses look like that anymore.

TF: Right. Well it was good, yes. I enjoyed it. And I got a huge amount . . . .We did a lot of philosophy and, for example, we did philosophy in the sense of history of ideas, but it involved looking at particular writers, particular thinkers in some depth – and this was very much the sort-of Anglo-American analytical side of philosophy. We didn’t study any of the . . . we didn’t study many of the French or German philosophers. Of course Wittgenstein was very important, and one of the ways in which philosophers of religion and many others have tried to find a solution to this definitional problem is through Wittgenstein’s language games, and the idea that the meaning of a word comes from its uses. Those are important insights, but they don’t actually for me solve the definitional problem. And in fact I’ve had quite extended arguments about this with people like Benson Saler, who’s a great defender of Wittgenstein’s family resemblance kind-of approach to defining the meaning of words. But I think it has problems. So The Ideology of Religious Studies includes a great deal of argument about the way that Wittgenstein’s arguments are used to find a solution to the definitional problem.

DR: Well, hopefully we can get to that later on. I want to kind-of walk the Listener to there. Because I think, actually, the story of how you got there is quite interesting in itself. So we talked before about when you started looking at Buddhism and Hinduism, after your PhD, that the lack of referent in the category of religion, it began to hit home. You began to get some sort-of clear historical examples of that.

TF: Yes. I got a job in a college of higher education – Hertfordshire College of Higher Education – in 1980. It was my first full-time job. And one of my responsibilities was to teach Hinduism and Buddhism. And when I joined we had two degrees. One was the Education degrees . . . one was the Education degree for teachers. So there were a lot . . . it was a teacher training college originally, I think. And then there was a new BA in Humanities, of which the Study of Religion provided some pretty substantial segments . . . courses. So I was teaching on those two. And I mean the students would ask me . . . I was teaching Hinduism and Buddhism as a world religion, but feeling very uncomfortable with it. Because I could see the problems. And they’re vast essentialisations, aren’t they, based on texts, or on edited and selected versions of texts? And the idea of Hinduism is taught very much in the sort-of history of ideas fashion – or used to be. So, there’s a whole series of dates that you need to learn. And you need to learn the basic doctrines. But one thing that this complex construct Hinduism, taught as a religion, doesn’t do is to explain the wider context in which these abstracted textual references and concepts exist. And, of course, caste is a particularly problematic term (10:00). If you read world religion text books you will get references about Hinduism, you’ll constantly get references to caste, but nobody explains it properly. What is caste? It’s presented as though it’s a kind-of religious injunction on the division of labour, or something. It’s not . . . the actual way in which caste operates is not really explained. And in order to find that out you have to go into anthropology. So I was reading a huge amount of anthropology to supplement my world religion experience. Because anthropologists . . . and sometimes anthropologists are also interested in history. But the point is that anthropologists actually go and try and come into contact with this abstraction caste. And at that time, particularly Louis Dumont – who wrote the classic book Homo Hierarchicus – he dominated the field of Indian anthropology. But there were lots of other important anthropologists – Srinivas, for example. But I read a lot of anthropology. And this was in response, after all, to my students’ demands. Because, actually, a lot of the students were thinking in very practical ways – and perfectly legitimately. They weren’t really interested in the doctrine of salvation according to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. They were interested in why women wear a mark in their forehead, or how marriages happen, or what different people eat. They wanted to know about the actual practicalities of the village economy. How does caste actually operate within a village community? And these are very . . . further questions that I would be asked would be: how can caste operate in huge cities, like Bombay and Delhi, where there are so many people? Surely your caste identity simply gets lost? These kinds of practical and interesting questions. And here was I, teaching Hinduism and Buddhism – but I’d never even been to India! And that just seemed to me to be wrong. So I organised a research trip. It wasn’t brilliantly well organised. But basically, my research was going to be on caste, untouchability and the effect of colonial institutions. And whether the improvements and progress of liberal political economy had really helped to liberate people from the caste system. And one particular Indian leader was drawn to my attention, and that was Dr BR Ambedkar. And Ambedkar became a real source of great interest to me. So I managed to go to India for four months in the 1980s. I got some money together and I just spent four months in India, meeting people, and just trying to understand what India looks like, smells like, feels like.

DR: I know that you’ve got an interest in Mary Douglas’ work. And talking about caste there, I immediately start thinking of purity, and danger, and ideas of cleanliness. And I don’t know if she’s . . . I know her ideas are applicable so much wider than simply talking about religions. And certainly the way that these – kind-of well-discussed, being the obvious thing – but, “in-group” and “out-group” structures are kind-of ritualised but mystified in cultures.

TF: Yes.

DR: It immediately jumps to mind. And I know that you’re a fan of hers. So was that where you got to her work, as well?

TF: At first I was getting it more from Louis Dumont, who also really belonged to the French school of sociology: L’École Sociologique. He was a Durkheimian in many ways, as was Mary Douglas (15:00). And Durkheim had been a big influence on me when I was doing my degree at Kings College London. And for a long time I thought of myself, in a sense, as a Durkheimian. And I read Dumont through a Durkheimian perspective. But Dumont was very much putting the purity/pollution binary as the kind-of definition – almost the central characteristic – of the caste system. So you get the Brahmins as pure, and the Untouchables as impure. And a whole number of other castes in between, sort-of lining up in relative degrees of purity and pollution. And it’s a very useful way of looking at it. Of course, there was huge debate about these things in Indian anthropology and sociology. But I think nobody would doubt that Dumont’s picking on this binary is the sort-of outside limits of what could be thought in terms of social or human relations, rather. But, yes, Mary Douglas came hot on the heels, after Louis Dumont, as one of the people that I read, and one of the people that I have really enjoyed teaching. I think she’s been generally really helpful. One point that I would like to make, actually – since we’re talking about Durkheim, Dumont, Mary Douglas, I think you can see a kind of progressive move from the sort-of empirical ethnographic approach to sociology or anthropology towards the idea of . . . well, I’m calling them signalling systems. What Durkheim meant by a totemic system, or a system of collective representations. What I think you get in all of these writers is a move towards reading signs and their relationships as being the fundamental point of understanding anybody’s collective life.

DR: Would you agree that it’s maybe a progress from a structuralist into a poststructuralist view?

