The Seminar Room

A Religious Studies Podcast

American Academy of Religion in Review

In this episode, Lucas and I recap our experiences from AAR 2016 in San Antonio. It was the busiest either of us had ever been at a conference, so it was nice to debrief a bit a couple months removed from it. Back in December, I posted a reflection on a blog Lucas and I both used to contribute to more regularly (Flux of Thought), and I think it serves as a good way of framing our discussion in this episode. It’s copied and pasted below.

“A Theory of Bird”

A couple weeks ago, I presented a paper at a conference within a conference–the annual meeting of the North American Association for the Study of Religion which meets during the annual meeting of the AAR. I was asked to write and present a response paper for one of the NAASR panels after submitting a short paragraph with an account of what I think “explanation” is as a method in religious studies. My presented paper was in response to an essay by Ann Taves and Egil Asprem, two scholars who are deeply interested and invested in cognitive science of religion. I won’t rehash their paper here; it suffices to say that they were arguing for a comprehensive reductive explanation of “religion” as the best kind of explanation we can have through an appeal to a reductive method from the biological sciences. In the course of the discussion following their paper and the three responses to it, one member of the audience made what struck me as a rather strange remark.

“Why are we talking about a ‘theory of religion?'” he objected. “What does that even mean? To me, having a ‘theory of religion’ is like having a ‘theory of bird.’ It’s completely meaningless.”

In other words, religion isn’t special. In one way, his comment makes sense in the context of NAASR. This is the organization that has consistently railed against scholarship that renders religion as “special” in any sense. “Critical religion” emerged from (or founded) NAASR in the mid-80s and has more or less maintained the same position since then: Religion is no-thing. It isn’t special in relation to other “master categories.” To many in this camp, there shouldn’t be a protected discipline called “religious studies” at all. The position goes even further, however: any attempt at all to safeguard religion from “disinterested” academic study, even if only a perceived attempt, is taken to be “crypto-theology” or as part of a “theological agenda.” The prefix “cypto” is crucial here. On this view, most of the scholars that make up the AAR are actually engaged in a kind of theology, even if that majority would deny that theology is what they’re doing (for example, as Eliade and other phenomenologists of religion did and do.) These erring scholars do so through obfuscating the discussion surrounding what “religion” as a concept is or ought to be even while they claim that religion is something “out there” that we can identify and understand through comparison, description, interpretation, and explanation on the religious adherent’s own terms.

How is this obfuscation to be identified and proven to actually be theology-in-disguise? A genealogical account of the ways this obfuscation has operated along lines of power, masking Protestant-Christian motivation (even if latent) has proven amazingly fruitful But this move has already gone through a variety of vexed iterations in its relatively short history in religious studies. At first, proponents thought we ought to drop religion in favor of less problematic categories such as “politics” or “culture” (e.g. Timothy Fitzgerald)–thereby paradoxically (and unwittingly) rendering religion “special” in the sense that it required special attention to its discursive formation in a way politics or culture didn’t. Proponents of this position have since recognized that these other categories also have discursive histories that must be reckoned with, and that they are all actually inextricably linked together in important ways. This has produced some very interesting, fruitful, and important analyses of the relationship between these categories, particularly in analyses of Western colonialism (e.g. the uses of Christianity for disciplining politically liberal colonial subjects) and the relationship between “the secular” and “the religious” in Western political discourse.

At this point, however, we’ve strayed very far from what the initial comment was getting at. While his intention was to remove the “specialness” from religion, he did not do so by appealing to the social and political construction of the category. On the contrary–his comment  was intended toImage result for bird diagram render religion simply natural. This solves the problem of obfuscation, since the comment implies the meaning of “religion” and to what it refers, like “bird,” is so clear as to need no theorization at all. However, there’s a problem here. If religion does not need a theory because it’s like “bird,” then religion cannot be no-thing. It is, in fact, something that apparently requires no theorization about what it is because it’s “in the world” for us to find just as birds are.

This position isn’t actually coherent–for what does it mean to say one doesn’t have “a theory of bird?” As one of my colleagues quipped when I related this story, it would be rather odd to find orinthologists wringing their hands over whether they are allowed to appreciate the position of the bird-lover (or the bird?)–to accuse each other of crypto…chirpology? But putting that aside, “religion” is obviously not like “bird.” That is, even if there is a “theory of bird,” it is certainly nothing like a theory of religion, as the entire history of religious studies shows us–as many careful genealogies of the field show us. While we might characterize the former as “positive” in the sense that it could tell us why a penguin is a bird but a bat is not (via the positive characteristics that birds possess) the latter is the story of the contestation of the very existence of any positive concept of religion and how an insistence on clear, empirically demonstrable instances of religion is actually extremely problematic often because of the politics that generate such claims. What religion “is” in this sense is primarily the story of what it is not and that it is not. It is no-thing. It is an academic invention. It is a political force. It is a discursive structure of power. As such, to insist on a rigorous genealogy of a concept such as religion must be to insist on its lack of clarity–on its slippage, its incommensurability between accounts, its disjuncture with any attempt to describe it in absolute terms. Because once we encounter an insistence on simplicity and clarity, particularly with a complex concept like religion, there’s a good chance that there are ideologies at work intent on normalizing themselves for purposes of power through an appeal to clarity and simplicity.

Which brings us back to NAASR, critical religion, and the panel where I heard this comment. It seems “a theory of bird” reflects a deep tension within NAASR itself and among scholars who are interested in denying “religion” special status as strongly as possible. To put it bluntly, the language of “natural science” seems to be the only way in which many scholars in support of the Critical Religion project can conceive of “critical approaches to religion.” The language of genealogy (in the philosophical sense) and the language of natural science are not in conflict on this view; rather, natural science seems to be the only option once the work of showing that religion is no-thing is complete. In other words, for Critical Religion, genealogy is the work that needs to be done to clear the way for the real critical work of a “natural science of religion” that can get at a wholly natural, often evolutionary biological account of what religion is, which underlies and grounds even the genealogical account.

