Ours Can Be To Reason Why

Lynn Davidman’s recent RSP interview illustrates why her work is important, serious, and engaging.  As I listened to the podcast, three ideas came to mind.

First, I was delighted to hear Davidman describe much of the literature on conversion and deconversion as Christian-centric.  While I think she could have made this point even more compellingly in the podcast, it is an important point that is rarely considered in the social scientific research on religion.  Davidman argued that the term “apostasy” doesn’t work well for Jews because their religiosity is more about practice and identity than it is about faith.  Faith and belief are central to Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity, as “right views” (to steal a phrase from Buddhism) are more important than “right actions” (to steal another). Davidman argued that the inverse is true in Judaism, though beliefs do matter at some level, as she noted with Spinoza, whose heresy regarding the nature of God resulted in his excommunication from the Sephardic synagogue in Amsterdam in 1656.  The language and thinking about conversion and “deconversion” prominent in most of the scientific literature does focus heavily on what people think or believe rather than what they do.  This is even observed among prominent critics of religion and leaders of New Atheism, as Richard Dawkins has admitted to celebrating Christmas and enjoying Christmas carols.  I think the more important point here, however, is that Davidman could have taken this point even further by noting that “conversion” is always toward religion, while “deconversion” or “becoming ex-” is always away from religion.  As Joseph Hammer and I pointed out in a paper we published in 2011, this use of language continues to privilege religion over nonreligion.  How is leaving religion substantively different from joining a religion?  What is different about the process?  If both require changes in beliefs, practices, social networks, and overall worldviews, why do we privilege one as “conversion” and the other as “deconversion” or “becoming an ex-“?  While perspectives about conversion are Christian-centric, the idea of conversion itself is religion-centric.

Second, Davidman’s incorporation of gender into the process of conversion is another important insight to take away from this podcast.  Converts to religion or away from it don’t just learn how to become a good member of their new group.  They learn to how to become a good male or female member of their new group.  Davidman also noted that what it typically means to be a devout member of a religious group is what is expected of men, not of women.  This is an important insight deriving from intersectionality; the experience of religious conversion (toward or away from religion) is not just a religious experience, but also a gendered experience.  Whenever someone joins a group, they learn not just the expectations for group membership, but also the expectations for the members of the group who are like them (e.g., in terms of class, gender, race, sexual identity, etc.).  I think Davidman could have extended this argument a bit further as well.  Beyond forcing those who want to be part of a religious group or organization to adopt gender roles, it is important to recognize that many religions have helped create the very idea of gender and continue to reinforce it (see Sumerau, Cragun, and Mathers forthcoming).  Davidman’s critique of the gendering of conversion processes can be extended by asking how such processes would work for transgender, agender, or genderqueer individuals.  How might a genderqueer individual (someone who rejects the gender binary and tries not to do gender or does it in a new, non-binary way) experience conversion?  What are the expected beliefs and behaviors of a genderqueer Jew or transgender Methodist?  If such expected beliefs or behaviors don’t readily come to mind, that is because binary conceptions of gender are central to most religious sacred canopies.

Third and finally, I liked how Davidman drew a distinction between Weberian and Durkheimian approaches to studying the social world.  The Durkheimian approach is to find the general in the particular, while the Weberian approach is to find the particular in the general.  Davidman, drawing on Weber and Geertz, situated her work in the local and noted that she prefers not to ask “why” people do what they do but rather “how” they do it.  How people leave Orthodox Judaism is important to understand.  But I’m also not convinced that “why” is irrelevant.  I do find compelling the growing body of research suggesting that humans create post hoc justifications for their behavior to make their behavior seem more rational rather than actually acting rationally. However, I don’t think there is anything wrong with trying to discover why humans do what they do.  People’s initial responses as to why they did something may not be accurate as they, themselves, may not know why they did something.  But isn’t there something useful in knowing how people construct narratives that explain their behaviors?  Whether or not the stories people tell to explain their behavior are 100% accurate, they are the stories people tell.  Social scientists may not be able to discern “actual” motives from “believed” or “constructed” motives without the help of neuroscience or other as yet undiscovered methodologies and technologies, but we can come to understand more about how people think by asking them to construct a narrative that explains “why.”  Additionally, while there is value in understanding the particular, there is also value in understanding the general.  Asking people why they leave religions may not perfectly reflect their motivations, but it may offer some insights into how they viewed the process.  Asking why can be problematic in that, if it does reflect general processes, it could be used to try to staunch the flow of people out of religion, as seems to be the aim of a sizable percentage of prior research on people exiting religion (Cragun and Hammer 2011). But it could also be argued that the growing secular movement could use these general understandings of why people leave religion to heighten the flow of people out of religion.  Whether or not one prefers to prevent or facilitate the flow of people in or out of religion, those of us who study religion scientifically should recognize that our work can be and often is applied by those with vested interests in what we study.


