Making Distinctions

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When I was in graduate school, One of my philosophy professors, when lecturing on Kant, said something like the following: “In making this argument, Kant is sort of in a tight spot here—between a rock and a hard place. What does Kant do when backed into a corner? Like all philosophers, he makes a distinction.

I don’t remember what case the professor was talking about, but one can imagine: “Yes, that’s true of hypothetical imperatives, but not categorical ones.” Or, “Yes, this claim is contradictory, but only when we’re talking about phenomena, not noumena.”

Much of what we’re doing here at Culture on the Edge is not theoretically earth shattering. We’re just tracking the distinctions people make—for instance, between religion and politics, between religion and spirituality, between pilgrimage and tourism—and the social work accomplished by such distinctions.

As I discuss in my forthcoming book, Capitalizing Religion, a number of scholars distinguish between institutional religion and individual religion or spirituality; a number of them use the terms normatively, given the latter a positive valuation. Interestingly, they are using practically the same distinction that Ronald Reagan employed to distinguish between communism and democracy. For Reagan, communism is affiliated with totalitarianism, repression, orthodoxy, tyranny, controlling political forces, the subordination of the rights of individuals to the collective, and it stifles human freedom and muzzles self-expression—reasons for which communism is declining—while democracy is affiliated with diversity, tolerance, freedom, choice, self-determination, human rights, and is “responsive to the needs of their people”—reasons for which democracy is growing. Democracy must be helped along, of course, and Reagan recommended that we cultivate as widely as possible the ideology of individual choice. For Reagan, cultivating such an ideology “is not cultural imperialism; it is providing the means for genuine self-determination and protection for diversity” (see Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech, given to the British House of Commons in 1982). Similarly, Wade Clark Roof, Paul Heelas, and Linda Woodhead—all leading sociologists of religion—affiliate organized religion with obedience, deference to authority, collective conformity, and iron cages, while by contrast they affiliate individual religion or spirituality with openness, freedom, options, individual choice, self-determination, autonomy, independence, and individual rights—reasons for which spirituality is a growing force. The fact that these scholars unwittingly and unreflexively mirror Reagan’s normative vocabulary is revealing; these normative distinctions accomplish social work.

We all use distinctions; which ones are central to your work, and what do they accomplish?

9 Replies to “Making Distinctions”

  1. Caught waterboarding prisoners? Distinguish torture from enhanced interrogation techniques, distinguish between peacetime and wartime policy, legality, and ethics… Distinction is indeed a techniques to get you out of a tight spot–a way to have your cake and eat it too…

  2. I don’t use the terms “individual religion” or “spirituality”; I’m just considering how they’re used in the literature. They’re often conflated in the works I’m analyzing. Does that distinction—i.e., between individual religion and spirituality—do analytical or rhetorical work for you?

      1. Would it be fair to assume you use these two differently so as to mark what you think is an important distinction between group (i.e., religion = social groups, congregations, etc.) and the individual (i.e., so-called spirituality)? At least that’s the usual engine that drives the distinction, no?

  3. I am interested to read, in your upcoming book, about how notions of “individual” and “corporate,” or possibly “communitarian,” are treated with regard to religion versus spirituality. Do you work at all with apocalyptic with regard to these distinctions?

    1. I talk a lot about how the individual/institutional distinction is normatively used in a number of contemporary discursive sites. I don’t discuss any apocalyptic literature though. What sort of apocalyptic lit were you thinking of?

  4. I guess I am talking less of literature and more of discourse – how apocalyptic thinking feeds into ideas of both individual and institutional discourse right now. I appreciated the distinction you made in the article above regarding making assumptions about prevailing spheres of meaning vis-a-vis individual versus institutional. What struck me is that apocalyptic rhetoric has crept into some of the discourse of both institutional and individual religious/spiritual thinking (in lumping those together I realize that I am losing nuance!), crossing boundaries, if you will. I was wondering whether you’d treated any of this. How it might easily feed into “your own personal Jesus” thinking is not difficult to imagine. How those notions of “individual” can more generally be seen to be insidious as it feeds into the sense of alienation that our society reflects is also predictable. But, the idea that it is being talked about across religious and philosophical borders, and what valuation you might place on that, is what crossed my mind when I read the article and book review. I understand the psychological reasons for why apocalyptic thinking happens in the first place, that isn’t my query (nor the idea that global warming or various real types of oppression might be feeding it). I guess it is ancillary to your subject, I just wondered about its prevalence and how the subject has recently had the ability to “cross borders,” if you will, into the dialogue of pro-institution and pro-individual types of religious discourse. For the record, I am not a proponent of apocalyptic thinking, I prefer to think of it (and religious literature in general) in allegorical terms anyway. It is the rise of the language itself, and its ability to be talked about in various religious, philosophical, and political venues that interests me, especially with regard to the ability to create distinctions in the ways that we think and speak that you wrote about above.

    1. Can you elaborate as to what you mean by apocalyptic thinking…? That is, we see tales on origins all across culture and, as well, tales on a dysfunctional future (as well as rhetorics of progress and improvement too, of course), but the term “apocalyptic thinking” seems weighted by a very particular baggage, one that suggests to me that something unique is going on in certain sorts of dystopic tales (i.e., the so-called religious ones)…, when, if we don’t assume that domain called religion is all that special or unique or puzzling, or what have you, but is, instead, a mundane cultural domain in which mundane (but still interesting) signification/indentification is taking place, well, I suspect then we’d drop “apocalyptic thinking” since there is a far broader domain of related narrative about the future that we would now be looking at… Thoughts?

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