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Empty Signs in an Automatic Signalling System

This second interview with Timothy Fitzgerald covers his later work, from Discourse on Civility and Barbarity (2007) and Religion and Politics in International Relations: The Modern Myth (2011). In these works, thinking about the historical development of the category “religion” leads to consideration of other ‘modern’ categories which make up the colonial epistemé. If religion is deconstructed, where does that leave the other categories that use or rely on it? What happens to its common opposites like “the secular”, “science”, “liberalism” or even “politics”?

Fitzgerald argues that this mutually-dependent signalling system largely emerged in the late 17th century.  As rhetorical terms expressing specific class interests and aspirations in concrete situations of power, this system of signals originated in the context of the ancient regimes and sacred Monarchies of Christian Europe. Since then, each category has been continually contested, with shifting and unstable meanings. Now they have become so capacious and universalised that they have no clear boundaries, and we cannot properly distinguish between them. Yet these ideas have, over time and through repetition, become normalised and neutralised such that they appear as common sense. Today they form the basic categories for the organisation of our institutions, including academia and universities.

Listen to the first part of David G. Robertson’s interview with Timothy Fitzgerald on The Ideology of Religious Studies here: Episode 322 “The Problem with ‘Religion’ and Related Categories”

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Empty Signs in an Automatic Signalling System

Podcast with Timothy Fitzgerald (16 March 2020).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/empty-signs-in-an-automatic-signalling-systerm/

David Robertson (DR): I’m here with Tim Fitzgerald of the University of Queensland, where he’s a visiting research professor. This interview follows on from his recent interview, entitled “The Problem with ‘Religion’ (and related categories)“. And at the end of that interview we had talked about his fieldwork in India, and his time living in Japan, and how this had led to him writing The Ideology of Religious Studies. And central to that was an attempt to kind-of pin down and locate this category religion. Maybe you could pick the story up for us there, Tim?

Timothy Fitzgerald (TF): Yes. Sure. I mean one of my targets, when I was in Japan, was the religion industry – which was applied to Japan itself in the form of the study of Japanese religions – and the difficulty in actually identifying what constitutes a religion in Japan – which was also the problem about what constitutes the non-religious secular. And a lot of my work was aimed at trying to show there is this basic contradiction between the study of religion – whether that’s by Japanese or non-Japanese scholars – and, you know, the actual problem of locating it. And the problem of religion is therefore the problem of the non-secular, and how we ended up with this idea that there is a religious world of the Japanese which is somehow distinguishable from the non-religious world of the Japanese. So this led me to look, historically, for the source of this binary that we have in this religion-secular construction. And that led me back, actually, to the seventeenth century in England. And I started doing a lot of reading on . . . well, not only the seventeenth century, but going back to the sixteenth century. The post-Reformation discourse on religion was really what I was looking for. And what I found was that right the way through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – and I think that this is true going right the way through into the 18th and 19th and possibly up to the present in certain respects – is that the dominant meaning of religion was our Protestant faith. And it was a male literate construct of our Protestant faith, in a world where faith does not mean a weak form of belief. Faith is Truth, fundamentally. Christian Truth. It was a claim about Christian Truth. And the opposite of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and coming on much more recently, was not the non-religious secular. It was pagan irrationality, superstition and barbarism. And so what you have is not some dichotomy between the religious and the non-religious, but between True religion and a whole number of practices which are being discovered around the globe which look like a kind of mistaken attempt at finding God, from the point of view of the Christians. So these are superstitious practices. And what interested me, at what point did that discourse on religion as Christian Truth, or Protestant Christian Truth, become re-defined as religion as a private inner personal practice which is completely distinct from government? You see, the thing is that when you go back into reading these texts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there’s no such distinction between religion and non-religion. And this is actually the research that led up to a book I published – two books that I published – in 2007, one was Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories (5:00). And the other was an edited volume which came out of a conference I organised at Sterling, which was called, Religion and the Secular: Historical and Colonial Formations. And in that collection of essays I published a chapter called “Encompassing Religion, Privatised Religion and the Invention of Modern Politics”. And that theme, privatised religion, encompassing religion and the invention of modern politics, is central to Discourse on Civility and Barbarity. And it represents in some ways a move forward from The Ideology of Religious Studies. Because it’s actually looking at the historical documents that can guide us, or suggest to us, what are the circumstances in which somebody – i.e. someone like John Locke who was probably the most powerful inventor of the modern religion/non-religion dichotomy in my view – John Locke, but not only John Locke – there were plenty of others who were doing it – who were rhetorically redefining what the term religion means, in order to formulate a theory of government in which government is free from the domination of religion. And that introduces many, many interesting problems. Because what you have is, from the time of John Locke going into if you like the Enlightenment . . . . I’m not going to leave the Enlightenment untouched by critique as a term but, for the moment, let’s think of the Enlightenment in the general sense that we do typically think about it, which is a lot of men (mostly men – I didn’t come across any female texts at this period but no doubt there may have been some, but it’s mostly men) who wanted to have the right to accumulate private property, and for that private property to be clearly their property, and not to be invaded and tampered with by the sacred monarch. We have to remember that when John Locke was writing in the 1680s and 1690s this was a time of enormous turmoil in England. We’d had the execution of the previous king, King Charles 1 in 1649. We’d had the Putney Debates in the 1640s, which were very radical and which were questioning a great deal of the status quo. After the execution of Charles 1, in about 1652 I think it was, Hobbes published Leviathan. And in Leviathan you find several references to politics, the noun-word politics. And in John Locke’s essays on government and his other writings, his essays on toleration, for example, you get references to politics, by which he means government which is not dominated by religion and which represents the interests of male private property accumulators. And this was formulated in terms of natural rights. And there are a whole string of natural rights which were argued for. But these were really rights formulated by men, many of them Non-Conformists who were chafing against the restrictions of the sacred monarch and his court, and the Established Church that legitimated the sacred monarch, performed the coronation ceremonies, gave him the legitimation to do what he liked, basically. He was an arbitrary monarch. He was portrayed as a tyrant by the people who wanted to free up government from the control of this particular ideological complex of the sacred monarch. We can call it the Ancien Régime, to generalise it. Because France was in a very similar situation where you have a closed hierarchy of classes, which is born into land ownership and born into status, and it’s basically a fixed order of divine conception (10:00). And the sacred monarch is the heart of the nation. The sacred monarch is God’s appointed and anointed representative on earth. So the sacred monarch had enormous powers. And there were a lot of people at this time who were Non-Conformist, who didn’t believe in the Established Church and who didn’t believe in the sacred monarch. It was very dangerous to say so. Now John Locke was one of the most powerful and influential writers to question the status quo of the time, and to try and redefine what a number of terms really mean. And religion is obviously is one of the most important. But you see, I can’t find a consistent discourse on the noun-word politics in English before around the middle of the seventeenth century. The most consistent, in developed discourse on politics, that I can find is in John Locke where he defines politics as a government not representing the arbitrary power of a sacred monarch, but governments protecting the natural rights of Englishmen. And this is gendered. I’m using the expression Englishmen because women were not really much in the picture.

DR: And it’s not all men either, is it? It’s the wealthy, landowning classes. So it’s not only gendered, but there’s class in there as well.

TF: Oh yes, definitely. Because, of course, one of the great sources . . . the new sources of private property at this time was from the enclosures. And the enclosures were where legislation, bills, were passed in the House of Parliament – which is the legislature – in order to transform a piece of common land into private property. Now common land was land which for centuries had been conventionally shared in ways which were determined by local customs, you know. But there were very definite ways in which people subsisted on common land. Often a lot of the most poor people in feudal society, they were working part of the time for the local master, the local lord, but they were also working for their own subsistence. And they had common land to do this on. Now when that common land started disappearing through the Enclosure Acts, land that had been shared by different classes of people according to different conventions and customs was now being enclosed and declared to be private property of an individual. And I think this is very significant, because these enclosures were continuing right the way through the seventeenth, the eighteenth and well into the nineteenth century. And more and more people were being deprived of their traditional subsistence, and were being forced out into homelessness, and poverty, and starvation. And you get, during that period, you get a growing problem of vagabondage – huge numbers of poor people who were being turned into vagabonds. And these vagabonds were despised by the owners of land, because they were a living source of disharmony, and conflict, and discord. And they were treated really badly. And there was a parish system of which was called the Poor Laws, where people without any kind of subsistence had the right to seek help from various parishes. And the parishes were supposed to give them help, and food, and various other necessities. The Poor Law system was becoming very overburdened because there were more and more poor people who were calling on it. And this created resentments from other people. So you get a very messy situation. Now what’s happening to all these vagabonds, all these poor families that are being turned off the common land and no longer have anywhere to subsist, any land to subsist on? Well gradually – especially during the eighteenth century, they’re going into the new industrial centres and becoming wage labour (15:00). Before that, a lot of them were becoming wage labour, agricultural labour. There was a huge growing agricultural wage labour. So the people who lost subsistence land were losing their conventional ties to the old estate system, the old feudal system, and were becoming like loose cannons. They didn’t have any place in any kind of system or structure. So they were becoming, as it were, peas out of a pod. They were rolling around the place, and looking for work, and often going into the growing craft centres. But they were also working as agricultural wage labour. So that was one of the complex processes, but a very definite process that was occurring as part of what I would describe as the emergence of Modernity. And it’s important to realise that the natural rights that these men were proclaiming – from John Locke and many others going right the way up to the natural rights of the declaration of independence, and the US constitution, and beyond – these natural rights were habeas corpus: you can’t be arrested without being charged with some crime, you have to have access to a lawyer. Another right would be to express one’s views in public, the right to publishing, and so on. But I think that the key right was the right to accumulate private property. And to have that private property represented in parliament. So if you traced the way that parliament and government changed during the second half of the seventeenth century, going on into the eighteenth, you get, increasingly, the idea that the real function of parliament is to represent the natural, inalienable rights of individual private property holders against the predations of the sacred monarch, against the invasions of the tyrant prince, against arbitrary taxation, and these kinds of things.

DR: It’s not a liberty in some abstract, metaphysical sense. It’s the liberal order: the freedom to own property without interference from, as you say, from the divinely appointed monarch.

TF: Yes, I think that’s true. I think that that was . . . . Because, after all, not only through the Enclosure Acts but also in this colonial situation which was burgeoning, more and more money could be made out of colonial production – including the slave trade. I mean, the men that we’re talking about who were demanding representation in parliament on the basis of property qualification, these were often the same men who were not only benefiting from the enclosures but they were benefitting from the plantations and colonies that were being established. For example, in North America, John Locke had very specific interests in the Carolinas. William Penn, who was another rather like-minded Non-Conformist – he was a Quaker – was the founder of Pennsylvania. Both of them were people who loved to write bills of rights. They were the inventors of bills of rights and constitutions. And their bills of rights and constitutions were actually adopted in the Americas. And what they were demanding was, again, they wanted government that represented natural rights – but particularly the natural rights of white, male, private property accumulators – including, of course, the salve trade. I don’t think William Penn was involved in the slave trade.

DR: No. But George Washington certainly was!

TF: Yes, absolutely. And so was John Locke. I mean, John Locke had investments in the Africa Corporation or whatever it was called. You had the East India Company (20:00). But there were also other companies dealing with specialised areas of trade. They were royal charters, but they had private investors. And I think it was the Africa Company that was very much involved in the slave trade. So I mean these men, people like John Locke, they were ambitious. They wanted private property, they wanted to accumulate and they wanted representation in Parliament. I think an awful lot of the 1688 Bill of Rights and the invitation for the Protestants from Holland, William and Mary. . . this was all involved in consolidating this new view of Parliament. Now, you mention the word “liberty” and that’s a very important one. Because liberty was a term that comes up in the Magna Carta in the 1215. And I think there was a second Magna Carta in 1225, or something. Liberty is central to the Magna Carta. But that was in a very, very different situation. The liberty that was being demanded then was the liberty of powerful nobles, with their own private armies, demanding liberties from the king. Well in the beginning of the seventeenth century, Sir Edward Coke, who was a very effective jurist, he began to really do a lot of work on this term liberty, and to extend its meaning in a way which became much more useful for the situation in the seventeenth century. And the meaning of liberty became very much to do with the liberty of being represented in Parliament – your own natural inalienable rights being represented in Parliament. Particularly, it was about property. I mean, you could call it the democratisation of property, but I think it was a new system of private property whereby land became commodified in such a way that it could be bought and sold for cash. And we’re talking about the land which was derived from the enclosures. We’re talking about the theft of Irish Catholic lands by Cromwell, who took over . . . . He took over with him a man called Sir William Petty who was a polymath, a brilliant guy. He was good at just about everything. And he was taken over by Cromwell as the Land Surveyor General of Ireland. And he measured out a great deal of land in measured plots. He devised a method to measure plots of land, so that it could easily be quantified, valued, bought and sold. And the methods that he used were actually used on a much larger scale by Thomas Jefferson in the 1780s, when they started surveying the land systematically from the East Coast, going right up to the Appellations. And later it would go much further. But these are vast tracts of what they thought were empty land. Actually they were Native American lands. But the Native Americans didn’t think that any individual could own land. It was completely inconceivable to them. So these empty lands were being measured out in saleable plots by Thomas Jefferson and a whole team of land surveyors. So what you have is not only the emergence, the birth, of a global private property market in land, but private property in capital. I mean, private property can take a lot of different forms. And going back again to John Locke, John Locke was involved in the founding of the Bank of England in 1694. This seems to me to be . . . . The founding of the Bank of England seems to me to be as important to the invention of religion in its modern dominant sense as a private, personal, communication with God which has nothing to do with government.

DR: Well I think this is what’s so fascinating about Discourse on Civility and Barbarity, particularly, is this analysis of the historic development of the category of religion and its others. In fact it leads to a clearer idea of the function of this category which is to normalise and mystify the processes of colonial power and the power of land owners (25:00). But what’s interesting is that that mystification has been so successful that despite these being historically contingent, and shifting, and unstable, and sometimes empty categories, nonetheless it makes up this contemporary episteme in which we live and in which these ideas have become so normalised. And not only normalised and neutralised, but the actual basic organisation of so many of our institutions – you know, aspects of law and of parliament and academia and just everyday speech.

TF: Yes, I think you’re absolutely right. I think that there is a process where a number of narratives or stories are being told. For example, “man in the state of nature“ – which was a story told slightly differently by Hobbes, by Locke and later by Rousseau. But man in the state of nature, it seems to me to be a complete fiction but which nevertheless had great rhetorical power, because it invented a kind-of an original human nature which is of the lone, individual survivor – kind-of savage survivor – using his native intelligence to accumulate everything that he needs for himself and his family. And, again, I’m using gendered terminology because, after all, it wasn’t woman and the state of nature, it was man and the state of nature. And women don’t . . . they usually get included in family. You can imagine this noble savage, or just let’s say this savage, surviving through the wit of his own native intelligence. And providing for his family against the competition of other individual savages who are also trying to grab what they can for their own ends. And this is a completely unrealistic picture. We know from anthropology . . . . Anthropologists who have studied say hunter-gatherers know that this is completely not as humans groups survived or prospered. They didn’t survive as competing individuals. But this idea of man and the state of nature puts that on the table in a powerful way. And it’s aimed against other alternative versions. For example, John Locke. The first of his treatises on government is an extended critique of a man called Sir Robert Filmer who wrote a book called Patriarcha. And Patriarcha is . . . it’s actually a very powerful representation of what was considered to be an orthodox Christian Protestant, post-Reformation – but pre-Modern, I would say – view of the world. And basically it’s this enclosed, hierarchical, fixed system in which everybody knows their place. And the whole is harmonious as long as everybody does what they’re supposed to do, at whatever level of the organisation they operate, whatever their status is. And man in the state of nature was a deliberate attempt to subvert this idea of the harmonious hierarchical, patriarchal society, and to introduce the idea that we’re all in our real, natural souls individuals who are struggling to survive, and we do it through our own native intelligence. And those of us who have the higher intelligence will be able to accumulate more. However, the people who were in this situation at some point came to realise that this is all so fictitious that they needed a system of rules that protected each other’s property, so that if there was any contestations over property rights then the rules could be used to sort them out (30:00). And, of course, the rules were the laws which we needed a government to represent and to enforce. So government or politics ought to be about the representation of laws that defend the various natural rights that such as private property. So this is the fiction of the contract theory of government. You start with man and the state of nature. How do human beings get out of the state of nature? Why they make a contract with a particular form of government which will look after the laws that ensure that their property is kept safe and that whoever owns what gets their just rewards. That’s a completely new . . . this idea of government completely dislocates the old one. I mean, it was both heretical and treasonous. And that’s why John Locke, and other people who argued like him, had to keep escaping from England and going to Amsterdam to get free of these charges of heresy or treason. So this is what these narratives do, it’s that they explain what the real meaning of other ideas are. Liberty – the real meaning of liberty comes through these narratives. And the term “liberal” is another one that begins to crop up, which I’ve done quite a lot of work on. So I think that . . . does that . . . ? Sorry, I’ve rather lost myself! Does that answer what you were mentioning?

DR: Yes. Well, what I want to do now is kind-of step up a level, and sort-of think a little more broadly about this . . .we can call it like cognitive colonialism, or this modern episteme, where terms like religion, the secular, liberal, liberalism, politics, where these kind-of make sense. And you’ve described these as being “empty signs in an automatic signalling system”. And I wondered if you would tell us a little about what you mean by this?

TF: OK. Well, I mentioned to you that in the last session that I found that there were so many references for religion, so many things are religious that the term seemed to lose any specific meaning.

DR: Right, yes. There’s a religion of everything!

TF: There’s a religion of everything. So it’s become the generic abstraction with very problematic boundaries. It’s very difficult to know what cannot be included in this term. But on the other hand, you’re getting the development at first of a very minority Non-Conformist idea that religion has a very specific meaning, which is that it to do with your own inner devotion and worship and your own morality and your own concerns with life after death and it has to be clearly distinguished from another domain which is about the government of this world, according to laws. And particularly the defence of the private rights of individuals. So but then, at the same time, you find that all of these terms, as they get used in more and more rhetorical situations throughout the eighteenth century, they all develop the sense of losing their original fairly concrete meaning and becoming inter-generic categories. So that today, not only do we have a religion of everything but there’s a politics of everything. So politics, it seems to me, is a noun-word which is actually invented in the second half of the seventeenth century, to talk about a particular form of government which was both treasonous and heretical at the time, but which has become so generic, so abstract, there is now a politics of everything. There are political systems everywhere, and at all times in history. And this also leads onto the question of political economy. Because you know the term political economy is also around from an early time in the seventeenth century (35:00). And by the time of Adam Smith, say, in his Wealth of Nations, which was published in 1776, political economy is itself a discourse: there is a subject called political economy which is emerging in the eighteenth century. So the question of where does politics end and political economy begin becomes important. And I couldn’t find . . . I’ve done a lot of research on the history of the term political economy, and I can’t find. . . . There doesn’t seem to be a solution to this. And then in the late eighteenth century, early nineteenth century, you get the term economics breaking off from political economy, and becoming a subject of study in itself: a science of economics, classical economics, liberal classical economics. So economics becomes defined as its own area of expertise. But what is, actually, the area itself? How do we define economics, and distinguish it from political economy, or simply politics? You know, what part of economics can be distinguished from politics, and what part of politics can be distinguished from economics in modern discourse? So that was another problem. There was also. . . I came to realise that what was happening from the late seventeenth century is that a number of terms which have a kind-of typical deployment, were becoming abstracted, and reified, and turned into generic abstractions. And one of them was history, which I’ve more recently been doing a lot of work on. You know, you get an older term, history, which had, if you like, local meanings referring to the genealogies of kings and great events, heroes, local memory, all sorts of things in history. But by the end of the eighteenth century you’ve got History with a capital H emerging as a scientific study, and it’s become Universal History. You know, it’s the History of the World: Turgot in 1751. He was a very influential French philosophe. He developed some really interesting writing on the idea of the progress of the human mind through universal history. I mean, look how far we’ve come – the progress of the human mind through universal history. Progress – you can’t think of history without progress. The modern dominant idea of history as a professionalised academic discipline was born in conjunction with the idea of progress. Not only does history seek to find how we progress – the route by which humans progressed from the past into the present state of European Enlightenment – but also history comes to be a sign of progress. In other words, only Euro-Americans are advanced enough to come to realise that there is a history of the world, a universal history, which is the history of the progress of the human race up until that point in history – i.e., the leaders of this progress, the European philosophes, whether they’re in France, or Germany, or Scotland, or England or North America, or wherever. So you get all of these terms which are increasingly problematic. You’ve got religion, politics, political economy, economics, progress, history. You’ve also got the term “modern”. Well what does modern mean? Where it did come from? You’ve also got the term “the Enlightenment”. Again, I’ve done quite a lot of research into the concept of the Enlightenment. And what I’ve found is that nobody can agree on when the Enlightenment began. Nobody can agree on when it ended, if it at all ended – some people think the Enlightenment is still going on. Nobody can agree on which the most important thinkers were – which is interesting because some come straight to mind, but there’s enormous disagreement among experts on that – nor on what the fundamental ideas of the Enlightenment are. In other words, all of these things are contested (40:00). But the term the Enlightenment, like the term modern, like the term progress, like the term history, like the term religion, or politics, or political economy, we use them as though it’s obvious what they mean. So it seems to me that what’s happened is that they’ve . . . that the rhetorical history, if you like, of these terms, has progressedly buried the history of conflict, contestation, the indefinability of all these terms, and they have become as it were just unitary signs which we can deploy automatically, without thinking about their history of conflictual contestation and so on, without thinking about what they mean. We can bury a whole number of very problematic aspects of these generic categories by simply deploying them as though they’re signs in an automatic signalling system. And in fact, I would go further, it seems to me that we are more operated on than operating. I mean these signs, these general categories, operate our texts. In fact they constitute our own subjectivity to a large extent. Our idea of ourselves as being autonomous agents – which actually feels like an inherently intuitive experience of myself as an autonomous agent, but is very much dependent on this whole ideology that has been constructed out of these empty categories . . . of which the individual may be one of the most empty. So this is how I move from talking in a kind-of Dumontian sense of the configuration of modern categories. I was influenced by Durkheim‘s attempt to describe collective symbolic representations in his work on totemism. I’ve been, to a certain extent, influenced by the idea of the expression meta-categories and meta-narratives of Lyotard. I have probably been influenced, largely unconsciously, by semiotics deriving from Saussure, possibly Derrida, but I’m not directly indebted to them at all, because I didn’t come by that route. I think, probably, I’ve absorbed through the skin a great deal of the influence of these writers and thinkers. But basically, I came to this idea of signs in a signalling system through just looking at these categories and trying to work out what they are, what they mean, what their range of applications is, what their origin was and how they were used in the origin, and how they’re now used. Does that make sense?

DR: Very much so. And I think it’s a perfect place to wrap up. I think you’ve summarised . . . . And it was nice that you brought it back to where we started, actually. That’s nice. But I just wanted to say thanks for speaking to us today, Tim, and sharing your ideas with the RSP.

TF: No, it’s a pleasure. Thank you very much for having me. And I hope we can continue this, because there’s a lot more to be said . . .

DR: Oh, absolutely! I’m stopping because we’ve run out of time. And that’s literally the only reason. But we’ll definitely organise another conversation soon.

TF: That’s brilliant.

DR: Thank you so much.

TF: OK. Thank you very much, David. Thank you. Nice to talk. Very good to hear from you.

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Intellectual Journeys: Insights from Timothy Fitzgerald’s Work

Intellectual Journeys: Insights from Timothy Fitzgerald’s Work by Craig Martin

Above, religion as a term appears in opposition to cult in a meme.

Tim Fitzgerald’s The Ideology of Religious Studies is, in my opinion, a modern classic in the field of the academic study of religion. In graduate school I read that book and his later, equally useful volume, Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. I’ve also found value in some of his other works, including Religion and the Secular: Historical and Colonial Formations and Religion and Politics in International Relations: The Modern Myth (in particular, I highly recommend the chapter titled “Radical, Religious and Violent” in the latter book). Tim’s work has been highly influential on aspects of my own, and I’m deeply indebted to his work; consequently, it’s difficult to respond to his RSP interview, other than to say “hear, hear!” Instead of responding by offering a criticism of anything Tim said in this podcast, let me expand or highlight two of the lessons I think we can learn from his description of his own intellectual journey.

 

To start with where the interview ends, one of the most important insights I’ve learned from Tim’s work is that the various concepts opposed to “religious”—such as “non-religious,” “secular,” “science,” or, in some cases, “spiritual”—are central to the rhetorical function of the term “religious.” In general, what I find objectionable about how the concept of “religion” is deployed in particular social contexts is the (dubious) rhetorical work it does in relationship to whatever is imagined or legitimated as its (superior) opposite. Some discourses devalue religion in relationship to science, while some discourses devalue religion in relationship to spirituality. Because of the normative connotations hung on these rhetorical oppositions, the use of the term religion often entails propping up its opposite as superior by contrast. There’s nothing new about this—these uses are articulated upon the legacy of modern Euro-American discourses that once distinguished true religion from false religion, distinguished religion from enthusiasm or superstition, distinguished sincere, inward belief from outward, dead ritual, or distinguished advanced, individualist societies from backward, primitive savages who don’t realize they are slaves to the collective. All of that is to say, one thing I’ve learned from Tim is that in order to understand how the concept of religion functions in practice, we should look at what it is being distinguished from and ask whether some social practices or social formations are being privileged or condemned with the discursive contrast.

 

Above, some forms of Christianity use memes to define religion negatively and in opposition to a more “authentic” experience of faith.

