NAASR Notes: Dennis LoRusso


by Dennis LoRusso

Abiding the Habitus, or the Habitus Abides: Getting acquainted with Bourdieu

Chances are, if you’ve had the (mis)fortune of reading any of my scholarly work, I probably mentioned some aspect of Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas. His ambitious efforts to construct the sociological equivalent to a “theory of everything” always seem to offer up a relevant explanatory framework or, at the very least, a quotable tidbit to which I can anchor my own modest intellectual contributions. Bourdieu’s work traverses the unsteady terrain between the subject and the object, agency and structure, and although he only attends to “religion” sparsely, in some ways his project resembles some ancient theological exercise to explain human freewill (agency) in light of some all powerful God (structure). Like his theologically inclined forebears, he attempts to explain how, on one hand, we can experience our lives as if it resulted from our decisions, and the recognition on the other hand that we, even at the most fundamental psychological level, are largely shaped in and through forces over which we exert little control. Bourdieu elaborates a theory of the humans as social agent, acting strategically according to their particular location in various social fields. It is the “habitus,” a set of cultivated dispositions, through which we emerge as subjects. “In so far as he or she is endowed with a habitus,” he writes, “the social agent is a collective individual or a collective individuated by the fact of embodying objective structures. The individual, the subjective, is social and collective” (Bourdieu 2005, 211).

Now, as enthralling as Bourdieu’s prose can be, it is not the easiest to comprehend. Admittedly, I was more bewildered than enthused when I first encountered Bourdieu (which, as it turned out, was on a French translation exam. “Habitus” was not in my French-English dictionary, needless to say). What are “structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures” (Bourdieu 1977, 72) anyway? Upon reflection, I think Bourdieu has become important to my work primarily because previous experiences and scholarship prepared me to accept it, and it is this path that, of how I came to know Bourdieu’s work, of how I came to appreciate the subjectivity as a social process, that I would like to resurrect in this essay.

A few years earlier when I was completing a master’s degree in religion, one professor assigned a short piece by anthropologist Susan Harding entitled, “Convicted by the Holy Spirit: The Rhetoric of Fundamental Baptist Conversion” (American Ethnologist, 1987), in which she approaches the “conversion process” as a rhetorical social practice rather than as some inner individual experience. “At the center of the language of fundamentalism is a bundle of strategies—symbolic, narrative, poetic, and rhetorical—for confronting individuals, singly and in groups, stripping them of their cultural assumptions, and investing them with a fundamental mode of organizing and interpreting experience” (Harding 1987, 167). While the same could be stated about any number of social groups, Harding claims that fundamentalist rhetoric is distinctive because of its highly formal quality, which takes over “the listener’s dialogic imagination,” producing a transformed self in the potential convert.

The potency of Harding’s theoretical claims lies in her method: a reflexive ethnography of her personal experiences with preachers, many of whom were actively attempting to convert her. She deliberately allowed herself to be affected by her subject, to “go native,” or as she writes, “I had been invaded by the fundamental Baptist tongue I was investigating.” Harding called this method “narrative belief,” entering that often contentious space between “objective” observer on one hand and “subjective” participant on the other. The article, a version of which appears as the first chapter in her Book of Jerry Falwell (2000), displays individuals as intentional strategic actors and, yet, captures experience as socially constituted and agency as a byproduct of larger discursive arrangements.

Of course, such methods, which emphasize subjectivity, are not without their limitations. Harding locates herself “in the gap between conscious belief and willful unbelief,” a move that “opens up born-again language” (Harding 2000, xii). Yet, as one review states, “How can we ‘learn to hear Jerry Falwell as his people do’ unless we pass over into belief and take on the real consequences of commitment?” It seems that Harding might be overstating her claims here, since this “invasion” of fundamentalist language never apparently fully reformulates her identity.

