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Teaching Religion: A Response to Douglas Brooks

Douglas Brooks is the reason I became a religion major. This is strange to say given that he never even told me to do it.

When Brooks speaks of religion, it is as a sort of super-category capable of absorbing (or manipulating) other cultural entities for its own purposes. Religion intersects with history, philosophy, political science, art, music, linguistics, and so on. The converse is also true, as any of the subjects listed can include religion as a supplement. But viewing religion as the “Department of the Humanities” has clearly influenced Brooks’ teaching philosophy (and even my own). In fact, one of his more recent innovations at the University of Rochester was to teach a class built around a reading list that the average undergrad “should” have read in college…but likely did not.

I emphasize “should” because the class is not built around a key figure or text. It is not working towards any big idea, in particular. For example, I took a philosophy class at Rochester on mathematical logic where the goal was to lay the groundwork for tackling Gödel’s incompleteness theorems at the end of the semester. Brooks’ course, which he calls “Advice and Dissent,” is much more amorphous. What matters is conversation. I’ve heard him reveal as much even when he spoke about his “Theories of Religion” seminar. “There are two types of students on this campus: those who have taken ‘Theories’ and those who haven’t.”

The readings assigned in Brooks’ ultimate humanities course are all interchangeable. The course’s broad scope is probably best summarized as Indo-European in context and even that is not entirely accurate. I really see this course as a microcosm of how Brooks views his place in academia. In line with J.Z. Smith (see On Teaching Religion, 2013), Brooks views his position as integral to cultivating a deeper appreciation for the humanities, especially at a research institution like Rochester. In many ways, he is a classical philologist preserving our connections to the past. While he does engage the political conditions that have shaped society, at the undergraduate level, he is more concerned with exposing his students to new ways of thinking.

This teaching philosophy then continues into his South Asian material. His courses are not designed around ethnography, although they certainly could be. Instead, Brooks isolates complex concepts, values, and myths that are vital to classical Indian philosophy. The same applies to his East Asian courses; they are designed to enrich his students’ conceptions of the world around them.

This engagement with the literature is actually how Brooks first became interested in India. He took an introductory course on Hinduism and Buddhism (at Middlebury College) and got hooked after reading the Upanishads. At eighteen, captivated by the beauty, insight, and cultural complexity of the text, he committed himself to learning Sanskrit – which later evolved into learning Tamil and other Indian languages. This entire enterprise had the immediate goal of textual access. Brooks then traveled to India in 1977 looking for the living traditions to grant him further ritual access to the historical material.

A brief note should be made regarding what exactly Brooks studies in South Asia. It is clear from the interview with Dan Gorman that Brooks has a great historical sense of the public perception of Indian culture. On the one hand, his cultural immersion – not just in the language but in the religion, as he himself would admit that he’s “gone native” – was just after the Hippie craze of the 1960s and early 1970s, when waves of mostly affluent whites flocked to India as subversion to American life. On the other hand, Brooks’ time in India was slightly before the yoga fitness boom of the 1980s and 1990s. The phenomenon of various gyms and studios co-opting the word “yoga” to mean generic postures and exercises was initially foreign to Brooks. “That is not my subject at all.”

I find the analogy of Taco Bell’s place in Mexican cuisine helpful when talking about the Western appropriation of Indian yoga. For years, Brooks has encountered students – in both the classroom and in his “weekend job” of leading spiritual retreats across the world – that are expecting the more popular version of yoga. That is, they come and ask for a “Chicken Quesarito” or request that you add Doritos and Cheetos into their food. Many figures have contributed to this cultural syncretism, including Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009), B.K.S. Iyengar (1918-2014), John Friend, Rodney Yee, and Francois Raoult. But, as Brooks is quick to say, “That world had nothing to do with my world.” “They’re in Pune doing asana yoga…when I was in Madurai studying Tantra and learning Sanskrit and speaking Tamil.”

The question then becomes: What type of yoga has Brooks been studying for all these years? Most of his books are about the intersections of various medieval traditions, i.e. the rise of esoteric yoga, Tantra practice, and the Goddess traditions. Yoga, for Brooks, refers to “the practical, esoteric methodologies of applied religion.” “The study of yoga is the study of India, as far as I can tell.” Yoga and Tantra took the ideas, values, and myths of the religiously encoded world of India and infused them in the ritual body.

And yet, this aspect of Brooks’ expertise doesn’t really manifest in his South Asian courses. He doesn’t lecture students on the complexities of Tantric liturgies nor does he really speak to the particulars of the material that was “unlocked” for him by his teacher (Gopala Aiyar Sundaramoorthy) and informants. You will likely find this side of Brooks when he is teaching his Rajanaka Yoga, the “weekend job” mentioned earlier. In my experience with him, I accredit this division to his unwavering dedication to the secular study of religion.

In his classroom, there is a clear divide between scholar and practitioner, between religious studies and religious practice. Obviously, he is an example of how those two worlds comingle. But he is also committed to further advancing the study of religion as a secular discipline – in the same way that one studies history, psychology, sociology, and the like.

Ultimately, I think his success is due to his charismatic persona and flexibility. He can be whatever you want him to be. As I’ve heard him say before: “I make my living talking faster than your write.” In regards to Rajanaka, I wonder about the people that express genuine spiritual interest in his teachings. For instance, I think of the documentary Kumaré (2012) where a lapsed Hindu (Vikram Gandhi, a New Jersey native) poses as a guru in Phoenix only to dupe his devotees and encourage them to reflect on their gullibility. Douglas Brooks is an honorable man. I wonder how he would recommend handling these students (of whatever age) that are clearly looking for some form of authenticity or even escape. How much does he turn into the spin of the Western romanticism of the East?

I mention this only in light of Brooks’ new scholarly project: a historical examination and ethnography of some of the holiest pilgrimages in India. But there is a larger component to this. Accompanying Brooks on this academic journey are common American folk genuinely interested in yoga and India. This provides Brooks with a great opportunity to employ Michael Burawoy’s “Extended Case Method” (1998), producing a reflexive model where the scholar documents precisely how the new cultural environment changes the foreigners (who presumably are seeking a rich spiritual experience) and how the foreigners change the cultural environment as well.

How would Indian locals respond to these visitors accompanying Brooks? How will the presence of these foreigners influence the pilgrimage experience of the locals? What liminal state does Brooks himself occupy during this process? As an Americanist, I certainly hope to see these dynamics fleshed out whenever the book is completed. But I also understand if this is not purely his project. In the end, I am happy to read anything that he produces and I look forward to his new venture.

References

Jonathan Z. Smith. On Teaching Religion. Ed. Christopher I. Lehrich. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Kumaré. Dir. Vikram Gandhi. Kino Lorber, Disposable, 2012.

Michael Burawoy. “The Extended Case Method.” Sociological Theory, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Mar., 1998), pp. 4-33.

Theoretical Veganism: Practicing Religious Studies without Religion

Aside from being an oxymoron, the thought of “meatless meatballs” can elicit strong reactions, whether of disgust, confusion, or hunger. Such products are capable of breeding suspicion, whether in regards to their taste, their origins, or their status as “food.” After all, what exactly is meatless meat? Although certainly contradictory in a sense, it has become code for a certain type of alternative or imitation product, which might be used for any of a number of reasons.

What does it mean for an imitation to be a “classic”?

What does it mean for an imitation to be a “classic”?

Of course, it is not just claims to being meat-free that are capable of raising suspicions. When I recently ordered a hamburger at a popular fast food chain, I found myself questioning, like many others before me, what exactly made up the “meat” I was being served. Although the contents of the patty of what I will call beef is presented as being fairly self-evident, often with labels such as “real beef,” “100% beef,” etc., there are plenty of questions worth asking about how that patty came into existence. What meat is used? What fillers are used? What were the cows being fed? What were their living conditions? Were they healthy? How was the meat handled? Whatever the answers, one thing is clear, the makeup of that burger reflects the interests of the corporation making a profit off of it. How can they save money on ingredients? How do they make the most profit? As with so many other things, it is important to know who benefits. That is perhaps why there have been so many rumors online about the supposed indiscretions of fast food corporations. Take for example the numerous articles and even an art project about McDonald’s hamburgers that show no signs of mold even years after purchase.