But if genealogy must insist upon complexity, slippage, difference, disjuncture, etc., then this is an utterly incoherent position. In short, it assumes that natural science is neutral, that it is the only method that escapes politics, that it has no inherent politics, no discursive history–that it has no ideology–and, thus, is outside the scope of genealogy. One of my fellow respondents at the NAASR panel questioned Taves and Asprem on this very problem. From his perspective, it seemed as though Taves and Asprem were presenting the choice to use evolutionary biology as an explanatory method as completely apolitical. Thus, on their view for example, explaining the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11 by employing evolutionary biology has no discursive political history or baggage. He rightly questioned whether that was actually the case. In response, Taves argued that to say evolutionary biology has a politics is to engage in a dangerous, anti-intellectual project no different than climate change deniers claiming that climate change is a partisan political issue and not a scientific one.

Let’s ignore the fact that Taves’ comment completely misunderstands the meaning of “political” as employed by the respondent. Given so many NAASR members’ commitment to genealogy, it is, at first glance, very difficult to see how an analysis of the genealogical development of the natural sciences could be rejected out of hand so easily. Not a single person objected to Taves’ claim about the politics of evolutionary biology, let alone the claim about theories of birds. It’s especially bizarre because the history of natural science–particularly those branches that study human beings–have a deep colonial history that is often inextricable from both religion and politics, often part of the same project of disciplining and civilizing the colonized into acceptable liberal, Enlightened subjects.

If there’s anything this election season has taught me, it’s that it is a mistake to too quickly assume that people who hold two seemingly contradictory positions are actually hypocritical or acting in bad faith.

There is an explanation for this, and you won’t be surprised to learn that it can be illuminated through a genealogy of Critical Religion that shows how their deployment of “genealogy” obfuscates a problematic commitment to natural science as apolitical and, therefore, outside the scope of what genealogy is concerned with, i.e. ideology. There’s no room for a full account here, but on my view, it has to do with a too-easy, extremely vague distinction between “scientific” and “confessional” which goes back to the 19th century. But I can offer this observation in closing: The relationship between post-structural genealogical theoretical modes and a commitment to natural science as a method in religious studies has generated a very interesting form of doublespeak wherein the demand for clarity of language results in the obfuscation of a contradiction, namely the one outlined above.

If you pay close enough attention to those scholars typically associated with NAASR and Critical Religion, you begin to notice a pattern. Any new scholarship that, in their view, “protects” religion as a concept in any way is automatically full of terms intended to obfuscate the author’s point, which in turn is intended to make the argument difficult to attack–the point being that such obfuscation always prevents a reduction of the concept to more “concrete,” “clear,” or “real” terms, i.e. those of natural science. Thus, if we can point out the key terms that are meaningless, we can dismantle the author’s argument. This is the same strategy utilized by analytic philosophers and historians who find continental philosophy and “theory” in general to be needlessly dense, complex, and obscure, e.g. Derrida/Foucault/Deleuze is talking about something really simple in the most complicated way possible. If we can demonstrate the simplicity of the argument, we can show it’s not just a simple argument but a pointless one. This demand for clarity of language, that “words matter,” betrays the Critical Religion commitment to natural science which actually contradicts any commitment to genealogy and post-structuralism more broadly they claim to have.

In other words, these scholars have staked their careers on proving to us (very successfully, I think) that religion isn’t simple. If it were, why would we need to have so many histories of the discursive power relations that generate the concept in various contexts and for various purposes of political power? Why is there ever a demand for simple straightforward language or simple, easy definitions of terms in analyses of religion–for commensurability, conjuncture, and on, and on–when genealogy shows us that the moment you encounter claims to simplicity and clarity in language, you can be absolutely sure things are not simple or clear? There is incommensurability. There is disjuncture. There is dissonance. How could there not be if “religion” is a cultural construct formed along lines of power?

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Derrida, Critical Religion, and the Potential of Post-Critical Possibility

On this episode of The Seminar Room, we discuss “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” by Jacques Derrida. As Lucas and I note in the episode, Derrida isn’t exactly the “go to” post-structuralist/critical theorist/continental philosopher of religious studies (that honor, it seems to me belongs to Talal Asad’s reading of Michel Foucault.) Derrida is a polarizing figure, often held up as the exemplar of continental “philosophizing” and incomprehensible jargon. I’m not going to defend him on that count. Derrida loved language and all the “tricks” it could play, and his writing Image result for derrida languagereflects that. Still, I think there’s something valuable for religious studies in some of what he has to say, and this essay in particular picks out something important that addresses the dialogue Lucas and I have been having throughout the podcast on the question of “critical religion.”

Here’s my claim: In order to be properly post-metaphysical, one must be sufficiently post-critical, and I think critical religion (for the most part) fails on the latter (and thus the former). Derrida discusses the first part of that claim in the early part of the essay where he points out that any absolute negation of metaphysics or metaphysical concepts is doomed to trap itself within the logic of metaphysics. To announce determinatively that there is no God (or “religion”) is to say something metaphysical about God (“religion”) on Derrida’s view. But that doesn’t mean that traditional metaphysics gets to hang around or slip in through the back door. Rather, Derrida insists on the undecidability between negation and affirmation–the infinite play of the two sides which continually subvert one another. This is where a critique of power, particularly colonialism if we’re talking about religion, is absolutely necessary in order to see how negation and affirmation operate along lines of power. Or, perhaps more importantly, to identify the power relations that attempt to arrest this play for the purposes of colonial power.

