Discourse Analysis & Ideology Critique in the Study of Religion
Podcast with Craig Martin (1 November 2021).
Interviewed by Savannah H. Finver
Transcribed by Jacob Noblett
Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/discourse-analysis-and-ideology-critique-in-the-study-of-religion/
Critique, Discourse, Ideology, Language, Material Conditions, Post-structuralism, Power, Rhetoric
Savannah Finver (SF) 0:04
Hello listeners and welcome back to The Religious Studies Project. I’m Savannah Finver and I’ll be your host for this episode. Today, I am absolutely thrilled to be joined by my undergraduate advisor and continued mentor and colleague, Dr. Craig Martin. Dr. Martin has been a visitor to our show before, but for those of you who don’t already know he is professor of Religious Studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College in New York. Some of his works include Masking Hegemony: A Genealogy of Liberalism, Religion, and the Private Sphere (Routledge, 2010); Capitalizing Religion: Ideology and the Opiate of the Bourgeoisie (Bloomsbury, 2014); and A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (Routledge, 2017). He also currently edits a book series with Bloomsbury titled Critiquing Religion: Discourse, Culture, Power; and today we’re here to discuss his forthcoming book, or at least forthcoming at the time of this interview, Discourse and Ideology: A Critique of the Study of Culture to be published with Bloomsbury in November of this year, 2021. Thank you so much for joining me today, Dr. Martin, and congratulations on the release of your new book.
Craig Martin (CM) 1:06
Thank you. I’m pretty excited about this one.
Yeah, I am, too. Let’s dive right in. I think the first thing I want to focus on here for our discussion today is the title of this newest book, once again, it’s Discourse and Ideology: A Critique of the Study of Culture. One of the first things that might be on our listeners minds is that this doesn’t really sound like a typical title that you might find in religious studies, as opposed to, for example, Capitalizing Religion, your previous book. I was wondering if you could walk us through how you came up with your idea for Discourse and Ideology and how you envision maybe some of its implications for religious studies scholarship going forward.
Throughout my career, I have been doing what I consider to be discourse analysis and ideology critique. I have applied discourse analysis and ideology critique to forms of discourses that are about religions: religious traditions—looking at Christian rhetoric, Islamic rhetoric—or the discourse of religious studies itself: the world religions paradigm, things like that. But I wanted to lay out a comprehensive defense of how best to go about this approach, especially because, for most listeners, I hope, that when they hear discourse analysis that they think [Michel] Foucault. There is a long tradition of people who do discourse analysis who say, “well, you can’t do ideology and do discourse analysis at the same time,” because after Foucault and [Jacques] Derrida and other post-structuralists, the view is that you can’t make claims about ideology because, to make a claim about ideology says that this is a false view of the world in contrast with the world “as it really is.” After post-structuralism, we don’t have any justification for saying, “this is how the world really is.” So, you can do discourse analysis, but you can’t contrast one account of the world with another because you don’t have a reality to contrast it with. I don’t think this is the case; I think that that claim about ideology critique misunderstands Foucault’s criticism of ideology. To be fair, he does systematically criticize the concept of ideology in his writings, especially in the 70s, but I don’t think the conclusion that most people arrive at is the one that he arrived at or that he would want his readers to arrive at.
So, sitting back, how can we do both discourse analysis from a post-structuralist perspective and also hang on to ideology critique at the same time? So, people pressed me on my scholarship, right? How can you claim to be doing ideology critique? Well, I have an answer, but I had not formulated it or put it down in writing. I wanted to do that to offer a systematic defense of how we can do both. I think that this approach is not relevant only to religious studies, right—that discourse analysis and ideology critique can be applied to “religious” discourses, but it can be applied to any kind of discourse: nationalist discourse, racist discourse, sexist discourse, etc. So, the book defends discourse analysis and ideology critique, and I hope that people in religious studies will find it useful for analyzing religious traditions or the academic study of religion. However, I don’t see it as necessarily just about religion—it could be applied to any kind of approach.
