The Seminar Room

A Religious Studies Podcast

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.

Listen to Episode 9 here:


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On the Genealogy of Morals

Listen to Episode 8 here:

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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.

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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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Episode 3 Introduction: Marx’s “On the Jewish Question”

In this week’s episode we discuss Karl Marx’s “On the Jewish Question.” At the outset of this brief introduction I think it is important to note that there are a number of aspects to Marx’s piece that for reasons pertaining to time limits we were unable to cover. Among these aspects is the history and debate concerning “the Jewish Question” in German society up to the point of Marx’s writing. In the future I think it would be good for us to revisit this piece by Marx in relation to some secondary literature that focuses on the various aspects of the Jewish Question in Germany. In particular, engaging Bruce Rosenstock’s book Philosophy and the Jewish Question: Mendelsohn, Rosenzweig, and Beyond in tandem with this piece might help shed light on some particularities that characterised that debate.

Initial qualifications aside, I found our discussion of Marx to be helpful in synthesizing the range of theoretical issues we had been discussing in the previous two episodes pertaining to the concept “religion.” To recap (in very general terms), we first saw in our examination of Fitzgerald’s article how he seeks to deconstruct the concept of religion by showing how its construction has no referent in the world. What we call “religion” is really a protestant western imposition of categories upon a diverse array of power-relations, practices and institutions that are too broad to coincide with the limited contours of the concept. Basic questions about the history of the concept “religion” and the nature of “the concept” within a philosophical register began emerging for us and we decided to move from Fitzgerald a few steps back to examine some “classic” texts.

Feuerbach gave us a notion of religion as projection of human deficiency, a result of our limited understanding of the world that we may leave behind upon recognising its nature as such. The concept “religion” thus takes on a concrete form and function in Feuerbach’s analysis, is an autonomous determination that is capable of affecting negatively other aspects of the human life and thought and is something that is constructed, that has an origin and is not an apriori element of human being. Here we found ourselves, to a greater or lesser degree, dissatisfied with the way the Feuerbach positions the concept “religion” in a singularly causal relation to the rest of human life. How is it that religion serves as the problematic human construct that leads to misunderstandings and division in other arenas of human life? Why is is not that other determinations in thinking and social life affect the religious in a negative way too? Thus, we arrive at Marx.

Marx sets up our discussion of how religion figures into a larger problem of political and social alienation through his critical analysis of and response to Bruno Bauer’s work on the “Jewish Question.” At issue for Marx is the way in which civil society and political society are distinguished in relation to the question of how Jews are to become liberated from their current situation in Germany. For Bauer however, the state of alienation that characterizes the relation between Jews in Germany and the Christian state is the result of a purely religious difference, a “religious opposition.”

“How is religious opposition made impossible? By abolishing religion. As soon as Jew and Christian recognize that their respective religions are no more than different stages in the development of the human mind, different snake skins cast of by history, and that man is the snake who sloughed them, the relation of Jew and Christian is no longer religious but is only a critical, scientific, and human relation.”

Here Bauer makes a similar move that Marx locates in Feuerbach with regard to the relation between religion and societal ills. In the latter’s case, problems pertaining to division in society and religion are the result of conflicts between differing identities within a separate sphere of human being – the religious. As we discuss in the Feuerbach episode, the operational definition of the concept “religion” is a stop-gap measure that is meant to fill-in empty spaces in our understanding of the world – i.e. “Im not sure what stars are, they must be my ancestors or deities that control the universe.” Once we realise that religious understandings of the world are not only flawed in their various propositions, but are also simply the result of a lack of proper understanding, we are able to reject religion and pursue real knowledge.

Bauer’s assertion that the abolition of religion itself is the goal for which German society should strive demarcates the concept “religion” as a quasi-autonomous and deeply flawed sphere of being and thinking for human beings. As with Feuerbach, we see within Marx’s construal of Bauer a one-directional causal notion of religion: religion is able to affect negatively the other aspects of societal life, yet these other dimensions of society are unable to affect negatively the sphere of religion. So the sphere “religion” becomes the causal mechanism for alienation and division within society. A coincident result of Bauer’s construal of the concept “religion” is that “society” becomes an abstract concept insulated from value-critique. Religion is that which misunderstands, divides and contradicts rational thinking, society is the neutrally blank space in which rational individuals exist.

