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Sociology of Religion and Religious Studies: Disciplines, Fields, and the Limits of Dialogue

As it happens, just two and a half weeks ago, I was in the audience of a panel called ‘Rethinking Theory, Methods, and Data: A Conversation between Religious Studies and Sociology of Religion’ presented at the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion.  The panel was advertised as a ‘conversation’ discussing the: ‘overlaps and differences between the role of theory, method and the collection of data in the respective fields. Panelists will focus on “what counts” as data and how religious studies and sociology of religion can mutually benefit from this discussion.’

Whilst the papers were generally very well-conceived and presented, it was the subsequent Q&A session with the audience that revealed a number of so-called fault lines as well as a general lack of consensus on what exactly religious studies is: discipline or field.  Indeed, it seemed that those with a background in religious studies were generally more open to the idea of their academic arena being framed in terms of a broad ‘field of study’ in which many disciplines and approaches participate.  Yet, those representing the sociology of religion seemed more keen to posit religious studies as a stand-alone ‘discipline’, complete with its own questions, methods, and theories.  When an audience member suggested that to insist on religious studies as a distinct and entirely separate discipline was also to limit even further the appropriate ‘house’ for the sociology of religion, one panelist argued steadfastly that that was not a problem; the sociology of religion was firmly located within sociology departments at the institutional level and had its own associations and publications to prove its established position within academia generally.

This seems to be a particularly American response – as pointed out by Paul-Francois Tremlett and Titus Hjelm in their interview with David Robertson.  Whilst many sociologists of religion in American are, indeed, ‘housed’ in sociology departments where they teach courses beyond those focused on religion, the picture is quite different in the UK and elsewhere.  In the latter contexts, sociology of religion is most frequently encountered within departments of theology and religion, or religious studies.  Indeed, it was refreshing to hear Tremlett and Hjelm agree on this and note that the sociology of religion is therefore sometimes understandably uncomfortable in its own arrangements with higher education as it attempts to maintain a cohesive (and coherent) body of scholarship detached from departments of social science and within a strikingly amorphous and ill-defined branch of the academy.  What is perhaps more interesting, however, is that the scenarios on both sides of the Atlantic highlight a consequent desire to distinguish between a discipline and a field of study.

I concur with those on the panel as well as with Tremlett and Hjelm, then, that such a distinction seems warranted and helpful as we grapple with the nature of religious studies and its relationship to the sociology of religion.  Setting aside the argument that could be made concerning sociology of religion’s status as a ‘sub-discipline’ of sociology – an argument that hardly seems rebutted by the presence of organizations and publications dedicated to the sociology of religion – it does seem clear that a classificatory disparity exists here.  Religious studies has always included a number of approaches, methods, theories, lines of inquiry, etc.  In some sense, religious studies is a both/and endeavour: it is both science-based and humanities-based, both data-driven and theory-driven, both political and apolitical.  At the very least, it contains the potential to be any number of those things.  Accordingly, Hjelm’s observation that religious studies spends too much time looking inward, debating the definitions and theories of religion rather than analysing instances of religion, is likely astute.  As a large inclusive field, religious studies was perhaps always doomed to expend a great deal of energy on self-definition and self-clarification.

Yet, sociology of religion seems a narrower discipline, right?  It has a history traceable to Durkheim and Weber, perhaps Marx as well.  It is ostensibly science-based and data-driven.  Therefore, as both Tremlett and Hjelm suggested it is perhaps more amenable to, or palatable for, the uses put to it by politicians, journalists, and some of those involved in public policy.  In other words, sociology of religion is perhaps more scientific than religious studies because the latter’s scientific qualities are diluted by the presence of non-, or less, scientific approaches.  That being said, it does appear that putting sociology of religion ‘in conversation’ with religious studies is something like putting an apple in conversation with an orange, or putting an apple in conversation with the fresh produce section of the supermarket.  Although such an analogy is doubtlessly flawed in significant ways, it does serve to highlight one of the most striking aspects of these discussions.  To what extent is this a dialogue, a two-way conversation?

I suggest that the answer may be found in the issue of theory.  If an academic discipline is not only defined by a set of acceptable methods, a focused realm for data collection, and a cannon of resources but also is made to include the ‘development of theory’ – a characteristic highlighted as belonging to the sociology of religion but not to religious studies by members of that same AAR panel – then we begin to see the relationship of a discipline to a field more clearly.  Religious studies arguably has its own cannon, acceptable methods, and circumscribed territories for data gathering, even its own popularly used theories, but it is more difficult to contend that it has produced those theories apart from the contributions of the individual disciplines comprising the larger field.  As the interviewees noted, something like ‘lived religion’ as a concept came to religious studies from the sociology of religion.  Likewise, one can easily highlight yet again that the history of religious studies is a history of the development of other narrower disciplines like sociology and anthropology who analysed religion as a central focus of their own agendas.

