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Taves’ Religious Experience Reconsidered

May 29, 2010

I recently read Ann Taves’ new book, Religious Experience Reconsidered. There were some things I liked, and some things I didn’t like. (The latter might be a narcissism of minor differences sort of thing; I’m definitely on her side of the fence in the field of religious studies in general.)

She is very anti-essentialist when it comes to “religion”; she takes up a way of talking that I’d already independently arrived at: instead of saying some thing (a ritual, a text, an experience) is “religious,” she refers to them as things deemed religious, which draws attention to the fact that labeling something religious is a first-order practice worth investigating in its own right. For some time I’ve been referring to things “colloquially called religious,” which I presume is designed to serve the same purpose.

There was one thing she insisted on that I thought was sort of weird. She implied that it makes sense to talk about a religion or religions, but not religion itself. I heard someone say the same thing about the term “body” at a conference: there can be a body, or bodies, but “the body” doesn’t exist.

My response was: duh.

What do you think? Is that a deep or a superficial point?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. hastenawait permalink
    June 4, 2010 5:23 pm

    First I wanted to say: Interesting blog. It seems that our influences are pretty similar. I consider myself to be some kind of Marxist, am into Foucault, Butler, Zizek and so forth, and cannot be classified as an atheist…the core of my “religious” orientation is non-dualism a la Ramana Maharshi, though I don’t claim to be Hindu.

    As for this question: “What do you think? Is that a deep or a superficial point?”

    I guess it depends upon how the point is used. I don’t want to get into the territory of the problem of universals, because that’s another matter, but I think that points like this can be useful in the realm of social critique. I’m reminded of bell hook’s critique of the women’s movement. She pointed out that those involved in the women’s organizations, and who were speaking for “women” (a mostly unproblematized category), were really speaking about White, middle and upper class women. Within that discourse the abstract notion of “woman” covered up racial, class and other forms of oppression.

    I may just read that book by Taves’.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 5, 2010 10:07 am

    Thanks for the kind comments! I appreciate it!

    The “woman” thing is a good example. It’s not that I disagree with the point—I just thought it was sort of obvious. But I guess in many cases (i.e., “woman”) it’s not, in fact!

    In general, I didn’t like the book that much and don’t recommend it, except for the chapter on the definition of “religion.” That was actually a really good chapter. When she starts getting into experience, she slips into this quasi-William James mode where she talks about experience as if it were at the root of “religion.” I’m much more Durkheimean—I would have the tendency to reduce any experiences to an epiphenomenal status. James and Durkheim would probably stand at opposite ends of the spectrum on this. Durkheim would insist that experiences reflect the social stuff, which is the ground, and James would insist that the social stuff reflects the experience, which is the ground.

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