Critical Religion and the Critical Study of Religion: A Response to Galen Watts and Sharday Mosurinjohn, Part 1

By Matt Sheedy

This is part-one of a two-part response to Watts and Mosurinjohn’s essay “Can Critical Religion Play by Its Own Rules? Why There Must Be More Ways to Be ‘Critical’ in the Study of Religion,which recently appeared in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion.

Before detailing some of my disagreements with this essay, I should say that I was happy to see this article in print as it signals the relevance of what some have called Critical Religion (CR) in our discipline and offers an important opportunity for clarification and further debate. Too often, I feel, we forget that the ultimate aim of scholarship is to advance knowledge and not simply ‘win’ an argument, whatever that may mean in the short term. As someone interested in the idea of Critical Religion and who is trained in Critical Theory (of the Frankfurt School and post-structuralist varieties), I approach this essay as a chance to think more carefully about the  aims, influences, and effects of these debates.

*I should note at the outset that I know Craig Martin and Russell McCutcheon and have benefited both from their scholarship and their considerable generosity toward me personally. And so, I am not a disinterested observer. That being said, I hope that my claims can stand on their own as I have my own disagreements with Martin and, to echo Martin from a blog post he wrote in 2014, “I am/am not a McCutcheonite.”

Critique #1. The first, and most immediate concern that I have with this essay is how it characterizes ‘Critical Religion.’ In the opening lines of their essay, CR is defined as a “methodological school” that has had a far-reaching impact, so much so that it has “become common-sense among most, if not all, scholars of religion” (1). Despite characterizing their essay as a critique of CR, the authors focus primarily on the work of Russell McCutcheon and Craig Martin, neither of whom, to my knowledge, have ever associated themselves with this particular label. Indeed, in McCutcheon’s main essay on this topic in Fabricating Religion (2018), he considers “Varieties of Critical Scholarship,” and locates CR in relation to the Critical Religion Association out of Stirling University. A similar issue can be seen with the authors’ reference to Steven Ramey’s 2015 book Writing Religion: The Case for the Critical Study of Religion, where they cite his introductory chapter in a footnote as “a useful overview of critical religion” (1). While Ramey does use the term “critical study of religion,” CR does not come up in his book.

In my estimation, whether we use the label CR or the critical study of religion isn’t merely a question of semantics since these terms do have specific histories — in the case of CR, as an association and as an orientation toward scholarship that can and should be distinguished from the “varieties of critical scholarship” that currently animate these debates. Granted, the authors do note some of these varieties, such as the work of Kevin Schilbrack and Warren Goldstein, editor of the journal Critical Research on Religion. But they are invoked in opposition to ‘CR’ writ large instead of, it seems to me, as debates over which approaches to the critical study of religion are best suited to the field.

I am not convinced that either CR — as a mode of self-description — or the varieties of critical scholarship in the study of religion (where I’d locate Martin and McCutcheon) have risen to the level of a “methodological school.” At best, I’d suggest that they are orientations toward scholarship that share a few generalized axioms, with a fair bit of methodological variation and disagreement in between.

Watts and Mosurinjohn also discuss the work of Timothy Fitzgerald, who, it can be rightly stated, is one of the key figures associated with CR. As Fitzgerald writes in his preface to the 2020 edited volume Critical Religion Reader, which is the only book that I am aware of with CR in its title, “Critical Religion,  understood as the critical study of ‘religion’ and related categories, was adopted as the symbol and focus for the work of the religion subject area at Stirling University” (2). Fitzgerald also mentions the Critical Religion Association (CRA) website, and the Critical Religion Category Network, which is no longer in use. Neither of these connections come up in Watts and Mosurinjohn’s analysis.

It is also worth noting that the department of religion at Sterling was almost shut down in 2015, which resulted in a significant re-shuffling of faculty. Indeed, as the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture wrote in defense of the Religion Department at Stirling back in 2015: “Because the University of Stirling Religion Programme is the only religion department in Scotland not affiliated with a Christian denomination, it serves a unique and indispensible role in the academic study of religions.” In light of the authors’ suggestion at the outset that CR has “become common-sense among most, if not all, scholars of religion,” I think it is important to underline how the department that pioneered this term and that remains, to my knowledge, the only one that uses it as a mode of self-description, was almost shuttered some seven years back. Although the authors of this essay are using ‘CR’ to signal a broader range of scholarship, to leave out the history of CR-proper and conflate it with related-yet-different modes of critical scholarship risks flattening key differences, while de-prioritizing an examination of the ideas, methods, and theories that are it issue in these debates.