Although the corporations are not always guilty of the accusations made against them, the food industry nonetheless serves as a fascinating case study for understanding rhetoric and identification. What happens if we start applying this level of suspicion to the category of religion? Scholars have been doing this for years, although the results have been mixed. One such approach, deconstructing the concept of “religion,” has increasingly come into vogue in the study of religion in recent years, but the practical import of this approach is still hotly debated. After all, as the title of Kevin Schilbrack’s 2013 response to Timothy Fitzgerald asks pointedly, “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion,’ Then What?” If the word is really bound up with the values of the so-called West, and especially with Protestant values, if its meaning if ambiguous, varied, and dependent upon the interests of the person using the word, how then ought the scholar to proceed? Schilbrack’s answer is “critical realism,” which seeks balance between criticality towards how terminology is used and knowledge of pre- or non-linguistic realities. On this approach, the question is whether or not a definition of religion can be made that is useful for understanding those realities.  Rather than constructing a “working definition,” others, like Daniel Dubuisson, suggest alternative language that they see as less value laden, such as “cosmographic formations.”

At this point, enter Teemu Taira’s work. In studying Karhun kansa (People of the bear), a small, officially recognized, religious group in Finland, with about thirty members, Taira takes an interesting and seemingly useful approach: he does not define religion at all, nor does he use it as a descriptive category. Instead, he is interested in studying how other people are using the word “religion,” with Karhun kansa serving as just one case study within the varied contexts in which “religion” is used discursively. There are benefits and drawbacks to being classified as a religion, as Taira points out in regards to the ability to perform marriage ceremonies and to be afforded certain legal rights and protections. On the other hand, groups might also try and skirt around those definitions when it suits their social or political interests. What do we do as scholars when people want to call themselves spiritual but not religious, claim to be philosophy rather than religion, or when Christians say they have a relationship, not a religion? We could impose terminology on these people, but does this get us closer to some sort of reality?

Perhaps it is time to stop treating the word “religion” as a tool of the scholar and to start treating it as the very object of study. On this account, theoretical veganism would be the refusal to use either religion or religion by-products, which I would suggest are the terms used by scholars that are roughly synonymous with religion but supposedly free of the same trappings, such as Dubuisson’s “cosmographic formations.”

My own research focuses on discourses surrounding “science and religion,” where I also consider the word “religion” (and the word “science” for that matter) to be the thing worth investigating rather than a way of describing my subject matter. I care not at all for how these concepts relate, because once deconstructed, it is hard to find any sort of connection left to those non-discursive realities that are of interest to the critical realists. Instead, it seems to me to be worth asking the important and seemingly oft-repeated mantra, “Who benefits?”

If we throw out every word that can be deconstructed, we may end up with scarcely any language left to use. Furthermore, as Taira notes, scholars are not disinterested observers, since analyzing discourse is itself a discursive practice, making scholars part of the world they study, so there will never be an interest-free vocabulary. Nonetheless, if a word is not useful, it may be better to relegate it to the junk heap. When presenting research at a conference a couple years ago, a senior scholar asked me about the possibilities for a viable definition of religion. In responding, I was reminded of Pierre-Simon Laplace’s apocryphal response to Napoleon when asked about the place of God in his work, “I had no need of that hypothesis.”

References

Dubuisson, Daniel. 2003. The Western Construction of Religion: Myths, Knowledge, and Ideology. Trans. William Sayers. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Schilbrack, Kevin. 2013. “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion,’ Then What? A Case for Critical Realism.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 25: 107-112.

Making Space for the Better Book

A number of years ago I attended a keynote lecture during a national religious studies conference at which an esteemed professor declared in exasperated tones; “What Have They Done To My Buddhism?!” The tension in the room, rising during his overtly confessional presentation, reached a silent crescendo at this exclamation. Even I, as a (very) junior scholar of religion, could tell that this respected elder of the establishment had touched something of a nerve with many in attendance. This was an avowedly Academic Study of Religions conference, being put on by the relatively newly formed Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religion, which proclaims its non-confessional credentials proudly and upfront.

It was in this environment, studying for both my undergraduate degree in Religious Studies and History, and later a Masters in Politics, which I was introduced to Islamic Studies, within the Study of Religions department at University College Cork. I am glad to say that Aaron Hughes’ assessment of the current state of the discipline in the North American context was not my experience in Ireland. To a fairly large extent, it has not been my experience since moving across the small sea to pursue a PhD at the Chester Centre for Islamic Studies (CCIS), within a Theology and Religious Studies department, in the University of Chester.

I have sympathy with some of what Hughes has to say, both in this interview and in his most recently published book Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity: An Inquiry into Disciplinary Apologetics and Self-Deception. Despite this instinctive sympathy, I feel a level of discomfort with his argumentation. I’m left feeling much the same way I felt in that conference centre during the professor’s claim of offense at what was being done to ‘his Buddhism’. In both cases, an acknowledgement of limitations inherent in our singular perspectives is somewhat lacking. Thomas Tweed draws on Donna Haraway to argue that “self-conscious positioning, not pretenses to universality or detachment, is the condition for making knowledge claims” (Tweed, 2002, 257). While Hughes does go to lengths to explain the position from which he embarks on his academic career in the introduction to Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity, this self-reflection on the complexity of identity is not really carried through the work, nor is it evident in the interview under discussion. In both the interview, and in the most recent book, Hughes points to an issue of names which struck me as odd. In the interview, Hughes alludes to undergraduate students who contact him to thank him for ‘showing another way’ to approach the study of Islam. He assumes a Muslim identity for these students on account of their Muslim or Arabic sounding names. Again, in the book, names are mentioned when Hughes argues that we can assume Talal Asad has a “personal narrative grounded in postcolonial dislocation” (Hughes, 2015, 53), while theorists with names like Lincoln, Smith, McCutcheon, and we might infer Hughes, may be ‘safely ignored’ due to their names “and not for the force of their criticism” (Hughes, 2015, 53). I found myself thinking, are people surprised when I speak and they hear an Irish rather than German accent (my grandfather originated from Leipzig, bringing his German name with him)? Will my German surname impact on my academic career in anyway which I have not yet envisioned? Should I be focusing on more philosophical avenues to make better use of this name?

As a non-Muslim scholar, working on Islam within the discipline of Religious Studies, actively doing what I would consider (or strive to be) critical scholarship, I can also understand where Hughes is coming from in his concern for the privileging of certain ‘insider’ voices over others. I would have more sympathy if this view was expressed as discomfort with the elevation of specific insiders over others; both insiders who do not conform to a specific type, and outsiders with a more critical approach. It weighs on my mind, particularly when attending conferences with a more direct Islamic Studies slant and a high level of practitioner participation. Will my voice be heard in such a setting? If I raise a more critical point, will my position as a white male result in people in the room, either consciously or sub-consciously, downgrading the importance or value of what it is I have to say? I honestly do not think that this is the case. Attending events hosted by the Muslims in Britain Research Network – a group which actively encourages practitioner involvement in academic study – in recent years, I have never felt that my contribution has been devalued by my positionality. If it was the case that my contribution to any academic discussion was not as appreciated as I may like it to be, I could think of many more reasons for this being the case than my obvious affliction of being a white male, an argument Hughes appears happy to make (Hughes, 2015, 19). We must keep in mind that this discussion is not taking place in a vacuum. As Afroze Zaidi-Jivraj so eloquently argued in a recent piece for the online magazine Media Diversified, being a Muslim in 2016 is to be under constant media bombardment and societal suspicion. It is only right that we ‘white males’ should take time to question our assumptions and identities when engaging in a critical study of Islam(s) and/or Muslim peoples and societal structures.

Again, I can recognise, and sympathise, with some of Hughes arguments regarding the danger of confessional, non-critical scholarship pushing out critical scholars from the academy. If this danger truly does exist, I do not see it being lessened by recourse to an oppositional push back against, and attempting to exclude confessional voices from scholarship. When Hughes argues in the interview that taking a critical approach to our area of study may impact on the possibility of gaining tenured positions or opportunities for career advancement for young scholars, I cannot help but wonder if this also works in the opposite direction. By taking an individual’s theology seriously, does a scholar attempting to do critical work in some way jeopardise their own future career prospects? Will this short blog piece jeopardise my future chances in some American institutions? A real issue alluded to by a friend and colleague with whom I discussed the piece.

