On the Return of the Savages


by Craig Martin

The New York Times recently reviewed Jared Diamond’s new book on “tribal” societies, The World Until Yesterday. Among other things—according to the review—we learn:

The people Diamond describes seem immersed in the collective. We generally don’t see them exercising much individual agency. We generally don’t see them trying to improve their own lives, alter their destinies or become a more admirable people. It’s possible they do not conceive of life in this individualistic way.

As I and my friends noted on Facebook, this is a repackaging of Durkheim’s “primitive savages,” which we all find objectionable for reasons that appear obvious.

I would argue, however, that we see a homologous collectivist/individualist distinction made by supposedly more academic scholars—who should know better—when talking about “institutional religion” and “spirituality.” According to this distinction, some people are slaves to religious tradition, while free individuals make their own spirituality for themselves—and the latter is presented as more “free” than the former. Consider Heelas and Woodhead’s The Spiritual Revolution:

Some hundred years ago, Durkheim drew a distinction between ‘a religion handed down by tradition’ and ‘a free, private, optional religion, fashioned according to one’s own needs and understanding.’ (148)

Or David Lyon’s Jesus in Disneyland, which privileges the individual religion of “advanced” societies:

[I]t has become a truism that religious activity is, increasingly, subject to personal choice, or volunteerism, and that, increasingly, for many in the advanced societies, religious identities are assembled to create a bricolage of beliefs and practices. (Lyon 2000, 76)

[W]here we once would have identified ourselves in terms of the villages or clans we came from, and located ourselves within a social hierarchy stretching down from prince or president to pauper, now nothing is fixed. … The realm of choice has opened up tremendously for most people in the affluent societies, giving us unprecedented opportunities to choose lifestyles and beliefs from a range of options. (91)

If the distinction between “primitives” and “moderns” is objectionable, why isn’t the homologous distinction between “institutional religion” and “individual spirituality” equally so?

Craig Martin is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College and Executive Secretary of the North American Association for the Study of Religion. His books include Masking Hegemony: A Genealogy of Liberalism, Religion and the Private Sphere (Equinox 2010) A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (Equinox 2012). Craig’s research interests concern social theories of religion and ideology, particularly how “religion” is imagined in modern thought and popular discourses.

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NAASR Notes: Donald Wiebe, Levyna Interview


NAASR Notes is a new feature with the Bulletin where we invite members of the North American Association for the Study of Religion to describe books they are reading and/or research and writing projects that will be of interests to scholars in the field. For previous posts in this series, follow the link.

We thought it would be of interest to our readers to get some background on the research of NAASR’s three founders–Thomas Lawson, Luther Martin, and Donald Wiebe, along with the work of a few others who have been affiliated with NAASR. In this clip, Donald Wiebe talks about the shift away from the phenomenology of religion toward a greater focus on method and theory, including explanations of religious behaviour, as seen with the cognitive sciences.

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NAASR Notes: Luther Martin, Levyna Interview


NAASR Notes is a new feature with the Bulletin where we invite members of the North American Association for the Study of Religion to describe books they are reading and/or research and writing projects that will be of interests to scholars in the field. For previous posts in this series, follow the link.

We thought it would be of interest to our readers to get some background on the research of NAASR’s three founders–Thomas Lawson, Luther Martin, and Donald Wiebe, along with the work of a few others who have been affiliated with NAASR. In this clip, Luther Martin talks about his work as a historian of religion with an interest in theory and method in the study of religion and the cognitive science of religion.

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NAASR Notes: Robert McCauly, Levyna Interview


NAASR Notes is a new feature with the Bulletin where we invite members of the North American Association for the Study of Religion to describe books they are reading and/or research and writing projects that will be of interests to scholars in the field. For previous posts in this series, follow the link.

We thought it would be of interest to our readers to get some background on the research of NAASR’s three founders–Thomas Lawson, Luther Martin, and Donald Wiebe, along with the work of a few others who have been affiliated with NAASR. In this video clip, which was conducted as a part of Leveya, a Laboratory for the Experimental Research of Religion (see here for their Facebook page), Robert McCauley discusses his work on cognitive science and reductionism in the study of religion.

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Now Published – Bulletin for the Study of Religion 44.1 (March 2015)

Bulletin March 2015The March issue of the Bulletin has been published and is available. Below is the table of contents of this issue, which includes an eclectic set of articles offering a genealogy of “Abrahamic religions” (Hughes), a theoretical assessment of Islamophobia (Larsson and Sander), an application of myth-as-metacode to popular culture (MacKendrick), and a look at apocalyptic discourse in modern America (Hoover). In addition, this issue includes a look at a new set of clichés that undergird the field of religious studies (Eaghll) and a review essay of Sutcliffe and Gilhus’s New Age Spiritualities (Tse).