As Joel notes in our discussion, it is precisely this construction of religion in tandem with the rendering of society as a neutral space that Marx’s critique of the distinction between civil society and political society is meant to challenge. For Marx, emancipation means the collapsing of the distinction between a person’s abstract “citizen” life and the private workaday life that the individual lives – i.e. a person’s religious and social life. Bauer is only able to conceive emancipation as emancipation from religion, emancipation at the level of privatised identity of persons, as that singular determination which bears responsibility for the division between Jews in Germany and Christians. Marx challenges the causal ordering that Feuerbach and Bauer assign to the religion-society relation, illustrating that religious division is epiphenomenal to a much more basic division – the alienation of the social and political person itself.

Our discussion pivots from a summary discussion of Marx’s argument into questions pertaining to the operative concept of religion implicit in Marx’s argument. Here we debate the appropriateness of characterising Marx’s concept of religion – a concept that manifests only indirectly within Marx’s work itself – as another iteration of “projection.” I will leave it up to our listeners to decide whether that is an appropriate descriptor or not. For myself, I am of the view that while Marx correctly identifies the deficiencies of a causally one-directional model of projection vis-à-vis Feuerbach and Bauer, he is unable to conceive of the concept such that religion and non-religious aspects of human being function in a multi-directional feedback loop of causation. I take this latter sort of model as that which is operative within the work of social theorists such as Max Weber, Emile Durkheim and Horkheimer and Adorno and I think that the movement in these thinkers away from a one-directional model is an important move that our future episodes will certainly need to discuss.

Listen to Episode 3:

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The Essence of Religion: Critical Reduction in Thought Concerning Religion

Lucas and I recorded two episodes back to back over the holiday break and even got to sit in the same room to do it (my brother’s kitchen in Highland Park, CA). In the first of the two, we discuss Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Religion (1848). There are two points I want to highlight: a clarification and then an elaboration.

The clarification has to do with the first part of the episode when I say that Feuerbach is a “materialist.” Feuerbach plays a very important role in the transition between Hegelian idealism and various kinds of materialist philosophy, but he is not a “materialist” in the strict sense of Marxian [historical] materialism: a distinction important for the next episode which is about Marx’s “On the Jewish Question.” In short, even though Feuerbach “reduces” religion to “Nature”–i.e. that claims about and attributions given to a transcendent god are really naming attributes of Nature–Feuerbach’s primary point is that humans are making a mental error. In other words, if human beings thought about religious concepts differently–recognized them for what they actually are–everyone would be a lot better off. Marx, on the other, argues that no amount of change in ideas can bring about the world-historical change necessary for the liberation of the oppressed. The change has to come in the material circumstances in which humans are embedded; namely, the means of production used to meet needs. This is a really important difference for sussing out later developments in religious studies, particularly what scholars are getting at when they talk about solutions to some of the problems someone like Fitzgerald raises.

To explain this difference a little more, I’m going to begin with Marx’s critique. When Marx identifies the problem of the state in which German philosophy finds itself in The German Ideology, he sees two distinct groups, the Old Hegelians and the Young Hegelians (which were actual schools of philosophy following Hegel), who set up their response to Hegel as being in opposition to each other. For the Old Hegelians, everything in the world is comprehended if reduced to a logical category. In other words, if you’re asking, “Which is the best form of the state?” you have to begin by identifying the logical category of the state–the Hegelian “concept” of the state, or the “ideal” state. From there, you can generate hierarchies of the particular, positive instantiations of states found in the world. The Young Hegelians, on the other hand, considered concepts to be pure “religious dogma”–their actual phrasing. That is, the concept “state” doesn’t actually transcend humans–is constructed–therefore, to appeal to the concept in order to justify the existence of a particular state is dogmatic. Their solution was to stop thinking religiously about concepts and realize that concepts like “the state” are human constructs.

Marx thinks, however, that both sides are actually part of the same problem. In other words, the problem isn’t how you think about concepts–the problem is in thinking that ideas determine historical reality at all. For Marx, ideas are a consequence of material reality. Thus, a change in ideas nets no actual change in material circumstances.

Feuerbach is usually lumped in with the Young Hegelian school, and if we think about their position generally, we can see a kind of materialism at work. Concepts do not transcend human particularity–they come from it. It is in this narrow sense that Feuerbach can be considered a kind of materialist: he wanted us to stop thinking that our religious ideas transcend nature. It is in the fact that he puts the emphasis on how we think–our ideas and concepts regarding religion–that Marx does not think he goes far enough.

