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Can We Talk about “Religion” Anymore?

November 23, 2009

This is a reoccurring question, and one that is particularly thrown up wherever we see critiques of essentialism in religious studies. People like J. Z. Smith and Russell McCutcheon have been arguing for decades now that there is no such thing as religion in itself. What we count as “religion” is not discovered in the world but is a product of the way we use the term to identify certain social and cultural processes.

This is how the above question appears. First, someone makes a claim that talks about religion as if it were a thing-in-itself, or that reifies religion as a thing. Second, the anti-essentialist says, “Aha! You’re being an essentialist!” Third, the subject of the critique says, “Yes, I get it. I’ve read Archaeology of Knowledge too. But that doesn’t mean we have to stop talking about ‘religion’ altogether, does it? Just because ‘race’ is a social construction doesn’t mean that it’s nonsense to talk about race, right?”

Just to be clear, I’m usually the one who goes “Aha! You’re being an essentialist!” This is sort of what I was doing when I was recently talking about an NYU Press call for proposals a few days back. I objected to their apparent suggestion that religion is something other than (underneath? in addition to?) the social, political, and cultural dimensions of religion. That is, they seemed to imply that there is some essential surd that lies behind the social, political, and cultural manifestations of religion. (However, as I made clear, one can’t tell this from one line—I’m not entirely sure that’s what they were saying.)

So, in the comments, I got this from Evan:

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” seems 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?

Recognizing that “religion” is a social or rhetorical construction means precisely that we cannot say “religion itself.” That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about “religion.” As I suggested above, we can talk about race even after realizing that racial differentiations are social constructions. But we could not say “race itself,” because there is no such thing as “race itself.” There are only racial divisions construed and maintained by particular communities—and to talk about “race itself” is to make those constitutive relations invisible.

These “things” are constituted relationally, like a game is. It wouldn’t make any sense to point to a football field and say, “I see the ball, I see the players, I see the field, I see the refs, and I see the scoreboard, but where’s the game itself?”

It seems to me that the NYU Press posting suggests this: “We see the cultural aspect of religion, the political aspects of religion, and the social aspects of religion, but we want to see religion itself.”

On a side note, here’s the cutest piece of anti-essentialism I’ve seen recently:

5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 23, 2009 8:16 pm

    These “things” are constituted relationally, like a game is. It wouldn’t make any sense to point to a football field and say, “I see the ball, I see the players, I see the field, I see the refs, and I see the scoreboard, but where’s the game itself?”

    Well, sure, but you can still reasonably talk about “the game”, and even “the game itself”. You just don’t go looking for it at the fifty yard line (or anywhere else). I take it that the same is true of the concept “religion”. And I wouldn’t deny that there are all sorts of problems in negotiating the use of the concept, but I don’t see how that’s any different than anything else we’re accustomed to talking about. Talking about “religion itself” might be deemed more or less useful in a given situation, but it seems pretty obvious on an empirical level that a good deal of folks find it a useful reference, albeit with its share of limitations.

  2. November 23, 2009 8:20 pm

    …that said, you do get points for using xkcd, although I don’t know if it’s as clearly anti-essentialist as you think it is. Even (especially!) true believers can receive the imposition of ashes.

  3. December 6, 2009 4:22 pm

    This is making me think of my problem with the “Interdisciplinary Studies”, which is an option at the Graduate Theological Union for PhD students. I think it’s kinda’ dumb, because both the students who participate in this program and the professors/administrators who set it up seem to be saying that all the OTHER fields are not interdisciplinary. Sadly, some of them actually don’t want to be, or don’t want to admit it.

    Perhaps this is because I’m into theology, which is extremely interdisciplinary.

    I guess this doesn’t have to do with your post, but I’m reading every thing in my google reader at once…..


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