As always, we welcome submissions for future issues – including responses to published articles – from established scholars and graduate students engaged in the study of religion (regardless of discipline) for either publication in the Bulletin or for here on the Bulletin‘s Blog. Our guidelines for the journal are available online.


Table of Contents

Bulletin for the Study of Religion Volume 44, Issue 1 (March 2015)

“Abrahamic Religions: A Genealogy” (pp. 3-11) – Aaron W. Hughes (University of Rochester)

“An Urgent Need to Consider How to Define Islamophobia” (pp. 13-17) – Göran Larsson (University of Gothenburg) and Åke Sander (University of Gothenburg)

“What is a Superhero? How Myth Can Be a Metacode” (pp. 19-26) – Kenneth G. MacKendrick (University of Manitoba)

“Wasteland America: The United States in Premillennialist Apocalypse Scenarios” (pp. 26-32) – Jesse A. Hoover (Baylor University)

“Religion Clichés” (pp. 33-38) – Tenzan Eaghll (University of Toronto)

“First as Sociology, Then as Geography: A Review Essay on Steven Sutcliffe and Ingvild Saelid Gilhus’s New Age Spiritualities: Rethinking Religion (pp. 39-43) – Justin K. H. Tse (University of Washington)



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NAASR Notes: Jason Blum


NAASR Notes is a new feature with the Bulletin where we invite members of the North American Association for the Study of Religion to describe books they are reading and/or research and writing projects that will be of interests to scholars in the field. For previous posts in this series, follow the link

Jason Blum

For the last three years I’ve been teaching philosophy and religious studies at The American University in Cairo, and naturally the experience of working with a predominantly non-North American student body has been instructive. Early on, I noticed something interesting about students’ discourse concerning religion – the prevalence of the term “spiritual.” In nearly every class I have taught, a student deploys the term at some point, and I’ve made a habit of asking what the term means. In almost every case, the response I get is a moment of slightly baffled reflection, followed by an uncertain “um…”

This, of course, is not unique to students at AUC. The term “spirituality” has been a kind of black box for some time now in contemporary religious discourse, and I suspect many North American students would react in a similarly befuddled fashion if asked to define the term. This curious phenomenon came to mind as I’ve been reading Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion and Jonathan Herman’s “The Spiritual Illusion,” published in MTSR (Method & Theory in the Study of Religion) last year. Both interrogate terms important to our field, although they do so in different ways. Nongbri offers a lucid and very accessible genealogy of the term “religion,” while Herman seeks to discern the meaning of the decidedly (intentionally?) fuzzy term “spiritual” in the discourse of individuals and communities who identify with it.

Despite their different approaches and topics, Nongbri and Herman share a similar goal: encouraging religious studies scholars to be more reflective about the terms we use. Nongbri reminds us that “religion” – as comfortable and familiar as the term is for us – is by no means a natural type, and while he does not suggest it be dismissed from the field, he warns us that deploying it to organize data “out there” that we choose to study can be misleading in lieu of an awareness of the term’s history. Herman similarly criticizes unreflective uses of the term “spiritual” in academic discourse, while also pointing out that this term does seem to denote something interesting in contemporary popular religious discourse that is worth studying (“an important data point in the study of religion,” as he puts it).

These concerns hit somewhat close to home, as a good deal of my research involves equally problematic terminology. The subtitle of my forthcoming book (Zen and the Unspeakable God, Penn State University Press) includes the term “mystical experience,” a phrase that is sure to raise a few hackles as it brazenly deploys not just one but two terms that are (not without justification) regarded with suspicion by many of my colleagues.

Certainly, both Nongbri and Herman – and the many other scholars who have been reminding us to be careful of our language – are correct that terms like “religion,” “spiritual,” and “mystical” cannot be used without qualification or explanation. Clarity and precision are, of course, goals for which we must strive in our research, and conscientiously self-reflective employment of theory is an essential part of that task. All of which is to say that we must be careful and rigorous about the terms we use to describe the things we study.

At the same time, however, we must also remain aware that – as much as these terms have roles to play in academic jargon – they also feature prominently in the discourse and self-understanding of many contemporary religious practitioners. “Religion” may be a product of a distinctly Western/modern/Christian/post-Enlightenment history, but it is also now part of the discourse of religious subjects and communities, some of whom do not share that history. Herman refers to spirituality as a “folk category.” So, it seems that we academics do not have exclusive authority over the deployment of these terms. And this means that we also do not have exclusive authority over their meanings.

What does this mean for the contemporary academic who researches things that go by (or are called by) these names? On one hand, the basic need for academic research to be lucid, self-reflective, and accurate demands that we define these terms with precision and clarity; otherwise, our audiences can barely know what it is we are trying to say. On the other hand, however, it is equally obvious that when these terms are deployed by religious subjects, they very often are not used with the kind of rigor and consistency that we demand of ourselves and our peers. In fact, it may be that they are designed precisely not to do so (Herman suggests that the term “spirituality” may be “by definition resistant to critical elaboration”).

