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Wait, What?

November 21, 2009

NYU Press is circulating a new call for book proposals for their North American Religions Series. In the middle of the call is this sentence, which I’m not sure what to make of:

We are interested in working with scholars who start from the premise that religion itself matters even as they pay attention to the cultural, social, and political contexts of religious beliefs and practices.

I would have assumed that religion matters because of the cultural, social, and political stuff. But apparently they are implying that the books they’ll choose must regard religion as mattering on other ways? But what other ways? I could read that in a variety of different ways—but most of them would seem to be dubious. That is, do they want their authors to be committed to a sort of Eliadian anti-reductionist view that there is some supernatural “sacred” core to “religion”? What’s going on here?

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. larry c wilson permalink
    November 21, 2009 2:08 pm

    Are you serious or just joking?

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    November 21, 2009 2:10 pm

    Nope, I’m serious. I’m pretty wary of anti-reductionism, and that might be what these people are going for …

  3. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    November 21, 2009 2:11 pm

    Plus, the way they phrase it makes it seem as if those people who are only focused on social, political, and cultural aspects think religion doesn’t “matter”? What’s up with that?

  4. November 21, 2009 2:40 pm

    Here in academia, you will find that sometimes people disagree about how to do stuff. Registering your shock at this reality in a blog post is always an option.

  5. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    November 21, 2009 2:44 pm

    Evan: uh, what? I’m 99% sure that’s irony or satire, but I can’t tell how it’s supposed to work …

  6. November 21, 2009 3:38 pm

    I guess I just take it as a given that you and any number of other people (myself included) will disagree with certain methodological approaches. I don’t see why the “Wait, What?” is really needed in such cases, though. I could point to a dozen book series off the top of my head that I think start off on unhelpful premises… but it’s not a shocker or anything. Scholars disagree about what is the case, and they write accordingly.

    I could see the value of questioning the validity of certain anti-reductionistic approaches, but I guess I’m just missing the contribution that the gaping-mouthed double-take makes to the conversation. It sort of reads like, “Oh my gawd, did you see what NYU is doing?”

  7. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    November 21, 2009 3:52 pm

    So, the idea that those who focus on social, political, and cultural aspects think religion doesn’t “matter” makes perfect sense to you?

  8. Vidya permalink
    November 21, 2009 3:57 pm

    Since ‘cultural’ refers to the ways we make meaning out of the world, it appears that they either have an excessively narrow (i.e., non-anthropological) view of ‘culture’ in mind, or perhaps they haven’t thought this one through very well.

    Of course, there are other dimensions of religion — for example, the psychological — which might not fall under ‘social/political/cultural’ and yet could be included. However, I think the statement is really intended to discourage reductionistic readings of religion from those whose theoretical allegiances incline them to wish to “explain away” religious faith, rather than critically engage with it as a not-fully-reducible thing in the world.

  9. November 21, 2009 4:03 pm

    “So, the idea that those who focus on social, political, and cultural aspects think religion doesn’t “matter” makes perfect sense to you?”

    I take it that the series editors simply disagree with this statement of yours:

    I would have assumed that religion matters because of the cultural, social, and political stuff. But apparently they are implying that the books they’ll choose must regard religion as mattering on other ways? But what other ways? I could read that in a variety of different ways—but most of them would seem to be dubious.

    They seem to have special interest in studies that privilege some sense of religion qua religion, whatever that means. They also mention belief and practice as possible but not sufficient bases for the studies that they’re looking for. I don’t get the sense, however, that they think studies focusing on these things would say that “religion doesn’t matter.” They’re just saying that this series isn’t interested in those sorts of perspectives.

  10. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    November 21, 2009 4:29 pm

    Vidya, that’s my reading—although one can’t be sure from a single sentence …

    Evan, there’s no good defense of religion sui generis. All of the defenses of religion sui generis have been thoroughly debunked. So if that’s what they’re going for (i.e., religion qua religion, as you put it), then they’re utilizing an out-of-date framework of analysis.

  11. November 21, 2009 5:05 pm

    Well, right, but it strikes me that you’re reading a bit too much into it. I don’t think they’re looking for a full-fledged theory of religion as sui generis… it seems to me more like a vague interest in religious significance beyond the sum of its reduced constituents, whether political, ethical, ritual, or whatever. I think it’s reasonable to affirm some sense of religion accountable on that holistic level without needing to thus affirm any special categorical place for “religion”. I don’t see why the first necessarily implies the second.

  12. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    November 21, 2009 5:12 pm

    Right—like Vidya suggested, perhaps they’re talking about some sort of psychological significance, which would be different from social, cultural, etc. But if that were the case, wouldn’t they just name it?

    I very well might be reading too much into it. What do you mean by holistic? That needs some unpacking (damn it—I swore I would never use the term “unpacking”).

  13. November 21, 2009 5:18 pm

    …perhaps to think of it from a different perspective: if this call for proposals seems to imply such outdated understandings of “religion” for you, I don’t see how “religious studies” as a field or “religion departments” as organizational structures would be defensible against similar implications, on your reckoning.

    Surely we can talk about “religion itself” in some way without therefore committing ourselves to dubious idealizations of it. Granted that such talk will, like talk about a lot of other words, meet with various disagreements over usage. But the phrase “religion itself” seem to be simply an extra gesture to the word “religion”. Surely we can make such gestures, can’t we? Otherwise why not drop these concepts entirely?

  14. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    November 23, 2009 2:54 pm

    Evan, I’m going to write a new post in response to this question; it should appear in the next couple of days, if not today …

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