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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.

Reflections on “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith”

Following the “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith” Conference hosted by the Norwegian University for Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway, Aaron W. Hughes, the conference’s keynote speaker, joined the Religious Studies project to discuss some of what was discussed during the conference and primarily the legacy of J.Z. Smith’s work for the field of religious studies.

The conference provided great examples of the application of Smith’s work across sub-fields and for religious studies pedagogy. But this wide application of Smith’s work also raised some questions not only about how scholars read and engage with Smith’s work but also about how we adapt and apply Smith’s work moving forward. Hughes reflects on the impact of Smith’s work while also addressing critiques of his approach. Hughes contends that Smith left scholars of religion with a simple but impossible task of critically engaging and reflecting on one’s work while maintaining a playful, comparative approach.

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Reflections on the “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith” Conference at NTNU

 

Podcast with Aaron W. Hughes (11 November 2019).

Interviewed by Andie Alexander

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/reflections-on-thinking-with-jonathan-z-smith/

PDF of this transcript available for download here.

Andie Alexander: (AA): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. I’m Andie Alexander, a doctoral student at Emory University. And joining me today is Dr Aaron Hughes of the University of Rochester. We are here in Trondheim, Norway, following the “Thinking with Jonathan Z. SmithConference that is hosted at the Norwegian Institute for Science and Technology. And we’re here to talk about the legacy of Smith and his work, his contribution, and ways in which we can move forward in the field. So, Aaron – Hi! Thanks for joining me.

Aaron Hughes (AH): Hi, Andie. How are you doing?

AA: Great. Are you enjoying Norway?

AH: I am. It’s very beautiful.

AA: It’s nice.

AH: The midnight sun reminds me of my childhood in Edmonton, Alberta.

AA: There you go. As long as I’ve been here it’s only been daylight! So, I don’t know if the sun sets. But it’s been nice.

AH: I think it sets at like one, and then gets up at three.

AA: (Laughs) It’s very nice. Well, let’s talk about Smith. Let’s talk about what we’ve discussed, and see what questions we have.

AH: Sounds great. Let’s do it. I think we should probably begin everything by saying that Smith has probably been the most important theoretician over the past fifty years, half century. I think he’s so important . . . so I’ll talk about the past before I talk about what I think. So I think that probably, he more than anyone, was responsible for smashing the Eliadian phenomenological paradigm. The problem is, even though that paradigm should be long dead and buried, it’s still one that our students gravitate towards and still one that a number of our colleagues gravitate towards. I think, it’s what I tried to say a couple of times, we’re in one of these rarefied environments of people who are more critical, who just think we’re all the same and we preach to the converted. Whereas, when we walk the halls of the AAR and look at some of the papers that are given there, they fall back a lot on that old phenomenological model. So I think that’s Smith’s main importance. So Smith – and I think we all fall in this legacy – refused to see religion as special, sui generis, or as unique in the ontological sense. It might be unique to us, but ontologically it’s not unique. And if it’s not unique, you can’t compare it to anything else. And I think that’s the beauty of him, is that he was able to show the incongruous relationship between the quote-unquote “religious” and the quote-unquote “mundane”. So I think that’s where . . . . I mean, and the other thing, I think, that came up a number of times at the conference was the ludic or the playful dimension of Smith. But I mean the flipside of that is that he was so knowledgeable and so comfortable. Whereas when we get undergraduates who are not comfortable and they don’t have nearly the depth of education that he did . . . so there’s a problem of translation. I think the other thing that’s great about Smith is his broad comparative . . . his broad vision. And I think that’s something that a lot of us don’t share, because again that goes against what we’re taught in graduate school. So it’s funny, I think, when I talk to a number of people about this, a lot of the people here who work with Smith . . . . I think I really only began to appreciate Smith after graduate school. Because then you’re afforded the slowness of reading him, and appreciating him.

AA: I can see that. It’s sort-of different, given that I’ve had to read him as an undergrad, because. . . It’s a different sort of introduction . . .

AH: Right. In Alabama. Yes, definitely!

AA: And so, in the same sense, it’s something that I think is important for people to at least have in their repertoire. But something that I find is often not taught in grad school, or is never much, and it’s always highly contested.

AH: Yes. And I think I said in my lecture that I never encountered Smith until graduate school. We just read people like Eliade and Weber, and maybe there was a reason for that. Maybe the person that taught the course thought, “Well you’ll get Smith later, so let’s . . . .” That was good for me, because I read first all the things that Smith would later be critical of. By the time I came to Smith it was like, “Yes, I can see that.”

AA: I think, too, the distinction that you’re making between seeing religion as “unique for us”, and not ontologically unique, is something that is lost, partly in that religions chapter that he wrote (5:00). I suspect, as I read that, he was being provocative – but he probably meant it. But not in the way that I suspect a lot of people want to contend with. And it’s easier to dismiss. Because as you said, he was pushing back against the whole phenomenological paradigm, I suppose. And while, especially given the group here, we are relatively on the same page and think that this should be obvious that this should be something that everyone is doing . . . and that’s something you mention in your keynote: how is this not something that’s just common knowledge across the academy?

AH: I think a lot people still believe in the sacred, or still believe . . . . I think this is where the problem is. We live in a very chaotic world where “religions” quote-unquote don’t seem to like one another particularly. I think this really comes to the fore after 9/11. So a lot of people in Religious Studies think that Religious Studies can be that which facilitates conversation between religions. That’s always . . . I joke to my students: “I didn’t spend ten years in graduate school to be an interfaith dialogue facilitator.” As important as that work is, though, really. So oftentimes I’ll try to get Jews and Muslims to talk together but not under the auspices of the academic classroom. I think, as I’ve said before, religions get along better when they talk to one another as opposed to when they shout at one another. But I do think a lot of people in the Religious Studies academy think that that’s the goal of Religious Studies: to show the similarities between religions. I disagree, and I think Smith would disagree. But I think that . . . I always worry that Smith was . . . . Smith was on point. Smith was edgy. Smith was critical. Smith really encourages us to do that. But the two things that I worry about, as I said in the keynote, are those people that will just write him off as another dead white guy – which as I said is absolutely stupid, given the fact that he wasn’t even white, he was Jewish. But that’s another matter. And the second thing that I think we’ll see is how the field will “inocculise” Smith. So that he’ll just become like a name or a trope. And people can invoke him but they’ll do it in a way that takes off the edge. And I think we see that. I’ve seen it a lot. So everyone can say, “According to Smith blah, blah, blah . . .” But they’ll never quite follow through in what Smith wanted us to do.

AA: I think you’re right. And I think in some ways what he was working against then, with his work and pushing back against the Eliadian model, we have a different version of it that’s sort-of present in the academy now. It’s maybe not as overt. But I think it’s there. So, to me, I suspect there’s still some push that has to happen. There’s still conversations to be had within the discipline. And how it works. And I think part of my concern in those conversations is the dismissal of Smith. It’s reductive – all of those critiques that get applied to his work. And what I find is that there’s very little engagement with it – if one has even read it.