Despite this shortcoming, the article prepared me for Bourdieu for two reasons. Not only does she provide a clear account of her own socially produced Self, but her work demonstrated how I might incorporate the critical theoretical perspectives into ethnographic research, the narrative focus of which can too often become overtly constructive. Harding aspires to neither undermine nor reify the “religious” claims of adherents. She is ultimately interested in how practices might uphold or contest particular social structures.

Although her scholarship has been influential, I was already fixated on the problem of agency when I first encountered her work. Looking back, I can say unequivocally that my nascent curiosity stemmed in part from a fascination (I dare say obsession?) with “the Dude,” the main character of the Coen Brother’s masterpiece The Big Lebowski (1997). Considered only a modest box office success, the film has emerged as cult classic over the last decade and a half. From Big Lebowski themed parties to internet-based “religions”, like The Church of the Latter-Day Dude, people have found it a rich cultural reservoir from which to draw meaning.

From start to finish, the film could be understood as an exploration of habitus-in-action. The “Dude” epitomizes the socially produced agent, Bourdieu’s “collective individualized by the fact of embodying objective structures.” First, although we know his real name, he remains nameless, resisting all attempts at identification beyond empty signifiers (“His Dudeness,” “Duder,” or “El Duderino” if you’re not into that whole brevity thing). Rather, others affirm their identities by attempting to (mis)identify him. He becomes a “bum” for the “Big” Lebowski, Maude’s potential partner to conceive a child, and even gets mistaken for a sleuth by private investigator, De Fino.

Although the film is centered on an individual, pinning down the quality of the Dude’s agency stubbornly eludes the audience. His identity is inextricably bound to his social world. As Sam Elliot’s prologue echoes, “Sometimes, there’s a man. And I’m talking about the Dude here-the Dude from Los Angeles. Sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.” In some ways, the context itself exhibits equal if not more agency than the Dude. It is what happens to him, and how these events move him along, which drive the storyline. The Dude, along with the audience, gets dragged along a series of events: the “soiled rug,” Walter’s split-second decision to toss out “the ringer” instead of the money, the brutality of the “reactionary” police chief of Malibu.

However, the more I watched the film, the more I was fascinated with the manner in which it explored how language operates as a medium for social reproduction. Time and again, the Dude recycles words and phrases that others have uttered. In the very first scene, when he writes a check for $.70 to purchase half-and-half, we catch the Dude catching a sound byte of President Bush stating, “this aggression will not stand,” a phrase he will later employ during his visit to the Lebowski estate. We also hear him reuse words like “coitus,” “in the parlance of our times,” or “johnson,” each time slightly altering their meaning (some might say he even misapplies them, but making such a claim might render me very “un-Dude”). The point here is that the film invites us to consider the ways in which language does not merely signify our inner experiences; it challenges us to consider our experience, and subsequently our acts in the world, as produced through the words we pick up in our social worlds. While in some sense we are “eating the bar,” at the same time, “the bar is eating us.”

Overall, it was these kinds of experiences that prepared me for Bourdieu. I may superficially believe that I made some kind of voluntary decision to become the scholar that I am, but ultimately, I accepted Bourdieu, in part, because I watched a movie on some night twelve years earlier, and then some professor assigned a short article that I would have otherwise not read. In other words, my intellectual identity emerged through social relations, through the mechanisms of habitus.

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Can an Atheist Believe in God?


By Steven Ramey

My last post generated an extended exchange with a colleague who has rightly pushed me concerning my disavowal of judging identity claims. My colleague suggested, for example, that someone who believes that Jesus is the Son of God does not fit with atheists, a reasonable statement. While many within communities (and scholars) add more stipulations than my colleague’s very basic criteria, his point raised for me another dynamic related to religious identities.