Cragun, Ryan T., and Joseph H. Hammer. 2011. “‘One Person’s Apostate is Another Person’s Convert’: Reflections on Pro-Religious Hegemony in the Sociology of Religion.” Humanity & Society 35(February/May):149-175.

Sumerau, J. Edward, Ryan T. Cragun, and Lain A. B. Mathers. forthcoming. “Contemporary Religion and the Cisgendering of Reality.” Social Currents.

Modern & Lofton Illumine “Religion”

Modern: “I think . . . one of the underlying directives of Class 200 is to get that kind of conversation going, just that very notion of is there a relationship between description and explanation and what is it . . . The idea, I think underlying Class 200, is this notion that the way in which you write informs your argument, right, and so the very categories and the kinds of criteria you use to find religion, locate religion, describe religion is going to figure in to what kind of case you’re making about religion. And so I think it’s just that kind of move that doesn’t seem too revolutionary at all but seems to me not foregrounded enough in terms of when I look out on the field of Religious Studies on the past fifty years. It’s not like it’s absent, but I would like to promote it.”

Lofton: “How can the study of religion persist in the wake of postcolonial critiques? What is the right to absorb yourself in material?”

That’s how the conversation about the relationship between the description of religion and its explanation starts between professors Kathryn Lofton and John Lardas Modern and University of Chicago graduate student Adam Miller. Frequent collaborators, Lofton and Modern curated frequencies and now edit the University of Chicago Press’ series Class 200. If you missed frequencies, go have a look. If you followed frequencies, the motivations behind and goals before Class 200 come as no surprise.

Wherever they go, Lofton and Modern host uncommonly compelling conversations about the kinds of ideas that arise as scholars engage in public research while leading private lives. More than one entry at frequencies starts with a reference to the writer’s youth: S. Brent Plate recalls summer camp the year Star Wars came out; Josef Sorett mentions the church of his upbringing; and Gary Laderman writes about the first time he dropped acid. Other authors frame their writing with more recent memories: a seminar conversation, a research trip, a good read. None quite fits the framing we have come to expect from academic writing. It’s refreshing, entertaining, and instructive. (These people have lives!) Scholars are not conceiving of projects and writing papers in isolation from their friends, families, or personal histories, a point Lofton makes in discussing the significance of her work.

When Lofton and Modern talk about Class 200, which is really what this whole conversation is about, they describe a grown-up version of frequencies. There they planted seeds, and, if we (and they) are lucky, Class 200 will bear the fruits of like-minded plants. (The series’ first book, Death Be Not Proud: The Art of Holy Attention by David Marno, an assistant professor of English at UC Berkeley, will appear in December of this year.)

Class 200 is about revivifying a mode of research that requires time—time to maintain languages and time in the archives—in the midst of a systems (both Universities and academic publishers) that value speedy work and low-cost production. Modern and Lofton call for proposals from researchers whose work demonstrates depth with attention to the craft of writing: “How can we get our responsible swagger back as thinkers?” Lofton asks, “We tend to think that can happen partially by highlighting the ways in which prose is a huge site of hermeneutics.” These two speak with the energy they seek in Class 200 books. They stress importance of archives, “absorptive” work, “subtle” thought, “reflexive moves,” knowing the origins of one’s project, and knowing the reasons why one does what one does. They are looking for manuscripts that walk a line between encyclopedic knowledge and riveting writing, self-understanding and self-absorption, humility and swagger. (Aren’t we all?)

So what does that entail? Something wholly new, completely cutting-edge? Not in their estimation. As Modern explains, Class 200 will collect the work of reflective scholars (though not overly-confessional ones, as Lofton notes) whose projects have grown out of their fields’ wrestling with postcolonial theory and reckoning with historiographies. Yes, they’re looking for writers with methodological and disciplinary dexterity.

“So what?”