In the episode, I mention a blog post by Craig Martin (found here) in which he argues that post-structural thought does not preclude the possibility of drawing a distinction between value-laden/normative and distanced/critical approaches to the study of religions. Martin argues that value-laden arguments are only acceptable in the academic study of religion if they can be intersubjectively verified. This is the closest that we can get to anything like “objectivity” (on which Martin says he’s given up because of post-structuralism.) And, perhaps most importantly, Martin thinks this will exclude most normative theological work on religion from being considered academic in the same way that “secular” religious studies scholarship is.

Derrida’s essay challenges this view, and here I want to develop the critique that we touch on a bit in the episode. At the heart of the challenge the essay poses is this: the problem isn’t with values on Derrida’s view. Rather, it’s with any attempt to anchor discourse in some kind of center. This is the point of Derrida’s discussion of the false distinction between the bricoleur and the engineer, which Levi-Strauss invokes. In invoking this distinction, Derrida says, Levi-Strauss still maintained the (false) possibility of a discourse born out of an absolute subjective origin–literally the myth of a “non-bricolaged,” non-mythic discourse–that can anchor one’s method in “something” immovable and concrete (like empirical evidence, scientific method, etc.)

And yet Levi-Strauss still recognizes that his own methodology is bricolage, making his own scholarly work akin to myth. Myth is origin-less discourse–a bricolage of other discourses, pieced together to construct a coherent theory about an absolute origin. This origin–the center–that would anchor discourse always seems to escape the structure of bricolage. Derrida goes on to argue that the reason Levi-Strauss makes this distinction is because he’s sees the impossibility of a totalizing discourse in the wrong way. For Levi-Strauss, the problem is that the field of language is infinite. This means that there will always be new evidence, new ways of describing, and so on. The engineer is the possibility of a totalizing discourse that could gather all the empirical data under one, central account. This way of thinking about totalization still maintains the structure of “center” because it is the center that can never be fully captured by language. For Derrida, however, it isn’t that the field is too big for our finite linguistic abilities. Rather, there is a no-center which keeps language in an infinite state of “play” where signifiers (words) and signifieds (their meanings) slip away from one another and toward other equally slippery possibilities. It’s that “missing piece” that is important for Derrida.

The reason, then, that normative theology, ethics, or philosophy of religion (bricoleur) and history, ethnography, anthropology (engineer) are in the same boat (on Derrida’s view) isn’t because of values. It’s because of the nature of language itself as a field of infinite play which has a no-center. Thus, Martin’s appeal to intersubjective verification, on this view, seems like an attempt to re-imagine the bricoleur as the engineer.

However, Martin’s appeal isn’t even that strong. I don’t think he would say (based on his blog post) that intersubjective verification “centers” or grounds academic discourse in any metaphysical or “objective” way. But that’s perhaps all the more reason why I don’t find the point of his argument convincing. Martin claims that this kind of verification precludes normative approaches to religion. But this kind of verification doesn’t (by definition or something) exclude the possibility of normative theological, ethical, or philosophical work being verified. How could it? I would be on board with an argument like this if Martin were saying something like “Even though everything/everyone is value-laden, and even though language is at play infinitely, there are still ways for us to adjudicate between claims about and approaches to religions and their study.” Because then he’d be on to something that needs to be said to both critics of critical theory/post-structuralism as well as a good number of its supporters. But that isn’t his point. He wants a distinction between “normative” and “non-normative” approaches to religious studies.

Part of his worry–like most of critical religion–is that without such a distinction, we’d be left with chaos with no real way to adjudicate between approaches to religion since everyone could just point to value-ladenness as justification for their (probably terrible) approach/scholarship. But that isn’t at all what post-structuralism entails. That is, the infinite play of language or the inescapability of values doesn’t mean that everything is absolutely relative, a pure chaos in which we must weigh equally the claims of fundamentalist religious adherents with “secular” religious studies scholars as if both are worthy of being called academic scholarship. Because even among “secular” scholars, we draw distinctions between good and bad work. In other words, some work is just plain garbage, and we don’t need a distinction between “real” academic scholars of religion and normative wannabes to tell us that. So-called secular scholars produce bad work that will never be intersubjectively verified, and “normative” scholars–including confessional theologians–regularly produce work that is. And very often we find that plenty of really terrible work has been intersubjectively verified for decades or longer. Intersubjective verification leaves us right back where we started–at play in a field of language with an allusive no-center.

Listen to Episode 11 here:


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Fences and Neighbors; The Devil in Mr. Jones

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Facts v. Values: Can Religious Studies Be More Critical?

This week, we tackled an our most current text to date: an editorial published in Critical Research on Religion in April 2016 by Warren Goldstein, Rebekka King, and Jonathan Boyarin. As we’ve mentioned a couple times now on the podcast, I was delighted to discover this editorial mere days after receiving news that the panel Lucas and I proposed with Jason Josephson to the Sociology of Religion Group at the AAR was accepted, since the editorial directly addresses many of the same issues we’ll be raising in our panel.

In this post, I want to circle back to a monologue I give in the middle of the episode regarding Bruno Latour and an essay entitled “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?: From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Because our panel in November is largely focused on the Frankfurt School, Hegel, and Max Weber, we tried to steer away from spelling out the arguments we’ll be giving then and thus spoiling the surprise (though they’re certainly hinted at in the episode.) Latour, however, stands at a much closer temporal proximity to us and, therefore, I think makes an interesting companion for thinking through some of the issues raised in the editorial.

In his essay, Latour draws what I think is a vital distinction between “matters of fact” and “matters of concern” as the title of the essay indicates. This is similar to what I’ve talked about in previous episodes, what religion “is” versus what religion “does,” but for the purposes of trying to keep this post from getting out of hand, I’m going to stick to Latour’s distinction. I’ll only say that, at base, I think both distinctions are trying to clear a conceptual space for values such that their role in social theory has a renewed vigor and explanatory power.

