Understanding ‘religion’, a primer on Critical Studies, Part 2
The second part of my series of posts on the critical school of study of religions.
This theme is well developed in the work of another scholar, Timothy Fitzgerald. Currently at the University of Stirling, Fitzgerald dedicates his The Ideology of Religious Studies (2000) to a critique of the possible cross-cultural applicability of the term ‘religion’, where he demonstrates how a phenomenon generally defined as ‘religious’, when considered in a non-western context, simply breaks down into a multiplicity of phenomena pertaining to the texture of social, anthropological, cultural and political life of the given community. In clear terms, Fitzgerald states that
[r]eligion cannot be reasonably be taken to be a valid analytical category since it does not pick out any distinctive cross-cultural aspect of human life….Instead of studying religion as though it were some objective feature of societies, it should be instead be studied as an ideological category, an aspect of modern western ideology, with a specific location in history, including the nineteenth-century period of European colonization.
(Fitzgerald 2000: 4)
Here as well we notice, therefore, that the conceptual shift is from an understanding of ‘religion’ as an ‘objective feature’ of any society, a universal category valid in any context, a perennial explication of the ‘human’ (i.e. of anyone) quest for meaning, to a specific, culturally contingent, ideological and historical (and hence, political) category employed by the modern western world in its encounters with the Other. This is an Other, in fact, whose alien cultural expressions are domesticated by, and explained away through the employment of the one-size-fits-all concept of ‘religion’ ‘An Other’ set of phenomena, explicable only through a new (and hard, if not impossible, to fully grasp) array of hermeneutical tools, is therefore assembled into a manageable, understandable, familiar and hence controllable form(thanks to the culture-proof apparatus of the study of religions), becoming ‘just another’ ‘religion’:
The concept of religion and religions as genuine object of knowledge in the world, and religious studies, as a distinct set of methodologies and theoretical concepts for studying these putative objects, is an ideological assertion that strives to recreate the Other in its own image. Or rather, it might be more accurate to say that it is an ideology that, while striving to reproduce itself in western nations, at the same time strives to recreate the Other in its own image.
(Fitzgerald 2000: 21)
What is pivotal to note here is the additional ideological role that Fitzgerald, in a quasi-Marxist hermeneutic outlook, claims ‘religion’ plays into the western world, by being capable of creating a gap between two distinct realms in society: the secular and the spiritual.
[T]he category religion is at the heart of modern western capitalist ideology and…it mystifies by playing a crucial role in the construction of the secular, which to us constitutes the self-evidently true realm of scientific factuality, rationality and naturalness. By seeming to offer an interior private realm of supreme values and ultimate meaning in relation to God, attention is drawn away from the humanly (collectively) constructed world in which we live our everyday lives and which we represent not as the deepest location of our social being but merely as a place in which we find ourselves.
(Fitzgerald 2000: 20)
Thus according to Fitzgerald, if the creation of these two clear-cut facets in the life of a collectivity of people, applied to and derived from the West as the place of origin of ‘religion’, permits the arbitrary creation of this ‘realm of supreme value and ultimate meaning’, which necessarily will have to be regulated and studied with a solemnity matching its vital importance—by a self-identifying authoritative body of scholars—then when exported to other, non-western social contexts it becomes a pure and uncompromising act of epistemic violence. The realm of ‘religious‘ values—privatized and made for the individual—belief as opposed to a realm of secular, mundane (scientific?) everydayness is an ideological product of the West, occurring in specific historical and political circumstances which pertain to the history of the West alone, specifically to a certain post-Enlightenment ‘rational’ sensibility and a post-Reformation interiorization of consciousness and focus on ‘personal experience’.