The other thing that I want to point out is the emphasis on post-structuralism in the book. I say this in the preface, I kind of consider myself lucky to have gone to grad school at a time where I can still take classes on post-structuralist thinkers. I took classes like “Derrida and [Jacques] Lacan,” “[Sigmund] Freud and [Carl] Jung,” “[Martin] Heidegger,” “[Immanuel] Kant’s First Critique;” I took multiple classes on [Georg Wilhelm Friedrich] Hegel and German idealism. Those are important as sources for post-structuralist approaches, so I was deeply trained in post-structuralist literature. However, when I read contemporary scholars talking about post-structuralism, most of the time, I feel like they turn post-structuralists into straw men or straw women. They misconstrue what people like Derrida, Foucault, and Judith Butler were actually saying, and I find this infuriating. “That’s a great critique, if only they had actually said this thing that you’re critiquing them for.” I wanted to go back and defend, not just “hey, this is how we can do discourse analysis and ideology critique,” but if we have a fuller understanding of post-structuralist approaches, it makes them more useful.
I wanted to clear a space for still using post-structuralism rather than abandoning it or thinking that it’s old hat, that it’s stuff they were doing in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and we can throw that out and return to talking about the real world now. I think that there’s still a great deal of value for us to learn from post-structuralist approaches and, in addition, from their philosophical sources, like Heidegger and [Edmund] Husserl and Hegel. So, I wanted to outline: “this is where these folks were coming from, and these idiotic things that you accuse them of saying, they never actually said.” I think that to understand this book, on the one hand, I want to defend discourse analysis and ideology critique from a post-structuralist perspective, and, in addition, I just want to defend post-structuralism against caricatures of it.
In reading the manuscript over in prep for our interview today, I think that was one of the things that stood out to me was just how clearly you were able to outline some of the main ideas and thoughts of some of these major thinkers. And even as a graduate student myself, I can say we don’t even scratch the surface of many of these people; we get to read maybe an intro from one of their texts or maybe an article here or there, and so there is no real comprehensive class solely on Foucault’s thoughts or solely on Butler’s thoughts, or even putting the two in conversation with each other. That was one thing I found really, really useful and really helpful about the text. I’m excited for others to get to experience that.
Hopefully others will be inspired by these thinkers that, again, have important things to teach us, and I want to include their lessons in our scholarship.
Absolutely, I couldn’t agree more. I’m trying to find ways to incorporate them strategically into my own projects now, so definitely, your book has been a really useful resource for me in that regard. It has helped me clarify some of my thoughts about why and how post-structuralism can be useful, but I’ll leave it for readers to read your thoughts and decide for themselves what they think about that.
I want to talk about how in the preface of your book, you say that an alternate title could have been How Words Work. I thought that was just really fantastic because it reminded me of when taking undergraduate classes with you, one of your greatest strengths as a professor was your ability to take these ideas that seem really complicated, [when you come to a text by Hegel, Heidegger, Derrida, especially for an undergrad, that’s so intimidating to come to those kinds of texts] and you have a way of really distilling their main points into much more accessible language. Obviously, you mentioned discourse analysis a lot in your description of why discourse and ideology—how you came to that idea. Since this is a central theme for the book, I was wondering if you could talk about why understanding “how words work” is so important for our scholarship, especially in our current political moment.
Just to summarize the section that you’re talking about where I say the book could have been called How Words Work, what I say there is—and here, I’ll read some of what I wrote. “Three things worth noting about rhetoric include the following: It is likely that most of my readers are daily surrounded by clever rhetoric. Two, in addition, value-laden rhetoric is likely constitutive of the official structure of the organizations in which you live in work. Universities have charters or mission statements. These things are not just documents that are there for show. Sometimes, they are trotted out to justify: ‘we’re going to begin this new initiative because it’s useful for the students’ intellectual, moral, social and spiritual growth.’” For example, that’s from my college’s mission statement.
These mission statements and other documents, they’re loaded with the value-laden terms that people can appeal to to justify certain kinds of social projects that they want to accomplish. Then I say, “three, those readers situated in a university context likely produce such rhetoric themselves on many occasions, using lofty terms with positive associations such as critical thinking, justice, sustainability, or mental health.” These are all value-laden words, but they’re ones that we use regularly. At my college, we have attempted to increase the number of mental health resources for students, and to persuade the administration to take that seriously, we have to use rhetoric, we have to use value-laden terms, and we have to talk about the students’ moral, social, and spiritual growth, for instance—not that I would use those particular ones.
