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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