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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.

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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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Theoretical Veganism: Practicing Religious Studies without Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

The Deconstruction of Religion: So What?

In his interview with the RSP, Teemu Taira refers to his work as in some sense a response to Kevin Schilbrack’s 2013 paper, “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion’, Then What?” However, I don’t find it speaking to the concerns of Schilbrack’s paper. This, is not to question the excellence of Taira’s work, scholarship, or methodology, all of which I am deeply impressed with. I want to make that clear at the outset; my aim or critique here is not of Taira’s own work or methods but rather a specific way of understanding and using deconstruction that has emerged in the study of religion. It is the take on the deconstructive project which is at stake.

Schilbrack contrasts the deconstruction of religion he finds in Timothy Fitzgerald, and I may note principle adherents such as Russell McCutcheon, with what he sees as his own approach. He identifies agreement on three main points which I may briefly gloss as follows:

  • What we call religion is created by human discourse and behaviour.
  • “Religion” exists only in relation to other terms, the most important of which is “secular”.
  • The separation of the religious and secular as distinct spheres is a modern phenomenon.

So far, so good. I imagine we are all agreed. This accords with Taira’s own discussion of these terms I think. Where I agree with Schilbrack, against many deconstructivists, is that we then have to continue speaking of religion because rather than being merely an empty signifier, or a phantasm, those phenomena we have called and termed religious, or as religions, have a reality in the world.

Taira argues that he is following Schilbrack by showing the “What Next.” As such, he gives his case studies of traditions which people have termed religion and showing the social, political, and power issues involved in claiming or employing the term. However, Taira is very clear that he never says what the term “religion” is. It is merely his object of study, or, rather, religion itself is not his object of study (how can it be when it has no real existence); it is other people’s use of the term that he studies and analyses. At several points in the interview, Taira is clear in stating that he makes no claim as to whether anything is or is not a religion, nor does he try and give any definition to the term. It remains for him an empty signifier which others fill.

It is on the refusal to try and define or even to engage in discourse about how the term may be used that I see the problem arising. Notably, my problem is not with deconstructionism itself, nor do I want to argue here what “properly” follows Derrida. I am critiquing a particular tradition, or employment of, deconstruction which is the fashionable modus operandi of many scholars in the study of religion. So why do I see it as a problem? I will break this down into four points, though each is related to the others.

First, as Schilbrack notes it becomes “an end in itself.” It says: “Look, this is what other people think religion is, but I know better: there is no religion. So, now I can uncover their power games.” Practiced simply as a tool, it fails to engage the social reality that actually exists.

Second, such deconstruction actually shows nothing new. Whether or not we had deconstructed religion we can see that there are social, financial, legal, etc. benefits to being a religion. We could also see that people claim the term or deny it (to others) to give advantage or prestige.

Third, often deconstructing “religion” becomes facile or sacred. Facile because it is common for deconstructivists to argue that we cannot separate religion from culture, however, “culture” itself is an equally problematic term of contemporary Western provenance.(Or else we are told “religion” can be analysed by relation to other deconstructable terms like law, politics, etc.); Sacred, because “religion” is set apart as uniquely problematic, constructed, and “false;” it can be analysed by reference to, or seen as a part of, politics, law, culture but only “religion” is such an empty signifier that it can have no analytic validity. (How would we show this?)

Fourth, even if we show that many terms such as politics, law, culture, society, are also constructed (generally in relation to each other) we still get no further if we simply say all words are empty signifiers (which in one sense, of course, they are). We stay with the first problem that it is a meaningless deconstruction. Once done we simply ask: “So what?”. I will suggest the reasons for this are twofold: firstly, theoretical and linguistic; secondly, political.

Theory: scholars who deconstruct without re-construction undertake a feeble version of deconstruction that undermines itself (often without realising it). Every word has a history and baggage that comes with it. If we play the deconstructivist game of showing that religion, culture, politics, theory, method, society, medicine, science and every term is unstable then simply we are left unable to speak. Indeed, the words which we used to destabilise others are themselves unstable. It is meaningless unless we must say how and why we will choose to use certain words, and reflexively acknowledge our place within a lineage of speaking (as noted, some scholars try and get round this by treating “religion” as its own sacred category).

Politics: many scholars of religion argue that to be part of a “critical”, or “properly scholarly”, tradition they must avoid any advocacy, simply being analysts of other people’s discourse. However, as Taira notes: “Analysing discourse is itself a discursive practice.” To claim, therefore, simply to be analysing other people’s discourse and never to define the term yourself is an impossible act. The discourse on the term creates discourse. Indeed, by refusing to say how it may be used, the scholar is being a political animal. To play on a well-known adage: “To refuse to speak is itself a political act;” “to refuse to be an advocate, is to support the status quo;” “to refuse to define, is itself a form of definition.” Schilbrack observes that saying the borders of nation states are arbitrary and imagined human constructs when people are fighting and dying over them is at best unhelpful. Pretending to be objective analysts of other people’s discourse and the borders of what is and is not religion is equally unhelpful. The modern scholar of religion risks becoming an academic laughing stock not because he uses an outdated and outmoded concept of “religion” but by refusing to admit that it really does exist as a social reality and to engage in discussion about how to use the term. It is bad deconstruction, bad scholarship, and bad politics.

References

Kevin Schilbrack, 2013, “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion’, Then What?: A Case for Critical Realism”, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 25: 1, pp. 107-12.

