“We’re here to talk about religion”: A Few Examples for Teaching Classification

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by Charles McCrary

This post’s titular sentence was spoken Friday morning by a student during first lecture of the semester. It was a protest, playful but betraying frustration. She was sitting in the front row of a packed classroom, spending fifty minutes of her day on a class called “Religion in America.” But, ten minutes into class, she and her classmates were working to come to a collective decision as to whether or not a platypus is mammal. The main point of the lecture, like the point of most first-day religious studies lectures, I assume, is to argue that classification is not inherent. Nothing is intrinsically “sacred” or “secular.” Acts of classification are political acts, etc., etc. This point isn’t new, of course; it’s the cornerstone of religious studies, or at least a certain kind of religious studies. I think students can grasp it pretty easily. Many of them believe “religion” is so personal and individual that a sort of relativism about it doesn’t bother them. In the lecture, though, I did not talk much about things normally called “religious,” lest they think the point applies only or especially to “religion.” So, instead, I used a few examples from that supposedly unconstructed realm, “science.”

The first exercise was to place animals into categories. I showed a list of animals—alligator, marlin, box turtle, gray whale, sperm whale, platypus, jellyfish, fur seal—and asked for classification suggestions. The first was “land” and “sea,” so I made a T-chart on the board and we divided them up thusly, with alligator and fur seal triggering some ambivalence. The next suggestion was “mammal,” “fish,” and “reptile,” which raised not only the exasperating platypus question but also highlighted the curiosity of the jellyfish, whose name makes an unfulfilled promise of easy classification. The final suggestion was “big” and “small,” which is a fascinating choice since they’re thoroughly comparative categories, dependent entirely on the data in the larger set. I followed this exercise by describing the 1818 case Maurice v. Judd, drawing from D. Graham Burnett’s entertaining and excellent book Trying Leviathan. The trial hinged on the classification of whale oil as fish oil and, thus, the question, “Is a whale a fish?” The judge, after hearing a variety of testimony from naturalists and other experts, sided with common sense and popular opinion that the whale was indeed a fish. Some of the students seemed disconcerted by the notion that Jesus seems to have classified whales as fish (see Matthew 12:40).

The last anecdote I used is about James Dwight Dana and nineteenth-century American geology. I became aware of Dana only recently (my main sources here are Nathaniel Philbrick’s Sea of Glory and the sixth chapter of David Igler’s recent book, The Great Ocean, both of which I read over winter break), so the example is a new one, but I will use it again. Dana was a scientist on the United States Exploring Expedition (1838–1842), and he was particularly interested in volcanic activity and erosion in the Pacific. He wrote a number of books based on his research on the Expedition, including Geology (1849).

In his work, he relied on an oceanic-centric geology and discussed California as a part of the Pacific. By the 1850s, American geologists, including Dana, were much more interested in continental geology, situating California as part of the North American land mass. Why? What changed? For one, California became a U.S. state. During the Expedition it was part of Mexico. But why did it become a state? The answer, of course, is gold. Dana’s works from the 1840s never mention gold, nor do they show much interest in North America. By 1855, though, Dana gushed over the North American continent. He lauded its remarkable simplicity and symmetry, contrasting it with Europe, “a world of complexities,” “one corner of the Oriental Continent—which includes Europe, Asia, and Africa,” mapping geology and patriotism onto each other seamlessly.

“What is California?” The land itself was mostly unchanged—at least in geological terms—between the 1840s and 1850s, but the way geologists studied it changed dramatically. The question “What is California?”, like the question “What is religion?”, is not a question worth asking in a history course. We’ll do better to ask what’s at stake in a definition of California or religion or America or the good life, how those definitions have changed over time, who gets to decide, and so on. It is in this way that we study verbs, not nouns.

The lecture’s final PowerPoint slide, titled “religious things and secular things,” is just a list of things—Morality, Incense, George Washington, Crying, Cows, The Book of James, Oprah Winfrey, A Christmas Tree, Science. By the time we get to this slide, students (are supposed to) see the potential of studying acts of classification, as well as the lack of self-evidence for those categories themselves. Thus, “We’re here to talk about religion” is exactly the sort of claim whose employments we’ll be studying, because, well, that’s what we’re here to talk about.

Charles McCrary is a PhD student in American religious history at Florida State University. His research interests center on nineteenth-century American cultural and intellectual history. His most recent work is on antebellum public schools and religious disestablishment. He can be found on Twitter @CharlesMcCrary.

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