 

The second lesson I think we should take away is that intellectual growth requires exposure to new ideas, often ideas from other fields or disciplines. Tim describes having traveled to parts of the globe where English is not the primary language, thereby learning how people who use a different language see or divide up the world differently. Similarly, Tim also describes reading widely outside the field of religious studies. Like Tim, I’ve attempted to read as widely as I can, particularly in those university disciplines that help us understand human societies: history, anthropology, sociology, social psychology, political science, legal studies, economics, feminist theory, queer theory, critical theory, critical race theory, and some forms of philosophy. Along the way, I’ve attempted to integrate the knowledge from these different fields or disciplines, making connections where theories or claims overlap, or noting where some approaches allow me to answer some of my questions in a more sophisticated way than other approaches. Why recreate the wheel in one field if the theoretical wheel has already been built in another?

 

A significant consequence of attempting to read so widely is that my views and my vocabulary have changed over time, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes dramatically. In addition, I’ve come to the conclusion that our views and vocabularies must change as circumstances change. Pick up a psychology textbook from fifty years ago, and you’ll see a considerably different vocabulary and set of theories than you would if you picked up one published in 2020. Things are moving so quickly in computer science that they don’t even publish books anymore—by the time a book is published, its content is out of date. Sadly, we don’t see the same growth in religious studies, where one of our best-selling and most-often-used textbooks—Huston Smith’s volume—has undergone relatively minor revisions since first published in 1958. Prentice Hall’s bestseller, The Sacred Quest, isn’t quite as old but nevertheless adopts a phenomenological approach that is just as outdated as Smith’s. There’s a reason that medical doctors no longer refer to the four humours, just as physicists no longer refer to an invisible “ether.” By contrast, we’re still utilizing a century-old theory of world religions that has been shown to have originally been built out of racist European colonialist assumptions (see, in particular, Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism, or Tim Murphy’s Politics of Spirit: Phenomenology, Genealogy, Religion). We can and should do better.

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The Problem with ‘Religion’ (and related categories)

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

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


The Problem with ‘Religion’ (and related categories)

Podcast with Timothy Fitzgerald (17 February 2020).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TF: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DR: No, no.

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

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

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

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

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

DR: 1993.

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

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

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

DR: Yes, absolutely.

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

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

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How Religious Freedom Makes Religion

Religious freedom has emerged in recent years as a pivotal topic for the study of religion. It is also the subject of heated debates within many countries and among human rights advocates globally, where competing groups advance radically different ideas about how religious freedom operates and what it protects. While for marginalized and minority communities, this freedom can provide important avenues of appeal, at the same time, governing regimes of religious freedom have most often served the interests of those in power and opened up new channels of coercion by the state.

This conversation with Tisa Wenger, author of Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal, starts with the question of how religious freedom talk functions to shape the category of religion and to transform what counts as religious in the modern world. Using Wenger’s ethnographic and historical research on the Pueblo Indians, we discuss how local, national, and international regimes of religious freedom have shaped (or even produced) new religious formations, ways of being religious, norms of good vs. bad religion, or distinctions between the religious and the secular. In short, how has religious freedom (re)produced religion and its others in the modern world?

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, sardines, popcorn, and more.


 

How Religious Freedom Makes Religion

Podcast with Tisa Wenger (30 September 2019).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/how-religious-freedom-makes-religion/

David Robertson (DR): I’m joined today by Tisa Wenger. We’re here in Hanover at the DVRV conference. However, we’re not going to be talking about the German context. We’re going to be discussing how religious freedom makes religion. Tisa teaches in the Divinity School at Yale, including Religious Studies and American Studies, and is the author of the recent book, Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal. Welcome to the Religious Studies Project, first and foremost!

Tisa Wenger (TW): Thank you so much! It’s good to be with you.

DR: Let’s put the book in a little bit of context, before we get into a couple of case studies. Tell us how you started working on it. How did your early studies lead you to this subject?

TW: Yes. Well I’ll try to keep it relatively brief, instead of giving a full intellectual autobiography! But my first book, which was based on my dissertation, was called We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom. I started that book, not by thinking about religious freedom, but by thinking about race, American colonialism and category of religion. And I wanted to make an intervention into the kind-of Religious Studies conversation about to what extent is the category of religion a colonial imposition in various contexts. And I wanted to talk about that in relation to Native Americans, and for a variety of reasons ended up looking at the American south west and the Pueblo Indians in Mexico. And I argued, in that book, that Pueblo Indians only began really to contextualise their traditions as religion in the 1920s in order to make the argument for religious freedom. So that’s how I got to religious freedom – kind-of-like through the back door, so to speak. And when I finished that book I wanted to put a similar set of questions on a much broader historical stage. So I was asking, “Who’s invoking the idea of religious freedom and what kinds of cultural and political work does it do?” and, in particular, in kind-of imperial contexts, colonial contexts, and in relation to racial formation in the United States. So the set of arguments that you didn’t hear me talk about today had to do with race, and the way race is shaped in America is kind-of co-constituted with religion. And so I have argued in various other examples about how race and religion are co-constituted. But I was interested initially in this question of how religious freedom shapes or produces religion; when different sort-of social and cultural formations come to be conceptualised as religion, and how the category of religion is formed in that process. And so part of what I’m arguing in the book is that religious freedom disputes do important political and cultural work in that way, in shaping what is religion.

DR: Yeah. Right. And that, for me, is a very interesting aspect of your work. We’re very familiar with the kind-of human rights approach to this issue of, “How do we represent religions in the law?” and “How do we deal with religious freedom?” and these kinds of ideas. All of which, of course, sort-of assume this thing which needs to be represented. Whereas your argument is more subtle. So, if I’m understanding, it’s essentially that the category of religion is almost created in these legal negotiations about how we represent and recognise religions in the law – especially in a sort-of colonial context. Is that . . . have I got that correct?

TW: Yes that’s exactly right. But I would say that in most cases, it has not been created out of nothing, right?

DR: Of course, yeah.

TW: (Laughs). In most religious freedom controversies that we see . . . of course, the category of religion already was present and being used by people, but it is recreated and reshaped all the time. And in some cases, I think particularly in colonial contexts, you can see where local people – colonised people – start to use it for themselves for the first time, or pretty much for the first time, right? Because particularly the thing about US imperialism . . . . And religious freedom is such an important concept for Americans, generally – but for colonial officials in particular, who saw themselves as bringing freedom to the people they colonise, right?

DR: Right.

TW: And in some cases, bringing religious freedom was particularly important to them. So I’m interested in how, then, religious freedom served as a tool for kind-of colonial administration. But I’m also interested, then, in how colonised people take that principle and use it to kind-of speak back to empires.

DR: Right. Which is one of the most difficult aspects of post-colonial study of religion, I think, for people to get their heads around. It’s that it’s a process. There’s a two-way process. It’s not simply the baddies making the goodies behave in a certain way. But the category is reshaped, reconstituted and sustained in that dialogue where it is imposed in certain legal contexts. But then it’s also used by the people being colonised.

TW: Yes

DR: As an act of legitimatisation, yes?

TW: Yes. Exactly. So in the Native American case . . . and I can point to lots of specific examples, you know? In my work on the Pueblo Indians, and the piece of my book that you heard me present on today about Ojibwe Indians in Minnesota, in both cases you see US government officials with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) delegitimising indigenous traditions by categorising them as superstitious, heathenish, pagan, right? And indigenous people who really in their own languages and ways of structuring . . . . They had their own ways of structuring their societies, but those ways of structuring their societies didn’t really include anything equivalent to the category of religion as Americans understood it at the time. But they start to conceive of those traditions as religion in order to argue back against the categorisation of themselves as heathen savage, pagan etc., right? So this is why I title my first book We Have a Religion. This was a quote from a Pueblo Indian petition to the superintendent of Indian Affairs, saying “We also have a religion,” You know? “And you can’t ban it, because of the First amendment to the US Constitution.” Right?

DR: Yes. The clearest example that I’m aware of – it’s quite a well-known case, you know – is the way that Indian independence and Hinduism are kind-of coeval. So Hinduism is an administrative category, essentially by the British Empire, which then becomes one of the central motifs in the national identity of India leading directly into the Indian independence movement, and, you know, One Nation Indian political power today.

TW: Yes, that’s exactly right. And the sort-of construction of Hinduism as a “world religion” is happening in conjunction with that colonial history. Both by Indian intellectuals and by British . . .

DR: Absolutely.

TW: . . . for somewhat different ends. But it serves both of their interests to construct Hinduism as a world religion.

DR: Absolutely, yes.

TW: But native indigenous traditions, for Native Americans and elsewhere around the world, never got conceptualised or moved to that level of world religion, which is a different thing, as we know from Tomoko Masuzawa’s work and others.

DR: Absolutely. Let’s dig into one of those examples, then. The Pueblo Indians example is really fascinating. So perhaps you could take the Listeners through some of the details of that?

TW: Sure, so the Pueblo Indians are really a group of culturally related peoples in New Mexico, sort of related to the Hopi in Arizona. Related because . . . well . . . . Now I’m going to ramble! But they’re really four separate language groups that lived close by each other for several centuries and so came to share a lot of cultural characteristics. But they were colonised by Spain early on, as part of the kind-of northern expansion of New Spain up into what is now the south-western United States. And that’s hugely influential in shaping who the Pueblo Indians were by the time that the United States arrived in the region, after the Spanish American War in 1848. And most of the Pueblo communities – although not all of them – became Catholic under Spanish rule, and were pretty bilingual in Spanish and indigenous Tewa and Tiwa languages. And they, in the kind-of Spanish uses of religion, would conceive as Catholicism as their religion. So it’s not that they weren’t familiar with the category of religion. But under Spanish law, let’s just say, and in the kind-of Mexican New Spain, and then independent Mexico, there was no legal advantage because there was no religious freedom guaranteed to conceptualising indigenous practices as religion. So they had come to a kind-of accommodation with the Franciscan priests, who were mostly the clergy in the churches. And the Pueblos came to be named for Catholic saints and had feast days for the patron saint of each Pueblo, where they would practice traditional Pueblo dances as well as have a Catholic mass and a procession through the town. But they had kind-of come to an accommodation with the Catholic priests, the Franciscan priests, where they would . . . They talked about Pueblo kiva ceremonies and Pueblo ways as costumbre: custom, right?

DR: Yes.

TW: And so that really didn’t change under American rule until the 1920s, when there’s a new Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Charles Burke, who puts out this kind-of dance policy in order to enforce older regulations against Indian dances and those that . . . the one from the 1880s that I was actually referring to in my talk today. He, Charles Burke in the 1920s, tries to reinforce those relations.

DR: So, maybe just in a sentence or two, tell us what they are, because the Listener won’t have . . . .

TW: Right, so there was . . . and these are not laws passed by Congress, right? They’re more bureaucratic regulations within the Bureau of Indian Affairs, that’s nested under the Department of the Interior. And the Commissioner of Indian Affairs is in charge of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And he had immense sort-of executive power to regulate. And so this court of Indian offences was created by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs as a way to . . . . I’m sorry, I’m not being very brief here! But it’s relevant . . .

DR: No, this is good!

TW: as a way to, again . . . it’s a kind-of tutelary regime: a way to instruct Indians – and this is done in a very patronising way, so I’m kind-of echoing the patronising language that was used – to instruct Indians in civilisation and in the law. So they would . . . the agents would appoint a kind-of more – quote unquote – “progressive” Indian, to be the judge of the Court of Indian Affairs. But part of what the Court of . . . . There’re also kind-of regulations or there were a list of quote “Indian offences“. And nowhere in the documents extant from the time or in the regulations that were written up by the commissioner, was this referred to as “religion”. But it later came to be called the Religious Crimes Code. But the Indian offences that were listed in this code were “heathenish rites”, “the arts of the conjurer”, “the medicine man” etc., etc., right? And so native people could be, and were, fined and imprisoned for practising the arts of the conjurer, or participating in certain kinds of dances that were specified to be banned. But that had not . . . For various reasons the US control over Pueblo Indians was not nearly so strong in that period in the late 19th century. And it hadn’t really been enforced against the Pueblo Indians ever. And I don’t need to take the time to go into the reasons for that. But in the 1920s, actually – sparked in part by an exposé of Pueblo ceremonies, in which those ceremonies were depicted as sexually lascivious and immoral by missionaries and missionary-minded government agents – who were really, I think it’s safe to say, completely misinterpreting and misreading those ceremonies . . . .

DR: That’s a common way of representing any barbarous religion anyway, isn’t it?

TW: Correct.

DR: It’s a common language.

TW: Correct. So Charles Burke’s new regulations on dances, that were really just trying to re-inforce some of the earlier regulations form the 1880s, were sparked by a controversy of Pueblo Indian dances. So they were very much at the focus of the controversy that ensued. In the meantime, there were kind-of a group of Boasian anthropologists and sort-of modernist artists and writers who had settled in New Mexico, it was in Santa Fe, and who were starting to really romanticise the Pueblos as “ideal primitives” – quote unquote – right? And so some of those people also leapt to the defence of the Pueblos. And the Pueblo leaders themselves resisted the government suppression by saying, you know, “You can’t do this. Our traditions are religion.” But their re-categorising their traditions as religion was aided by the anthropologists and artists who were also starting to do the same thing, right? In a kind of celebration-of-primitive-religion way. So that’s what happened. Then it was a pretty big public controversy, I mean with articles in lots of national magazines and newspapers and such about the Pueblos. And one of the people who was centrally involved was John Collier who at the time had just become the head of a new reform association called the American Indian Defence Association. And he was becoming one of the biggest gadflies against BIA assimilationist policies. And then later under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’ with the New Deal, Collier was appointed as the commissioner of Indian Affairs – which was a huge overturn. And he reversed some of these policies outlawing Native American dances, and he did so on religious freedom grounds. That reform had its own limitations, of course. And most BIA agents, even after that point in the mid-1930s, continued to work closely with Christian missionaries. And even when they formally recognised the right of Native Americans to religious freedom, nonetheless still conceptualised religion with such a Christian model that they often ruled indigenous practices outside of what counted as religion, right? So what was considered religion was always being negotiated and contested on different Indian reservations between native people and government agents.

DR: And so was there also the kind-of opposite side of that? Does the legislation and the control then shape the way that the Indians are practising? Did they begin to think differently about their practices and maybe even emphasise different bits more, and focus on things differently as a result?

TW: Yes absolutely. So when I finished the book on the Pueblos . . . this was the first piece that I did for my new big sort-of broad-scope religious freedom book. My first transitional step I took was to say, “Well I’ve done all of this in-depth work on the Pueblos in New Mexico. Now I wonder how this happened, or can I tell a similar kinds of stories about other Native Americans elsewhere in the United States?” right? And “When did native people start to use religious freedom arguments?” and “How did that shift things for them?” I didn’t get to that part of . . . . I did make that kind of argument in relation to the Pueblos, as well, and talk about how reconceptualising their traditions as religion created new conflicts within Pueblo communities. But I want to talk now about the newer research that appeared in the second book, in the religious freedom book, that resulted from me asking, “Well, what did this look like more broadly?” And initially I was actually thinking, “Well, probably because there was such a concerted government attempt at suppressing these traditions and nobody was thinking of them as religion, that probably religious freedom wasn’t a pertinent category until the twentieth century.” But I found that not to be the case. I found that actually the more I looked, the more I found Native Americans from the beginning of the nineteenth-century really, in some cases, using religious freedom talk. And I would say, broadly speaking, there are at least two different types of ways that that was applied. So one, in relation to the kind-of stages of colonial history, perhaps – in early stages of colonial contact, before native nations were conquered, when you have Christian missionaries coming, where the native nations are not under US control – you often see native people saying something like “We’re not interested in your religion. We have our own religion.” And sometimes that directly becomes language about religious freedom and sometimes it becomes directly language about religious freedom that is also about protecting indigenous sovereignty, in a kind-of collective way: “Our people have our own ways. And you can’t take our land. You can’t take our …” You know? And religious freedom was part of that. But it’s not a religious freedom that is appealing to the US Constitution, because they’re not under the US Constitution. They don’t see themselves as being governed by the United States.

DR: Yes. And there’s maybe less of a . . . It’s maybe not to do with freedom of religion and the role of the secular. They’re more thinking in terms of religion as customs and that kind of idea.

TW: Yes. They using religion-talk, but in a way where it’s very integrated. But then, after Native Americans are conquered essentially, right – and that happens at different times in different parts of the country and for different native nations – but by the late nineteenth century, by the 1880s, really overwhelmingly native Americans have been conquered, and they have been restricted to reservations, and there are now new policies that are being implemented. And the Code of Indian offences that I was describing earlier is part of that period of a kind-of newly heightened effort at administrative control. And that’s when, immediately in that period, you start to see Native Americans on reservations resisting the suppression of indigenous practices. And sometimes native people refer to their “doings”: ceremonies, dances, all kinds of practices – you know, medicines, healing practices – they start to refer to some of them as religion specifically in order to make religious freedom arguments. And that started to happen in the 1880s. It accelerated with the Peyote movement, and the suppression of the Peyote movement. And I trace that history in the book. But you see . . . . And actually, the Peyote movement is a really interesting case with regard to the question you were asking about how that shifts indigenous traditions. Because, I mean, I don’t think the government suppression and the law is the only reason that Peyotists, and people in that tradition, started to talk about it in the language of religion. There were other reasons as well, but this was certainly one of them. But what is very clear is that the Peyote leaders and practitioners . . . structurally, the movement shifts towards a more, what we might call a kind-of Protestant – certainly a Christian – model for what counts as religion, in order to make religious freedom arguments in the courts, and in Congressional hearings, and before state legislators. And that happened in various places. But, you know, there’s the incorporation of the Native American church, right, that happened . . . which there was an anthropologist, James Mooney, who helped with that process. And the Native American church, you know . . . . Again Peyote ceremonies were, for various reasons, borrowing from Christianity. And some of the Peyote movements began to see themselves as Christian. But the fact that being Christian helped with a religious freedom argument meant that those groups had a boost, right? (Laughs). So there’s a kind-of incomplete Christianisation of the Peyote movement and the Native American Church that isn’t entirely caused by the need to resist government suppression and make religious freedom arguments, but is certainly encouraged and accelerated by it. And so, you know, Peyote is called “the sacrament”. Again and again, you see Indians trying to argue, you know, against legislation and suppression. And that is also in the climate of a prohibitionist period, when there’s a huge campaign against drugs and alcohol – and particularly alcohol, right? So there were crusaders who were employed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to stamp out the alcohol trade among Indians. And the Peyote became kind-of classified as a dangerous drug, alongside alcohol

DR: Right, yes.

TW: So the Bureau of Indian Affairs talked about Peyote and the Peyote as a cloak for drug dealers. They just . . .

DR: Right. Similar to the way that cannabis became . . . ?

TW: Yes. “They’re pretending to be religious in order to kind-of pedal drugs”, right? And so, in order to combat that kind of suppression and denigration, Peyote leaders would emphasise the kind-of positive moral effects of Peyote practice and Peyote worship, and talk about the sacrament, and talk about the church. So that was very much a necessary strategy for them. And I don’t see it . . . again, I don’t see it only as a strategy, but it was certainly accelerated by that. Yes.

DR: Yes, and on the RSP we’ve talked a few times – we’ve been talking about it over the last week here, as well – that all of these categories – you know, religion, race, the secular, human rights – they’re all part of an interlocking system. So it’s not just the one thing that affects the way that religion is constructed. But it’s part of a larger system in which those are the building blocks we’re working with.

TW: Right. Yes. So you reminded me, in saying that, of the point I was making in the talk I gave earlier today: about how religious/secular distinctions are even produced in some Native American societies in this process. Because what I found was – this was the part I didn’t quite get to in my earlier answer – but what I found was that in many native communities while religious freedom arguments appeared quite early, and many native leaders were making religious freedom arguments, sometimes kind-of strategically, tactically, that wasn’t the most effective way to convince a particular official to allow them to hold dances. Of course, sometimes dances went on, regardless of what the officials said, out of their view. But many Native Americans on many reservations, you’d see dances being held on the Fourth of July, on various kinds of national holidays and Christian holidays – you know, Christmas and Thanksgiving, but especially the Fourth of July – and native people and returned veterans especially after the First World War saying, “We fought for our freedom and we have the right to celebrate our freedom.” And, plus, “These are just social dances, and white communities hold dances too, to celebrate the 4th of July – so why can’t we?” And they, in those cases, would very much downplay any kind of sacred ceremonial. They didn’t conceptualise those traditions as religious for the purposes of these arguments. And so you see, I think, a kind-of differentiation between certain dance or ceremonial traditions that became defended and conceptualised as religion, and came to take on the characteristics associated with religion – which is really modelled after Christianity in the United States – versus those kind-of dance or ceremonial complexes that were defended in different ways and so were not conceptualised as religion. And so there’s a kind of religious/secular distinction that happens where some dances are secularised. But the point I want to make is even beyond that, that the very distinction between a religious dance and a secular dance is emerging in that process.

DR: Right. As a last question, then: what do you think . . . where are we, then, with the religious/ secular distinction in law today? Do you think this is something that we should be seeking to challenge? Or do you think that there is still some value in a religious freedom law?

TW: That’s a really big and hard question for me! (Laughs).

DR: I know it’s something you’re thinking through just now, so maybe it can be just initial . . . .

TW: It is. And I mean I am more comfortable trying to observe and map how it’s happening. Seeing the kind of work that religious freedom is doing. And I think in the contemporary United States certainly religious freedom disputes help shape what people think of as religious and what they don’t think of, you know. And why certain things, again and again, get sort-of coded as a religious issue, as a religious freedom issue, is complex and puzzling. But, you know, it should . . . I’m in two minds about the continued utility of religious freedom. And I have always come down on the side that . . . as kind-of muddled and complicated as its history is, that it’s a tool that has nonetheless been useful to lots of minority groups. And that we can’t just reinvent our world and our categories ex nihilo, right? We don’t have that kind of power as scholars. So is it better to try to eliminate religious freedom law? I mean, I don’t really think so. I might change my mind about this. You know. I think that while seeing how historically constantly negotiated it is – what gets included within the scope of religious freedom and how that shapes what religion even is in our society – that we’re better off pushing for more inclusive, but sometimes also more limited views of religious freedom. In the sense that I don’t think religious freedom should kind-of trump every other value or principle of equality and justice that we have. In the history I trace, I think you can see how that tendency has been a problem and hence served . . . has been weaponised over and over again. And I think it’s still weaponised today. So I think we’re better off trying to kind-of reformulate and reclaim religious freedom. And I have a colleague and friend, Michael McNally who teaches at Carleton College and he has a new book coming out, on Native American religious freedom, which is really grounded in contemporary ethnographic research with . . . . Well, he’s worked with and learned from Native American activists and lawyers, and organisations advocating for religious freedom now. And he says that they’re very . . . these contemporary native leaders are very much aware of sort-of limits and pitfalls of religious freedom. But they nevertheless find it to be a useful tool alongside others. Even though it has failed repeatedly in the courts for Native Americans, contemporary activists would not want it to be gone.

DR: Right, yeah.

TW: Because they see it as way that they can . . . because religious freedom does have such cultural power in the United States that it can be a way to give a certain amount of moral authority to their claims. I mean that’s one of the kinds of arguments that he makes, and I find that very convincing. And so I think that for scholars who see religion as a constructed category and all of that – yes, absolutely. But who are we to say that activists shouldn’t have that tool, right?

DR: Absolutely. It’s been a really interesting conversation. There are a number of big questions that we’re not going to get time for today – so maybe we could have you back one day in the future to go more into the racial stuff,, for instance, which we didn’t really get too much in. But for now, Tisa Wenger, I want to say thank you for taking part in the Religious Studies Project.

TW: Absolutely. Thanks for having me! And I hope to be back, because, yes – there’s so much more to talk about!

DR: Excellent! Thank you.

TW: Thanks very much.

 

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Buddhism in the critical classroom

How do we deal with different cultural languages when teaching an Introduction to Buddhism course? A distinct religious vocabulary reveals itself during early assignments, where students freely deploy terms like “sin,” “atheism,” “afterlife,” and others in their discussions, associating sin with negative karmic action, atheism to their perception of Buddhism as a “godless” religion, the afterlife in reference to rebirth, and so forth. How do these “cultural languages” or “religious language” inform our pedagogical strategies in the classroom. Is cultural familiarity something to be broken immediately and displaced by new concepts and perspectives? Is it to be leveraged as devices for easy onboarding to other, more unfamiliar terms and ideas? Are they to be outright ignored?

To discuss this, David Robertson is joined by Matthew Hayes from UCLA for a wide-ranging and open discussion.

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


Buddhism in the Critical Classroom

Podcast with Matthew Hayes (13 May 2019).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Hayes_-_Buddhism_in_the_Critical_Classroom_1.1

 

David Robertson (DR): Well, I’m pleased to be speaking today to Matthew Hayes, who is a research student at UCLA – that’s the University of California and Los Angeles. Welcome to the RSP, Matthew!

Matthew Hayes (MH): David, thank you very much. I’m very happy to be speaking with you. I appreciate it.

DR: You’re very welcome. You got in contact with what I think is a really interesting topic – something very RSP, combining our love of pedagogy and critical theory. And you wanted to talk about critical pedagogy in teaching non-Western religions. Maybe we could kick off with just a little bit of context as to who you are, and what you do? And maybe then we can get into talking about the course, and the specific kind-of exercises and stuff that you do?

MH: Sure. Yes, so my research kind-of broadly is centred on Buddhist ritual practice during the early modern period in Japan, which runs from 1603-1868. And I’m interested, really, in issues of ritual knowledge production and transmission and the formation and sort-of dissolution, also, of social groups in this context. I focus on a genre of devotional literature called Kōshiki. And my dissertation actually takes a look – a fairly narrow look – at one specific Kōshiki written by a medieval monk named Kakuban. And the research really traces later performative editorial and even pedagogical iterations of this Kōshiki, and really argues that these iterations served as vectors for the transmission of religious knowledge at a specific temple called Chishakuin, in Kyoto, during the seventeenth century or late seventeenth century. So my research is really a kind-of mix, I suppose, of kind-of an institutional study, it’s a textual study, it’s a social study, it’s a ritual study. So it’s a kind-of hybrid project in that way.

