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Russell McCutcheon Isn’t Wrong

June 9, 2009

mccutcheonbkcoverRussell T. McCutcheon argues in Manufacturing Religion, Critics Not Caretakers, and The Discipline of Religion that scholars of religion tend to project or reify religion as some sort of essential, fundamental, natural feature of the universe. He believes that there are Schleiermachers all around us.

Many accuse him of tilting at windmills—that sort of covert theology passed as scholarship 100 years ago, but not today.

Well, he’s not tilting at windmills.

Here’s a passage from Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers, by Mark D. Regnerus (Oxford University Press, 2007):

[R]eligion and sexuality tap basic drives…. Religion concerns the need to make sense and meaning out of life, to connect with something or someone higher and purer than yourself, outside of the realm of the empirical. In short, both religion and sex are elemental life pursuits, not mere window dressing but close to the heart of what it means to be human. (6)

I recommend McCutcheon’s books, especially The Discipline of Religion, but I can’t recommend Regnerus.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2009 10:44 am

    The problem with this line of reasoning is that, while it postulates a clear distinction between second and third order discourses on religion, it doesn’t really follow that distinction through to its logical conclusion. If you think of Regnerus as a sort of auto-ethnographer, in other words, who’s really writing second-order rather than third-order discourse, then the kind of criticism that you attribute to McCutcheon loses some of its relevance. For Regnerus and for the teenagers he describes, the essentialist portrayal of both religion and sex as “elemental life pursuits” is presumably subjectively accurate. You can argue, justifiably, that when Regnerus and his ilk fail to critique this subjective perception, they are ipso facto failing to do “real” religious studies. However, that doesn’t strike me as self-evident. I am not yet convinced that McCutcheon’s push to exclude experience as a key category is the right way to go for the field.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 10, 2009 11:50 am

    Hi Nathan! I would agree with you, except that this isn’t from a section of the book where he is summarizing the views of teenagers. This passage is from the theory & method part of his introduction where he’s making the argument that sociologists need to take religion seriously because religion is an essential feature of human life. I get no sense from the context that he’s saying, “for the group I’m studying religion is fundamental.” He really seems to be making the claim that religion just is fundamental.

    I do agree that McCutcheon seems to dismiss the significance of experience a bit too quickly.

  3. June 11, 2009 9:01 pm

    Hm…. well, so much for my point. Mostly, anyhow. I still think that even if he isn’t methodologically and philosophically self-aware to make that qualification, we can sort of make it for him. To some extent, he’s studying U.S. teenagers as something of an insider, and one of the reasons he can make that idea foundational (the essentialist, sui generis idea of religion) is because it’s an assumption that he shares with his subjects. Does it detract from the value of his scholarship by demonstrating a lack of analytical rigor? Yes, sure. Does it reduce the value of his scholarship to zero? I don’t think so. In other words, “covert theology” is a problem, but I’m not convinced it should be taken as so utterly poisonous that it renders worthless any scholarship it contaminates.

  4. June 11, 2009 9:02 pm

    … “he” above being Regnerus, of course.

  5. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 12, 2009 10:49 am

    I absolutely agree that this doesn’t render the book worthless. One thing that I should have mentioned is that this claim, which Regnerus makes in his intro, has little—if any—bearing on the remainder of the book. The reason I can’t recommend the book actually has nothing to do with this particular issue.

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