It is evident that Hughes is in agreement Russell McCutcheon’s argument that there is a problem of “theology being seen as an academically legitimate pursuit within the study of religion”. In Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity, this argument comes across in Hughes incredulity that a university press would publish what he considers to be “theology masquerading as scholarship” (Hughes, 2015, 66). But despite my own background in the non-confessional discipline of Religious Studies, I see much value in engaging seriously with scholars of Theology in academic discourse. If we wish to study Islam(s) seriously, be that through a study of early Islamic communities in Europe, converts to Islam in North America, or generational dynamics within transnational Shia networks, we must take seriously the religious understandings of the people who constitute those areas of life.

Much of the interview was taken up with a discussion of the recent controversy around the election of Vice President of the American Academy of Religion[1], and the publication by that same body of a bullet point code of ‘responsible research practices’. Hughes repeatedly remarks that this code is made up of little more than a collection of 25 cent words, with little to offer by way of substance and no real critical reflection. Reading through the document, one can perhaps see his point. It is a call to ‘do no harm’, essentially, an urging to be respectful of fellow academics and recognition that scholarship may be conducted “both from within and outside communities of belief and practice”[2]

A recent debate in print, between the renowned scholar of Islamic Studies Bruce Lawrence, and two academics who were in receipt of a highly critical review from him, provides an example of the danger which Hughes is speaking about as regards a single position dominating the academic space, through a monopolisation of review panels and interview boards. It also, I think provides an example of what the AAR may be referring to when urging scholars to “engage in critical and constructive debate”. In their response to Lawrence’s critique of their work, the academics explicitly call out the “’new orthodoxy’ in Islamic studies” (Mirsepassi and Fernee, 2015, 107), which they argue is particularly prevalent in “fashionable US academic circles” (Mirsepassi and Fernee, 2015, 107). I have not read the book concerned, so cannot comment on the validity of their claim, or the relative fairness of the offending review, but what is clear is that there exists in the United States at the very least a problem of perception; there is the perception that critical scholarship will not get a fair hearing, and there is a perception that theological or confessional scholarship is incapable of being fair. This is disastrous for academic work.

The big tent, which Hughes argues is unsustainable, should be made to hold. We are the ones who can hold it together. Like any large community, we will not always agree with one another, we may often actively and vehemently disagree, and this is healthy. In order to keep the conversation going, and perhaps more importantly, to keep things interesting and keep pushing our own thoughts to new places, we must be willing to engage with those we do not naturally agree with. While the AAR guidelines may be problematic in their broad brush approach, and they certainly lack the nuance we might expect from academic discussion, the intention of fostering civility should be appreciated. Without this holding together of the big tent, if we continue to faction and engage in increasingly partisan conversations, where will the ‘better book’ Hughes is calling for come from?

References

  • Hughes, Aaron (2015), Islamic Identities and the Tyranny of Authenticity: An Inquiry into Disciplinary Apologetics and Self-Deception, Equinox, Sheffield
  • Lawrence, Bruce B. (April, 2015), Tracking Iranian Cosmopolitan Options – At Home and Abroad: A Review Essay of Iranian Identity and Cosmopolitanism: Spheres of Belonging and Islam, Democracy, and Cosmopolitanism: At Home and in the World, SCTIW Review
  • Mirsepassi, Ali,&Fernee, Tadd (2015), ‘Defending the Current Academic Orthodoxy in Islamic Studies: A Response to Bruce Lawrence’, Sociology of Islam3 Issue 3-4, pp.107-124
  • Tweed, Thomas A. (2002), ‘On Moving Across: Translocative Religion and the Interpreter’s Position’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion Vol.70 No.2, pp.253-277

[1] essentially President elect due to the way that system works

[2] http://rsn.aarweb.org/responsible-research-practices-statement-standards-professional-conduct-aar-members

In Praise of Polyvocality

A few weeks back, I found myself engaged in a one-sided debate with a colleague/friend over the use of the term ‘non-religion.’ As it was at the end of a two-day conference, it was one of those casual conversations wherein certain sophisticated aspects of the preceding academic discourse spill over into the informality of a chat over drinks.

In other words: like many a conversation amongst academically-minded friends, the casual simplicity of our conversation was periodically peppered with intellectual debate.

This is partly why I refer here to our argument as being rather one-sided, though of course it would be both unfair and erroneous of me to remove myself entirely of any responsibility. After all, I am something of an antagonist [editor’s note: …to say the least]. Then again, I’m also the one telling the story here, so I can shape it any way I wish. Something to consider the next time you read an ethnography.

Nevertheless, from my perspective, our discussion felt ‘one-sided’ because it consisted mostly of my friend emphatically and excitedly arguing (perhaps with himself?) against what he perceived was my own emphatic and excited argument that the term ‘non-religion’ has been reified by those who use it for their own cynical gains. While I would, of course, agree that it has definitely become reified (what term hasn’t?), I could not help but think the argument he was putting forth was veering into a discussion beyond simple term usage. Which, in the end, is partly why I requested to offer this response to Chris Cotter’s interview with Johannes Quack.

The other reason for my request is that while I have, for the last five years, been a rather vocal advocate against the term ‘non-religion’ (for a number of reasons that aren’t exactly pertinent to this particular story), I have also, as I assured my friend, come to believe that the term, and its many cognates, shouldn’t be wholly abandoned. That is, just because it doesn’t work for me, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work for someone else.

Which, if we really think about it, is the essence of academic discourse.

This simple argument here will be the focus of this response, the thesis around which I will be using Quack’s approach to non-religion in an Indian context, to not only point out the benefits of differing theoretical and methodological views, but to also make the larger anthropological argument that this discourse about terminology provides a pragmatically curious solution.

I call this thesis: in praise of polyvocality.

At the recent XXIst Quinquennial Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions at the University of Erfurt, I had the esteemed pleasure of having Professor Johannes Quack moderate the panel on which I was presenting: “Current Perspectives on Atheism.” Beyond his intriguing, and rather groundbreaking, research on rationalism in India, Professor Quack is perhaps the ideal individual on which to support my thesis.

During the question-answer section of the panel, which also included a very interesting presentation by Ingela Visuri[1] on the correlation between autism and Atheism, there began an interesting diminutive debate between Johannes and I over our different term usages. Where this might have, as it has in the past, veered into a discussion between contesting advocates with no real solution provided in the end, it in fact proved extremely advantageous, and not just for the benefit of the audience. At one point, when asked if there was a strict difference between his use of non-religion and my use of the term Atheism, and in particular if the former was merely a more broad or essentialist version of the latter, Johannes kindly responded with a similar answer to the one he gives in his RSP interview about his use of the term rationalist: from a straightforward anthropological perspective, because the individuals being studied identify themselves using a particular term, it would be unfair to impose a different one on them other than the one they use. While this permission to allow one’s subjects to speak for themselves, of course, makes the discussion about term usage even more difficult (especially as subjects tend not to agree on terminology), it also offered a useful insight into the pragmatism of using such different terms, as well as an argument against assigning a general one under which they might be categorized.

This also returns my discussion to the issue of reification. Perhaps my greatest argument against ‘non-religion’ has been based on the notion that it stands as a relational umbrella: in the discourse on the academic study of religion, the study of the non-religious represents research being done not so much on the ‘opposite,’ but on the relational periphery. This is something that Chris and Johannes discuss toward the end of their interview. While this might prove useful in the sense that it places the discourse of the study of the non-religious within the larger context of the study of religion, I would argue it also, perhaps by accident, reifies the term in the same way that ‘religion’ has become an umbrella over which we categorize all aspects of being or acting religious. In the end, then, it adopts, from its relationship to ‘religion’, all the issues and ambiguous difficulties we’ve had with that term over the last century or so. This, to me, is less a solution to the problem, than a contribution to it. When we add this to the adolescent growing pains of the study of Atheism, ir-religion, un-belief, non-religion, etc., the result is a rather stunted upbringing. Though I digress.

So, then, to move, here, from the critical to the promotional, in Johannes’ answer, as well as via his discussion with Chris about the differences between group and individual identities at the end of their interview, I believe there is a solution to be found: I would argue that a remedy for term reification, be it Atheism, non-religion, religion, or anything relationally similar, and thus a remedy for the terminological issues we may face as researchers, is found within the straightforward anthropological approach which he advocated for in our panel, only turned around in a reflective manner. That is, where we seek out and promote the pragmatic objectivity in permitting each of our subjects to define themselves in their own terms, there is an equal pragmatism in introspectively allowing ourselves to do the same with our own language. While this approach might develop a rather vast terminological discourse, it also breeds a sense of diversity, which, through an anthropological lens, is more beneficial than it is detrimental to our conclusions.