TF: Well, yes. I think so. But, I mean, Dumont is usually considered to be a structuralist. And I think that’s one of the reasons why people don’t read him very much now. Or they don’t seem to. But I think his work is actually very subtle in a lot of ways. And it’s very rich. He also wrote, as well as Homo Hierearchicus, he also wrote a book . . . . Well, he wrote From Mandeville to Marx. And he also wrote a collection of essays called Essays on Individualism, where he tried to show how, whereas in India the individual is always outside the world, structurally speaking and symbolically speaking, in the European Christian traditions the individual started off as outside the world but moved to become the in-wordly individual, basically as a result of modern capitalism. Or as a characteristic of modern capitalism. Whereas individuals used to sort-of go to the desert and separate themselves from the rest of the main body of humanity, in the search for salvation or some kind-of self-discovery – you know, you think of those hermits and renouncers in early Christian Europe, and they’ve existed all the way through . . . . Well in India you get a very, very ancient tradition of renunciation, where people symbolically . . . where people renounce their family (20:00), their village, their family name, their normal activities, clothes, profession, and really, in a sense, become a living non-person: they perform their own cremation, symbolically, by cremating their old clothes and various symbols of their previous life; so they become an out-worldly individual. They become an individual because they separated themselves from the collective, symbolically and physically. And they’ve now become something rather special, and sacred, and powerful by moving out of the normal collective which in India would be very much about caste, caste membership – moving out of that, and becoming a kind-of individual. Actually, most renouncers in India join ashrams. They belong to some kind of an organisation. They often have a guru. But nevertheless, Dumont was reading this at the symbolic level: that this is a move from identity defined by the collective, to a kind-of out-worldly identity. An individual identity. So his story was that, as a result of the Reformation, and then developments of various forms of Calvinism –where there was a very strong emphasis on the lonely individual working in the world – so the individual becomes, instead of being an out-worldly value, becomes the central in-worldly value of modern capitalist society. I think that’s an interesting way of looking at it.

DR: Very much so. After your research on India and teaching at the higher education college, you then moved to Japan for three years. And again, there’s another kind-of shift in your work there. So tell us about that.

TF: Yes, sure. Well, just as India had really shocked me and given me a different perspective on the world and also on myself. . . . I think it’s quite important – not for egotistical reasons – but it’s quite important to realise that one has internalised a great deal of shared common symbolic life which constructs our individuality. And that, when you move out of that shared symbolic life, your consciousness is quite vulnerable and you change a lot. Some people call it culture shock. But it’s to do with a reorientation of values. Well, going to Japan was even more like that because Japan is completely different from India and is very different from Britain. And going to Japan to live, this is because I met Noriko my wife, who’s Japanese, in London. And we had our first, our son, James – he was born in London. But then we almost immediately went to Japan, because I’d been offered a job there. And you know, her father was asking me to go and live in Japan for a while. He didn’t want to lose his daughter to a foreigner, which was perfectly understandable. (Laughs). Just suddenly disappear to London and never be seen again! So I was lucky, I was invited to a university in Japan called Aichi Gakuin, which was in Nagoya. And I had to do a lot of English teaching. But I did also have a status as a research academic. Yes, working in Japan, I had to very quickly start learning Japanese, because I didn’t know a word of Japanese when I went there! And I was there for several years. And it was very . . . it was hugely valuable. I mean my children are bilingual. They still speak Japanese with their mother. My Japanese was never fully fluent, but by the time I left I could more than survive there. You know, for the last six or seven years I was living there alone because Noriko and the children had gone back to London. And that was a fantastic impetus for me. And I went there when I was over forty, I ought to add. I was forty years old when I first went to Japan.

DR: And I can vouch that, in your forties, trying to learn a new language is not easy! (25:00)

TF: No. Not at all. Especially when it’s a non-European one. But I did learn a huge amount. And I’ve never regretted that. I regret that I couldn’t enter into academic debates with Japanese. That was just too a stretch too far. You really need to be trained in Japanese language from an earlier age and do it thoroughly. But never the less, I learned so much. And I tell you one of the main things it did was to re-orientate me, as I was explaining about India. It doesn’t mean to say that I idealised Japan. I was a big critic of Japan as a foreigner, living in Japan, but at the same time there are lots of things I really admired about the way Japanese people do things, the way they organised . . . . There a lots of things that I learnt from being in Japan.

DR: One important one, though, I think is the idea of translating categories. Japan certainly in conversations I have in RS, it’s very useful as an example where the idea of religion in the way that we think of it generally just doesn’t really work. And yet they’ve been kind-of forced to take it on to some degree as a result of colonial forces in the 19th century particularly. And yet, our Western hegemonic classifications don’t really map onto Japanese society very well. Would that be fair to say?

TF: Yes I think that is fair. I think it’s true, and in fact that’s been one of the themes of quite a lot of published work on Japan, my own published work. You know, just to give you a practical example, when I was teaching English in the universities – it was really boring by the way, because most of the Japanese didn’t want to learn English, and I don’t blame them. Why should they? They’re perfectly happy speaking their own language. But also it’s the way that English is taught, or languages in general are taught in Japan. And so I found myself teaching a large class of twenty or thirty students who were sitting in absolutely straight lines, desks in straight lines. They would often self-gender. So you’d get the men sitting on one side of the room and the women on the other. Not always, but they’d quite often do that. It was a bit like an extension of the Japanese school system – very disciplined. You don’t ever question the teacher. And basically, the teacher is there to speak and the students are there to listen. It’s very difficult under those circumstances to have a conversation class, as they jokingly used to call them. But, because I was trying to develop confidence in speaking Japanese, I used to sometimes try to start a conversation in an English class in Japanese, which was a shocking experience for my students: (A) because, well, you just don’t do that kind of thing, and (B) because, well, they had to suffer the very unskilful pronunciation and grammatical forms that I was producing. But nevertheless, you know, it was something that I was determined to do. Because I wanted to show them that I was prepared to make a fool of myself in trying to speak Japanese in front of a lot of students, therefore I’m not going to laugh at them if they’re feeling embarrassed about their English. That’s not what I’m there for. I’m there to encourage and to help with communication skills. Stuff like that. So in these circumstances, one of the conversations I used to like to have is “What does religion mean to you?” And I would sometimes ask it in English and then ask it again in Japanese using the Japanese term shūkyō, which is the current dominant translation for religion. And the students, you know, quite often in these circumstances nobody will reply (30:00); there’s just a deathly silence. But quite often I found if I was a bit persistent, they’d say, “Oh, religion is Christianity. It’s nothing to do with me.” (Laughs) Some would say Christianity and Buddhism are religion. And I’d say, well what about the matsuri, the festivals? What about all your visits to the temple and the shrine? Are these . . .? What about the way that you pay respects to your ancestors in the home? Or these kinds of things? And they would just respond and say, “Oh no, no. That’s not religion. That’s our customs. That’s Japanese customs. That’s the way we live.” So you see, the distinction between religion and what foreign and Japanese scholars of religion will describe as religious practices – for most people they’re not. And I think that that was something that I needed to learn, you know.

