A Theory of Bird

A couple weeks ago, I presented a paper at a conference within a conference–the annual meeting of the North American Association for the Study of Religion which meets during the annual meeting of the AAR. I was asked to write and present a response paper for one of the NAASR panels after submitting a short paragraph with an account of what I think “explanation” is as a method in religious studies. My presented paper was in response to an essay by Ann Taves and Egil Asprem, two scholars who are deeply interested and invested in cognitive science of religion. I won’t rehash their paper here; it suffices to say that they were arguing for a comprehensive reductive explanation of “religion” as the best kind of explanation we can have through an appeal to a reductive method from the biological sciences. In the course of the discussion following their paper and the three responses to it, one member of the audience made what struck me as a rather strange remark.

“Why are we talking about a ‘theory of religion?'” he objected. “What does that even mean? To me, having a ‘theory of religion’ is like having a ‘theory of bird.’ It’s completely meaningless.”

In other words, religion isn’t special. In one way, his comment makes sense in the context of NAASR. This is the organization that has consistently railed against scholarship that renders religion as “special” in any sense. “Critical religion” emerged from (or founded) NAASR in the mid-80s and has more or less maintained the same position since then: Religion is no-thing. It isn’t special in relation to other “master categories.” To many in this camp, there shouldn’t be a protected discipline called “religious studies” at all. The position goes even further, however: any attempt at all to safeguard religion from “disinterested” academic study, even if only a perceived attempt, is taken to be “crypto-theology” or as part of a “theological agenda.” The prefix “cypto” is crucial here. On this view, most of the scholars that make up the AAR are actually engaged in a kind of theology, even if that majority would deny that theology is what they’re doing (for example, as Eliade and other phenomenologists of religion did and do.) These erring scholars do so through obfuscating the discussion surrounding what “religion” as a concept is or ought to be even while they claim that religion is something “out there” that we can identify and understand through comparison, description, interpretation, and explanation on the religious adherent’s own terms.

How is this obfuscation to be identified and proven to actually be theology-in-disguise? A genealogical account of the ways this obfuscation has operated along lines of power, masking Protestant-Christian motivation (even if latent) has proven amazingly fruitful But this move has already gone through a variety of vexed iterations in its relatively short history in religious studies. At first, proponents thought we ought to drop religion in favor of less problematic categories such as “politics” or “culture” (e.g. Timothy Fitzgerald)–thereby paradoxically (and unwittingly) rendering religion “special” in the sense that it required special attention to its discursive formation in a way politics or culture didn’t. Proponents of this position have since recognized that these other categories also have discursive histories that must be reckoned with, and that they are all actually inextricably linked together in important ways. This has produced some very interesting, fruitful, and important analyses of the relationship between these categories, particularly in analyses of Western colonialism (e.g. the uses of Christianity for disciplining politically liberal colonial subjects) and the relationship between “the secular” and “the religious” in Western political discourse.

At this point, however, we’ve strayed very far from what the initial comment was getting at. While his intention was to remove the “specialness” from religion, he did not do so by appealing to the social and political construction of the category. On the contrary–his comment  was intended to render religion simply natural. This solves the problem of obfuscation, since the comment implies the meaning of “religion” and to what it refers, like “bird,” is so clear as to need no theorization at all. However, there’s a problem here. If religion does not need a theory because it’s like “bird,” then religion cannot be no-thing. It is, in fact, something that apparently requires no theorization about what it is because it’s “in the world” for us to find just as birds are.

This position isn’t actually coherent–for what does it mean to say one doesn’t have “a theory of bird?” As one of my colleagues quipped when I related this story, it would be rather odd to find orinthologists wringing their hands over whether they are allowed to appreciate the position of the bird-lover (or the bird?)–to accuse each other of crypto…chirpology? But putting that aside, “religion” is obviously not like “bird.” That is, even if there is a “theory of bird,” it is certainly nothing like a theory of religion, as the entire history of religious studies shows us–as many careful genealogies of the field show us. While we might characterize the former as “positive” in the sense that it could tell us why a penguin is a bird but a bat is not (via the positive characteristics that birds possess) the latter is the story of the contestation of the very existence of any positive concept of religion and how an insistence on clear, empirically demonstrable instances of religion is actually extremely problematic often because of the politics that generates such claims. What religion “is” in this sense is primarily the story of what it is not and that it is not. It is no-thing. It is an academic invention. It is a political force. It is a discursive structure of power. As such, to insist on a rigorous genealogy of a concept such as religion must be to insist on its lack of clarity–on its slippage, its incommensurability between accounts, its disjuncture with any attempt to describe it in absolute terms. Because once we encounter an insistence on simplicity and clarity, particularly with a complex concept like religion, there’s a good chance that there are ideologies at work intent on normalizing themselves for purposes of power through an appeal to clarity and simplicity.