Such definitions assume that one’s chosen religious identification (as opposed to an ascribed identification) correlates with belief and/or practice. This position ignores the social and political motivations for choosing a particular identification and community. For example, consider two hypothetical individuals who hold the same basic beliefs. They acknowledge the existence of a divine power that created the cosmos, but they reject suggestions that this divine power interacts with humans, a position historically labeled as deist. One of these two, having rejected religious practices as unnecessary, identifies as an atheist, thus protesting the prevalence of religious language and practice surrounding her. I can imagine communities of atheists willing to accept her into their community because their social and political interests correlate, even if their beliefs vary. Some Christian communities might similarly accept the second hypothetical person, if he wanted to participate in their community, possibly even labeling his beliefs as acceptable “doubt” within the mystery of Christian theology. Participation in the Christian community for him can provide particularly important social and political benefits that outweigh any qualms he may have with some beliefs and practices that the community promotes.

Rather than suggesting that these individuals or these communities are insincere or corrupted, these hypotheticals illustrate the diverse motivations for claiming an identification and accepting members into a community. Even the most basic definitions overlook these motivations. A self-identified atheist could easily believe that God exists.

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Scripture Made Me Do It: On Images of Mohammad and Scholarly Offence


by Matt Sheedy

A recent article from CNN on the shootings in Garland, Texas outside an event sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative on May 3, 2015, provides a useful example of some of the pitfalls that often occur when scholars of religion offer up their expertise in a popular media forum.

The article in question, entitled, “Why images of Mohammad offend Muslims,” attempts to provide a “Muslim” perspective to non-Muslims by tracing a brief genealogy on the Islamic prohibition against the depiction of his image.

On the one hand, this angle offers a corrective to many of the narratives that emerged in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, which tended to focus disproportionately on “freedom of expression” and dealt little with how those who identify as Muslim may have perceived the cartoons and how they relate to broader global events. As I wrote in an earlier piece, two days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre:

As this story unfolds, one further line of inquiry that is in much need of critical examination circles around depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, as discussed in the aforementioned text Is Critique Secular?, featuring contributions from Wendy Brown, Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, and Judith Butler in response to the 2005 publication of the Danish Cartoons.

In the CNN piece the problem is framed as one of competing textual authorities, orthodoxy, and interpretation, extending back to the foundations of Islam and up to the present day. For example, the article opens with the following remarks:

Violence over depictions of the Prophet Mohammed may mystify many non-Muslims, but it speaks to a central tenet of Islam: the worship of God alone.

The prohibition began as an attempt to ward off idol worship, which was widespread in Islam’s Arabian birthplace. But in recent years, that prohibition has taken on a deadly edge.

Three scholars of religion and two imams are interviewed for this story, providing a range of ideas and perspectives in order to help explain some of the common reasons behind the prohibition. Here we learn that:

  • Unlike in Christianity, Mohammad is a man and not a God
  • The prohibition against depictions of Mohammad is rooted in idol worship, where any depiction of sacred figures should be avoided
  • Although the Quran does not prohibit depictions of Mohammad, most Muslims abide by the prohibition due to the legal rulings of scholars
  • In Europe, where Muslims are a minority, the images are seen not as “criticism” but as “bullying,” where reaction is “not so much about religious anger as it is about vengeance.”
  • Violence is always wrong and disproportionate as a response
  • While most Muslims are acclimated in the United States, extremist sometimes react violently
  • In Sunni mosques there are no images of any kind, but instead calligraphic verses from the Quran
  • There have been historic instances of the depiction of Mohammad, especially in Shiite branches outside of the Arab world (e.g., in Iran, Turkey, central Asia), where prohibitions are stronger
  • While Muslim depictions of Mohammad have sometimes been used to bridge gaps in illiteracy, they are careful not to use too much detail (e.g., by covering his face with a veil)
  • The prohibition comes from the hadith, which because of its sometimes contradictory nature has lead to debates within the global Muslim community (umma)
  • Depictions of Mohammad were not much of a problem in earlier centuries, though globalization has changed this through increased integration and the proliferation of social media

The first problem that comes to mind here is the ease with which the ideas of imams are blended with those of scholars of religion. While it is perfectly understandable that a mainstream network such as CNN would want to offer a variety of perspectives (in this case, only those of men), and were seeking answers to very specific questions, this conceptual framing does little to answer the question posed in the article’s title, “Why images of Mohammad offend Muslims.”