AH: Well, I think just as Smith goes against our traditional ways of reading and thinking about religion, I think the modern academy goes against Smith. So on the one hand, our students come in woefully ignorant about what religion is. So we can’t engage the type of work that Smith wants until much later. You can’t have redescription without description. So I think we spend a lot of time, at least the classes we teach at the freshman and sophomore level, trying to describe to students. But hopefully if they stay for later classes we can begin to redescribe. The other thing is, I think, with the contemporary academy we’re always encouraged to do community engagement. And so job interviews will ask people, “So how will you interact with the community? What will you do with them?” And I think, in interacting with the community, we have certain expectations that go against what Smith (10:00). . . I don’t think Smith ever interacted with the local Jewish community. I don’t think the local communities are really amenable to the type of conversation that Smith had. So I think we have to fight back. And I think that’s what some of us would do. But the key, in moving forward, is how to keep the edge of a Smithian analysis. How to apply it so it just doesn’t become a bromide – which is what I think a lot of people would like it to become.

AA: Developing what Smith was doing, trying to continue to push it forward – especially given the requirements both of the job market, of service for the school, the department, because that’s shifted over the past 20 years alone. And community engagement is something very big, and there’s a huge focus on doing that sort of work. And I think that it can be very productive. But as a discipline we’re still figuring out how to do that successfully, I think, in ways that we can both learn, but also interpret, and translate, and in service of larger concerns and issues both in the community, the discipline, the nation . . .

AH: Yes. Well I think what you’ll never or rarely see a job in just theory and method in the study of religion. I think in the past twenty years I’ve maybe seen three or four of those. So, one always has to be trained in a tradition. And I’m not sure if Smith was trained in a tradition. I mean his thesis was on . . . his dissertation was on The Golden Bough. So Smith was generalist at a time when Religious Studies was particularist. So the question I think becomes: how can you translate a Smithian-type analysis into the particular fields? And that’s difficult, as we saw with some of the papers here that tried to engage Smith from the level of area studies. There had to be a lot of remedial work that they had to do for us, who aren’t in that tradition, in order to get to a small Smithian point. So I think, as we move forward, how to translate Smith into area studies will not be easy. But maybe that’s the point. That was one of the points that came out several times in the conference, was the playful or ludic dimension of Smith. Maybe that’s the method: to show the playfulness or the ludic dimension of what we work on, or how – quote-unquote – “sacred kingship” in Tibet is no more special than any other type of power hierarchy. So maybe that’s it, it’s the playful dimension. Maybe that’s his method. Did he have a method, other than showing that the religious is not qualitatively different than non-religious?

AA: Yeah. I mean, I think . . .

AH: Reflexivity, maybe?

AA: Yes self-reflexivity is certainly something that is required and this came up in many of our conversations. But maybe coupled with that playfulness.

AH: Yes. I think you’re right. I think that Smith’s message on the one hand is very simple. We need to be self-conscious, self-reflexive scholars who don’t treat religion as somehow special different or special from mundane things. And I think that’s where the playfulness comes through. So the question becomes: how do you translate that into particular religions, which in area studies tend to be a lot more serious and not engaged in play? And how do you translate that into a pedagogical idiom or an idiom working with the communities, which are not accustomed to think about religion in a playful way? Because, “this is what the Bible says you’re supposed to do”. Or, “this is what the Qur’an says”. So I think the classroom is easier to translate that than the community. But it still poses its set of problems. From our conversation yesterday, we said that where Smith tried to translate his more theoretical ideas was in the Dictionary. I’m not sure how successful the Dictionary was. I mean, no-one engaged the dictionary here. We rarely talk about that. We talk about the essays in his main publications. But we never talk about the Dictionary (15:00). I haven’t looked at the Dictionary in ages. So maybe I should go back again and look at it. So it’s hard. But maybe the main translation of that is to get students to be playful with religion. That’s how I try to do it, so they can joke about it. Obviously . . . I think it’s easy in the community, too. As we move forward, and I think I said that in the lecture, I mean, we have to absorb Smith’s critique. We have to absorb his wit. And we have to absorb his edge. But create new edges and new wits as a way to move forward. Because if not, we’ll just make him into a name or slogan that doesn’t have any venom. And I think that maybe the way to go with that is to bring him into the study of particular religions, which isn’t easy. The main thing I really like about Smith is that he encourages us to use our imaginations.

AA And I agree. For Smith he does encourage that. He encourages odd comparisons that might not make sense. And tracing historical etymologies and to have a better conception of how we talk about religion. . .

  1. AH. . . in human activity.

AA: . . . in human activity, yes.

AH: It’s hard, because. . . . I agree, and I think that’s the way it should be. But ultimately if you’re in an area, like in Islamic Studies, my work has to be adjudicated by people in Islamic Studies. It might not . .  . The chances are it might not come out of Religious Studies. So you always have to move back and forth between trying to make theoretical contributions to the field of Religious Studies, but with the realisation that people in Religious Studies might not read it, because it’s in Islamic Studies, or Jewish Studies, or Buddhist Studies, or whatever. At the same time, to write in such a way that those people that would naturally read it – people in those area studies – would be able to understand the argument. So that’s always the trick. I think I’ve been able to do it well. But I don’t think it’s easy. And I think, ideally, I’ve tried to pave a path for young scholars in Islamic studies, to try to do that. Whether that’s successful or not, I don’t know. But that . . . I think that’s the main thing as we move forward… that will be one of the issues of how to translate Smith. We talked about that. We talked about Daniel Barbu and Nick Meylan in Geneva in Switzerland have tried to translate Smith into French. I’m not sure to what effect. Part of the project is trying to translate Smith into Italian. And again, I don’t know how you . . . . It came up several times: how you translate Smith for an undergraduate American audience is one thing, but how you translate it for an Italian audience, or a French audience, or a Polish audience, is another thing. And I don’t think that’s easy. But I think Smith should be translated into other languages. Probably maybe not a word-for-word translation, but a more conceptual type of translation. How do we take the playful aspect in English and translate it into Italian? You can’t do it.

AA: You can’t.

AH: You have to be playful in Italian in order to . . . . So it becomes a very difficult process. But all translation is difficult. You can think, do you want a literal translation, or do you want a conceptual translation? And I think it’s the conceptual translation – both at the literal level in other languages and into other fields within Religious Studies – that will be the difficulty moving forward. But I think it can happen. I think it will happen. Most of us here are committed to making that happen.

AA: Yes, I think so. As was mentioned, it doesn’t happen overnight, those changes. But I think that, to me at least, is why having more productive work happening in the classroom early on, and not following the method of just: give information, undo it later. . .

AH: I like to . . . See, because I have to work with Islamic Studies and most people don’t know anything about Islam, I really have to begin by making sure they know the narratives. And ideally know the texts in the languages. Because then, I think, you can learn the theoretical stuff (20:00). I know probably people would disagree with me here, but I’m old fashioned that way. But I think you need the description, I think you need the details and the facts, but later you can say that no facts are facts, they’re simply ideologies going under the guise of whatever. But I think students need that. And then they can play. Because you can’t play unless you know the rules of the game.

AA: That’s true. You have to know the rules. And I think that’s key. But where I think I’m going to push on that, is that most people are not going to play. They’re not going to be here, right? And so, if we’re talking to an undergraduate class of a hundred people, and this is the humanities credit that they get, what then? Because they’re not going to remember the narratives of Islam. They’re not going to remember different facts about any world religions.

AH: Yeah. That’s tough.

AA: And so, is the key, then, that they have all of that data that makes them feel more confident in saying, “Well, I know what true Islam is”, versus being able to weigh those claims of authority and authenticity against one another?

