Critical Religion and the Critical Study of Religion: A Response to Galen Watts and Sharday Mosurinjohn, Part 2

By Matt Sheedy

This is part-two 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. See part 1 here

Critique #3. The claim that ‘CR’ scholars set up a false dichotomy by upholding their own position as etic (i.e. as objective outsiders), while deeming  others as emic (i.e. as subjective insiders) is based on a misinterpretation. Continuing with the example of colonialism that I outlined in Critique #2, Watts and Mosurinjohn claim, with reference to the work of McCutcheon:

CR scholars might argue in response that to speak of colonialism is to speak in an etic, theoretical vocabulary rather than an emic, folk one (the ‘meta-language of the academy’) … But we think this claim is untenable. The fact is every classification schema is emic to someone, and if CR scholarship is our data, then does that not make its vocabulary emic by definition (6)?

If find this argument problematic for two reasons. First, Watts and Mosurinjohn argue that so-called CR scholars seemingly uncritical use of the term colonialism is somehow equivalent to when they critique religious studies scholars for using the term religion in an ahistorical fashion (hence the charge of hypocrisy). On my reading, this misses the point. What most, if not all scholars of this stripe are arguing, following the work of J. Z. Smith in particular, is that when we uphold insiders’ terms as analytic categories, we end up reifying what, for example, certain liberal Protestant Christians, Sunni Muslims, or Reform Jews interpret as ‘true’ religion. This is what critics of the world religions paradigm are getting at when point out how many introductions to the study of religion continue to naturalize the claims of learned elites over local expressions. Shahab Ahmed makes a similar point in What is Islam? (2016) when he criticizes the common tendency to conflate Islam with shari’ah, which, he argues, “constrains us to think of Muslims as subjects who are defined by and constituted by and in a cult of regulation, restriction, and control” (119). He continues:

And when it comes to pass that scholars, laymen and believers alike conceive of Islamic law as constitutive of and con-substantive with normative Islam, then, when they/we are confronted with ideas and behaviours that are both so positively valorized and widely practiced as to be normative, and that yet deviate from the legal norm, they/we find themselves at an analytic loss (120).

Second, colonialism, whether spoken of by academics or by people impacted by its effects (e.g., Indigenous peoples), points, in the most basic sense, to systems of foreign domination and control. When it is used to describe the category religion (e.g., as a colonial construct), it is calling our attention to one of the key historical vectors of knowledge and power as it relates to our discipline’s primary object of inquiry. While it is fair to say that colonialism in Arnal and McCutcheon’s rendering is in some ways ‘emic’ (i.e., an insiders’ term used by academics), this is something that they are clearly aware of, as I outlined in Critique #2. The key point here, as I see it, is not that our terms can ever be perfectly etic (read as neutral and objective), but that we can and should operationalize them for scholarly purposes. In doing so, we work toward the creation of shared analytic categories that are fully aware of their constructed-ness and are thus open to modification.

One final point on this section, which speaks to the issue of tone that I raised in Critique #2. The authors’write, “Indeed, CR scholars have sometimes explicitly proclaimed themselves to be ‘conveniently immune’ from historicization (Martin et al. 2014, 310). To this, we would say that it is unfortunate, if not bit disingenuous, that other colleagues are not allowed the same liberties” (6). If we turn to look at the essay that Watts and Mosurinjohn are quoting from here, which features members of the Culture on the Edge research collective in conversation with one another in Critical Research on Religion journal in 2014, we find the following statement from McCutcheon:

RM: Wonderful point and great observation: my take-away is that ‘‘critique’’ or ‘‘critical’’ are contextually specific (like any signifier, of course); sometimes they mean we historicize ourselves along with everything else (Monica’s notion of reflexivity), while yet other times it means that we’re conveniently immune and we use it as a tool to historicize Others.

Here McCutcheon is responding to a point made by Merinda Simmons about how, in her work on race, gender, and the South, she does not encounter the kind of resistance among Southern Studies scholars toward deconstructing  “the South” that she does with “religion” in some Religious Studies circles. In McCutcheon’s response, he references two different examples how scholars think of “critique” or “critical.” Sometimes we historicize ourselves, which he advocates for, with a nod to Monica Miller, and sometimes scholars will proceed as though they are “conveniently immune” from such reflexivity. While this statement could benefit from some further elaboration, I think most readers can see that McCutcheon is being critical of those who act as though they are immune from such processes. Unlike the other example that I noted regarding tone in Critique #2, the concern with tone here is based on a misinterpretation. While I do think it is legitimate and important to criticize tone when it is warranted, the impression that the authors leave readers with here is one of arrogance and hubris that is simply not accurate in the example provided.