With the exception of a remark about how such images are understood among European Muslims as “bullying” and not as “criticism,” and brief mention of some historical, cultural, and sectarian variations on how Mohammad has been depicted, this narrative is entirely ahistorical and without context, leaving readers to believe that the reasons behind the offence allegedly felt by most (perhaps all?) Muslims is due to a strict adherence to the dictates of scripture and those who have authority over its interpretation.

It is ironic that in a piece intended to defend Muslims, Christianity is upheld as more liberal than Islam, since the latter is bound by the authority of revered texts and the judgement of legal scholars. While some nuance is suggested in relation to competing interpretations, they are presented through the well-worn trope of good vs. bad Muslims (see Mamdani 2005), where those who are deemed “good” don’t allow themselves to give in to violence on account of their offence, but rather engage, we might assume, with more critical (read: Western liberal) modes of interpretation. Interestingly, Arab Muslims, who are by far the most symbolically represented Muslims in the Euro-Western imagination (see, for example, Alsultany 2012; Shaheen 2014), are framed as less liberal than their non-Arab co-religionists, thus implying (however unintentionally) a racialized distinction.

In an attempt to offer a “Muslim” perspective then, the take away here is that all Muslims are offended by depictions of Mohammad because they adhere to traditional authority. While history shows some variations in terms of how he has been depicted by Muslims, including contemporary debates among the global umma, in our present age of globalization and social media, such images are bound to reach those extremist minorities who will, regrettably, react with violence. In the end, one is left with the impression that little can be done but condemn the bad Muslims and support the good ones.

While I don’t want to suggest that the long and complex history of Euro-Western representations of Mohammad is without any effect on the dispositions of those who identify as Muslim (a point forcefully made by Asad and Mahmood in the above mentioned text, Is Critique Secular?), by presenting the idea of prohibitions against depicting Mohammad as an ahistorical reality–as more or less true in all times and places, while accounting for some minor variations–both CNN and the scholars they interview participate in form of apologetics that, ironically, lays blame for violence committed by Muslims on account of their beliefs.

It should go without saying that missing from this picture is any analysis of how and why particular Muslims might draw upon and interpellate the idea of offence in contexts of, for example: post-colonial or immigrant societies (as in this case) vs. Muslim majority countries; xenophobia and racism amongst marginalized communities; the proliferation of images of death and destruction surrounding the “War on Terror”; the prevailing discourse on Islam vs. the West; or the strategic use of social media by groups like ISIS to shape sentiments of affinity and estrangement, and draw upon certain theologies as a source of their own legitimacy.

In the absence of such analysis, one is left to conclude that scripture made them do it, while the reasons why such ideas are made palatable are all but washed away.

Matt Sheedy recently defended his PhD in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere. 

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Call for Participants: NAASR Job Market Workshop (Atlanta, 2015)

If the phrase “academic job market” makes you feel like this…


…you’re not alone. There’s no shortage of posts, essays, tweets, and columns devoted to how to position yourself on the job market: what to study, how to shape a CV, and what to say in a cover letter. The rules—both written and unwritten—can seem inscrutable.

That’s in part why, at NAASR’s 2015 Annual Meeting, there will be a no-cost workshop addressing the employment concerns of junior scholars. The title for the workshop, “…But What Do You Study?,” reflects the challenge faced by many junior scholars with an interest in theory and method when it comes time to talk about themselves, their work, and their scholarly interests with potential employers.

Participants will have the opportunity to work with more senior NAASR members, including both current and former department chairs from a variety of institutions. Through several activities (which you can read more about here), participants will be able to workshop practical and strategic job market advice with veterans of the hiring process.

Not a member of NAASR? No problem! This workshop is open to all, though preference will be given to those scholars at the “ABD” stage and currently on the job market. If you haven’t been to a NAASR panel before, fear not: we’d be happy to have you, too.