This recurrent (often pushed into the compulsive) self-referentiality observable in the history of the West in its encounters with the Other, and especially troublesome when applied to the brittle field of ‘religion’ (the field of choice, due to its ‘meaning carrying’ nature) is the main object of criticism of another scholar, Daniel Dubuisson. The French scholar, in his The Western Construction of Religion (2003), mobilizes a similar critique of the concept of ‘religion’ we have already seen in Smith, McCutcheon, and Fitzgerald, in identifying both the sui generis quality of ‘religion’ and its by-product of the opposition secular/religious as a specific historical production of the West. Dubuisson, however, is even more harsh in his emphasis on the self-referentiality of the western discourse on ‘religion’: in criticizing what he defines as the ‘narcissistic ambitions of ecumenical Christianity’ he observes that the West has never
asked other cultures what they thought of the concepts that it imposed on them. In a fashion that we might qualify as compulsive, this symbolic violence was always followed or accompanied by very real violence. It cannot be too strongly stated that since the end of the fifteenth century, the West has associated its imperialist perspectives and conquests more and more explicitly with its own conceptions of mankind with a view—if the neologism may be permitted—to ‘anthropologizing’ these conceptions, to making them an absolute and universal point of reference. This process culminated in the second half of the nineteenth century, the period in which the history of religions was born.
(Dubuisson 2003: 54–55)
He moreover establishes ‘religion’ as being not only a western-generated category molded uniquely on a Christian paradigm and then arbitrarily used for grouping completely heterogeneous phenomena, but he directly identifies the West with ‘religion’, in what is a ‘close, almost incestuous relationship, that unites religion and the West’:
What the West and the history of religions in its wake have objectified under the name of ‘religion’ is then something quite unique, which could be appropriate only to itself and to its own history. And with this notion, it was those very intellectual categories of the West that were objectified, raised to the dignity of points of reference or unassailable norms….[W]e would not be exaggerating to say that the history of religions is a Western academic discipline or epistemology, in that its methods, concepts, ways of posing questions and formulating problems have meaning only when referred to the West’s own history….The West not only conceived of the idea of religion, it has constrained other cultures to speak of their own religions by inventing them for them. Religion is not only the central concept of Western civilization, it is the West itself in the process of thinking the world dominated by it, by its categories of thought….This is why the West prefers to continue to espouse bad epistemology rather than abandon the description of reality according to its own canons, that is, in a fashion that in the last analysis simply does not work: Western epistemology creates or constructs the reality that it studies, since it does so only with the aid of traditional, conventional notions that it has itself in great part constructed. Through the idea of religion, the West continuously speaks of itself to itself, even when it speaks of others. For when it does so, it is implicitly in relation to the perfected model that it thinks itself to be. This is narcissistic objectification.
(Dubuisson 2003: 90–95)
Once this historical dependency of the West from a Christian interpretative (and informative) frame of what counts as ‘religion’ is made manifest, any attempt to extrapolate the category to non-western societies appears as epistemologically wrongheaded and implicitly violent. Yet, the history of the academic intellectual elaboration, organization and classification of the abundant social and anthropological ‘data’ coming from diverse colonial encounters with the Other, gathering ‘religious’ data in order to construct a picture of what the ‘religion’ of the Other is, was generally self presented as being a struggle for understanding and hence a celebration of other ‘religions’. These, carefully selected on the base of ‘objective’ criteria such as current number of practitioners and age, were often designated with the name/family class of ‘world religions’.
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 McCutcheon agrees with Fitzgerald, by claiming that ‘I see no reason to assume, as do many of the people that I happen to read, that the categories “religion” and “politics,” or “sacred” and “secular,” refer to actual qualities in the real world. Instead, they are nothing more or less than codependent, portable discursive markers whose relationship we can date to a specific period in early modern Europe, and whose utility continues to this day’ (McCutcheon 2007: 197).
 Fitzgerald substantiates his theoretical outlook on ‘religion’ with some chapters dedicated to the social analysis of Ambedkar Buddhists in India (Chapter 6), Hinduism as a ‘world religion’ (Chapter 7) and to the possible applicability of the term ‘religion’ in a Japanese context (Chapter 8).