Now the elaboration. Toward the end of the episode I pose a thought experiment to Lucas that asks whether or not a purely physical account of himself (e.g. based on DNA, etc.) would seem to him as though it had accounted for the total of “who he is” as a person. The aim of the thought experiment is merely to try and point out the usefulness of choosing a place to begin an analysis, rather than demand that the place from which we begin be the reductive “starting point.” Indeed, I would argue that even though Feuerbach thinks that we always have to begin from the scientific explanation for phenomena, he is still choosing a point from which to begin in that account. What interests me most in the study of religion is the effects that religious “activity” (beliefs, action, institutions, etc.) have on the material world and vice versa. Religious explanations of the world have real consequences, I think, that are not confined to self-reflexion. That is, religious explanations of the world don’t only affect religious practice and other religious ideas–the have tangible effects on economy, politics, society, ethics, aesthetics, sexuality, etc. This is, I think, an uncontroversial point but one that Feuerbach clearly misses or is simply not interested in. Certainly later materialists who follow Feuerbach–Marx–think that religious explanations of the world have absolutely no material consequences whatsoever.

And still, we continue to see versions of this crop up in debates on religious studies methodology. For instance, this debate posted on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog contains some hints of this non-consequentialist view. The debate features two scholars of religion, one advocating for “methodological agnosticism” and the other for “methodological atheism.” The latter provides the following example to support his position:

[A] zoologist doesn’t ask an elephant what it’s like to be an elephant; she studies the elephant. A biologist doesn’t try to imagine the experience of a frog before cutting it open and trying to understand how it works. Religion can be studied analytically, etically, from the outside, as in other analytical disciplines. It can also be studied as a member, supporter, and practioner, honoring the experiences of one’s fellow members, and honoring the claims of authority within it. But that’s an entirely different discipline from the Study of Religion. It’s not about neutrality, but about disciplinary boundaries.

Notice the same reductive claim that Feuerbach makes–or any of the “classical” reductive scholars of religion (Marx, Freud, etc.) An either/or proposition is set up here, which I think is a false dichotomy. Either we study religion “from the outside,” never once caring what a religious person says “it’s like” to be religious, or else we are studying religion “confessionally” and with proper honor due the authority of the tradition. To put it in terms of my thought experiment, this view would ignore, or at least downplay, the ways in which the meaning attributed to religious activity by religious adherents themselves has actual effects on material circumstances.

To go this direction is not to “use God” as a means of explaining religious phenomena, which is something the proponent of methodological atheism worries about. I do worry about that as well, since he is precisely correct in recognizing that in other disciplines (e.g. biology) scholars, even Christian ones, do not invoke characteristically “religious” explanations in their scholarship. This is likely always true in the natural sciences. But would any scholar of literature even blink at someone using theology to give a reading of Dostoevsky? Again–not using Dostoevsky to explain an aspect of confessional theology, but the reverse. Religious, confessional ideas can be put in the service of religious studies as long as our aim is not confessional–explicitly or implicitly.

Listen to Episode 2:

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A Critique of ‘Religion’ as a Cross-cultural Category: An Introduction to The Seminar Room

A first blog post is always an awkward thing to begin, especially because, in this case, it’s going to cover a number of things that the posts won’t normally cover. So I’ll just jump right in.

By way of introduction to the blog component in general, the posts are intended to serve a number of different functions in relation to the podcast episodes including corrections, clarifications, prefaces as well as expansion on particular points made in the episode. Recording what is intended to be a “seminar room” discussion on philosophical and theoretical questions is a little tricky–often claims are not fully fleshed out or perhaps even completely unsubstantiated or mistaken, and in the interest of time, we have to move on without giving a particular point its due explanation, clarification, or criticism. That said, the intention of the blog isn’t primarily as a defense of what is said in the podcast. The spirit of the podcast is as an exploratory exercise rather than the articulation of very carefully considered arguments.

But I also don’t want to give the impression that we think the podcast has no academic or intellectual substance. Again, like a seminar room discussion, our intention is to use texts as jumping off points for generating questions about religious studies as a discipline, and we do so from the perspective of philosophy of religion and social/critical/cultural theory. The blog posts, then, are an opportunity for Lucas, Sean, and me to expand our own thoughts, respond to each other, etc. Often just one of us will blog per episode, though sometimes two or more may write as well.

One final housekeeping note about the first episodes, all appearing in January. You’ll notice that it’s just me and Lucas for the first three. Sean joins us after that.