AH: I think you’re right. We always speak out of our own context. And I’m lucky, we don’t have humanities requirements in my university. People are in the class because they want to be in the class. And I think if I’m playful enough in the class then they’ll come into the second and third level classes. So yes. So I’ve never dealt with that. But if I did have to teach a larger class – I teach 18-20 students all of whom want to be there, and who do the reading – so if I had to teach these big . . . . I can’t even imagine doing it. I don’t know what I’d do. I really don’t. I mean I guess you’re right. How do you transmit the information, but in the same way let them know that the information is wafer thin?

AA: It’s contingent.

AH: Yes. So that is . . . That’s a tough question. And I don’t have to think about that too much, which is a cop out! But I know if I taught at a large state university, for sure I’d have to think about that.

AA: And I think that is part of it. The ways in which any discipline is approached varies so drastically across universities.

AH: That’s what Smith said. That’s a great point. Because Smith taught at the type of place that I teach at. So very bright undergraduates – some of the brightest in the country – who probably had some idea of what the religions were. And then he would kind-of work to undermine that. So like where I teach, I teach an Introduction to Jewish History class. And most of the students are Jewish. They’ve come out of, often, Jewish day school in the New York City, Boston area. They know their stuff. They know the data. But I get them in the classroom because they’re very bright, and they think “Well, you know what, maybe my parents . . . maybe it all doesn’t quite make sense.” So at the introductory level I can probably do what people at a large state university can only do at the third or fourth year. And I wonder if Smith probably had something similar to that. Because he must have taught. . . .So I think that every institution is different. And there’s large state universities, there are the colleges and they’re like the elite, private university, Research 1 universities that have these different constituencies. And maybe that would have been a good workshop, translating this myth into the undergraduate classroom? But heck, I don’t think we can translate him . . . . Most people can’t even translate him into their own areas of research. How they translate him into the classroom is not easy. Because I think, to go back to where we began, Smith asks us to do that which is the opposite of what the modern academy encourages us to do. Which is to read quickly read fast, to not have an imagination, and to not take pedagogy seriously (25:00). And I think that all of Smith’s work shows that, no – you have to do those things.

AA: Yes. It absolutely does to me. And I think that’s something that is lost, given the requirements both of grad students and tenure track faculty instructors, of course. There are so many demands on production that there’s not enough time to really investigate something that might not be in your area, or work through how to apply something. And this was a question that I think came up, in terms of applying Smith. Should we be trying to strive for a literal, intentional understanding of Smith as the author, or should we take what we can – whether he’s taught in the classroom explicitly or referenced – and adapt it. And try to apply those ideas in ways that might not be obvious. But, well, if we’re going to talk about “the other”, let’s consider issues of immigration or . . .

AH: Yes.

AA: And that way you can bring it in – even though his e.g.s are not anything that I would use, personally, in a class – or even overlap with the area that I work in – and try to take some sort of nugget or something from his approach, in terms of shaping our own approach. Because, as you mentioned, that’s a key thing for Smith is how he is approaching his own research.

AH: Yes. I think Smith might say, “Forget about me. I’m gone. But take some of the tools that I’ve tried to play with and work with them. You don’t even have to mention my name. You don’t have to say “J.Z Smith said this . . .” Just take the self-reflexivity, take the playful element, take the comparison . . . and, again, when smith says of comparison: “You can’t compare X to Y without having a third term, Z”, like, on the one hand that’s so obvious, but on the other hand it’s so deep. But I think Smith would say “Well, just move forward.” I’d like to think that’s what he would say. “Forget about me. Just keep the creativity, keep the self-reflexivity, realise that the terms you use probably have baggage in them and don’t simply replicate them.” That’s what I’m more interested in. I think for me, one of my main goals is to try and take some of the complicated Smithian and other analysis that we have in Religious Studies – at least in the critical wing of Religious Studies – and translate them into area studies. Which is not easy when you have to do it in a particular way. But I think I’ve done it with a certain amount of success. So I think, like that’s… how you take ninth century Arabic texts and ask certain questions of them – not flatten them by asking certain questions, but how you appreciate the texts on their own terms and at the same time ask questions of them that come out of that which us theory-and-method-people do.

AA: Yes. And I think that is the key. Because when we are at a conference like this, there’s a luxury of working with people who are all sort-of working toward the same goal and are concerned for those issues. But then translating that into our own fields and to others in the academy . . . .

AH: And it’s difficult, as we saw with some of the more technical papers on the second day. I mean some of the . . . I mean there’s a lot of descriptive work where, say, someone working on South Asia or East Asia, in order to bring the rest of us up to speed there has to be a lot of descriptive and informative work, and only then can they get to the questions. And I think, as the papers were so short, that sometimes it was difficult to get to those questions because of all the background work. But that’s good, though. I think that’s good. Because I don’t think Smith would say, “Oh yeah, we should all just give up working in areas or text and just ask these questions.” I think he would say that some of us should do that work.

AA: Yes. I mean we have to engage that. And I think what’s good, too, with the technical papers that we heard, it is hearing from other disciplines and not talking only to your discipline (30:00). That’s exactly what highlights – at least in my way of thinking – Smith’s goal in terms of playing with ideas and asking different questions. Because when you are listening to a paper on East Asia, and I do American religion, then what we have in common is not our area. So if we’re going to talk to each other productively, as I would hope we would, we have to have a way of doing that.

AH: Yes. We have to have common set of questions. I think that’s what Smith really . . . I think that would be his definition of the field, where people who are working with different texts, and different traditions, and different data sets, can learn from one another by asking similar sets of questions. And to me, that’s Religious Studies at its best. But again, for those in area studies like myself, it’s a trade-off being able to do that and at the same time to be able to speak to just those people that work with Arabic texts or other types of Islamic texts. Which isn’t easy. But it can be done.

AA: It can be. And I think the only way to impact area studies in a way that could push it to a more Smithian, potentially Smithian model is to do that, and to bring that work there. And we can’t also just talk to ourselves.

AH: Yes, exactly.

AA: And it’s easy to do – but again, that goes against the whole point. We have to engage across areas and disciplines within Religious Studies.

AH: Yes. And also realise that sometimes area studies have a lot to teach us, too.

AA: Yes.

AH: I think that’s important.

AA: I think so.

AH: And I really think that’ll be Smith’s legacy. I think that that’s . . . . On the one hand, he doesn’t ask too much of us, but on the other hand he asks everything: to rethink ourselves, rethink our own relationship to that which we study – and if it’s found wanting, to transform.

 

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Whither the Sociology of Religion?

Grace Davie’s discussion of the sociology of religion provides a comprehensive overview of the field. She offers insights garnered from her own eminent career within British sociology of religion and speaks directly to the ways in which the field has been shaped as much by its social location and historical movements as it has been by theoretical innovations and scholarly developments. Her overview will serve as the foundation for the Religious Studies Project’s forthcoming series of discussions covering a broad spectrum of topics related to sociological inquiry into religion. This podcast could be easily integrated into course materials for undergraduate courses as it provides a succinct description of the field’s history and attends to questions of its public worth, which I imagine could prompt lively classroom discussion and debate. In addition, Davie’s unassuming discussion of the multiple shifts the field has taken over the course of her own career should warrant consideration on the part of junior scholars in any discipline who are thinking about the larger trajectory of their careers and the ways in which we balance our scholarly interests, pedagogical ambitions, and institutional obligations. In this context, Davie wants us to take seriously the social value of and potential contributions by the sociology of religion to both policy-making and inspiring empathy for those we (along with our students and the general public) might think of as ‘other’ or foreign.