Over the course of their conversation, they develop—rather organically—an example of the relationship between religion’s description and its explanation: Clifford Geertz’s 1966 definition of religions and Talal Asad’s critical response to it. The example begins with Lofton, who points out that while many scholars recognize the shortcomings of Geertz’s work, we can’t stop reading it. Admittedly, it’s great fun to teach in undergrad courses. Why’s that?

Geertz’s is a reductionist definition that does not reduce religion to something over(t)ly simple. On first read, its parts are complicated, and so students have to wrestle with more than a single idea, such as individual’s solitariness or state of ultimate concern. Geertz implicates people in (the creation and maintenance of) religion to a greater degree than does Spiro’s “postulations,” for instance. For some students, this makes his definition difficult to accept. It is, in the end, good material for conversation. Asad found it so, too. (And others have since.[1])

Years after Geertz published his definition, Asad pointed to the anthropologist’s failure to relate culture, which for Geertz “enables people to communicate, perpetuate and develop their knowledge about and their attitudes towards life,” with “‘life’ itself” or “the material conditions and activities for maintaining (or changing) life.”[2] Modern asks how our current moment—one in which “we feel this impingement of whatever you want to call it, neo-liberalism or crass capitalistic ethos”—compares to the 1990’s, a decade when concerns about theory materialized in the study of religions, concerns like those Asad raised in his 1983 response to Geertz. One conclusion—Modern’s—is that impingement causes scholars to realize that “religion is constitutive of modernity, on some level . . . combined with a way in which you can revisit these massive archives, these scholarly corners that seem well-trod . . . and to see them in a new light.” It’s this new light Lofton and Modern hope to encounter in the pages of Class 200. I do, too.


Asad, Talal. “Anthropological Conceptions of Religion: Reflections on Geertz.” 1983, 237.


[1] See, for example, Schilbrack, Kevin. “Religion, Models of, and Reality: Are We Through with Geertz?.” Journal of The American Academy of Religion. 73, no. 2 (June 2005): 429-452; or Strenski, Ivan. “Talal Asad’s ‘Religion’ Trouble and a Way Out.” Method & Theory in The Study of Religion. 22, no. 2/3 (October 2010): 136-155.

[2] Asad, Talal. “Anthropological Conceptions of Religion: Reflections on Geertz.” Man. 18, no. 2. (June 1983): 238-239.