In fact, when we take a further step back, and view the academic discourse itself as an anthropological subject, these terminological differences become their own types of individual identities. In this way, our debates over terminology become differing voices all contributing to a discourse that together comes to represent a cultural whole. Thus, our differences of opinion become less problematic, and more representative, a polyvocality that together create a group identity filled with different individual ones. Then, and just like we would with our subjects, viewing this discourse objectively fosters a much more nuanced insight into this culture than, say, an argument that one subject embodies his or her culture more than another.

In the end, then, I believe the polyvocality of our discourse is indeed a benefit, particularly because we aren’t all talking about the same thing. Our disagreements and debating and arguing over the proper term usage contributes more and more to the discourse upon which our identity, as an academic endeavor, is formed. Thus, while we might quarrel amongst each other over whether or not our terminology is correct, or whether it better represents our subjects, as subjects ourselves, these discussions are in their own way leading toward a process of identification, and thus a sense of academic congruity. From this third level, then, looking down at ourselves as we look down on our subjects, each layer embodying a unique cultural character, we can better make sense of what it is that we’re studying, as we study it. To do otherwise, to me, seems a bit too much like a one-sided debate.

Suggested Reading

Johannes Quack, Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Johannes Quack and Jacob Copeman, “’Godless People’ and Dead Bodies: Materiality and the Morality of Atheist Materialism,“ Social Analysis, Vol. 59, Iss. 2, 2015.

http://www.nonreligion.net/?page_id=35

http://nsrn.net

http://www.everythingisfiction.org/

Lois Lee, Recognizing the Non-Religious: Reimagining the Secular (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Ethan G. Quillen, “Discourse Analysis and the Definition of Atheism,” Science, Religion, and Culture, Vol. 2, Iss. 3, 2015.

[1] https://hig-se.academia.edu/IngelaVisuri

Learning to Unlearn “Religion”: Jason Ānanda Josephson on the Invention of Religion in Japan

One of the first Religious Studies courses in which I enrolled was titled “Japanese Religion.” There were several themes running through the course, but the one that stuck with me as the most important was something the professor asked during the first meeting of the class:

The course is called “Japanese Religion”; over the semester, think about that phrase – would it be better to say “Japanese Religions”? How about “religions of Japan”? Or, is “religion” the best word to use to describe the Japanese traditions we’re studying?1

The implications of the latter question are considered by Jason Ānanda Josephson, scholar of East Asian religions and religious studies theory, in this informative interview with the Religious Studies Project. Josephson and interviewer Brad Stoddard explore how the concept of “religion” was translated, discussed, and applied in 19th Century Japan.

Josephson’s book, The Invention of Religion in Japan (University of Chicago Press, 2012), forms the backbone of the conversation. Josephson explains that he has always had an interest in East Asian religion, as well as the theory of religion and religious studies, and in his doctoral research he put those pieces together. The result is a book that critiques the category of religion using the Japanese situation as a case study. Josephson relates how, in post-1853 Japan, there was a significant discussion taking place among the Japanese elite about what the European idea of “religion” meant, how it fit (or didn’t) with existing traditions in Japan, and also, how the concept of the “secular” applied to Japanese society at the time. Josephson’s primary case study involves Shinto, rather than Buddhism, although Josephson hopes to explore Buddhist traditions in Japan in a future work.

Josephson’s critique of the category “religion” as it relates to Japan is part of an on-going discussion among scholars as to the accuracy, relevance, and necessity of that concept. (Scholars such as Timothy Fitzgerald, Russell T. McCutcheon, Talal Asad, and Tomoku Masuzawa are mentioned in the interview as key figures participating in this critique.) While I would not describe myself as a theorist primarily, or consider my main interest to be theories of religion, I have come to realize that questions about the nature of “religion,” what scholars mean when they write about “religion,” and the categorization of “religious” traditions cannot be overlooked and must be grappled with prior to studying a “religious” tradition.

When I was a student in the Japanese Religion course, I had not yet been introduced in a meaningful way to the critiques of the concept of “religion.” What seemed problematic to my novice eyes was the disjunction between the different implications of the phrases “religion in Japan,” “Japanese religion,” and/or “Japanese religions.” By the end of the course, I decided that the least problematic way to think about the topic was as “religions in Japan.” This didn’t tackle the truly important piece – namely, the category of “religion” – but it did seem to be more neutral and inclusive than any of the other phrases. In my graduate work, these questions of naming and labeling recurred – my interests centered around one of the Buddhisms in Japan, not the monolithic idea of “Japanese Buddhism.” The latter implies that there is one Buddhism that can be described as Japanese. I can think of (at least) two traditions of Buddhism that flourished and took on a “Japanese” approach over time, as well as several of the New/Emergent Religious Movements which originated in Japan and claim a Buddhist lineage. Ultimately, the use of terms like “Buddhism” and “religion” in the singular seem to be neither specific nor descriptive enough to capture the richness and diversity of the actual world. Josephson’s perspective adds that necessary final dimension to anyone studying “religion” in Japan: since it is both an imported and manufactured category, can it be used reliably by scholars to discuss Japanese traditions?

In the interview, Josephson mentions in passing that the title of his work (The Invention of Religion in Japan) could have just as easily been either The Invention of Superstition in Japan or The Invention of Secularism in Japan. I find this a particularly fascinating comment, as those three words – religion, superstition, secularism – each have a distinct implication. However, as Josephson demonstrates throughout the interview, Japanese society had to come to terms with those three ideas as a package. Was Shinto a religion or superstition? What about Buddhism? Is Japan a secular nation? Is Japan a modern nation? Since one could not be both “modern” and “superstitious,” that meant that Shinto could not be a superstition if Japan wished to take its “place” among the nations of the modern world. However, Josephson also points out that while colonialism often imposed categories upon a colonized people, that was not entirely the case in Japan. Japanese scholars involved in the (literal and cultural) translation of the concepts of religion, superstition, and secularism investigated what these terms meant to Europeans and then negotiated the idea within Japanese society, demonstrating a degree of agency not often seen during interactions between Western and Asian societies in the 19th century.

Not only am I eager to read The Invention of Religion in Japan, but I am also looking forward to Josephson’s next project, discussed at the end of the interview. The project is currently titled “Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences”; Josephson describes this as a project to analyze European society, specifically those parts of Europe that did not match up to the claims of modernity made by European scholars. Josephson’s novel approach analyzes these claims of modernity – and the disjunction between scholarly claims and reality – through the lens of postcolonial theory, using the world outside of Europe to analyze Europe.

 

1 Or at least, that’s my recollection of the instructor’s remarks! I am paraphrasing, not quoting directly.

 

References

Asad, Talal. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

Ellwood, Robert S. Introducing Japanese Religion. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Fitzgerald, Timothy. The Ideology of Religious Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Josephson, Jason Ānanda. The Invention of Religion in Japan. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Masuzawa, Tomoku. The Invention of World Religions: or, How European Universalism was

Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

McCutcheon, Russell T. [See Dr. McCutcheon’s website for a list of his work]

Tanabe, George J. (ed). Religions Of Japan in Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

The Critical Study of Religion

In this interview, Professor Bruce Lincoln from the University of Chicago Divinity School discusses a variety of topics including werewolves, critical theory, pedagogy, and his self-imposed estrangement from the academic study of religion. Dr. Lincoln is a well-known and influential scholar of religion who completed his doctorate from the University of Chicago where he studied with Mircea Eliade. He then taught for many years at the University of Minnesota before he returned to the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, where he is the Caroline E. Haskell Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions. According to his biography on the University of Chicago’s website, “His research tends to focus on the religions of pre-Christian Europe and pre-Islamic Iran, but he has a notoriously short attention span and has also written on a bewildering variety of topics, including Guatemalan curanderismo, Lakota sun dances, Melanesian funerary rituals, Swazi kingship, the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre, Marco Polo, professional wrestling, Persian imperialism, the theology of George W. Bush, and comparative demonology.” What underlying theme or methodology holds together this diverse body of work?

As Dr. Lincoln discusses in this interview, he is interested in the constructed nature of society. “I think society is a project,” he said, “rather than an entity that exists by nature.” From this foundation, Lincoln isolates a variety of specific instances in multiple places and times where people appeal to religious discourse to legitimate their local interests. Religion, for Lincoln, is a thoroughly human phenomenon. To demonstrate this, it requires the type of critically-informed analysis that Lincoln seldom finds in the academic study of religion.