Critique #4. The concern that ‘CR’ is really “crypto-normative,” while important to consider, relies on generalizations and misses a core function of using a redescriptive vocabulary. I agree with Watts and Mosurinjohn that to centre critiques of power, as ‘CR’ scholars are wont to do, does involve acts of judgement and value, which is not always acknowledged in CR-adjacent circles. But again, to generalize this tendency to all ‘CR’ scholars is false and, more importantly, misses the point of using redescriptive categories.

For example, the authors quote McCutcheon’s critique of scholars’ “ideological slippage from description to normative claim” to accuse Martin of doing just that in his book A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (2012/2017). In a footnote, they describe Martin’s “‘etic’ taxonomy” in this book as “desires, interests, and domination,” and go on to quote a passage where he writes: “My grandmother’s conservative Christian community socialized her into actively desiring to be in a dominated position within the community (Martin 2012, 60).” Watts and Mosurinjohn then pose the question, “how does Martin know this? For would he not have to know what her real interests are, since only then could he determine whether she was, in fact, dominated?” The authors then acknowledge that they are in agreement with Martin here, but argue that “his etic concepts are as normative as it gets–embedded as they are within the egalitarian values that we (and apparently, Martin as well) hold dear” (8). The argument here seems to hinge on an interpretation of Martin’s “etic taxonomy” as being value-laden, all the while claiming to be neutral.

Part of the problem with this interpretation is that while desires, interests, and domination are certainly part of Martin’s analysis, these are not the analytic categories that he uses to structure his book. The categories that he uses, laid out chronologically as chapter-headings, include: classification, structure, habitus, legitimation, authority, authenticity (and in his 2017 second edition, he adds definition, functionalism and the hermeneutics of suspicion, and essentialism).

Martin’s aim in operationalizing these categories is to show how normative ideas about religion are authorized through various vectors of power. In the case of his grandmother, he later writes (in the same chapter quoted by Watts and Mosurinjohn above) that she grew up in a conservative Christian community where women were prohibited from wearing pants. He goes on to note that, “to my knowledge this relationship of domination was willingly entered, and therefore in no way was she repressed.” Finally, Martin observes that later in life, after suffering from a stroke, she began wearing sweat pants for practical reasons. In spite of this, her community held to their social norms and began to shame her. As a result, she went “back to wearing skirts and dresses, despite the increased difficulty these gave her” (2012, 68). This additional information, which was not mentioned in Watts and Mosurinjohn’s query, puts their question, “how did Martin know what his grandmother’s desires were?” in a different light. Rather than infer what her interests were based on his unstated values, Martin describes how she changed her behaviour according to her needs, and was shamed into changing them back again. While anecdotal, Martin does in fact provide empirical evidence for his claims, which he uses to illustrate how things like domination and authority can function to condition people’s behaviour, often in spite their desires and interests.

Watts and Mosurinjohn conclude this footnote on A Critical Introduction by nothing that “Martin’s is an introductory textbook written for undergraduates, which presents this taxonomy as both neutral and natural, once again betraying CR principles” (8). While questions of normativity and political interests are worth exploring in the work of Martin, McCutcheon, and others, it needs to be done on the terms that they actually lay out. Nowhere in his book does Martin claim that the analytic categories that he uses (which the authors incorrectly label as desires, interests, and domination) are neutral and natural. Instead, as he writes in the preface to A Critical Introduction:

It is also worth noting that I unapologetically allow concerns about social domination to direct the choices I made when considering what to include in this book. I am in full agreement with Bruce Lincoln when he claims

to view as immoral any discourse or practice that systematically operates to benefit the already privileged members of society at the expense of others, and I reserve the same judgment for any society that tolerates or encourages such discourses and practices. (Lincoln 1991b, 112)

These normative concerns are reflected in my primary teaching goals. They are, first, to demonstrate to students that societies are never set up in ways that serve everyone’s interests equally, and, second, to give students the skills to identify who benefits and who does not, and how disproportionate social structures are legitimated and maintained (xiv).

Here we can see that Martin, whose work is in many ways different from that of McCutcheon, is explicit about his normative concerns. To put differently a point that I made earlier—for Martin, the focus on power and domination is an explicitly value-laden approach. At the same time, it aims to provide students with tools, as he writes, to “demystify the world: to look at the social conditions that make the apparently natural world possible” (xi). In this same preface, Martin offers the following disclaimer:

In this book I have therefore chosen to focus narrowly on how the elements of cultural traditions are utilized to create, reproduce, and contest social order—as well as how these relate to the interests of certain groups within that social order. Of course, this is only one aspect of religious traditions, but it is a rather important one, which is often either ignored or, when noticed, considered briefly or marginally (xiv).