To register for this workshop, or to learn more about it, please click here. If you have any questions, feel free to e-mail me (mgraziano [at] fsu [dot] edu) or reach out to me on Twitter.

We hope you’ll join us in Atlanta!

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NAASR Notes: Naomi Goldenberg


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

Read This Thesis!

A recommendation from Naomi Goldenberg, Dept. of Classics and Religious Studies, University of Ottawa.

I just finished reading “Becoming Recognizable: Postcolonial Independence and the Reification of Religion,” an outstanding doctoral thesis by Maria Birnbaum, who recently completed graduate work in the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the European University Institute in Florence. Birnbaum’s work will be of interest to anyone engaged in analysis and critique of religion as a category of public policy because 1) it advances theorizing about how religion becomes constructed in the discourse of international relations about the recognition of states and because 2) it illustrates why such theorizing matters in the practical functioning of international statecraft. I expect to cite Birnbaum in my work and will recommend her dissertation to graduate students and colleagues.

Before proceeding any further with a short summary of the thesis and a brief discussion of how it relates to my project, I want to indicate a significant lacuna in what Birnbaum has written: with the exception of works by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, there is very little mention of current critiques of the depiction and use of religion in international relations theory (IR). Most notably, Birnbaum makes no reference to Timothy Fitzgerald’s benchmark book, Religion and Politics in International Relations: The Modern Myth (Continuum 2011). This is unfortunate since Fitzgerald’s substantial interrogation of themes and authors Birnbaum engages in her text would enrich her own analysis considerably. I hope that she will remedy this omission as she proceeds with publication of her important work.

The thesis is a clear and concisely written argument for practicing what Birnbaum calls “genealogical sensitivity” in IR theory. She uncovers major flaws in the work of Daniel Philpott, Scott Thomas and Jürgen Habermas – three authorities in IR theory who argue for the recognition of religion in global politics. Birnbaum shows that although religion is assumed to be an “already present and intelligible” phenomenon that is a powerful determinant of identity and agency, none of the three can identify what it is that ought to be recognized. Furthermore, she argues that the process of recognition they support works to create that which it purports to be acknowledging. She claims that, in general, IR theory tends to be unaware of the contingencies of history, economics, and power relations that underlie what gets labeled and institutionalized as ‘religion.’ Thus, Philpott, Thomas, and Habermas exemplify what Birnbaum sees as forgetfulness and naiveté in IR theory – forgetfulness (her word) about the processes of history that have brought about social groupings and classifications and naiveté (my word) about how the very rhetoric of difference and particularity functions to produce the groups that governments aspire to manage.

Birnbaum condenses a great deal of complex theory and analysis in her text. Philosophical and political discussions pertaining to “being and becoming” are summarized and evaluated. She favors an approach that would balance the necessity of stabilizing social and governmental entities – i.e., “being” – with attentiveness to constant change that requires flexibility of boundaries and group definition – i.e., “becoming.” She reviews debates and literature related to the foundation of Pakistan as a Muslim homeland and Israel as a Jewish state to show how religion emerged during the twentieth century dissolution of the British Empire as a “taken-for-granted juridical, cultural and political category” that affected the lives and deaths of millions. Her moving conclusion restates her argument that religion ought not to be used as a stand-alone analytic category because such a practice represses and thus disguises what is at issue in the struggles for power and resources that continue to fuel global conflicts.

Presently, I am at work on developing theory about how the category of religion is used strategically in technologies of statecraft to at times support existing orders of authority and at other times to undermine them. I argue that ‘religion’ has emerged rather recently as a placeholder for conquered and marginalized groups that are allowed to exist with some degree of cohesion within the jurisdictions of dominant sovereignties. The dominated group is allowed a circumscribed degree of autonomy as a religion if it agrees to abide by certain limitations chiefly in regard to a renunciation of the forms of violence – i.e., police and military functions – that the ascendant state reserves for itself. Thus, I understand religions to operate as the weakened vestiges of former states within fully functioning states. However, the very fact that religions are accorded some degree of sovereignty within dominant governments gives them a platform on which to strive for increased power and recognition.