But we have to use rhetoric like that to persuade the administration to take seriously the fact that maybe we shouldn’t punish our students for having mental health issues, but rather help them. That we’re using rhetoric in that situation not as a criticism. It’s just an acknowledgement of how the world goes around. People use rhetoric to persuade other people. If you want to understand how the world goes around, you should be really sensitive to how people use value-laden rhetoric? How do they use value-laden words? The book is very much about “how people use words?, How do those words have positive and negative associations built into them?, and how do they use those kinds of words to tell stories that persuade other people to take seriously some certain social agendas yet ignore others?”
The last chapter is a case study that attempts to apply the method of discourse analysis and ideology critique to racist discourses in the U.S., specifically PragerU. For those of you who don’t know, PragerU is a propaganda institution. They produce five-minute videos on the internet, a lot of them are on YouTube but they also have them on their own website. They do these five-minute conservative propaganda videos persuading people to adopt conservative values. I point out that they systematically portray Blacks in America negatively; that they talk about Black-on-Black crime. They talk about how in African American families, fathers leave them, so that they have single parent families. They emphasize the myth of meritocracy: “well, if only they worked hard, they could succeed.” It’s not surprising that those family members of mine who watched those videos over and over and over again, they come away with a lack of sympathy for African American poverty in our country, right? If they are systematically exposed to stories that depict African Americans in negative ways, and if they’re never exposed to other discourses, no wonder they think that Black Lives Matter is a joke. If that was all I was exposed to, I might also feel similarly.
We have to understand why so many people, for instance, are hostile to a group like Black Lives Matter. We have to understand what kind of rhetoric these people are situated in and what kind of rhetoric washes over them like the tides. That’s fundamentally part of why they feel the way they do, and this is something that I emphasize throughout the book: discourses or rhetoric produce sympathies and antipathies. They teach people who to be sympathetic towards, and who to be hostile towards. Our conservative propaganda in the US has systematically produced antipathy towards African Americans, and if we want to understand why Black Lives Matter is seen as a joke by so many white Americans, we might look at the propaganda that they’re consuming and reproducing.
That makes a lot of sense to me. Having had the privilege of already reading the texts, I could see one portion of religious studies scholars responding: “okay, sure, focus on language is important, but what about the material stuff in the world?” I think, actually, that your text really does account for this, but I was wondering if you could talk about how making sense of how post-structuralist critique can actually help us understand how material resources are distributed.
To go back to post-structuralism, one of the long-standing critiques of post-structuralism is that it is a kind of Kantianism. People accuse folks like Derrida and Judith Butler of being Kantians—people who separate out phenomena and noumena, that the world out there is inaccessible and all we have access to is texts or words or things like that, and that they ignore the material reality beyond the text. I point out that, if you read what they say carefully, that’s not at all what they’re saying. Derrida, right after saying there’s nothing outside of the text, explicitly says, “of course there are bodies with flesh and blood.” His point is not at all that “all we have is words” or “all we have is text.” However, to understand those bodies, we have to take into account things like words. If human bodies—and social, scientific, and cognitive science—these discourses focus on how humans respond not logically or rationally or objectively to circumstances. They have deep-seated intuitions that predispose them to respond positively or negatively.
Social psychology looks at putting humans in groups and recognizes that they will immediately develop in-group bias and out-group bias. How are those in group biases and outgrew biases produced? There are bodies in the world that have dispositions towards viewing other groups negatively. How are those produced? In part, they’re produced through the propaganda that they consume. You can’t have groups without discourses that bring those groups into existence, and once they exist, those bodies in those groups have positive and negative intuitions about others in the world. So, if we want to understand why people have positive gut reactions or negative gut reactions in their bodies with their emotions, we can’t account for that without taking account of the discourses that build the communities or social groups that they reside in.
Part of what I was thinking as I was listening to you respond was just that that makes sense to me in terms of why discourse analysis and ideology critique have to be used together. That ideology critique, in part, is what accounts for the material conditions, whereas discourse analysis focuses on language.
For ideology critique, there are certain false narratives that circulate; the earth is not flat, which is demonstrable by lots of really good evidence. If somebody says that the earth is flat, well, they’re wrong, according to the existing evidence. We can offer evidence against a lot of things circulated, for instance, by PragerU’s propaganda. they explicitly claim that we live in a meritocratic nation where there is more or less equal opportunity. Well, according to the best available evidence, that is simply not true. We live in a world where people do not have equal opportunity, and ideology critique can point out how the way this person describes the world contrasts with the best available evidence that we have about that world. We can account for the fact that it looks like, for example, African Americans in the U.S. have fewer opportunities than whites in the U.S. systematically, in ways for which we have a mountain of evidence. You don’t have to take my word for it—there are studies after studies after studies that show that we don’t live in a meritocratic nation. Ideology critique allows us to contrast myths like, “hey, we have equal opportunity” with the evidence that no, that’s not the case.