I suggested this widely read essay of Timothy Fitzgerald’s as the text for our first episode because I think that it succinctly encapsulates one of the most important theoretical questions in religious studies–the meaning of “religion” as a concept and theoretical tool. Interestingly enough, almost exactly a month after Lucas and I recorded this episode (in early November), Fitzgerald published an article online in Critical Research on Religion,  (found here) addressing many of the questions that we raise about his 1997 article and also echoing some of the same claims found there. For example, Fitzgerald makes it very clear at the beginning of the article that all “master categories” (my term) are equally problematic–something I question in the episode repeatedly in different contexts. Fitzgerald writes of his project, “critical religion,” that the phrase indicates “the historical critical deconstruction of ‘religion’ and related categories” (his emphasis).  By related categories, Fitzgerald means things like “politics” and especially “the secular” and sees these categories, along with “religion,” as part of larger networks of power which regulate both public and academic discourses on “religion.” There’s no argument from me on this point.

Fitzgerald also writes that since the 2000 publication of his book The Ideology of Religious Studies, his primary theoretical interest has focused on “the usually tacit assumption that there are things in the world to which the category religion points, things that can be observed, described, and analyzed,” and he has instead argued “that it is the category itself and its various discursive deployments that need critical attention, for it is being constructed in the very act of describing it.” It’s here where I part company in certain respects from Fitzgerald, and I want to spend a little more time on this point, namely the kind of concept that Fitzgerald is talking about here.

It’s certainly not an unimportant project to question the ways that certain discursive practices which circulate around the concept of religion purport to be neutral or universal and to also examine the power that is at stake in such practices. It’s also not unimportant to, as Fitzgerald does in the 1997 essay, question whether “religion” as a concept has any meaningful content if it seems to contain “objects” that have no other relation than the conceptual label under which they purportedly fall. My question, however, is whether a concept of religion must be conceived as a positive empirical concept.

What I mean by “positive empirical concept” is, as I say in the episode, a concept that tries to taxonomize objective “facts” that are found in the world. This is what Fitzgerald means by “the tacit assumption that there are things in the world to which the category of religion points, things that can be observed, described, and analyzed.” This is why he can include, in the ’97 essay, both physical objects and action (Christmas cakes, rituals, etc.) and systems of ideas (Marxism, etc.) under this way of forming a concept of religion. These are all things that can be observed, described, analyzed, and taxonomized under a concept of religion which needs the features of these things to derive its content. If this is the only recourse we have for formulating a concept of religion, then I would have to agree that “religion” is a meaningless concept.

But this isn’t the only way to think about concept formation. In the episode, I mention Hegel as an example of a different way to think about concepts, and I want to say more here. First, for Hegel, “the concept” is not something that is derived from empirical experience. Rather, it’s what makes possible our ability to categorize, form hierarchies, and understand the world at all. Concepts are the form of our thought. Because of this, concepts are not limited only to what is immediately available to our perception; they also address “totality” or “the absolute.” It would be a mistake to think of this in empirically positive terms; that is, a concept that addresses “the absolute” is not a concept that is “universal” in the sense of being “wide” enough to encompass all empirically positive facts (the way Fitzgerald thinks of a defective concept of religion). Rather, concepts that address the absolute (art, religion, and philosophy) are historical manifestations of the ways communities attempt to cognize the totality of all that is, the way they attempt to bring before their historical consciousness the finite-infinite relation. The important thing to notice here is that positive manifestations of religion do fall under this kind of concept of religion but that they appear as a result of the concept, rather than the concept being constructed out of empirically similar facts in the world.

This is not to say that Hegel’s account of religion evades discursive analysis–only that it is not an empirically positive concept of religion. Of course, Hegel was a Lutheran who called Christianity “the consummate religion.” But that doesn’t mean that the basic structure of Hegel’s understanding of concepts that address the absolute are necessarily Christian. In other words, I’m not sure a discursive analysis of Hegel’s concept of religion tells us anything other than that he was an early 19th century Lutheran with a distaste for Eastern cultures and a love of the ancient Greeks. That tells us a few things about his philosophical system, but it definitely doesn’t tell us everything, nor does it (nor should it) prevent us from finding aspects of his system useful.

I suppose, in part, what I’m saying is that I think it’s a mistake to think that all types of concepts are available to discursive analysis and critique–or rather that that analysis always tells us something important. I think that would be a bad reading of Foucault. If everything is discursive power, then nothing is. Thus, part of my unease with any argument claiming to unmask all concepts for what they really are (power) is that they erase the distinctions necessary for weeding out actual discursive power at work.

I’m looking forward to continuing to think about this problem in future episodes.

Listen to Episode 1:


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