DR: Yes, it’s quite a good technique, I think, actually doing that sort of critical reading of text. It could be very enlightening from a critical point of view, as to the way that texts are interpreted and the way – in relation to their context over time of course . . .

MH: Absolutely. I think it’s fairly common to take ritual performance as a performance. So I’m trying to tread a thin line between performance and a textual study: sort-of what happens when we look at a ritual text as a text? Because, in a lot of ways, not only the ritual text but actually commentarial literature surrounding this text was taken up as a kind-of textual study by monks themselves. So it sort-of straddles a thin line between performance and a more cognitive study of a text.

DR: Cool. Now the question always come down to, in the classroom, how do we start? And you had quite an interesting exercise that you started with.

MH: Right, yes. So I teach fairly regularly here at UCLA. I teach an introduction to Buddhism course, which is, you know, a broad survey course, usually fairly highly enrolled: anywhere between sixty and a hundred students. It’s a GE course, which means students are required to take it to graduate. So there’s a fairly heavy writing component to this course. One of the kind-of early assignments that I give students is a . . . it’s almost a throw away assignment, right? It’s way to gauge base-level writing skills. It’s very low-stakes, it’s not worth very much compared to later research projects. But what it really does, I think – for me anyway – is it unearths a lot of assumptions about Buddhism as a religion in the minds of students. So the assignment actually asks students to take a stance, without any prior knowledge of the tradition – this is day one of the course, essentially, week one – and make an argument for Buddhism as either a religion or a philosophy. Right? So this is kind-of a foil for me . . . or kind-of a straw man, to set up assumptions and kind-of pre-existing knowledge, if any, about the tradition, which is either refined or displaced over the weeks as the course goes on. And so that’s essentially the assignment (5:00). It allows students to kind-of express whatever they can, if they can about Buddhism as a kind of template of sorts that will be reworked and reformed as the course goes on, in their writing.

DR: Yes. It’s an interesting . . . I have done similar ones. But I never done that exercise focussed specifically on Buddhism. The fact that you do is interesting. Because I think you would get different answers depending on which tradition you were asking, I think.

MH: Right. Absolutely. So that’s the other kind-of component. And it’s meant to be broad, right? It’s meant to . . . it’s another one of the straw men that I’m setting up for students. The course, of course, culminates after a number of weeks and we discuss this issue of kind-of multiplicity or plural Buddhism that kind-of populate the world. And, of course, to accept this assignment as Buddhism in the singular as if it’s a kind-of monolithic tradition, already is a kind of trap for students, right? So they fall into this idea that there is this uniform practice, right, or uniform doctrine, or uniform engagement by adherents across the world. This is another thing for me to slowly break down across the course. So yes, framing it in that way is kind-of meaningful and utilitarian for me. It’s something that I can sort of leverage across the weeks.

DR: Absolutely. And students don’t go into the classroom . . . I think they have more ideas about . . . . Or, I’ll put it a different way. They’re more likely to have ideas about Buddhism going into Religion 101 than they are about Sikhism or Jainism, or something.

MH: Right.

DR: Buddhism seems to be – and this is certainly the case in the UK context – seems to be the next one that you look at, if you’ve been raised in Christian or post Christian context – I don’t know how it works with Judaism – but it seems to be the one that the teenager will then look at next in their interest in different religions. So I find that students arrive with ideas about Buddhism already.

MH: Absolutely. I find the same to be the case here in the United States – or at least in Los Angeles. A lot of that information, I think, is coming in from sort-of popular culture. Buddhism, in many ways, has found its place in mainstream culture, in popular culture. We have the Zen of —–, fill in the blank, right? All of these transmutations of the tradition for various purposes. So students are exposed to this all the time, whether they sort-of recognise it or not. And so another exercise I do at the very beginning, day one, is just to kind-of poll the class, you know: What is Buddhism? What do you think of when I say the word Buddhism? And of course, you know, the answers kind-of range but predominantly, you see a lot of stuff reflected in that same pop culture, right? A sort of a monk or a mendicant, sitting in a robe doing nothing but meditating all day, giving up possessions and so on, and so forth. Not necessarily incorrect, but it’s a fairly kind-of categorical view of Buddhism, kind-of a monolithic practice. So they do come in with something, right?

DR: And asking students to talk about Buddhism, and I think especially in framing it as a question of religion or philosophy – these kind of questions – this leads you to recognise what you’re calling a sort-of cultural language, a set of ways of talking about these things that the students are bringing into the classrooms. Is that right?

MH: That’s right. So when I poll the class – and certainly in this first writing assignment in which I ask them to take a stance on what Buddhism is, or what they think it is, inevitably – and this of course isn’t across every single student – but predominantly, across the class, I see a sort of common language being used in the classroom, and then of course in their first assignment. So, to talk about, or to get at what they think is a kind-of ethical aspect of Buddhism, right – prior to their understanding that gets worked and developed across the class – they use words like “sin”, right? And in their kind-of conception of Buddhism as a kind of – quote unquote – “godless religion” they might use a kind-of term like atheism to describe this. Similarly in their efforts to get at this idea of rebirth or kind-of cycle of being reborn back into the world, they’ll use word like “afterlife”. There’s maybe ten or twelve or fifteen of these terms that seem to come up during this first week or two of class (10:00). And so this, to me, was very compelling, predominantly because it seemed to be fairly uniform right across a lot of these responses. And so, during the first few years of teaching, just a few short years ago, I began teaching and thinking about what the kind-of implications are here, right? What does it mean to think about this sort-of set of ideas, and ideals, and concepts, and terms that students bring into the classroom, that are kind-of wielded in trying to define something otherwise foreign to them, or unfamiliar to them, or something that is ill-defined, at least from day one? So, yes: cultural language. There could be a better term. There’s probably a theorist out there who’s worked through some of this stuff a bit more accurately than I have. But cultural language or kind-of a cultural location from which they appraise a religion that is unfamiliar. Something like this.

DR: Right, yes. But it will work for our purposes today at least. So the question that you raised is talking about what we do with these, then, in the classroom. And you set a few strategies which I’d quite like you to sort-of describe each of them in turn. Because it’s quite interesting. And I have a few reflections on some of these as well.

MH: Sure.

DR: Whether we start with that now, or whether we go a little bit more into what we’re trying to do in the classroom first and foremost – what do you think?

MH: Yes. Maybe we could talk a little bit about this first. I mean just sort-of what we do with these sets of terms, if that’s ok?

DR: Yes, absolutely. Well, to me it seemed like it came down to the question of what we’re trying to do in the classroom, in this introductory course. You know: are we, as the sort-of early anthropologists were doing, are we translating unfamiliar terms into familiar terms? Or are we doing something that is more destabilising. You know, are we challenging the terms that they’re using? I think it comes down to what it is that we’re trying to do. And I wanted to ask you what you think you’re trying to do. That sounds more aggressive than I meant to, but . . . !

MH: No, No! So, I mean, I don’t want to take a complete position here, but I would say what I tried to do, class to class, is probably somewhere in between those two approaches, right? So, you know, I was an undergrad once of course. And I have been in classrooms that took the approach of kind-of immediately discarding whatever terms or understandings or positions that were brought into the classroom and working to kind-of break bad habits, as it were; trying to kind-of replace these terms with something a bit more “in house”, or something a bit more accurate or specific to the tradition that’s being studied. And I think it’s fair. But from a kind-of practical perspective – and I was one of these students – it can sort-of scare them off a bit. It can be sort-of paralysing, once that sure footing is kind-of removed, or pulled out from underneath the student. And of course there may be some educators out there who’d say, “Well, we must shock them into this mode of critical inquiry by shedding a lot of these bad predispositions and habits, and replacing them with ones that speak more truthfully or accurately to the object under study.” I think that’s fair. But for me, again, I sort-of fall somewhere in between those two poles. So on the one hand, I do not by any means want to simply adopt these terms that students bring into the classroom and sort-of use them interchangeably. That’s very dangerous and risky, and does a real disservice to whatever is trying to be done in the classroom for the educator. But I also don’t think they should be sort-of left at the door, either. And so, allowing students – at least in the initial stages – to kind-of use a familiar footing, or use familiar language in ways that allow them to kind-of get an issue, or speak to a concept, or describe something, some practice or facet of a doctrine, I think, can be very, very helpful. And then, slowly, as the class goes on, you begin to kind-of replace or kind-of supplant those terms with something else. (15:00) So just to give a brief example, you might have students at the beginning of the course using, left and right, this term “sin”, right, describing it, in the context of Buddhism, however they sort-of deem necessary. And slowly, you might – either in paper revisions or in the classroom, verbally – you might begin to introduce a softer term, or kind-of related term like “transgression” – which I think is more kind-of categorical, it’s more broad, it’s not even necessarily Buddhist, right, but it is less Judeo-Christian. It sort of distances itself from that initial position. And then, as things proceed further, you might introduce – a bit more in the realm of Buddhism – something like “unwholesome action”, right? Or an action that sort of accrues karmic retribution. So, a bit more technically Buddhist and certainly a bit more accurate. And so, in a way, by introducing these kind-of in-between terms like transgression, that bridge that initial position to what we hope to kind-of develop as a later position for students – which is really a kind-of clear and accurate view of the Buddhist tradition in ten weeks, as best we can in a survey course – there are, I think, rhetorical strategies in the classroom, and certainly strategies that can be deployed on paper – revising papers and such – that can really kind-of steer students in a more natural way toward proper usage, accurate usage, and sort-of precise usage of these terms.

DR: Yes. And the language that is used is so tied up with histories of . . . social histories’ use of terms. It can be a very difficult task to upset associations of say Karma and sin and these kind of ideas. But there is a sort of . . . it’s often tied up with a call to de-colonise the university and things, these days – which is something I have some sympathy with. But I do, also, question the degree to which the university as we know it – the Western tradition of the university – how far we can actually go with, actually, not being there to translate one alien data language into a familiar data language. I think there are ways to start doing it – as you say – to find a middle ground. But I do think that we, more or less always, inevitably end up at doing that, the same . . . you know, the same way as comparative history of religions has always been . . . .

MH: Yes, it’s difficult. Ultimately we’re in a kind-of Western classroom under the guise of Western administration, right, which of course falls underneath this broader kind of category of Western perspective, and – if you want to take a critical view – of Western dominance. So you’re absolutely right. There’s a kind of difficulty, there, in being aware as an educator of where some of this language is coming from, where the predispositions of students are coming from, and certainly where our own predispositions are coming from, as educators trying to kind-of mediate for students. And it’s a real challenge to think that we can solve the problem, or completely do away with some of those underlying – as you say – sort-of colonial values, or issues of dominance, or invasion, and so on, and so forth. And I think you mentioned critical pedagogy at the start: I think someone like Ira Shor who really is championing just a basic awareness of this as educators. Just an awareness of this issue of dominance that kind-of bubbles beneath the surface of learning processes a pedagogical processes, I think is really the key here. So while we may not be able to save the day, right, in the end, or really kind-of play that role to its fullest – especially in a ten week survey course, it’s very, very difficult to have a long-lasting effect on students in that kind-of deep way that I think people like Ira Shor and others are speaking to – a kind-of basic awareness of this problem, I think, can go a long way, for sure.

DR: And I haven’t read Shor’s work, so that’s a great lead for me to follow up (20:00). I’m thinking specifically in the way that Russell McCutcheon teaches at Alabama, for instance. I think there is a deeper issue within the field that no matter what language we use – whether we’re sort-of successfully translating, or we’re using our own categories, or whatever we’re doing there – we are still operating within the Western category of religion. So even if we were able to translate those terms into their own language, we’re still . . . by dint of talking about religion. And it’s not something that we can escape, I don’t think. It’s part and parcel of the way the subject is set up.

MH: Absolutely. That’s the problem with teaching in a discipline that’s so, I think, acutely defined. And, much as we want to talk – especially now – about these issues of fluidity and dynamism, trans-sectarianism, trans-religious dialogue – lots of these kind-of things that tend to sort-of blur the lines between this tradition and that tradition, or sort-of gesture toward some shared similarities between the two – you’re absolutely right: ultimately we are teaching within a discipline, through a discipline and by the guidelines of that discipline. You’re absolutely right to think that that’s a real challenge as well.

DR: I think it’s a deep challenge. And I think it’s . . . I don’t know if it’s unique to Religious Studies. It’s certainly acute in Religious Studies. And in some ways, it seems a bit of a Gordian Knot. So I’m not surprised you’re saying that you position yourself in the middle. I don’t know where else we could really . . . ! And that’s kind-of why I was asking, you know: what is it that we’re doing in that introductory class? Because I’m not entirely sure myself what we’re doing in that introductory class. Except, I mean, I would personally go with a more sort of deconstructive route against . . . . But then, I’m not starting with Buddhism. I start with new religions, usually. And I think that there are some ways in which it’s easier. So my aim is not particularly to get people to understand new religions. It’s more to try and get them to think anew about their own traditions. And what they have taken for granted as being rational, or unexpected. And by showing them people who are very much like them, who do things that are supposedly crazy, or at least stigmatised, you know, that we can start getting them to think about the reasons for their own actions, and their own beliefs and things, and to break down the category a little bit. And start saying, “Oh, actually, this isn’t as straightforward a thing as I thought it was!” But I guess, coming from Buddhism is a completely different ball game.

MH: It’s difficult. You look at a tradition like Buddhism with a much longer socio-cultural history than something like a new religion, right? So, I think some time has to be spent, at least, doing the historical work to kind-of flesh that out. Students need a kind-of broader context, right? So, when I teach this course we begin in India, and we go all the way up to the modern West – which, in ten weeks, is just crazy, you know, to think that we can really do any kind of service to any of those traditions or sub-traditions that grew out across those regions. So, in a way, I do sometimes feel like a slave to that mode of pedagogy, right, having to do a lot of this kind-of early historical background. And, certainly, we spend some time with major figures. And I do my best, certainly, to bring out some of these broader kind-of critical issues: issues of what it means to practice – what is a practice? – what it means to engage with a religion. Some of those ideas that students bring into the classroom are immediately sort-of deconstructed for them, right? We talk at length, in my class, about a lot of scandals that have occupied the Buddhist world – not only in recent times, but in the past as well. So a lot of this kind of confrontational teaching – or teaching that aims to kind-of break students of what might otherwise be kind-of an ideal image of Buddhism in their minds, when they come into the classroom – a lot of that is at work. But just kind-of the age of Buddhism, right? (25:00) It is a very, very old tradition. So there is some responsibility I think I have to take, there, in sort of playing the set-up, right, doing the kind-of long set-up.

DR: Yes. Absolutely. So let’s talk, for the last few minutes then, about how we can sort-of use this assumption of familiar language or cultural language – however we want to call it – how we can use that to our pedagogical advantage. You know different strategies that we can use – to build out a language of familiarity, we’ve already talked about – but how we can use it to really enhance the students learning.

MH: Yes. Again I think this idea from Shor, who really kind-of pushes an awareness – or at least a sort-of attention to one’s biases not in a kind-of self-critical way but in a kind-of positive way, right? We’re meant to kind-of confront these biases, confront our cultural positions or locations, and I think, in his view, ultimately leverage them in the name of transcending them – at least momentarily. Transcending them for ten weeks in a survey course where we might adopt a more accurate set of positions, or set of terms that allow us to speak more kind-of faithfully to the tradition itself. And so, in terms of tactics, I will just confront this predisposition front-and-centre in the classroom. And so, in a way, I’ve always envisioned my job as an educator to be a kind-of collaborative learner, right, and a collaborative teacher. So, rather than taking this kind-of unidirectional approach and keeping this issue of predispositions and dominant culture in my mind, I’ll simply put it out there for the entire class to kind-of wrangle with and deal with. And so, once it’s out there on the table, we can all together be aware, as Shor says, or be kind-of cognisant of our own biases. And that allows us to kind-of use them positively. Use those biases in ways that help to better clarify, or better define, or better utilise terms that are otherwise foreign or murky for students. I think sort-of keeping a lot of those institutional biases, or cultural biases, or religious biases secret as a teacher is kind-of a disservice to students, right? It sounds to me like one of the things you might even be doing in your class in new religions, is building a kind-of awareness of habits, or awareness of preconceptions of what it means to be religious or, you know, do religious practice, or something like this?

DR: Right. Absolutely. I often start the class, actually . . . . I used to have a block that was in a sort of World Religions 101. And I was basically the . . . . You had the five world religions and I was the other stuff. And I used to start by asking them, “Ok, so you’ve had five religions – have you been told what a religion is?”

MH: Right, right.

DR: They, of course, hadn’t been at any point. And you know, I quite often will point out to students, “If you want to know what hegemony is – in terms of religions, what gets counted as a religion – look at the courses you’ve done! And they’ll think back to the first year and go, “Oh right! Yeah – it’s the same five!” The same things over again. And if you get something else, it’s stuck in as an extra, you know, and always with a qualifier – it’s “indigenous religions” or it’s “new religions”, or it’s “religious movements” or there’s some term that distances it . . .

MH: Right

DR: So yes. We talked about this in the book that I edit with Chris Cotter, actually. We called it subversive pedagogies: where you have to work within that particular set up – you know, in the university – world religions, and these kind of things . . .

MH: Yes, and I was just, very quickly . . . . Go ahead.

DR: Yes, I was just finishing to say: you can use it to your advantage.

MH: Yes. The nice thing about this sort of this issue is, it’s not – at least in recent years – it hasn’t been such a kind-of mystery. I mean there’s some scholars out there actually writing on this issue of what it means to do Religious Studies in academia; what it means to try to kind-of de-institutionalise or even, in some cases, de-colonise as you say the university. I’m thinking of Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions (30:00). So she really does a nice job of pointing directly at academia, at the institution itself, as a kind-of – to put it critically – a kind-of culprit in putting together what we now conceive of as – quote-unquote – “world religions”, right? So I thought of that when you said there were the first five, and then you as the sixth. It seems that this inclusive-exclusive grouping model, or this idea that there could be outliers to a – quote-unquote – “pantheon” of religion is not totally disconnected from the work that academics are doing. And in a lot of ways, I think, again people like Shor, and others, are pointing back at instructors and teachers as people who can sort-of re-orient the model or reconceptualise the model as sort-of not so categorical or exclusive or inclusive.

DR: Right, yes. And one of Tomoko’s points, and Russel McCutcheon makes the same point, and Tim Fitzgerald make the same point, is that actually in teaching that way, and presenting these things as facts, we are constructing that model and that worldview that the students then bring into the classroom.

MH: Right.

DR: And so one thing that’s quite interesting, when you described the exercise, “Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy?” it’s that we can use that in a discussion afterwards, “Well – what does it matter? What is at stake if we say that Buddhism is a religion? Or if we say it’s a philosophy, what’s at stake there? What practical effect does that have? You could connect the use of philosophy there with the fact that atheism is coming up, and gain a real insight, there, into the way that the term religion is being mobilised, in the milieu that the students exist in. So you’re no longer talking about, you know, two-and-a-half thousand years of Buddhist tradition and several continents, or whatever. You’re talking about the specific way that religion is being mobilised for students in their own world.

MH: Absolutely. I mean these students will go on to have hopefully a lengthy conversation but, in reality, a thirty-second conversation with their friends about Buddhism. You know, the word comes up, they see something on TV or whatever, and they might spout off a few lines about how they conceive of the tradition after having taken the class. And so, you know, the stakes are there. And it’s sort-of how we position the tradition in relation to students in their own learning process, but also how we position the tradition in relation to the kind-of broader categorical and institutional frameworks that I think have dominated for so long.

DR: Absolutely. It’s a very simple example of how we can flip from the students’ expectations that they’re coming into the classroom to be told facts, and flip it until now we’re talking about how ideas and our own knowledge is constructed. And that’s what I think we’re there in the classroom to do.

MH: Yes. Absolutely. Sort of a reflexive approach, I think, is really, really helpful.

DR: Absolutely. Matthew Hayes, thanks for coming onto RSP. It’s been a really interesting conversation. I’m sorry that we’ve run out of time.

MH: That’s quite alright. Thank you so much, David, I really appreciate it. It’s been very enjoyable.


Citation Info: Hayes, Matthew and David G. Robertson. 2019. “Buddhism in the Critical Classroom”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 13 May 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 9 May 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/buddhism-in-the-critical-classroom/

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

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Religion as a Tactic of Governance

In this interview recorded at the BASR/ISASR, Naomi Goldenberg considers how ‘religion’ has developed as a separate sphere from ‘governance’. She argues that ‘religion’ has been projected onto the past for strategic purposes, as a management technique, or even alternative to violence. How does viewing religions as “restive once-and-future governments” help us understand the functioning of this category in contemporary discourse?

She takes us through several examples, including Judaism, new religions, Islam and contemporary debates on abortion and circumcision. As well as a clear example of the functioning of the category ‘religion’ in the contemporary world, this gives some real-world applications of critical theory that shows its relevance beyond the academy.

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, candy, bandannas, and more.


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


Religion as a Tactic of Governance

Podcast with Naomi Goldenberg (21 January 2019).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Goldenberg_-_Religion_as_a_Tactic_of_Governance_1.1

DR: We’re still here in Belfast at the BASR conference, in 2018. And I am privileged to be joined today by our keynote speaker from last night, Naomi Goldenberg, of the University of Ottawa. Welcome to the Religious Studies Project – a return visit, Naomi!

NG: Thank you.

DR: So we’re going to pick up where the keynote . . . well, we’re going to pick up where the keynote started, last night, for everybody who couldn’t be here for what was an excellent session. Thinking of where to start a conversation today, then . . . . So the idea was, as I understood it, that religion – and just to clarify, we’re talking religion as a category here – has been projected . . . . The idea of religion as a separate sphere, a separate category, has been projected onto the past for strategic purposes. Tell us what you mean by that and especially this idea of strategic purposes – as a tactic. What are we talking about?

NG: Religion is a modern category, the way I see it. Not just the way I see it – the way many scholars see it. And not just the way we see it. It can be demonstrated that the term as meaning some kind of special separate sphere of human activity is a very, very recent idea. So in the past – “the past” is so big! I’ll maybe try to explain this in terms of probably the most effective sentence that I’ve ever come across to explain it, is that there is no religion in the Bible. And last night I began with a passage from Deuteronomy to illustrate that you might have – you do have – God in the Bible. You have all kinds of people that we identify with the category of religion now. But all of these figures were involved in government, not in anything separate that we could hive off and call religion. God was some kind of . . . conceived as some kind of monarch, some kind of director, someone who human beings could claim to speak for. But we get God as a principal of Government. Now, of course, government is a modern term as well. So I speak about governance with lots of different words. You could say ruling with authority, you could say commanding a polity, and it’s a very loose concept of governance that I’m using. But this governance was, we might say now, theocratic, whatever. So you don’t get something separate. Clergy – that’s another modern term projected onto the past – were involved with ceremonies of government. And anything that gets called religion, translated as religion in various ancient texts, tends to mean ceremonies that are related to governing. OK so if that’s accepted, then when the modern category of religion emerges – and it emerges in fits and starts in different places and slightly different times, in different ways – it emerges as a way for governments to manage displaced populations, according to the theory that I’m putting forward. And it’s a struggle of institutions, usually – always, actually – between males who were running various institutions. And the loser institution evolves as a religion – or can evolve as a religion – instead of being eliminated completely; instead of the polity being banished or murdered. So you have a category that allows for a quasi-government within a larger government. And then that quasi-government derives some sort of authority from seeing itself as, or perhaps truly being, a government of something in the past. And the strength of that vestigial government – (5:00) those displaced people, that displaced sovereignty – gets to fit into the category of religion. And with that, the state grants certain status to a group. I would say to the – it’s not just me who is saying this – the vestigial group is denied certain forms of violence, marshal violence, police violence, violence in waiting. That’s the violence needed to enforce court decisions. The mystification of that vestigial government occurs because of the connection with something in the past, or something with the narrated idea of a government that existed in the past. The sense of religion as a strategy is that it’s a strategy of dominant governments to manage this displaced or marginalised population. However, it can also be a strategy for the displaced population to claim the category, claim the mystification that surrounds the category, and put pressure on the dominant government for more rights. So it’s a double kind of strategy going on there.

DR: Right, yes. There was a great line you used in the keynote: “Religions as resting once and future governments.”

NG: Restive

DR: Restive, right

NG: Restive once and future governments, yes. I like that phrase “once and future” – sort of the “once and future prince.” It’s a sense of the government looking . . . considering itself to have been something more dominant in the past, and something that will be dominant in the future. So you get that double sense of time going on. And always ambitious – even though sometimes there can be long periods when you don’t see the ambition to aggrandise, to get more and more power, to have more and more spheres to be controlled.

DR: When we had . . . well, it wasn’t our conversation, but the previous Religious Studies Project conversation when we talked about religion as vestigial states . . . this seems to build a little bit on that. Or my sense of religion as vestigial states was more of this group of people who consider themselves as sort-of restive once and future government.

NG: I don’t think they . . . Often they don’t consciously think of themselves that way.

DR: Not consciously, but that’s the way it’s working.

NG: Yes. Right

DR: But this seems to broaden it out and, actually, looking at it the other way round as well – in the way that this can be something that’s very useful for the majority state.

NG: Oh yes. Very useful. Because the majority state can claim, sometimes – depending on relationships with the vestigial one – that it is supported by the vestigial older government, more mystified government. And we see that in the United States with slogans such as “In God we Trust;” with having clergy open up governmental ceremonies, the closeness of Government and the church in some places.

DR: And literally, in the UK, you know?

NG: Oh, very literally in the UK. Right!

DR: Literally. Yes and so, you know, mystification: obviously we have . . . if you want to listen to our interview with Tim Fitzgerald on mystification, if you’re unclear on that. Basically, this is a technique by which power relations are obscured and concealed.