We have to remember how critical discourse got its start: as a questioning of fact. The three “masters of suspicion,” Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud give us the initial distinction between traditional theory and a critical theory. In the former, certain claims are given as natural: There is morality, there is natural law, there is a God, etc. Nietzsche, for example, thinks that the proper approach to the question “What is moral?” is not by trying to derive particular moral actions from some Morality which is assumed to be universal and innate (i.e. natural) in all human beings. Rather, we must ask “How do the facts of morality come to be established and understood as universal and innate?” We might recognize the form of this in contemporary genealogical approaches to the category “religion.” Rather than assume religion is universal and innate, we have to analyze its construction as such.

There are important differences between critical theory and contemporary critical religion (such as Nietzsche’s point that all claims are a product of subjective valuation) but I want to bring us to Latour’s point which is a chastisement for certain deployments of critical theory that I think are exemplified in critical religion. Latour begins his essay lamenting the strong similarity between critical theory and conspiracy theory: that a suspicion of “fact” first leveled in the post-structural and critical theory of the mid-20th century has become almost indistinguishable from contemporary conspiracy theories. He cites a number of examples where dissenters engaged in political discourse surrounding particular matters of fact cast those facts as somehow “undecided,” “produced,” “contested” in some way. We might recognize this, for example, in contemporary criticism of climate change science. Even though most scientists agree that global warming is a human-caused phenomenon, a “Republican strategist” can counter this fact with an appeal to the incompleteness of the evidence rather than direct evidence to the contrary (which he knows does not exist.) In other words, he aims to establish a lack of scientific certainty.

This is obviously a bit of a vexed analogy with critical religion, since so many in that branch of religious studies actually appeal to science. But let’s put Latour’s concern in our discipline’s terms. We’ve reached a point where literally any discourse that can be accused of being “value laden” can also be accused of being “crypto-theological.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say such scholars are “conspiracy theorists”–that would be grossly unfair. But Latour is not saying that scholars deploying critical theory against “matters of fact” are conspiracy theorists either. Rather, he’s trying to show that perhaps we too quickly assume the unmasking of facts should be our conclusion. He writes:

Let me be mean for a second. What’s the real difference between conspiracists and a popularized, that is a teachable version of social critique inspired by a too quick reading of, let’s say, a sociologist as eminent as Pierre Bourdieu [. . .]? In both cases, you have to learn to become suspicious of everything people say because of course we all know that they live in the thralls of a complete illusio of their real motives. Then, after disbelief has struck and an explanation is requested for what is really going on, in both cases again it is the same appeal to powerful agents hidden in the dark acting always consistently, continuously, relentlessly. Of course, we in the academy like to use more elevated causes–society, discourse, knowledge-slash-power, fields of forces, empires, capitalism–while conspiracists like to portray a miserable bunch of greedy people with dark intents, but I find something troublingly similar in the structure of the explanation, in the first movement of disbelief and, then, in the wheeling of causal explanations coming out of the deep dark below.

What Latour identifies here is a kind of “stunted growth” of the deployment of critical theory. Conspiracy theory, for him, is a stand-in for a criticism not taken far enough precisely because it has limited itself to “the facts.” As we say in the episode, critical religion often fails to move beyond pointing out that certain “facts” are value-laden, constructed, etc.

Latour’s solution to this problem is to move our attention from “matters of fact” to “matters of concern.” In other words, while our previous modes of social critique, e.g. discourse analysis, deconstruction, critical theories of race, gender, and class, etc. have insisted that we move away from “facts” as such and toward the production of those facts, Latour argues the aim of critique “was never to get away from facts but closer to them, not fighting empiricism but, on the contrary, renewing empiricism.” To come back to the CRR editorial, this strikes me as remarkably similar to the authors’ assertion that we address religion as “an empirical entity”–something that I think has been seriously misunderstood in the negative responses to the editorial. Latour gives us a conceptual language for getting clearer on what such an “empirical entity” might be. That is, rather than think of such an entity as a “matter of fact” mistakenly taken as inherent, natural, or universal (which is how detractors seemed to understand “empirical entity”), Latour suggests we see such an entity as a “matter of concern.”

A “matter of concern” is a way of talking about phenomena as states of affairs in all of their complexity rather than uncritically accepting what a matter of fact is, thereby limiting our analysis to the production of “bare facts” for the purposes of power. Matters of fact are “objects in the world” in the old, Enlightenment sense of that phrase. They are dead, concretized, and neutral, available for our observation but also our manipulation. Matters of concern, comparatively, are Things in the Heideggerian sense–an object that is struck by an inexhaustible set of connections.

Perhaps an even better way of putting this is to say that Latour is returning a dimension of value to any social or cultural critique. Matters of concern extend beyond matters of fact precisely because they take into consideration the values that traverse them and make them what they are. This consideration is not carried out in a purely deconstructive sense (e.g. “These are the nefarious discourses/values that constructed religious concept X.”) Instead it is critically affirmative, not in the sense of endorsement, but in the sense of an analysis that tries to make sense of the effects of matters of concern on other aspects of social life (which is part and parcel with Latour’s actor-network theory.)

I want to emphasize that this doesn’t exclude critical genealogical approaches in our discipline. As the authors of the editorial point out, much important work as been done through the deconstruction of the concept “religion” particularly as that concept has been deployed for purposes of colonialism, neo-liberalism, etc. I’m not concluding that this sort of work cease. Rather, my argument, echoing the CRR editorial, is that this kind of work does not preclude the scholarly deployment of the category if it is being identified as an “empirical entity,” “matter of concern,” “Thing,” “nexus of value,”–whatever we want to call it. We need to begin developing theoretical ways beyond the critique of “religion” as a matter of fact.

