Understanding ‘religion’, a primer on Critical Studies, Part 1
Many of my previous posts have hinted at a critical revision of the category of religion within the field of study of religions, a revision that—if applied to the ‘science and religion’ discussion—is able to, in my opinion, undermine most of the opinions that more or less ‘authoritative’ figures publish through books, newspapers or blogs, effectively making the whole discussion vacuous. I have been reproached for being too critical without offering a coherent theoretical reply able to justify my scepticism, and I have therefore decided in this post, and in those that will follow, to offer a synthetic overview of what I consider to be a field of study that anyone willing to give (informed) opinions about what the ‘science vs religion’ debate is about should be at the very least aware of. In order to do so, I will present the work of different scholars in the field, trying to summarize their positions without doing too much violence to them. As a conclusion I will evaluate how this will impinge upon our understanding of what ‘science and religion’ is (or isn’t) actually about.
These posts are actually an adaptation of a section of a chapter from my thesis, hence the references, footnotes and general academic tone. I hope it will be nonetheless an interesting read.
As a nineteenth-century by-product of the West’s colonial encounter with new ‘cultures’ and ‘religions’, a new academic field of study—initially known as ‘Comparative Religions’—arose, which meant to differentiate itself from ‘theology’ by approaching the study of ‘religions’ in a scientific, objective and non-confessional manner. It was only in the second half of the twentieth century that this self-description of the field came under the scrutiny of its practitioners, principally aiming to offer a reconsideration of its aims, methods, assumptions and historical origins by producing a critical genealogy. This internal critique was largely influenced by the philosophical impact of post-structuralism and specifically by the work of Michel Foucault. To trace its genealogy, therefore, meant to uncover the structures of authority tacitly at work in field of the study of religions, where the Foucauldian equation of power/knowledge was applied to analyse the origins of the field as situated in a powerful colonial environment, and to illuminate its subsequent hidden, unspoken but still present ethnocentric assumptions.
As a—crucial—part of this enterprise, the last decades have witnessed a deep meta-theoretical interest in the category ‘religion’ itself as a fundamental tool of the field. It is to some of the most radical—but ,at the same time, some of the most germane—of these critiques that I will examine here. A clear understanding of these theories, and the methodologies which develop from them, will help us considerably in shedding some light on the ways in which the field of ‘science and religion’ employs the term ‘religion’.
In the 1970s and 1980s the work of Jonathan Zittel Smith, at the University of Chicago began to set new standards for the analysis of the methodologies employed in the field, and which informed a new generation of scholars who subsequently heeded his warnings for self-consciousness and started to elaborate his constructivist understanding of what ‘religion’ is:
Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no independent existence apart from the academy.
(J.Z. Smith 1982: xi)
Russell T. McCutcheon is a Canadian scholar currently based in the University of Alabama, whose work in the last decade, building on that of Smith’s, has been directed towards a critique of an essentialised understanding of ‘religion’ and particularly its use in the field as a ‘sui generis’ phenomenon. He has been working towards a reconceptualisation of the term which is capable of reflecting the full range of its social and political implications, and in fact towards a broader critique of the field of the ‘study of religions’ as a whole, uncovering the self-legitimizing rhetorical techniques and ontological assumptions which maintain (and promote) the field as autonomous and authoritative. My interest here will be to focus more on his theory, or lack thereof, of ‘religion’ rather than on the critique of the study of religions (to the extent that they actually can be separated): a reconceptualization of what religion is, or isn’t, will contribute to my critique of another ‘field’ concerned with it. Beginning his Manufacturing Religion (1997), directly commenting on the work of J.Z.Smith, he makes clear that
[T]he category of religion is a conceptual tool and ought not to be confused with an ontological category actually existing in reality. In other words, our use of the scholarly category of religion is theoretically based, a model not to be confused with reality—whether that may or may not be.
(McCutcheon 1997: viii)
This claim is then supported by his claim that ‘religion’ must always be understood as a part and product of a specific context, always interwoven with a range of other social phenomena. Playing on the title of W.C. Smith’s famous text The Meaning and End of Religion he argues that
the meaning of the category of religion is intimately linked to the social and material interests of the institutionalized observer-interpreter who defines, circumscribes, and creates this cognitive category, and the end of religion indicates the end of referring to this one portion of historical, human existence as if it were a self-evidently and ontologically distinct, unique, and autonomous portion of life and action, exempt from sociopolitical analysis and critique. Thus, the end is simply the recognition of its meaning.
(McCutcheon 1997: 15)
The stress here goes on the circularity of a definition and (therefore) an identification of religion which serves to support the legitimisation of a discourse ‘of religion’ by granting ontological fullness/independence to ‘something’ defined as ‘religion’. The student (or expert) of ‘religion’ supports the validity and meaningfulness of her object of study/expertise by creating the object itself. This discursive creation of ‘religion’, referred to as the sui generis conception of religion, is the primary aim of his critique since
[s]imply put, the discourse on sui generis religion deemphasizes difference, history, and sociopolitical context in favor of abstract essences and homogeneity….In the broadest possible perspective then, this discourse on religion…participates in a general liberal discourse that deemphasizes material difference for the sake of immaterial and abstract sameness.