DR: Yes, I wonder how . . . I mean there’s certainly a way of looking at everyday – what gets called “lived religion” or “vernacular” religion a lot of the time, now. Certainly, thinking about most of my kind-of relatives and friends growing up in a working class area in the highlands, that’s mostly the way that they talk about religion as well. “Religion? Oh it’s the wee frieze at the high kirk”, or whatever. But going to speak to your gran at the grave or, you know, these kind-of ritual behaviours around twenty-first birthdays, or Christmastime, or Hogmanay, or whatever – they weren’t really thought of as religion. But I can’t help but think if there was a sort-of 1930’s anthropologist in that situation he would be describing all of these as kind-of “primitive religious rituals”.

TF: Well, yes. Except that . . . basically “primitive”, I don’t think contemporaries would call them primitive.

DR: No, no.

TF: No. I know exactly what you mean. There’s a whole tradition of making other people’s practices look as though they’re somehow backward, lower on the evolutionary scale, less sophisticated. But I think also there is the complication that there is a kind-of meta level, say the constitutional level, the level of constitutional, and the level of judiciary concerning what religion means. And this is basically adopted from Europe. And it’s quite a long story but it involves talking about . . . . In the mid-nineteenth century, the Americans were becoming very powerful, they were quite imperialistic. The United States of America, which had liberated people from the tyranny of a European monarch . . . .

DR: I want to pick that up at the start of the next interview. Because I don’t think we’ve got time to do it justice now.

TF: No, I think it is a very long one that. Because I think we need to talk about the way in which religion because inscribed in the US constitution.

DR: Absolutely. So we’ll pick that one up there in the next episode. But for now, let’s just . . . . Whilst you were in Japan, you wrote The Ideology of Religious Studies. So tell us a little bit about the overall argument there. I mean, certainly reading that as . . . I was either towards the end of being an undergrad, or at the start of postgraduate studies. (35:00) It was the first sustained argument challenging religions, world religions, the phenomenological approach which had been so sort-of central to the way that they taught at Edinburgh. And so, just briefly sum up where you were when you wrote that monograph.

TF: Well, as you say, I was in Japan. And it was the culmination of . . . I mean I’d been publishing about Japan during the ‘90s. For example, I was reading books on Japanese religion in English but written by Japanese scholars who had either written their contribution in English or it had been translated. But one thing that struck me. There was one particular volume which was quite authoritative. I mean, it had been published and financed under the auspices of the ministry of culture in Japan. And there were five or six professors who contributed special chapters to it: one on Japanese Buddhism, one on Japanese Shinto, one on Japanese Confucianism, one on Japanese nature religion, one on, sorry, folk religion, and one or two others. One on Christianity in Japan, I think. There are very few Christians in Japan. But what struck me about all of these writers was that (A) they were all specialising in a particular religion, or a particular religious tradition, which they set out to describe for the reader. But, at the same time, every single one of them said that, actually, this is a very artificial distinction. Because, really, you can’t talk about Shinto without talking about Confucianism and Buddhism. And the same with the others. Because they’re all . . . they’re all part of our lives. We don’t really choose between them. It’s not as though “I’m a Shintoist, but not a Buddhist”. And the idea that “I’m not a Confucianist” is difficult to swallow. The point is that there was a contradiction inherent in what they were saying. And it was the same contradiction that I’d encountered . . . well I’d encountered it in India in a particular way, but also in the definitional problems, in the degree that I did: that there was a disparity between what people were saying in one part of the text and what they were saying in another part. So my first article about Japan was published . . . I can’t remember now . . . in the early nineties. Was it ‘93? ‘94? ‘95? And it was called Japanese Religion as Ritual Order

DR: 1993.

TF: 1993. Ok. And it was published I think, in Religion. And I was trying to point out what I’ve just told you in that article. I called it Japanese Religion as Ritual Order, because I was trying to find a term which would give me some kind-of a base. And “ritual” seemed to be a very useful one. Because ritual . . . we can use the term ritual to describe either side of the binary. You know, you can have religious rituals and secular rituals. But rituals was a term which I hoped I would be able to use in order to avoid using this binary religion/secular. Because it didn’t seem to me to work. So I looked at all the ways in which the Japanese ritualised their everyday lives, in all the institutions, in the household, in the schools, in the universities, in the corporations, in the small businesses, in the services. Every institutional practice is the ritual which constructs seniors and juniors, that’s one of the things it does. It’s imbued with respect language, and different levels of language. There is an issue about social space, so people distance themselves in a certain way. Bowing is an obvious example of the ritualization of everyday life (40:00). So I wanted to try and subvert this essentialising dichotomy – between religion on the one hand, and the rest of secular life on the other – and show that it’s much more like a ritual continuum. And that went in very much to The Ideology of Religious Studies.

DR: For me, the most kind-of impactful realisation in it was the critique of phenomenology, the phenomenological method, as kind-of essentialist and maybe even crypto-theological. Together with the sort-of largest critique of the category as essentially . . . without that kind-of essence to it. Like, the term was essentially meaningless, unless it was referring to this sui generis kind-of essence. And that, for me, was the most impactful part of that argument. I don’t know if that was central for you, but that was . . .

TF: I think of course it is central, yes. I mean, one of the points of my argument was that religion is actually used to describe and classify so much that it becomes empty of any specific content. And then, if you look at the actual range of usages of the term religion, there’s a religion of everything. And yet at the same time in this either/or essentialising binary with the non-religious secular. Now there’s something very interesting there, that on the one hand you’ve got a category which can be used so widely that you’re beginning to wonder: is anything not religion or religious? And on the other hand, it’s held together in this essentially either/or binary. It’s either religion or it’s not religion – which gives it the appearance of having a very determinate and definitive reference. Do you see what I’m saying?

DR: Yes, absolutely.

TF: And it also raises the question about: if we can’t define the religion side of the binary, then we can’t find the limits of the secular side either. And my work in The Ideology of Religious Studies was very much about destabilising politics and society as the generic abstraction for sociology. And a lot of the stuff was aimed at Ninian Smart, but also much more widely. I mean, I discussed a lot of different theorists in The Ideology of Religious Studies. And I wanted to undermine these grand dichotomies. But as soon as you question the limits of the secular, then you’re also questioning politics, or the idea of society, or the idea of culture.

DR: And that’s exactly where we’re going to pick up in the next part of this interview. But, for now: thank you, Tim.