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On the Genealogy of Morals

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Critical Theories, Critical Religions, and Critical Religion

As Lucas and I discuss in this week’s episode, we’ve spent a good amount of time on the project of “critical religion” and what we think it does well or not so well. One of its potential faltering points is, as I mentioned in the last blog post, the claim that any approach to religion not guided by science is automatically guided by a “theological agenda.” This in turn rests on the assumption, exemplified in Segal’s essay, “Diagnosing Religion,” that what is “rational” is already agreed upon, universal, and the only mode that is properly critical.

When Segal invokes Richard Rorty, he does so to use Rorty’s characterization of the distinction between epistemology and hermeneutics in order to show that the former trumps the latter as an approach to religious studies–but also as an approach to knowledge in general. As I say in the episode, this is not Rorty’s claim. In this post, I want to sharpen one point from our discussion of Segal’s essay. We point out that Segal never discloses what the “level playing field” is on which the scholar is meant to analyze religious claims (which are also situated on this field.) In the interest of charitable reading, we might have granted that this field could include approaches that are not in the realm of the natural sciences. But upon closer inspection, that actually doesn’t seem to be the case because of what likely falls into the category (hermeneutics) with which the epistemological approach is contrasted.

In Rorty’s analysis, “the epistemological” is a fixed field. It is taken to be the “natural” way by which human beings gain knowledge: Subjects experience objects and reflect those objects in their mind–“the mirror of nature”–in order to analyze and come to “know” them. It’s safe to assume that Segal thinks this is right since he uses Rorty’s distinction between this and hermeneutics but never makes any qualifications regarding Rorty’s account of the epistemological. The hermeneutic, on the other hand, is contingent. This is what most of us in the humanities are familiar with as a kind of “anti-foundationalist” critique of epistemology. Rorty’s argument is that truth claims are never “purely” adjudicated in the vacuum of the mirror-object-subject version of epistemology. There are always other factors at play that undermine our ability to achieve that kind of purity. These other factors are then elided when, for example, Segal claims that is simply “obvious to everyone” that the traditional “empiricist” mode of epistemology is naturally the best one.

I have no clue what this picture means. I think it has something to do with Einstein, chemistry, and hermeneutics.

This brings me to my point of emphasis: The relevance of this to religious studies. In the episode, I note that the kind of search for “common ground” emblematic of the hermeneutic approach does not have the same stakes in religious studies as it does in philosophy. In other words, Rorty’s claim is that the way we arrive at what counts as truth is conversationally; however, this isn’t the kind of conversation the religious studies scholar is having when approaching religion in this way. Of course there is an attempt to understand the terms of the religious adherent without translating them into some other terms, but the purpose of that is not to come to consensus with the religious adherent on the nature of truth and reality themselves. It’s to better understand how the religious adherent understands her own world.

With that distinction made, however, we can circle back and reframe Segal’s characterization of the hermeneutic approach as an ought rather than an is question: Ought the aim of the religious studies scholar be to reach a consensus on truth with the religious adherent? This seems to be at stake in the recent AAR post we mention at the beginning of the episode, in which Ann Taves and Graham Ward are attempting to understand each other’s position (as a scientist of religion and as a theologian respectively.) This is a question to which I don’t have a readily available answer (nor does anyone I don’t think.) At one time, it perhaps seemed obvious that the answer to this question was a resounding “No”–even from the phenomenological side. Segal himself has pointed out in other essays that the phenomenologist of religion is just as reductive as the empiricist/epistemologist is. Where as the latter reduces religion to observable, material explanations, the phenomenologist reduces religion to a system of ideas completely foreign to the particulars of any one religion. Thus, even though Eliade claimed that all religions would recognize themselves in his system, this turns out not to be the case. There is no consensus.

But now that we are moving beyond both of these moments in religious studies (the phenomenological and the purely material/reductive/scientific) as exemplified in the Salomon/Walton essay, the question of whether and to what extent the nature of truth and reality ought to be a conversation scholars have with religious adherents reemerges. Or, at the very least, whether we ought to listen more carefully and take more seriously what they have to say becomes important.

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Durkheim and the “Science of Religion”

In the opening essay of The Politics of Religious Studies, Donald Wiebe (summarizing Samuel Preus) claims that Sigmund Freud and Émile Durkheim “bring to completion the naturalistic paradigm for the academic study of religion originating ultimately with Hume” (Wiebe 6). A clean trajectory from Hume to Durkheim (nearly 150 years between their deaths) is precisely the kind of problematic history that critical religion is typically concerned with undermining. As an aspiring scholar interested in critical theory and religious studies, this history has been of significant interest to me as of late. The thread that is drawn through all of the figures from Hume to Durkheim is, in Wiebe’s language, the rejection of a “theological agenda” which decides the limits of conclusions drawn that can be drawn in the study of religion.

This thread is right in certain respects. I agree that to a certain extent we find in Hume, et. al. the rejection of any “confessional” criterion for defining religion. For these figures, the ontological question cannot be answered circularly by reference to a god, rituals, or any other interpretation of religious phenomena given by religious people themselves. Yet the conclusion on the part of many in critical religion is that once such “agendas” are rejected, the “negative space” left behind is simply natural scientific approaches to religious studies. For Wiebe, this means exactly what it implies: All “humanistic” disciplines, i.e. the humanities in toto, are determined by hidden theological agendas, which, on Wiebe’s account, are a product of the emergence of existential philosophies post-WWII and a suspicion of the efficacy of technological rationalization in providing any meaning for life itself. I suspect that not all in the critical religion camp would want to raise this very particular religious studies debate to the level of “humanities v. natural science,” but if we want to keep the debate strictly about what qualifies as appropriately “academic” for the study of religion, then the contrast the above thread actually identifies becomes decidedly more grey. In other words, on Wiebe’s analysis, three things are not at all obvious: 1) These figures all agree on what counts as a “theological agenda” 2) These figures all agree on what counts as a “scientific” approach to the study of religion 3) Natural science is the only approach to religion not tainted by a theological agenda. These are all concerns in my dissertation, so they framed the way I approached our discussion rather significantly.