For those of us working in British religious studies contexts, this relationship is witnessed on a daily basis.  My own department, for example, consists of historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and literary scholars all engaged in the study of religion.  The field of religious studies, thus, encompasses massively diverse disciplinary perspectives and questions.  Large varieties of methods and theories are used to explore and analyse equally broad sets of phenomena.  Somewhere in the cacophony, sociology of religion is speaking to the religious studies enterprise.  It is offering up ideas and methods, sure, but it is also developing theories which may subsequently support or engender the work of other scholars in religious studies.  In the end, the relationship of the discipline to the field is possibly, justifiably, unilateral.  The sociology of religion may have something to say to religious studies, but I am not sure what religious studies has to say to the sociology of religion.  Of course, by placing sociologists of religion in departments of religious studies for a few generations, we may just find out how the latter shapes the former.

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.

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

Religious Studies as a Discipline

Aaron Hughes (University of Rochester) has been a vocal critic of some of the theories and methods used by religious studies scholars working on Islam. In this podcast, he discusses his critique of the discipline and practice of religious studies he has made through works such as Situating Islam (Equinox, 2008), Theorizing Islam (Equinox, 2012), Abrahamic Religions (Oxford, 2012), The Study of Judaism (SUNY, 2013), and, most recently, Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity (Equinox, 2015).

This sustained focus on the field of religious studies is not only a concern with identity–the political boundaries of the field as established by its scholars and professional organizations–but also with method. What should be the critical orientation of our field? Which methods are more or less suited for religious studies when it the discipline is viewed as a critical endeavor? When and how should we critique the way our field is responding to the context of the 21st Century? Are area studies especially vulnerable to these criticisms? What happens when identity politics begins to mix with scholarship?

Listeners might also be interested in our previous podcasts on Religion as Sui Generis, The Relationship between Theology and Religious Studies, Teaching and Learning in Contemporary Religious Studies, The Critical Study of Religion, and Biblical Studies and Religious Studies. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, storage boxes, tiny shoes and more.

Gods and Demons, Scholars and Lawyers: Brief Reflections on American Religion and Law

Talking to lawyers is a real skill, and Eric Mazur is very good at it. In the subfield of traditional American church-state studies, legal historians, lawyers, lobbyists, and religion scholars convene for conservation and debate, mostly about First Amendment jurisprudence. As Mazur explains in his RSP interview, that conversation has in recent years lost its place, at least at the American Academy of Religion, and so he has revived it with a Religion and Law discussion group, which has met concurrently with AAR for each of the last two years (full disclosure: I have participated in both meetings). These conversations—at the AAR meetings and in the field more generally—are lively, rigorous, and fascinating, but sometimes frustrating. Unlike many other fields, the range of topics is actually quite small but the variety of approaches is wide. This self-imposed limitation was, according to Mazur, a primary reason for forming the discussion group. This is a group of people who come from very different backgrounds and perspectives—and with different goals—but can talk about the same things, namely, court cases dealing with the First Amendment’s establishment clause and free exercise clause. This is the opposite of many subfield groups, who are organized by a method (ethnography, for example) and use that same method on vastly different data sets. Here, we have a quite small shared data set but diverse methods. Everyone can speak at length, using shorthand, about certain acts, cases, decisions, and dissents, and everyone in the room can follow it. But why these people care, and, more practically, what they’re trying to do, can result in some talking-past each other. Few people are as good as Mazur at bridging these interests and assembling the components for a productive exchange.

The interview includes a number of interesting exchanges, as Mazur describes the state of the field, the advent of the discussion group, and his own career. I was particularly interested in Mazur’s answer to the question about why there is an increasing interest in religion and law. He noted that some religion scholars got into studying the law through studying New Religious Movements (NRMs) or minority religions, as they tend to be treated differently under the law. One of Mazur’s books, here.) This focus does bring out a possible tension between two approaches. Are we studying the law, the Supreme Court decisions, and legal language, etc., or are we studying religious groups and how their practices and beliefs shape and are shaped by law? Of course, it can be both, but the different emphases can evince different goals among scholars. Mazur highlighted the tension between those who have a “normative notion” of religious freedom and those who do not (at least not so explicitly.) On the normative side are not just lawyers, but also theologians, philosophers, lobbyists, and even clergy members. Others take a more descriptive/analytical approach, seeing the law as an institution with effects on American (religious) life and thus worth studying in historical or sociological ways.