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Religion as a Species of Human Activity

Andie Alexander’s conversation with Aaron Hughes on J. Z. Smith’s stature and legacy in the field of the study of religion is wonderfully ranging and thoughtful. It makes me wish I had been at the “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith” conference in Trondheim.

The conversation seems to circle around a few main questions or topics. What did Smith achieve? What was his project? Did he leave a legacy that is powerful or attractive enough to influence the study of religion in the future? How does one deal with that legacy in one’s research and teaching? Or, how can we “translate” Smith in a way that is appropriate for our analysis of our own specialized data? How do we translate Smith for our students? After all, in my own experience Smith is much easier to learn from than to teach. Smith is hardly imitable in his reach of data across time, space, languages, and religions. Nor, apart from his persistent comparatism, can one discern a Smithian method that can be followed like a recipe. In any case, he would have disdained a slavish devotion to him and trying to imitate him.

These questions are big and satisfying answers to them are too long for a short blog. So let’s start with a couple of basics that, I think, are necessary to think with Smith and easily taught to our students. Smith was a fundamentally a contrarian.  His project was to oppose and offer an alternative to two main, if not defining, tendencies in the religious studies academy. One is the pervasive influence of theology and religious belief, in whatever form, in the academic study of religion. He especially targeted a certain phenomenology of religion that has its roots in the Italian scholar Raffaele Pettazzoni (1883-1959), the first president of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR), and that came to dominate the study of religion in North America under the powerful influence of Mircea Eliade (1907-1989). At the foundational core of this phenomenological orientation is the belief (and it is a belief!) in a transcendent, ahistorical numinous reality that Eliade simply called the Sacred. From it flow manifestations or experiences or epiphanies that are universal, historical, and transcultural. Most of us are familiar with this view in general. It’s enough to say that the postulated transcendent, primordial Sacred makes religion a universal reality all its own, fundamentally set apart from other dimensions of human societies and cultures. It sets religion outside the realm of human invention and protects it from scholarly critique.

Smith had little patience with this view. Aaron Hughes says that Smith, “more than anyone, was responsible for smashing the Eliadean phenomenological paradigm.” Smith used gentler terms, but that doesn’t matter. Aaron is right. As an alternative, Smith historicized religion. “There is no primordium, it’s all history,” he used to say. Religion and the religious are human social and cultural realities. Human religiosity is not rooted in a Sacred; the Sacred is itself a human religious product. This means that religion is not its own genus of human activity, but a species of it. The study of religion thus must be the study of humans across time, place, and cultures. Like Ludwig Feuerbach long before him, Smith thought that the most appropriate study of religion is anthropological, historical, and comparative (though comparative in a much different way than the phenomenologists practice it). Hughes is also right in saying that Smith’s criticism of phenomenology was not a “smashing” success. The religious studies academy continues to be thoroughly phenomenological in its orientation – notwithstanding some, though not many in relative terms, exceptions. It seems to me that this basic contrarian postulate and posture is easily explained to students and should be a foundational feature of all religious studies course. To achieve this, I say to instructors, introduce students to Smith early and often.

The other is that Smith turned his back on the ongoing preoccupation in our field to find the value of religion/s primarily in terms of spiritual meaning. Smith was an intellectualist and thought that both myths and rituals were strategies for thinking through complex or incongruous situations. In general, religions are human products that must be studied in their historical and social contexts in order to analyze how they are complexly shaped by social entities and that, in turn provide an overall charter of the world, both human and cosmic, for these entities. This sounds remarkably like the working of ideology, a term that Smith very rarely used. Regretfully so. Other people have analyzed religion as ideology, though—most incisively Bruce Lincoln, Smith’s colleague at the University of Chicago. To quote Lincoln: “religion must be understood as the most extreme form of ideology, for religions provide arbitrary social formations and habituated patterns not merely with persuasive rationalizations of an abstract conceptual nature, as do non-religious ideologies, but with nothing less (so they claim) than sacred warrants and ultimate legitimation” (Apples and Oranges, 2018, 23-24). This takes Lincoln a little beyond Smith in terms of articulation but is nonetheless a permissible extension of his historical and social analysis of how religions work. It may be a counter-intuitive concept for our students, who often think that ideologies are false while religions are true, but it is not that difficult to understand. Studying religion as ideology too is contrarian, or at least marginal in our field, and so another way to remember and work with Smith.

Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Cliches

“Religions are belief systems”, “Religions are intrinsically violent”, “Religion is Bullshit”… these are just some of the pervasive cliches that we might hear from time to time in the English-speaking world about our central topic of discussion on the RSP, ‘religion’. In this podcast, Chris is joined by Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin, the editors of the recently published Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Cliches (Bloomsbury, 2017) to discuss these cliches, the ideological work that they do, how scholars could and should approach them, the construction of the book, and more.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for making this recording possible. The other cliches addressed in the book and/or covered in the podcast include:

* “Religion Makes People Moral”
* “Religion Concerns the Transcendent”
* “Religion is a Private Matter”
* “Religions are Mutually Exclusive”
* “I’m Spiritual but Not Religious”
* “Learning about Religion Leads to Tolerance”
* “Everyone has a Faith”

You can find a full list of contributors, and more about the book, on the publisher’s website: HERE.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Wu-Wear, previously enjoyed golf balls, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Clichés

Podcast with Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin (30 April 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Stoddard and Martin – Stereotyping Religion 1.1

Chris Cotter (CC): “Religions are belief systems.” “Religions are intrinsically violent.” “Religion is bullshit.” These are just some of the pervasive clichés that we might hear from time to time, in the English-speaking world, about our central topic of discussion on the RSP: religion. Joining me today to talk about a new book that’s coming out called Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin, neither of whom should be strangers to the Religious Studies Project. But, just to introduce them, Brad is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. He completed his dissertation at Florida State University and is currently revising his manuscript on Florida’s faith-based correctional institutions. He teaches American Religious History and the History of Christianity. And he’s primarily interested in religion and the law, religion in American prisons, and theory and method in the Study of Religion. And he’s currently serving as the president of our beneficent sponsors, the North American Association for the Study of Religion. And Craig Martin is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at St Thomas Aquinas College. And his research and teaching focuses on theoretical questions in the academic Study of Religion, typically related to discourse, ideology and power. And some of his books include, Masking Hegemony: A Genealogy of Liberalism, Religion and the Private Sphere; Capitalising Religion: Ideology and the Opiate of the Bourgeoisie; and A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion. And he is currently the editor of a book series with Bloomsbury, titled Critiquing Religion: Discourse, Culture and Power, in which this book, Stereotyping Religion, appears. So, Brad and Craig – welcome back to the Religious Studies Project!