Sean makes the point in the podcast that it’s sometimes odd being a graduate student in religious studies who not only wasn’t trained in religious studies previously but comes from continental philosophy and cultural studies (the spawn, in part, of the theology-laden existential philosophies Wiebe thinks are the problem.) And Durkheim seems to embody the “collective unconscious,” to use Sean’s words, of the AAR and similar organizations–even NAASR–that is, of religious studies as adiscipline. As I was editing the episode, I was struck by incongruity between this collective unconscious and the kinds of critical genealogies that aim at telling the story of scholarly discourse about religion.

Durkheim marks an important fork in the road for the study of religion that I think helps explain this incongruity. On the one hand, Durkheim’s Elementary Forms gives an account that is “scientific” in Wiebe’s sense: He explicitly rejects any interpretation of religion offered by religious people themselves as not scholarly. He also claims that his account is based in empirical observation, is “testable” (even if limitedly so), and can be expanded into a universal scientific law. His account is also thoroughly material in contrast to earlier anthropological accounts (Tylor, Frazer) which locate the basic form of religion in spirits or other transcendent powers.

On the other hand, this materiality is also not the materiality of Marx or Freud. That is, rather than giving an account of how a latent material reality gives rise to not only religion but all other illusory and ideological social institutions, Durkheim is focused on the positive religious expressions found particularly in rituals and rites that distinguish between sacred and profane material in an attempt to show how those (and indeed all forms of religious practice) express the most fundamental and “simple” form of religion–the extra-kin social bond, symbolized by the totem. The totem is not a latent material reality the way that economy or the “hidden” structures of the human psyche are for Marx and Freud. It is the case that, for Durkheim, when religious people define religion in terms of, for example, Christian eschatology, worship of God, salvation, etc., they’re wrong about that. But they’re only wrong in the sense that those definitions are not the fundamental definition of religion. In other words, they’re only wrong in a particular academic sense. Durkheim’s claim is not that religious people don’t know that religious expressions generate social bonds. They absolutely do recognize this. Rather, it’s that they don’t realize that the circular definitions they put forward are extraneous–they are not willing to admit that, ultimately, the proper definition of religion is functional. Those extraneous definitions are part of Durkheim’s functional account. They operate within the definition of religion as the fundamental way in which social bonds are generated.

Critical religion draws on both sides to a certain extent, but primarily, I think, from the first side. The latter side–the “positive” genealogical/descriptive account of religious practice–is picked up in later figures such as Mircea Eliade and Clifford Geertz. Eliade and Geertz have different aims, but both take Durkheim’s claim that “all religions are true after their own fashion” much further than Durkheim probably would have liked. Durkheim’s error, in this view, was in ascribing a reductive, functional place to religious belief and practice. If one wanted to give an account of religion that actually took seriously the claims of religious people, then those claims couldn’t be reduced to something else. It is this reinscription of the circular arguments of religious adherents into the study of religion that becomes the object of analysis in critical religion.

I wonder sometimes, then, to what extent certain arguments about the colonial history of the concept of religion are actually about that history and not about dismantling this particular side of Durkheim’s legacy for the sake of reclaiming its critical/scientific edge. That’s not to say such accounts are ambivalent toward colonialism or use such critiques opportunistically–but I think we have to admit the strangeness in the relationship between such critiques and the conclusion that what is left behind in their wake is the natural sciences. Durkheim, in part, helps us understand how that pairing comes to be.

Listen to Episode 6 here:


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A Sociology of Value: Max Weber’s Methodology

This week we move into territory that is in the realm of my own specific dissertation research and discuss Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Sean is able to join us on the podcast for his first episode, which is super exciting. He was traveling in California and had to leave the recording a little early, but it was still fantastic to finally get him on!

In this introduction, I want to briefly summarize what I see as Weber’s most important intervention in social theory and especially methodology regarding the study of religion. Much of European social theory in the 19th century that we still care about today was divided between two poles. On the one hand, there were positivist theories of history and society such as those advanced by Auguste Comte, which posited universal laws of history and a strong evolutionary theory of society, culminating in the modern era. For Comte, one could look at the empirical evidence that history and contemporary society provide and abstract from that evidence these laws and the proper evolutionary divisions between eras in the development of society. On the other hand, there were genealogical accounts such as those belonging to Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud who aimed to show that a latent principle of human nature (also empirically verifiable, at least for Marx and Freud) was what reallydrove the development of society to the modern era. Marx believed that recognizing this could help us overcome the worst aspects of this principle (our ability to advance the efficiency of meeting our needs through mastery of nature), Freud thought we were doomed to be haunted by our repressed desires forever, and Nietzsche is maybe somewhere in the middle. What is characteristic of all three, however, is the positing of a central, world-historical factabout the nature of humanity. It is this fact that first sets the machine of societal development in motion.

Weber’s intervention is to show that such a world-historical fact cannot form the basis of a social theory. There are a number of reasons for this. First, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud can’t all be correct simultaneously. Their theories are competing and mutually exclusive (though, to be sure, there certainly have been more recent creative combinations of psychoanalysis and historical materialism.) Given the proposed explanatory strength of their theories (at least on Weber’s reading), one would expect that, looking around the world at various cultures, we would be able to see cultures developing more or less along the lines proposed by Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, even if at different rates. But Weber says this is not at all what we see. Instead, we see features of society in the West that have onlyemerged in the West and that (as Sean points out in the episode) even within the West itself, there are developments in some regions that do not occur (and likely cannot occur) in others. The empirical evidence, which Weber thinks is quite plain to everyone, simply does not support any “world-historical” foundational principle that could somehow explain all religious development (this is a blow to other evolutionary theories as well, e.g. E.B. Tylor, Emile Durkheim, etc.)