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Teaching Religion: A Response to Douglas Brooks

Douglas Brooks is the reason I became a religion major. This is strange to say given that he never even told me to do it.

When Brooks speaks of religion, it is as a sort of super-category capable of absorbing (or manipulating) other cultural entities for its own purposes. Religion intersects with history, philosophy, political science, art, music, linguistics, and so on. The converse is also true, as any of the subjects listed can include religion as a supplement. But viewing religion as the “Department of the Humanities” has clearly influenced Brooks’ teaching philosophy (and even my own). In fact, one of his more recent innovations at the University of Rochester was to teach a class built around a reading list that the average undergrad “should” have read in college…but likely did not.

I emphasize “should” because the class is not built around a key figure or text. It is not working towards any big idea, in particular. For example, I took a philosophy class at Rochester on mathematical logic where the goal was to lay the groundwork for tackling Gödel’s incompleteness theorems at the end of the semester. Brooks’ course, which he calls “Advice and Dissent,” is much more amorphous. What matters is conversation. I’ve heard him reveal as much even when he spoke about his “Theories of Religion” seminar. “There are two types of students on this campus: those who have taken ‘Theories’ and those who haven’t.”

The readings assigned in Brooks’ ultimate humanities course are all interchangeable. The course’s broad scope is probably best summarized as Indo-European in context and even that is not entirely accurate. I really see this course as a microcosm of how Brooks views his place in academia. In line with J.Z. Smith (see On Teaching Religion, 2013), Brooks views his position as integral to cultivating a deeper appreciation for the humanities, especially at a research institution like Rochester. In many ways, he is a classical philologist preserving our connections to the past. While he does engage the political conditions that have shaped society, at the undergraduate level, he is more concerned with exposing his students to new ways of thinking.

This teaching philosophy then continues into his South Asian material. His courses are not designed around ethnography, although they certainly could be. Instead, Brooks isolates complex concepts, values, and myths that are vital to classical Indian philosophy. The same applies to his East Asian courses; they are designed to enrich his students’ conceptions of the world around them.

This engagement with the literature is actually how Brooks first became interested in India. He took an introductory course on Hinduism and Buddhism (at Middlebury College) and got hooked after reading the Upanishads. At eighteen, captivated by the beauty, insight, and cultural complexity of the text, he committed himself to learning Sanskrit – which later evolved into learning Tamil and other Indian languages. This entire enterprise had the immediate goal of textual access. Brooks then traveled to India in 1977 looking for the living traditions to grant him further ritual access to the historical material.

A brief note should be made regarding what exactly Brooks studies in South Asia. It is clear from the interview with Dan Gorman that Brooks has a great historical sense of the public perception of Indian culture. On the one hand, his cultural immersion – not just in the language but in the religion, as he himself would admit that he’s “gone native” – was just after the Hippie craze of the 1960s and early 1970s, when waves of mostly affluent whites flocked to India as subversion to American life. On the other hand, Brooks’ time in India was slightly before the yoga fitness boom of the 1980s and 1990s. The phenomenon of various gyms and studios co-opting the word “yoga” to mean generic postures and exercises was initially foreign to Brooks. “That is not my subject at all.”

I find the analogy of Taco Bell’s place in Mexican cuisine helpful when talking about the Western appropriation of Indian yoga. For years, Brooks has encountered students – in both the classroom and in his “weekend job” of leading spiritual retreats across the world – that are expecting the more popular version of yoga. That is, they come and ask for a “Chicken Quesarito” or request that you add Doritos and Cheetos into their food. Many figures have contributed to this cultural syncretism, including Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009), B.K.S. Iyengar (1918-2014), John Friend, Rodney Yee, and Francois Raoult. But, as Brooks is quick to say, “That world had nothing to do with my world.” “They’re in Pune doing asana yoga…when I was in Madurai studying Tantra and learning Sanskrit and speaking Tamil.”

The question then becomes: What type of yoga has Brooks been studying for all these years? Most of his books are about the intersections of various medieval traditions, i.e. the rise of esoteric yoga, Tantra practice, and the Goddess traditions. Yoga, for Brooks, refers to “the practical, esoteric methodologies of applied religion.” “The study of yoga is the study of India, as far as I can tell.” Yoga and Tantra took the ideas, values, and myths of the religiously encoded world of India and infused them in the ritual body.

And yet, this aspect of Brooks’ expertise doesn’t really manifest in his South Asian courses. He doesn’t lecture students on the complexities of Tantric liturgies nor does he really speak to the particulars of the material that was “unlocked” for him by his teacher (Gopala Aiyar Sundaramoorthy) and informants. You will likely find this side of Brooks when he is teaching his Rajanaka Yoga, the “weekend job” mentioned earlier. In my experience with him, I accredit this division to his unwavering dedication to the secular study of religion.

In his classroom, there is a clear divide between scholar and practitioner, between religious studies and religious practice. Obviously, he is an example of how those two worlds comingle. But he is also committed to further advancing the study of religion as a secular discipline – in the same way that one studies history, psychology, sociology, and the like.

Ultimately, I think his success is due to his charismatic persona and flexibility. He can be whatever you want him to be. As I’ve heard him say before: “I make my living talking faster than your write.” In regards to Rajanaka, I wonder about the people that express genuine spiritual interest in his teachings. For instance, I think of the documentary Kumaré (2012) where a lapsed Hindu (Vikram Gandhi, a New Jersey native) poses as a guru in Phoenix only to dupe his devotees and encourage them to reflect on their gullibility. Douglas Brooks is an honorable man. I wonder how he would recommend handling these students (of whatever age) that are clearly looking for some form of authenticity or even escape. How much does he turn into the spin of the Western romanticism of the East?

I mention this only in light of Brooks’ new scholarly project: a historical examination and ethnography of some of the holiest pilgrimages in India. But there is a larger component to this. Accompanying Brooks on this academic journey are common American folk genuinely interested in yoga and India. This provides Brooks with a great opportunity to employ Michael Burawoy’s “Extended Case Method” (1998), producing a reflexive model where the scholar documents precisely how the new cultural environment changes the foreigners (who presumably are seeking a rich spiritual experience) and how the foreigners change the cultural environment as well.

How would Indian locals respond to these visitors accompanying Brooks? How will the presence of these foreigners influence the pilgrimage experience of the locals? What liminal state does Brooks himself occupy during this process? As an Americanist, I certainly hope to see these dynamics fleshed out whenever the book is completed. But I also understand if this is not purely his project. In the end, I am happy to read anything that he produces and I look forward to his new venture.

References

Jonathan Z. Smith. On Teaching Religion. Ed. Christopher I. Lehrich. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Kumaré. Dir. Vikram Gandhi. Kino Lorber, Disposable, 2012.

Michael Burawoy. “The Extended Case Method.” Sociological Theory, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Mar., 1998), pp. 4-33.

Theoretical Veganism: Practicing Religious Studies without Religion

Aside from being an oxymoron, the thought of “meatless meatballs” can elicit strong reactions, whether of disgust, confusion, or hunger. Such products are capable of breeding suspicion, whether in regards to their taste, their origins, or their status as “food.” After all, what exactly is meatless meat? Although certainly contradictory in a sense, it has become code for a certain type of alternative or imitation product, which might be used for any of a number of reasons.

What does it mean for an imitation to be a “classic”?

What does it mean for an imitation to be a “classic”?

Of course, it is not just claims to being meat-free that are capable of raising suspicions. When I recently ordered a hamburger at a popular fast food chain, I found myself questioning, like many others before me, what exactly made up the “meat” I was being served. Although the contents of the patty of what I will call beef is presented as being fairly self-evident, often with labels such as “real beef,” “100% beef,” etc., there are plenty of questions worth asking about how that patty came into existence. What meat is used? What fillers are used? What were the cows being fed? What were their living conditions? Were they healthy? How was the meat handled? Whatever the answers, one thing is clear, the makeup of that burger reflects the interests of the corporation making a profit off of it. How can they save money on ingredients? How do they make the most profit? As with so many other things, it is important to know who benefits. That is perhaps why there have been so many rumors online about the supposed indiscretions of fast food corporations. Take for example the numerous articles and even an art project about McDonald’s hamburgers that show no signs of mold even years after purchase.