NG: And also the nature of something, such as religion as a form of government, a form of rules, a form of law, regulation, ritual ceremony that is very like government, like what we’re considering government, is obscured by the mystification. So that’s not seen. It’s supposed to be something mysterious.

DR: There was something that immediately struck me during this conversation. And it’s always been of interest to me. We were talking about the fact that people who study religions in the classical world for instance, don’t really talk to RS people. There isn’t really a great deal of you know, interdisciplinary work on those kind of areas. And it’s always seems to me that what we talk about as being religion in say the Roman empire, or Egypt, or Greece or something, is much more like the kind of statecraft that we do. It’s much more akin to you and the Americans civil religion stuff that you do, (10:00) that Robert Bellah and people like that used to talk about.

NG: I think that goes . . . that approaches what I’m saying.

DR: But, theoretically, it’s the other way round. And that’s what I find very interesting about that.

NG: Yes. Good.

DR: So, rather than saying this modern statecraft is a bit like some kinds of religion, actually we can flip that and we can say, “Well, we don’t think of this as religion.” So why are we imposing that idea on states from 2000 years ago? Why do we use the category religion to talk about the polis, and the Olympic Games, and these kind of things, in Rome? Is this part of this tactic of managing . . . ?

NG: I’m not sure it’s part of the tactic of management – although it might be, because it gives the vestigial government a lot of power, and a lot of mystery, and a lot of emotional valence. And then when the dominant government relies on the vestigial government, hearkens to it, hearkens back to it, it also gains that kind of power. But let’s see. I’m so tired from last night! (Laughs).

DR: Yes!

NG: But the mystification, how that . . . .Where were we? Let’s pick up the thread again.

DR: So we talked briefly about mystification, then I switched to this other thing: this fundamentally, I think, changes that conversation. So we had, you know, in the sort of Sociology of Religion, in the classic 1960s Sociology of Religion, we had this idea of quasi-religion or state religions or civil religion. But this actually changes that conversation. Because now we could actually say, “Well, if that’s religion then, you know, why do we have to call that religion?” We could just not call it religion. We could call it statecraft.

NG: You could call it statecraft, exactly. Yes. There’s a point I wanted to make. I’m sure as we start to talk it will come back. I have to explain to your Listeners that we spoke in a group. And continued speaking. . . . (Laughs).

DR: We’ve been speaking for hours about this!

NG: Hours! (Laughs) in the pub last night!

DR: It’s not uncommon, you know. We sit down to record these and we have to come back to the beginning because, yes . . . The Listeners don’t want to hear our in-jokes, probably!

NG: (Laughs)

DR: Ok. Let’s . . . I think it might be useful for the Listener to have a couple of examples. And there were a few interesting examples.

NG: Oh, I’d like to say one thing about that. I think the mystification of something in the past, that we can say is religion and is eternal, comes from, in some ways, “world religions” discourse.

DR: Right, yes.

NG: And I think it works the way world regions does as a category – although there’s a lot of argument about when that starts, exactly. Some trace it back to mid-1600’s, or whatever, when Christians discovered that there were other peoples in the world who actually didn’t know anything about Christianity. And then, various scholars have shown that when these new-to-the-Europeans areas were discovered, the first . . . one of the first things that explorers say is that, “Oh – there’s no religion here. These people are primitive. There’s nothing.” And then, after the explorers are there for a while, they begin to notice something that might be . . . “Oh, that could be a primitive form of religion.” And, guess what! It is! It’s a beginning. And Christianity is the evolution, the apotheosis, the pinnacle of this development. So the fact that there is this thing we can identify maybe as a thing called religion – it could be anything, could be ancestor reverence, it could be rituals at tables, it could be anything, ghosts, spirits, whatever – gets named religion and then gets projected onto the past as a justification for the presence of Christian religion now.

DR: Yes. Yes.

NG: So I think that some of that is there – but as an inferior form. Or as another form.

DR: Yes. Yes. I think it might be useful for the Listeners to have an example that I think is quite a clear one. I know this isn’t particularly your original work, but I think it’s a very good case study, to look at Judaism, and the way that we see that moving through a number of different ways of being interpreted, until we end up with Judaism as . . .

NG: Or, as some people say, many Judaisms. There are scholars who trace this rather specifically (15:00): that you didn’t have anything that could be called a religion. You just had people, who lived in a given area. And as these people were conquered by a range of . . . a succession of empires, if those who weren’t killed cohered, or were allowed by some governments. You could look at the way Cyrus dealt with what we could call the Jewish people. He allowed them to have certain rituals, certain places, rebuild the temple – but temple in the sense of like a city hall. Because temples in the past weren’t separated with what we would call worship, now. They were places of commercial exchange, they were law courts. There were lots of things going on. So by creating this separate space, or this area, governments at that point were creating what gets to be now called religion. In the case of Judaism . . .

DR: They were also a lot to do with food practices. Now again, this is another example of reading religion into the past. So we go, “Oh they were involved in sacrifices, or ritual preparations of meat.” But the idea that these are religious practices is again, something that we read into the past.

NG: Something that develops later.

DR: But we could think: well, it’s just the reason that, you know. . . . Like, Scottish people like to eat white bread, and would go to a shop that sells the only white bread from Scotland when they go to live in Canada, or something like that.

NG: That’s right. And if you made at certain points, you could make the Scots into a religion. It could be that kind of category. So, whatever the Jewish people did became cohered as Judaism. And as I was speaking last night about how there’s . . . . It’s true, in the case of the Jewish people, that you have a confusion – Is this a religion? Is this an ethnicity? Is this a nation? This is all together . . . . Is it a culture? And I think that underlies, actually, all polities that take on that category. That there’s a lot of ambiguity there. That belief is maybe one factor and not a very important factor at all.

DR: And there are quite strong arguments that Judaism, the idea of a religion, is quite a late development and they were seen, historically, much more often as a race than they were as a religion.

NG: Which is another problematic kind of . . .

DR: Which is a whole other can of worms! But the point is that these different categories . . .

NG: All coming from the idea that to be a Christian you have to believe something. So, gradually, I see a change in Jewish people. Many Jews now think that you have to believe something to be really Jewish. Jews never have to believe anything. You were born of a Jewish mother, or you were part of the community that made you Jewish.

DR: Well . . . and that’s “belief” in a very Christian sense of a credo,

NG: Exactly.

DR: You know, a stated belief: this is what I believe, I know it doesn’t make sense to everyone but I’m committed to it in some way.

NG: Yes. So then you have to worry, if you stop believing that, do you fall out of your Christian-ness in some way? And Jews never had to worry about that.

DR: You also made a really good point, it was quite quick in the presentation, about the way that this – in terms of like “Islamist”, and terms like this – where people seem to be reluctant to use the term religion.

NG: Well, the key factor there is that when a group in contemporary times does something violent –marshal violence or police violence, particularly – that isn’t authorised by the state, then the title of religion becomes problematic. Because the key thing for creating the vestigial government is that it will not have any kind of forms of violence that could challenge the state. So Max Weber said that a long time ago – not about the category of religion, but that legalised violence is the one thing that the state always holds onto for itself. So it’s the one thing that isn’t generally franchised out to religious groups. Of course, when we get to the sphere of sex and gender, those are the kinds of jurisdictions that are sometimes ceded by the dominant state to the vestigial one (20:00). And you would have family courts that are authorised by the state in some countries, family courts run by quote unquote “religious authorities”, who would be able to decide.

DR: And why is that different? Why . . . say, circumcision practices? Why does . . . why is that form of violence allowable, and not others?

NG: For some reason. I think it’s a vestige of male authority over women that both the dominant state and the vestigial one claim. But somehow the state is more willing to give that jurisdiction, which I suppose was not seen as all that important, over to vestigial authorities.

DR: Perhaps it’s a situation where it benefits the state, but it slightly clashes with stated aims. So, by sort of allowing – “We’ll just turn a blind eye to these religions, vestigial states doing it – suits us in the long run.” Because it restates male . . . patriarchy.

NG: Male dominance and . . . supports male dominance that’s another point I was making, that the male dominance of the vestigial state is generally always the case, always male – partly because it’s hearkening back to something in that past which was . . . in recorded history it seems to be male governance all the time. I think you’re right. It reinforces male-dominance. But it’s quite frightening, because women and children become subjects of two governments. The dominant one and the vestigial one.

DR: And male children to some degree, as well.

NG: Male children to the same degree, because we let . . .

DR: Circumcision.

NG: So many countries . . . circumcision and then some oral suction in some Jewish communities. Female circumcision, in some other kinds of communities, is a very contested practice, but there’s a lot of argument that it should be allowed in some degree, and some way. We allow that as a form of violence because it’s supposedly religious violence, or it’s not seen as violent.

DR: And, of course, we do have many cases where the religious nature of a practice, or belief, or some sort of prejudice comes down to whether it is or is not religious – you know, the use of cannabis by Rastafarians. There was a recent case, in Scotland, where a guy who claimed he’d been fired from his job for being a Nationalist. He was campaigning as an SNP. And it was seen to clash with his government job. And in the preliminary ruling the judge said, “Well this is a sincere and worked out belief system about the world. So it’s equivalent to a religion, and therefore it should be protected.”

NG: (Laughs). And that’s an example of how that category can be anything. Anything can get into it. Sometimes I talk about religion as a category in which nothing has ever been excluded. I can’t get anyone to name one thing that hasn’t been included in the category of religion. Impossible to exclude anything from it. And yet it’s supposed to be something unique.

DR: Yes. It’s sui generis and unique to itself, but it’s also everything!

NG: It’s also everything! (Laughs).

DR: It’s just humans, in some way . . .

NG: It show the problematic nature of that category.

DR: Yes. Another interesting example, I think, which shows the edges of this, is how often new religions, new religious movements dream of governments.

NG: Exactly!

DR: They dream of alternative governments, but they’re also the target of government ire. And often violence.

NG: Well, governments are always a little bit edgy about the things they authorise as religions, because they’re worried about takeover. Because there’s a sense of competition, somewhere. And New Religious Movements tend to imagine the better government to come could be something local that they’ll enact in a certain place and a certain way. But it could also be something in the future. It could be after death. Sometimes major dominant religions, or what we call world religions also imagine things like that. Or the government will be on another planet, or it will be after an apocalypse. But it will be better, whatever it is. And it will be something like what already happened a while ago – in that sense of being once and future.

DR: Yes. I’m particularly thinking of the kind of . . . the stuff that Crawford Gribbon was talking about yesterday, of the American Redoubt (25:00) where these Conservative right wing traditionalists, essentially, are attempting to create little states within states where patriarchal theocracy can continue within. . . .

NG: There we go. Because they’re worried, now, about women getting some kind of power, and some kind of dominance.

DR: And atheists, and non-white people, and homosexuals, and everything else . . .

NG: Trans. people.

DR: Everything, yes. And that is clearly harking back to a previous kind of . . .

NG: Or an imagined previous. . . . Often an imagined previous state.

DR: Yes, so. . .

NG: “Make America great again” is that kind of slogan!

DR: (Laughs).

NG: Yes. When?

DR: Well, yes . . . again. Which one are you talking about? The McCarthy era, World War II? What is it? The Civil War?

NG: Exactly! (Laughs).

DR: Yes. But the violence aspect of it is particularly interesting. We were riffing last night about the idea of . . . . My colleague Chris Cotter was talking about how, you know, a child can be raised in a state, and told that he’s working for Queen and country, and then signs up, and goes off to another country and kills people. And because this is for the state, this violence is . . . .And you’ve made this point about violence being the thing that states . . .

NG: Dominant states keep it to themselves.

DR: The one thing they keep to themselves. Now, you have. . . there was another line in the keynote, which I want you to unpick a bit for me. And it’s religion, the category religion, as an alternative to genocide.

NG: I was suggesting, taken from Deuteronomy 20 verses16 through 18, in which the Lord God commands a complete eradication of every living thing: people, livestock, everything in an area that has been given as an inheritance to a population. And I was thinking that if the category of religion had been invented – this is hypothetical, very much almost like a game to imagine that this could have been an alternative for that warrior God, that dominant tyrant. So that he wouldn’t have to kill everybody there. He could create a religion in which all forms of violence would be forbidden to that group. And perhaps the group could endure. So I was thinking of it as . . . I think of its function that way, as an alternative to genocide. Cyrus, for example, didn’t eliminate the Jews who were in his area of jurisdiction. He allowed them a space – a bounded space. That’s a two-edged sword in a way. Because, by creating a special group with some kinds of status, sometimes that group can also then be targeted for genocide.

DR: Mmm.

NG: Later on. The way Jews have been, the way many minorities have. So it’s a double-edged thing. It’s the creation of a polity with a certain kind of regulatory apparatus internal to that polity that can also make it a target.

DR: I’d like to wrap up then with. . . . We – any of us who are working in the critical religion paradigm, broadly stated – will eventually be angrily demanded of us what the practical application of what we’re doing is. And how does it matter to real to real people? And there are some quite clear practical examples here. You mentioned the journalistic covering of the abortion debate, for instance.

NG: Right. In Ireland. I thought that was an example – at least the newspapers I read – I was collecting articles from The New York Times and The Washington Post, and The Guardian, about the abortion referendum in Ireland – the recent one. And what was done in most of those articles is that the Catholic Church was spoken about, not religion as a general category. Sometimes it was mentioned, but it was clear that this was a specific institution with specific ideologies. Someone mentioned last night that Evangelical Christians were also involved. But then there’s a specificity about who exactly is advocating what, and for what purpose? And who exactly wins and loses in these various debates. And I think that’s an important demystification of issues (30:00). So I would urge scholars in Religious Studies to be as specific as possible, to name the groups as specifically as you can. Are you talking about Jews, are you talking about Muslims, Are you talking about Christians, maybe? Which kind of Christians? Buddhists? Not this blanket category. That’s already a step forward. I also think that a practical application – and this is where my heart is – is in the pushing the project forward. It’s to demystify the category of religion, so that governments can’t use it to fudge so much; that it doesn’t get to be such a vague category that anything can be claimed as a right within it; and that restrictions can’t be put on it; and that special male privilege can’t be so easily granted. These vestigial governments have just as much contingency, just as much conflict within polities as any other kinds of government. So often they’ve tended to be seen as monolithic, as homogeneous, and the men – who claim to represent them – are given a lot of power. So because religion as a category is put into constitutions, it’s put into Law, and because no-one knows what it is – courts don’t know how to interpret it in a kind of consistent manner – I think it’s particularly ripe for deconstruction, and I think that some very interesting clarity can be put to these debates. That would be an example of one of the practical applications.

DR: You’ve brought a lot of clarity to the conversation here, I think. I think people are going to be very intrigued to read more of your work. But, unfortunately, I have the real privilege, today, of ending the interview!

NG: (Laughs).

DR: But I just want to say, thanks so much for joining us!

NG: And thank you, David.

DR: Thank you.


Citation Info: Goldenberg, Naomi and David G. Robertson. 2019. “’Religion as a Tactic of Governance”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 21 January 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 11 January 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/religion-as-a-tactic-of-governance/

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

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

The Blog Assignment: Confronting “Spirituality” in Teaching Religious Studies

Richard Ascough and Sharday Mosurinjohn

In this second of a two-part series, Richard Ascough adds his voice to Sharday Mosurinjohn’s reflections on a new blog post assignment used in a course on Spirituality, Secularity, and Nonreligion taught through the School of Religion at Queen’s University. In the earlier post, Sharday noted that she learned two key lessons: that students are concerned about what it means to be “critical” in a public posting and that they do not have a level of digital literacy that one might expect in a generation that grew up fully immersed in digital technologies. In this follow-up post, Sharday and Richard discuss strengths and weaknesses in students’ digital literacy and explore how understanding one of the weaknesses might actually help us understand a particularly troublesome religious studies concept – what they consider a “threshold concept.”

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Conference Report (and rant): Fandom and Religion, Leicester, 2015

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by our very own Venetia Robertson, RSP Editor and a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney.

The University of Leicester hosted the Fandom and Religion conference this July 28-30 in affiliation with the Theology, Religion and Popular Culture network. A reasonably small conference with just over 30 presenters and 50 attendees, organisers Clive Marshall and Isobel Woodcliffe of Leicester’s Lifelong Learning Centre ran the event smoothly with the help of attentive session chairs and the professional staff at the clean and comfortable College Court conference centre. The Court was truly the home of the conference—with all of the sessions, meals, drinks, and most of our accommodation being there (and with little to do in the surrounding area)—one could be excused for experiencing a bit of cabin fever by end of the week. Still, when tomorrow morning’s keynote speaker is ordering another pint at midnight, we’re probably all glad that bed is just a few steps away from the bar. I want to talk about the papers I saw, and those I wish I’d caught, because that’s primarily what a conference review should be, but I’m also going to take this opportunity to give the study of fandom and religion in general some evaluation, as this conference both pointed out to me the breadth and the dearth of this relatively new academic field.

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One of the main draws of this conference for me, and why I was willing to endure the very long plane trip to get there, was the keynote line-up. I heard of this event at last year’s Media, Religion, and Culture Conference, and was excited to see that it would be featuring excellent speakers like Kathryn Lofton (who sadly had to pull out), and scholars whose work my own is intimately connected to, like Chris Partridge and Matt Hills. The way these thinkers combine innovative thinking with the analysis of meaning-making and popular culture highlights, and inspiringly so, the importance of this area of investigation. Partridge and Hill’s plenary papers, ‘Fandom, Pop Devotion, and the Transfiguration of Dead Celebrities’ and ‘Revisiting the “Affective Spaces” of Fan Conventions: Sites of Pilgrimage, Sacredness, and Enchantment… or Non-Places?’ respectively, were both illustrative of the fruitful amalgamation of approaches from media, cultural, and religious studies when examining these developments. I brought together Partridge’s concept of occulture with Hill’s hyperdiegesis in my own paper on how medieval female mystics and modern fangirls use relational narratives with their ‘gods’ to reify sacred subjectivities from within the patriarchal cultures of Christendom and geek culture. On the whole, the conference represented multi- and inter-disciplinary methods, with scholars of anthropology, psychology, music, digital cultures, and literature alongside those of religion. There was, however, in the overall makeup and theme of Fandom and Religion, an unmistakeably strong theological bent—but more on that in a moment.

Though it meant having to miss out on what I heard was a great session on fan experiences in Bob Dylan, indie, and Israeli popular music scenes, and a session on comics and hero narratives that I would have no doubt enjoyed, I felt very satisfied with the methodological offerings from Rhiannon Grant and Emanuelle Burton that dealt with the tensions of canon and fanon, interpretation and creativity, group consensus and personal gnosis, that affect religious and fan communities alike. With a mix of midrashic, pagan, and Quaker approaches to truth and authority, this panel had my mind whirring. Papers on the commercial and the communal aspects of the Hillsong and the role of music in the Pentecostal mega church system provided fascinating insights (and stay tuned for more on this from Tom Wagner). Offerings from Bex Lewis on the Keep Calm and meme on trend and Andrew Crome on My Little Pony fandom, Bronies, and Christianity, proffered some intriguing ways in which viral cultures enable believers to remix media for religious purposes and find the sacred within the secular. Film and television were well represented with talks on American Horror Story, the Alien franchise, small screen vampires, children’s programming, and anime, though I unfortunately could not get to those sessions. Sport, fiction, and celebrity were of course popular topics, with a Harry Potter themed session, and talks on football and faith and evangelism amongst skaters and surfers. Two talks I again missed but would have liked to have caught were the inimitably odd Ian Vincent on tulpas and tulpamancy and François Bauduin’s talk on the Raelians, for what I’m sure would have been a robust discussion of how these esoteric movements translate into the online sphere, and how this affects notions of authenticity and creativity.

11222652_10156115964950413_6985333271960933871_oWhile this program certainly presents a swathe of relevant subjects in the field of fandom and religion, there were several key moments that made me realise that some central issues had gone by the wayside. It struck me that this was a very “white” conference: there were, even for a small number of papers, strikingly none that I could see on non-Western peoples or traditions. A tiny fraction looked at non-Western media and non-Abrahamic religious beliefs. Searching the abstract booklet I found Islam mentioned once, Buddhism only in passing, and no references to countries with historical, pertinent, and I would say seminal engagements with religious fandoms (Japan, India, Vanuatu are just a few examples). When pointed out during the ‘feedback session’ that concluded the conference two responses were offered: one, that there was no one writing on these topics, and two, that it’s a shame that it looks like the conference lacked diversity but that the organizing body does have one Jewish member… In her keynote, Tracy Trothen remarked on the subject of religion and sport that when we say ‘religion’ we usually mean ‘Christianity’, which I had initially interpreted as a reflexive moment on the ‘god problem’ the academy continues to have, that is, the perpetuation of “the myth of Christian uniqueness” despite the reality of pluralism and secularization, but unfortunately it merely signaled the habitual preferential treatment of this one theological outlook. The suggestion that “no one is writing on these topics” is patently false, but is indicative of the core issue I had with this event: it wasn’t just saturated with a Christo-theological focus in material and approach because that’s representative of the academy, but rather it seemed it was primarily interested in representing that viewpoint—and this is something I don’t think was made clear from the outset.

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For example, the website for this conference followed on from the flyer that had first alerted me to the “international, inter-disciplinary conference,” and stated that its purpose was to “explore interactions between religion and popular culture” which sounded great. “What is happening to fans as they express their enthusiasms and allegiances? Has fandom replaced or become a form of religion?”—cool, interesting questions, I thought. Compare with this description from a CFP I, after the fact, found elsewhere: “A Major Conference for Faith Community Practitioners and Academics,” “including a session solely for faith community practitioners.” There were actually several ‘practitioner’ sessions, and it seemed clear after a while that ‘faith community’ meant Christian worship. It became explicit from the first day with our welcome that in part this event was for not just religious people but those active in their Churches to learn not so much about, but from fandoms. I am used to attending academic conferences with a notable number of ‘practitioners’ present, they may even present non-academic papers. I am also used to having to define religious studies as a separate disciplinary enterprise to theology. But what I wasn’t expecting in Leicester, and I don’t think I was alone here, was to be at a conference where religion, theology, and Christianity were so automatically synonymous that it didn’t seem to occur to the organisers that major non-Christian themes in religion and fandom had been overlooked in their selection of papers, or even that such themes were major. I wasn’t expecting to feel like such an outsider, as a religious studies academic at what I had thought was an academic religious studies affair.

To be fair, now that I have delved deeper into the faith-based networks that organised this event (Donald Wiebe). However, this issue goes beyond the academy, and this became obvious when a reporter for a religion-themed program on BBC4 interviewed some of the conference’s speakers. What thankfully doesn’t make it into our few minutes of fame in this radio segment is the interviewer’s clear discomfort with the idea of converging ‘obsessive’ fans and their ‘low brow’ media with ‘devoted’ believers and their ‘respectable’ forms of the divine. “Are they [typical othering language] just crazy?” he asks me of fans, and makes me repeat my answer several times in order to get something “more quippy, less academic”, and, I suppose, more damning to confirm his perception that there are right and wrong forms of meaning-making. Journalists from The Daily Mail also tried (but failed) to get a talking head, so I guess things could have been worse.

Venetia Robertson ready for the conference!

Venetia Robertson ready for the conference!

I certainly don’t mean to detract from the importance of making niche areas like fandom and religion studies visible on an international and interdisciplinary scale, or the much-appreciated effort that went in to the organisation and contribution of this conference and its participants: there was indeed a wealth of interesting, useful, and high-quality papers. Nonetheless, as a reflection on the state of popular culture and its integration into multi­-religious studies (not to mention the relevant spheres of civil/quasi/alternative/implicit religion etc.) I feel these criticisms need timely evaluation. And I have some heartening thoughts to that effect: there is a blossoming field of intersectional work on these topics at the moment if one takes the time to look! The promotional material available at Leicester, interestingly, confirmed this, and I include some pictures of it here. I think it’s telling that Joss Whedon studies has had its own journal, Slayage, for over ten years, but to find more journal articles on a vast panoply of religion and fandom junctures you can try the Journal Of Religion And Popular Culture, the classic Journal Of Popular Culture or the newer Transformative Works And Cultures and the Journal of Fandom Studies, whose book reviews keep on top of the most recent additions to this field. This conference also saw the launch of the comprehensive volume, The Routledge Companion to Religion and Popular Culture (which ranges in price between $277 AUD on BookDepository to a whopping $405 at Angus and Robertson), edited by John Lyden and Eric Mazur, as yet another example of the popularity of this topic in contemporary scholarship. I’m also pleased to say that my paper will be a chapter in the forthcoming volume for INFORM/Ashgate, Fiction, Invention, and Hyper-reality: From Popular Culture to Religion (edited by Carole Cusack and Pavol Kosnáč) alongside some brilliant minds exploring the relationship of spirituality to conspiracy theories, Tolkein’s legendarium, Discordianism, with a handful of, yes, practitioner’s accounts, this time from Pagans, Jedis and Dudeists—it’s sure to be a vibrant, diverse, and illuminating contribution to the discussion on fandom and religion.

 

 

Social Constructionism

What is social constructionism, and how is it important to the study of religion? In this interview, Titus Hjelm tells David Robertson about social constructionism – that is, a set of approaches which see social realities as built from language, rather than reflecting ontological realities. Hjelm outlines how these approaches emerged as part of the ‘linguistic turn’ in the social sciences more broadly, as well as pointing to some different interpretations of how these constructivist, discursive or critical approaches operate. Their importance, he suggests, is in challenging how we think about ontology, epistemology and power.

sui generis thing-in-itself, rather than a product of human culture. Despite – or because – of this, constructionism has not been broadly adopted as a theoretical approach in the field.

For much more on the subject, see Hjelm’s recent book Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religions. You can also 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 buying academic texts, Finnish metal CDs, fishing tackle, and more.