I argue in the chapter on domination that we should define domination specifically in a way that draws attention to asymmetrical power relations. This discourse sets up worlds that allocate resources. Who benefits most from that allocation? Who benefits least? When are people socialized to accept certain positive and negative intuitions about other groups? If you have white Americans who are systematically exposed to negative stories about African Americans, what effect does that practically have on African Americans and their opportunities in the world? Domination, or an account of domination, will ask us to look specifically at how those things work.
I think that’s really important, and that also leads us nicely into the next question that I have. One of the arguments that you really trace throughout the text is that you talk about how Hegel argued that we need to constantly be attentive to changing definitions of words, changing discourses, in order to understand how we account for certain empirical and phenomenal events in the world. When you come to your last theoretical chapter before you do your case study at the end of the text, you introduce some new terms of your own to help us think through some of the ways in which these discourses are functioning and how power and domination work. You write in this chapter that “the concepts of discourse and ideology are useful because they help bring into relief the causal relations between words and the worlds that constitute an effect.” The two new words that you’re introducing here in this chapter are credorationalism and recrement.
I chose a word that sounded French but I am not well trained in French or French pronunciation, so I say recrement (reck-rey-mont) or recrement (reck-rey-ment).
I just finished my French class this summer, so recrement (reck-rey-mont) sounds right to me. (laughs)
I was wondering if you could explain these terms for us and why you see them as being central for our understanding of how ideology functions and how discourse functions.
I define credorationalism as defaulting to the view that people act the way they do because of the beliefs that they report. For example, somebody goes to church every week and participates in mass. Why do they do so? Well, credorationalism says they report that they believe that Jesus Christ is their lord and savior, so that must be why. Credorationalism: we default to the thing they said they believe as the best explanation for why they behave in these ways. I want to accept that perhaps people behave the way they do because they hold these beliefs that they report to others, but that may not always be the explanation for their behavior.
There are lots of social scientific studies that show that people participate in groups not because of their beliefs about gods and goddesses, but because those groups perform useful social functions for them. Growing up, I was deeply involved in my church. Looking back, I think that that’s in part because I was kind of a social outcast at school. It was hard for me to find a home and a welcoming group of people to feel at home with at school because I was a nerd and a weirdo. At parish, they can’t turn you away, so I was deeply involved in a lot of church activities, deeply involved in my youth group, etc. Maybe it was because I believed Jesus Christ was my lord and savior, or maybe it was because I needed somewhere to be surrounded by people who welcomed me and made me feel comfortable and at home. The latter is the social scientific explanation or the explanation that I provided at the time, which is I believe in Jesus, etc.
Credorationalism defaults to “Well, Craig must have gone to church because he believed in Jesus.” I want to say that sometimes there are better explanations than the ones that people give for their own behavior. Credorationalism is one term, and I contrast it with recrement. Recrement, as I define it, to put it crudely, is like bullshit. People produce bullshit all the time. Why do they bullshit other people? It’s not because they believe their bullshit; credorationalism is not very good at explaining why people produce bullshit. It’s much easier to understand bullshit by looking at what they want to accomplish. If they want to make sure that they make the sale, understanding the fact that they need to make the sale to get paid might be a better explanation than them really believing that the car they’re selling is in excellent condition.
Through recrement, people produce discourses that serve certain social functions for themselves. That’s how I define recrement: discourses that serve a social function. I give an example in the chapter from a silly NBC sitcom called Superstore, which is about some people who work in a place that’s basically like Walmart. There’s a woman who has a crush on one of her co-workers, but he’s actually a subordinate. She misinterprets a bunch of social signals he sends her way, and she thinks that the crush is reciprocated. She comes to him and one episode and says, “you won’t believe it, the company policy has changed, and now instead of forbidding supervisors from dating subordinates, it’s now just strongly discouraged. So, we can pursue our love together!” This young guy is not at all interested in her, doesn’t have remotely any kind of crush on her, and is in fact probably turned off by her in a number of ways. He hems and haws for a minute, and then he says, “well, but you know, the policy does strongly discourage it, so we can’t do it.” A couple of episodes later, he dates another supervisor that he is in fact attracted to. How do we understand what he said? Did he really not want to date her because of policy strongly discouraged such relationships? Well, then it would be hard to explain why he immediately dated somebody else who is his supervisor. It makes much more sense to say, “that was bullshit that he gave on the spot to avoid being honest with this woman that he wasn’t attracted to.”