Although the corporations are not always guilty of the accusations made against them, the food industry nonetheless serves as a fascinating case study for understanding rhetoric and identification. What happens if we start applying this level of suspicion to the category of religion? Scholars have been doing this for years, although the results have been mixed. One such approach, deconstructing the concept of “religion,” has increasingly come into vogue in the study of religion in recent years, but the practical import of this approach is still hotly debated. After all, as the title of Kevin Schilbrack’s 2013 response to Timothy Fitzgerald asks pointedly, “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion,’ Then What?” If the word is really bound up with the values of the so-called West, and especially with Protestant values, if its meaning if ambiguous, varied, and dependent upon the interests of the person using the word, how then ought the scholar to proceed? Schilbrack’s answer is “critical realism,” which seeks balance between criticality towards how terminology is used and knowledge of pre- or non-linguistic realities. On this approach, the question is whether or not a definition of religion can be made that is useful for understanding those realities.  Rather than constructing a “working definition,” others, like Daniel Dubuisson, suggest alternative language that they see as less value laden, such as “cosmographic formations.”

At this point, enter Teemu Taira’s work. In studying Karhun kansa (People of the bear), a small, officially recognized, religious group in Finland, with about thirty members, Taira takes an interesting and seemingly useful approach: he does not define religion at all, nor does he use it as a descriptive category. Instead, he is interested in studying how other people are using the word “religion,” with Karhun kansa serving as just one case study within the varied contexts in which “religion” is used discursively. There are benefits and drawbacks to being classified as a religion, as Taira points out in regards to the ability to perform marriage ceremonies and to be afforded certain legal rights and protections. On the other hand, groups might also try and skirt around those definitions when it suits their social or political interests. What do we do as scholars when people want to call themselves spiritual but not religious, claim to be philosophy rather than religion, or when Christians say they have a relationship, not a religion? We could impose terminology on these people, but does this get us closer to some sort of reality?

Perhaps it is time to stop treating the word “religion” as a tool of the scholar and to start treating it as the very object of study. On this account, theoretical veganism would be the refusal to use either religion or religion by-products, which I would suggest are the terms used by scholars that are roughly synonymous with religion but supposedly free of the same trappings, such as Dubuisson’s “cosmographic formations.”

My own research focuses on discourses surrounding “science and religion,” where I also consider the word “religion” (and the word “science” for that matter) to be the thing worth investigating rather than a way of describing my subject matter. I care not at all for how these concepts relate, because once deconstructed, it is hard to find any sort of connection left to those non-discursive realities that are of interest to the critical realists. Instead, it seems to me to be worth asking the important and seemingly oft-repeated mantra, “Who benefits?”

If we throw out every word that can be deconstructed, we may end up with scarcely any language left to use. Furthermore, as Taira notes, scholars are not disinterested observers, since analyzing discourse is itself a discursive practice, making scholars part of the world they study, so there will never be an interest-free vocabulary. Nonetheless, if a word is not useful, it may be better to relegate it to the junk heap. When presenting research at a conference a couple years ago, a senior scholar asked me about the possibilities for a viable definition of religion. In responding, I was reminded of Pierre-Simon Laplace’s apocryphal response to Napoleon when asked about the place of God in his work, “I had no need of that hypothesis.”

References

Dubuisson, Daniel. 2003. The Western Construction of Religion: Myths, Knowledge, and Ideology. Trans. William Sayers. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Schilbrack, Kevin. 2013. “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion,’ Then What? A Case for Critical Realism.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 25: 107-112.

Making Space for the Better Book

A number of years ago I attended a keynote lecture during a national religious studies conference at which an esteemed professor declared in exasperated tones; “What Have They Done To My Buddhism?!” The tension in the room, rising during his overtly confessional presentation, reached a silent crescendo at this exclamation. Even I, as a (very) junior scholar of religion, could tell that this respected elder of the establishment had touched something of a nerve with many in attendance. This was an avowedly Academic Study of Religions conference, being put on by the relatively newly formed Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religion, which proclaims its non-confessional credentials proudly and upfront.

It was in this environment, studying for both my undergraduate degree in Religious Studies and History, and later a Masters in Politics, which I was introduced to Islamic Studies, within the Study of Religions department at University College Cork. I am glad to say that Aaron Hughes’ assessment of the current state of the discipline in the North American context was not my experience in Ireland. To a fairly large extent, it has not been my experience since moving across the small sea to pursue a PhD at the Chester Centre for Islamic Studies (CCIS), within a Theology and Religious Studies department, in the University of Chester.

I have sympathy with some of what Hughes has to say, both in this interview and in his most recently published book Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity: An Inquiry into Disciplinary Apologetics and Self-Deception. Despite this instinctive sympathy, I feel a level of discomfort with his argumentation. I’m left feeling much the same way I felt in that conference centre during the professor’s claim of offense at what was being done to ‘his Buddhism’. In both cases, an acknowledgement of limitations inherent in our singular perspectives is somewhat lacking. Thomas Tweed draws on Donna Haraway to argue that “self-conscious positioning, not pretenses to universality or detachment, is the condition for making knowledge claims” (Tweed, 2002, 257). While Hughes does go to lengths to explain the position from which he embarks on his academic career in the introduction to Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity, this self-reflection on the complexity of identity is not really carried through the work, nor is it evident in the interview under discussion. In both the interview, and in the most recent book, Hughes points to an issue of names which struck me as odd. In the interview, Hughes alludes to undergraduate students who contact him to thank him for ‘showing another way’ to approach the study of Islam. He assumes a Muslim identity for these students on account of their Muslim or Arabic sounding names. Again, in the book, names are mentioned when Hughes argues that we can assume Talal Asad has a “personal narrative grounded in postcolonial dislocation” (Hughes, 2015, 53), while theorists with names like Lincoln, Smith, McCutcheon, and we might infer Hughes, may be ‘safely ignored’ due to their names “and not for the force of their criticism” (Hughes, 2015, 53). I found myself thinking, are people surprised when I speak and they hear an Irish rather than German accent (my grandfather originated from Leipzig, bringing his German name with him)? Will my German surname impact on my academic career in anyway which I have not yet envisioned? Should I be focusing on more philosophical avenues to make better use of this name?

As a non-Muslim scholar, working on Islam within the discipline of Religious Studies, actively doing what I would consider (or strive to be) critical scholarship, I can also understand where Hughes is coming from in his concern for the privileging of certain ‘insider’ voices over others. I would have more sympathy if this view was expressed as discomfort with the elevation of specific insiders over others; both insiders who do not conform to a specific type, and outsiders with a more critical approach. It weighs on my mind, particularly when attending conferences with a more direct Islamic Studies slant and a high level of practitioner participation. Will my voice be heard in such a setting? If I raise a more critical point, will my position as a white male result in people in the room, either consciously or sub-consciously, downgrading the importance or value of what it is I have to say? I honestly do not think that this is the case. Attending events hosted by the Muslims in Britain Research Network – a group which actively encourages practitioner involvement in academic study – in recent years, I have never felt that my contribution has been devalued by my positionality. If it was the case that my contribution to any academic discussion was not as appreciated as I may like it to be, I could think of many more reasons for this being the case than my obvious affliction of being a white male, an argument Hughes appears happy to make (Hughes, 2015, 19). We must keep in mind that this discussion is not taking place in a vacuum. As Afroze Zaidi-Jivraj so eloquently argued in a recent piece for the online magazine Media Diversified, being a Muslim in 2016 is to be under constant media bombardment and societal suspicion. It is only right that we ‘white males’ should take time to question our assumptions and identities when engaging in a critical study of Islam(s) and/or Muslim peoples and societal structures.

Again, I can recognise, and sympathise, with some of Hughes arguments regarding the danger of confessional, non-critical scholarship pushing out critical scholars from the academy. If this danger truly does exist, I do not see it being lessened by recourse to an oppositional push back against, and attempting to exclude confessional voices from scholarship. When Hughes argues in the interview that taking a critical approach to our area of study may impact on the possibility of gaining tenured positions or opportunities for career advancement for young scholars, I cannot help but wonder if this also works in the opposite direction. By taking an individual’s theology seriously, does a scholar attempting to do critical work in some way jeopardise their own future career prospects? Will this short blog piece jeopardise my future chances in some American institutions? A real issue alluded to by a friend and colleague with whom I discussed the piece.