Podcasts

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Empty Signs in an Automatic Signalling System

This second interview with Timothy Fitzgerald covers his later work, from Discourse on Civility and Barbarity (2007) and Religion and Politics in International Relations: The Modern Myth (2011). In these works, thinking about the historical development of the category “religion” leads to consideration of other ‘modern’ categories which make up the colonial epistemé. If religion is deconstructed, where does that leave the other categories that use or rely on it? What happens to its common opposites like “the secular”, “science”, “liberalism” or even “politics”?

Fitzgerald argues that this mutually-dependent signalling system largely emerged in the late 17th century.  As rhetorical terms expressing specific class interests and aspirations in concrete situations of power, this system of signals originated in the context of the ancient regimes and sacred Monarchies of Christian Europe. Since then, each category has been continually contested, with shifting and unstable meanings. Now they have become so capacious and universalised that they have no clear boundaries, and we cannot properly distinguish between them. Yet these ideas have, over time and through repetition, become normalised and neutralised such that they appear as common sense. Today they form the basic categories for the organisation of our institutions, including academia and universities.

Listen to the first part of David G. Robertson’s interview with Timothy Fitzgerald on The Ideology of Religious Studies here: Episode 322 “The Problem with ‘Religion’ and Related Categories”

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

Empty Signs in an Automatic Signalling System

Podcast with Timothy Fitzgerald (16 March 2020).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/empty-signs-in-an-automatic-signalling-systerm/

David Robertson (DR): I’m here with Tim Fitzgerald of the University of Queensland, where he’s a visiting research professor. This interview follows on from his recent interview, entitled “The Problem with ‘Religion’ (and related categories)“. And at the end of that interview we had talked about his fieldwork in India, and his time living in Japan, and how this had led to him writing The Ideology of Religious Studies. And central to that was an attempt to kind-of pin down and locate this category religion. Maybe you could pick the story up for us there, Tim?

Timothy Fitzgerald (TF): Yes. Sure. I mean one of my targets, when I was in Japan, was the religion industry – which was applied to Japan itself in the form of the study of Japanese religions – and the difficulty in actually identifying what constitutes a religion in Japan – which was also the problem about what constitutes the non-religious secular. And a lot of my work was aimed at trying to show there is this basic contradiction between the study of religion – whether that’s by Japanese or non-Japanese scholars – and, you know, the actual problem of locating it. And the problem of religion is therefore the problem of the non-secular, and how we ended up with this idea that there is a religious world of the Japanese which is somehow distinguishable from the non-religious world of the Japanese. So this led me to look, historically, for the source of this binary that we have in this religion-secular construction. And that led me back, actually, to the seventeenth century in England. And I started doing a lot of reading on . . . well, not only the seventeenth century, but going back to the sixteenth century. The post-Reformation discourse on religion was really what I was looking for. And what I found was that right the way through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – and I think that this is true going right the way through into the 18th and 19th and possibly up to the present in certain respects – is that the dominant meaning of religion was our Protestant faith. And it was a male literate construct of our Protestant faith, in a world where faith does not mean a weak form of belief. Faith is Truth, fundamentally. Christian Truth. It was a claim about Christian Truth. And the opposite of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and coming on much more recently, was not the non-religious secular. It was pagan irrationality, superstition and barbarism. And so what you have is not some dichotomy between the religious and the non-religious, but between True religion and a whole number of practices which are being discovered around the globe which look like a kind of mistaken attempt at finding God, from the point of view of the Christians. So these are superstitious practices. And what interested me, at what point did that discourse on religion as Christian Truth, or Protestant Christian Truth, become re-defined as religion as a private inner personal practice which is completely distinct from government? You see, the thing is that when you go back into reading these texts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there’s no such distinction between religion and non-religion. And this is actually the research that led up to a book I published – two books that I published – in 2007, one was Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories (5:00). And the other was an edited volume which came out of a conference I organised at Sterling, which was called, Religion and the Secular: Historical and Colonial Formations. And in that collection of essays I published a chapter called “Encompassing Religion, Privatised Religion and the Invention of Modern Politics”. And that theme, privatised religion, encompassing religion and the invention of modern politics, is central to Discourse on Civility and Barbarity. And it represents in some ways a move forward from The Ideology of Religious Studies. Because it’s actually looking at the historical documents that can guide us, or suggest to us, what are the circumstances in which somebody – i.e. someone like John Locke who was probably the most powerful inventor of the modern religion/non-religion dichotomy in my view – John Locke, but not only John Locke – there were plenty of others who were doing it – who were rhetorically redefining what the term religion means, in order to formulate a theory of government in which government is free from the domination of religion. And that introduces many, many interesting problems. Because what you have is, from the time of John Locke going into if you like the Enlightenment . . . . I’m not going to leave the Enlightenment untouched by critique as a term but, for the moment, let’s think of the Enlightenment in the general sense that we do typically think about it, which is a lot of men (mostly men – I didn’t come across any female texts at this period but no doubt there may have been some, but it’s mostly men) who wanted to have the right to accumulate private property, and for that private property to be clearly their property, and not to be invaded and tampered with by the sacred monarch. We have to remember that when John Locke was writing in the 1680s and 1690s this was a time of enormous turmoil in England. We’d had the execution of the previous king, King Charles 1 in 1649. We’d had the Putney Debates in the 1640s, which were very radical and which were questioning a great deal of the status quo. After the execution of Charles 1, in about 1652 I think it was, Hobbes published Leviathan. And in Leviathan you find several references to politics, the noun-word politics. And in John Locke’s essays on government and his other writings, his essays on toleration, for example, you get references to politics, by which he means government which is not dominated by religion and which represents the interests of male private property accumulators. And this was formulated in terms of natural rights. And there are a whole string of natural rights which were argued for. But these were really rights formulated by men, many of them Non-Conformists who were chafing against the restrictions of the sacred monarch and his court, and the Established Church that legitimated the sacred monarch, performed the coronation ceremonies, gave him the legitimation to do what he liked, basically. He was an arbitrary monarch. He was portrayed as a tyrant by the people who wanted to free up government from the control of this particular ideological complex of the sacred monarch. We can call it the Ancien Régime, to generalise it. Because France was in a very similar situation where you have a closed hierarchy of classes, which is born into land ownership and born into status, and it’s basically a fixed order of divine conception (10:00). And the sacred monarch is the heart of the nation. The sacred monarch is God’s appointed and anointed representative on earth. So the sacred monarch had enormous powers. And there were a lot of people at this time who were Non-Conformist, who didn’t believe in the Established Church and who didn’t believe in the sacred monarch. It was very dangerous to say so. Now John Locke was one of the most powerful and influential writers to question the status quo of the time, and to try and redefine what a number of terms really mean. And religion is obviously is one of the most important. But you see, I can’t find a consistent discourse on the noun-word politics in English before around the middle of the seventeenth century. The most consistent, in developed discourse on politics, that I can find is in John Locke where he defines politics as a government not representing the arbitrary power of a sacred monarch, but governments protecting the natural rights of Englishmen. And this is gendered. I’m using the expression Englishmen because women were not really much in the picture.

DR: And it’s not all men either, is it? It’s the wealthy, landowning classes. So it’s not only gendered, but there’s class in there as well.

TF: Oh yes, definitely. Because, of course, one of the great sources . . . the new sources of private property at this time was from the enclosures. And the enclosures were where legislation, bills, were passed in the House of Parliament – which is the legislature – in order to transform a piece of common land into private property. Now common land was land which for centuries had been conventionally shared in ways which were determined by local customs, you know. But there were very definite ways in which people subsisted on common land. Often a lot of the most poor people in feudal society, they were working part of the time for the local master, the local lord, but they were also working for their own subsistence. And they had common land to do this on. Now when that common land started disappearing through the Enclosure Acts, land that had been shared by different classes of people according to different conventions and customs was now being enclosed and declared to be private property of an individual. And I think this is very significant, because these enclosures were continuing right the way through the seventeenth, the eighteenth and well into the nineteenth century. And more and more people were being deprived of their traditional subsistence, and were being forced out into homelessness, and poverty, and starvation. And you get, during that period, you get a growing problem of vagabondage – huge numbers of poor people who were being turned into vagabonds. And these vagabonds were despised by the owners of land, because they were a living source of disharmony, and conflict, and discord. And they were treated really badly. And there was a parish system of which was called the Poor Laws, where people without any kind of subsistence had the right to seek help from various parishes. And the parishes were supposed to give them help, and food, and various other necessities. The Poor Law system was becoming very overburdened because there were more and more poor people who were calling on it. And this created resentments from other people. So you get a very messy situation. Now what’s happening to all these vagabonds, all these poor families that are being turned off the common land and no longer have anywhere to subsist, any land to subsist on? Well gradually – especially during the eighteenth century, they’re going into the new industrial centres and becoming wage labour (15:00). Before that, a lot of them were becoming wage labour, agricultural labour. There was a huge growing agricultural wage labour. So the people who lost subsistence land were losing their conventional ties to the old estate system, the old feudal system, and were becoming like loose cannons. They didn’t have any place in any kind of system or structure. So they were becoming, as it were, peas out of a pod. They were rolling around the place, and looking for work, and often going into the growing craft centres. But they were also working as agricultural wage labour. So that was one of the complex processes, but a very definite process that was occurring as part of what I would describe as the emergence of Modernity. And it’s important to realise that the natural rights that these men were proclaiming – from John Locke and many others going right the way up to the natural rights of the declaration of independence, and the US constitution, and beyond – these natural rights were habeas corpus: you can’t be arrested without being charged with some crime, you have to have access to a lawyer. Another right would be to express one’s views in public, the right to publishing, and so on. But I think that the key right was the right to accumulate private property. And to have that private property represented in parliament. So if you traced the way that parliament and government changed during the second half of the seventeenth century, going on into the eighteenth, you get, increasingly, the idea that the real function of parliament is to represent the natural, inalienable rights of individual private property holders against the predations of the sacred monarch, against the invasions of the tyrant prince, against arbitrary taxation, and these kinds of things.

DR: It’s not a liberty in some abstract, metaphysical sense. It’s the liberal order: the freedom to own property without interference from, as you say, from the divinely appointed monarch.

TF: Yes, I think that’s true. I think that that was . . . . Because, after all, not only through the Enclosure Acts but also in this colonial situation which was burgeoning, more and more money could be made out of colonial production – including the slave trade. I mean, the men that we’re talking about who were demanding representation in parliament on the basis of property qualification, these were often the same men who were not only benefiting from the enclosures but they were benefitting from the plantations and colonies that were being established. For example, in North America, John Locke had very specific interests in the Carolinas. William Penn, who was another rather like-minded Non-Conformist – he was a Quaker – was the founder of Pennsylvania. Both of them were people who loved to write bills of rights. They were the inventors of bills of rights and constitutions. And their bills of rights and constitutions were actually adopted in the Americas. And what they were demanding was, again, they wanted government that represented natural rights – but particularly the natural rights of white, male, private property accumulators – including, of course, the salve trade. I don’t think William Penn was involved in the slave trade.

DR: No. But George Washington certainly was!

TF: Yes, absolutely. And so was John Locke. I mean, John Locke had investments in the Africa Corporation or whatever it was called. You had the East India Company (20:00). But there were also other companies dealing with specialised areas of trade. They were royal charters, but they had private investors. And I think it was the Africa Company that was very much involved in the slave trade. So I mean these men, people like John Locke, they were ambitious. They wanted private property, they wanted to accumulate and they wanted representation in Parliament. I think an awful lot of the 1688 Bill of Rights and the invitation for the Protestants from Holland, William and Mary. . . this was all involved in consolidating this new view of Parliament. Now, you mention the word “liberty” and that’s a very important one. Because liberty was a term that comes up in the Magna Carta in the 1215. And I think there was a second Magna Carta in 1225, or something. Liberty is central to the Magna Carta. But that was in a very, very different situation. The liberty that was being demanded then was the liberty of powerful nobles, with their own private armies, demanding liberties from the king. Well in the beginning of the seventeenth century, Sir Edward Coke, who was a very effective jurist, he began to really do a lot of work on this term liberty, and to extend its meaning in a way which became much more useful for the situation in the seventeenth century. And the meaning of liberty became very much to do with the liberty of being represented in Parliament – your own natural inalienable rights being represented in Parliament. Particularly, it was about property. I mean, you could call it the democratisation of property, but I think it was a new system of private property whereby land became commodified in such a way that it could be bought and sold for cash. And we’re talking about the land which was derived from the enclosures. We’re talking about the theft of Irish Catholic lands by Cromwell, who took over . . . . He took over with him a man called Sir William Petty who was a polymath, a brilliant guy. He was good at just about everything. And he was taken over by Cromwell as the Land Surveyor General of Ireland. And he measured out a great deal of land in measured plots. He devised a method to measure plots of land, so that it could easily be quantified, valued, bought and sold. And the methods that he used were actually used on a much larger scale by Thomas Jefferson in the 1780s, when they started surveying the land systematically from the East Coast, going right up to the Appellations. And later it would go much further. But these are vast tracts of what they thought were empty land. Actually they were Native American lands. But the Native Americans didn’t think that any individual could own land. It was completely inconceivable to them. So these empty lands were being measured out in saleable plots by Thomas Jefferson and a whole team of land surveyors. So what you have is not only the emergence, the birth, of a global private property market in land, but private property in capital. I mean, private property can take a lot of different forms. And going back again to John Locke, John Locke was involved in the founding of the Bank of England in 1694. This seems to me to be . . . . The founding of the Bank of England seems to me to be as important to the invention of religion in its modern dominant sense as a private, personal, communication with God which has nothing to do with government.

DR: Well I think this is what’s so fascinating about Discourse on Civility and Barbarity, particularly, is this analysis of the historic development of the category of religion and its others. In fact it leads to a clearer idea of the function of this category which is to normalise and mystify the processes of colonial power and the power of land owners (25:00). But what’s interesting is that that mystification has been so successful that despite these being historically contingent, and shifting, and unstable, and sometimes empty categories, nonetheless it makes up this contemporary episteme in which we live and in which these ideas have become so normalised. And not only normalised and neutralised, but the actual basic organisation of so many of our institutions – you know, aspects of law and of parliament and academia and just everyday speech.

TF: Yes, I think you’re absolutely right. I think that there is a process where a number of narratives or stories are being told. For example, “man in the state of nature“ – which was a story told slightly differently by Hobbes, by Locke and later by Rousseau. But man in the state of nature, it seems to me to be a complete fiction but which nevertheless had great rhetorical power, because it invented a kind-of an original human nature which is of the lone, individual survivor – kind-of savage survivor – using his native intelligence to accumulate everything that he needs for himself and his family. And, again, I’m using gendered terminology because, after all, it wasn’t woman and the state of nature, it was man and the state of nature. And women don’t . . . they usually get included in family. You can imagine this noble savage, or just let’s say this savage, surviving through the wit of his own native intelligence. And providing for his family against the competition of other individual savages who are also trying to grab what they can for their own ends. And this is a completely unrealistic picture. We know from anthropology . . . . Anthropologists who have studied say hunter-gatherers know that this is completely not as humans groups survived or prospered. They didn’t survive as competing individuals. But this idea of man and the state of nature puts that on the table in a powerful way. And it’s aimed against other alternative versions. For example, John Locke. The first of his treatises on government is an extended critique of a man called Sir Robert Filmer who wrote a book called Patriarcha. And Patriarcha is . . . it’s actually a very powerful representation of what was considered to be an orthodox Christian Protestant, post-Reformation – but pre-Modern, I would say – view of the world. And basically it’s this enclosed, hierarchical, fixed system in which everybody knows their place. And the whole is harmonious as long as everybody does what they’re supposed to do, at whatever level of the organisation they operate, whatever their status is. And man in the state of nature was a deliberate attempt to subvert this idea of the harmonious hierarchical, patriarchal society, and to introduce the idea that we’re all in our real, natural souls individuals who are struggling to survive, and we do it through our own native intelligence. And those of us who have the higher intelligence will be able to accumulate more. However, the people who were in this situation at some point came to realise that this is all so fictitious that they needed a system of rules that protected each other’s property, so that if there was any contestations over property rights then the rules could be used to sort them out (30:00). And, of course, the rules were the laws which we needed a government to represent and to enforce. So government or politics ought to be about the representation of laws that defend the various natural rights that such as private property. So this is the fiction of the contract theory of government. You start with man and the state of nature. How do human beings get out of the state of nature? Why they make a contract with a particular form of government which will look after the laws that ensure that their property is kept safe and that whoever owns what gets their just rewards. That’s a completely new . . . this idea of government completely dislocates the old one. I mean, it was both heretical and treasonous. And that’s why John Locke, and other people who argued like him, had to keep escaping from England and going to Amsterdam to get free of these charges of heresy or treason. So this is what these narratives do, it’s that they explain what the real meaning of other ideas are. Liberty – the real meaning of liberty comes through these narratives. And the term “liberal” is another one that begins to crop up, which I’ve done quite a lot of work on. So I think that . . . does that . . . ? Sorry, I’ve rather lost myself! Does that answer what you were mentioning?

DR: Yes. Well, what I want to do now is kind-of step up a level, and sort-of think a little more broadly about this . . .we can call it like cognitive colonialism, or this modern episteme, where terms like religion, the secular, liberal, liberalism, politics, where these kind-of make sense. And you’ve described these as being “empty signs in an automatic signalling system”. And I wondered if you would tell us a little about what you mean by this?

TF: OK. Well, I mentioned to you that in the last session that I found that there were so many references for religion, so many things are religious that the term seemed to lose any specific meaning.

DR: Right, yes. There’s a religion of everything!

TF: There’s a religion of everything. So it’s become the generic abstraction with very problematic boundaries. It’s very difficult to know what cannot be included in this term. But on the other hand, you’re getting the development at first of a very minority Non-Conformist idea that religion has a very specific meaning, which is that it to do with your own inner devotion and worship and your own morality and your own concerns with life after death and it has to be clearly distinguished from another domain which is about the government of this world, according to laws. And particularly the defence of the private rights of individuals. So but then, at the same time, you find that all of these terms, as they get used in more and more rhetorical situations throughout the eighteenth century, they all develop the sense of losing their original fairly concrete meaning and becoming inter-generic categories. So that today, not only do we have a religion of everything but there’s a politics of everything. So politics, it seems to me, is a noun-word which is actually invented in the second half of the seventeenth century, to talk about a particular form of government which was both treasonous and heretical at the time, but which has become so generic, so abstract, there is now a politics of everything. There are political systems everywhere, and at all times in history. And this also leads onto the question of political economy. Because you know the term political economy is also around from an early time in the seventeenth century (35:00). And by the time of Adam Smith, say, in his Wealth of Nations, which was published in 1776, political economy is itself a discourse: there is a subject called political economy which is emerging in the eighteenth century. So the question of where does politics end and political economy begin becomes important. And I couldn’t find . . . I’ve done a lot of research on the history of the term political economy, and I can’t find. . . . There doesn’t seem to be a solution to this. And then in the late eighteenth century, early nineteenth century, you get the term economics breaking off from political economy, and becoming a subject of study in itself: a science of economics, classical economics, liberal classical economics. So economics becomes defined as its own area of expertise. But what is, actually, the area itself? How do we define economics, and distinguish it from political economy, or simply politics? You know, what part of economics can be distinguished from politics, and what part of politics can be distinguished from economics in modern discourse? So that was another problem. There was also. . . I came to realise that what was happening from the late seventeenth century is that a number of terms which have a kind-of typical deployment, were becoming abstracted, and reified, and turned into generic abstractions. And one of them was history, which I’ve more recently been doing a lot of work on. You know, you get an older term, history, which had, if you like, local meanings referring to the genealogies of kings and great events, heroes, local memory, all sorts of things in history. But by the end of the eighteenth century you’ve got History with a capital H emerging as a scientific study, and it’s become Universal History. You know, it’s the History of the World: Turgot in 1751. He was a very influential French philosophe. He developed some really interesting writing on the idea of the progress of the human mind through universal history. I mean, look how far we’ve come – the progress of the human mind through universal history. Progress – you can’t think of history without progress. The modern dominant idea of history as a professionalised academic discipline was born in conjunction with the idea of progress. Not only does history seek to find how we progress – the route by which humans progressed from the past into the present state of European Enlightenment – but also history comes to be a sign of progress. In other words, only Euro-Americans are advanced enough to come to realise that there is a history of the world, a universal history, which is the history of the progress of the human race up until that point in history – i.e., the leaders of this progress, the European philosophes, whether they’re in France, or Germany, or Scotland, or England or North America, or wherever. So you get all of these terms which are increasingly problematic. You’ve got religion, politics, political economy, economics, progress, history. You’ve also got the term “modern”. Well what does modern mean? Where it did come from? You’ve also got the term “the Enlightenment”. Again, I’ve done quite a lot of research into the concept of the Enlightenment. And what I’ve found is that nobody can agree on when the Enlightenment began. Nobody can agree on when it ended, if it at all ended – some people think the Enlightenment is still going on. Nobody can agree on which the most important thinkers were – which is interesting because some come straight to mind, but there’s enormous disagreement among experts on that – nor on what the fundamental ideas of the Enlightenment are. In other words, all of these things are contested (40:00). But the term the Enlightenment, like the term modern, like the term progress, like the term history, like the term religion, or politics, or political economy, we use them as though it’s obvious what they mean. So it seems to me that what’s happened is that they’ve . . . that the rhetorical history, if you like, of these terms, has progressedly buried the history of conflict, contestation, the indefinability of all these terms, and they have become as it were just unitary signs which we can deploy automatically, without thinking about their history of conflictual contestation and so on, without thinking about what they mean. We can bury a whole number of very problematic aspects of these generic categories by simply deploying them as though they’re signs in an automatic signalling system. And in fact, I would go further, it seems to me that we are more operated on than operating. I mean these signs, these general categories, operate our texts. In fact they constitute our own subjectivity to a large extent. Our idea of ourselves as being autonomous agents – which actually feels like an inherently intuitive experience of myself as an autonomous agent, but is very much dependent on this whole ideology that has been constructed out of these empty categories . . . of which the individual may be one of the most empty. So this is how I move from talking in a kind-of Dumontian sense of the configuration of modern categories. I was influenced by Durkheim‘s attempt to describe collective symbolic representations in his work on totemism. I’ve been, to a certain extent, influenced by the idea of the expression meta-categories and meta-narratives of Lyotard. I have probably been influenced, largely unconsciously, by semiotics deriving from Saussure, possibly Derrida, but I’m not directly indebted to them at all, because I didn’t come by that route. I think, probably, I’ve absorbed through the skin a great deal of the influence of these writers and thinkers. But basically, I came to this idea of signs in a signalling system through just looking at these categories and trying to work out what they are, what they mean, what their range of applications is, what their origin was and how they were used in the origin, and how they’re now used. Does that make sense?

DR: Very much so. And I think it’s a perfect place to wrap up. I think you’ve summarised . . . . And it was nice that you brought it back to where we started, actually. That’s nice. But I just wanted to say thanks for speaking to us today, Tim, and sharing your ideas with the RSP.

TF: No, it’s a pleasure. Thank you very much for having me. And I hope we can continue this, because there’s a lot more to be said . . .

DR: Oh, absolutely! I’m stopping because we’ve run out of time. And that’s literally the only reason. But we’ll definitely organise another conversation soon.

TF: That’s brilliant.

DR: Thank you so much.

TF: OK. Thank you very much, David. Thank you. Nice to talk. Very good to hear from you.

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Intellectual Journeys: Insights from Timothy Fitzgerald’s Work

Intellectual Journeys: Insights from Timothy Fitzgerald’s Work by Craig Martin

Above, religion as a term appears in opposition to cult in a meme.

Tim Fitzgerald’s The Ideology of Religious Studies is, in my opinion, a modern classic in the field of the academic study of religion. In graduate school I read that book and his later, equally useful volume, Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. I’ve also found value in some of his other works, including Religion and the Secular: Historical and Colonial Formations and Religion and Politics in International Relations: The Modern Myth (in particular, I highly recommend the chapter titled “Radical, Religious and Violent” in the latter book). Tim’s work has been highly influential on aspects of my own, and I’m deeply indebted to his work; consequently, it’s difficult to respond to his RSP interview, other than to say “hear, hear!” Instead of responding by offering a criticism of anything Tim said in this podcast, let me expand or highlight two of the lessons I think we can learn from his description of his own intellectual journey.

 

To start with where the interview ends, one of the most important insights I’ve learned from Tim’s work is that the various concepts opposed to “religious”—such as “non-religious,” “secular,” “science,” or, in some cases, “spiritual”—are central to the rhetorical function of the term “religious.” In general, what I find objectionable about how the concept of “religion” is deployed in particular social contexts is the (dubious) rhetorical work it does in relationship to whatever is imagined or legitimated as its (superior) opposite. Some discourses devalue religion in relationship to science, while some discourses devalue religion in relationship to spirituality. Because of the normative connotations hung on these rhetorical oppositions, the use of the term religion often entails propping up its opposite as superior by contrast. There’s nothing new about this—these uses are articulated upon the legacy of modern Euro-American discourses that once distinguished true religion from false religion, distinguished religion from enthusiasm or superstition, distinguished sincere, inward belief from outward, dead ritual, or distinguished advanced, individualist societies from backward, primitive savages who don’t realize they are slaves to the collective. All of that is to say, one thing I’ve learned from Tim is that in order to understand how the concept of religion functions in practice, we should look at what it is being distinguished from and ask whether some social practices or social formations are being privileged or condemned with the discursive contrast.

 

Above, some forms of Christianity use memes to define religion negatively and in opposition to a more “authentic” experience of faith.