We produce rhetoric like this all the time. All faculty at colleges write reports about how they’ve met the assessment standards that they set for themselves. I’m guessing that probably a good half of the faculty think that those assessments are bullshit and superficial. I won’t go into a rant on assessment, but we produce assessment reports not because we think that they’re useful and that we believe the content that we put in them, but because that’s what’s minimally required for us to keep our jobs. We have to produce a report that says we met the assessment measures that we set for ourselves. That’s our life from top to bottom, producing discourses that persuade other people to let us do what we want, or leave us alone, or make sure that we get paid.
Sometimes, perhaps we say things because we do truly believe them. Sometimes we say things because we have an internal lawyer that says, “look, if you want to close this case, you need to say X, Y, or Z to get it done.” I think that a great deal of what we call “religious discourse” is not necessarily strictly believed but is recrement said by people who want to accomplish something socially. Maybe I said I believe in Jesus Christ as my lord and savior because I wanted to accomplish joining a group that made me feel welcome. Maybe my discourse would be understood not as simply expressing a belief but as accomplishing something for me as a 16-year-old weirdo. In a sense, this chapter on recrement is directed against cognitive science of religion as it exists in some corners of our field. This is probably a little bit unfair. I’m not super knowledgeable of cognitive science of religion. I’ve read a good bit, but not a ton. I’m not an expert on it by any means, but a lot of the cognitive science of religion literature focuses on topics like why people believe in gods, goddesses, angels, demons, and other things that we don’t have any evidence for. They use this term: “minimally counterintuitive concepts.” Maybe they believe in angels because the idea of an angel is minimally counterintuitive. Therefore, it sticks in their mind because it’s not too crazy or distant from reality but is unique and special enough to stick as an interesting idea.
This seems to me like a terrible explanation of why people produce discourse about angels and gods and demons. It’s not because these are interesting ideas that stick, and I give an example in the chapter on recrement about witchcraft among the Azande from E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s fantastic book on witchcraft in Africa. He points out that they believe in witchcraft, but they tend to only talk about witchcraft when they’re pissed off about something that some neighbor did that offended them. Suddenly, they’re like, “I think that maybe my neighbor is a witch, and he bewitched me.” Well, those kinds of accusations are brought out apparently only when there’s some sort of moral issue at stake in the community and they can gain social standing over their neighbors by accusing their neighbors of being witches and can get the whole community to say, “oh, yeah, we think he’s a witch, too because his behavior is clearly unacceptable.” The talk about witchcraft might not be motivated by “Why did my barn burn down? I can’t think of any reason other than maybe a witch did it.”
Cognitive scientists of religion often think that religious people are just stupid, right? The example of “oh, I can’t come up with any better reason, so it must have been witchcraft.” Maybe their behavior is better explained by them being really pissed at their neighbor for something their neighbor did. Therefore, they call their neighbor a witch because that was successful in getting their neighbor to stop the behavior that was offensive to both him and the rest of the community. Maybe these people aren’t stupid but actually have a really intuitive grasp on the usefulness of accusing their neighbors of being witches, independently of whether or not they truly believe that witchcraft is real. I think to understand why people talk about angels, demons, witchcraft, etc., we do not do well by starting with “wow, these people are stupid, how could they believe such stupid things?” We would be better off understanding that they’re just like the rest of us, and maybe they talked about witchcraft for the same reason that we write reports about assessment, because it’s useful for accomplishing something in our social context.
I think that makes a lot of sense. One thing that I was thinking of while I was reading the chapter on recrement is that it seems to me that a lot of folks in the study of religion, or certain parts of the study of religion, seem to fear that if we approach what people say with a hermeneutic of suspicion, that we are denying them some type of agency, that we’re ignoring the fact that they are actors in the world that could potentially be acting on their beliefs. But I think that recrement actually really accounts for this because we’re not denying their agency. In fact, we’re granting them agency and the benefit of the doubt that they know their discourses really well and that they know how to operate within them successfully. I found that to be a really useful term.
