Is Religion “Different Enough”?

As I discussed in an earlier Bulletin post, in defending the continued employment of “religion” as analytically distinct interpretive category, scholars such as Ivan Strenski argue that, relative to other modes of human behavior, what we typically identify as religion is “different enough” to warrant, even require, an autonomous interpretive frame. To read the intense cultural production associated, for instance, with the 2011 End Times predictions of Harold Camping without recourse to the conceptual tools of religion, this view argues, is to obscure important dimensions of this sort of human behavior.

Other scholars, most notably Russell McCutcheon, have argued in precisely the opposite direction. Religion, this view holds, represents an ordinary form of social production, no more, no less. To continue with the example above, Harold Camping, his followers, as well as his detractors, were all engaged in semantic and symbolic attempts to elevate their own preferences above those of others. Good scholarship, this view has it, is not faithful transcriptions of what the faithful do and/or believe, but rather incisive redescriptions of what our data call “religious” as various modes of ideological production.

There is a good deal at stake in this sort of argument. For, if the latter view proves correct, then scholars who continue to deploy “religion” as a category turn out to be more akin to our data, not our colleagues (as they are merely re-inscribing first-order, phenomenological, reports). More, the field of religious studies itself would seem in drastic need of complete conceptual overhaul, conversion, or even replacement by academic disciplines better suited to decoding ideological work in “religious” guise.

I do not believe, though, that this is the sort of argument that can be resolved by simply adducing a sufficient number unambiguous examples or extended arguments for (or against) either side. For, whether or not we side with Strenski or McCutcheon here depends, I think, upon which analytical level we choose to focus upon. If we are working close to the phenomenological level, that is, what self-identified religious traditions themselves teach, we find a great wealth of data suggesting that religion is “different enough.” Along such trajectories lies Bob Orsi’s well-known definition of religion “as a network of relationships between heaven and earth involving humans of all ages and many different sacred figures… I can think of no religious world,” he writes, “that does not offer practitioners opportunities to form deep ties with saints, ancestors, demons, gods, ghosts, and other special beings.” (2005) But if the phenomenological level yields discontinuities separating “religion” from other modes of cultural activity, focusing upon the level of ideological production yields precisely the opposite. For the Camping example discussed above, as with virtually all “religious” activity of which I am aware, involve some claim to cultural authority, whether shouted from highway billboards or muted by silent devotions. Thus, whether or not we think religion is “different enough” to justify or require a distinct interpretive frame depends greatly upon our analytical starting point.

As Moshe Idel suggests in his recent and comprehensive treatment of 20th century Jewish academics and intellectuals (Old Worlds: New Mirrors, 2010), perhaps we should cease looking for singularly correct analytic starting points from which to launch scholarly studies, and embrace instead a much messier “perspectivism” that recognizes the analytic value of different, even conflicting, interpretive frames.

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4 Responses to Is Religion “Different Enough”?

  1. Kenny Paul Smith says:

    I’ve received some excellent criticisms. Russell McCutcheon, for instance, writes: “[W]hat warrant is there for the need to let a thousand flowers bloom [i.e., allow for all manner of interpretive frames]? What scale of value is being used to judge them all (and just what gets to count as members of this “all”?!) as valuable…? My hunch? Some of us just somehow know there’s an elephant in the room, right? That “religion” names a real thing in the world, with real bonds between the various things called religious, a real thing whose adequate study transcends any one “limiting” or “alien” or “reductive” framework…. As Merinda Simmons argued in her recent regional AAR paper on the Ann Taves review panel, there is a troublesome (for those who call themselves historians, that is) metaphysical position animating the cross-disciplinary, polythetic model of scholarship, no?”

    On a similar note, Craig Martin argues that: “[H]ere’s my quibble: I’m currently trying to drop most uses of “perspective” from my academic vocabulary for the reason Russ points out, although I might put it differently. Perspective implies there’s a thing there we’re perceiving, while something like “analytical grid” implies we’re dividing things up into OUR grid and thereby creating what we’re talking about. The “interpretive lenses” vocabulary is even worse: it implies there’s something between us and the “real thing” we’re looking at.

    Firstly, let me say that it’s an honor to be taken seriously by such accomplished scholars. That said, I do not see why a robust methodological pluralism can’t simply acknowledge that, whatever interpretive frame we employ, all such analytical tools create the data they end up studying. Indeed, it is in part precisely because our interpretive categories do not a reveal reality “out there” but rather conjure diverse realities that end up looking a lot like those categories (e.g., a Freudian theory of ritual as neurosis generates a great deal of data in which ritual looks pretty neurotic) that I argue that a very wide range of frames is required.

  2. Deane says:

    “there is a troublesome (for those who call themselves historians, that is) metaphysical position animating the cross-disciplinary, polythetic model of scholarship, no?”

    Does she mean realism?

  3. Retraction, please: I do NOT argue that religion is so “different” as to require an “autonomous interpretive frame.”

    I argue, instead, that the notion(s) of religion, like that of politics, art, morality, power and so on seem “different enough” to warrant attention to the quality of that putative “difference.” I am issuing a challenge, not making an “assertion.” What I am saying is that we should try looking at things as if the category, “religion” made a “difference,” or not. Thus, my attempts to do so in “The Religion in Globalization” (JAAR) or more recently in my chapter on human bombers in my book, WHY POLITICS CAN’T BE FREED FROM RELIGION (Wiley) were attempts to see if “religion” was useful. I am, thus, proposing a heuristic.

    I really have no idea IN ADVANCE about whether any notion of “religion” would merit attention for its being “autonomous” or even “different enough” to give it analytic standing. What distinguishes my approach from McCutcheon’s or Fitzgerald’s is that I would also put “culture”, “power”, “politics” into the same class as “religion,” and not carve out an exception for them to the disadvantage of “religion.” Why not just look and see? Why not test? That’s what a real “scientific” study of religion would do. So, I say we should “try” before making assertions to the contrary or otherwise. Making of “assertions” is what I think readers more familiar in the work of McCutcheon or Fitzgerald tend to do with their Olympian pronouncements — just Eliade, upside-down, really.

  4. Jegexter horologium says:

    Professor Strenski,

    I dont think you quite understand power vis-a-vis religion. Surely one can find plenty of literature on how power is never ahistorical, and it is differentially positioned, argued, authorized, exercised, obeyed, and so on. There is no novelty in the claim that power or culture is a “category” or “class” (sic?) like religion, and that will not yield a yet another narrative of religion. You are simply putting up a straw-man here. BTW, what on earth is a “heuristic”?

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