Religions are always restive to some degree and therefore behave like once and future states. Likewise governments habitually aggrandize religions by invoking theistic traditions as honored predecessors in order to glorify authority wielded in the here and now with a mantle of mystified and ancient grandeur. Examples abound in the preambles of contemporary legal and quasi-legal documents that make vague reference to a divine power as the ultimate justification for the present governing order. Because such theistic antecedents are almost always male, such contrived practices of nostalgia result in the shoring up of patriarchal ruling structures that characterize current governing regimes.

The thrust of the theory I am proposing undermines difference between so-called secular and religious orders of governance. Instead, I posit the existence of two unequal registers of government that eye one another with alternating degrees of competition and collusion, that jockey each other for domains of influence and that make use of one another to maintain and increase power.

I am developing such arguments along with several colleagues in a series of essays, edited collections and a monograph in progress. Religion as a Category of Governance and Sovereignty, edited with Trevor Stack and Timothy Fitzgerald, will to appear this year from Brill. My essay in the volume, titled “The Category of Religion in the Technology of Goverance: An Argument for Understanding Religions as Vestigial States” is an overview of my position.

By showing how theorists in international relations articulate ideology that first reifies religions under the guise of recognition and then works to create and solidify contemporary state apparatuses to manage what is imagined as already there, Birnbaum enhances understanding of how ‘religion’ is linked to processes of governmentality. She also documents a sinister side to the whole business by pointing out some of the ways in which reified religions have become carriers of rigid and policed identities that exacerbate inter-group tensions and undermine progressive politics. Her work contributes to a growing and urgently necessary body of theory that is unraveling confusions propagated in the narratives of government in which we are all enmeshed.

I welcome any comments and reactions –

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On The Politics of Spirit: An Interview with Tim Murphy (Part 2)


This is part 2 of a two-part interview with Tim Murphy about his new book, The Politics of Spirit; see part 1 here.

Tim Murphy (1956-2013) was Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. He received his Ph.D. in the History of Consciousness Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His books include Nietzsche, Metaphor, Religion (SUNY Press, 2001) and Representing Religion: Essays in History, Theory, and Crisis (Equinox Publishing, 2007). His research has followed two tracks: a critical genealogy of the field of Religious Studies and constructive attempt to theorize religion using concepts derived from poststructuralism and semiotics.

His book, The Politics of Spirit: Phenomenology, Genealogy, Religion, shows how, since Hegel the science of consciousness, or phenomenology, has taken the form of the study of Geist or “spirit,” which is always defined in opposition to nature. A genealogical rereading of major texts traces this Hegelianism as it is found in the phenomenology of religion. Using colonial discourse theory, these rereadings demonstrate how phenomenology’s representations of religion replicate the structural relations between colonizer and colonized: non-Europeans of color are “nature,” while Europeans are Geist. The very idea of “consciousness” turns out to be a kind of latent politics. These rereadings call for a radical rethinking of the foundations of Religious Studies.

Craig Martin: In your book you argue that the Eurocentrism or ethnocentrism of the phenomenology of religion is neither arbitrary nor contingent—you argue that it logically follows from its central concepts, which involve a normative essence/manifestation or center/periphery distinction. I would argue, to the contrary, that someone like Vivekanda uses the same concepts in a way that seems designed to usurp European dominance. That is, it seems to me that the possible uses of these concepts are variable and could be turned around to sanction a wide variety of things. My center is your periphery and vice versa—and nothing about these concepts makes Europe necessarily central. What do you think?

Tim Murphy: Yes, but he’s reconfigured the network of ideas. Of course that is going to change things. My point is that phenomenology of religion as configured in this specific tradition generates those pathologies. If you think of it this way, Tiele through Eliade are all located inside the empire and speak from there. Vivekanda, I would hazard a guess, is at the other end of the gun, so to speak. Classic phenomenology of religion’s location, both geographically in the European metropoles but more importantly in discourse, makes it inevitably Euro-centric. The same set and order of philosophemes binds “consciousness” to “Christianity” and so Geist to Europe, etc.