 

The second lesson I think we should take away is that intellectual growth requires exposure to new ideas, often ideas from other fields or disciplines. Tim describes having traveled to parts of the globe where English is not the primary language, thereby learning how people who use a different language see or divide up the world differently. Similarly, Tim also describes reading widely outside the field of religious studies. Like Tim, I’ve attempted to read as widely as I can, particularly in those university disciplines that help us understand human societies: history, anthropology, sociology, social psychology, political science, legal studies, economics, feminist theory, queer theory, critical theory, critical race theory, and some forms of philosophy. Along the way, I’ve attempted to integrate the knowledge from these different fields or disciplines, making connections where theories or claims overlap, or noting where some approaches allow me to answer some of my questions in a more sophisticated way than other approaches. Why recreate the wheel in one field if the theoretical wheel has already been built in another?

 

A significant consequence of attempting to read so widely is that my views and my vocabulary have changed over time, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes dramatically. In addition, I’ve come to the conclusion that our views and vocabularies must change as circumstances change. Pick up a psychology textbook from fifty years ago, and you’ll see a considerably different vocabulary and set of theories than you would if you picked up one published in 2020. Things are moving so quickly in computer science that they don’t even publish books anymore—by the time a book is published, its content is out of date. Sadly, we don’t see the same growth in religious studies, where one of our best-selling and most-often-used textbooks—Huston Smith’s volume—has undergone relatively minor revisions since first published in 1958. Prentice Hall’s bestseller, The Sacred Quest, isn’t quite as old but nevertheless adopts a phenomenological approach that is just as outdated as Smith’s. There’s a reason that medical doctors no longer refer to the four humours, just as physicists no longer refer to an invisible “ether.” By contrast, we’re still utilizing a century-old theory of world religions that has been shown to have originally been built out of racist European colonialist assumptions (see, in particular, Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism, or Tim Murphy’s Politics of Spirit: Phenomenology, Genealogy, Religion). We can and should do better.

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

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The Problem with ‘Religion’ (and related categories)

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

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The Problem with ‘Religion’ (and related categories)

Podcast with Timothy Fitzgerald (17 February 2020).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TF: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DR: No, no.

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

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

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

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

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

DR: 1993.

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

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

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

DR: Yes, absolutely.

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

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

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How Religious Freedom Makes Religion

Religious freedom has emerged in recent years as a pivotal topic for the study of religion. It is also the subject of heated debates within many countries and among human rights advocates globally, where competing groups advance radically different ideas about how religious freedom operates and what it protects. While for marginalized and minority communities, this freedom can provide important avenues of appeal, at the same time, governing regimes of religious freedom have most often served the interests of those in power and opened up new channels of coercion by the state.

This conversation with Tisa Wenger, author of Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal, starts with the question of how religious freedom talk functions to shape the category of religion and to transform what counts as religious in the modern world. Using Wenger’s ethnographic and historical research on the Pueblo Indians, we discuss how local, national, and international regimes of religious freedom have shaped (or even produced) new religious formations, ways of being religious, norms of good vs. bad religion, or distinctions between the religious and the secular. In short, how has religious freedom (re)produced religion and its others in the modern world?

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, sardines, popcorn, and more.


 

How Religious Freedom Makes Religion

Podcast with Tisa Wenger (30 September 2019).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/how-religious-freedom-makes-religion/

David Robertson (DR): I’m joined today by Tisa Wenger. We’re here in Hanover at the DVRV conference. However, we’re not going to be talking about the German context. We’re going to be discussing how religious freedom makes religion. Tisa teaches in the Divinity School at Yale, including Religious Studies and American Studies, and is the author of the recent book, Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal. Welcome to the Religious Studies Project, first and foremost!

Tisa Wenger (TW): Thank you so much! It’s good to be with you.

DR: Let’s put the book in a little bit of context, before we get into a couple of case studies. Tell us how you started working on it. How did your early studies lead you to this subject?

TW: Yes. Well I’ll try to keep it relatively brief, instead of giving a full intellectual autobiography! But my first book, which was based on my dissertation, was called We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom. I started that book, not by thinking about religious freedom, but by thinking about race, American colonialism and category of religion. And I wanted to make an intervention into the kind-of Religious Studies conversation about to what extent is the category of religion a colonial imposition in various contexts. And I wanted to talk about that in relation to Native Americans, and for a variety of reasons ended up looking at the American south west and the Pueblo Indians in Mexico. And I argued, in that book, that Pueblo Indians only began really to contextualise their traditions as religion in the 1920s in order to make the argument for religious freedom. So that’s how I got to religious freedom – kind-of-like through the back door, so to speak. And when I finished that book I wanted to put a similar set of questions on a much broader historical stage. So I was asking, “Who’s invoking the idea of religious freedom and what kinds of cultural and political work does it do?” and, in particular, in kind-of imperial contexts, colonial contexts, and in relation to racial formation in the United States. So the set of arguments that you didn’t hear me talk about today had to do with race, and the way race is shaped in America is kind-of co-constituted with religion. And so I have argued in various other examples about how race and religion are co-constituted. But I was interested initially in this question of how religious freedom shapes or produces religion; when different sort-of social and cultural formations come to be conceptualised as religion, and how the category of religion is formed in that process. And so part of what I’m arguing in the book is that religious freedom disputes do important political and cultural work in that way, in shaping what is religion.

DR: Yeah. Right. And that, for me, is a very interesting aspect of your work. We’re very familiar with the kind-of human rights approach to this issue of, “How do we represent religions in the law?” and “How do we deal with religious freedom?” and these kinds of ideas. All of which, of course, sort-of assume this thing which needs to be represented. Whereas your argument is more subtle. So, if I’m understanding, it’s essentially that the category of religion is almost created in these legal negotiations about how we represent and recognise religions in the law – especially in a sort-of colonial context. Is that . . . have I got that correct?

TW: Yes that’s exactly right. But I would say that in most cases, it has not been created out of nothing, right?

DR: Of course, yeah.

TW: (Laughs). In most religious freedom controversies that we see . . . of course, the category of religion already was present and being used by people, but it is recreated and reshaped all the time. And in some cases, I think particularly in colonial contexts, you can see where local people – colonised people – start to use it for themselves for the first time, or pretty much for the first time, right? Because particularly the thing about US imperialism . . . . And religious freedom is such an important concept for Americans, generally – but for colonial officials in particular, who saw themselves as bringing freedom to the people they colonise, right?

DR: Right.

TW: And in some cases, bringing religious freedom was particularly important to them. So I’m interested in how, then, religious freedom served as a tool for kind-of colonial administration. But I’m also interested, then, in how colonised people take that principle and use it to kind-of speak back to empires.

DR: Right. Which is one of the most difficult aspects of post-colonial study of religion, I think, for people to get their heads around. It’s that it’s a process. There’s a two-way process. It’s not simply the baddies making the goodies behave in a certain way. But the category is reshaped, reconstituted and sustained in that dialogue where it is imposed in certain legal contexts. But then it’s also used by the people being colonised.

TW: Yes

DR: As an act of legitimatisation, yes?

TW: Yes. Exactly. So in the Native American case . . . and I can point to lots of specific examples, you know? In my work on the Pueblo Indians, and the piece of my book that you heard me present on today about Ojibwe Indians in Minnesota, in both cases you see US government officials with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) delegitimising indigenous traditions by categorising them as superstitious, heathenish, pagan, right? And indigenous people who really in their own languages and ways of structuring . . . . They had their own ways of structuring their societies, but those ways of structuring their societies didn’t really include anything equivalent to the category of religion as Americans understood it at the time. But they start to conceive of those traditions as religion in order to argue back against the categorisation of themselves as heathen savage, pagan etc., right? So this is why I title my first book We Have a Religion. This was a quote from a Pueblo Indian petition to the superintendent of Indian Affairs, saying “We also have a religion,” You know? “And you can’t ban it, because of the First amendment to the US Constitution.” Right?

DR: Yes. The clearest example that I’m aware of – it’s quite a well-known case, you know – is the way that Indian independence and Hinduism are kind-of coeval. So Hinduism is an administrative category, essentially by the British Empire, which then becomes one of the central motifs in the national identity of India leading directly into the Indian independence movement, and, you know, One Nation Indian political power today.

TW: Yes, that’s exactly right. And the sort-of construction of Hinduism as a “world religion” is happening in conjunction with that colonial history. Both by Indian intellectuals and by British . . .

DR: Absolutely.

TW: . . . for somewhat different ends. But it serves both of their interests to construct Hinduism as a world religion.

DR: Absolutely, yes.

TW: But native indigenous traditions, for Native Americans and elsewhere around the world, never got conceptualised or moved to that level of world religion, which is a different thing, as we know from Tomoko Masuzawa’s work and others.

DR: Absolutely. Let’s dig into one of those examples, then. The Pueblo Indians example is really fascinating. So perhaps you could take the Listeners through some of the details of that?

TW: Sure, so the Pueblo Indians are really a group of culturally related peoples in New Mexico, sort of related to the Hopi in Arizona. Related because . . . well . . . . Now I’m going to ramble! But they’re really four separate language groups that lived close by each other for several centuries and so came to share a lot of cultural characteristics. But they were colonised by Spain early on, as part of the kind-of northern expansion of New Spain up into what is now the south-western United States. And that’s hugely influential in shaping who the Pueblo Indians were by the time that the United States arrived in the region, after the Spanish American War in 1848. And most of the Pueblo communities – although not all of them – became Catholic under Spanish rule, and were pretty bilingual in Spanish and indigenous Tewa and Tiwa languages. And they, in the kind-of Spanish uses of religion, would conceive as Catholicism as their religion. So it’s not that they weren’t familiar with the category of religion. But under Spanish law, let’s just say, and in the kind-of Mexican New Spain, and then independent Mexico, there was no legal advantage because there was no religious freedom guaranteed to conceptualising indigenous practices as religion. So they had come to a kind-of accommodation with the Franciscan priests, who were mostly the clergy in the churches. And the Pueblos came to be named for Catholic saints and had feast days for the patron saint of each Pueblo, where they would practice traditional Pueblo dances as well as have a Catholic mass and a procession through the town. But they had kind-of come to an accommodation with the Catholic priests, the Franciscan priests, where they would . . . They talked about Pueblo kiva ceremonies and Pueblo ways as costumbre: custom, right?

DR: Yes.

TW: And so that really didn’t change under American rule until the 1920s, when there’s a new Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Charles Burke, who puts out this kind-of dance policy in order to enforce older regulations against Indian dances and those that . . . the one from the 1880s that I was actually referring to in my talk today. He, Charles Burke in the 1920s, tries to reinforce those relations.

DR: So, maybe just in a sentence or two, tell us what they are, because the Listener won’t have . . . .

TW: Right, so there was . . . and these are not laws passed by Congress, right? They’re more bureaucratic regulations within the Bureau of Indian Affairs, that’s nested under the Department of the Interior. And the Commissioner of Indian Affairs is in charge of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And he had immense sort-of executive power to regulate. And so this court of Indian offences was created by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs as a way to . . . . I’m sorry, I’m not being very brief here! But it’s relevant . . .

DR: No, this is good!

TW: as a way to, again . . . it’s a kind-of tutelary regime: a way to instruct Indians – and this is done in a very patronising way, so I’m kind-of echoing the patronising language that was used – to instruct Indians in civilisation and in the law. So they would . . . the agents would appoint a kind-of more – quote unquote – “progressive” Indian, to be the judge of the Court of Indian Affairs. But part of what the Court of . . . . There’re also kind-of regulations or there were a list of quote “Indian offences“. And nowhere in the documents extant from the time or in the regulations that were written up by the commissioner, was this referred to as “religion”. But it later came to be called the Religious Crimes Code. But the Indian offences that were listed in this code were “heathenish rites”, “the arts of the conjurer”, “the medicine man” etc., etc., right? And so native people could be, and were, fined and imprisoned for practising the arts of the conjurer, or participating in certain kinds of dances that were specified to be banned. But that had not . . . For various reasons the US control over Pueblo Indians was not nearly so strong in that period in the late 19th century. And it hadn’t really been enforced against the Pueblo Indians ever. And I don’t need to take the time to go into the reasons for that. But in the 1920s, actually – sparked in part by an exposé of Pueblo ceremonies, in which those ceremonies were depicted as sexually lascivious and immoral by missionaries and missionary-minded government agents – who were really, I think it’s safe to say, completely misinterpreting and misreading those ceremonies . . . .

DR: That’s a common way of representing any barbarous religion anyway, isn’t it?

TW: Correct.

DR: It’s a common language.

TW: Correct. So Charles Burke’s new regulations on dances, that were really just trying to re-inforce some of the earlier regulations form the 1880s, were sparked by a controversy of Pueblo Indian dances. So they were very much at the focus of the controversy that ensued. In the meantime, there were kind-of a group of Boasian anthropologists and sort-of modernist artists and writers who had settled in New Mexico, it was in Santa Fe, and who were starting to really romanticise the Pueblos as “ideal primitives” – quote unquote – right? And so some of those people also leapt to the defence of the Pueblos. And the Pueblo leaders themselves resisted the government suppression by saying, you know, “You can’t do this. Our traditions are religion.” But their re-categorising their traditions as religion was aided by the anthropologists and artists who were also starting to do the same thing, right? In a kind of celebration-of-primitive-religion way. So that’s what happened. Then it was a pretty big public controversy, I mean with articles in lots of national magazines and newspapers and such about the Pueblos. And one of the people who was centrally involved was John Collier who at the time had just become the head of a new reform association called the American Indian Defence Association. And he was becoming one of the biggest gadflies against BIA assimilationist policies. And then later under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’ with the New Deal, Collier was appointed as the commissioner of Indian Affairs – which was a huge overturn. And he reversed some of these policies outlawing Native American dances, and he did so on religious freedom grounds. That reform had its own limitations, of course. And most BIA agents, even after that point in the mid-1930s, continued to work closely with Christian missionaries. And even when they formally recognised the right of Native Americans to religious freedom, nonetheless still conceptualised religion with such a Christian model that they often ruled indigenous practices outside of what counted as religion, right? So what was considered religion was always being negotiated and contested on different Indian reservations between native people and government agents.

DR: And so was there also the kind-of opposite side of that? Does the legislation and the control then shape the way that the Indians are practising? Did they begin to think differently about their practices and maybe even emphasise different bits more, and focus on things differently as a result?

TW: Yes absolutely. So when I finished the book on the Pueblos . . . this was the first piece that I did for my new big sort-of broad-scope religious freedom book. My first transitional step I took was to say, “Well I’ve done all of this in-depth work on the Pueblos in New Mexico. Now I wonder how this happened, or can I tell a similar kinds of stories about other Native Americans elsewhere in the United States?” right? And “When did native people start to use religious freedom arguments?” and “How did that shift things for them?” I didn’t get to that part of . . . . I did make that kind of argument in relation to the Pueblos, as well, and talk about how reconceptualising their traditions as religion created new conflicts within Pueblo communities. But I want to talk now about the newer research that appeared in the second book, in the religious freedom book, that resulted from me asking, “Well, what did this look like more broadly?” And initially I was actually thinking, “Well, probably because there was such a concerted government attempt at suppressing these traditions and nobody was thinking of them as religion, that probably religious freedom wasn’t a pertinent category until the twentieth century.” But I found that not to be the case. I found that actually the more I looked, the more I found Native Americans from the beginning of the nineteenth-century really, in some cases, using religious freedom talk. And I would say, broadly speaking, there are at least two different types of ways that that was applied. So one, in relation to the kind-of stages of colonial history, perhaps – in early stages of colonial contact, before native nations were conquered, when you have Christian missionaries coming, where the native nations are not under US control – you often see native people saying something like “We’re not interested in your religion. We have our own religion.” And sometimes that directly becomes language about religious freedom and sometimes it becomes directly language about religious freedom that is also about protecting indigenous sovereignty, in a kind-of collective way: “Our people have our own ways. And you can’t take our land. You can’t take our …” You know? And religious freedom was part of that. But it’s not a religious freedom that is appealing to the US Constitution, because they’re not under the US Constitution. They don’t see themselves as being governed by the United States.

DR: Yes. And there’s maybe less of a . . . It’s maybe not to do with freedom of religion and the role of the secular. They’re more thinking in terms of religion as customs and that kind of idea.

TW: Yes. They using religion-talk, but in a way where it’s very integrated. But then, after Native Americans are conquered essentially, right – and that happens at different times in different parts of the country and for different native nations – but by the late nineteenth century, by the 1880s, really overwhelmingly native Americans have been conquered, and they have been restricted to reservations, and there are now new policies that are being implemented. And the Code of Indian offences that I was describing earlier is part of that period of a kind-of newly heightened effort at administrative control. And that’s when, immediately in that period, you start to see Native Americans on reservations resisting the suppression of indigenous practices. And sometimes native people refer to their “doings”: ceremonies, dances, all kinds of practices – you know, medicines, healing practices – they start to refer to some of them as religion specifically in order to make religious freedom arguments. And that started to happen in the 1880s. It accelerated with the Peyote movement, and the suppression of the Peyote movement. And I trace that history in the book. But you see . . . . And actually, the Peyote movement is a really interesting case with regard to the question you were asking about how that shifts indigenous traditions. Because, I mean, I don’t think the government suppression and the law is the only reason that Peyotists, and people in that tradition, started to talk about it in the language of religion. There were other reasons as well, but this was certainly one of them. But what is very clear is that the Peyote leaders and practitioners . . . structurally, the movement shifts towards a more, what we might call a kind-of Protestant – certainly a Christian – model for what counts as religion, in order to make religious freedom arguments in the courts, and in Congressional hearings, and before state legislators. And that happened in various places. But, you know, there’s the incorporation of the Native American church, right, that happened . . . which there was an anthropologist, James Mooney, who helped with that process. And the Native American church, you know . . . . Again Peyote ceremonies were, for various reasons, borrowing from Christianity. And some of the Peyote movements began to see themselves as Christian. But the fact that being Christian helped with a religious freedom argument meant that those groups had a boost, right? (Laughs). So there’s a kind-of incomplete Christianisation of the Peyote movement and the Native American Church that isn’t entirely caused by the need to resist government suppression and make religious freedom arguments, but is certainly encouraged and accelerated by it. And so, you know, Peyote is called “the sacrament”. Again and again, you see Indians trying to argue, you know, against legislation and suppression. And that is also in the climate of a prohibitionist period, when there’s a huge campaign against drugs and alcohol – and particularly alcohol, right? So there were crusaders who were employed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to stamp out the alcohol trade among Indians. And the Peyote became kind-of classified as a dangerous drug, alongside alcohol

DR: Right, yes.

TW: So the Bureau of Indian Affairs talked about Peyote and the Peyote as a cloak for drug dealers. They just . . .

DR: Right. Similar to the way that cannabis became . . . ?

TW: Yes. “They’re pretending to be religious in order to kind-of pedal drugs”, right? And so, in order to combat that kind of suppression and denigration, Peyote leaders would emphasise the kind-of positive moral effects of Peyote practice and Peyote worship, and talk about the sacrament, and talk about the church. So that was very much a necessary strategy for them. And I don’t see it . . . again, I don’t see it only as a strategy, but it was certainly accelerated by that. Yes.

DR: Yes, and on the RSP we’ve talked a few times – we’ve been talking about it over the last week here, as well – that all of these categories – you know, religion, race, the secular, human rights – they’re all part of an interlocking system. So it’s not just the one thing that affects the way that religion is constructed. But it’s part of a larger system in which those are the building blocks we’re working with.

TW: Right. Yes. So you reminded me, in saying that, of the point I was making in the talk I gave earlier today: about how religious/secular distinctions are even produced in some Native American societies in this process. Because what I found was – this was the part I didn’t quite get to in my earlier answer – but what I found was that in many native communities while religious freedom arguments appeared quite early, and many native leaders were making religious freedom arguments, sometimes kind-of strategically, tactically, that wasn’t the most effective way to convince a particular official to allow them to hold dances. Of course, sometimes dances went on, regardless of what the officials said, out of their view. But many Native Americans on many reservations, you’d see dances being held on the Fourth of July, on various kinds of national holidays and Christian holidays – you know, Christmas and Thanksgiving, but especially the Fourth of July – and native people and returned veterans especially after the First World War saying, “We fought for our freedom and we have the right to celebrate our freedom.” And, plus, “These are just social dances, and white communities hold dances too, to celebrate the 4th of July – so why can’t we?” And they, in those cases, would very much downplay any kind of sacred ceremonial. They didn’t conceptualise those traditions as religious for the purposes of these arguments. And so you see, I think, a kind-of differentiation between certain dance or ceremonial traditions that became defended and conceptualised as religion, and came to take on the characteristics associated with religion – which is really modelled after Christianity in the United States – versus those kind-of dance or ceremonial complexes that were defended in different ways and so were not conceptualised as religion. And so there’s a kind of religious/secular distinction that happens where some dances are secularised. But the point I want to make is even beyond that, that the very distinction between a religious dance and a secular dance is emerging in that process.

DR: Right. As a last question, then: what do you think . . . where are we, then, with the religious/ secular distinction in law today? Do you think this is something that we should be seeking to challenge? Or do you think that there is still some value in a religious freedom law?

TW: That’s a really big and hard question for me! (Laughs).

DR: I know it’s something you’re thinking through just now, so maybe it can be just initial . . . .

TW: It is. And I mean I am more comfortable trying to observe and map how it’s happening. Seeing the kind of work that religious freedom is doing. And I think in the contemporary United States certainly religious freedom disputes help shape what people think of as religious and what they don’t think of, you know. And why certain things, again and again, get sort-of coded as a religious issue, as a religious freedom issue, is complex and puzzling. But, you know, it should . . . I’m in two minds about the continued utility of religious freedom. And I have always come down on the side that . . . as kind-of muddled and complicated as its history is, that it’s a tool that has nonetheless been useful to lots of minority groups. And that we can’t just reinvent our world and our categories ex nihilo, right? We don’t have that kind of power as scholars. So is it better to try to eliminate religious freedom law? I mean, I don’t really think so. I might change my mind about this. You know. I think that while seeing how historically constantly negotiated it is – what gets included within the scope of religious freedom and how that shapes what religion even is in our society – that we’re better off pushing for more inclusive, but sometimes also more limited views of religious freedom. In the sense that I don’t think religious freedom should kind-of trump every other value or principle of equality and justice that we have. In the history I trace, I think you can see how that tendency has been a problem and hence served . . . has been weaponised over and over again. And I think it’s still weaponised today. So I think we’re better off trying to kind-of reformulate and reclaim religious freedom. And I have a colleague and friend, Michael McNally who teaches at Carleton College and he has a new book coming out, on Native American religious freedom, which is really grounded in contemporary ethnographic research with . . . . Well, he’s worked with and learned from Native American activists and lawyers, and organisations advocating for religious freedom now. And he says that they’re very . . . these contemporary native leaders are very much aware of sort-of limits and pitfalls of religious freedom. But they nevertheless find it to be a useful tool alongside others. Even though it has failed repeatedly in the courts for Native Americans, contemporary activists would not want it to be gone.

DR: Right, yeah.

TW: Because they see it as way that they can . . . because religious freedom does have such cultural power in the United States that it can be a way to give a certain amount of moral authority to their claims. I mean that’s one of the kinds of arguments that he makes, and I find that very convincing. And so I think that for scholars who see religion as a constructed category and all of that – yes, absolutely. But who are we to say that activists shouldn’t have that tool, right?

DR: Absolutely. It’s been a really interesting conversation. There are a number of big questions that we’re not going to get time for today – so maybe we could have you back one day in the future to go more into the racial stuff,, for instance, which we didn’t really get too much in. But for now, Tisa Wenger, I want to say thank you for taking part in the Religious Studies Project.

TW: Absolutely. Thanks for having me! And I hope to be back, because, yes – there’s so much more to talk about!

DR: Excellent! Thank you.

TW: Thanks very much.

 

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Buddhism in the critical classroom

How do we deal with different cultural languages when teaching an Introduction to Buddhism course? A distinct religious vocabulary reveals itself during early assignments, where students freely deploy terms like “sin,” “atheism,” “afterlife,” and others in their discussions, associating sin with negative karmic action, atheism to their perception of Buddhism as a “godless” religion, the afterlife in reference to rebirth, and so forth. How do these “cultural languages” or “religious language” inform our pedagogical strategies in the classroom. Is cultural familiarity something to be broken immediately and displaced by new concepts and perspectives? Is it to be leveraged as devices for easy onboarding to other, more unfamiliar terms and ideas? Are they to be outright ignored?

To discuss this, David Robertson is joined by Matthew Hayes from UCLA for a wide-ranging and open discussion.

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


Buddhism in the Critical Classroom

Podcast with Matthew Hayes (13 May 2019).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Hayes_-_Buddhism_in_the_Critical_Classroom_1.1

 

David Robertson (DR): Well, I’m pleased to be speaking today to Matthew Hayes, who is a research student at UCLA – that’s the University of California and Los Angeles. Welcome to the RSP, Matthew!

Matthew Hayes (MH): David, thank you very much. I’m very happy to be speaking with you. I appreciate it.

DR: You’re very welcome. You got in contact with what I think is a really interesting topic – something very RSP, combining our love of pedagogy and critical theory. And you wanted to talk about critical pedagogy in teaching non-Western religions. Maybe we could kick off with just a little bit of context as to who you are, and what you do? And maybe then we can get into talking about the course, and the specific kind-of exercises and stuff that you do?

MH: Sure. Yes, so my research kind-of broadly is centred on Buddhist ritual practice during the early modern period in Japan, which runs from 1603-1868. And I’m interested, really, in issues of ritual knowledge production and transmission and the formation and sort-of dissolution, also, of social groups in this context. I focus on a genre of devotional literature called Kōshiki. And my dissertation actually takes a look – a fairly narrow look – at one specific Kōshiki written by a medieval monk named Kakuban. And the research really traces later performative editorial and even pedagogical iterations of this Kōshiki, and really argues that these iterations served as vectors for the transmission of religious knowledge at a specific temple called Chishakuin, in Kyoto, during the seventeenth century or late seventeenth century. So my research is really a kind-of mix, I suppose, of kind-of an institutional study, it’s a textual study, it’s a social study, it’s a ritual study. So it’s a kind-of hybrid project in that way.

