As a long-time fan of the Religious Studies Project, I have been glued to the explosion of responses to the interview with Teemu Taira, in which he discusses the problematics of the term “religion” and elaborates how his work responds to Kevin Schilbrack’s question, “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion,’ Then What?” Taira’s approach is to frame his research not as engaging some essential category of “religion,” but as studying instead the ways in which the term and its discourses are appropriated and employed in society, as in his case study of Karhun Kansa—a Finnish group that waged a successful campaign for government recognition as a “religious community.” I found Taira’s work very interesting and of obvious utility as a subspecialty of public policy, being concerned primarily with the practical effects of definitions on societal groups within particular legal and political frameworks. As a suggestion of the post-deconstruction future of the field of religious studies, however, it concerns me deeply.
Richard Newton sagely notes that a scholar’s decision to continue using the term “religion” or not largely “depends on one’s commitment to empiricism” and “whether one distinguishes religion from the other human doings. …[M]any scholars describe themselves as scholars of religion and culture—a gesture that acknowledges religion as a human activity with resemblances to other human activities.” No one, of course, means to deny that “religion” is something done by humans who unavoidably do it in ways that resemble other things humans do, and I certainly agree with Malory Nye that a scholar who considers herself religious “can still engage fully in the process of historically contextualizing the ideas, associations, classifications, and power relations that are at play when the term [“religion”] is used in public, popular, and very often academic discourses.” Most of the humans who identify themselves and their practices as “religious,” however, while recognizing the historically contextual human activity at work in their religion, do not regard their religion as an exclusively human activity, or as an activity of human origin. It is precisely because they regard their religion as having a foundation in something outside the realm of (merely) human discourse that they adhere to it in preference to others, and also cannot fail to see “religion” in general as having, at some level, a non-rhetorical, non-discursive referent. The inability of some scholars to detect this referent (as illustrated, for example, in the Theoretical Veganism response at RSP) reflects a core divergence of their worldview from that of the people they propose to study.
In his response, Paul Hedges lays out a number of points helpfully identified as not at stake in the debate—points on which the scholarly community has general consensus. Among these are the assertion that “‘religion’ exists only in relation to other terms, the most important of which is ‘secular’,” and that “[t]he separation of the religious and the secular is a modern phenomenon.” It is certainly true that the separation of the terms is modern, but that does not mean that the referents of the terms are equally unique to modernity. The supposed “emptiness” of the term “religion” is, in part, reflective of the fact that our common use of it designates a sphere of discourse and activity that, in past ages, encompassed the whole of life, so that no definition was needful; “religion” was empty for past cultures in much the same way that many did not regard the sky as having a color. What makes our discourse of “religion” unfamiliar and strange to indigenous peoples is not that we have a social sphere in which we seek to cultivate our sense of the numinous, relate to a world of spirits, or realize a sense of oneness with the ground of Being, but the fact that we have a contrasting sphere that purposefully excludes these activities—a sphere that has arisen only in response to the breakdown of what Ananda Coomaraswamy called the “unanimous society.” Ancient and indigenous societies had no need of such a distinction, so that the kinds of beliefs and practices that, in everyday conversation, we in the West term “religious” amount to the whole order of their conception of reality and their practice of human existence within it. When Harvard University’s Pluralism Project (2005) noted that “In all their diversity, people from different Native nations hasten to point out that their respective languages include no word for ‘religion,’” the point being made was precisely that they practice “ways of life in which economy, politics, medicine, art, agriculture, etc. are ideally integrated into a spiritually-informed whole.” The distinct term “religion” may be new, but the permeably-boundaried field of practices and attitudes colloquially called “religion” is very, very old. This field is made up, in fact, of the last remnants of the holistically enchanted (in the Weberian sense) world in which our ancestors lived, with “the secular” arising only as certain spheres of activity—politics, economics, physical sciences—were carved off from this primordial wholeness, creating a concomitant need for a term to describe all of the human experience and activity that had not yet been separated from the anciently undifferentiated rhythm of life. Paul Tillich forcefully made the case that God is not one being among many, but the ground of all Being; so, likewise, we might regard religion not as one human activity among many, but as the ground of all human activity.