Brad Stoddard (BS): Thank you.

Craig Martin (CM): Thanks so much.

CC: And I should say that we are conversing via the wonders of Skype. So maybe – just to set the scene here for me – if you want to tell me, how did this book come to be? Why did it come to be? What’s the point here?

CM: Brad, can I field that one to begin with?

BS: I think you should!

CM: (Laughs.) So, the initial idea for this book project came to me when I was working on my dissertation at Syracuse University. I was thinking about all the stereotypes about religion that my students came into the class with, and that I found frustrating to know how to deal with – and not just students, but also friends and family members who would repeat these clichés. And it was like, I couldn’t think of an obvious scholarly source to point them to, to say, “OK. In a nutshell, here’s why scholars try to avoid this cliché.” So, through conversations with my friends Donovan Schaefer and Jeremy Vecchi  . . . Schaefer’s now at – I’m going to get this wrong. He’s either at Penn State, or the University of Pennsylvania – I can’t remember which.

CC: (Laughs).

CM: But, I reached out to Donovan Schaefer and Jeremy Vecchi and I said, “You know, I think we could write this book really quickly and easily, because we already know what we want to say about each of these stereotypes.” And we produced three chapters, and I graduated and moved away, and the thing just kind-of languished and was never picked up and continued. So a couple of years ago I was like, “You know, that really was a good idea for a book. There should be something on clichés and stereotypes.” So I reached out to Brad and said, “Hey, are you interested in helping me edit this?” And he jumped on board, and then we ran with it.

CC: Wonderful. And it’s really great when that sort of thing happens, when you get to revisit an idea that you had – and no one else has stolen it! Yes.

CM: (Laughs). Yes. Well in ten years of it sitting, nobody else stole the idea. And I think that the stereotypes we chose are so pervasive that we didn’t have any difficulty getting people to sign up for the project. People were immediately, “Oh yes! That’s a great idea. Can I address this one?” Or, “Can I address that one?” So, yes we were pleased with how quickly it came together, and how great our submitting authors were.

CC: On that note . . . . So, you say you found it quite easy to come up with the list of clichés: did you present a ready-made list and then try and find contributors? Or did contributors come to you with clichés they particularly wanted to write about? And were there ones that you had wanted to include, that you couldn’t?

BS: As I recall, Craig and I . . . when Craig approached me with the project we sat down, you know, over the phone or email and went back and forth to create a list of about ten clichés that we agreed on. And then we started looking for people to write about the individual clichés. And in conversations with the individual authors at least one or maybe two of the clichés changed, because the author would say, “Well that’s good – can I approach it from this angle” And of course, when it made sense, we gave the individual authors the freedom to run with the cliché. But the bulk of it, I think, came from a few conversations where Craig and I just identified: these are the main clichés we see in society and politics. These are the main clichés we encounter in class. And so we had this list of clichés – and it just changed a little bit, but for the most part we ran with our list.

CC: Fantastic. I’ll ask you in a moment to take me through a few of them. But, in the introduction you set out the context for the book, but also the context in which the clichés are operating. So you talk about liberal political theory, idealised Protestantism, secularisation theory and so on. Maybe you could – just for the listeners – lay out the context that we’re talking about, in which these stereotypes are operating?

CM: I think a lot of that stuff in the intro was from me. Because when we were finishing edits to the various chapters, and I was reading through them and thinking about, you know – would my students be able to follow these or not? Because we wanted this to be accessible at an undergraduate level. I realised a common theme that went throughout a majority of the chapters were those three things that you mentioned: liberal political discourse that says religion is a private matter, the discourses on secularism and the discourses on New Atheism. These didn’t pop up in every single chapter, but in a majority of ones. So I was like, you know: we should give some background to the consistent themes that were going to pop up as the reader moves through the book.

CC: Yes.

CM: So that’s why I used those in particular: because I thought that they would help the readers understand the chapters.

BS: The only thing that I would add to that – I think you also mention in that section anti-Catholic propaganda, or anti-Catholic Protestant propaganda, about religion being a private matter. Or some of the other clichés: that they have a Protestant bias built into them. And, of course, the colonial context. Those are two other factors that we saw as common themes in the history of the general clichés.

CM: Yes, for sure. Exactly.

CC: Fantastic. So, I’m wary of asking you pull out favourites or anything, because we’ll not have time to get through every cliché. But perhaps you could take us through one or two of them, and just show us some of the analysis in action?

BS: Do you have any ones you want to pull out, Craig?

CM: I’ll wait till after you go.

CC: (Laughs). I like that.

BS: I have a soft spot for Steven Ramey’s piece. Steven Ramey writes about religions being mutually exclusive. And I think Steven’s was the first . . . . The reason I have a soft spot for it: I think it was the first one that came back to us; he was the first to submit it, that is. And I read it and I thought, “This is exactly how I want this book to look.” So, Steven Ramey addresses the cliché that religions are mutually exclusive. And so he introduces the chapter with I think the opening sentence, “What is your religion? Check one box.” And this is something that all undergraduates have seen in some version, right? What is your religion? They get it here. They have the option to check that box when they apply for admission. So I know they’ve at least seen it once, but probably many times before. So he introduces the cliché. In the introduction he talks about how this is not . . . this cliché that religions are mutually exclusive is not just academic navel-gazing, but that there are real political and legal implications. And he addressed some of the legal and political implications. And he continues . . . . In the chapter he talks about places where you encounter this cliché. Where do we see it? We see it in popular culture. We see it in politics. We see it in Law. Of course, he doesn’t mention this, but for example in the work I do in prisons: when you’re an inmate in America you check “Which religion are you?” You have to check one. And in Florida, where I did the bulk of my research, you can only change your religion once every six months. And it dictates where you can move about in the prison, which groups you can attend, which study groups, which religious services. Steven doesn’t address that part, but these are some of the examples. Steven mentions different types of examples like this. You know, this idea that religions are mutually exclusive: it does have political and legal implications. So then he moves in, and he talks about the development, the historical development of the cliché. Talking about, of course, the European context in which the cliché emerged. He talks about the colonial context. I believe he mentions the Protestant Reformation. He talks about places like India, where the distinction between Buddhism and Hinduism is not as rigid as we would imply. Or some other Asian countries where Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism or even Shinto – these alleged, so-called separate religions – the boundaries are just so much more malleable. So, long-story-short, by the time you read Steven’s chapter you get the history of the cliché, you get the political work that it does, and you realise the areas of the world where that cliché becomes quite problematic.