The Interplay of Religion and Popular Culture in Contemporary America

There was a time when the realms of popular culture and religion did not meet — at least in an academic or analytic sense. The space betwixt, between, around, and interpenetrating each was relatively unexplored. Into that gap came God in the Details: American Religion in Popular Culture with the contention that to understand American religion today researchers must enter the interstitial spaces — the borderlands — that straddle the boundaries between religion and popular culture.
Today, the field of religious and popular culture studies is rich in both depth and diversity. From the exploration of popular culture as a “hyper-real” religion (Adam Possamai), to the examination of aesthetics and material religion (S. Brent Plate and David Morgan), audience-centered surveys of media (Stewart Hoover), and delineation of “authentic fakes” (David Chidester) the research on religion and popular culture is varied and voracious.
In part, the plethora of studies currently available and the profusion of contemporary projects emerged out of the work of McCarthy and Mazur in both editions of God in the Details. Recognizing that the field itself is fluid and that observations of present popular culture phenomena can be obsolete almost as quickly as they were relevant, the editors were sure to release a sequel to their original 2000 work with a 2011 second edition. The principles at play in their particular approach to religion and popular culture still stand.
McCarthy contends — in both her writing and this podcast — that popular culture is an important site for understanding religion in American culture, principally because of the de-institutionalization of religion and the concomitant rise of alternative, assorted, and atypical religious conglomerations and practices. As such the hybrid “third spaces” (Homi K. Bhabha) that proliferate in the contact, cooperation, co-option, and conflict that exist between religion and popular culture offer ample opportunity for resonant readings of religion in the 21st-century.
Indeed, religion and popular culture are engaged in a dialectic of exchange and  interpenetrative feedback, where religion expresses itself in popular culture, popular culture expresses itself through religious memes, religion reacts to popular culture’s representations, and popular culture reacts to religion. Yet, the two cannot be so easily divided into separate categories. Often, religion and popular culture are all mixed up.
Thus, it is helpful that McCarthy proposes that, “[b]oth the field of popular culture studies and the material it examines…seem to be growing at a pace that outstrips the analytical categories and methods available” (Mazur and McCarthy, 3). McCarthy makes the point that the conventional distinction between religion and popular culture is perhaps worth calling into question. At the very least, it is necessary to pay attention to, listen and learn from, and discern the meanings of the “intersection of religion and culture in the ordinary experiences” of individuals across the globe. This is paramount not only terms of understanding and interpreting materials and productions, but of cultures and people, of sodalities and social interlocutors. Mazur and McCarthy wrote, “the borderland where religion and culture meet in popular expression is also a borderland of another sort….these quasi-religious popular culture sites serve as points of intersection — sometimes harmonious, often conflictual — for people of very diverse and disparate identities” (Ibid.) This is ever more important in a world defined by time and space compression (David Harvey) and wherein there are multiple modernities (Shmuel Eisenstadt), which allow for manifold altars upon which religious beings rest their hopes and dreams and find succor and order amidst the chaos (Peter Berger).
To engage in this type of analysis, McCarthy looks to the theoretical constructs of anthropologist Clifford Geertz to not necessarily pin down religion in popular culture, but to wrestle with its workings. Specifically, the idea is to find where individuals are imbuing systems of meaning with significance. This looks more at what religion does than what religion is and allows for research that looks “more widely for the religious meanings attached, explicitly or not” to various media (5), materials, and activities such as eating, dancing, or binge-watching House of Cards.
And yet, in exploring the interstices running along the contours of religion and popular culture researchers must not neglect the embodiment and praxis of religious expression (Manuel Vásquez) in popular culture and vice-versa. This field is not solely one of text or discourse analysis, but is an opportunity to investigate how audiences interact with, how bodies are shaped by and shaping, and how material elements express the mutual and messy forces of religion and popular culture. Without this line of analysis we risk a one-dimensional view of the dynamics at play here. While the text and media of popular culture are important (television, online content, comic books, CDs, etc.) they must be located in time and space, in the rhythms and rhizomes of bio-cultural contexts and communities, and as the result of processes of production and consumption. Indeed, students of religion must immediately recognize that there is something more to popular culture than immediately meets the eye.
McCarthy does this well as she explains the ways in which the musical lyrics, evocations, and concert experience of Bruce Springsteen speak about the possibilities — however mute they may be — in the midst of the chaos introduced by the aperture between “The American Dream” and America’s reality. She not only scrutinizes “The Boss’s” lyrics and the intimations of salvation that exist therein, but sees that deliverance for Springsteen’s fans is not found in disembodied verbiage, but manifest in expressive vibrations of music and dance at a Springsteen concert.
McCarthy came to this line of inquiry quite personally — as a fan of Springsteen growing up in the Northeast. This is not a minor point. While it is paramount that we consider the theoretical foundations for perusing religion and popular culture, which was the aim of the above, it is also pertinent to take a methodological interlude. How does one come to study religion and popular culture? McCarthy talks about the fact that this type of research started as a side project and was invested with personal history and taste. This is not to be frowned upon, but followed.
Taking her lead, those who might want to take up the study of religion and popular culture are encouraged to start small and with something that distinctively engages them. This is a wonderful opportunity for researchers — emerging and established — to chart their own trajectories and check out new contours in the fields of religious, media, cultural studies, or more. It is my contention that, in general, such fields will benefit from a proliferation of studies that engage both reader and researcher and come from a multiplicity of perspectives and personal histories.
For my part, this may mean the analysis of audience interactions and the construction of new genres in the interplay between the music of Kendrick Lamar and black bodies in Los Angeles. It may mean looking at the ways in which identity is constructed, or covered up, in the logos and lore of a popular rugby team named after Muslim armies during the crusades. Perhaps it is found in the probing of the popularity and the pertinence of Muslim superheroes alongside the interviewer of this podcast A. David Lewis.
All of these lines of scrutiny, and others, are perhaps worthwhile. The caution is, as McCarthy rightly notes, in asking whether or not the material bear the weight of analysis. After all, she said, “sometimes a rock song is just a rock song.” Furthermore, it is important that once we determine that the content is promising that our methodology take into consideration both text and practice, ideas and matter, bodies and beliefs, in the interplay and interaction between religion and popular culture.

Hyphenating Identities

In yet another excellent Religious Studies Project interview, we hear from University of California Santa Barbara Associate Professor Rudy Busto talking about race and religion in the United States. The objectives of this conversation focus predominantly upon topics like race and religion in America, the conflation of race as ethnicity and vice versa, and the use of race as an identity marker within the study of religion.