Weber thinks that no “material fact” can serve as the proper point of departure for mounting an analysis of society. What he means here, though, depends upon a specific way of viewing values in modern society. Whether or not this constitutes a kind of static, material fact for Weber is another question, but I do think Weber leaves his theory “open” such that his understanding ofScreen Shot 2016-02-27 at 10.10.21 AM values is not intended to be a priori true or have the same level of fundamental irreducibility that we see in the figures mentioned above. When Weber means in dismissing these sorts of “facts” is that we cannot understand the values in one sphere of life strictly from the perspective of another sphere. This is what he sees happening in Marx and Nietzsche (he doesn’t really engage Freud.) By “sphere of life” Weber is referring to a particularly modern structuring of one’s view of life-as-a-whole (pictured to the right from a Powerpoint lecture I gave on this recently). Weber thinks that at one point, these spheres were more or less undifferentiated (a rather uncontroversial claim, I think), but as “rationalization” within each sphere became more and more complex, the spheres began to make their own differentiated and unique demands on the individual and the community. For example, at one time nearly all art was “religious art.” There was not a serious distinction between two such forms–even what we call “religious art” today was just “art.” But, so Weber theorizes, as artists and viewers of art came to appreciate the form and technique of the artist rather than the religious content of the image, artists began to create art for the sake of highlighting form and technique (among other aspects of art not related to religious content and purpose.) Furthermore, there developed a sense that the aesthetic sphere provided an alternative path to salvation, thus putting at odds the values of the aesthetic and religious spheres. Weber thinks a similar differentiation occurs in each sphere with regard to religion. In the West, and in Reformed Protestantism particularly, the demands of the religious sphere are pitched so high that it becomes the dominant sphere. However, this is not at all obvious from the historical data since this branch of Protestantism maintained a strong connection with the economic and political spheres, rather than (as in other situations where religion is dominant) completely retreat form the world altogether. Obviously, we talk much more about this connection between the economic and the religious spheres in the episode.

What comes to the fore for me in this analysis is Weber’s utilization of religious and even theological ideas as a way of describing and illustrating the religious values of Reformed Protestants for the purposes of his analysis. I want to say that this move is non-reductive over-against both contemporary calls to reduction (e.g. Sharf, or especially Don Wiebe or Robert Segal) as well as the phenomenological approaches such contemporary reductive accounts critique. Weber is not reductive either in the “critical religion” or phenomenological senses. Though Weber’s method (importantly) extends beyond what religious adherents themselves see as the telos and/or explanation of their own ideas and practices, Weber’s starting point is not an explanation of what those ideas and practices are fundamentally. We see such a starting point in critical religion and phenomenology–an ontological approach to what religion is. Even in explaining what religion means as some phenomenologists do, I’d argue that the fundamental goal of such meaning is ontological/definitional. Weber, on the other hand, is interested in what religion does: i.e. the particular effects that the process of rationalizing religious values with the values of other social spheres has on those other spheres. For Weber, even if the religious values are not “really” religious but can be shown to be “actually” something else, Weber thinks the fact that people regard them as religious has a genuine effect that cannot be explained by such a reduction. In other words, Marx’s theory, for example, cannot account for the ways that “religious values”–as understood by the adherent to be actually religious–has determinate effects on and even creates the conditions for new kinds of capitalism.

Listen to Episode 5 here:



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Experience: A Response from Eva Kelley

Eva Kelley, a Ph.D student in UCSB’s Department of Religious Studies and friend of ours, graciously agreed to write a response to both the chapter we discussed this week, “Experience” by Robert Sharf, and to the podcast itself. We at TSR thank her for her thoughtful work here! Her post follows below. References in her post refer to the actual page numbers of Critical Terms for Religious Studies rather than the PDF version which Lucas and I used for the podcast.

* * *

Robert Sharf argues that experience ought not be a critical term for religious studies because experience, as something private and ineffable, will always remain inaccessible to the scholar. His objection then is not just to the term experience but to the pursuit of the thing it supposedly denotes. Sharf’s issue is not simply with scholarly terminology—that in some languages and cultures there may be no conceptual equivalent to the English word experience which we could somehow refine by discovering terms native to various traditions and languages. Rather, he makes a stronger claim: other people’s interiority is just not something we can ever get at publicly, so it should not be the object of scholarly inquiry. Proper objects of religious studies inquiry are texts, sacred rites, and oral traditions—i.e., all publically accessible displays of human culture.

Some accuse religious studies scholarship of being reductionistic when it fails to consider experience or the inner dimension of religious practice, that it elides the living, breathing, dynamic, personally affecting dimension of religion. To such critics, Sharf answers that considerations of such an inner dimension usually end up as one more form of ideological appropriation, because the category of experience, as it is wielded by scholars, is “a mere placeholder that entails a substantive if indeterminate terminus for the relentless deferral of meaning.”[1] Experience can mean whatever the scholar wants it to mean, precisely because the term has no observable content—we have no standard or data against which to measure one person’s consciousness and interiority against another’s, so we load the term experience with whatever meanings we need it to bear for us. Thus Sharf’s critique of method is closely tied to his position on philosophy of mind.

Interpretation is no doubt a central part of our work in the humanities, but it is hard not to agree with Sharf that “scholars of religion are not presented with experiences that stand in need of interpretation but rather with texts, narratives, performances, and so forth,” which is why “it is ill conceived to construe the object of the study of religion to be the inner experience of religious practitioners.”[2] My job is to interpret, for example, the texts of the medieval Kabbalists, Julian of Norwich, and Bonaventure, which contain visionary accounts, not to try to interpret their experiences of such divine visions because I have no access to the latter (the experience), only to the former (the text about the experience). It is fruitful for me to examine the neoplatonic and Talmudic influences on the Zohar, or the blending of Franciscan and Dionysian themes in Bonaventure’s Itinerarium. It is pointless for me to ask, using the tools of RS scholarship, “What did the Kabbalists or Bonaventure in fact experience during an out of body union with God, the creator of the universe?” Attempts to answer that kind of question take us all too quickly into the domain of theology.

