The Sun Never Sets on the Study of Religion

Sun Never SetsLots of scholars of religion are focused these days on studying such things as implicit religion, the Nones, or almost any other so-called worldview that people might be said to work with or inhabit (e.g., many are hot on the trail of secularism). What I find interesting about all this is the way in which a professional identity is being recreated, by those who work in this field, in the face of twenty year’s worth of critiques of the category religion itself (pretty obviously the field’s primary organizing concept); for it seems that the more the term is criticized (as being a Latin-based signifier that was exported in the age of colonial contact, making it hardly the universal designator that it was once thought to be — see here for a good primer on this argument) the more data these scholars seem to have to study. Consider the so-called Nones — those who answer a few questions on a survey, about belief in God or attendance at church, and who are now thought by many to comprise a cohesive social, political force: scholars of religion are intent on studying them despite their adamant denial that they’re religious. What’s curious is that while many such scholars criticize those of peers who fail to take the insider’s viewpoint seriously, as they might say, yet here, in the case of the Nones, people’s refusal to identify as religious is hardly a barrier to eager scholars of religion.

So there’s an irony here — as a response to criticisms of the category religion’s utility scholars of religion don’t close up shop but, instead, start studying an ever wider data domain.

But this isn’t ironic at all if we recognize that there’s still a rather Eliandean streak running through the field, though many would strongly deny his continuing influence. For, as I read him, Mircea Eliade‘s work was much concerned with what he might have termed world-orienting symbols, beliefs, and actions — only some of which would fit a traditional definition of religion (belief in god, etc). It was in this way that he was able to argue for the surprisingly wide relevance of the work of scholars of religion, for, at least according to Eliade, we didn’t just study religion but we studied how human beings made their lives meaningful while living in the absurd realm that is history.

No wonder he was so fascinated with images of centers and the axes along which things were thought to turn.

The definition of Axis MundiAnd this is what I think is going on it the work of many of our peers today — they’ve responded to critiques of the category religion by reverting to a very old (maybe even commonsense — if so, then Eliade likely isn’t influencing them so much as standing in as a handy shorthand for what they all already think) theory of religion, one that asserts that what we call religion is but one among many ways that human beings orient themselves in the universe and, in the process, give their lives, actions, institutions meaning and thus permanence. Thus “meaning” has, for many, replaced “religion” — gladly abandoning the latter term, in the face of its critiques, they regroup under the banner of the former and carry on.

And voila, with this little shift (of seeing religion as but a species of a far wider semantic genus) scholars of religion remain as universally relevant as they once thought they were, back when Eliade argued, in the early 1960s, for the field to lead the way in establishing a so-called New Humanism.

History of Religions and New HumanismSo there’s an unarticulated theory of religion running throughout much work now going on in this field, and because unarticulated it is undefended.

But here’s an invitation to hear a little more from those in our field whose work seems to know no boundaries — just what is your theory of religion and on what organizing principle is this one academic exercise founded? For I’ve got a hunch that, in response to their feelings of intellectual and institutional marginalization in the academy, many would like to argue that it is the new Queen of the Sciences, as theology was once described, inasmuch as those trained in the study of religion still seem to have limitless data — despite their primary term falling on hard times.

3 Replies to “The Sun Never Sets on the Study of Religion”

  1. Thanks for this post, Russell. And you’re spot on in this critique. As I have argued in a number of face-to-face contexts, from my perspective the problem is not research into “boundary-testing cases” in general, but theoretically and critically naive/unengaged/uninterested research into such cases. Which, unfortunately, seems to be the majority. Many scholars who study ‘the nones,’ ‘non-religion’, ‘secularity’ etc. (as I do) seem to be content to have found/constructed a niche to populate with substantive data… by collecting and constructing this data they can guarantee themselves publications and impact for years to come, and maybe even a tasty chair or two.

    Now, I’m well aware that this self-serving motivation will have likely seeped into my own writing at times – for, after all, “original” research and career planning are the name of the game. But my hope is to position my work, and the work of critically engaged colleagues studying ‘the nones’, ‘atheism’, ‘conspiracism’, ‘invented religions’, ‘nationalism’ etc. as part of an ongoing critical engagement with the category of ‘religion’ by applying it in contexts that are not typically constructed as ‘religious.’ To quote the new blurb for the journal “Implicit Religion”, many of us are interested in such questions as “why is this data boundary-challenging? what do such marginal cases tell us about boundary management and category formation with respect to religion? and what interests are being served through acts of inclusion and exclusion?” Let’s just hope we can keep addressing them without being “theoretically and critically naive/unengaged/uninterested.”

  2. How could this exchange grow into a larger conversation for your reinvented journal…?

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