The Study of Religion: An Introduction and Provocation by Kenneth MacKendrick



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The Study of Religion: An Introduction and Provocation
by Kenneth MacKendrick
At the close of 1843, Karl Marx wrote something that has surely become one of the significant paradoxes constitutive of the interests at stake in the study of religion: namely, that "the criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism" (Marx 1978: 53). The phrase remains contentious for good reason. Is the study of religion simply a scientific endeavour, which seeks to illuminate some obscure phenomena in an explanatory and analytic sense, or does the study of religion actually produce a surplus or an excess which intervenes in the very object of inquiry? 
Even with these brief questions, the dice have been loaded and the stakes have been raised. Only one object? Should we be talking about the study of religions and not simply the study of religion? Is it the place of a scholar of religion to be a critic of religion? Might we also ask whether religion is an object at all? And why obscure? There is no shortage of disagreement or debate about this. So much so that the study of religion within the academy has yet to achieve a secure position within university curriculum (Juschka 1997, Lease et al 1995). 
One of the most difficult and controversial tasks for any religionist is the attempt to provide a coherent definition of religion. If we at least know what we are looking for, even vaguely, then we can begin to outline, if only negatively, what, at least, religion is not. There are countless definitions that permeate 'popular' and 'intellectual' thought: ranging from "a cultural system" (Geertz) to "infantile regression" (Freud). William Arnal has outlined several definitions, or ways of approaching religion: broadly, substantivist definitions, which rely on 'key ingredients' and culturalist definitions, where the contents of religion are examined according to their function within a given system. Neither are completely satisfactory. Arnal goes on to claim, with a high degree of justification, that "religion does not exist" (Arnal 1999), indicating, along with Talal Asad, that the category itself is the product of specific contingent political and economic forces which have engendered a contentious predisposition from the outset -- a claim well worth thinking about, and one that captures the spirit of deconstruction, attempting at once to both criticize and preserve an "impossible" category. 
Typically, religion is a category used to describe something unique or specific about a given cultural tradition, and we have several relatively prepackaged categories through which to do this: Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity (for instance, see Smith 1958). Without a doubt, these are the most common "world religions" studied in any introductory class, be it in high school, college, or university. In general, there is an underlying agreement that in a university setting it would be irresponsible for a department, of adequate financial means, not to include the study of these seven traditions in their program. They have been, in effect, institutionalized. This is not to say that such distinctions are without differentiation or conflict. Many introductions to "world religions" entail a curious distinction between 'western' religions: Islam, Judaism and Christianity; and 'eastern' philosophies: Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. The immediate contradiction should not be lost on us, even if such distinctions are made less often today. 
The strange mixture of religion, philosophy and culture, a mix which has often proven itself to be inadequate in many ways, have given rise to two distinct trends in the study of religion: phenomenology (Eliade), which has largely fallen into disrepute, and comparativism (Paton, Sharpe), which is certainly not short of its critics either (Martin et al 1996). These approaches, of course, have spawned a renewed emphasis on issues of method and theory, from Bruce Lincoln's "Theses on Method" (1996) to Russell McCutcheon's Manufacturing Religion (1997). Furthermore, these issues have prompted some frank and articulate self-reflective lines of inquiry, not only interested in the study of religion, but in the study of the study of religion. In particular, the political structure of national and international institutional bodies (Martin, Wiebe, King, Smart, Hackett 1993), employment (McCutcheon 1998), gender (Warne 1998) and pedagogy (Juschka 1999). In their own way, each of these scholars have written about the institutional space in which our discipline takes place, emphasizing often implicit issues of class, epistemology, gender, and race that plague both the academy and the study of religion itself. There have also been heated debates about the distinction between studying religion and practicing religion, coming to be known as the insider/outsider debate (McCutcheon 1999). Donald Wiebe's infamous debate with Charles Davis is notable in this regard (Wiebe 1984, 1986; Davis 1984, 1986). There has also been some important studies in the contribution of religionists to public policy and the role of scholars in the public sphere, as Harold Coward has outlined (1999). 
One of the most publicized debates regarding in our field has focused on the difference between the study of religion, religious thinking and theology (Wiebe 1991). Although the dust has yet to clear, I think there is an emerging sentiment that the distinctions between the study of religion and theology are beginning to sediment. Both religionists and theologians have a self-same interest in preserving relative independence from one another. Despite the fact that close associations between theological and religionist faculty remain, much can be said about their mutual excommunication. However, if religion is a synthetic category, then the question of the study of religion remains an open one, and this entails a variety of approaches and perspectives, although we certainly have persuasive evidence that some theories are better than others. 