I do not have a lot to offer by way of critical comments about Davie’s history of the discipline. I agree with her assessment that more consideration is warranted of the fluid nature of the field as it flows from the social location of its various schools of thought. I too am interested in thinking about the ways that new technologies, online religions, and artificial intelligence offer innovative frameworks for thinking about religious practices—both for adherents of religious traditions and for scholars who study them. I find Davie’s assumptions concerning the category of religion to be too concrete for my own use (both in terms of how I conceptualize it as a scholar, but also in how I see religious adherents making use of it); since this topic has been covered extensively as of late on the Religious Studies Project blog, I will set it aside and instead speak to what I see as the primary intention of this podcast: to offer a comprehensive framework for moving forward by considering the past, current, and future routes available to sociologists of religion.

In a comparable reflection on his career teaching about religion in public institutions, Jonathan Z. Smith describes a conversation he had with a senior colleague at an early juncture in his career. In that conversation, his would-be mentor remarked that the study of religion would survive as long as it continued to tether itself to theological studies. Smith imagines a Purusha-like sacrifice whereby the field is somehow partitioned up and sacrificially offered in a way that serves the almighty, eternal aims of divinity education (Smith 1995). While Davie’s description of the sociology of religion—both its origins and its future—does not prescriptively suppose that the field ought to uncritically follow the beck and call of transcendent forces, a similar logic is at work both in the way she relates the history of the field within the United Kingdom and her own illustrious career at its helm. In a tone that is slightly wistful, Davie relates that the sociology of religion has shifted its allegiances from departments of sociology to religious studies (and into anthropology departments) which she sees as an indicator that sociology does not take religion seriously. In many ways, this shift she describes resonates with the shift Smith and others observe concerning the transition from theological studies to the study of religion.

My allusion to Purusha is not intended to suggest a disagreement with Davie’s assessment of the field but rather to call for a critical inquiry into the work we do under the broad banner of sociology of religion. Purusha, of course, is the primordial man of the Rig Veda whose ceremonial sacrifice generates the caste system—one of countless instances in which we see the introduction of a religious narrative to buttress political hierarchies and social inequalities. In other words, it stands as a story recounted in such a way that makes the social system it speaks to appear inevitable (cf. Martin 2016). I wonder if I detect something similar in Davie’s description of the field and its usefulness. In her analysis of the four key historical figures within the sociology of religion—Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Simmel—one can almost detect an arbitrary division of the body, brain, heart, and feet akin to the Purusha narrative. I cannot help but think that the field’s continued reliance on these classical thinkers (with the addition of other standbys such as Berger and Luckmann, Stark and Finke, and various scholars associated with the Secularization Thesis) works to limit the possibilities for analysis to those concerns raised by such figures even in the midst of increased calls for non-Western scholarly interlocutors and more diverse research sites.

An additional parceling of roles is revealed in her treatment of the current tenure of the sociology of religion. Davie makes the important point that the field is dependent on its own social locations. While it emerged in concert with modern European thought, the industrial revolution, urbanization, and shifting patterns of human migration, the discipline is one that attends to the particularities (and at times idiosyncrasies) of its home base. In this vein, Davie almost seems to suggest that the British, Nordic, French, and American varieties of sociology of religion should be treated as separate species that exist as they do as much because of their theoretical foci as the content of religious activities therein—while not explicitly stated as such or presumably her intention, an overly defensive reading (from an American perspective) of Davie’s description of sociology of religion in the United States might conclude that she thinks Donald Trump is a direct consequence of Rational Choice Theory.

Trump is low-hanging fruit but Davie’s evocation of his role within the evangelical corpus speaks to our need for a more critical approach within the sociology of religion, specifically one that seeks to broaden our understanding of how religious adherents negotiate competing claims to their social identities. As a strategist (if we care to call him such), Trump is not employing the same tactics that brought Bush, Reagan, and even Clinton to power. He is not attempting to ‘win’ the evangelical vote based on appealing to their religious sensitivities or by speaking their language (cf. Lincoln 2003). Instead, a more interesting analysis might be undertaken that considers the ways that Trump is working to garner a conservative Protestant base that supports him despite his lack of religious fluency, moral virtue, or cultural resonance with the everyday lives of American evangelicals. In other words, evangelicals are not stupid; they know that Trump is not one of them. If he mobilizes their vote, it will reveal less about the religious beliefs of Americans or the political imagination of conservative Protestants, but rather will speak to the economic, foreign, and social policies that, at least for this election cycle, are perceived as trumping religious proclivities. As with Purusha, evangelical ‘belief in’ or ‘support for’ Trump is only interesting so far as we can locate its social consequences, many of which may prove to be unintended. In this context, the role of scholars of religion is, in part, to delve into and bring to light those instances where religious beliefs, traditions, and identities are incoherent, inconsistent, and contradictory.

Davie’s evocation of the perceived allegiances between conservative Protestantism and American political networks reminds us that the history of the sociology of religion in the United States has taken a markedly different path than its British counterpart. Whereas, as Davie notes, SOCREL has flourished in the British Sociological Association and now stands as its second largest unit, American academic societies have not always been as welcoming towards sociologists of religion, many of whom were themselves religiously-minded and fearful of the Marxist and atheist factions within the American Sociological Association (ASA). While the ASA has been in existence since 1961, it was not until 1994 that the sociology of religion section was established. Instead, a network of alternative associations were established in the mid-twentieth century which were sympathetic to Catholic and Protestant sociologists. The effects of such bifurcation has been, in many instances (although certainly not all) an emphasis on scholarship that provides a service to religion and lacks an explicit critique (Stark and Finke 2000: 15-16; cf. Blasi 2014). More recently, the Sociology of Religion group of the American Academy of Religion (founded in 2008 by Titus Hjelm, a UK-based sociologist and Ipsita Chatterjea, who was at the time a graduate student at Vanderbilt University; it is now chaired by Warren Goldstein and myself) was established as response to a perceived need for engagement with critical and analytical approaches drawn from sociology as a whole. Perhaps as a consequence of its home in the American Academy of Religion, the Sociology of Religion group has not served as a platform for Rational Choice Theory but rather has sought to carve out a space for interdisciplinary conversations devoted to empirically-grounded, theoretically-rich scholarship that employs a critical lens in its consideration of both the categories associated with religions and the means through which religious adherents represent themselves and their perceptions of the world and the understudied occasions where such concerns fall apart.

The possibilities for future directions in the sociology of religion are open, and I concur with Davie that the discipline’s future will likely be shaped as much by the tools it employs in its analysis as it is by its content. No more so perhaps than any other field of study, but hopefully with an increased awareness of the ways in which we as scholars arrange the data. Davie’s thorough outline of the field alongside the forthcoming podcasts from this series are a promising step towards its development.

References

Blasi AJ (2014). Sociology of Religion in America: A History of a Secular Fascination with Religion. Leiden and Boston: Brill Academic Publishers.

Lincoln, B (2003). Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Martin, C (2016). Religion as Ideology: Recycled Culture vs. World Religions. In Cotter C and Robertson D (eds) After World Religions: Reconstructing Religious Studies. New York: Routledge, pp.63-74.

Smith, JZ (1995). Afterward: Religious Studies: Whither (wither) and Why? Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 7(4): 407-414.

Stark, R and Finke R (2000). Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Podcasts

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.