(McCutcheon 1997: 3–4)
The sweeping assumption that the sui generis discourses assume as their grounding is one of universality (a movement, of course, which is not surprising when we consider—and herein lies the rub—the deep and subterranean link between universality and authority), a universality achieved at the price of neglecting those differences capable of undermining the homogeneity of the subject ‘religion’. This leads McCutcheon to state that
it is not incorrect or excessive to assert that, when examined on the geopolitical scale, the implications of exclusively constructing religion in this one manner, among many other mechanisms of control, effectively segments people from their complex sociopolitical and historical relationships and contributes to manufacturing a cultural context conductive to such segmentation….The historical minimization characteristic of the discourse on sui generis religion constitutes the redefinition, reconstruction, and representation of human beings not as social, economic, and political beings with certain basic material needs and relations but as essentially believers of creeds….Scholars of religion have used ‘the sacred’, ‘the numinous’, ‘power’ and a host of other terms to name and thereby clothe historical abstractions, lending to this ‘phantom objectivity’, an apparent autonomy from the very human relations from which it originally arose….When read politically, then, this seemingly innocuous claim concerning the irreducibility and utter uniqueness of religious phenomena and experiences can be understood as one of a number of potent strategies for domination….Simply put, the discourse on sui generis religion has been conceived—and its very existence continually defended—not as an analytically and pragmatically useful definition for studying but one aspect of complex human beings and communities but as an ontologically separate inquiry into a privileged, dehistoricized, human essence, Homo religiosus.
(McCutcheon 1997: 22–24, 202)
Here the political (and ethical) repercussions of a conception of religion as a separated (sacred), universal and unique carrier of meaning clearly emerge in the shape of a form of imperialistic desire for authoritative control over the constructed class of ‘religious believers’. On the political, global scenario, these assumptions, vestiges of a conception of religion inherited from colonial times, stand out as, at best, irresponsible or, at worst, dangerous. What the self-conscious scholar of religion should do, therefore, according to McCutcheon, is to acknowledge the limitedness of his or her techniques and his or her toolbox of terms and concepts, to be perceptive of their ethnocentric flavour, to modify both the starting point for a scholarly inquiry (‘religion’ as standing ‘out there’ to be found) and its desired outcome (a consistent, universal theory or model of what counts and what not counts as religion), and finally to be constantly aware of the political and social ensemble of elements which both guide his or her production and emerge as an explication of it:
[a]s scholars of religion with a specific European intellectual and social heritage (which constitutes our own insider context), we have specific questions that make sense given our specific theoretical, political, and social contexts and histories. They are our’s and may very well be no one else’s….To think that we can somehow truly understand the other and that they are equally interested in understanding us strikes me as itself a rather ethnocentric assumption…[b]ecause it overlooks the many ways in which imperial powers are the ones most often interested in doing the understanding and, more important, in doing the conceptual and material appropriating that seems to come along with such efforts to understand….Stated simply, ethnocentrism is not the fact of having a culture but the assumption that one’s own culture—as well as the goals relevant to one’s own culture—is by definition every one’s goal. We as European-based scholars have this particular goal; others may or may not share it.
(McCutcheon 1997: 150–151)
This ethnocentric fallacy does not only consist in reading the world according to one’s own categories—which is, after all, a cognitive condition nearly impossible to overcome—nor simply in reading the world expecting it to be presented and intelligible to us through our categories (a position as arrogant as it is easy to dispel) but rather it consists in reading the world, expecting it to be there to be grasped by our categories because they are the unique and universal categories able to correspond—almost by necessity—to unique and universal entities.
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 The category of culture, possibly even more complex and undefined than the one of ‘religion’, and its alleged property to designate one unitary and transcendent aspect present in the life of all people in all places, has been object of analysis as well. In particular, see Masuzawa in Taylor 1998; Lincoln in Braun and McCutcheon 2000 and Fitzgerald 2000: Chapter 12.
 To be more temporally and spatially defined, this trend arose specifically in North America around the 1960s and 1970s. As J.Z. Smith recalled: ‘Religious studies came into being in its present ubiquitous form during the academic boom years of the mid-1960s through the 1970s. (Fuelled as well, as Walter Capps has persistently and correctly reminded us, by the special environment created by the Vietnam war.) It is therefore of no surprise that it becomes particularly vulnerable when that boom goes bust’ (1995: 409).
 This peculiar circularity between a construed object which in turn produces a discipline which studies it is well phrased by Arnal, when he states that ‘the very concept of religion as such—as an entity with any distinction whatsoever from other human phenomena—is a function of the same processes and historical moments that generate an individualistic concept of it’ (Arnal in Braun and McCutcheon 2000: 31). To over-stretch this observation: in our contemporary world, to what extent is this co-dependent production the very trademark of any discipline? Haven’t we been warned before that ‘the medium is the message’? And if so, is the academic world, to the extent that it works as a distribution of knowledge to the public (be it undergraduate classes or ‘general public’)—having augmented its penetration through an increasingly vast range of technologic media—impermeable to this kind of observation? What kind of knowledge is not ideologically packaged as long as it is in any way transmitted?
 As we read, as a paradigmatic example, in Kant, as early as 1795: ‘[T]here may be just as many religious books (the Zend-Avesta, the Vedas, the Koran, etc.). But there can be one religion which is valid for all men and at all times. Thus the different confessions can scarcely be more than the vehicles of religion; these are fortuitous, and may vary with differences in time and place’ (Kant 1990: 114).