E. E. Evans-Pritchard himself said something similar to “I don’t believe in witchcraft, but I had to talk about witchcraft to get anything done in the community. For me to be taken seriously and for them to talk to me and engage with me, I had to use their rhetoric and discourse. E. E. Evans-Pritchard wasn’t stupid. He knew why he had to use their rhetoric. Maybe they’re not stupid either. Maybe they produce rhetoric for the same reason that he did: to prevent them from excluding him from the community altogether.
I could talk about this all day. Conscientious of time, I want to get us to our last question really quickly. Before I ask—spoilers ahead!—we’re going to jump to the conclusion, so if you haven’t read the book yet, you might want to tune out until you have a chance to read the conclusion. One of the things that listeners may have noticed as we’ve gone through this discussion is that we talked about religious discourses and a little bit about religion. However, it hasn’t been the bulk of what we’ve been talking about. Religion itself is not a term that you use frequently in the text, particularly not as an analytical category or a theoretical category. In your conclusion, you basically state that religion doesn’t function as an analytically useful tool for you. I was wondering if you could tell our listeners a little bit more about what brought you to this conclusion.
To best understand this, I think that we have to take into account my goals; my goals as an educator, but also as a scholar. I have this on my own webpage. What are my goals as an instructor in the classroom? One, to show students that societies are never set up in ways that benefit everyone equally. Two, to show them how those asymmetrical power relations are sustained and contested over time. Why don’t people revolt when they are the losers in the society? I’m interested fundamentally in drawing attention to how our relations of domination maintained, contested, created in the first place, etc. as my primary goal. When I look at how to show that to students and other readers, I find discourse analysis and ideology critique to be the most useful tools. If I want to show people how domination works, I have to turn to the discourses that they use and the ideologies that they circulate.
Looking at relations of domination, I have a chapter where I talk about racism in America. I could have used an example that was more explicitly religious according to the way that people normally use the term. I could have talked about Ham’s Curse. In the 19th century, Christians said that the reason why we have to accept that African Americans are slaves of whites is because they’re descendants of the character Ham. Ham is one of the sons of Noah who is cursed by Noah. He and his descendants were going to perpetually be slaves of others. Whites in the US believed African American people were descendants of Ham, and therefore, they must be slaves—it says so right there in the Bible. Now which example I choose—either could work well. I could have a whole chapter saying: “here’s how to apply discourse analysis and ideology critique to Ham’s Curse.” I chose racism in America today. “Here is how we can understand PragerU’s propaganda: This is the discourse they’re producing, these are the ideologies they’re circulating, and these are the material effects that they obscure or cause to happen.” When I’m doing that, what is most useful to me is how the discourse produces relations of domination and what the discourse obscures. By doing a discourse analysis and ideology critique, I learned everything that I want to learn about Ham’s Curse or PragerU’s discourse. If I went one step further, and said, “but let me add that PragerU’s discourses were secular and Ham’s Curse discourse was religious.” I just honestly don’t think I learned anything from adding that point. Categorizing one as religious and one as non-religious doesn’t tell me anything remotely, additionally, of use.
The fact that one discourse was used to oppress Black people in the 19th century and one is used to oppress Black people in the 21st century, that’s all I need to know. Knowing that one is religious or one is secular doesn’t tell me anything remotely of value. In fact, I think that treating them as if they were fundamentally different obscures more than it reveals than if we treated them as if they were the same. Here’s an ideology that justifies domination in the 19th century and here’s an ideology that justifies domination of the 21st—looking at them as similar is more revealing than to view them as totally separate or different, or as one is religious, one secular. I don’t think that it’s useful to see them as different. I want to treat them as the same because what I want to learn about them has to do with discourse analysis and ideology critique, not whether or not they talk about gods or angels.
I think that makes a lot of sense. I’ve been struggling a little bit with this and thinking a lot about it myself as a graduate student. I look at religion and law, l look at legal discourses, and I look at where questions of what gets to count as religion comes up in these questions and in these kinds of legal discourses. As I was reading through the Coda, the conclusion, I was thinking to myself about how I had actually sat in on an undergrad class this past semester with your colleague, Dr. Hugh Urban. It was one of the typical assignments that we give in religious studies courses at the end, you know, you pick a social movement, and you argue, could it be a religion? Could we see it as a religion? If so, give me your definition. How are you going to justify that? There was one group that did a presentation on veganism as a religion, and I thought it was convincing. However, I remember Dr. Urban saying something to the effect of “I worry that we’re turning everything into religion.”