It is evident that Hughes is in agreement Russell McCutcheon’s argument that there is a problem of “theology being seen as an academically legitimate pursuit within the study of religion”. In Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity, this argument comes across in Hughes incredulity that a university press would publish what he considers to be “theology masquerading as scholarship” (Hughes, 2015, 66). But despite my own background in the non-confessional discipline of Religious Studies, I see much value in engaging seriously with scholars of Theology in academic discourse. If we wish to study Islam(s) seriously, be that through a study of early Islamic communities in Europe, converts to Islam in North America, or generational dynamics within transnational Shia networks, we must take seriously the religious understandings of the people who constitute those areas of life.

Much of the interview was taken up with a discussion of the recent controversy around the election of Vice President of the American Academy of Religion[1], and the publication by that same body of a bullet point code of ‘responsible research practices’. Hughes repeatedly remarks that this code is made up of little more than a collection of 25 cent words, with little to offer by way of substance and no real critical reflection. Reading through the document, one can perhaps see his point. It is a call to ‘do no harm’, essentially, an urging to be respectful of fellow academics and recognition that scholarship may be conducted “both from within and outside communities of belief and practice”[2]

A recent debate in print, between the renowned scholar of Islamic Studies Bruce Lawrence, and two academics who were in receipt of a highly critical review from him, provides an example of the danger which Hughes is speaking about as regards a single position dominating the academic space, through a monopolisation of review panels and interview boards. It also, I think provides an example of what the AAR may be referring to when urging scholars to “engage in critical and constructive debate”. In their response to Lawrence’s critique of their work, the academics explicitly call out the “’new orthodoxy’ in Islamic studies” (Mirsepassi and Fernee, 2015, 107), which they argue is particularly prevalent in “fashionable US academic circles” (Mirsepassi and Fernee, 2015, 107). I have not read the book concerned, so cannot comment on the validity of their claim, or the relative fairness of the offending review, but what is clear is that there exists in the United States at the very least a problem of perception; there is the perception that critical scholarship will not get a fair hearing, and there is a perception that theological or confessional scholarship is incapable of being fair. This is disastrous for academic work.

The big tent, which Hughes argues is unsustainable, should be made to hold. We are the ones who can hold it together. Like any large community, we will not always agree with one another, we may often actively and vehemently disagree, and this is healthy. In order to keep the conversation going, and perhaps more importantly, to keep things interesting and keep pushing our own thoughts to new places, we must be willing to engage with those we do not naturally agree with. While the AAR guidelines may be problematic in their broad brush approach, and they certainly lack the nuance we might expect from academic discussion, the intention of fostering civility should be appreciated. Without this holding together of the big tent, if we continue to faction and engage in increasingly partisan conversations, where will the ‘better book’ Hughes is calling for come from?

References

  • Hughes, Aaron (2015), Islamic Identities and the Tyranny of Authenticity: An Inquiry into Disciplinary Apologetics and Self-Deception, Equinox, Sheffield
  • Lawrence, Bruce B. (April, 2015), Tracking Iranian Cosmopolitan Options – At Home and Abroad: A Review Essay of Iranian Identity and Cosmopolitanism: Spheres of Belonging and Islam, Democracy, and Cosmopolitanism: At Home and in the World, SCTIW Review
  • Mirsepassi, Ali,&Fernee, Tadd (2015), ‘Defending the Current Academic Orthodoxy in Islamic Studies: A Response to Bruce Lawrence’, Sociology of Islam3 Issue 3-4, pp.107-124
  • Tweed, Thomas A. (2002), ‘On Moving Across: Translocative Religion and the Interpreter’s Position’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion Vol.70 No.2, pp.253-277

[1] essentially President elect due to the way that system works

[2] http://rsn.aarweb.org/responsible-research-practices-statement-standards-professional-conduct-aar-members

In Praise of Polyvocality

A few weeks back, I found myself engaged in a one-sided debate with a colleague/friend over the use of the term ‘non-religion.’ As it was at the end of a two-day conference, it was one of those casual conversations wherein certain sophisticated aspects of the preceding academic discourse spill over into the informality of a chat over drinks.

In other words: like many a conversation amongst academically-minded friends, the casual simplicity of our conversation was periodically peppered with intellectual debate.

This is partly why I refer here to our argument as being rather one-sided, though of course it would be both unfair and erroneous of me to remove myself entirely of any responsibility. After all, I am something of an antagonist [editor’s note: …to say the least]. Then again, I’m also the one telling the story here, so I can shape it any way I wish. Something to consider the next time you read an ethnography.

Nevertheless, from my perspective, our discussion felt ‘one-sided’ because it consisted mostly of my friend emphatically and excitedly arguing (perhaps with himself?) against what he perceived was my own emphatic and excited argument that the term ‘non-religion’ has been reified by those who use it for their own cynical gains. While I would, of course, agree that it has definitely become reified (what term hasn’t?), I could not help but think the argument he was putting forth was veering into a discussion beyond simple term usage. Which, in the end, is partly why I requested to offer this response to Chris Cotter’s interview with Johannes Quack.

The other reason for my request is that while I have, for the last five years, been a rather vocal advocate against the term ‘non-religion’ (for a number of reasons that aren’t exactly pertinent to this particular story), I have also, as I assured my friend, come to believe that the term, and its many cognates, shouldn’t be wholly abandoned. That is, just because it doesn’t work for me, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work for someone else.

Which, if we really think about it, is the essence of academic discourse.

This simple argument here will be the focus of this response, the thesis around which I will be using Quack’s approach to non-religion in an Indian context, to not only point out the benefits of differing theoretical and methodological views, but to also make the larger anthropological argument that this discourse about terminology provides a pragmatically curious solution.

I call this thesis: in praise of polyvocality.

At the recent XXIst Quinquennial Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions at the University of Erfurt, I had the esteemed pleasure of having Professor Johannes Quack moderate the panel on which I was presenting: “Current Perspectives on Atheism.” Beyond his intriguing, and rather groundbreaking, research on rationalism in India, Professor Quack is perhaps the ideal individual on which to support my thesis.

During the question-answer section of the panel, which also included a very interesting presentation by Ingela Visuri[1] on the correlation between autism and Atheism, there began an interesting diminutive debate between Johannes and I over our different term usages. Where this might have, as it has in the past, veered into a discussion between contesting advocates with no real solution provided in the end, it in fact proved extremely advantageous, and not just for the benefit of the audience. At one point, when asked if there was a strict difference between his use of non-religion and my use of the term Atheism, and in particular if the former was merely a more broad or essentialist version of the latter, Johannes kindly responded with a similar answer to the one he gives in his RSP interview about his use of the term rationalist: from a straightforward anthropological perspective, because the individuals being studied identify themselves using a particular term, it would be unfair to impose a different one on them other than the one they use. While this permission to allow one’s subjects to speak for themselves, of course, makes the discussion about term usage even more difficult (especially as subjects tend not to agree on terminology), it also offered a useful insight into the pragmatism of using such different terms, as well as an argument against assigning a general one under which they might be categorized.

This also returns my discussion to the issue of reification. Perhaps my greatest argument against ‘non-religion’ has been based on the notion that it stands as a relational umbrella: in the discourse on the academic study of religion, the study of the non-religious represents research being done not so much on the ‘opposite,’ but on the relational periphery. This is something that Chris and Johannes discuss toward the end of their interview. While this might prove useful in the sense that it places the discourse of the study of the non-religious within the larger context of the study of religion, I would argue it also, perhaps by accident, reifies the term in the same way that ‘religion’ has become an umbrella over which we categorize all aspects of being or acting religious. In the end, then, it adopts, from its relationship to ‘religion’, all the issues and ambiguous difficulties we’ve had with that term over the last century or so. This, to me, is less a solution to the problem, than a contribution to it. When we add this to the adolescent growing pains of the study of Atheism, ir-religion, un-belief, non-religion, etc., the result is a rather stunted upbringing. Though I digress.

So, then, to move, here, from the critical to the promotional, in Johannes’ answer, as well as via his discussion with Chris about the differences between group and individual identities at the end of their interview, I believe there is a solution to be found: I would argue that a remedy for term reification, be it Atheism, non-religion, religion, or anything relationally similar, and thus a remedy for the terminological issues we may face as researchers, is found within the straightforward anthropological approach which he advocated for in our panel, only turned around in a reflective manner. That is, where we seek out and promote the pragmatic objectivity in permitting each of our subjects to define themselves in their own terms, there is an equal pragmatism in introspectively allowing ourselves to do the same with our own language. While this approach might develop a rather vast terminological discourse, it also breeds a sense of diversity, which, through an anthropological lens, is more beneficial than it is detrimental to our conclusions.