The formulation given by Hedges, which asserts that “‘religion’ exists only in relation to other terms,” then, must be considered as evidence of the process of inversion identified by René Guénon. The Taoists say that in the beginning human beings saw only the Tao; then, they saw the Tao and things; finally, they saw only things. The same appears to be true in respect of “religion” in the West—in the beginning human beings lived in an undifferentiated field of human experience of and engagement with the sacred which, being universal and undefined by oppositions, needed no name; then, they lived in disenchanted spheres of experience and certain fields of preserved sacrality which became known as “religion”; finally, they live only in disenchanted experience. Hedges himself notes the otherwise unaccountable blind spot of those deconstructivists for whom “‘religion’ is set apart as uniquely problematic, constructed, and ‘false;’ it can be analysed by reference to, or seen as a part of, politics, law, culture but only ‘religion’ is such an empty signifier that it can have no analytic validity.” This is the point at which the inversion has become parody, as the domain of human activity in relation to the sacred is not just erroneously viewed as one domain of activity among many, but actually comes to be seen as a phenomenological derivative of its own amputated limbs. This is the point where, at the opposite end of the pole from that on which Native American leaders struggle “to persuade others of, for example, the spiritual importance of what could be construed as an economic activity, such as fishing or whaling,” (The Pluralism Project) Andie Alexander speaks of religion as being “not essentially anything” and mere “malleable socio-political rhetoric.”
I could pause here for some darkly humorous reflection on how the deconstruction of “religion,” so often justified by pointing to the term’s colonial past, can actually undermine the living efforts of indigenous peoples to secure respect for their practices and legal protection for their ways of life by ripping out from under them the only terminology the modern West possesses for communicating the way in which they experience their relationships to the land and to their ancestral practices across what the West otherwise sees as diverse and distinct fields of endeavor (fields not entitled, in Western society, to the same protections as religious belief and observance). I will leave this, however, to those who are more knowledgeable about those particular struggles.
Instead, I turn my attention to the issue which strikes closest to my home as a practitioner of a minority religion—an issue that came to me in shivers up my spine while reading Russell McCutcheon’s response, which compares religions to conspiracy theories as an “analogous case,” asking if it would be appropriate for the scholar to “grant the social reality of the conspiracy theory for these people to such an extent that you carry out all of your research while working within its parameters, so as to, let’s just say, figure out just how the mob killed Jack Kennedy?” Of course, he finds this a ridiculous idea, and affirms that sane scholarship lies “in recognizing, of course, its [the theory’s] social reality for them but never adopting and thereby sanctioning that reality for yourself, as the researcher.” Scholars who cannot achieve this separation are, in his view, “native informants,” who find it impossible “to entertain that there are only religions in the world because many of us say and act like there are.”
McCutcheon states this as though it were the most natural thing in the world, because to him it is. To a scholar with her own religious commitments, however, it is nearly incomprehensible, like a botanist being criticized for failing to entertain the idea that there are only sunflowers in the world “because many of us say and act like there are.” The breach between a position that regards it is an obvious matter that “religions” are purely human constructions to be analyzed and deconstructed like all other human activities, and a position that regards it as an essential matter that religions are, in some way, preservations of revelatory acts of God or of primordial perceptions of sacred reality (regardless how traditions of human activity and discourse may have accreted around them, or how unstable many of the discourses used to describe them may admittedly be), is fundamental. These two camps, as the Reformed apologist Cornelius van Til asserted, cannot form a common basis for reasoning.
The implications of this extend well beyond personally unsettling me or other scholars with faith commitments and arousing us to polemics; they become very practical for the lives of the world’s citizens. I certainly don’t mean to accuse McCutcheon or other scholars who take this position of some kind of inimical agenda. Their concern for objectivity and nonpartisanship is noble, as when McCutcheon reflectively asks himself whether it is appropriate that “I, as a scholar, grant the existence of that social reality … thereby sanctioning and reinforcing some group’s way of constituting their world?” The fact is, however, that sanctioning (or not) different groups’ views of the world is a necessary function of human beings living in society. McCutcheon himself observes that the discourse of “religion” is “a system of distinction that, just as Taira argues, comes with very practical costs and benefits.” Taira’s case is itself a poignant illustration, as Finnish media turned to him as a scholar and academic “expert” in the process of recognizing a new religious community—the very process he was attempting to disinterestedly study. Perhaps not coincidentally, this role of the scholar of religion as expert witness in policy discussions and legal decisions was a major point highlighted by Grace Davie in the very next RSP interview.
My concern therefore becomes that a universal victory of the deconstructive project across religious studies faculties may create an environment in which the lack of personal religious sensibility (á la Schleiermacher) is a prerequisite for academic engagement in the field—an environment in which the fundamental operating assumptions of the discipline about its object of study conflict with the fundamental worldviews of the people who constitute its subject. If that happens, it will obviously problematize the participation of many scholars, with a chilling effect on the field as a whole. It may also mean, however, that when a member of my own religion (to take only one example) petitions a government for recognition of her marriage, or access to chaplaincy services, or any other kind of legal consideration, and officials are forced to make a determination about what (if any) kinds of protections or privileges I and my coreligionists enjoy, the job of advising them will fall entirely to men who regard our doctrines as “analogous” to belief in a second shooter or a conviction that the moon landing was faked.
If that happens, I doubt whether we will achieve the same success as Karhun Kansa.