CM: I know it is early yet, but do you have any sense of how your book is being received?

TM: None whatsoever. (Laughs)

CM: Is there anything you would change about this book in hindsight? Anything that you wished you had spent more time developing?

TM: Many things. It was written too quickly. I’d love to redo the chapter on Eliade. However, my explorations into the genealogy of this tradition, as well as my critical work, are complete now (from the viewpoint of my career and intellectual concerns). Time to turn the page.

CM: What about this book are you most proud of? What did you reread during proofs that made you say “Yes!” to yourself?

TM: The cover. Just kidding. I am really bad, even terrible, about assessing my own work. All I can see are the negative aspects. So that is a uniquely hard question for me. That being said, I think the chapter on Dilthey is well done. Chapter Two on method has some pretty fun stuff.

The genealogy of how Geisteswissenschaft worked was also an important insight to me. Finally, my evisceration of Otto, which he richly deserves, is a contribution to the study of religion everywhere. We need to throw that book out of the academy!

CM: I know there was a lot left out of this book due to constraints on length and time. Can you give us a hint?

TM: Schleiermacher! He is a major contributor to this vein of thought. One of my reviewers mentioned that. I also underplayed the connection which hermeneutics has to this discourse. Finally, although it may sound odd, a chapter on Husserl would have been helpful.

CM: I know you’re a person with strong opinions. Can you comment on what irritates you most about the discipline of religious studies today? What drives you crazy? By contrast, what do you like most? What avenues of research look most promising? Who or what should we be reading or studying?

TM: Strong, or as I prefer to say definite opinions, but not inflexible ones. In all seriousness, I am as willing as anyone I know in this business to admit when he’s wrong. And here’s an example: I used to be a Husserlian phenomenologist! I loved The Sacred and the Profane when I first read it. I stated in The Politics of Spirit that if poststructuralism proved to be wrong, I’d drop it in a heartbeat. I’m not out to develop a position to which I am wed for the rest of my career. Too many people do that, and it is to the detriment of theory. For anything to happen, you have be able to say, finally, “yes” or “no.” I am willing to do that. Pushing hard on arguments is the best path to clarity. As such, all the fudging that goes on at nearly every level of this business drives me crazy.

Another major problem I have with Religious Studies is the way some people use their religious identity, or “faith stance,” as an argument for truth in its own right. This does real harm to the field. Not only is that logically absurd, it seriously limits the scope of inquiry. One is certainly free to celebrate and affirm one’s identity but not in place of an argument. I find the whole thing insufferable. I’d love to see this type of approach as clearly separated from any connection with the academic study of religion as possible. The academy is not the ecclesia: again, a decisive, if nuanced, distinction serves everyone best. I am all for identity politics and am not anti-religious (I’m quite neutral towards it), but the same thing applies. Neither your identity nor your religion gives you any kind of privileged position vis-à-vis argumentation.

My basic operating principle comes from Socrates, viz., we must always let the stronger argument prevail over the weaker. That’s not a popular stance to take in committee meetings, book reviews, etc., but I say if we’re not abiding by that principle we need to close up shop and forget all about the project we call the “university.”

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On The Politics of Spirit: An Interview with Tim Murphy (Part 1)


Tim Murphy (1956-2013) was Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. He received his Ph.D. in the History of Consciousness Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His books include Nietzsche, Metaphor, Religion (SUNY Press, 2001) and Representing Religion: Essays in History, Theory, and Crisis (Equinox Publishing, 2007). His research has followed two tracks: a critical genealogy of the field of Religious Studies and constructive attempt to theorize religion using concepts derived from poststructuralism and semiotics.