Whether Martin succeeds in his task is another matter. However, the argument that Martin, as a stand-in for ‘CR,’ is crypto-normative is clearly false. Instead, he makes the claim (in his most popular book, no less) that critical categories like habitus and authority can enable students and scholars to analyze certain processes that surround authenticity claims that are made in the name of religion. This strikes me as fairly neutral methodology (as far as it goes), and one that is certainly not unaware of its own normative implications.

Critique #5. Watts and Mosurinjohn’s essay touches on a variety of statements from three ‘CR’ scholars, but seems to me to have missed an opportunity to zero-in on what is at stake in critical scholarship in the study of religion. By focusing on certain claims of a select few scholars, the authors overlook some of the more pressing fault lines of this broad critical orientation and the debates that ‘CR’ has provoked. For example, had the authors been explicit in limiting their analysis to the work of Martin, McCutcheon, and Fitzgerald, and not used them as a stand-in for ‘CR,’ they might have traced developments in their respective bodies of work, while highlighting important differences, impasses, roads not taken, etc., that could be generative for the discipline.

While Fitzgerald’s work is read by Watts and Mosurinjohn as having evolved, this is done mainly to argue for inconsistencies among ‘CR’ scholars and not as an examination of how and why an influential scholar has modified his views over time. Here, the authors might have considered a 2020 special edition of Implicit Religion, which features nine critical commentaries on Fitzgerald’s Ideology of Religious Studies, twenty years after its initial publication. In this special edition, Fitzgerald offers an opening reconsideration of his work as well as a response to contributors, which would be worth spending some time with as an example of developments in the thought of a self-identifying CR thinker. It is also worth noting that the journal Method & Theory in the Study of Religion (MTSR) has been a key site for the style of critical approaches to the study of religion that Watts and Mosurinjohn are interested in critiquing. Yet MTSR remains absent from their analysis.

McCutcheon, for his part, has also undergone and number of shifts since the publication of his influential Manufacturing Religion (1997), which offers a sustained critique of the discourse of sui generis religion. No doubt, his provocatively titled Critics Not Caretakers (CNC) (2001) continues to rankle. As previously discussed, the matter of tone in this book is certainly fair-game for debate and criticism. But nowhere in Watts and Mosurinjohn’s essay do they address McCutcheon’s theory of religion as a social formation in CNC, which is indebted to the work of the late Burton Mack. Instead, McCutcheon’s provocation seems to stand-in for his argument and is privileged over his more concrete theoretical proposals, thus leaving the substance ignored. Likewise, McCutcheon’s turn toward questions of identity and, following Jean-Francois Bayart’s work, “acts of identification,” is unaccounted for in the authors’ appraisal, along with his perennial interest in paying attention to the history of the discipline and its many shifts and changes.

Here it is worth stressing that several concerns that have animated CR-adjacent scholarship come out of long-standing debates over the viability of the discipline amidst cutbacks and the perception from other fields that the work we do isn’t ‘serious.’ Scott Elliott’s edited volume Reinventing Religious Studies (2013) offers a great example of some of these debates dating back to the late 1960s. It is thus important to foreground where the impetus for particular CR-adjacent critiques come from so that we don’t lose sight of the underlying issues in favour of identitarian positioning.

When it comes to Martin’s work, he has offered his own reply titled “Norms and Concepts: A Response to Watts and Mosurinjohn,” which I won’t detail here. Instead, I will draw on Martin’s recent book in order to point to one additional misinterpretation that speaks to questions of normatively, method, and theory.

Near the close of their argument, Watts and Mosurinjohn write that “according to the logic of CR, we should not give attention to the material that specific taxa are meant to signify, but instead study the taxa for what they tell us about the ‘social investments of the classifier’”(15). Here they are quoting from a 2003 essay by McCutcheon and generalize this nearly twenty-year-old proposal to all of ‘CR.’ Although one could debate whether McCutcheon’s call to pay attention to the discourse on religion and the interests of the classifier has focused too much on these questions (to the exclusion of others), I am not aware of any place where he has stated that this should be our sole focus as scholars of religion.

To demonstrate their point, Watts and Mosurinjohn ask us to consider one problem with paying attention to the interests of the classifier: “rather than presuming something like racism exists in the world (for to do so would reify and naturalize a local classification schema) we would simply study how racism gets defined and what interests those definitions serve” (15). I must confess that I don’t follow their logic here. There are many solid genealogical critiques of racism as a concept that also see it as a social fact with very real effects. This can seen in the work of Adolph Reed Jr., Karen and Barbara Fields, Emma Dabiri, and Noel Ignatiev, among many others. For most critical scholars, I imagine, paying attention to what this term signifies (e.g., under law, colloquially, etc.), both past and present, is considered an important step in our analysis.