The study of religion has long since been hailed as interdisciplinary, with an emphasis on the unique ways in which religionists "appropriate" the methods and theories of other disciplines to form their own approaches and analyses. This has lent itself to a common (mis)conception that the study of religion is merely parasitic on other fields (sociology, psychology, history, literary criticism and so on). Perhaps it is time to change this by extending the range of religious studies into other disciplines. What is certain is that religion has played, and continues to play, a vital and dynamic role in political and social life. In Canada, "social conservativism" at the present moment is enjoying unprecedented growth and political influence. Despite the absence of 'religious' references in most declarations of policy, there is little doubt about the distinctly religion-based agenda that underlies this kind of public policy, which is also common enough amongst the 'progressive left' and throughout the Green Party. Additionally, the best-seller booklists also record mighty sales for books about spirituality and religious faith, and the hit summer television blockbuster Survivor is ripe with references to "island spirits" with "confessional" anecdotes. Furthermore, as late capitalism continues to ravage pockets of meaningful existence, transforming consumption itself into the sole means of social and economic reproduction, scholars of religion would be careless not to provide insight into the fetish character of commodities and the ways in which mythology is often used to bolster nationalistic sentiment. As religious traditions continue to morph into new creations, from televangelism to new age environmentalism and drug-induced mysticism, and the immense entertainment industry continues to ripen with religious imagery, even so-called "non-religionists" have turned their gaze to the study of religion (although very few of them ever read what religionists have to say!). The recent anthology, Religion, edited by Derrida and Vattimo (1999), Habermas's debate with theology (1992) and even more recently, Slavoj Zizek's book, The Fragile Absolute, have taken up investigations of the nature and dynamics of religion directly. It would be naive to think that our field can remain limited to "seven" traditions, and it would be a profound miscalculation to think that the study of religion has nothing to say about the disciplines it is connected with.
Judging from the diverse nature of the debates outined above, the question of "the critique of religion" remains, and there is no agreement in sight. However, one thing is certain: studying religion is political. Theoretical inquiry itself has often been the source of both public and 'ivory tower' outcries, ranging from the separation of theological departments and religious studies departments, to public dissent about the kind of analyses that particular scholars pursue. Even if a religion can be studied descriptively and analytically (and I, for one, have my doubts), the institutional space of the study of religion is highly charged. What we do in the study of religion is implicated in the political sphere. Despite our best attempts, we are not simply dealing with abstract concepts. As Hegel once cryptically noted, "spirit is a bone." 
Certainly, technological change, global capitalism, the "new economy" are driving forces behind the rapid changes in 'religious' life, prompting new mythologies, diverse rituals and launching adaptive political movements. It seems quite strange that very little research has been done on the relationship between religion and the political economy, so much so that the two issues are usually completely unconnected. Stephen Handelman quotes Elliot Abrams, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, as saying "The sad truth is that religion, as we begin this new millennium, still starts more conflicts that it resolves" (Handelman 2000). This impression, which is a popular one no doubt, has lead to a the "The Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders," billed as the largest ecumenical religious gathering in history hosted by the United Nations, where "spiritual authorities" are given an opportunity to sit down together to find "peace and love." One can be struck by the strange naturalized and naturalizing associations here. Why should Christians and Buddhists be lumped together? What do these supposed "spiritual authorities" have in common such that they, in particular, should find themselves burdened with the task of establishing peace? To be certain, the "spiritual authorities" involved are constituted by the very traditions that scholars of religion, at least in part, deem religious. 
One of the great challenges that the study of religion faces, amidst debates about the "politics of identity" and "multiculturalism," is precisely the politicization of our inquiries. It has become commonplace, in some circles, to assume that "cultural traditions" are the traditions of "others," with the corollary (politically) relativistic attitude, "to each their own." As if, somehow, religion or religiousity is essentially or naturally a matter of individual 'faith' or 'spirituality.' Somewhere along the line, the critique of religion, which was pivotal for the founding of our discipline, seems to have collapsed into a distinctly liberal and, at the same time, privatized model. Evidence of this collapse, or at least of the subordination of a more politicized model of the study of religion, can be found in the introductory comments by Bawa Jain, general secretary of the Millennium World Peace Summit, who notes explicity, "it is not the intention of this Religious Summit to engage in political issues" (Jain 2000). Apparently, religion, ethnicity and peace are not political issues, or perhaps (insidiously) they are not 'appropriately' political... Asad's comments regarding the study of religion appear to be highly relevant: "It may be a happy accident that this effort of defining religion converges with the liberal demand in our time that it be kept quite separate from politics, law and sciences - spaces in which varieties of power and reason articulate our distinctly modern life. This definition is at once part of a strategy (for secular liberals) of the confinement, and (for liberal Christians) of the defence of religion" (Asad 1993: 28). If we take Asad's observations seriously, then perhaps we should pause to consider what motives lie behind the largely private donations that are funding the peace summit (Ted Turner, the honourary chair, contributed over $750,000). 