I remember thinking about it and responding, “okay, is that a bad thing?” If we go out into the world, and we look for evidence of things that we normally look for when we typically talk about religion—things like ritual, references to a sacred text, angels and demons, etc.—if we go out and look for that in other areas of culture that we wouldn’t typically define as religion, is there anything that can be gained by doing that, by taking some of our tools from religious studies and using them in other contexts? I feel like this is almost the opposite of the rhetorical move that you’re making, right? You’re saying that using the term “religion” analytically isn’t, you know, either nothing is religion or everything is religion feels almost like an opposite move to me. I’m wondering what you make of that. Do you see it as accomplishing something similar? Do you think it’s useful at all to go through that line of questioning? Where would that fit?
I remember a conversation I had while I was at the AAR [American Academy of Religion] or a NAASR [North American Association for the Study of Religion] session, and somebody was talking about how maybe we can apply the term religion to things outside of what was normally considered religion. There’s that famous essay on baseball as a religion. I realized at that point that there are two different groups of people who try to collapse religion and culture. One is like the move that I’m trying to make where religious culture is not different from culture in general, and we can use the same analytical tools to understand religion as we can to understand “non-religious” culture. In a sense, if baseball is a religion, they’re doing a similar thing, except collapsing it in a different direction. Instead of arguing that all religion is just culture, they’re saying all culture is religious in some ways, and we can analyze the religious aspects of all culture. What makes that different than what I’m doing is that most of those people approaching it from that perspective are indebted to phenomenology of religion and seeing the sacred. For them, the reason why baseball is religious is because to some extent, it’s a manifestation of something sacred for some group of people. I just don’t have a usefulness for that kind of phenomenological—I mean, I guess you could talk about baseball as an expression of the sacred in our world, but I’m not sure what we would gain analytically by pointing that out.
I would collapse it in the other direction by saying look, “we can understand Christian discourse in the same way that we can understand nationalist discourse.” Your point, which I think is interesting, and where I would value what you’re saying, is that we can bring the tools of religious studies to analyze all forms of culture. The tools within religious studies might be useful for understanding nationalism. Now if those tools are “here’s how we can find the sacred in nationalism,” I’m much, much less interested. If we want to use the tools of religious studies in the sense that religious studies teaches us how to think critically about the cosmologies people create and how they imagine themselves in those cosmologies, the positive and negative relations those cosmology set up between one group and another group, that kind of way of thinking about things might be very useful for understanding, for instance, American nationalism. It depends on which part of religious studies we’re using. I’m a fan of the Durkheimian type of tradition where it views society as something sacred—not in a phenomenology of religion sense, but in the sense that people sacralized their societies in order to accomplish social work. If we’re taking [Émile] Durkheim on religion to nationalism: two thumbs up! You can do that all day. If we’re trying to find the sacred in nationalism or the sacred baseball, I’ll pass on that. Maybe somebody else finds it useful, but I don’t think that finding the sacred in baseball tells us anything about how groups maintain asymmetrical power relations, and that’s ultimately what I’m interested in.
That makes a lot of sense to me. I have been sufficiently persuaded by this conversation. I will leave it up to our listeners to decide how they feel. Dr. Martin, thank you so much for joining me today. I’ve had a ton of fun. I hope you have as well.
Thank you for having me. This is, I think, my third time being on The Religious Studies Project. You guys are great, and I really appreciate you having me back.
Thank you. We’re so excited to have you. Hopefully we’ll have you again in the future for some episodes on discourse as well. Just want to remind listeners before we let them go that your book Discourse and Ideology: A Critique of the Study of Culture is coming out with Bloomsbury, November 2021. So, don’t miss it! Thank you again, Dr. Martin.
Martin, Craig and Savannah H. Finver. 2021. “Discourse Analysis & Ideology Critique in the Study of Religion”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 1 November 2021. Transcribed by Jacob Noblett. Version 1.0, 1 November 2021. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/discourse-analysis-and-ideology-critique-in-the-study-of-religion/
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