Throughout this delightful and meandering dialogue the listener is invited, indeed encouraged, to consider the systemic and institutionalized location of race alongside religion in the contemporary, modern socio-cultural milieu and scholastic Academy. With a particularly American slant (which is to say, a reliance on double-barrelled ethno-religious identifiers like Asian-American, or Japanese-American Buddhist), much of the discussion in this interview centers around the now almost implicitly assumed observation that the ways in which humans create and express their identities is a socially constructed phenomenon, one that lacks ontological existence and agency, and how race can be a prominent component of this construction. By further deconstructing and problematizing the use of constructed, blanketing concepts like race or culture, Busto shows how delicate the process of understanding the formation of an individual’s subjective understanding of themselves and the group to which they identify actually can be.

What is regrettably missing from this conversation is a deeper discussion that might provide us with an understanding of how, precisely, the constructed-ness of human identities as a theoretical model advances the field of RS. Building upon the excellent foundation laid by Busto in this interview, I would submit two pieces of scholarship as supplements, each delving into how the contemporary scholar of religion might deploy this constructed-ness of identity.

Skipping over the obvious progenitors of the ‘constructed human groups’ discussion (Hobsbawm, Ranger, Anderson, etc.), I often heavily rely upon two middle to late 20th century academics to focus the lens of constructed identity. The first is Steven Vertovec and his use of what he calls ‘vis-à-vis dynamics’ (2000:106). In this particular instance Vertovec is observing Hindus in ‘diasporic’ situations within the UK. That is to say, he records observations of individuals who identify as belonging to the group calling itself ‘Hindu’, though they are citizens of the United Kingdom. Regardless of whether the individual is a first, second, or third generation immigrant, Vertovec observes that their self-identity requires what RS scholars might call an ‘Other’. That is, an individual, object, or even an ethno-religious collective, such as Hindus and non-Hindus, in relation to which one forms at least one layer of their self-identity.

Therefore, a researcher might record a conversation with someone who, for example, identifies as Hindu because they perform arati on Sundays instead of attending synagogue or, of course, doing nothing at all. Conversely, perhaps a younger, third-generation student might identify as Scottish or English rather than Indian like their first-generation grandparents. These markers or borders that define to which group one belongs, Vertovec might argue, cannot be created in a vacuum and necessarily require a concept RS scholars call an Other. In our work then, we can subsequently examine questions such as how generational differences manifest in various groups, what impact public education has on how immigrants choose to identify, or indeed how we can more clearly define the very concept of ‘religion’ through an examination of the subjective identification of the individual to a particular religious tradition within a particular context.

The second scholar who I would submit as a supplement to this identity question is Clifford Geertz. Geertz was a specialist in Mediterranean groups and specifically, for the present case, of Muslim Moroccans. Geertz’s suggested deployment of what he thinks of as ‘mosaic identities’ illustrates a similar me/you dynamic as does Vertovec, yet in a slightly more colourful way. Geertz provides a handful of specific stories during which he observes that the individual has multiple, ‘nested’ identities that are centered on one’s location in social-political/religious spacetime (1974:26-45). He provides the narration of a particular male informant, whose identity as belonging to a particular group, ranging from his specific tribe, village, region, etc. are deployed in relation to the dominant group with whom he comes into contact. This is done within what I like to think of as a Russian-doll, or concentric field of layered concepts of belonging and identity. So, what we find in Geertz is that rather than a linear and subject-centric illustration of identity formation, he sees what might be a more fluid, group-oriented process of formation and understanding of self-identity.

Many of these same formations and scenarios can be noticed when one looks upon other constructed forms of human collective (and individual) identity, like race or ethnicity. We can use ideas like those of Busto, Vertovec, and Geertz–among myriad others of course–to consider questions about how we as scholars of religion might better define and deploy concepts such as race and religion. Indeed, as touched upon in this interview, we find ourselves in a time when countries like the UK and the US are, even now, officially providing their citizens the option of identifying via the use of hyphenated ethnicities.

So, in the interest of brevity, I would be quick to again praise any discussion that aims to shed further light on the process by which humans form and manifest their identity as an individual in isolation, as well as when done as a member of a group, as such discussions can only aid in progressing the field of Religious Studies.


Geertz, Clifford. 1974. “From the Native’s Point of View”. Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 28.1: 26-45.

Nye, Malory. 1995. A Place for Our Gods: The Construction of an Edinburgh Hindu Temple Community. Surrey: Curzon Press

Vertovec, Steven. 2000. The Hindu Diaspora. London and New York: Routledge.