Today, multiculturalism has often assumed the position of the privileging of already established boundaries and institutions, a kind of plurality in name only. If this is the case, then the study and critique of religion, or perhaps the critique of the study of religion, takes on a new relevance. Much of what goes on under the name of global "religious conflict," "fundamentalism" or "ethnic tension" often seems to have little to do with the traditions we learn about in World Religions classes. In the popular media, for instance, we easily find a close association of "religion" with "ethnicity" which, as we well know, is most often, although not always, used as a pejorative category, aligning "ethnicity" with "nature," and "nature" with social and political regression ("religion [ethnicity?] is a crutch"). The study of religion, then, is frequently perceived as a specialized form of anthropology which has little or nothing to do with modern politics. These blatantly ideological caricatures are, without a doubt, reinforced by trends in globalizing capitalism, as Marx well knew when he wrote, "[Capitalism] has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in the place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom - Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation" (Marx 1978: 475). As 'western liberalism' soars to new heights, finding its ceiling in the stock market, the tendency to characterize anything outside of this system as inferior or deformed grinds its way into social policy. Equally disturbing is the trend to associate 'kinks' in the economy exclusively with "religious" or "ethnic" conflicts, shifting an emphasis from the political economy (i.e. class struggle) to questions of 'culture.' Without a doubt, this influences what we, as scholars of religion, think and do when we are studying religion. Not only that, but we contribute to these ideological caricatures whenever we strive to confine our discipline within distinct parameters. 
Works Cited
Arnal, William E. 1999 "Definition." In Willi Braun and Russell T. McCutcheon(eds.), Guide to the Study of Religion. London: Cassell: 2000. 
Asad, Talal 1993 "The Construction of religion as an anthropological category."In Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press: 27-54. 
Browning, Don S. and Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, eds. 1992 Habermas, Modernity, and Public Theology. New York: Crossroads. 
Coward, Harold 1999 "The contribution of religious studies to public policy." Studies in Religion / Sciences Religieuses 28, 4: 489-502. 
Davis, Charles 1984 "Wherein there is no ecstasy." Studies in Religion / Sciences Religieuses 13, 4: 393-400. 
Davis, Charles 1986 "The immanence of knowledge and the ecstasy of faith." Studies in Religion / Sciences Religieuses 15, 2: 191-196. 
Derrida, Jacques and Gianni Vattimo, eds. 1998 Religion. Translated by David Webb. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 
Handelman, Stephen 2000 "World religious leaders seek elusive peace: Summit at U.N. criticized as being too political." Toronto Star, August 28, A2. 
Jain, Bawa 2000 "Why a religious summit at the United Nations?" http://www.millenniumpeacesummit.com/aboutframe.html 
Juschka, Darlene M. 1997 "Religious studies and identity politics: Mythology in the making." The Council of Societies for the Study of Religion Bulletin 26: 8-11.
Juschka, Darlene M. 1999 "The construction of pedagogical spaces: Religious studies in the university." Studies in Religion / Sciences Religieuses 28, 1: 85-97. 
Lease, Gary et al 1995 Pathologies in the Academic Study of Religion: North American Institutional Case Studies. Special Issue: Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 7, 4. 
Lincoln, Bruce 1996 "Theses on method." Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 8, 3: 225-227. 
Martin, Luther H., and Donald Wiebe, Ursula King, Ninian Smart, Rosalind I. J. Hackett 1993 Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 5, 1. 
Martin, Luther H. et al 1996 The New Comparativism in the Study of Religion: A Symposium. Special Issue: Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 8, 1. 
Marx, Karl 1978 "Contribution to the critique of Hegel1s Philosophy of Right: Introduction." In Robert C. Tucker (ed.), The Marx-Engels Reader: Second Edition. New York: Norton: 53-65. 
Marx, Karl 1978 "Manifesto of the Communist Party." In Robert C. Tucker (ed.), The Marx-Engels Reader: Second Edition. New York: Norton: 473-500. 
McCutcheon, Russell T. 1997 Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
McCutcheon, Russell T. 1998 "The crisis of academic labour and the myth of autonomy: Dispatch from the job wars." Studies in Religion / Sciences Religieuses 27, 4: 387-405. 
McCutcheon, Russell T., ed. 1999 The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion: A Reader. London: Cassell. Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders 2000 http://www.millenniumpeacesummit.com 
Smith, Huston 1958 The Religions of Man. New York: New American Library. 
Warne, Randi R. 1998 "(En)gendering religious studies." Studies in Religion / Sciences Religieuses 27, 4: 427-436.
Wiebe, Donald 1984 "The failure of nerve in the academic study of religion." Studies in Religion / Sciences Religieuses 13, 4: 401-422. 
Wiebe, Donald 1986 "The 'academic naturalization' of religious studies." Studies in Religion / Sciences Religieuses 15, 2: 197-203. 
Wiebe, Donald 1991 The Irony of Theology and the Nature of Religious Thought. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen1s University Press. 
Zizek, Slavoj 2000 The Fragile Absolute; or, Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? London: Verso. 

 

 


Kenneth G. MacKendrick is a graduate student at the Centre for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto. He teaches Religion, Law and Morality as a Sessional Instructor and is in the process of writing a dissertation on Jacques Lacan and Jürgen Habermas, with an emphasis on the theoretical foundations of critical social theory (Freud, Hegel, Kant). He is also interested in popular

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