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?

What is Religious Studies?: A Primer for the Perplexed Theologian (Part 1)

I found out last Friday that I passed my first qualifying exam. It was very exciting news since I was certain that I would have to revise it or even that I had possibly failed it–typical anxieties for a first exam, I think. The exam was in theory and method in religious studies and covered about 350 years of history (though only about 120 of that can truly be called “religious studies.”) Mine explored three major areas: the history of the relationship between “religion,” “secularity,” and “theology” (from Spinoza to today), the continued and perhaps renewed importance of Max Weber in the field, and a consideration of the concept “religious experience” as it has been both employed and contested in the field. These three areas, however, are centered around one central theme which my dissertation will hopefully address: what is the proper orientation toward the relationship between ideas and material conditions in the study of religions and what are the political implications for a range of orientations?

I want to offer a brief reflection on what I found as I prepared for the exam. Part of the aim of this reflection, however, is to also introduce the more theologically/philosophically oriented to what I see as the basic problems in religious studies–which are typically not problems in theology/philosophical theology especially those modes which are more continentally and critical-theoretically oriented. My perspective is that of a theologian, which automatically disqualifies me in some RS circles, though I would add the caveat that I’m originally trained in literary/critical theory and not theology–though that perhaps only further disqualifies me for some! All that is to say that my interests are not strictly nor even mostly confessional. They are, more broadly, philosophical and political. Still, it would be disingenuous to not point out that up until the last couple years, I’ve mostly been interested in ideas.

Notice that my question above, however, is not strictly one about the relationship of ideas to the material conditions in which they circulate, but one’s orientation toward that relationship. In other words, I’m interested in scholars and how scholars engage the field, what their theories and methodologies, their underlying epistemic assumptions and frameworks look like. When we talk about theories and methods in religious studies, with a few important exceptions, we’re often talking about scholars themselves in addition to the concepts and categories we employ.

The common story told is something along these lines: The academic study of religion began with the attempt to offer non-confessionally committed explanations of religion as a human phenomenon. This included the explanation of origins, the evolution of religions, etc. These explanations were almost always reductive (e.g. Religious behavior/belief is not about ontologically real spiritual objects (like gods or spirits) but something else: an intellectual explanation of individual experience (Tylor), a function of economy (Marx), maintenance of the societal bond (Durkheim), neurosis (Freud), etc.)

These modes became unseated beginning in the 1930s (though perhaps truly beginning with James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) and/or Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, 1917) when scholars began to take the claims of religious adherents at face value, study their texts “seriously,” and create taxonomies of religious phenomena–beliefs, practices, and concepts. The phenomenology of religion, as it has been called, was only interested in religious belief/behavior/experience as such, taking the existence of religion as a sui generis given (Van der Leeuw, 1933, Eliade, 1957). The argument, from Eliade for example, was that the reduction of religion to something else didn’t really get at the heart of what religion actually was ontologically. Reductive explanations didn’t care about the meaning of religious ideas for religious adherents–only their function or dis-function in the societies in which they were produced.

This is where the story will maybe become unrecognizable, even comical, to theologians because once the reaction against the phenomenology of religion begins in the 1970s, theology becomes equated with what I’ve described above. It’s not that critics of the phenomenology of religion think phenomenology of religion is exactly what theologians do; rather, it is taken to be a kind of “theologizing” about religion, a discourse that is, like theology, committed to religion as sui generis, irreducible, and special. Thus, the call to completely dig out the deep roots of “theology” from the discipline began.

This is not entirely unfair. We can see that even in the early attempts to critique the phenomenology of religion (in the 1960s), there is still an essentializing, “theological” tendency. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, for example, in The Meaning and End of Religion, criticizes the use of the noun “religion” as a universal category, explicating its linguistic development from the middle ages, but then turns around and argues for the employment of the adjective “religious” instead, claiming that it gets at a more pure, basic understanding of what we mean when we say “religion.” And, of course, theology has operated and continues to operate with some kind of sui generis, essential understanding of religion, even if it is not always articulated. But not all theology does. Not all theology is beholden to institutional authority, or any formal authority for that matter (more on this in the next post.)

Thus, we get in the 80s, 90s, and 00s cries for religious studies to return to its rigorously empirical roots, minus the attempts at evolutionary, originary, universalizing, and systematizing explanations of “religious” beliefs and practices. There are far too many threads within this trend to detail here, but it suffices to say that the broad claim is the study of religion done from “the inside” (whether that be phenomenology of religion or theology) is not rigorously self-critical enough (the way science is in theory) to be able to participate in the academic conversation. The concern, from Russell McCutcheon for example, is that while the rest of the academy has long ago separated itself from its Protestant roots in the US, a nefarious Protestant element remains in religious studies, preventing the field from being taken seriously (also the argument of Timothy Fitzgerald, Donald Wiebe, Robert Segal, and more), or worse yet, making the field accomplice to the hegemonic imperialism of Western Christianity (Tomoko Masuzawa.)

Segal provides a helpful distinction for getting inside of what is going on here. In his short essay, “Diagnosing Religion” (1998), Segal makes two major points: (1) There are two major types of approaches to religion: hermeneutics and epistemology and (2) Epistemology is the superior type. In hermeneutics, the scholar and the practitioner are in different places in that the religion of the practitioner is sacrosanct. The orientation of the scholar is one of misunderstanding seeking understanding. The scholar presumes that the practitioner has the best theories regarding his or her own practice. With epistemology, Segal claims, the scholar and practitioner are on a level playing field. Religion is simply an instance of anthropology, sociology, psychology, etc. open to the same analysis and criticisms as any other object which falls under these scholarly pursuits. Segal represents the epistemological approach as a doctor/patient relationship. It is the doctor who has the requisite theories to understand what is happening with the patient. What the patient thinks is of absolutely no consequence because the patient can only be a source of data and never of theory.

I think this metaphor most accurately describes the strictly empiricist, “scientistic” mode of religious studies in the field today–though it is a truly horrific way of depicting the relationship between scholar and interlocutor.

Setting his ghastly, imperialist metaphor aside for a moment, I want to note the structure of his pairing in this argument. Segal claims that the scholar and the adherent are in two different places in the hermeneutical approach specifically because the former must treat the claims of the latter (including theology) as sacrosanct. The scholar is an eager listener who does not dare criticize what he does not understand. Segal then attempts to shift the relation of the scholar/adherent by normativizing the relation under the epistemic approach. However, he still subversively maintains an epistemological and theoretical distance between the pair. In other words, Segal is assuming knowledge is a particular kind of production, science (really a scientism), which is itself the normative, level ground on which all understandings of being-in-the-world are judged. It is in that sense that Segal is claiming to close the gap between adherent and scholar; nothing is sacrosanct in the light of the scientific method. It is here that the gap slips in through the back door. Once both adherent and scholar are placed on the “normative/natural” ground of empiricist epistemology it becomes immediately clear, according to Segal, that the religious adherent does not have the proper theoretical-empiricist apparatus with which to rigorously understand her own being-in-the-world. Thus the gap is maintained but what is sacrosanct is reversed. It is the scholar whose claims the adherent must be subject to without question. The adherent doesn’t have to understand–unless she wants her claims to knowledge to be taken seriously.

In the next post, I will address one more turn in religious studies, namely the critique of “the secular” leveled by Talal Asad, and then raise the question of the bizarre relationship between cultural theory and religious studies in the 15 years or so, which will shed some more light on the estranged relationship between RS and theology.