CC: Exactly. And it’s worth noting, here, that the book isn’t attempting to sort-of put something in the place of these clichés. Because the opposite example of religions being mutually exclusive, would be that, I guess, religions are all one and the same – which is another one that is dealt with in the book. You’re not so much asking these authors to say, “This is wrong, and this is right.” You’re rather pointing out that clichés, in and of themselves, never tell the full picture and are always doing ideological work.

BS: That’s true. We highlight that in the introduction, where we make a point of saying that we want to make it clear the work is not to replace these old clichés with new generalisations about religion, or better generalisations about religion. Instead, we’re suggesting to the students, or to the readers, that any cliché about religion or any generalising statement can similarly be interrogated, historicised, etc.

CC: Fantastic. So, Craig, you’ve had a long time to think, there, about which you’re going to pick out!

CM: Well, I decided I can’t pick one. I think – there are so many great chapters in here, in my opinion.

CC: You’ll never hear the end of it if you pick . . . you know, whoever you pick!

CM: Yes. (Laughs). Well, ok

BS: Delete my answer, then!

CM: I really enjoyed Tenzan‘s chapter on learning about how religion leads to tolerance – in part because he did a bunch of research into Ninian Smart’s work that I didn’t have a lot of prior familiarity with. So I actually learned a lot about Ninian Smart by reading his chapter. You know, Ninian Smart reproduces a stereotype that if you learn about religion, or if we teach about religion in public schools or in colleges, then people will be more tolerant and accepting and forgiving of one another. And one of the things that I felt was really important about the book was that I felt that we needed to address how theses stereotypes appear not only in popular culture, but also in scholarly literature. And Tenzan just did a fantastic job of showing, you know, how even a sophisticated scholar like Ninian Smart reproduces some pretty blatant stereotypes. But I really thought he nailed Ninian Smart – that’s probably why I liked it so much.

CC: Yes. When I was reading it I did highlight three or four pages to come back to, the next time I have to teach about Ninian Smart.

CM: I had a chance to teach him in my Intro to Religious Studies class. I taught this book last semester. And literally, the day . . . . So, this was a 9 o’clock in the morning class, and we’d addressed Tenzan’s chapter that education about religion leads to tolerance. And then, literally a couple of hours later, one of my students who was in that class went to one of her other classes where they had a guest lecturer – who showed up to talk about how education about different religions leads to tolerance! So the student came back to me in office hours the next day and said, “You know, Professor, I was arguing with this presenter in my head, and I was pretty sure I won the argument, based on what we had learned in class earlier that day.”

CC: (Laughs).

CM: So it was fun to see . . . . You know, we addressed this cliché and then two hours later, literally, she encounters the cliché in the classroom. It’s fun!

CC: Fantastic. And we’ll talk, hopefully, before we finish about that experiment of using it in the classroom. But you’ve touched on, there, learning about religions leads to tolerance. That sounds like a quite a positive cliché. In one of the chapters, I think it was Matt Sheedy’s on religion being violent, he brought up Karen Armstrong, and others, insisting that proper religion is peaceful, and religion is a peaceful, nice thing. Is there a danger that by critiquing positive clichés we’re doing society a disservice? Or is there such a thing as a positive cliché?

CM: I want to answer this question pointing to what I think is an excellent book on phenomenology of religion, Tim Murphy‘s The Politics of Spirit. And in that book Murphy looks at the history of phenomenology, a lot of which puts a positive spin on religion: that religion is getting in touch with the transcendent; religion is a sort of happiness, etc. Phenomenology of religion tends to think positively about religion. But what Tim Murphy does is show that each one of those phenomenologists uses their rhetorical framework to rank religions and to denigrate some in relationship to others. So that someone like Rudolph Otto says, you know, religion is getting in touch with the transcendent, and that Christianity most beautifully gets us in touch with the transcendent. But, of course, Islam doesn’t do so well, and primitive religion is terrible at it. So I think that even the positive clichés . . . like Karen Armstrong – she also has a ranking system built into her framework. So that the things that she likes she can call authentic religion, and the things that she doesn’t like she can dismiss as inauthentic religion or political religion – or maybe, for her, political religion isn’t even religion. So perhaps it’s ok to bomb the ship in the Middle East, because they’re not good religious people, they’re bad religious people? So I think that even the positive clichés have the potential to be used in that kind of ranking system, where people can favour one and dismiss others. And that can often-times lead to what I consider to be negative effects.

CC: Absolutely. And, indeed, Leslie Dorrough Smith writes in the book about the idea of religion being about transcendence. And I pulled out this quote where she says that cliché can “simultaneously normalise the existence of the supernatural, identify an enemy, justify a political cause, amplify the seriousness of one’s position and unite a group of people under the banner of their own moral worth.” And that’s not even a complete list! So in that . . . . You hear, “Oh religion is just about the transcendent, the supernatural, the ineffable,” and it doesn’t sound harmful. But when you look at how it is deployed, it’s doing real ideological work. So let’s talk about the classroom setting, then. So, as I was saying earlier to you: this is certainly going to be a very useful resource when I’m coming to teaching – not only about Ninian Smart, but any time you casually mention these clichés – it’s going to be fantastic to just pick up the book and find a few examples. So I can see it being a really useful teaching resource, in that respect. But, Brad – you used it in the classroom, then. So how did that go down?

BS: Yes, I used this book in my Intro to Religious Studies class, where we start by reviewing the so-called canon of important or influential Religious Studies scholars, and then we supplement that with people who are omitted from the so-called canon. And then the benefit of that is that the students got a wide survey of theories about religions, approaches to religion, methods, methodologies, etc. And then we ended the semester by reading and discussing Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Clichés. And since it was the first time I taught from the book, I organised it as this: we’d meet three days a week, and I asked groups of students to present for a half hour. And so, you had two or three students each presenting a chapter. And they presented for about twenty minutes, and then we’d open up for Q and A for about ten minutes or so. And then I had some closing comments at the end of the class. And what I like about it is that it allowed me to see what the students took from the book, and what I thought they omitted. And it led to some really good discussions, because the students thought…or the students said, “Yes. Some of the clichés that we’ve identified, I embrace them.” Pretty much the entire class! And so to have someone call them out, and point out the history, and point out the problems with it – it did a lot of work in the class. It helped the students, because it overturned some things that they had just taken for granted. And actually, on the last day of class, we discussed the entire book. And the students tended to agree – obviously they knew that I was one of the editors, so they weren’t going to say too many harsh criticisms; they weren’t going to criticise it too much! But they thought that it was nice to end the semester by addressing these clichés, for the simple fact that it changed the way they were thinking, or that they had thought about religion, you know, for their young adult life.

CC: Fantastic.

BS: Not to over-romanticise it, right?!