This means that, to the extent that the academic researcher pins down her terms with clarity and precision, she runs the risk of misrepresenting or failing to capture those ideologies, practices, beliefs, and behaviors that go by the same name but are inherently fuzzy and amorphous. On the other hand, academic research cannot consist merely of reproducing the ambiguity of emic religious discourse.

In sum, it seems that the researcher is ultimately left with the responsibility to perform a delicate balancing act. Lucidity and precision are necessary qualities of academic research that should be maximized as much as possible. However, insofar as the phenomena we study are inherently ambiguous, amorphous, and vague, those features are empirically salient factors that ought themselves to be subjects of inquiry.

Nearly every student whom I have asked to define “spirituality” has ultimately mustered little more than a shrug and a slightly embarrassed smile. But it is also the case that, in nearly every instance that a student has deployed this term in classroom discussion, other students nodded knowingly in agreement. Terms such as “spiritual” may be recalcitrant, intransigently vague, and frustratingly murky. But they are also meaningful to the people and communities who deploy them. Aristotle once cautioned that the wise individual searches for only that degree of precision that the subject matter at hand allows. For us in religious studies, this may be a particularly fruitful piece of advice.

Jason Blum is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the American University in Cairo. His research focuses on religious studies theory and methodology and issues at the intersection of philosophy and religion, such as mystical experience, the relationship between science and religion, and religious ethics

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Who’s the ‘We’ in ‘Our Whole Society’?


Justin K.H. Tse

The conference, Our Whole Society: Bridging the Religious-Secular Divide, took place on March 22-24 at the University of British Columbia’s campus at Robson Square in the downtown of Vancouver, British Columbia. The conference organizers pulled together a variety of civil society groups, academics, and government officials to deliberate on postsecularism, public policy, and the common good in Canada.

It is usually considered in bad taste to wax critical of the common good. But as the introductions began for the ‘Our Whole Society’ conference on March 22-24 in Vancouver, BC, it hit me that it was hard to understand to whose commons the ‘common good’ refers. Who are ‘we’? How many of ‘us’ are there in ‘Our Whole Society’? Are we basically all ‘liberals,’ signing off on a mythological social contract that states in the fine print the overlapping consensus we call ‘Canadian values’? As I hope will become clear, my critical questions have a theoretical aim, which is to say that it’s irrelevant whether I liked or disliked the conference because it will become apparent by the end that I got a lot out of it and that I’m glad I went.

To put it candidly, I’m glad I went because being at Our Whole Society required a tremendous amount of intellectual labour on one question: who are ‘we’? As a conference, we were told that ‘we’ had been discussing the contributions of faith groups to the ‘common good’ since 2013 at McGill University. What the ‘common good’ meant was that we were not going to engage in the dichotomies of “religious” versus “secular,” “good” versus “bad,” “public” versus “personal”’ (the last of which struck me as oddly conflated with ‘private’). We were going to have a different kind of conversation, one where faith groups were part of ‘civil society.’ The task was urgent: Truth and Reconciliation’s Marie Wilson told us that religion informs the process of reconciliation because ‘values are spiritual in nature,’ a ‘collective vocabulary.’ It was also primal: Rabbi Yosef Wosk said that we had to get to the ‘sacred geography’ that lies behind Canada to rediscover the foundations of Canadian society. The idea of Our Whole Society was to bring the various sectors of civil society into the room for a ‘deep, very deep’ discussion about religion, which the think-tank Laurier Institution (our hosts) reminded us remained ‘divisive’ because of the proliferation of faith convictions across our society. ‘We’ were expected to be the representatives of civil society – faith groups, academics, think tank members – to bring about a new Canadian consensus about religion from below, as it were.

The thing about civil society, though, is that – at least in both the classical Aristotelian, Hegelian, and even Habermasian senses – it’s supposed to denote a metaphorical kaleidoscope of societal groups that push up against the power of the state from below. There’s supposed to be a line between civil society and the state: on one side are Canadian citizens while the government is on the other side, and there’s a productive tension between the two.