This is where Sharf’s implicit scientific materialism strikes me as odd and out of place. Sharf rebukes Felicitas Goodman for her agnosticism about the reality of extraordinary experiences such as spirit possession or divine visions, calling her agnosticism “a small step away from John Mack’s qualified acceptance of the existence of alien abductors.”[3] First of all, agnosticism in no way approximates qualified acceptance; agnosticism properly refrains from making a judgment, so it is precisely not acceptance. Goodman is simply arguing that “whether these changes [in the bodies of those who report spirit possession] are internally generated or created by external agencies is not something discoverable,” which sounds much like the position for which Sharf himself is arguing.[4] The object of religion scholarship is not inner experience, but rather the stories, myths, and practices about such experiences. To be faithful to his own prescription, Sharf would be obligated to remain agnostic about the veracity of alien abduction accounts, or at least would be obligated to refrain from the attempt (which would be futile, according to his own assertions about philosophy of mind) to establish or disprove their veracity through scholarship.

Joel and Lucas pick up on this tension, though there seems to be bit of confusion about which of the many camps within the religious studies discipline are allies on these issues. Joel and Lucas note that the interesting question for RS scholars is not “did this person really experience alien abduction, or touch the wounds of a bleeding Christ, or become demon-possessed” but rather “how do these discourses of experience function in their social context? What power do they wield? What institutions and values are being critiqued or reshaped by these discourses?”

Joel reads Sharf’s critical approach as one amenable to cognitive science assessments of religion and as at odds with critical theory, but on my reading, it is the reverse. Sharf’s position is much more amenable to analyzing religion according to power dynamics, values, and institutions than to cognitive science. Sharf’s own explanation of the rise of the term experience in Japanese and Chinese contexts as a response to western imperialism is a great example of exactly this kind of work. He looks not at whether Theravāda and Zen masters have in fact achieved enlightenment, but rather at the terms for enlightenment (satori or kenshō), the techniques used to achieve it (samatha versus vipassamā), and the authorities attempting to define authentic forms of it vis-à-vis Christian missionary activity. Whereas Sharf says the religion scholar ought simply to investigate and catalogue religious artifacts and leave well alone the inevitably ineffable domain of religious experience, cognitive science takes inner experience as its primary object of investigation. It seems to me that it has to presume from the get-go that inner experience is accessible to us, is quantifiable, and can be mapped according to neurological activity and blood flow to certain brain tissues. This is precisely the kind of work Sharf is most roundly rejecting, relying as it does not on literary and artistic representations but on the “numinous inner realm” to which those representations supposedly refer back.[5]


[1] Robert H. Sharf, “Experience,” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, ed. Mark C. Taylor (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 113.

[2] Ibid., 111.

[3] Ibid., 112.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 113.

Experience with Diesel Engines

This introduction is going to be a bit shorter than the first three since we have a very special guest response to the episode coming later this week. Eva Kelley, good friend of ours and colleague of Lucas’s in UCSB’s Department of Religious Studies, will be offering her thoughts on the status of “experience” as a concept in religious studies. It’s going to be fantastic.

This week we discussed “Experience” by Robert Sharf which is a chapter from Critical Terms for Religious Studies (1998). There is really no good reason to choose this chapter over any of the others from the text except that it was the first I read from the collection after a professor from one of my first seminars at Northwestern gave it to me as a supplement she thought I might find interesting. I found it exasperating, and thus extremely interesting, and it’s an essay that has sort of stuck with me ever since.

I find it exasperating for reasons that I get into in the actual podcast, but there are elements I appreciate about the essay. The colonial history of the inherited terms in religious studies is seemingly inexhaustible, so I think it’s always worth digging into and telling. Though I don’t think Sharf is conscious of it in this essay, through his analysis of the colonial genealogy of “experience,” he touches on something that I’ve become increasingly interested in: the fault lines between indigenous uses of colonial power as resistance or as consolidation of different, non-colonial discourses of power and the imposition of categories as a means of colonial political taxonomy and control. Put another way, as I wonder in this episode, can we understand someone like D.T. Suzuki or Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan as colonizers of their own religious traditions? Sharf’s account of these two figures raises some important questions about how we mediate the boundaries between criticizing a colonial imposition and criticizing what is perhaps an internal change from within a tradition, even if it is employing “colonial” concepts for its own ends.

Lastly, Lucas and I have a slight disagreement toward the end of the episode over whether or not Sharf’s handling of epistemology is a problem related to assuming a kind of scientific naturalism or a logical problem. My position was the former (which I don’t think excludes logical problems necessarily), which is part of a larger problematic trend I see in critical religion. I don’t have any problem out of hand with natural scientific approaches to the study of religion if we’re talking about cognitive science or something like that. I see an actual logical distinction between what natural sciences does and what “historical sciences,” die Geisteswissenschaften, the humanities, do (a distinction that I will talk about in the next episode when we discuss Max Weber), so natural science people can go nuts. The problem I have is moving from a critique of colonial imposition to the conclusion that religious studies should, therefore, engage natural scientific approaches in the study of religion. The leap this conclusion makes is evident in the way in which the first part of Sharf’s chapter seems almost completely unrelated to the second part where he eludes to the reducibility of all phenomena to natural scientific explanations (by invoking Daniel Dennett.) At odds in this leap, on my reading, is a confusion of the fact/value distinction where certain “value-centered” approaches are employed while at the same time rejecting such approaches as meaningless, useless, or nefarious in favor of fact-based “science.” This is an argument that I’m still developing, so I’ll leave it there for now. It’s certainly going to come up again in future episodes!

Listen to Episode 4:


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