CC: Oh, no.

BS: But they did find value in it.

CC: Excellent. I can totally see myself, the next time I’m marking a pile of essays . . . . And you see these clichés coming up all the time. One that’s not in the book is, you know: “Religion has been around since the beginning of time . . .” They’ll sort-of begin with that. But plenty of other ones come up. And I can imagine, immediately, just copying in a URL to the chapter on the library website, for any of these – rather than having to spend my own time deconstructing it! Just say, “Read that chapter, and then come back and write it again.”

BS: That’s a good one! Craig, take note: we should include that in the next edition, if there is one!

CC: Yes! (Laughs). Well, if there’s another one: “Religion is a choice” – you always hear that. People choose to believe, or choose to have a certain religion. So, yes, I’m already filling up the next volume! I guess an obvious question that would come up on the RSP quite often, is: why religion, here? Obviously this is our area of interest. We teach courses on this. But could you do a similar book for say stereotyping sport, or stereotyping gender, or, you know – is religion particularly problematic?

BS: Yes, you could. And I hope other people do!

CC: (Laughs).

BS: So, I have a little more of a substantive response to that question.

All: (Laugh).

BS: I think that, yes, obviously you could write such a book about any subject matter: stereotyping politics, stereotyping gender, stereotyping race. What I think sets Religious Studies apart is the fact that post-structuralism reached Religious Studies twenty years later than it hit all those other fields. And the popularisation of post-structuralist approaches is lagging. I don’t know, apart from Malory Nye‘s intro book, in Russell McCutcheon’s new book, I don’t know of any introductory material in Religious Studies that actually comes from a critical, poststructuralist perspective. And I’m pretty sure that people have been teaching poststructuralism to undergrads since the 80s. So it’s time that we went ahead, and picked up our slack, and tried to catch up by having some undergraduate literature to present. I mean it’s not like post-structuralism is brand new. It’s 50 years old, now! Our introductory textbooks still tend to ignore those types of critical approaches.

CC: Yes. So there are disciplinary reasons why such a book may not be written, necessarily, in other fields. And then also, like it or not, “religion” – this constructed political category – is something that has a lot of power in the modern Western world. To write a book called, I don’t know, “Stereotyping Golf”, or “Stereotyping Stamp Collecting”, whilst it might be interesting . . . . Unfortunately, stereotypes about stamp collecting probably aren’t quite as pervasive, or potentially harmful, as these clichés about “religion”. Every time I say “religion” it’s in scare quotes. But we all know that. We are coming up on about 25 minutes, here. So I’ll be wanting to wrap up, fairly soon. And I’m going to close the interview with Rebekka King‘s close to the book. But I just wondered if there’s anything more on this topic of prevalent stereotypes about religion that you would like to say, or that you’d hoped you were going to say?

CM: I think I would just want to say thanks to Donovan Schaefer and Jeremy Vecchi for working with me on this project in the ancient past, and thanks to Brad for joining the project when I decided to resurrect it. And also thanks to Lalle Pursglove at Bloomsbury publishing, for showing some interest in the idea and taking me up on the offer.

CC: Absolutely. And it’s brilliant to see the sort of critical religion approach applied in this sense, sort-of applied systematically to a variety of clichés that . . . . When I was reading it myself I was doing a lot of, “Well, yes. Yes, that makes sense.” But there were a lot of things that were thoughts that I’d had, but were never actually put down on paper. And lots of interesting examples, and plenty that I’d never thought of before. And I can see it being really useful, both for students and to point students to – and potentially to do the sort of thing that Brad did, sort-of structuring some teaching around it. So do check out the book, Listeners. It’s called Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Clichés, edited by Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin. It came out in paperback immediately, so it’s nice and . . . It’s not a typical academic book price, so you can get your hands on it quite easily, hopefully. And you can find the full list of all the stereotypes and clichés . . . we’ll put them on the page with this podcast. I just wanted to end with Rebekka King’s chapter on “Religion is bullshit”. And she begins by talking about how even the desire to correct the statement “religion is bullshit” is, in itself, bullshit. And she closes the book with the following words, which I thought would be a nice way to end the episode: “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether or not religion is bullshit. The term is an empty signifier. What matters is your ability to weigh evidence, locate sources and pay critical attention to both your scholarly process and product. You may find yourself mired in shit, but at least you’ll be in good company.” And I hope you’ve been in good company today. Thanks so much Craig and Brad.

CM: Thank you.

BS: Thanks so much for having us. We appreciate it.

Citation Info: Stoddard, Brad, Craig Martin and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Clichés”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 30 April 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 25 April 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/stereotyping-religion-critical-approaches-to-pervasive-clichés/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

No, Secularism is not a World Religion

No, secularism is not a world religion. That is my response to the question posed to Donovan Schaefer concerning the relationship between secularism and religion. In this podcast, Schaefer suggested that incorporating secularism as an “object of study” within the world religion paradigm could be a useful pedagogical tool to challenge it from within, but I think this is the wrong approach. The reason for my rejection of  Schaefer’s solution is not because I think incorporating secularism in the world religion paradigm would muddy the sanctity of the category, nor because Schaefer’s proposal fails some more critical definition of religion, but simply because it would only end up reifying religion even more. In my view, incorporating secularism in the world religions paradigm doesn’t challenge this paradigm from within, as Schaefer suggests, but merely gives it more life by expanding its scope and reach. Committing this error would be the same as trying to fix the eurocentrism implicit in the world religion paradigm by expanding the various cultures and histories that fall under its domain, which is exactly the same error that thinkers made in the middle of the twentieth century. In contrast to Schaefer, I would suggest that the way to challenge the world religions paradigm is not by incorporating more diverse―and possibly anti-religious―phenomenon into its structure, but by simply historicizing the category and showing how it operates at an ideological level.

To begin, let me assert that I recognize and respect the general scholarly position from which Schaefer  is coming. At the beginning of the podcast he notes that a lot of recent scholarship has challenged the idea that secularism stands in contrast to religion, and on this point he is certainly correct. In the past century, prominent theorist like Karl Löwith, Hans Blumenberg, Charles Taylor, and Marcel Gauchet have all challenged the traditional narrative that pits modernity against religion and frames Western history as an increasing process of secularization that is liberated from religion. For instance, Blumenberg tries to expose the unique legitimacy of the modern age that recognizes but does not reduce it to its Christian legacy, and Taylor takes the extreme position of suggesting that the modern secular age was brought about by developments latent in the Jewish and Christian traditions. Indeed, for Taylor, the generative seeds of modernity don’t begin with modern developments in science and philosophy but with various Judeo-Christian influences that we can trace back to the wider Mediterranean civilization from which they emerged. This implies that secularism is not some anti-religious movement in the West but is deeply intertwined with the rise and fall of the civilization that once called itself “Christendom.”

