Response: Between Wittgenstein and Zuckerberg: Selling the Academic Study of Religion in a Buyer’s Market
John William McCormack [+]
In a time of constricting higher education appropriations and increased anxieties around student loan debt, the academic study of religion faces an acute funding problem for which private foundation dollars might seem an attractive answer. However, as Gregory Alles notes in his paper, this threatens to skew quite drastically the questions that scholars are willing and able to pursue. Those working at non-elite, teaching-focused, and tuition-dependent institutions are particularly vulnerable to such pressures -- especially those working without the traditional protections of tenure. When budget-conscious administrators, market-conscious students, and mission-conscious philanthropists are driving the financial realities of academic work, the freedom of scholars of religions to pursue their work is constrained by the definitions and expectations of these stakeholders. What these stakeholders "know" about religion is shaped by a range of political and confessional commitments extraneous to the redescriptive and explanatory work pursued by the academic study of religion. Our efforts to teach and pursue research that pushes back against an essentialized notion of "religion" can run aground on a public discourse shaped by the contest of political liberalism and Christian conservatism and disseminated to our students via social media platforms. Students enter our classroom knowing what religion is or is not, and administrators trained in other fields evaluate our work, because we all labor in a linguistic field in which, as Wittgenstein suggested, the meaning of a word is its use in the language. Scholars of religion have always fought to unmask the social and political practices driving attempts to codify such binaries as "religious/secular" and "sacred/profane," but this work only advances insofar as it is legible as religious studies. Thus our arguments against the "specialness" of "religion" particularly imperil the academic study of religion at this moment in academic history.