His book, The Politics of Spirit: Phenomenology, Genealogy, Religion, shows how, since Hegel the science of consciousness, or phenomenology, has taken the form of the study of Geist or “spirit,” which is always defined in opposition to nature. A genealogical rereading of major texts traces this Hegelianism as it is found in the phenomenology of religion. Using colonial discourse theory, these rereadings demonstrate how phenomenology’s representations of religion replicate the structural relations between colonizer and colonized: non-Europeans of color are “nature,” while Europeans are Geist. The very idea of “consciousness” turns out to be a kind of latent politics. These rereadings call for a radical rethinking of the foundations of Religious Studies.

Craig Martin: I get the impression from reading the book and from some comments you’ve made that you see this book as a part of an ongoing project—continuing the work you did in Representing Religion and looking forward to another book on the semiotics of religion. Can you comment on what prompted you to write this book and how it fits into your larger project?

Tim Murphy: What prompted me to write this book is a long, long story with many twists and turns. The short version is that I started this as research project with my late advisor, Gary Lease in my first year in the History of Consciousness Program. The idea was to apply the poststructuralist critique of phenomenology to the phenomenology of religion. No one had really done that back then, so that was even more incentive. The middle part of the story is messy, but the project sat in a desk drawer for years and I wrote my dissertation/first book, Nietzsche, Religion, Metaphor instead of pursuing this project. Bryan Rennie graciously invited me to submit something to his SUNY series, Issues in the Study of Religion, and we agreed that this project would work well for that series. If this had been my first book, it would have been much timelier. By now, the field has somewhat caught up to these ideas.

The intellectual reasons for doing this project were clear to me: the phenomenology of religion, and all its residuals in the academic study of religion, was not only wrong, but an obstacle to the discipline. If we were going to understand religion we had to get rid of it and all its vestiges. I stand by that even now.

So that’s the critical component of my work. I am embarking on a constructive phase in which I am using semiotics as the basis for developing a full-blown theory of religion with Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy and Roland Barthes’ Elements of Semiology as rough models for a future monograph entitled, “By this Sign You Shall Conquer”: Elements of a Semiotic Theory of Religion. That is the larger project you rightly recognize.

CM: In the book you relate the origins of the “phenomenology of religion” to Hegel rather than Husserl. Before reading your book I was struck by how little the phenomenology of religion had in common with Husserl, and I was persuaded by your argument that it really goes back to Hegel (or a least a certain right-wing Hegelianism). If you’re right, how do we account for the popular misperception that phenomenology of religion is Husserlian at bottom?

TM: In order to understand Hegel’s influence you must see that the Geisteswissenschaften were, for all intents and purposes, predicated on Hegel’s vision, especially as articulated in the Encyclopedia—which most Americans never read. That was gospel in the German academy in the 1830’s and for a long time after. A genealogy of Geisteswissenschaft allows us to see how Continental scholars came to think about culture, history, literature, and religion. From the Geisteswissenschaften, Religionswissenschaft emerged. You have to remember that since its inception Geisteswissenschaft was at war with positivism. This war shaped the discourse considerably. We will never understand these scholars if we do not grasp this important fact.

It wasn’t “right wing” per se, but only as positioned and described by Marxist readings. It is easy to let the Marxist narrative of Hegelianism distort much of the latter’s impact. While it was mostly conservative, there were a few Liberals in that crowd. But it was within the virtually unconscious, assumed Hegelianism that German scholars worked. You might think of it like this: “Hegelianism” became something like the notion of the episteme as Foucault describes it.

Husserl also was trying to develop a “science of consciousness.” The Religionswissenschaft people found a couple of things in Husserl. One was the air of scientificity. This was attractive because, again, of the conflict with positivism. Second, the epoché. This was extremely useful for getting out of the “myth is bad science” model. Eliade repeatedly said: “the sacred is a structure of consciousness, not a stage of history.” It liberated Religionswissenschaft much of which quickly became phenomenology of religion. Seeing the Husserlian terminology without knowing the genealogy of Geisteswissenschaften, people assumed that the phenomenology of religion was Husserlian. In reality, it was the study of Geist with a few Husserlian trimmings.

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