The Seminar Room

A Religious Studies Podcast

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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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Welcome to The Seminar Room


“The Seminar Room” (TSR) is a religious studies podcast by and for students and scholars of religion that engages specific texts and concepts in religious studies theory and method, philosophy and critical theory. Our regular contributors are Joel Harrison (Northwestern), Lucas Scott Wright (UCSB) and Sean Capener (Toronto).

The format and title of the podcast are meant to reflect “the seminar room” in which grad students encounter and reflect upon texts in their respective graduate programs. Our goal is to provide an online seminar room in which contributors may debate texts and ideas in a way that opens up further discussion with our listeners.

Episodes are released every other week on Saturdays. In addition to our podcast recordings, this blog contains supplementary introductions to and reflections on the texts, and links to each text we discuss.

Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or using FeedBurner.

If you want to contact us you may find us here:


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