Realism and ‘Religion’: An Interview with Kevin Schilbrack Pt. 2

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Kevin Schilbrack is a professor in the Philosophy and Religion Department at the University of Western Carolina. His publications include The Future of the Philosophy of Religion (Blackwell, 2013) and contributing editor to the forthcoming, The Blackwell Companion to Religious Diversity (2014). The following interview focuses on a December 2010 essay appearing in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion entitled, “Religions: Are There Any?” In part one of this interview, we discussed different critical approaches to the concept of “religion,” including its social construction and relation to notions of performance. Here in part two we talk about the question of interests in relation to the use of the term “religion” as well as the notion of a critical realist approach to such questions.

Matt Sheedy: On a more challenging note, you point out how for some scholars the term “religion” gets used not because it identifies something that *is* religion, but because it serves the interests of those who apply it. You cite Russell McCutcheon in this context and note how he seems to endorse the idea that, as you put it, “the study of religion might better understand itself not as the study of a real thing but as the investigation into who gets to decide what counts as religion.” You argue that one potential problem with this approach is that it blocks the question of what kind of thing religion *is.* Could you elaborate on why you think this is a problem?

Kevin Schilbrack: Well, McCutcheon is importantly right that the study of religion has to include the investigation of who gets to decide what counts as religion.  He has been influential on me on this question.  Scholars ought to be reflexive about their own concepts and should not assume that the meaning of their concepts comes from that to which they refer, as opposed to the way that the concepts are used in their particular discursive communities.  In fact, I think that philosophers of religion score especially poorly on this issue: it seems to me that philosophers of religion in general are not only relatively unreflexive about the ideological history of the concepts that they use, but also that these days they are less reflexive than they used to be.  Look at philosophy of religion textbooks: 50 years ago, those books opened with a section with a title like “What is Religion?”; now philosophy of religion textbooks tend to identify religion and theism and jump straight into debates about the nature of God.  My view is that if a philosopher of religion grants that the category “religion” includes non-theistic religions, then those who study only theism do not match up with their own self-description.  When they ignore the rest of the religions of the world, philosophers of religion offer a truncated version of what the discipline should be.  Engaging with the genealogy of the concept of religion can help scholars avoid this.

But your question to me is about why I think that, despite the socially constructed nature of religion, students of religion can and should go beyond the study of “religion” to study religion.  They should study religions as real things, so to speak, “out there” in the world.  And my answer is that, like many other concepts, the concept of “religion” is an abstraction that we use to help us to sort different patterns in the world.  This is not problematic; developing abstractions like this is the usual way that human beings think.  Consider this analogy.  If someone asks whether you and your friend went on a date, you might respond, “Well, it all depends on what you mean by a date.”  But if you and the inquirer agree to some definition of what a date is – say that you agree that a date is meeting someone with the intention of romance — then it is now a legitimate question whether a date happened, how many dates you have been on, and whether they were good dates.  It would be as silly and blinkered to say that the only question we can ask is who gets to decide what a date is as it would be to argue for the eliminationist position that “dates are not real things.”  If we have a clear definition of some pattern of behavior in which we are interested, then we can use that conceptual tool to inquire into the patterns of behavior that make up human lives.

MS: In your essay, “Religions: Are There Any?” you call yourself a “reformist social constructionist” and a “critical realist.” Could you say something about what you mean by these labels?

KS: Now, these are two examples of me taking on labels that others have created and thereby allying my own work with that of others.  Too often, I think, scholars want only to undermine, “deconstruct,” problematize, or put into question the work of others and they end up taking a critical stance that is so individualistic that it can only include one thinker.  I even heard one scholar say that his readers should not assume that he agrees with his own previous work.  I think that the academic study of religion would benefit from more bridge building and more constructive and cooperative work.

The label of “reformist social constructionist” comes from the historian of science Ian Hacking.  Hacking distinguishes between different kinds of social constructionists.  My opponents in religious studies are those he would call rebellious social constructionists – that is, those who argue not only that “religion” is a social construction but also that it is so confused or harmful that we should do away with the concept.  One might say that they treat that which is called religion as eighteenth century chemists treated that which was called phlogiston.  By contrast, I call myself a reformist social constructionist with regard to “religion” because though I agree that the emergence of this concept was self-interested, I judge that the concept does refer to a pattern of behavior that exists in the world.  As mentioned, I treat the concept of religion as analogous to that of a date.

The label of “critical realism” comes from the philosopher of science Roy Bhaskar.  Bhaskar’s proposal is that our tools and our language are the “transitive” (that is, contingent and socially emergent) aspects of an inquiry through which one gets access to “intransitive” realities that exist apart from the inquiry.  He argues that that which one studies must have some existence apart from the inquiry in order for there to be an inquiry in the first place.  Given this critical realist argument, the claim that one’s conceptual tools create that which they study is at best an exaggeration.  Or, to make this point more precisely, I consider the concept of religion to be part of the contingent and socially emergent theoretical apparatus with which scholars can study patterns of behavior in the world.  And despite the fact that human beings are subject to what Hacking calls a “looping effect” — according to which people alter their behavior in response to the way they are classified — I judge that practices, discourse, and institutions predicated on super-empirical realities are not created by the scholar’s concept of religion.

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