In my view, there are two ways that the field of religion and law should expand. First, I think that “law” has been taken to mean primarily the First Amendment’s religion clauses, and there are many other interactions between religious communities and the law worth studying. Mazur mentions this briefly in the interview. Religion scholars would do well to learn about tax law or tort law or intellectual property. Law is not simply religious freedom. And, furthermore, religious freedom means a lot more than First Amendment law. The discourse of freedom, the various states of freedom and un-freedom under which subjects live, and the processes by which freedom is manufactured and protected are all topics that could be taken up by scholars of religion and law. Second, delimiting our area of focus to the United States can miss the international context for American religious law. On one hand, the limited scope makes sense, since American law does apply, for the most part, to America. However, American religious freedom, understood as a human right, is being naturalized and exported. This has tremendous ramifications for foreign policy, religious nationalism, and diplomacy. Constitutional scholars who focus on religion largely have ignored these important developments.

That being said, I think there is a place for the type of “traditional” constitutional conversations Mazur has advocated and facilitated. As I stated above, it is enjoyable and somewhat rare to have a room (or some non-physical space) full of people who speak the same language, who know what Reynolds and Schempp and Boerne v. Flores and RFRA mean. It can lead to productive and detailed conversations. Historians and other scholars contribute to public understanding, but they also can be involved in shaping the law, through an amicus brief or as an expert witness, for example. Many religion scholars (though of course not all) are wary to do anything that smacks of “advocacy.” However, if we are writing about contemporary laws and their impact on religious communities, or about the logic structuring certain laws and cases, our work can have effects even if we do not intend them. So, why not be intentional about it in the first place? Or at least be willing to engage in conversation, if not outright “political” action? If we are going to engage in this type of public work, we need a common language to speak. Working with academics can be an unpleasant experience, and our analytical goals can distract from the winning cases or lobbying for particular causes. But, if lawyers and scholars are going to talk to each other, it has to be at least somewhat on the lawyers’ terms.

References

Gordon, Sarah Barringer. The Spirit of the Law: Religious Voices and the Constitution in Modern America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Mazur, Eric Michael. The Americanization of Religious Minorities: Confronting the Constitutional Order. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Su, Anna. Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Wenger, Tisa. We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

 

Podcasts

Sociology of Religion and Religious Studies: Disciplines, Fields, and the Limits of Dialogue

As it happens, just two and a half weeks ago, I was in the audience of a panel called ‘Rethinking Theory, Methods, and Data: A Conversation between Religious Studies and Sociology of Religion’ presented at the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion.  The panel was advertised as a ‘conversation’ discussing the: ‘overlaps and differences between the role of theory, method and the collection of data in the respective fields. Panelists will focus on “what counts” as data and how religious studies and sociology of religion can mutually benefit from this discussion.’

Whilst the papers were generally very well-conceived and presented, it was the subsequent Q&A session with the audience that revealed a number of so-called fault lines as well as a general lack of consensus on what exactly religious studies is: discipline or field.  Indeed, it seemed that those with a background in religious studies were generally more open to the idea of their academic arena being framed in terms of a broad ‘field of study’ in which many disciplines and approaches participate.  Yet, those representing the sociology of religion seemed more keen to posit religious studies as a stand-alone ‘discipline’, complete with its own questions, methods, and theories.  When an audience member suggested that to insist on religious studies as a distinct and entirely separate discipline was also to limit even further the appropriate ‘house’ for the sociology of religion, one panelist argued steadfastly that that was not a problem; the sociology of religion was firmly located within sociology departments at the institutional level and had its own associations and publications to prove its established position within academia generally.

This seems to be a particularly American response – as pointed out by Paul-Francois Tremlett and Titus Hjelm in their interview with David Robertson.  Whilst many sociologists of religion in American are, indeed, ‘housed’ in sociology departments where they teach courses beyond those focused on religion, the picture is quite different in the UK and elsewhere.  In the latter contexts, sociology of religion is most frequently encountered within departments of theology and religion, or religious studies.  Indeed, it was refreshing to hear Tremlett and Hjelm agree on this and note that the sociology of religion is therefore sometimes understandably uncomfortable in its own arrangements with higher education as it attempts to maintain a cohesive (and coherent) body of scholarship detached from departments of social science and within a strikingly amorphous and ill-defined branch of the academy.  What is perhaps more interesting, however, is that the scenarios on both sides of the Atlantic highlight a consequent desire to distinguish between a discipline and a field of study.