This is where the ‘we’ gets confusing. Regent College’s John Stackhouse argued that Canadian secularism was a ‘pragmatic secularism,’ a ‘secular act of nation-building’ that began with Confederation in 1867, forming a new nation to ‘let Britain off the colonial hook and keep the Americans and their Civil War out.’ To form a nation, standards – albeit lowest common denominator ones – needed to be set, especially the standard that the various ethnic factions of Canada needed to ‘tolerate’ each other. Tolerance, then, is (for Stackhouse) a bona fide Canadian shared value, an abstract concept that holds Canadian society together. This means that if religious communities are teaching their members to be intolerant, their activities could be construed as seditious, threatening the Canadian body politic that thrives on tolerance. What’s more, as Stackhouse’s co-panelist Rabbi Lisa Gruschcow added in the question-and-answer period, such language was justifiable because citizens in a society are part of something shared, which is why governments evaluate immigrants before they are allowed to be part of this shared society – something that, though neither Stackhouse nor Gruschcow actually said it, resembled a social contract.

Here, though, we have moved quite a ways away from civil society. Sedition, social contract, Confederation, body politic: this is the language of the state. Are we in fact the state?

It seemed like we were. Both the Vancouver Sun’s Douglas Todd and the Canadian Council of Women’s Alia Hogben called for what amounted to the work of the police state to regulate religious communities that opposed international standards of human rights. University of Winnipeg’s James Christie not only pointed out that Canada had been racist, but took to task a member of the state, Ambassador of Religious Freedom Andrew Bennett, for representing his ‘political masters’ as exemplars of religious freedom when the Prime Minister had made snide comments on the niqab back home. We may have been civil society, but we were also constitutive of a liberal state, even (mis)represented by a religious freedom ambassador. We may have been representatives of our various factions and identities in Canadian civil society from the bottom up, but we were also representing the state from the top down.

What accounts for this paradox?

It turned out that what was fudging the boundary between civil society and the state was the presumption that we who were gathered in the room were all liberal. From Rabbi Grushcow to Catholic theologian Shawn Flyn to the University of Victoria’s Paul Bramadat, the common sentiment was that we were the usual suspects, the people who would most likely gather at these interreligious events to complain about the conservatives in our own tradition. This was not the first time we had gathered; we have all seen each other and our counterparts in other rooms at other dialogues thinking about how we can make our whole society. The Orthodox Jews, the evangelicals, the conservative Sikhs, Muslims, and (dare I say it) even Buddhists seldom showed up.

And the acknowledgement of that – that, finally – was what was productive about this conference. While there were the usual suspects who celebrated the palpable liberalism in the room, a number of participants lamented that room had not been made for the conservatives within each religious tradition. Indeed, that was the most productive questions of the conference because it ignited the discussion that there is possibly another ‘we’ in the room, one positioned firmly against the fudging of the boundary between state and civil society. Rabbi Grushcow spoke of it when she claimed common ground with the Orthodox Jewish colleagues she debated in the newspaper, knowing that they read the same Torah and prayed the same psalms. Shawn Flyn spoke of it when he cited the Second Vatican Council, arguing for attention to how ecclesial policy gets unevenly applied among Roman Catholics. The Hudson Institute’s Paul Marshall spoke of it when he talked about the origins of secularism in church-state relations, acknowledging that the word ‘secular’ has an uneasy fit with so-called ‘religions’ that don’t share the same historical genealogy into medieval Christendom. The World Sikh Organization’s Balpreet Singh spoke of it when he showed that his organization’s legal activities for religious freedom are based on Sikh understandings of the person. Ambassador Andrew Bennett spoke of it when he disclosed his own Eastern Rite Catholic proclivities and said explicitly that his actions as religious freedom ambassador are rooted in the Christian understanding that the incarnation of God as a human being clarifies the dignity of every human person.

It turns out, in the final analysis, that there is a liberal ‘we’ that fudges the boundaries and a religious ‘we’ that works from particular, situated rootedness. There is, in short, a we who is not the state. That was why, at the end of the day, the final speaker, the Centre for Pre-Confederation Treaties and Reconciliation’s Doug White, was so cathartic. He told his own story of starting out as a liberal indigenous lawyer, believing the myth that ‘our whole society’ meant that he had equal rights to upward economic, political, and social mobility. All of this was shattered, he says, when he met a ‘real Indian,’ someone so traumatized by the history of indigenous oppression in Canada that he refused to acknowledge people without the same amount of Indian blood as him as a member of the band. It turns out that the liberal ‘we’ is, at the end of the day, an exclusive ‘we,’ one that pastes over histories of oppression – histories that perhaps may account for the conservatisms excluded from the liberal ‘we.’ As I also noted in my workshop on Charles Taylor, this means that I am not here to represent an identity for this liberal ‘we’; I am here to talk about Canada – not to construct a new overlapping consensus and a fresh identity with abstract Canadian values, but to tell its stories truthfully. That’s what Doug White did: he told the truth that accounted for both the exclusions of liberalism and the proliferation of conservatisms.

That is why he got a standing ovation. It’s also why I’m glad I went to this conference.

Justin K.H. Tse is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. He works on religion and the public sphere in Asia-Pacific and Asian North American contexts.

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