In Martin’s most recent book, Discourse & Ideology: A Critique of the Study of Culture (2021), which marks an important development in his work—from Masking Hegemony, to A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion, to Capitalizing Religion (among many essays) — historicizing is used to account for how discourse and ideology shape the rules that lay behind the words and concepts that we use. Martin is interested in addressing weaknesses in post-structuralist theory by “connect[ing] discourse analysis to a robust account of empirical evidence” (11). He also claims that “[d]espite the fact that poststructuralists attend to the fact that what counts as true is historically conditioned, we are not thereby prohibited from saying that some claims are false on the rules of our own discourse or someone else’s” (10). In other words, Martin is arguing that truth is contingent upon whether or not we understand and accept the rules of a given language game. Ultimately, for Martin, “attending to knowledge’s contingencies makes knowledge stronger rather than weaker—for how can we control for contingencies that we do not take into account in the first place?” (5)

In his final chapter in Discourse and Ideology, “Racist Ideology in the United States,” Martin states that he is “interested in social domination, so this object [racism] is of interest to me precisely because it produces material effects that offend my sympathies.” In justifying his decision to focus on racism, and not on “a great number of claims that trigger my antipathies,” in his case study on Praeger U videos, he clarifies that “whichever claims warrant addressing depends not on intrinsic features of the claims themselves but rather the immediate investment of the critic” (208). While I would argue that this later claim is certainly debateable, Martin is clearly showing that making the “social investments of the classifier” clear, to quote McCutcheon, is hardly the only thing that he is doing. Instead, this caveat is meant to justify his selection of a narrow focus on racism to the exclusion of the many other things that he could have chosen to pay attention to.

To recap, according to Watts and Mosurinjohn, “rather than presuming something like racism exists in the world (for to do so would reify and naturalize a local classification schema) [Martin] would simply study how racism gets defined and what interests those definitions serve”; by contrast, in Discourse & Ideology, Martin quite explicitly devotes 25-pages to reviewing the material effects of racism documented in the last 50 years by social scientists.

In a broader theoretical sense, Martin’s critical approach to the study of religion has developed over the years to focus on defending an anti-realist position, and has led to some fruitful exchanges with Kevin Schilbrack’s critical realist approach. These debates, I would argue, are potentially generative for the study of religion if we engage them on the terms that the authors in question have put forward.

Jason Josephson Storm has also recently proposed a new critical approach to the study of religion in Metamodernism: The Future of Theory (2021), which rejects both realist and anti-realist positions in favor of what he calls “metarealism,” along with concepts like hylosemiotics (chapter five) and Zetetic knowledge (chapter six). More concretely, he offers a critique of certain trends in the critical study of religion: “Despite all the controversy it inevitably evokes, it can be seductive to take the stance of an epistemological anarchist and to start exploding fundamental concepts and then reveling in the chaos as disciplines disintegrate. I have largely made my career out of such an attitude. I think this kind of work is valuable, but is simply not enough” (x). For Josephson Storm, who I would suggest is CR-adjacent (e.g., see his first book The Invention of Religion in Japan [2013]), historicizing critique has become stale and is in need of “a new model for producing humble knowledge that is capable of tracing the unfolding of de-essentialized master categories in their full complexity” (ix).

I call attention to these two examples to highlight a few of the generative debates that have taken the claims of ‘CR’ seriously, but have also looked to push beyond some of the stalemates and assumptions that this influential brand of theory has produced. In my estimation, there is overlap between some of the concerns laid out by Watts and Mosurinjohn and the attempts to refine and develop ‘CR’ by the above mentioned scholars, who are not the only ones pushing in new directions (e.g., see Driscoll and Miller’s Method as Identity).

In closing this essay-length blog post , I’d like to end with a suggestion for how CR-adjacent scholarship might attend to some weak-spots that sometimes infuse its scholarly productions. Perhaps the most important pitfall that some critical scholars could improve upon, myself included, is developing training in matters of positionality and standpoint epistemology. These approaches are commonplace among anthropologists and sociologists (along with scholars of Indigenous, queer, feminist, race theories, etc.), who interact with the communities they study and are naturally compelled to be more cautious and accountable in their work. For those of us who deal primarily with texts, we do run the risk of objectifying our data in ways that haven’t always sufficiently grappled with these problems—for example, how Indigenous communities have responded to Western epistemologies by revitalizing their own forms of knowledge and what that means for questions of ‘objectivity’ moving forward.

We all have blind spots and can do better. Paying closer attention to the details of the critical study of religion, including its missteps, disagreements, and its theoretical innovations, is crucial if we want to advance the field and not get distracted by some of its flashier claims.

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