I concur with those on the panel as well as with Tremlett and Hjelm, then, that such a distinction seems warranted and helpful as we grapple with the nature of religious studies and its relationship to the sociology of religion.  Setting aside the argument that could be made concerning sociology of religion’s status as a ‘sub-discipline’ of sociology – an argument that hardly seems rebutted by the presence of organizations and publications dedicated to the sociology of religion – it does seem clear that a classificatory disparity exists here.  Religious studies has always included a number of approaches, methods, theories, lines of inquiry, etc.  In some sense, religious studies is a both/and endeavour: it is both science-based and humanities-based, both data-driven and theory-driven, both political and apolitical.  At the very least, it contains the potential to be any number of those things.  Accordingly, Hjelm’s observation that religious studies spends too much time looking inward, debating the definitions and theories of religion rather than analysing instances of religion, is likely astute.  As a large inclusive field, religious studies was perhaps always doomed to expend a great deal of energy on self-definition and self-clarification.

Yet, sociology of religion seems a narrower discipline, right?  It has a history traceable to Durkheim and Weber, perhaps Marx as well.  It is ostensibly science-based and data-driven.  Therefore, as both Tremlett and Hjelm suggested it is perhaps more amenable to, or palatable for, the uses put to it by politicians, journalists, and some of those involved in public policy.  In other words, sociology of religion is perhaps more scientific than religious studies because the latter’s scientific qualities are diluted by the presence of non-, or less, scientific approaches.  That being said, it does appear that putting sociology of religion ‘in conversation’ with religious studies is something like putting an apple in conversation with an orange, or putting an apple in conversation with the fresh produce section of the supermarket.  Although such an analogy is doubtlessly flawed in significant ways, it does serve to highlight one of the most striking aspects of these discussions.  To what extent is this a dialogue, a two-way conversation?

I suggest that the answer may be found in the issue of theory.  If an academic discipline is not only defined by a set of acceptable methods, a focused realm for data collection, and a cannon of resources but also is made to include the ‘development of theory’ – a characteristic highlighted as belonging to the sociology of religion but not to religious studies by members of that same AAR panel – then we begin to see the relationship of a discipline to a field more clearly.  Religious studies arguably has its own cannon, acceptable methods, and circumscribed territories for data gathering, even its own popularly used theories, but it is more difficult to contend that it has produced those theories apart from the contributions of the individual disciplines comprising the larger field.  As the interviewees noted, something like ‘lived religion’ as a concept came to religious studies from the sociology of religion.  Likewise, one can easily highlight yet again that the history of religious studies is a history of the development of other narrower disciplines like sociology and anthropology who analysed religion as a central focus of their own agendas.

For those of us working in British religious studies contexts, this relationship is witnessed on a daily basis.  My own department, for example, consists of historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and literary scholars all engaged in the study of religion.  The field of religious studies, thus, encompasses massively diverse disciplinary perspectives and questions.  Large varieties of methods and theories are used to explore and analyse equally broad sets of phenomena.  Somewhere in the cacophony, sociology of religion is speaking to the religious studies enterprise.  It is offering up ideas and methods, sure, but it is also developing theories which may subsequently support or engender the work of other scholars in religious studies.  In the end, the relationship of the discipline to the field is possibly, justifiably, unilateral.  The sociology of religion may have something to say to religious studies, but I am not sure what religious studies has to say to the sociology of religion.  Of course, by placing sociologists of religion in departments of religious studies for a few generations, we may just find out how the latter shapes the former.

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.

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

Religious Studies as a Discipline

Aaron Hughes (University of Rochester) has been a vocal critic of some of the theories and methods used by religious studies scholars working on Islam. In this podcast, he discusses his critique of the discipline and practice of religious studies he has made through works such as Situating Islam (Equinox, 2008), Theorizing Islam (Equinox, 2012), Abrahamic Religions (Oxford, 2012), The Study of Judaism (SUNY, 2013), and, most recently, Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity (Equinox, 2015).

This sustained focus on the field of religious studies is not only a concern with identity–the political boundaries of the field as established by its scholars and professional organizations–but also with method. What should be the critical orientation of our field? Which methods are more or less suited for religious studies when it the discipline is viewed as a critical endeavor? When and how should we critique the way our field is responding to the context of the 21st Century? Are area studies especially vulnerable to these criticisms? What happens when identity politics begins to mix with scholarship?

Listeners might also be interested in our previous podcasts on Religion as Sui Generis, The Relationship between Theology and Religious Studies, Teaching and Learning in Contemporary Religious Studies, The Critical Study of Religion, and Biblical Studies and Religious Studies. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, storage boxes, tiny shoes and more.