Which brings us back to NAASR, critical religion, and the panel where I heard this comment. It seems “a theory of bird” reflects a deep tension within NAASR itself and among scholars who are interested in denying “religion” special status as strongly as possible. To put it bluntly, the language of “natural science” seems to be the only way in which many scholars in support of the Critical Religion project can conceive of “critical approaches to religion.” The language of genealogy (in the philosophical sense) and the language of natural science are not in conflict on this view; rather, natural science seems to be the only option once the work of showing that religion is no-thing is complete. In other words, for Critical Religion, genealogy is the work that needs to be done to clear the way for the real critical work of a “natural science of religion” that can get at a wholly natural, often evolutionary biological account of what religion is, which underlies and grounds even the genealogical account.

But if genealogy must insist upon complexity, slippage, difference, disjuncture, etc., then this is an utterly incoherent position. In short, it assumes that natural science is neutral, that it is the only method that escapes politics, that it has no inherent politics, no discursive history–that it has no ideology–and, thus, is outside the scope of genealogy. One of my fellow respondents at the NAASR panel questioned Taves and Asprem on this very problem. From his perspective, it seemed as though Taves and Asprem were presenting the choice to use evolutionary biology as an explanatory method as completely apolitical. Thus, on their view for example, explaining the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11 by employing evolutionary biology has no discursive political history or baggage. He rightly questioned whether that was actually the case. In response, Taves argued that to say evolutionary biology has a politics is to engage in a dangerous, anti-intellectual project no different than climate change deniers claiming that climate change is a partisan political issue and not a scientific one.

Of course, this is totally ludicrous. Let’s ignore the fact that Taves’ comment completely misunderstands the meaning of “political” as employed by the respondent. Given so many NAASR members’ commitment to genealogy, it is, at first glance, very difficult to see how an analysis of the genealogical development of the natural sciences could be rejected out of hand so easily. Not a single person objected to Taves’ claim about the politics of evolutionary biology, let alone the claim about theories of birds. It’s especially bizarre because the history of natural science–particularly those branches that study human beings–have a deep colonial history that is often inextricable from both religion and politics, often part of the same project of disciplining and civilizing the colonized into acceptable liberal, Enlightened subjects.

If there’s anything this election season has taught me, it’s that it is a mistake to too quickly assume that people who hold two seemingly contradictory positions are actually hypocritical or acting in bad faith.

There is an explanation for this, and you won’t be surprised to learn that it can be illuminated through a genealogy of Critical Religion that shows how their deployment of “genealogy” obfuscates a problematic commitment to natural science as apolitical and, therefore, outside the scope of what genealogy is concerned with, i.e. ideology. There’s no room for a full account here, but on my view, it has to do with a too-easy, extremely vague distinction between “scientific” and “confessional” which, as I mention above, goes back to the 19th century. But I can offer this observation in closing: The relationship between post-structural genealogical theoretical modes and a commitment to natural science as a method in religious studies has generated a very interesting form of doublespeak wherein the demand for clarity of language results in the obfuscation of a contradiction, namely the one outlined above.

If you pay close enough attention to those scholars typically associated with NAASR and Critical Religion (Russell McCutcheon, Craig Martin, etc.) you begin to notice a pattern. Any new scholarship that, in their view, “protects” religion as a concept in any way is automatically full of terms intended to obfuscate the author’s point, which in turn is intended to make the argument difficult to attack–the point being that such obfuscation always prevents a reduction of the concept to more “concrete,” “clear,” or “real” terms, i.e. those of natural science. Thus, if we can point out the key terms that are meaningless, we can dismantle the author’s argument. This is the same strategy utilized by analytic philosophers and historians who find continental philosophy and “theory” in general to be needlessly dense, complex, and obscure, e.g. Derrida/Foucault/Deleuze is talking about something really simple in the most complicated way possible. If we can demonstrate the simplicity of the argument, we can show it’s not just a simple argument but a pointless one. This demand for clarity of language, that “words matter,” betrays the Critical Religion commitment to natural science which actually contradicts any commitment to genealogy they claim to have.

In other words, these scholars have staked their careers on proving to us (very successfully, I think) that religion isn’t simple. If it were, why would we need to have so many histories of the discursive power relations that generate the concept in various contexts and for various purposes of political power? Why is there ever a demand for simple straightforward language or simple, easy definitions of terms in analyses of religion–for commensurability, conjuncture, and on, and on–when genealogy shows us that the moment you encounter claims to simplicity and clarity in language, you can be absolutely sure things are not simple or clear? There is incommensurability. There is disjuncture. There is dissonance. How could there not be if “religion” is a cultural construct formed along lines of power?


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