Reply: Reasons and Objectivity in the Study of Religion

Two men sitting at a table having a conversation

By Stephen S. Bush
Stephen S. Bush is an associate professor of religious studies at Brown University. He is the author of Visions of Religion: Experience, Meaning, and Power, and he is presently working on a book on William James’s political philosophy and philosophy of religion.

This guest blog is a response to Craig Martin’s recent post.

In Visions of Religion, I critically engage the three most prominent theoretical approaches to the study of religion in the past hundred or so years, which prioritize respectively experience, meaning, and power. I embrace key insights from all three schools of thought, but I correct them all on important points. I integrate the valuable contributions of each into a theory of religion according to which religion is a matter of social practices.

According to Craig Martin, in my book, I frequently leave off reasoned argumentation. He says I make undefended assertions that have no other basis than how I “feel.” Or perhaps, he says, the problem is not with my personal preferences, it’s with him. He is, he tells us, an outsider to religious studies. I can afford to make undefended assertions, because the rest of the field unquestioningly buys into my assumptions, which are those of the “status quo.” From his vantage point, he can see them as the unexamined prejudices they are.

I doubt there is any single status quo in religious studies generally or theory of religion in particular. But if there is a single ‘status quo’ in theory of religion, I would surmise that it is something like this: Experience approaches and meaning approaches are passé, whereas scholars who identify with power and related concepts have significant influence in setting the contemporary agenda.

So I think it is odd for Martin to position himself as the outsider, given that his commitments to historicism and to the unmasking of authorizing discourses are central features of power approaches. At any rate, whatever the current situation is, clearly it would be a failure on my part to assume that key claims in my book could go unargued, as though there were some body of unspoken assumptions shared in common across the field.

As it turns out, though, the assertions in question do not go unargued. On p. 75, I write, “We should not have to choose disciplinary power over symbolic meaning or even to subordinate one to the other.” Martin quotes this sentence and says I offer “no reason in support of” retaining the category of meaning alongside power. In fact, the quoted sentence occurs at the tail end of an argument that spans four pages in support of that very sentence. The argument begins in a section conspicuously titled, “In Defense of Meaning.” In the first paragraph of that section, I signal to the reader, “In this section, I will provide three reasons why meaning is essential to the study of religion” (71). The two that are relevant for the sentence Martin picks out are (a) that meaning is ubiquitous in social groups of all sorts, including religious ones, and (b) that power depends on meaning for its operation, so anyone who wants to talk about power adequately has to talk about meaning. Power theorists are committed to the category of meaning, whether they like it or not. If meaning is essential to the study of religion, then we should not choose between power and meaning, we should do both. In certain studies, a scholar might prioritize one or the other, as I point out on page 67, but as a discipline, we need both.

Martin also says that I offer “no reason in support of why we should provide an account of power.” In fact, the argument in support of power comes in a section conspicuously titled “In Defense of Power” (67-70), as well as in other places that the present space constraints prohibit me from identifying.

Another point on which Martin says I forego argumentation concerns my use of normative language about how scholars should go about studying religion. I explicitly and repeatedly state throughout the book that our methodology should be capable of analyzing adequately that which it sets out to analyze. In fact, I state this outright on the second page in my summary description of the book’s overarching project:

If religions involve all three [aspects] then it seems that someone who wants to understand a religion adequately would have to attend to all three. We cannot afford to do without any of them, lest we distort and misrepresent religious communities. … If we turn our attention to any religious group without an expectation and awareness that all three of these aspects of religion are occurring, then we will miss something of vital importance.

Those reasons are the basis of my use of normative language.

The more interesting point of contention between Martin and me has to do with his ideas about objectivity. He says that in speaking normatively, in recommending certain methodologies and theories over others, I rely on a problematic notion of objectivity. He, on the other hand, bases his own views in “historically located, culturally specific academic discourses.”

The philosophy of language to which I subscribe — and which I defend in my book and elsewhere — affirms that our discourse, scholarly and otherwise, is always and necessarily historically located and culturally specific. However, this particularity does not pit the historicity of our scholarly terms against the objectivity of that to which they refer. Our concepts are the products of our historically specific social practices, and they are shot through with human interests of various sorts. Nevertheless, our linguistic practices institute concepts in such a way as to make objective reference possible. Otherwise there wouldn’t be much point to using language in the first place. “The train to New York leaves at 2:00 pm today” describes a situation using a culturally specific, historically located vocabulary. But we institute that vocabulary in such a way as to make it right or wrong that the event in question will occur. Once we have instituted, through our historically particular social practices, the classificatory concepts ‘experience,’ ‘meaning,’ and ‘power,’ we can inquire as to whether or not religious practitioners have experiences, trade in meanings, and undergo power operations, and we can do so in better and worse ways.

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