For example,  on the current homepage of the Religion Department at Sterling we find the following statement:

The impact of our research is communicated more widely via the Critical Religion Association, and in association with the UK-based think-tank Ekklesia, as well as via the Translating Christianities group. Scholars in Religion at Stirling have also been key players in the journal Literature and Theology: An International Journal or Religion, Theory and Culture, and The International Society of Religion, Literature and Culture.

If we define Critical Religion by those who self-identify with this label, then interrogating the various associations and collaborations that are stated here would be one useful way of assessing the range of productions linked to its name.

Even if we grant, for a moment, that CR is shorthand for debates over what constitutes the “critical study of religion,” this point still remains. A critical examination of ‘CR’ would also need to be extended to the various theoretical approaches and associations of the ‘CR’ scholars that are mentioned in this essay, such as Tomoko Masuzawa, Richard King, Talal Asad, Jonathan Z. Smith, Suzanne Owen, Merinda Simmons, Leslie Dorrough Smith, among others, all of whom have significant differences that are worth exploring. For example, Suzanne Owen works on Indigenous religions (and has links to Indigenous Studies networks), while Leslie Dorrough Smith is a professor of Religious Studies and chair of the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at Avila University. How Owen draws on McCutcheon’s work in The Appropriation of Native American Spirituality (2011) is different than Dorrough Smith, while the latter takes Craig Matin’s use of the concept habitus in novel directions in her recent book Compromising Positions: Sex Scandals, Politics, and American Christianity (2020).

While here one might justifiably argue that analyzing all of these differences is impossible in a single essay, that is precisely my point. Whatever ‘CR’ means, it is not reducible to statements made by a handful of scholars.

In his preface to the Critical Religion Reader, Fitzgerald describes the purview of CR as scholarship that pays “close attention to the religion-secular binary operations in distinct and specific contexts” the “legacy of colonial and neo-colonial hegemony” (4) and the “constructions of ‘race’ and ‘gender,'” which, he adds, “are integral to critical religion” (5) (see the work of Naomi Goldenberg for an example of scholarship that deals with CR-proper and gender). Fitzgerald also singles out the world religions paradigm as an important and ongoing object of critique in CR scholarship, where the focus on how ‘religion’ and related categories are being deployed in the field is a core function of this approach.

And so, while it is accurate to suggest that McCutcheon and Martin have weighed-in on these debates and are broadly connected to this type of scholarly work (e.g., the style of criticism following Fitzgerald’s The Ideology of Religious Studies [2000]), to suggest that they “are prominent CR scholars” whose work highlights “CR’s major analytic flaws” and demonstrates “that CR scholarship cannot but fail to live up to its own ideals” (3) strikes me as an over-generalization that fails to distinguish between some important foundational terms. To re-iterate, this isn’t merely a semantic quibble over terminology since the looseness with which ‘CR’ is being applied by Watts and Mosurinjohn risks tarring numerous critical approaches to the category ‘religion’ as driven by a narrow agenda.

Critique #2. The point of historicizing concepts like ‘religion’ is not, as I read Martin, McCutcheon, and Fitzgerald, that we can or ought to be perfectly consistent. It is, rather, that scholars should aim to historize and contextualize their concepts as much as possible. Failure to do so in each and every instance does not undermine this argument. It merely points to how difficult it is to achieve this level of conceptual depth and critical self-reflexivity. In the second section of their argument, Watts and Mosurinjohn argue that CR scholars (mainly McCutcheon, but also Martin) are inconsistent when they urge us to historicize the terms that we use. McCutcheon is flagged as “one of the key figures in the historicizing lineage of CR,” whose main concern is that academic scholars of religion avoid “reify[ing] or reauthorize[ing] the local social formations of those whom they study.” They go on to note that “[t]his is why McCutcheon advocates for discarding religion as an analytic category” (3). Both of these claims strike me as correct. However, they also characterize McCutcheon as a representative of “the historicizing strand of CR,” which I find confusing. As I read these scholars, historicizing is not merely a “strand” but rather a fundamental axiom of this broad approach to critical scholarship on religion–from Richard King’s Orientalism and Religion (1999) to Mitsutoshi Horii’s The Category of Religion in Contemporary Japan (2018). Some may do it better than others, sure (after all, historicization is aspirational, not a metric that can be perfectly achieved), and some may pay lip-service to this ideal, as humans are wont to do. But if CR and CR-adjacent scholarship agrees upon anything, the historicization of ‘religion’ is arguably the single most important uniting thread (which is also an aim that is shared, broadly speaking, by the International Association for the History of Religions).