Reflections on “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith”

Following the “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith” Conference hosted by the Norwegian University for Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway, Aaron W. Hughes, the conference’s keynote speaker, joined the Religious Studies project to discuss some of what was discussed during the conference and primarily the legacy of J.Z. Smith’s work for the field of religious studies.

The conference provided great examples of the application of Smith’s work across sub-fields and for religious studies pedagogy. But this wide application of Smith’s work also raised some questions not only about how scholars read and engage with Smith’s work but also about how we adapt and apply Smith’s work moving forward. Hughes reflects on the impact of Smith’s work while also addressing critiques of his approach. Hughes contends that Smith left scholars of religion with a simple but impossible task of critically engaging and reflecting on one’s work while maintaining a playful, comparative approach.

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Reflections on the “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith” Conference at NTNU

 

Podcast with Aaron W. Hughes (11 November 2019).

Interviewed by Andie Alexander

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/reflections-on-thinking-with-jonathan-z-smith/

PDF of this transcript available for download here.

Andie Alexander: (AA): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. I’m Andie Alexander, a doctoral student at Emory University. And joining me today is Dr Aaron Hughes of the University of Rochester. We are here in Trondheim, Norway, following the “Thinking with Jonathan Z. SmithConference that is hosted at the Norwegian Institute for Science and Technology. And we’re here to talk about the legacy of Smith and his work, his contribution, and ways in which we can move forward in the field. So, Aaron – Hi! Thanks for joining me.

Aaron Hughes (AH): Hi, Andie. How are you doing?

AA: Great. Are you enjoying Norway?

AH: I am. It’s very beautiful.

AA: It’s nice.

AH: The midnight sun reminds me of my childhood in Edmonton, Alberta.

AA: There you go. As long as I’ve been here it’s only been daylight! So, I don’t know if the sun sets. But it’s been nice.

AH: I think it sets at like one, and then gets up at three.

AA: (Laughs) It’s very nice. Well, let’s talk about Smith. Let’s talk about what we’ve discussed, and see what questions we have.

AH: Sounds great. Let’s do it. I think we should probably begin everything by saying that Smith has probably been the most important theoretician over the past fifty years, half century. I think he’s so important . . . so I’ll talk about the past before I talk about what I think. So I think that probably, he more than anyone, was responsible for smashing the Eliadian phenomenological paradigm. The problem is, even though that paradigm should be long dead and buried, it’s still one that our students gravitate towards and still one that a number of our colleagues gravitate towards. I think, it’s what I tried to say a couple of times, we’re in one of these rarefied environments of people who are more critical, who just think we’re all the same and we preach to the converted. Whereas, when we walk the halls of the AAR and look at some of the papers that are given there, they fall back a lot on that old phenomenological model. So I think that’s Smith’s main importance. So Smith – and I think we all fall in this legacy – refused to see religion as special, sui generis, or as unique in the ontological sense. It might be unique to us, but ontologically it’s not unique. And if it’s not unique, you can’t compare it to anything else. And I think that’s the beauty of him, is that he was able to show the incongruous relationship between the quote-unquote “religious” and the quote-unquote “mundane”. So I think that’s where . . . . I mean, and the other thing, I think, that came up a number of times at the conference was the ludic or the playful dimension of Smith. But I mean the flipside of that is that he was so knowledgeable and so comfortable. Whereas when we get undergraduates who are not comfortable and they don’t have nearly the depth of education that he did . . . so there’s a problem of translation. I think the other thing that’s great about Smith is his broad comparative . . . his broad vision. And I think that’s something that a lot of us don’t share, because again that goes against what we’re taught in graduate school. So it’s funny, I think, when I talk to a number of people about this, a lot of the people here who work with Smith . . . . I think I really only began to appreciate Smith after graduate school. Because then you’re afforded the slowness of reading him, and appreciating him.

AA: I can see that. It’s sort-of different, given that I’ve had to read him as an undergrad, because. . . It’s a different sort of introduction . . .

AH: Right. In Alabama. Yes, definitely!

AA: And so, in the same sense, it’s something that I think is important for people to at least have in their repertoire. But something that I find is often not taught in grad school, or is never much, and it’s always highly contested.

AH: Yes. And I think I said in my lecture that I never encountered Smith until graduate school. We just read people like Eliade and Weber, and maybe there was a reason for that. Maybe the person that taught the course thought, “Well you’ll get Smith later, so let’s . . . .” That was good for me, because I read first all the things that Smith would later be critical of. By the time I came to Smith it was like, “Yes, I can see that.”

AA: I think, too, the distinction that you’re making between seeing religion as “unique for us”, and not ontologically unique, is something that is lost, partly in that religions chapter that he wrote (5:00). I suspect, as I read that, he was being provocative – but he probably meant it. But not in the way that I suspect a lot of people want to contend with. And it’s easier to dismiss. Because as you said, he was pushing back against the whole phenomenological paradigm, I suppose. And while, especially given the group here, we are relatively on the same page and think that this should be obvious that this should be something that everyone is doing . . . and that’s something you mention in your keynote: how is this not something that’s just common knowledge across the academy?

AH: I think a lot people still believe in the sacred, or still believe . . . . I think this is where the problem is. We live in a very chaotic world where “religions” quote-unquote don’t seem to like one another particularly. I think this really comes to the fore after 9/11. So a lot of people in Religious Studies think that Religious Studies can be that which facilitates conversation between religions. That’s always . . . I joke to my students: “I didn’t spend ten years in graduate school to be an interfaith dialogue facilitator.” As important as that work is, though, really. So oftentimes I’ll try to get Jews and Muslims to talk together but not under the auspices of the academic classroom. I think, as I’ve said before, religions get along better when they talk to one another as opposed to when they shout at one another. But I do think a lot of people in the Religious Studies academy think that that’s the goal of Religious Studies: to show the similarities between religions. I disagree, and I think Smith would disagree. But I think that . . . I always worry that Smith was . . . . Smith was on point. Smith was edgy. Smith was critical. Smith really encourages us to do that. But the two things that I worry about, as I said in the keynote, are those people that will just write him off as another dead white guy – which as I said is absolutely stupid, given the fact that he wasn’t even white, he was Jewish. But that’s another matter. And the second thing that I think we’ll see is how the field will “inocculise” Smith. So that he’ll just become like a name or a trope. And people can invoke him but they’ll do it in a way that takes off the edge. And I think we see that. I’ve seen it a lot. So everyone can say, “According to Smith blah, blah, blah . . .” But they’ll never quite follow through in what Smith wanted us to do.

AA: I think you’re right. And I think in some ways what he was working against then, with his work and pushing back against the Eliadian model, we have a different version of it that’s sort-of present in the academy now. It’s maybe not as overt. But I think it’s there. So, to me, I suspect there’s still some push that has to happen. There’s still conversations to be had within the discipline. And how it works. And I think part of my concern in those conversations is the dismissal of Smith. It’s reductive – all of those critiques that get applied to his work. And what I find is that there’s very little engagement with it – if one has even read it.