 Arnal stresses this link between ‘religion’ and the privatized secular state arguing that ‘our definitions of religion, especially insofar as they assume a privatized and cognitive character behind religion (as in religious belief), simply reflect (and assume as normative) the West’s distinctive historical feature of the secularized state’ (Arnal in Braun and McCutcheon 2000: 31).
 Talal Asad observes that: ‘[t]his emphasis on belief meant that henceforth religion could be conceived as a set of propositions to which believers gave assent, and which could therefore be judged and compared as between different religions and as against natural science’ (Asad 1993: 40–41).
 I must note that the refusal to consider ‘religious experience’ a valuable object of inquiry has been criticised by some scholars. Schilbrak argues that ‘[s]tudents of religion should not let the claims that religious experience is sui generis or autonomous from belief…to goad them to over-react and underemphasize the place of experience in the history of religions. If religious traditions label certain bodily and mental states religious, then such experiences should not be excluded from the study of religion, let alone defined out of existence. The fact that a certain discourse must be in place and employed in order for someone to experience a religious experience does not mean that the analysis of discourse exhausts the study of religion, any more than the analysis of fuel would exhaust the study of fire’ (2005:56). If this critique has some evident common-sensical grounds, I believe that whatever the choice of focus, the first step must be to ask why that choice has been made. The focus on ideological constructions of religion is certainly an ideological one, but has the merit of being, in its own nature, exposed to dismantling. In the end, there are ethical considerations at the base of any given methodology, and to employ a methodology which tends to present itself as self-critical rather than self-celebratory is a choice advised in the direction of good scholarship.
 ‘Facts, of whatever kind, are not in themselves religious in the sense that they are endowed with some kind of specific, sui generis quality, come from who knows where. They only become religious at the point where individuals isolate them by invoking a certain number of criteria and then apply this designation….[S]ince the “distinct domain” of religion does not exist in all civilizations, the oppositions…(false religion versus the true religion, religious versus profane, etc.) disappear. These oppositions are then inherent in the Christian conception alone. Elsewhere, where its influence was modest or nonexistent, the relevance of these oppositions is illusory’ (Dubuisson 2003: 15,28).
 Of course, the very word is directly linked to the history of the West, from its Latin origins to the Christian appropriation of the term. As Derrida commented: ‘[t]o think ‘religion’ is to think the ‘Roman’….A chance or necessity for recalling the history of something like ‘religion’: everything done or said in its name ought to keep the critical memory of this appellation. European, it was first of all Latin. Here, then, is a given whose figure at least, as limit, remains contingent and significant at the same time. It demands to be taken into account, reflected, thematized, dated’ (Derrida in Derrida and Vattimo 1998: 4). Moreover, since the beginning of its Christian use, the word played a role of definition through exclusion: ‘[t]he Christian transformation of religio functioned not only to capture authority for Christians in Roman society but also to exclude certain groups from equal consideration. Those who did not bow down to the Almighty and Supreme Deity, worshipping other gods, were now ‘alterized’ as pagan (paganus: “village idiot”) and superstitious. The redefining of religio also served to establish the monotheistic exclusivism of Christianity as the normative paradigm for understanding what a religion is’ (King 1999: 36–37). To assume that even when the word is lacking (i.e., every language unaffected by Latin) the ‘thing’ is still there is equivalent to claiming that our local, particular word is capable (in virtue of what?) of grasping a universal ‘reality’ which must be valid for anyone. For a comprehensive analysis of how Roman religio was appropriated and modified by Christianity see Balagangadhara 1994: 31–64.
 Dubuisson however, differently from the McCutcheon and Fitzgerald, promotes the substitution of ‘religion’ with the term ‘cosmographic formation’. This choice has been variously commented: see Segal 2006, Engler 2006 Dupré 2006, Taves 2006 and McCutcheon 2006 in the context of a review symposium for Dubuisson’s book on the journal Religion, as well as Dubuisson’s (2006) response.