DR: Yes, it’s quite a good technique, I think, actually doing that sort of critical reading of text. It could be very enlightening from a critical point of view, as to the way that texts are interpreted and the way – in relation to their context over time of course . . .

MH: Absolutely. I think it’s fairly common to take ritual performance as a performance. So I’m trying to tread a thin line between performance and a textual study: sort-of what happens when we look at a ritual text as a text? Because, in a lot of ways, not only the ritual text but actually commentarial literature surrounding this text was taken up as a kind-of textual study by monks themselves. So it sort-of straddles a thin line between performance and a more cognitive study of a text.

DR: Cool. Now the question always come down to, in the classroom, how do we start? And you had quite an interesting exercise that you started with.

MH: Right, yes. So I teach fairly regularly here at UCLA. I teach an introduction to Buddhism course, which is, you know, a broad survey course, usually fairly highly enrolled: anywhere between sixty and a hundred students. It’s a GE course, which means students are required to take it to graduate. So there’s a fairly heavy writing component to this course. One of the kind-of early assignments that I give students is a . . . it’s almost a throw away assignment, right? It’s way to gauge base-level writing skills. It’s very low-stakes, it’s not worth very much compared to later research projects. But what it really does, I think – for me anyway – is it unearths a lot of assumptions about Buddhism as a religion in the minds of students. So the assignment actually asks students to take a stance, without any prior knowledge of the tradition – this is day one of the course, essentially, week one – and make an argument for Buddhism as either a religion or a philosophy. Right? So this is kind-of a foil for me . . . or kind-of a straw man, to set up assumptions and kind-of pre-existing knowledge, if any, about the tradition, which is either refined or displaced over the weeks as the course goes on. And so that’s essentially the assignment (5:00). It allows students to kind-of express whatever they can, if they can about Buddhism as a kind of template of sorts that will be reworked and reformed as the course goes on, in their writing.

DR: Yes. It’s an interesting . . . I have done similar ones. But I never done that exercise focussed specifically on Buddhism. The fact that you do is interesting. Because I think you would get different answers depending on which tradition you were asking, I think.

MH: Right. Absolutely. So that’s the other kind-of component. And it’s meant to be broad, right? It’s meant to . . . it’s another one of the straw men that I’m setting up for students. The course, of course, culminates after a number of weeks and we discuss this issue of kind-of multiplicity or plural Buddhism that kind-of populate the world. And, of course, to accept this assignment as Buddhism in the singular as if it’s a kind-of monolithic tradition, already is a kind of trap for students, right? So they fall into this idea that there is this uniform practice, right, or uniform doctrine, or uniform engagement by adherents across the world. This is another thing for me to slowly break down across the course. So yes, framing it in that way is kind-of meaningful and utilitarian for me. It’s something that I can sort of leverage across the weeks.

DR: Absolutely. And students don’t go into the classroom . . . I think they have more ideas about . . . . Or, I’ll put it a different way. They’re more likely to have ideas about Buddhism going into Religion 101 than they are about Sikhism or Jainism, or something.

MH: Right.

DR: Buddhism seems to be – and this is certainly the case in the UK context – seems to be the next one that you look at, if you’ve been raised in Christian or post Christian context – I don’t know how it works with Judaism – but it seems to be the one that the teenager will then look at next in their interest in different religions. So I find that students arrive with ideas about Buddhism already.

MH: Absolutely. I find the same to be the case here in the United States – or at least in Los Angeles. A lot of that information, I think, is coming in from sort-of popular culture. Buddhism, in many ways, has found its place in mainstream culture, in popular culture. We have the Zen of —–, fill in the blank, right? All of these transmutations of the tradition for various purposes. So students are exposed to this all the time, whether they sort-of recognise it or not. And so another exercise I do at the very beginning, day one, is just to kind-of poll the class, you know: What is Buddhism? What do you think of when I say the word Buddhism? And of course, you know, the answers kind-of range but predominantly, you see a lot of stuff reflected in that same pop culture, right? A sort of a monk or a mendicant, sitting in a robe doing nothing but meditating all day, giving up possessions and so on, and so forth. Not necessarily incorrect, but it’s a fairly kind-of categorical view of Buddhism, kind-of a monolithic practice. So they do come in with something, right?

DR: And asking students to talk about Buddhism, and I think especially in framing it as a question of religion or philosophy – these kind of questions – this leads you to recognise what you’re calling a sort-of cultural language, a set of ways of talking about these things that the students are bringing into the classrooms. Is that right?

MH: That’s right. So when I poll the class – and certainly in this first writing assignment in which I ask them to take a stance on what Buddhism is, or what they think it is, inevitably – and this of course isn’t across every single student – but predominantly, across the class, I see a sort of common language being used in the classroom, and then of course in their first assignment. So, to talk about, or to get at what they think is a kind-of ethical aspect of Buddhism, right – prior to their understanding that gets worked and developed across the class – they use words like “sin”, right? And in their kind-of conception of Buddhism as a kind of – quote unquote – “godless religion” they might use a kind-of term like atheism to describe this. Similarly in their efforts to get at this idea of rebirth or kind-of cycle of being reborn back into the world, they’ll use word like “afterlife”. There’s maybe ten or twelve or fifteen of these terms that seem to come up during this first week or two of class (10:00). And so this, to me, was very compelling, predominantly because it seemed to be fairly uniform right across a lot of these responses. And so, during the first few years of teaching, just a few short years ago, I began teaching and thinking about what the kind-of implications are here, right? What does it mean to think about this sort-of set of ideas, and ideals, and concepts, and terms that students bring into the classroom, that are kind-of wielded in trying to define something otherwise foreign to them, or unfamiliar to them, or something that is ill-defined, at least from day one? So, yes: cultural language. There could be a better term. There’s probably a theorist out there who’s worked through some of this stuff a bit more accurately than I have. But cultural language or kind-of a cultural location from which they appraise a religion that is unfamiliar. Something like this.

DR: Right, yes. But it will work for our purposes today at least. So the question that you raised is talking about what we do with these, then, in the classroom. And you set a few strategies which I’d quite like you to sort-of describe each of them in turn. Because it’s quite interesting. And I have a few reflections on some of these as well.

MH: Sure.

DR: Whether we start with that now, or whether we go a little bit more into what we’re trying to do in the classroom first and foremost – what do you think?

MH: Yes. Maybe we could talk a little bit about this first. I mean just sort-of what we do with these sets of terms, if that’s ok?

DR: Yes, absolutely. Well, to me it seemed like it came down to the question of what we’re trying to do in the classroom, in this introductory course. You know: are we, as the sort-of early anthropologists were doing, are we translating unfamiliar terms into familiar terms? Or are we doing something that is more destabilising. You know, are we challenging the terms that they’re using? I think it comes down to what it is that we’re trying to do. And I wanted to ask you what you think you’re trying to do. That sounds more aggressive than I meant to, but . . . !

MH: No, No! So, I mean, I don’t want to take a complete position here, but I would say what I tried to do, class to class, is probably somewhere in between those two approaches, right? So, you know, I was an undergrad once of course. And I have been in classrooms that took the approach of kind-of immediately discarding whatever terms or understandings or positions that were brought into the classroom and working to kind-of break bad habits, as it were; trying to kind-of replace these terms with something a bit more “in house”, or something a bit more accurate or specific to the tradition that’s being studied. And I think it’s fair. But from a kind-of practical perspective – and I was one of these students – it can sort-of scare them off a bit. It can be sort-of paralysing, once that sure footing is kind-of removed, or pulled out from underneath the student. And of course there may be some educators out there who’d say, “Well, we must shock them into this mode of critical inquiry by shedding a lot of these bad predispositions and habits, and replacing them with ones that speak more truthfully or accurately to the object under study.” I think that’s fair. But for me, again, I sort-of fall somewhere in between those two poles. So on the one hand, I do not by any means want to simply adopt these terms that students bring into the classroom and sort-of use them interchangeably. That’s very dangerous and risky, and does a real disservice to whatever is trying to be done in the classroom for the educator. But I also don’t think they should be sort-of left at the door, either. And so, allowing students – at least in the initial stages – to kind-of use a familiar footing, or use familiar language in ways that allow them to kind-of get an issue, or speak to a concept, or describe something, some practice or facet of a doctrine, I think, can be very, very helpful. And then, slowly, as the class goes on, you begin to kind-of replace or kind-of supplant those terms with something else. (15:00) So just to give a brief example, you might have students at the beginning of the course using, left and right, this term “sin”, right, describing it, in the context of Buddhism, however they sort-of deem necessary. And slowly, you might – either in paper revisions or in the classroom, verbally – you might begin to introduce a softer term, or kind-of related term like “transgression” – which I think is more kind-of categorical, it’s more broad, it’s not even necessarily Buddhist, right, but it is less Judeo-Christian. It sort of distances itself from that initial position. And then, as things proceed further, you might introduce – a bit more in the realm of Buddhism – something like “unwholesome action”, right? Or an action that sort of accrues karmic retribution. So, a bit more technically Buddhist and certainly a bit more accurate. And so, in a way, by introducing these kind-of in-between terms like transgression, that bridge that initial position to what we hope to kind-of develop as a later position for students – which is really a kind-of clear and accurate view of the Buddhist tradition in ten weeks, as best we can in a survey course – there are, I think, rhetorical strategies in the classroom, and certainly strategies that can be deployed on paper – revising papers and such – that can really kind-of steer students in a more natural way toward proper usage, accurate usage, and sort-of precise usage of these terms.

DR: Yes. And the language that is used is so tied up with histories of . . . social histories’ use of terms. It can be a very difficult task to upset associations of say Karma and sin and these kind of ideas. But there is a sort of . . . it’s often tied up with a call to de-colonise the university and things, these days – which is something I have some sympathy with. But I do, also, question the degree to which the university as we know it – the Western tradition of the university – how far we can actually go with, actually, not being there to translate one alien data language into a familiar data language. I think there are ways to start doing it – as you say – to find a middle ground. But I do think that we, more or less always, inevitably end up at doing that, the same . . . you know, the same way as comparative history of religions has always been . . . .

MH: Yes, it’s difficult. Ultimately we’re in a kind-of Western classroom under the guise of Western administration, right, which of course falls underneath this broader kind of category of Western perspective, and – if you want to take a critical view – of Western dominance. So you’re absolutely right. There’s a kind of difficulty, there, in being aware as an educator of where some of this language is coming from, where the predispositions of students are coming from, and certainly where our own predispositions are coming from, as educators trying to kind-of mediate for students. And it’s a real challenge to think that we can solve the problem, or completely do away with some of those underlying – as you say – sort-of colonial values, or issues of dominance, or invasion, and so on, and so forth. And I think you mentioned critical pedagogy at the start: I think someone like Ira Shor who really is championing just a basic awareness of this as educators. Just an awareness of this issue of dominance that kind-of bubbles beneath the surface of learning processes a pedagogical processes, I think is really the key here. So while we may not be able to save the day, right, in the end, or really kind-of play that role to its fullest – especially in a ten week survey course, it’s very, very difficult to have a long-lasting effect on students in that kind-of deep way that I think people like Ira Shor and others are speaking to – a kind-of basic awareness of this problem, I think, can go a long way, for sure.

DR: And I haven’t read Shor’s work, so that’s a great lead for me to follow up (20:00). I’m thinking specifically in the way that Russell McCutcheon teaches at Alabama, for instance. I think there is a deeper issue within the field that no matter what language we use – whether we’re sort-of successfully translating, or we’re using our own categories, or whatever we’re doing there – we are still operating within the Western category of religion. So even if we were able to translate those terms into their own language, we’re still . . . by dint of talking about religion. And it’s not something that we can escape, I don’t think. It’s part and parcel of the way the subject is set up.

MH: Absolutely. That’s the problem with teaching in a discipline that’s so, I think, acutely defined. And, much as we want to talk – especially now – about these issues of fluidity and dynamism, trans-sectarianism, trans-religious dialogue – lots of these kind-of things that tend to sort-of blur the lines between this tradition and that tradition, or sort-of gesture toward some shared similarities between the two – you’re absolutely right: ultimately we are teaching within a discipline, through a discipline and by the guidelines of that discipline. You’re absolutely right to think that that’s a real challenge as well.

DR: I think it’s a deep challenge. And I think it’s . . . I don’t know if it’s unique to Religious Studies. It’s certainly acute in Religious Studies. And in some ways, it seems a bit of a Gordian Knot. So I’m not surprised you’re saying that you position yourself in the middle. I don’t know where else we could really . . . ! And that’s kind-of why I was asking, you know: what is it that we’re doing in that introductory class? Because I’m not entirely sure myself what we’re doing in that introductory class. Except, I mean, I would personally go with a more sort of deconstructive route against . . . . But then, I’m not starting with Buddhism. I start with new religions, usually. And I think that there are some ways in which it’s easier. So my aim is not particularly to get people to understand new religions. It’s more to try and get them to think anew about their own traditions. And what they have taken for granted as being rational, or unexpected. And by showing them people who are very much like them, who do things that are supposedly crazy, or at least stigmatised, you know, that we can start getting them to think about the reasons for their own actions, and their own beliefs and things, and to break down the category a little bit. And start saying, “Oh, actually, this isn’t as straightforward a thing as I thought it was!” But I guess, coming from Buddhism is a completely different ball game.

MH: It’s difficult. You look at a tradition like Buddhism with a much longer socio-cultural history than something like a new religion, right? So, I think some time has to be spent, at least, doing the historical work to kind-of flesh that out. Students need a kind-of broader context, right? So, when I teach this course we begin in India, and we go all the way up to the modern West – which, in ten weeks, is just crazy, you know, to think that we can really do any kind of service to any of those traditions or sub-traditions that grew out across those regions. So, in a way, I do sometimes feel like a slave to that mode of pedagogy, right, having to do a lot of this kind-of early historical background. And, certainly, we spend some time with major figures. And I do my best, certainly, to bring out some of these broader kind-of critical issues: issues of what it means to practice – what is a practice? – what it means to engage with a religion. Some of those ideas that students bring into the classroom are immediately sort-of deconstructed for them, right? We talk at length, in my class, about a lot of scandals that have occupied the Buddhist world – not only in recent times, but in the past as well. So a lot of this kind of confrontational teaching – or teaching that aims to kind-of break students of what might otherwise be kind-of an ideal image of Buddhism in their minds, when they come into the classroom – a lot of that is at work. But just kind-of the age of Buddhism, right? (25:00) It is a very, very old tradition. So there is some responsibility I think I have to take, there, in sort of playing the set-up, right, doing the kind-of long set-up.

DR: Yes. Absolutely. So let’s talk, for the last few minutes then, about how we can sort-of use this assumption of familiar language or cultural language – however we want to call it – how we can use that to our pedagogical advantage. You know different strategies that we can use – to build out a language of familiarity, we’ve already talked about – but how we can use it to really enhance the students learning.

MH: Yes. Again I think this idea from Shor, who really kind-of pushes an awareness – or at least a sort-of attention to one’s biases not in a kind-of self-critical way but in a kind-of positive way, right? We’re meant to kind-of confront these biases, confront our cultural positions or locations, and I think, in his view, ultimately leverage them in the name of transcending them – at least momentarily. Transcending them for ten weeks in a survey course where we might adopt a more accurate set of positions, or set of terms that allow us to speak more kind-of faithfully to the tradition itself. And so, in terms of tactics, I will just confront this predisposition front-and-centre in the classroom. And so, in a way, I’ve always envisioned my job as an educator to be a kind-of collaborative learner, right, and a collaborative teacher. So, rather than taking this kind-of unidirectional approach and keeping this issue of predispositions and dominant culture in my mind, I’ll simply put it out there for the entire class to kind-of wrangle with and deal with. And so, once it’s out there on the table, we can all together be aware, as Shor says, or be kind-of cognisant of our own biases. And that allows us to kind-of use them positively. Use those biases in ways that help to better clarify, or better define, or better utilise terms that are otherwise foreign or murky for students. I think sort-of keeping a lot of those institutional biases, or cultural biases, or religious biases secret as a teacher is kind-of a disservice to students, right? It sounds to me like one of the things you might even be doing in your class in new religions, is building a kind-of awareness of habits, or awareness of preconceptions of what it means to be religious or, you know, do religious practice, or something like this?

DR: Right. Absolutely. I often start the class, actually . . . . I used to have a block that was in a sort of World Religions 101. And I was basically the . . . . You had the five world religions and I was the other stuff. And I used to start by asking them, “Ok, so you’ve had five religions – have you been told what a religion is?”

MH: Right, right.

DR: They, of course, hadn’t been at any point. And you know, I quite often will point out to students, “If you want to know what hegemony is – in terms of religions, what gets counted as a religion – look at the courses you’ve done! And they’ll think back to the first year and go, “Oh right! Yeah – it’s the same five!” The same things over again. And if you get something else, it’s stuck in as an extra, you know, and always with a qualifier – it’s “indigenous religions” or it’s “new religions”, or it’s “religious movements” or there’s some term that distances it . . .

MH: Right

DR: So yes. We talked about this in the book that I edit with Chris Cotter, actually. We called it subversive pedagogies: where you have to work within that particular set up – you know, in the university – world religions, and these kind of things . . .

MH: Yes, and I was just, very quickly . . . . Go ahead.

DR: Yes, I was just finishing to say: you can use it to your advantage.

MH: Yes. The nice thing about this sort of this issue is, it’s not – at least in recent years – it hasn’t been such a kind-of mystery. I mean there’s some scholars out there actually writing on this issue of what it means to do Religious Studies in academia; what it means to try to kind-of de-institutionalise or even, in some cases, de-colonise as you say the university. I’m thinking of Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions (30:00). So she really does a nice job of pointing directly at academia, at the institution itself, as a kind-of – to put it critically – a kind-of culprit in putting together what we now conceive of as – quote-unquote – “world religions”, right? So I thought of that when you said there were the first five, and then you as the sixth. It seems that this inclusive-exclusive grouping model, or this idea that there could be outliers to a – quote-unquote – “pantheon” of religion is not totally disconnected from the work that academics are doing. And in a lot of ways, I think, again people like Shor, and others, are pointing back at instructors and teachers as people who can sort-of re-orient the model or reconceptualise the model as sort-of not so categorical or exclusive or inclusive.

DR: Right, yes. And one of Tomoko’s points, and Russel McCutcheon makes the same point, and Tim Fitzgerald make the same point, is that actually in teaching that way, and presenting these things as facts, we are constructing that model and that worldview that the students then bring into the classroom.

MH: Right.

DR: And so one thing that’s quite interesting, when you described the exercise, “Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy?” it’s that we can use that in a discussion afterwards, “Well – what does it matter? What is at stake if we say that Buddhism is a religion? Or if we say it’s a philosophy, what’s at stake there? What practical effect does that have? You could connect the use of philosophy there with the fact that atheism is coming up, and gain a real insight, there, into the way that the term religion is being mobilised, in the milieu that the students exist in. So you’re no longer talking about, you know, two-and-a-half thousand years of Buddhist tradition and several continents, or whatever. You’re talking about the specific way that religion is being mobilised for students in their own world.

MH: Absolutely. I mean these students will go on to have hopefully a lengthy conversation but, in reality, a thirty-second conversation with their friends about Buddhism. You know, the word comes up, they see something on TV or whatever, and they might spout off a few lines about how they conceive of the tradition after having taken the class. And so, you know, the stakes are there. And it’s sort-of how we position the tradition in relation to students in their own learning process, but also how we position the tradition in relation to the kind-of broader categorical and institutional frameworks that I think have dominated for so long.

DR: Absolutely. It’s a very simple example of how we can flip from the students’ expectations that they’re coming into the classroom to be told facts, and flip it until now we’re talking about how ideas and our own knowledge is constructed. And that’s what I think we’re there in the classroom to do.

MH: Yes. Absolutely. Sort of a reflexive approach, I think, is really, really helpful.

DR: Absolutely. Matthew Hayes, thanks for coming onto RSP. It’s been a really interesting conversation. I’m sorry that we’ve run out of time.

MH: That’s quite alright. Thank you so much, David, I really appreciate it. It’s been very enjoyable.


Citation Info: Hayes, Matthew and David G. Robertson. 2019. “Buddhism in the Critical Classroom”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 13 May 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 9 May 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/buddhism-in-the-critical-classroom/

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

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Religion as a Tactic of Governance

In this interview recorded at the BASR/ISASR, Naomi Goldenberg considers how ‘religion’ has developed as a separate sphere from ‘governance’. She argues that ‘religion’ has been projected onto the past for strategic purposes, as a management technique, or even alternative to violence. How does viewing religions as “restive once-and-future governments” help us understand the functioning of this category in contemporary discourse?

She takes us through several examples, including Judaism, new religions, Islam and contemporary debates on abortion and circumcision. As well as a clear example of the functioning of the category ‘religion’ in the contemporary world, this gives some real-world applications of critical theory that shows its relevance beyond the academy.

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, candy, bandannas, and more.


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


Religion as a Tactic of Governance

Podcast with Naomi Goldenberg (21 January 2019).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Goldenberg_-_Religion_as_a_Tactic_of_Governance_1.1

DR: We’re still here in Belfast at the BASR conference, in 2018. And I am privileged to be joined today by our keynote speaker from last night, Naomi Goldenberg, of the University of Ottawa. Welcome to the Religious Studies Project – a return visit, Naomi!

NG: Thank you.

DR: So we’re going to pick up where the keynote . . . well, we’re going to pick up where the keynote started, last night, for everybody who couldn’t be here for what was an excellent session. Thinking of where to start a conversation today, then . . . . So the idea was, as I understood it, that religion – and just to clarify, we’re talking religion as a category here – has been projected . . . . The idea of religion as a separate sphere, a separate category, has been projected onto the past for strategic purposes. Tell us what you mean by that and especially this idea of strategic purposes – as a tactic. What are we talking about?

NG: Religion is a modern category, the way I see it. Not just the way I see it – the way many scholars see it. And not just the way we see it. It can be demonstrated that the term as meaning some kind of special separate sphere of human activity is a very, very recent idea. So in the past – “the past” is so big! I’ll maybe try to explain this in terms of probably the most effective sentence that I’ve ever come across to explain it, is that there is no religion in the Bible. And last night I began with a passage from Deuteronomy to illustrate that you might have – you do have – God in the Bible. You have all kinds of people that we identify with the category of religion now. But all of these figures were involved in government, not in anything separate that we could hive off and call religion. God was some kind of . . . conceived as some kind of monarch, some kind of director, someone who human beings could claim to speak for. But we get God as a principal of Government. Now, of course, government is a modern term as well. So I speak about governance with lots of different words. You could say ruling with authority, you could say commanding a polity, and it’s a very loose concept of governance that I’m using. But this governance was, we might say now, theocratic, whatever. So you don’t get something separate. Clergy – that’s another modern term projected onto the past – were involved with ceremonies of government. And anything that gets called religion, translated as religion in various ancient texts, tends to mean ceremonies that are related to governing. OK so if that’s accepted, then when the modern category of religion emerges – and it emerges in fits and starts in different places and slightly different times, in different ways – it emerges as a way for governments to manage displaced populations, according to the theory that I’m putting forward. And it’s a struggle of institutions, usually – always, actually – between males who were running various institutions. And the loser institution evolves as a religion – or can evolve as a religion – instead of being eliminated completely; instead of the polity being banished or murdered. So you have a category that allows for a quasi-government within a larger government. And then that quasi-government derives some sort of authority from seeing itself as, or perhaps truly being, a government of something in the past. And the strength of that vestigial government – (5:00) those displaced people, that displaced sovereignty – gets to fit into the category of religion. And with that, the state grants certain status to a group. I would say to the – it’s not just me who is saying this – the vestigial group is denied certain forms of violence, marshal violence, police violence, violence in waiting. That’s the violence needed to enforce court decisions. The mystification of that vestigial government occurs because of the connection with something in the past, or something with the narrated idea of a government that existed in the past. The sense of religion as a strategy is that it’s a strategy of dominant governments to manage this displaced or marginalised population. However, it can also be a strategy for the displaced population to claim the category, claim the mystification that surrounds the category, and put pressure on the dominant government for more rights. So it’s a double kind of strategy going on there.

DR: Right, yes. There was a great line you used in the keynote: “Religions as resting once and future governments.”

NG: Restive

DR: Restive, right

NG: Restive once and future governments, yes. I like that phrase “once and future” – sort of the “once and future prince.” It’s a sense of the government looking . . . considering itself to have been something more dominant in the past, and something that will be dominant in the future. So you get that double sense of time going on. And always ambitious – even though sometimes there can be long periods when you don’t see the ambition to aggrandise, to get more and more power, to have more and more spheres to be controlled.

DR: When we had . . . well, it wasn’t our conversation, but the previous Religious Studies Project conversation when we talked about religion as vestigial states . . . this seems to build a little bit on that. Or my sense of religion as vestigial states was more of this group of people who consider themselves as sort-of restive once and future government.

NG: I don’t think they . . . Often they don’t consciously think of themselves that way.

DR: Not consciously, but that’s the way it’s working.

NG: Yes. Right

DR: But this seems to broaden it out and, actually, looking at it the other way round as well – in the way that this can be something that’s very useful for the majority state.

NG: Oh yes. Very useful. Because the majority state can claim, sometimes – depending on relationships with the vestigial one – that it is supported by the vestigial older government, more mystified government. And we see that in the United States with slogans such as “In God we Trust;” with having clergy open up governmental ceremonies, the closeness of Government and the church in some places.

DR: And literally, in the UK, you know?

NG: Oh, very literally in the UK. Right!

DR: Literally. Yes and so, you know, mystification: obviously we have . . . if you want to listen to our interview with Tim Fitzgerald on mystification, if you’re unclear on that. Basically, this is a technique by which power relations are obscured and concealed.