Gods and Demons, Scholars and Lawyers: Brief Reflections on American Religion and Law

Talking to lawyers is a real skill, and Eric Mazur is very good at it. In the subfield of traditional American church-state studies, legal historians, lawyers, lobbyists, and religion scholars convene for conservation and debate, mostly about First Amendment jurisprudence. As Mazur explains in his RSP interview, that conversation has in recent years lost its place, at least at the American Academy of Religion, and so he has revived it with a Religion and Law discussion group, which has met concurrently with AAR for each of the last two years (full disclosure: I have participated in both meetings). These conversations—at the AAR meetings and in the field more generally—are lively, rigorous, and fascinating, but sometimes frustrating. Unlike many other fields, the range of topics is actually quite small but the variety of approaches is wide. This self-imposed limitation was, according to Mazur, a primary reason for forming the discussion group. This is a group of people who come from very different backgrounds and perspectives—and with different goals—but can talk about the same things, namely, court cases dealing with the First Amendment’s establishment clause and free exercise clause. This is the opposite of many subfield groups, who are organized by a method (ethnography, for example) and use that same method on vastly different data sets. Here, we have a quite small shared data set but diverse methods. Everyone can speak at length, using shorthand, about certain acts, cases, decisions, and dissents, and everyone in the room can follow it. But why these people care, and, more practically, what they’re trying to do, can result in some talking-past each other. Few people are as good as Mazur at bridging these interests and assembling the components for a productive exchange.

The interview includes a number of interesting exchanges, as Mazur describes the state of the field, the advent of the discussion group, and his own career. I was particularly interested in Mazur’s answer to the question about why there is an increasing interest in religion and law. He noted that some religion scholars got into studying the law through studying New Religious Movements (NRMs) or minority religions, as they tend to be treated differently under the law. One of Mazur’s books, here.) This focus does bring out a possible tension between two approaches. Are we studying the law, the Supreme Court decisions, and legal language, etc., or are we studying religious groups and how their practices and beliefs shape and are shaped by law? Of course, it can be both, but the different emphases can evince different goals among scholars. Mazur highlighted the tension between those who have a “normative notion” of religious freedom and those who do not (at least not so explicitly.) On the normative side are not just lawyers, but also theologians, philosophers, lobbyists, and even clergy members. Others take a more descriptive/analytical approach, seeing the law as an institution with effects on American (religious) life and thus worth studying in historical or sociological ways.

In my view, there are two ways that the field of religion and law should expand. First, I think that “law” has been taken to mean primarily the First Amendment’s religion clauses, and there are many other interactions between religious communities and the law worth studying. Mazur mentions this briefly in the interview. Religion scholars would do well to learn about tax law or tort law or intellectual property. Law is not simply religious freedom. And, furthermore, religious freedom means a lot more than First Amendment law. The discourse of freedom, the various states of freedom and un-freedom under which subjects live, and the processes by which freedom is manufactured and protected are all topics that could be taken up by scholars of religion and law. Second, delimiting our area of focus to the United States can miss the international context for American religious law. On one hand, the limited scope makes sense, since American law does apply, for the most part, to America. However, American religious freedom, understood as a human right, is being naturalized and exported. This has tremendous ramifications for foreign policy, religious nationalism, and diplomacy. Constitutional scholars who focus on religion largely have ignored these important developments.

That being said, I think there is a place for the type of “traditional” constitutional conversations Mazur has advocated and facilitated. As I stated above, it is enjoyable and somewhat rare to have a room (or some non-physical space) full of people who speak the same language, who know what Reynolds and Schempp and Boerne v. Flores and RFRA mean. It can lead to productive and detailed conversations. Historians and other scholars contribute to public understanding, but they also can be involved in shaping the law, through an amicus brief or as an expert witness, for example. Many religion scholars (though of course not all) are wary to do anything that smacks of “advocacy.” However, if we are writing about contemporary laws and their impact on religious communities, or about the logic structuring certain laws and cases, our work can have effects even if we do not intend them. So, why not be intentional about it in the first place? Or at least be willing to engage in conversation, if not outright “political” action? If we are going to engage in this type of public work, we need a common language to speak. Working with academics can be an unpleasant experience, and our analytical goals can distract from the winning cases or lobbying for particular causes. But, if lawyers and scholars are going to talk to each other, it has to be at least somewhat on the lawyers’ terms.

References

Gordon, Sarah Barringer. The Spirit of the Law: Religious Voices and the Constitution in Modern America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Mazur, Eric Michael. The Americanization of Religious Minorities: Confronting the Constitutional Order. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Su, Anna. Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Wenger, Tisa. We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.