AH: Well, I think just as Smith goes against our traditional ways of reading and thinking about religion, I think the modern academy goes against Smith. So on the one hand, our students come in woefully ignorant about what religion is. So we can’t engage the type of work that Smith wants until much later. You can’t have redescription without description. So I think we spend a lot of time, at least the classes we teach at the freshman and sophomore level, trying to describe to students. But hopefully if they stay for later classes we can begin to redescribe. The other thing is, I think, with the contemporary academy we’re always encouraged to do community engagement. And so job interviews will ask people, “So how will you interact with the community? What will you do with them?” And I think, in interacting with the community, we have certain expectations that go against what Smith (10:00). . . I don’t think Smith ever interacted with the local Jewish community. I don’t think the local communities are really amenable to the type of conversation that Smith had. So I think we have to fight back. And I think that’s what some of us would do. But the key, in moving forward, is how to keep the edge of a Smithian analysis. How to apply it so it just doesn’t become a bromide – which is what I think a lot of people would like it to become.

AA: Developing what Smith was doing, trying to continue to push it forward – especially given the requirements both of the job market, of service for the school, the department, because that’s shifted over the past 20 years alone. And community engagement is something very big, and there’s a huge focus on doing that sort of work. And I think that it can be very productive. But as a discipline we’re still figuring out how to do that successfully, I think, in ways that we can both learn, but also interpret, and translate, and in service of larger concerns and issues both in the community, the discipline, the nation . . .

AH: Yes. Well I think what you’ll never or rarely see a job in just theory and method in the study of religion. I think in the past twenty years I’ve maybe seen three or four of those. So, one always has to be trained in a tradition. And I’m not sure if Smith was trained in a tradition. I mean his thesis was on . . . his dissertation was on The Golden Bough. So Smith was generalist at a time when Religious Studies was particularist. So the question I think becomes: how can you translate a Smithian-type analysis into the particular fields? And that’s difficult, as we saw with some of the papers here that tried to engage Smith from the level of area studies. There had to be a lot of remedial work that they had to do for us, who aren’t in that tradition, in order to get to a small Smithian point. So I think, as we move forward, how to translate Smith into area studies will not be easy. But maybe that’s the point. That was one of the points that came out several times in the conference, was the playful or ludic dimension of Smith. Maybe that’s the method: to show the playfulness or the ludic dimension of what we work on, or how – quote-unquote – “sacred kingship” in Tibet is no more special than any other type of power hierarchy. So maybe that’s it, it’s the playful dimension. Maybe that’s his method. Did he have a method, other than showing that the religious is not qualitatively different than non-religious?

AA: Yeah. I mean, I think . . .

AH: Reflexivity, maybe?

AA: Yes self-reflexivity is certainly something that is required and this came up in many of our conversations. But maybe coupled with that playfulness.

AH: Yes. I think you’re right. I think that Smith’s message on the one hand is very simple. We need to be self-conscious, self-reflexive scholars who don’t treat religion as somehow special different or special from mundane things. And I think that’s where the playfulness comes through. So the question becomes: how do you translate that into particular religions, which in area studies tend to be a lot more serious and not engaged in play? And how do you translate that into a pedagogical idiom or an idiom working with the communities, which are not accustomed to think about religion in a playful way? Because, “this is what the Bible says you’re supposed to do”. Or, “this is what the Qur’an says”. So I think the classroom is easier to translate that than the community. But it still poses its set of problems. From our conversation yesterday, we said that where Smith tried to translate his more theoretical ideas was in the Dictionary. I’m not sure how successful the Dictionary was. I mean, no-one engaged the dictionary here. We rarely talk about that. We talk about the essays in his main publications. But we never talk about the Dictionary (15:00). I haven’t looked at the Dictionary in ages. So maybe I should go back again and look at it. So it’s hard. But maybe the main translation of that is to get students to be playful with religion. That’s how I try to do it, so they can joke about it. Obviously . . . I think it’s easy in the community, too. As we move forward, and I think I said that in the lecture, I mean, we have to absorb Smith’s critique. We have to absorb his wit. And we have to absorb his edge. But create new edges and new wits as a way to move forward. Because if not, we’ll just make him into a name or slogan that doesn’t have any venom. And I think that maybe the way to go with that is to bring him into the study of particular religions, which isn’t easy. The main thing I really like about Smith is that he encourages us to use our imaginations.

AA And I agree. For Smith he does encourage that. He encourages odd comparisons that might not make sense. And tracing historical etymologies and to have a better conception of how we talk about religion. . .

  1. AH. . . in human activity.

AA: . . . in human activity, yes.

AH: It’s hard, because. . . . I agree, and I think that’s the way it should be. But ultimately if you’re in an area, like in Islamic Studies, my work has to be adjudicated by people in Islamic Studies. It might not . .  . The chances are it might not come out of Religious Studies. So you always have to move back and forth between trying to make theoretical contributions to the field of Religious Studies, but with the realisation that people in Religious Studies might not read it, because it’s in Islamic Studies, or Jewish Studies, or Buddhist Studies, or whatever. At the same time, to write in such a way that those people that would naturally read it – people in those area studies – would be able to understand the argument. So that’s always the trick. I think I’ve been able to do it well. But I don’t think it’s easy. And I think, ideally, I’ve tried to pave a path for young scholars in Islamic studies, to try to do that. Whether that’s successful or not, I don’t know. But that . . . I think that’s the main thing as we move forward… that will be one of the issues of how to translate Smith. We talked about that. We talked about Daniel Barbu and Nick Meylan in Geneva in Switzerland have tried to translate Smith into French. I’m not sure to what effect. Part of the project is trying to translate Smith into Italian. And again, I don’t know how you . . . . It came up several times: how you translate Smith for an undergraduate American audience is one thing, but how you translate it for an Italian audience, or a French audience, or a Polish audience, is another thing. And I don’t think that’s easy. But I think Smith should be translated into other languages. Probably maybe not a word-for-word translation, but a more conceptual type of translation. How do we take the playful aspect in English and translate it into Italian? You can’t do it.

AA: You can’t.

AH: You have to be playful in Italian in order to . . . . So it becomes a very difficult process. But all translation is difficult. You can think, do you want a literal translation, or do you want a conceptual translation? And I think it’s the conceptual translation – both at the literal level in other languages and into other fields within Religious Studies – that will be the difficulty moving forward. But I think it can happen. I think it will happen. Most of us here are committed to making that happen.

AA: Yes, I think so. As was mentioned, it doesn’t happen overnight, those changes. But I think that, to me at least, is why having more productive work happening in the classroom early on, and not following the method of just: give information, undo it later. . .

AH: I like to . . . See, because I have to work with Islamic Studies and most people don’t know anything about Islam, I really have to begin by making sure they know the narratives. And ideally know the texts in the languages. Because then, I think, you can learn the theoretical stuff (20:00). I know probably people would disagree with me here, but I’m old fashioned that way. But I think you need the description, I think you need the details and the facts, but later you can say that no facts are facts, they’re simply ideologies going under the guise of whatever. But I think students need that. And then they can play. Because you can’t play unless you know the rules of the game.

AA: That’s true. You have to know the rules. And I think that’s key. But where I think I’m going to push on that, is that most people are not going to play. They’re not going to be here, right? And so, if we’re talking to an undergraduate class of a hundred people, and this is the humanities credit that they get, what then? Because they’re not going to remember the narratives of Islam. They’re not going to remember different facts about any world religions.

AH: Yeah. That’s tough.

AA: And so, is the key, then, that they have all of that data that makes them feel more confident in saying, “Well, I know what true Islam is”, versus being able to weigh those claims of authority and authenticity against one another?