NG: And also the nature of something, such as religion as a form of government, a form of rules, a form of law, regulation, ritual ceremony that is very like government, like what we’re considering government, is obscured by the mystification. So that’s not seen. It’s supposed to be something mysterious.

DR: There was something that immediately struck me during this conversation. And it’s always been of interest to me. We were talking about the fact that people who study religions in the classical world for instance, don’t really talk to RS people. There isn’t really a great deal of you know, interdisciplinary work on those kind of areas. And it’s always seems to me that what we talk about as being religion in say the Roman empire, or Egypt, or Greece or something, is much more like the kind of statecraft that we do. It’s much more akin to you and the Americans civil religion stuff that you do, (10:00) that Robert Bellah and people like that used to talk about.

NG: I think that goes . . . that approaches what I’m saying.

DR: But, theoretically, it’s the other way round. And that’s what I find very interesting about that.

NG: Yes. Good.

DR: So, rather than saying this modern statecraft is a bit like some kinds of religion, actually we can flip that and we can say, “Well, we don’t think of this as religion.” So why are we imposing that idea on states from 2000 years ago? Why do we use the category religion to talk about the polis, and the Olympic Games, and these kind of things, in Rome? Is this part of this tactic of managing . . . ?

NG: I’m not sure it’s part of the tactic of management – although it might be, because it gives the vestigial government a lot of power, and a lot of mystery, and a lot of emotional valence. And then when the dominant government relies on the vestigial government, hearkens to it, hearkens back to it, it also gains that kind of power. But let’s see. I’m so tired from last night! (Laughs).

DR: Yes!

NG: But the mystification, how that . . . .Where were we? Let’s pick up the thread again.

DR: So we talked briefly about mystification, then I switched to this other thing: this fundamentally, I think, changes that conversation. So we had, you know, in the sort of Sociology of Religion, in the classic 1960s Sociology of Religion, we had this idea of quasi-religion or state religions or civil religion. But this actually changes that conversation. Because now we could actually say, “Well, if that’s religion then, you know, why do we have to call that religion?” We could just not call it religion. We could call it statecraft.

NG: You could call it statecraft, exactly. Yes. There’s a point I wanted to make. I’m sure as we start to talk it will come back. I have to explain to your Listeners that we spoke in a group. And continued speaking. . . . (Laughs).

DR: We’ve been speaking for hours about this!

NG: Hours! (Laughs) in the pub last night!

DR: It’s not uncommon, you know. We sit down to record these and we have to come back to the beginning because, yes . . . The Listeners don’t want to hear our in-jokes, probably!

NG: (Laughs)

DR: Ok. Let’s . . . I think it might be useful for the Listener to have a couple of examples. And there were a few interesting examples.

NG: Oh, I’d like to say one thing about that. I think the mystification of something in the past, that we can say is religion and is eternal, comes from, in some ways, “world religions” discourse.

DR: Right, yes.

NG: And I think it works the way world regions does as a category – although there’s a lot of argument about when that starts, exactly. Some trace it back to mid-1600’s, or whatever, when Christians discovered that there were other peoples in the world who actually didn’t know anything about Christianity. And then, various scholars have shown that when these new-to-the-Europeans areas were discovered, the first . . . one of the first things that explorers say is that, “Oh – there’s no religion here. These people are primitive. There’s nothing.” And then, after the explorers are there for a while, they begin to notice something that might be . . . “Oh, that could be a primitive form of religion.” And, guess what! It is! It’s a beginning. And Christianity is the evolution, the apotheosis, the pinnacle of this development. So the fact that there is this thing we can identify maybe as a thing called religion – it could be anything, could be ancestor reverence, it could be rituals at tables, it could be anything, ghosts, spirits, whatever – gets named religion and then gets projected onto the past as a justification for the presence of Christian religion now.

DR: Yes. Yes.

NG: So I think that some of that is there – but as an inferior form. Or as another form.

DR: Yes. Yes. I think it might be useful for the Listeners to have an example that I think is quite a clear one. I know this isn’t particularly your original work, but I think it’s a very good case study, to look at Judaism, and the way that we see that moving through a number of different ways of being interpreted, until we end up with Judaism as . . .

NG: Or, as some people say, many Judaisms. There are scholars who trace this rather specifically (15:00): that you didn’t have anything that could be called a religion. You just had people, who lived in a given area. And as these people were conquered by a range of . . . a succession of empires, if those who weren’t killed cohered, or were allowed by some governments. You could look at the way Cyrus dealt with what we could call the Jewish people. He allowed them to have certain rituals, certain places, rebuild the temple – but temple in the sense of like a city hall. Because temples in the past weren’t separated with what we would call worship, now. They were places of commercial exchange, they were law courts. There were lots of things going on. So by creating this separate space, or this area, governments at that point were creating what gets to be now called religion. In the case of Judaism . . .

DR: They were also a lot to do with food practices. Now again, this is another example of reading religion into the past. So we go, “Oh they were involved in sacrifices, or ritual preparations of meat.” But the idea that these are religious practices is again, something that we read into the past.

NG: Something that develops later.

DR: But we could think: well, it’s just the reason that, you know. . . . Like, Scottish people like to eat white bread, and would go to a shop that sells the only white bread from Scotland when they go to live in Canada, or something like that.

NG: That’s right. And if you made at certain points, you could make the Scots into a religion. It could be that kind of category. So, whatever the Jewish people did became cohered as Judaism. And as I was speaking last night about how there’s . . . . It’s true, in the case of the Jewish people, that you have a confusion – Is this a religion? Is this an ethnicity? Is this a nation? This is all together . . . . Is it a culture? And I think that underlies, actually, all polities that take on that category. That there’s a lot of ambiguity there. That belief is maybe one factor and not a very important factor at all.

DR: And there are quite strong arguments that Judaism, the idea of a religion, is quite a late development and they were seen, historically, much more often as a race than they were as a religion.

NG: Which is another problematic kind of . . .

DR: Which is a whole other can of worms! But the point is that these different categories . . .

NG: All coming from the idea that to be a Christian you have to believe something. So, gradually, I see a change in Jewish people. Many Jews now think that you have to believe something to be really Jewish. Jews never have to believe anything. You were born of a Jewish mother, or you were part of the community that made you Jewish.

DR: Well . . . and that’s “belief” in a very Christian sense of a credo,

NG: Exactly.

DR: You know, a stated belief: this is what I believe, I know it doesn’t make sense to everyone but I’m committed to it in some way.

NG: Yes. So then you have to worry, if you stop believing that, do you fall out of your Christian-ness in some way? And Jews never had to worry about that.

DR: You also made a really good point, it was quite quick in the presentation, about the way that this – in terms of like “Islamist”, and terms like this – where people seem to be reluctant to use the term religion.

NG: Well, the key factor there is that when a group in contemporary times does something violent –marshal violence or police violence, particularly – that isn’t authorised by the state, then the title of religion becomes problematic. Because the key thing for creating the vestigial government is that it will not have any kind of forms of violence that could challenge the state. So Max Weber said that a long time ago – not about the category of religion, but that legalised violence is the one thing that the state always holds onto for itself. So it’s the one thing that isn’t generally franchised out to religious groups. Of course, when we get to the sphere of sex and gender, those are the kinds of jurisdictions that are sometimes ceded by the dominant state to the vestigial one (20:00). And you would have family courts that are authorised by the state in some countries, family courts run by quote unquote “religious authorities”, who would be able to decide.

DR: And why is that different? Why . . . say, circumcision practices? Why does . . . why is that form of violence allowable, and not others?

NG: For some reason. I think it’s a vestige of male authority over women that both the dominant state and the vestigial one claim. But somehow the state is more willing to give that jurisdiction, which I suppose was not seen as all that important, over to vestigial authorities.

DR: Perhaps it’s a situation where it benefits the state, but it slightly clashes with stated aims. So, by sort of allowing – “We’ll just turn a blind eye to these religions, vestigial states doing it – suits us in the long run.” Because it restates male . . . patriarchy.

NG: Male dominance and . . . supports male dominance that’s another point I was making, that the male dominance of the vestigial state is generally always the case, always male – partly because it’s hearkening back to something in that past which was . . . in recorded history it seems to be male governance all the time. I think you’re right. It reinforces male-dominance. But it’s quite frightening, because women and children become subjects of two governments. The dominant one and the vestigial one.

DR: And male children to some degree, as well.

NG: Male children to the same degree, because we let . . .

DR: Circumcision.

NG: So many countries . . . circumcision and then some oral suction in some Jewish communities. Female circumcision, in some other kinds of communities, is a very contested practice, but there’s a lot of argument that it should be allowed in some degree, and some way. We allow that as a form of violence because it’s supposedly religious violence, or it’s not seen as violent.

DR: And, of course, we do have many cases where the religious nature of a practice, or belief, or some sort of prejudice comes down to whether it is or is not religious – you know, the use of cannabis by Rastafarians. There was a recent case, in Scotland, where a guy who claimed he’d been fired from his job for being a Nationalist. He was campaigning as an SNP. And it was seen to clash with his government job. And in the preliminary ruling the judge said, “Well this is a sincere and worked out belief system about the world. So it’s equivalent to a religion, and therefore it should be protected.”

NG: (Laughs). And that’s an example of how that category can be anything. Anything can get into it. Sometimes I talk about religion as a category in which nothing has ever been excluded. I can’t get anyone to name one thing that hasn’t been included in the category of religion. Impossible to exclude anything from it. And yet it’s supposed to be something unique.

DR: Yes. It’s sui generis and unique to itself, but it’s also everything!

NG: It’s also everything! (Laughs).

DR: It’s just humans, in some way . . .

NG: It show the problematic nature of that category.

DR: Yes. Another interesting example, I think, which shows the edges of this, is how often new religions, new religious movements dream of governments.

NG: Exactly!

DR: They dream of alternative governments, but they’re also the target of government ire. And often violence.

NG: Well, governments are always a little bit edgy about the things they authorise as religions, because they’re worried about takeover. Because there’s a sense of competition, somewhere. And New Religious Movements tend to imagine the better government to come could be something local that they’ll enact in a certain place and a certain way. But it could also be something in the future. It could be after death. Sometimes major dominant religions, or what we call world religions also imagine things like that. Or the government will be on another planet, or it will be after an apocalypse. But it will be better, whatever it is. And it will be something like what already happened a while ago – in that sense of being once and future.

DR: Yes. I’m particularly thinking of the kind of . . . the stuff that Crawford Gribbon was talking about yesterday, of the American Redoubt (25:00) where these Conservative right wing traditionalists, essentially, are attempting to create little states within states where patriarchal theocracy can continue within. . . .

NG: There we go. Because they’re worried, now, about women getting some kind of power, and some kind of dominance.

DR: And atheists, and non-white people, and homosexuals, and everything else . . .

NG: Trans. people.

DR: Everything, yes. And that is clearly harking back to a previous kind of . . .

NG: Or an imagined previous. . . . Often an imagined previous state.

DR: Yes, so. . .

NG: “Make America great again” is that kind of slogan!

DR: (Laughs).

NG: Yes. When?

DR: Well, yes . . . again. Which one are you talking about? The McCarthy era, World War II? What is it? The Civil War?

NG: Exactly! (Laughs).

DR: Yes. But the violence aspect of it is particularly interesting. We were riffing last night about the idea of . . . . My colleague Chris Cotter was talking about how, you know, a child can be raised in a state, and told that he’s working for Queen and country, and then signs up, and goes off to another country and kills people. And because this is for the state, this violence is . . . .And you’ve made this point about violence being the thing that states . . .

NG: Dominant states keep it to themselves.

DR: The one thing they keep to themselves. Now, you have. . . there was another line in the keynote, which I want you to unpick a bit for me. And it’s religion, the category religion, as an alternative to genocide.

NG: I was suggesting, taken from Deuteronomy 20 verses16 through 18, in which the Lord God commands a complete eradication of every living thing: people, livestock, everything in an area that has been given as an inheritance to a population. And I was thinking that if the category of religion had been invented – this is hypothetical, very much almost like a game to imagine that this could have been an alternative for that warrior God, that dominant tyrant. So that he wouldn’t have to kill everybody there. He could create a religion in which all forms of violence would be forbidden to that group. And perhaps the group could endure. So I was thinking of it as . . . I think of its function that way, as an alternative to genocide. Cyrus, for example, didn’t eliminate the Jews who were in his area of jurisdiction. He allowed them a space – a bounded space. That’s a two-edged sword in a way. Because, by creating a special group with some kinds of status, sometimes that group can also then be targeted for genocide.

DR: Mmm.

NG: Later on. The way Jews have been, the way many minorities have. So it’s a double-edged thing. It’s the creation of a polity with a certain kind of regulatory apparatus internal to that polity that can also make it a target.

DR: I’d like to wrap up then with. . . . We – any of us who are working in the critical religion paradigm, broadly stated – will eventually be angrily demanded of us what the practical application of what we’re doing is. And how does it matter to real to real people? And there are some quite clear practical examples here. You mentioned the journalistic covering of the abortion debate, for instance.

NG: Right. In Ireland. I thought that was an example – at least the newspapers I read – I was collecting articles from The New York Times and The Washington Post, and The Guardian, about the abortion referendum in Ireland – the recent one. And what was done in most of those articles is that the Catholic Church was spoken about, not religion as a general category. Sometimes it was mentioned, but it was clear that this was a specific institution with specific ideologies. Someone mentioned last night that Evangelical Christians were also involved. But then there’s a specificity about who exactly is advocating what, and for what purpose? And who exactly wins and loses in these various debates. And I think that’s an important demystification of issues (30:00). So I would urge scholars in Religious Studies to be as specific as possible, to name the groups as specifically as you can. Are you talking about Jews, are you talking about Muslims, Are you talking about Christians, maybe? Which kind of Christians? Buddhists? Not this blanket category. That’s already a step forward. I also think that a practical application – and this is where my heart is – is in the pushing the project forward. It’s to demystify the category of religion, so that governments can’t use it to fudge so much; that it doesn’t get to be such a vague category that anything can be claimed as a right within it; and that restrictions can’t be put on it; and that special male privilege can’t be so easily granted. These vestigial governments have just as much contingency, just as much conflict within polities as any other kinds of government. So often they’ve tended to be seen as monolithic, as homogeneous, and the men – who claim to represent them – are given a lot of power. So because religion as a category is put into constitutions, it’s put into Law, and because no-one knows what it is – courts don’t know how to interpret it in a kind of consistent manner – I think it’s particularly ripe for deconstruction, and I think that some very interesting clarity can be put to these debates. That would be an example of one of the practical applications.

DR: You’ve brought a lot of clarity to the conversation here, I think. I think people are going to be very intrigued to read more of your work. But, unfortunately, I have the real privilege, today, of ending the interview!

NG: (Laughs).

DR: But I just want to say, thanks so much for joining us!

NG: And thank you, David.

DR: Thank you.


Citation Info: Goldenberg, Naomi and David G. Robertson. 2019. “’Religion as a Tactic of Governance”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 21 January 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 11 January 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/religion-as-a-tactic-of-governance/

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

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

The Blog Assignment: Confronting “Spirituality” in Teaching Religious Studies

Richard Ascough and Sharday Mosurinjohn

In this second of a two-part series, Richard Ascough adds his voice to Sharday Mosurinjohn’s reflections on a new blog post assignment used in a course on Spirituality, Secularity, and Nonreligion taught through the School of Religion at Queen’s University. In the earlier post, Sharday noted that she learned two key lessons: that students are concerned about what it means to be “critical” in a public posting and that they do not have a level of digital literacy that one might expect in a generation that grew up fully immersed in digital technologies. In this follow-up post, Sharday and Richard discuss strengths and weaknesses in students’ digital literacy and explore how understanding one of the weaknesses might actually help us understand a particularly troublesome religious studies concept – what they consider a “threshold concept.”

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Conference Report (and rant): Fandom and Religion, Leicester, 2015

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by our very own Venetia Robertson, RSP Editor and a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney.

The University of Leicester hosted the Fandom and Religion conference this July 28-30 in affiliation with the Theology, Religion and Popular Culture network. A reasonably small conference with just over 30 presenters and 50 attendees, organisers Clive Marshall and Isobel Woodcliffe of Leicester’s Lifelong Learning Centre ran the event smoothly with the help of attentive session chairs and the professional staff at the clean and comfortable College Court conference centre. The Court was truly the home of the conference—with all of the sessions, meals, drinks, and most of our accommodation being there (and with little to do in the surrounding area)—one could be excused for experiencing a bit of cabin fever by end of the week. Still, when tomorrow morning’s keynote speaker is ordering another pint at midnight, we’re probably all glad that bed is just a few steps away from the bar. I want to talk about the papers I saw, and those I wish I’d caught, because that’s primarily what a conference review should be, but I’m also going to take this opportunity to give the study of fandom and religion in general some evaluation, as this conference both pointed out to me the breadth and the dearth of this relatively new academic field.

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One of the main draws of this conference for me, and why I was willing to endure the very long plane trip to get there, was the keynote line-up. I heard of this event at last year’s Media, Religion, and Culture Conference, and was excited to see that it would be featuring excellent speakers like Kathryn Lofton (who sadly had to pull out), and scholars whose work my own is intimately connected to, like Chris Partridge and Matt Hills. The way these thinkers combine innovative thinking with the analysis of meaning-making and popular culture highlights, and inspiringly so, the importance of this area of investigation. Partridge and Hill’s plenary papers, ‘Fandom, Pop Devotion, and the Transfiguration of Dead Celebrities’ and ‘Revisiting the “Affective Spaces” of Fan Conventions: Sites of Pilgrimage, Sacredness, and Enchantment… or Non-Places?’ respectively, were both illustrative of the fruitful amalgamation of approaches from media, cultural, and religious studies when examining these developments. I brought together Partridge’s concept of occulture with Hill’s hyperdiegesis in my own paper on how medieval female mystics and modern fangirls use relational narratives with their ‘gods’ to reify sacred subjectivities from within the patriarchal cultures of Christendom and geek culture. On the whole, the conference represented multi- and inter-disciplinary methods, with scholars of anthropology, psychology, music, digital cultures, and literature alongside those of religion. There was, however, in the overall makeup and theme of Fandom and Religion, an unmistakeably strong theological bent—but more on that in a moment.

Though it meant having to miss out on what I heard was a great session on fan experiences in Bob Dylan, indie, and Israeli popular music scenes, and a session on comics and hero narratives that I would have no doubt enjoyed, I felt very satisfied with the methodological offerings from Rhiannon Grant and Emanuelle Burton that dealt with the tensions of canon and fanon, interpretation and creativity, group consensus and personal gnosis, that affect religious and fan communities alike. With a mix of midrashic, pagan, and Quaker approaches to truth and authority, this panel had my mind whirring. Papers on the commercial and the communal aspects of the Hillsong and the role of music in the Pentecostal mega church system provided fascinating insights (and stay tuned for more on this from Tom Wagner). Offerings from Bex Lewis on the Keep Calm and meme on trend and Andrew Crome on My Little Pony fandom, Bronies, and Christianity, proffered some intriguing ways in which viral cultures enable believers to remix media for religious purposes and find the sacred within the secular. Film and television were well represented with talks on American Horror Story, the Alien franchise, small screen vampires, children’s programming, and anime, though I unfortunately could not get to those sessions. Sport, fiction, and celebrity were of course popular topics, with a Harry Potter themed session, and talks on football and faith and evangelism amongst skaters and surfers. Two talks I again missed but would have liked to have caught were the inimitably odd Ian Vincent on tulpas and tulpamancy and François Bauduin’s talk on the Raelians, for what I’m sure would have been a robust discussion of how these esoteric movements translate into the online sphere, and how this affects notions of authenticity and creativity.

11222652_10156115964950413_6985333271960933871_oWhile this program certainly presents a swathe of relevant subjects in the field of fandom and religion, there were several key moments that made me realise that some central issues had gone by the wayside. It struck me that this was a very “white” conference: there were, even for a small number of papers, strikingly none that I could see on non-Western peoples or traditions. A tiny fraction looked at non-Western media and non-Abrahamic religious beliefs. Searching the abstract booklet I found Islam mentioned once, Buddhism only in passing, and no references to countries with historical, pertinent, and I would say seminal engagements with religious fandoms (Japan, India, Vanuatu are just a few examples). When pointed out during the ‘feedback session’ that concluded the conference two responses were offered: one, that there was no one writing on these topics, and two, that it’s a shame that it looks like the conference lacked diversity but that the organizing body does have one Jewish member… In her keynote, Tracy Trothen remarked on the subject of religion and sport that when we say ‘religion’ we usually mean ‘Christianity’, which I had initially interpreted as a reflexive moment on the ‘god problem’ the academy continues to have, that is, the perpetuation of “the myth of Christian uniqueness” despite the reality of pluralism and secularization, but unfortunately it merely signaled the habitual preferential treatment of this one theological outlook. The suggestion that “no one is writing on these topics” is patently false, but is indicative of the core issue I had with this event: it wasn’t just saturated with a Christo-theological focus in material and approach because that’s representative of the academy, but rather it seemed it was primarily interested in representing that viewpoint—and this is something I don’t think was made clear from the outset.

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For example, the website for this conference followed on from the flyer that had first alerted me to the “international, inter-disciplinary conference,” and stated that its purpose was to “explore interactions between religion and popular culture” which sounded great. “What is happening to fans as they express their enthusiasms and allegiances? Has fandom replaced or become a form of religion?”—cool, interesting questions, I thought. Compare with this description from a CFP I, after the fact, found elsewhere: “A Major Conference for Faith Community Practitioners and Academics,” “including a session solely for faith community practitioners.” There were actually several ‘practitioner’ sessions, and it seemed clear after a while that ‘faith community’ meant Christian worship. It became explicit from the first day with our welcome that in part this event was for not just religious people but those active in their Churches to learn not so much about, but from fandoms. I am used to attending academic conferences with a notable number of ‘practitioners’ present, they may even present non-academic papers. I am also used to having to define religious studies as a separate disciplinary enterprise to theology. But what I wasn’t expecting in Leicester, and I don’t think I was alone here, was to be at a conference where religion, theology, and Christianity were so automatically synonymous that it didn’t seem to occur to the organisers that major non-Christian themes in religion and fandom had been overlooked in their selection of papers, or even that such themes were major. I wasn’t expecting to feel like such an outsider, as a religious studies academic at what I had thought was an academic religious studies affair.

To be fair, now that I have delved deeper into the faith-based networks that organised this event (Donald Wiebe). However, this issue goes beyond the academy, and this became obvious when a reporter for a religion-themed program on BBC4 interviewed some of the conference’s speakers. What thankfully doesn’t make it into our few minutes of fame in this radio segment is the interviewer’s clear discomfort with the idea of converging ‘obsessive’ fans and their ‘low brow’ media with ‘devoted’ believers and their ‘respectable’ forms of the divine. “Are they [typical othering language] just crazy?” he asks me of fans, and makes me repeat my answer several times in order to get something “more quippy, less academic”, and, I suppose, more damning to confirm his perception that there are right and wrong forms of meaning-making. Journalists from The Daily Mail also tried (but failed) to get a talking head, so I guess things could have been worse.

Venetia Robertson ready for the conference!

Venetia Robertson ready for the conference!

I certainly don’t mean to detract from the importance of making niche areas like fandom and religion studies visible on an international and interdisciplinary scale, or the much-appreciated effort that went in to the organisation and contribution of this conference and its participants: there was indeed a wealth of interesting, useful, and high-quality papers. Nonetheless, as a reflection on the state of popular culture and its integration into multi­-religious studies (not to mention the relevant spheres of civil/quasi/alternative/implicit religion etc.) I feel these criticisms need timely evaluation. And I have some heartening thoughts to that effect: there is a blossoming field of intersectional work on these topics at the moment if one takes the time to look! The promotional material available at Leicester, interestingly, confirmed this, and I include some pictures of it here. I think it’s telling that Joss Whedon studies has had its own journal, Slayage, for over ten years, but to find more journal articles on a vast panoply of religion and fandom junctures you can try the Journal Of Religion And Popular Culture, the classic Journal Of Popular Culture or the newer Transformative Works And Cultures and the Journal of Fandom Studies, whose book reviews keep on top of the most recent additions to this field. This conference also saw the launch of the comprehensive volume, The Routledge Companion to Religion and Popular Culture (which ranges in price between $277 AUD on BookDepository to a whopping $405 at Angus and Robertson), edited by John Lyden and Eric Mazur, as yet another example of the popularity of this topic in contemporary scholarship. I’m also pleased to say that my paper will be a chapter in the forthcoming volume for INFORM/Ashgate, Fiction, Invention, and Hyper-reality: From Popular Culture to Religion (edited by Carole Cusack and Pavol Kosnáč) alongside some brilliant minds exploring the relationship of spirituality to conspiracy theories, Tolkein’s legendarium, Discordianism, with a handful of, yes, practitioner’s accounts, this time from Pagans, Jedis and Dudeists—it’s sure to be a vibrant, diverse, and illuminating contribution to the discussion on fandom and religion.

 

 

Social Constructionism

What is social constructionism, and how is it important to the study of religion? In this interview, Titus Hjelm tells David Robertson about social constructionism – that is, a set of approaches which see social realities as built from language, rather than reflecting ontological realities. Hjelm outlines how these approaches emerged as part of the ‘linguistic turn’ in the social sciences more broadly, as well as pointing to some different interpretations of how these constructivist, discursive or critical approaches operate. Their importance, he suggests, is in challenging how we think about ontology, epistemology and power.

sui generis thing-in-itself, rather than a product of human culture. Despite – or because – of this, constructionism has not been broadly adopted as a theoretical approach in the field.

For much more on the subject, see Hjelm’s recent book Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religions. You can also 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 buying academic texts, Finnish metal CDs, fishing tackle, and more.