Podcasts

Protected: Empty Signs in an Automatic Signalling System (Classroom Edit)

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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.

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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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Theoretical Veganism: Practicing Religious Studies without Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

The Deconstruction of Religion: So What?

In his interview with the RSP, Teemu Taira refers to his work as in some sense a response to Kevin Schilbrack’s 2013 paper, “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion’, Then What?” However, I don’t find it speaking to the concerns of Schilbrack’s paper. This, is not to question the excellence of Taira’s work, scholarship, or methodology, all of which I am deeply impressed with. I want to make that clear at the outset; my aim or critique here is not of Taira’s own work or methods but rather a specific way of understanding and using deconstruction that has emerged in the study of religion. It is the take on the deconstructive project which is at stake.

Schilbrack contrasts the deconstruction of religion he finds in Timothy Fitzgerald, and I may note principle adherents such as Russell McCutcheon, with what he sees as his own approach. He identifies agreement on three main points which I may briefly gloss as follows:

  • What we call religion is created by human discourse and behaviour.
  • “Religion” exists only in relation to other terms, the most important of which is “secular”.
  • The separation of the religious and secular as distinct spheres is a modern phenomenon.

So far, so good. I imagine we are all agreed. This accords with Taira’s own discussion of these terms I think. Where I agree with Schilbrack, against many deconstructivists, is that we then have to continue speaking of religion because rather than being merely an empty signifier, or a phantasm, those phenomena we have called and termed religious, or as religions, have a reality in the world.

Taira argues that he is following Schilbrack by showing the “What Next.” As such, he gives his case studies of traditions which people have termed religion and showing the social, political, and power issues involved in claiming or employing the term. However, Taira is very clear that he never says what the term “religion” is. It is merely his object of study, or, rather, religion itself is not his object of study (how can it be when it has no real existence); it is other people’s use of the term that he studies and analyses. At several points in the interview, Taira is clear in stating that he makes no claim as to whether anything is or is not a religion, nor does he try and give any definition to the term. It remains for him an empty signifier which others fill.

It is on the refusal to try and define or even to engage in discourse about how the term may be used that I see the problem arising. Notably, my problem is not with deconstructionism itself, nor do I want to argue here what “properly” follows Derrida. I am critiquing a particular tradition, or employment of, deconstruction which is the fashionable modus operandi of many scholars in the study of religion. So why do I see it as a problem? I will break this down into four points, though each is related to the others.

First, as Schilbrack notes it becomes “an end in itself.” It says: “Look, this is what other people think religion is, but I know better: there is no religion. So, now I can uncover their power games.” Practiced simply as a tool, it fails to engage the social reality that actually exists.

Second, such deconstruction actually shows nothing new. Whether or not we had deconstructed religion we can see that there are social, financial, legal, etc. benefits to being a religion. We could also see that people claim the term or deny it (to others) to give advantage or prestige.

Third, often deconstructing “religion” becomes facile or sacred. Facile because it is common for deconstructivists to argue that we cannot separate religion from culture, however, “culture” itself is an equally problematic term of contemporary Western provenance.(Or else we are told “religion” can be analysed by relation to other deconstructable terms like law, politics, etc.); Sacred, because “religion” is set apart as uniquely problematic, constructed, and “false;” it can be analysed by reference to, or seen as a part of, politics, law, culture but only “religion” is such an empty signifier that it can have no analytic validity. (How would we show this?)

Fourth, even if we show that many terms such as politics, law, culture, society, are also constructed (generally in relation to each other) we still get no further if we simply say all words are empty signifiers (which in one sense, of course, they are). We stay with the first problem that it is a meaningless deconstruction. Once done we simply ask: “So what?”. I will suggest the reasons for this are twofold: firstly, theoretical and linguistic; secondly, political.

Theory: scholars who deconstruct without re-construction undertake a feeble version of deconstruction that undermines itself (often without realising it). Every word has a history and baggage that comes with it. If we play the deconstructivist game of showing that religion, culture, politics, theory, method, society, medicine, science and every term is unstable then simply we are left unable to speak. Indeed, the words which we used to destabilise others are themselves unstable. It is meaningless unless we must say how and why we will choose to use certain words, and reflexively acknowledge our place within a lineage of speaking (as noted, some scholars try and get round this by treating “religion” as its own sacred category).

Politics: many scholars of religion argue that to be part of a “critical”, or “properly scholarly”, tradition they must avoid any advocacy, simply being analysts of other people’s discourse. However, as Taira notes: “Analysing discourse is itself a discursive practice.” To claim, therefore, simply to be analysing other people’s discourse and never to define the term yourself is an impossible act. The discourse on the term creates discourse. Indeed, by refusing to say how it may be used, the scholar is being a political animal. To play on a well-known adage: “To refuse to speak is itself a political act;” “to refuse to be an advocate, is to support the status quo;” “to refuse to define, is itself a form of definition.” Schilbrack observes that saying the borders of nation states are arbitrary and imagined human constructs when people are fighting and dying over them is at best unhelpful. Pretending to be objective analysts of other people’s discourse and the borders of what is and is not religion is equally unhelpful. The modern scholar of religion risks becoming an academic laughing stock not because he uses an outdated and outmoded concept of “religion” but by refusing to admit that it really does exist as a social reality and to engage in discussion about how to use the term. It is bad deconstruction, bad scholarship, and bad politics.

References

Kevin Schilbrack, 2013, “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion’, Then What?: A Case for Critical Realism”, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 25: 1, pp. 107-12.