AH: I think you’re right. We always speak out of our own context. And I’m lucky, we don’t have humanities requirements in my university. People are in the class because they want to be in the class. And I think if I’m playful enough in the class then they’ll come into the second and third level classes. So yes. So I’ve never dealt with that. But if I did have to teach a larger class – I teach 18-20 students all of whom want to be there, and who do the reading – so if I had to teach these big . . . . I can’t even imagine doing it. I don’t know what I’d do. I really don’t. I mean I guess you’re right. How do you transmit the information, but in the same way let them know that the information is wafer thin?

AA: It’s contingent.

AH: Yes. So that is . . . That’s a tough question. And I don’t have to think about that too much, which is a cop out! But I know if I taught at a large state university, for sure I’d have to think about that.

AA: And I think that is part of it. The ways in which any discipline is approached varies so drastically across universities.

AH: That’s what Smith said. That’s a great point. Because Smith taught at the type of place that I teach at. So very bright undergraduates – some of the brightest in the country – who probably had some idea of what the religions were. And then he would kind-of work to undermine that. So like where I teach, I teach an Introduction to Jewish History class. And most of the students are Jewish. They’ve come out of, often, Jewish day school in the New York City, Boston area. They know their stuff. They know the data. But I get them in the classroom because they’re very bright, and they think “Well, you know what, maybe my parents . . . maybe it all doesn’t quite make sense.” So at the introductory level I can probably do what people at a large state university can only do at the third or fourth year. And I wonder if Smith probably had something similar to that. Because he must have taught. . . .So I think that every institution is different. And there’s large state universities, there are the colleges and they’re like the elite, private university, Research 1 universities that have these different constituencies. And maybe that would have been a good workshop, translating this myth into the undergraduate classroom? But heck, I don’t think we can translate him . . . . Most people can’t even translate him into their own areas of research. How they translate him into the classroom is not easy. Because I think, to go back to where we began, Smith asks us to do that which is the opposite of what the modern academy encourages us to do. Which is to read quickly read fast, to not have an imagination, and to not take pedagogy seriously (25:00). And I think that all of Smith’s work shows that, no – you have to do those things.

AA: Yes. It absolutely does to me. And I think that’s something that is lost, given the requirements both of grad students and tenure track faculty instructors, of course. There are so many demands on production that there’s not enough time to really investigate something that might not be in your area, or work through how to apply something. And this was a question that I think came up, in terms of applying Smith. Should we be trying to strive for a literal, intentional understanding of Smith as the author, or should we take what we can – whether he’s taught in the classroom explicitly or referenced – and adapt it. And try to apply those ideas in ways that might not be obvious. But, well, if we’re going to talk about “the other”, let’s consider issues of immigration or . . .

AH: Yes.

AA: And that way you can bring it in – even though his e.g.s are not anything that I would use, personally, in a class – or even overlap with the area that I work in – and try to take some sort of nugget or something from his approach, in terms of shaping our own approach. Because, as you mentioned, that’s a key thing for Smith is how he is approaching his own research.

AH: Yes. I think Smith might say, “Forget about me. I’m gone. But take some of the tools that I’ve tried to play with and work with them. You don’t even have to mention my name. You don’t have to say “J.Z Smith said this . . .” Just take the self-reflexivity, take the playful element, take the comparison . . . and, again, when smith says of comparison: “You can’t compare X to Y without having a third term, Z”, like, on the one hand that’s so obvious, but on the other hand it’s so deep. But I think Smith would say “Well, just move forward.” I’d like to think that’s what he would say. “Forget about me. Just keep the creativity, keep the self-reflexivity, realise that the terms you use probably have baggage in them and don’t simply replicate them.” That’s what I’m more interested in. I think for me, one of my main goals is to try and take some of the complicated Smithian and other analysis that we have in Religious Studies – at least in the critical wing of Religious Studies – and translate them into area studies. Which is not easy when you have to do it in a particular way. But I think I’ve done it with a certain amount of success. So I think, like that’s… how you take ninth century Arabic texts and ask certain questions of them – not flatten them by asking certain questions, but how you appreciate the texts on their own terms and at the same time ask questions of them that come out of that which us theory-and-method-people do.

AA: Yes. And I think that is the key. Because when we are at a conference like this, there’s a luxury of working with people who are all sort-of working toward the same goal and are concerned for those issues. But then translating that into our own fields and to others in the academy . . . .

AH: And it’s difficult, as we saw with some of the more technical papers on the second day. I mean some of the . . . I mean there’s a lot of descriptive work where, say, someone working on South Asia or East Asia, in order to bring the rest of us up to speed there has to be a lot of descriptive and informative work, and only then can they get to the questions. And I think, as the papers were so short, that sometimes it was difficult to get to those questions because of all the background work. But that’s good, though. I think that’s good. Because I don’t think Smith would say, “Oh yeah, we should all just give up working in areas or text and just ask these questions.” I think he would say that some of us should do that work.

AA: Yes. I mean we have to engage that. And I think what’s good, too, with the technical papers that we heard, it is hearing from other disciplines and not talking only to your discipline (30:00). That’s exactly what highlights – at least in my way of thinking – Smith’s goal in terms of playing with ideas and asking different questions. Because when you are listening to a paper on East Asia, and I do American religion, then what we have in common is not our area. So if we’re going to talk to each other productively, as I would hope we would, we have to have a way of doing that.

AH: Yes. We have to have common set of questions. I think that’s what Smith really . . . I think that would be his definition of the field, where people who are working with different texts, and different traditions, and different data sets, can learn from one another by asking similar sets of questions. And to me, that’s Religious Studies at its best. But again, for those in area studies like myself, it’s a trade-off being able to do that and at the same time to be able to speak to just those people that work with Arabic texts or other types of Islamic texts. Which isn’t easy. But it can be done.

AA: It can be. And I think the only way to impact area studies in a way that could push it to a more Smithian, potentially Smithian model is to do that, and to bring that work there. And we can’t also just talk to ourselves.

AH: Yes, exactly.

AA: And it’s easy to do – but again, that goes against the whole point. We have to engage across areas and disciplines within Religious Studies.

AH: Yes. And also realise that sometimes area studies have a lot to teach us, too.

AA: Yes.

AH: I think that’s important.

AA: I think so.

AH: And I really think that’ll be Smith’s legacy. I think that that’s . . . . On the one hand, he doesn’t ask too much of us, but on the other hand he asks everything: to rethink ourselves, rethink our own relationship to that which we study – and if it’s found wanting, to transform.

 

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Protected: Reflections on “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith” (Classroom Edit)

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Whither the Sociology of Religion?

Grace Davie’s discussion of the sociology of religion provides a comprehensive overview of the field. She offers insights garnered from her own eminent career within British sociology of religion and speaks directly to the ways in which the field has been shaped as much by its social location and historical movements as it has been by theoretical innovations and scholarly developments. Her overview will serve as the foundation for the Religious Studies Project’s forthcoming series of discussions covering a broad spectrum of topics related to sociological inquiry into religion. This podcast could be easily integrated into course materials for undergraduate courses as it provides a succinct description of the field’s history and attends to questions of its public worth, which I imagine could prompt lively classroom discussion and debate. In addition, Davie’s unassuming discussion of the multiple shifts the field has taken over the course of her own career should warrant consideration on the part of junior scholars in any discipline who are thinking about the larger trajectory of their careers and the ways in which we balance our scholarly interests, pedagogical ambitions, and institutional obligations. In this context, Davie wants us to take seriously the social value of and potential contributions by the sociology of religion to both policy-making and inspiring empathy for those we (along with our students and the general public) might think of as ‘other’ or foreign.