Indeed, as both Schaefer and Cotter acknowledge during the course of the pod cast, both “religion” and the “secular” are categories that emerge out of a certain “Christian”―or more broadly stated, “Western”―provenance. In regard to religion, thinkers such as Talal Asad, Timothy Fitzgerald, and Tomoko Masuzawa have all noted that it was only after the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century that the word “religion” began to take on the connotation of personal belief in a subjective sense, and to denote a universal human sense or capacity for religion. In Roman and early Christian Latin literature the nouns religio, religiones, the adjective religiosus, and the adverb religios were mainly used to describe the performance of ritual obligations. This early use has more in common with the Latin Pietas than with our modern notion of the word “religion,” which has acquired the sense of inner belief or faith. The invention of religion in this modern sense took place because various thinkers―from Jean Bodin to G. W. F. Hegel―argued that true religion is a matter of proper belief, not just cultic participation. Moreover, it occurred when this idea was carried around the world by the forces of colonization and globalization, which eventually led to the normative divisions of the subject that make up world religion textbooks (i.e. the division between Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.)

Similarly, the secular was also invented in the context of Christians―or Christian critics―struggling to make sense of the post-reformation world. In fact, the first modern use of the word “secular” can be traced to the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which brought an end to the wars of religion. The treaty uses the term “secularity” to describe “the conversion of an ecclesiastical or religious institution or its property to sovereigns, princes or lay people.” In this manner, the secular emerged as a space of worldly authority that was distinct from, yet deeply interconnected with, Western religious institutions. From this perspective, as Schaefer notes, secularism can be viewed as “an offshoot of Christianity… as something that Christianity does.” When we view the history of the West from a broad lens it is possible to see the great schisms between the various Christian orthodoxies and the “secular” forms of thought that took inspiration from them as “part of the story of Christianity.”

Where I disagree with Schaefer is in his attempt to see these intertwined genealogies through the cross-hairs of the world religion paradigm. Once we acknowledge that the invention of religion as a universal category and its subsequent critique by the forces of secularism took place under a certain Western provenance, why would we continue expanding the scope and reach of the world religion paradigm? I agree with Schaefer that this paradigm is not “evil,” as he puts it, but it is incorrect; it does not adequately describe the phenomena, so why would we continue to expand its application? From my perspective, to do what Schaefer is suggesting would be tantamount to the same error made by Ernst Troeltsch or Ninian Smart in the twentieth century, as it would try to correct the study of religion by expanding its scope. Smart, for instance, always tried to instruct students in a “broad religious outlook” by showing how religion is constituted by cultural difference,  and I think what Schaefer has suggested would end up being very similar. Recall that Smart’s classification of world religions included not just Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, but various indigenous traditions and even Maoist communism. In this light, incorporating secularism within the world religion paradigm is no different than attempting to challenge the paradigm by incorporating non-traditional or atheist forms of religion within the classroom.

For instance, Schaefer cites the work of Janet Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini, and suggests that one way to critically challenge religion from within is by showing how there is not just one type of secularism, but multiple secularisms. Like Talal Asad and Charles Taylor, he suggests that there are different formations of the secular that emerge out of different cultures and contexts, and that they expose the diversity at the heart of our models of religious classification. In this light, Christian, Islamic, and Hindu cultures (etc.) give rise to different types of secularism, and there is even a difference between Hindu forms of secularism in India and Hindu forms of secularism in America. Now, to be fair, I do think this is a good way to understand different cultural forms in light of globalization, but why try to incorporate these secularisms within the world religion paradigm? In contrast to Schaefer, I am worried that including non-religious or atheist forms of culture within the paradigm doesn’t challenge it from within, but merely revitalizes it by incorporating more data within its fold.

To put the matter plainly, I think we need to push the genealogy and historical situatedness of religion and secularism further than Schaefer proposes. Schaefer suggests that he wants to deconstruct the world religion paradigm by destabilizing it from within, yet I don’t think he goes far enough in this regard. He is right that deconstruction always takes place within the very thing under analysis, but this doesn’t mean that we should proceed by expanding the same old reified categories at a wider level. I follow Jacques Derrida in thinking that we need to question both our students and ourselves (as scholars) whether religion and secularism exist at all outside of their Western contexts, and thereby attempt to limit their further application. In Above All No Journalists! Derrida states this bluntly when he asks what a non-Christian is doing when they say “Islam, or Judaism, or Buddhism is my religion.” Is there even a word for “religion” in Arabic, he questions? Certainly not an adequate translation of the Latin. Moreover, what really characterizes Judaism as a religion, or Buddhism? What we know for certain, Derrida suggests, is that the history of the concept religion is wrapped up with a “political and ideological space dominated by Christianity,” and that “to engage in the obscure and equivocal strug­gle in which the putatively “universal” value of the concept of religion, even of religious tolerance,” is to engage in a semantic space appropriated by Christianity.  According to this approach, deconstruction occurs by exposing the limits of traditional modes of classification and retreating from their normative application, not applying these norms to even more phenomena.

For these reasons, I would suggest that the best way to challenge the world religions paradigm is simply by historicizing the category and showing how it functions at an ideological level. I am all in favor of deconstructing something from within “in order to destabilize it,” as Schaefer suggests, but we can do this without expanding the scope of the same old categories along the way. Hence, rather than merely incorporating more diverse―and possibly anti-religious―phenomenon into the world religions paradigm, I think we need to expose the ideological forces at play and thereby challenge their application on a global scale. Schaefer is correct that there is “only so much we can do to destabilize the way that students think,” but if that is the case then let’s expose the limits of the normative forces at play by properly situating them within their ideological contexts.

 

 

 

 

Identity and Capitalism

This interview with Craig Martin explores the limits of identity formation under modern Capitalism. Martin’s work Capitalizing Religion: Ideology and the Opiate of the Bourgeoisie focuses on the ways in which culture and religion are produced for consumption.

Have we ignored the ways in which identity is produced and reproduced under capitalism’s pressure? The casual use of the term “spirituality” today has become one way literary works have created a space where the social conditions of religious identity appear as identity forming. Cultivating spiritual cache may seem benign, but Martin argues here for a critical gaze about the ways in which even our most basic claims about religious identity are constructed in ways that obscure rather that clarify the cultural pressures and structures that surround us.

Social Constructionism, and Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religion, as well as Craig Martin’s previous podcast appearances. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Gilbert & Sullivan librettos, ruby slippers, and more.