There also seems to be some confusion in the essay between what McCutcheon and others are getting at when they suggest that we should discard religion as an analytic category versus discarding the term religion altogether. While the proposal to abandon the term religion has been suggested by a handful of scholars, I would argue that this has functioned mainly as a provocation for debate. It has not, as far as I can tell, been taken seriously as a disciplinary agenda. The claim that religion is not a sound analytic category is a different matter. As I understand this critique, the idea is that ‘religion’ does little if anything to clarify what is at stake in most contexts when it is being used as a primary explanation for beliefs, practices, occurrences, violence, etc. of diverse groups of people (as in, the 9/11 terrorists were motivated by religion). For this reason, ‘religion’ needs to be redescribed (or at least contextualized) in terms that better reflect the complexity of a given situation. This does not mean that ‘religion’ should be banished from our vocabulary, but simply that we ought to pay attention to how it is being deployed in relation to other things. Some may push this further, sure, but that does not make abolishing ‘religion’ an axiom of ‘CR’ as the authors seem to suggest.

In this first section of their essay, Watts and Mosurinjohn focus on the term colonialism as their primary example of how ‘CR’ scholars give “themselves a pass when it comes to naturalizing folk classifications while criticizing others for doing the same thing” (6). Specifically, they zero-in on a line from (William) Arnal and McCutcheon’s The Sacred Is the Profane (2012): “colonialism — Western or not — really does create ‘religion’” (4). This is one of the stronger arguments in this essay, in my estimation, though I don’t share the conclusions that the authors draw from this critique — namely, that in not properly historicizing colonialism, Arnal and McCutcheon “do exactly what they have repeatedly criticized others for doing: they ‘authorize the specific local as universal.’” They then go on to ask, “[w]hy is one not appropriate as an analytic category whereas the other is?” (5) One problem with this critique is that it is highly unlikely that any of these scholars would suggest that it is appropriate. Indeed, on the very same page that Watts and Mosurinjohn quote from The Sacred Is the Profane, Arnal and McCutcheon write that religion is “not the only local term that falls into this family of local fabricated-yet-universalized categories — consider such other concepts as “culture,” “text,” “gender,” “psyche,” or “race,” to name but a few” (4). 

Further on in their essay, Watts and Mosurinjohn highlight how Fitzgerald “criticizes CR scholars such as Tomoko Masuzawa for limiting their deconstructive critiques to the category religion while leaving other modern categories unquestioned” (14). Rather than seeing this intervention by Fitzgerald as part of an ongoing conversation about how we can historicize better and what the limits of historicization are — after all, we can’t provide a broad critical genealogy of every term or concept that we use — Watts and Mosurinjohn argue that this is “hypocrisy” — at least on the part of Arnal and McCutcheon.

While it is no doubt valuable to interrogate problems with ‘CR’ scholars uncritical use of other concepts that they may use, to frame this as hypocrisy, and not as a (potentially) healthy process of encouraging increased self-reflexivity, strikes me as odd. My sense is that what the authors are really bothered by is the perception that Arnal and McCutcheon “use this folk classification scheme as a means of shaming their ‘well meaning liberal’ colleagues.” Here they site the following lines from The Sacred Is the Profane as evidence of this shaming: “The very point of religious studies as a field may be to process the data generated by the colonial project in the course of which the scholar is deeply implicated in the mechanisms of an imperial state” (5).

It seems to me that perhaps the real issue that the authors have here is with the tone of Arnal and McCutcheon’s statements, rather than with the content of their analysis per se. And they may have a point. While I won’t weigh-in on this matter here, there is a legitimate debate to be had about how we criticize our colleagues’ work, whether it is charitable enough, and whether attempts at productive provocations may have turned, in some cases, into counter-productive rivalries. But tone shouldn’t be confused with the purpose of this line of critique, which is, as I read it, to show how the uncritical use of the term religion has political implications. What we do with that critique is another matter. If the uncritical use of colonialism has similar implications, then that is worth exploring. And considering that Fitzgerald has called this out and that others have more or less factored this into to their work, then we have evidence of forward momentum on the critical use of key terms. Indeed, two of McCutcheon’s recent books, co-authored with Aaron Hughes, Religion in 50 words: A Critical Vocabulary, and Religion in 50 More Words: A Resdescriptive Vocabulary, attempt to do precisely what Watts and Mosurinjohn criticize him for failing to do (regardless of whether we agree with their methods and conclusions).

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