In fact, when we take a further step back, and view the academic discourse itself as an anthropological subject, these terminological differences become their own types of individual identities. In this way, our debates over terminology become differing voices all contributing to a discourse that together comes to represent a cultural whole. Thus, our differences of opinion become less problematic, and more representative, a polyvocality that together create a group identity filled with different individual ones. Then, and just like we would with our subjects, viewing this discourse objectively fosters a much more nuanced insight into this culture than, say, an argument that one subject embodies his or her culture more than another.

In the end, then, I believe the polyvocality of our discourse is indeed a benefit, particularly because we aren’t all talking about the same thing. Our disagreements and debating and arguing over the proper term usage contributes more and more to the discourse upon which our identity, as an academic endeavor, is formed. Thus, while we might quarrel amongst each other over whether or not our terminology is correct, or whether it better represents our subjects, as subjects ourselves, these discussions are in their own way leading toward a process of identification, and thus a sense of academic congruity. From this third level, then, looking down at ourselves as we look down on our subjects, each layer embodying a unique cultural character, we can better make sense of what it is that we’re studying, as we study it. To do otherwise, to me, seems a bit too much like a one-sided debate.

Suggested Reading

Johannes Quack, Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Johannes Quack and Jacob Copeman, “’Godless People’ and Dead Bodies: Materiality and the Morality of Atheist Materialism,“ Social Analysis, Vol. 59, Iss. 2, 2015.

http://www.nonreligion.net/?page_id=35

http://nsrn.net

http://www.everythingisfiction.org/

Lois Lee, Recognizing the Non-Religious: Reimagining the Secular (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Ethan G. Quillen, “Discourse Analysis and the Definition of Atheism,” Science, Religion, and Culture, Vol. 2, Iss. 3, 2015.

[1] https://hig-se.academia.edu/IngelaVisuri

Learning to Unlearn “Religion”: Jason Ānanda Josephson on the Invention of Religion in Japan

One of the first Religious Studies courses in which I enrolled was titled “Japanese Religion.” There were several themes running through the course, but the one that stuck with me as the most important was something the professor asked during the first meeting of the class:

The course is called “Japanese Religion”; over the semester, think about that phrase – would it be better to say “Japanese Religions”? How about “religions of Japan”? Or, is “religion” the best word to use to describe the Japanese traditions we’re studying?1

The implications of the latter question are considered by Jason Ānanda Josephson, scholar of East Asian religions and religious studies theory, in this informative interview with the Religious Studies Project. Josephson and interviewer Brad Stoddard explore how the concept of “religion” was translated, discussed, and applied in 19th Century Japan.

Josephson’s book, The Invention of Religion in Japan (University of Chicago Press, 2012), forms the backbone of the conversation. Josephson explains that he has always had an interest in East Asian religion, as well as the theory of religion and religious studies, and in his doctoral research he put those pieces together. The result is a book that critiques the category of religion using the Japanese situation as a case study. Josephson relates how, in post-1853 Japan, there was a significant discussion taking place among the Japanese elite about what the European idea of “religion” meant, how it fit (or didn’t) with existing traditions in Japan, and also, how the concept of the “secular” applied to Japanese society at the time. Josephson’s primary case study involves Shinto, rather than Buddhism, although Josephson hopes to explore Buddhist traditions in Japan in a future work.

Josephson’s critique of the category “religion” as it relates to Japan is part of an on-going discussion among scholars as to the accuracy, relevance, and necessity of that concept. (Scholars such as Timothy Fitzgerald, Russell T. McCutcheon, Talal Asad, and Tomoku Masuzawa are mentioned in the interview as key figures participating in this critique.) While I would not describe myself as a theorist primarily, or consider my main interest to be theories of religion, I have come to realize that questions about the nature of “religion,” what scholars mean when they write about “religion,” and the categorization of “religious” traditions cannot be overlooked and must be grappled with prior to studying a “religious” tradition.

When I was a student in the Japanese Religion course, I had not yet been introduced in a meaningful way to the critiques of the concept of “religion.” What seemed problematic to my novice eyes was the disjunction between the different implications of the phrases “religion in Japan,” “Japanese religion,” and/or “Japanese religions.” By the end of the course, I decided that the least problematic way to think about the topic was as “religions in Japan.” This didn’t tackle the truly important piece – namely, the category of “religion” – but it did seem to be more neutral and inclusive than any of the other phrases. In my graduate work, these questions of naming and labeling recurred – my interests centered around one of the Buddhisms in Japan, not the monolithic idea of “Japanese Buddhism.” The latter implies that there is one Buddhism that can be described as Japanese. I can think of (at least) two traditions of Buddhism that flourished and took on a “Japanese” approach over time, as well as several of the New/Emergent Religious Movements which originated in Japan and claim a Buddhist lineage. Ultimately, the use of terms like “Buddhism” and “religion” in the singular seem to be neither specific nor descriptive enough to capture the richness and diversity of the actual world. Josephson’s perspective adds that necessary final dimension to anyone studying “religion” in Japan: since it is both an imported and manufactured category, can it be used reliably by scholars to discuss Japanese traditions?

In the interview, Josephson mentions in passing that the title of his work (The Invention of Religion in Japan) could have just as easily been either The Invention of Superstition in Japan or The Invention of Secularism in Japan. I find this a particularly fascinating comment, as those three words – religion, superstition, secularism – each have a distinct implication. However, as Josephson demonstrates throughout the interview, Japanese society had to come to terms with those three ideas as a package. Was Shinto a religion or superstition? What about Buddhism? Is Japan a secular nation? Is Japan a modern nation? Since one could not be both “modern” and “superstitious,” that meant that Shinto could not be a superstition if Japan wished to take its “place” among the nations of the modern world. However, Josephson also points out that while colonialism often imposed categories upon a colonized people, that was not entirely the case in Japan. Japanese scholars involved in the (literal and cultural) translation of the concepts of religion, superstition, and secularism investigated what these terms meant to Europeans and then negotiated the idea within Japanese society, demonstrating a degree of agency not often seen during interactions between Western and Asian societies in the 19th century.

Not only am I eager to read The Invention of Religion in Japan, but I am also looking forward to Josephson’s next project, discussed at the end of the interview. The project is currently titled “Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences”; Josephson describes this as a project to analyze European society, specifically those parts of Europe that did not match up to the claims of modernity made by European scholars. Josephson’s novel approach analyzes these claims of modernity – and the disjunction between scholarly claims and reality – through the lens of postcolonial theory, using the world outside of Europe to analyze Europe.

 

1 Or at least, that’s my recollection of the instructor’s remarks! I am paraphrasing, not quoting directly.

 

References

Asad, Talal. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

Ellwood, Robert S. Introducing Japanese Religion. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Fitzgerald, Timothy. The Ideology of Religious Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Josephson, Jason Ānanda. The Invention of Religion in Japan. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Masuzawa, Tomoku. The Invention of World Religions: or, How European Universalism was

Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

McCutcheon, Russell T. [See Dr. McCutcheon’s website for a list of his work]

Tanabe, George J. (ed). Religions Of Japan in Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

The Critical Study of Religion

In this interview, Professor Bruce Lincoln from the University of Chicago Divinity School discusses a variety of topics including werewolves, critical theory, pedagogy, and his self-imposed estrangement from the academic study of religion. Dr. Lincoln is a well-known and influential scholar of religion who completed his doctorate from the University of Chicago where he studied with Mircea Eliade. He then taught for many years at the University of Minnesota before he returned to the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, where he is the Caroline E. Haskell Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions. According to his biography on the University of Chicago’s website, “His research tends to focus on the religions of pre-Christian Europe and pre-Islamic Iran, but he has a notoriously short attention span and has also written on a bewildering variety of topics, including Guatemalan curanderismo, Lakota sun dances, Melanesian funerary rituals, Swazi kingship, the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre, Marco Polo, professional wrestling, Persian imperialism, the theology of George W. Bush, and comparative demonology.” What underlying theme or methodology holds together this diverse body of work?

As Dr. Lincoln discusses in this interview, he is interested in the constructed nature of society. “I think society is a project,” he said, “rather than an entity that exists by nature.” From this foundation, Lincoln isolates a variety of specific instances in multiple places and times where people appeal to religious discourse to legitimate their local interests. Religion, for Lincoln, is a thoroughly human phenomenon. To demonstrate this, it requires the type of critically-informed analysis that Lincoln seldom finds in the academic study of religion.

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