I do not have a lot to offer by way of critical comments about Davie’s history of the discipline. I agree with her assessment that more consideration is warranted of the fluid nature of the field as it flows from the social location of its various schools of thought. I too am interested in thinking about the ways that new technologies, online religions, and artificial intelligence offer innovative frameworks for thinking about religious practices—both for adherents of religious traditions and for scholars who study them. I find Davie’s assumptions concerning the category of religion to be too concrete for my own use (both in terms of how I conceptualize it as a scholar, but also in how I see religious adherents making use of it); since this topic has been covered extensively as of late on the Religious Studies Project blog, I will set it aside and instead speak to what I see as the primary intention of this podcast: to offer a comprehensive framework for moving forward by considering the past, current, and future routes available to sociologists of religion.

In a comparable reflection on his career teaching about religion in public institutions, Jonathan Z. Smith describes a conversation he had with a senior colleague at an early juncture in his career. In that conversation, his would-be mentor remarked that the study of religion would survive as long as it continued to tether itself to theological studies. Smith imagines a Purusha-like sacrifice whereby the field is somehow partitioned up and sacrificially offered in a way that serves the almighty, eternal aims of divinity education (Smith 1995). While Davie’s description of the sociology of religion—both its origins and its future—does not prescriptively suppose that the field ought to uncritically follow the beck and call of transcendent forces, a similar logic is at work both in the way she relates the history of the field within the United Kingdom and her own illustrious career at its helm. In a tone that is slightly wistful, Davie relates that the sociology of religion has shifted its allegiances from departments of sociology to religious studies (and into anthropology departments) which she sees as an indicator that sociology does not take religion seriously. In many ways, this shift she describes resonates with the shift Smith and others observe concerning the transition from theological studies to the study of religion.

My allusion to Purusha is not intended to suggest a disagreement with Davie’s assessment of the field but rather to call for a critical inquiry into the work we do under the broad banner of sociology of religion. Purusha, of course, is the primordial man of the Rig Veda whose ceremonial sacrifice generates the caste system—one of countless instances in which we see the introduction of a religious narrative to buttress political hierarchies and social inequalities. In other words, it stands as a story recounted in such a way that makes the social system it speaks to appear inevitable (cf. Martin 2016). I wonder if I detect something similar in Davie’s description of the field and its usefulness. In her analysis of the four key historical figures within the sociology of religion—Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Simmel—one can almost detect an arbitrary division of the body, brain, heart, and feet akin to the Purusha narrative. I cannot help but think that the field’s continued reliance on these classical thinkers (with the addition of other standbys such as Berger and Luckmann, Stark and Finke, and various scholars associated with the Secularization Thesis) works to limit the possibilities for analysis to those concerns raised by such figures even in the midst of increased calls for non-Western scholarly interlocutors and more diverse research sites.

An additional parceling of roles is revealed in her treatment of the current tenure of the sociology of religion. Davie makes the important point that the field is dependent on its own social locations. While it emerged in concert with modern European thought, the industrial revolution, urbanization, and shifting patterns of human migration, the discipline is one that attends to the particularities (and at times idiosyncrasies) of its home base. In this vein, Davie almost seems to suggest that the British, Nordic, French, and American varieties of sociology of religion should be treated as separate species that exist as they do as much because of their theoretical foci as the content of religious activities therein—while not explicitly stated as such or presumably her intention, an overly defensive reading (from an American perspective) of Davie’s description of sociology of religion in the United States might conclude that she thinks Donald Trump is a direct consequence of Rational Choice Theory.

Trump is low-hanging fruit but Davie’s evocation of his role within the evangelical corpus speaks to our need for a more critical approach within the sociology of religion, specifically one that seeks to broaden our understanding of how religious adherents negotiate competing claims to their social identities. As a strategist (if we care to call him such), Trump is not employing the same tactics that brought Bush, Reagan, and even Clinton to power. He is not attempting to ‘win’ the evangelical vote based on appealing to their religious sensitivities or by speaking their language (cf. Lincoln 2003). Instead, a more interesting analysis might be undertaken that considers the ways that Trump is working to garner a conservative Protestant base that supports him despite his lack of religious fluency, moral virtue, or cultural resonance with the everyday lives of American evangelicals. In other words, evangelicals are not stupid; they know that Trump is not one of them. If he mobilizes their vote, it will reveal less about the religious beliefs of Americans or the political imagination of conservative Protestants, but rather will speak to the economic, foreign, and social policies that, at least for this election cycle, are perceived as trumping religious proclivities. As with Purusha, evangelical ‘belief in’ or ‘support for’ Trump is only interesting so far as we can locate its social consequences, many of which may prove to be unintended. In this context, the role of scholars of religion is, in part, to delve into and bring to light those instances where religious beliefs, traditions, and identities are incoherent, inconsistent, and contradictory.

Davie’s evocation of the perceived allegiances between conservative Protestantism and American political networks reminds us that the history of the sociology of religion in the United States has taken a markedly different path than its British counterpart. Whereas, as Davie notes, SOCREL has flourished in the British Sociological Association and now stands as its second largest unit, American academic societies have not always been as welcoming towards sociologists of religion, many of whom were themselves religiously-minded and fearful of the Marxist and atheist factions within the American Sociological Association (ASA). While the ASA has been in existence since 1961, it was not until 1994 that the sociology of religion section was established. Instead, a network of alternative associations were established in the mid-twentieth century which were sympathetic to Catholic and Protestant sociologists. The effects of such bifurcation has been, in many instances (although certainly not all) an emphasis on scholarship that provides a service to religion and lacks an explicit critique (Stark and Finke 2000: 15-16; cf. Blasi 2014). More recently, the Sociology of Religion group of the American Academy of Religion (founded in 2008 by Titus Hjelm, a UK-based sociologist and Ipsita Chatterjea, who was at the time a graduate student at Vanderbilt University; it is now chaired by Warren Goldstein and myself) was established as response to a perceived need for engagement with critical and analytical approaches drawn from sociology as a whole. Perhaps as a consequence of its home in the American Academy of Religion, the Sociology of Religion group has not served as a platform for Rational Choice Theory but rather has sought to carve out a space for interdisciplinary conversations devoted to empirically-grounded, theoretically-rich scholarship that employs a critical lens in its consideration of both the categories associated with religions and the means through which religious adherents represent themselves and their perceptions of the world and the understudied occasions where such concerns fall apart.

The possibilities for future directions in the sociology of religion are open, and I concur with Davie that the discipline’s future will likely be shaped as much by the tools it employs in its analysis as it is by its content. No more so perhaps than any other field of study, but hopefully with an increased awareness of the ways in which we as scholars arrange the data. Davie’s thorough outline of the field alongside the forthcoming podcasts from this series are a promising step towards its development.

References

Blasi AJ (2014). Sociology of Religion in America: A History of a Secular Fascination with Religion. Leiden and Boston: Brill Academic Publishers.

Lincoln, B (2003). Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Martin, C (2016). Religion as Ideology: Recycled Culture vs. World Religions. In Cotter C and Robertson D (eds) After World Religions: Reconstructing Religious Studies. New York: Routledge, pp.63-74.

Smith, JZ (1995). Afterward: Religious Studies: Whither (wither) and Why? Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 7(4): 407-414.

Stark, R and Finke R (2000). Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press.