Reply: Reasons and Objectivity in the Study of Religion

Picture 3

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. Continue reading “Reply: Reasons and Objectivity in the Study of Religion”

What Came First, the Difference or the Similarity? Part 2

Picture 4Yesterday, in Part 1, I wrote about some of the conceptual problems that I find in a recent Hufftington Post article on the ironic similarities between two sets of devotional rituals, said to be shared by Hindus and Buddhists in Sri Lanka, and the way — again, according to the article, and also the site on which it is based — that this commonality might provide a basis to overcome perceived difference and conflict.

But there’s more to talk about at the site (created by, according to the Huff Post article, a Sri Lankan-based, University of Chicago trained anthropologist). For instance, its Intro page opens as follows: Continue reading “What Came First, the Difference or the Similarity? Part 2”

Oh, the Humanity…

edgedailyshowAs I tried to suggest in a post last week, concern over dehumanizing the people we study has long struck me as a pseudo-problem, i.e., a problem of scholars’ own making, inasmuch as I think that we worry about this only for those with whom we already agree, with whom we already share some affinity. In a word, the fact of the concern is an example of our own identification practice/interests up and running. For all others, we, as scholars, are likely in tacit agreement that we are not trying to convey or conserve their self-perceived meanings or some ethereal quality that they apparently share with us but, instead, trying to figure out how in the world they could even think or act in the way that they do (i.e., in such cases the people we study are a puzzle to be solved and not a pristine human value to be protected from the prying eyes of outsiders), given that their actions or beliefs are so patently odd or curious or wrong or unethical or illegal or immoral.

To us, that is…. Continue reading “Oh, the Humanity…”

Erased

pencil-eraserThere’s been a series of commentaries online recently on the topic of using the term “data” when naming the (what shall we call “it”?) …, stuff that we, as scholars, study — commentaries driven by worries, in many cases, that this word erases the inherent worth and humanity of the people so named. The members of Culture on the Edge tackled this topic both here and here, all in favor of an informed/specific use of this technical term, and a more diverse group of responses also appeared at the Bulletin blog (here and then also here). Continue reading “Erased”

Using Four-Lettered Words: Part Two

edgedavinci1

“What Justice Kennedy has undertaken in this initial statement of fact, or more properly, of data, that is to say, facts accepted for purposes of the argument…”

– Jonathan Z. Smith, “God Save This Honourable Court” (Relating Religion, p. 382)

While she was on our campus a few weeks ago, I noticed Monica Miller using the word “data” to refer to the things that she studied — things such as African American religion, scholars of African American religion, rap lyrics, and rap artists — and so I asked her a question or two about what she thought was entailed in that word and why she seemingly opted for it rather purposefully in both her public lecture, the evening before, and then during an informal lunchtime discussion with our students the next day. And then, just the other day, Leslie Smith posted on this site, using this four-lettered word in her post’s title — a use that did not go unnoticed by some on Facebook who soon were debating what was termed the dehumanizing effects of such objectifying terminology. (And now the Bulletin‘s blog has entered the debate as well.) Continue reading “Using Four-Lettered Words: Part Two”

Using Four-Lettered Words: Part One

edgedavinci1

“What Justice Kennedy has undertaken in this initial statement of fact, or more properly, of data, that is to say, facts accepted for purposes of the argument…”

–  Jonathan Z. Smith, “God Save This Honourable Court” (Relating Religion, p. 382)

While she was on our campus a few weeks ago, I noticed Monica Miller using the word “data” to refer to the things that she studied — things such as African American religion, scholars of African American religion, rap lyrics, and rap artists — and so I asked her a question or two about what she thought was entailed in that word and why she seemingly opted for it rather purposefully in both her public lecture, the evening before, and then during an informal lunchtime discussion with our students the next day. And then, just the other day, Leslie Smith posted on this site, using this four-lettered word in her post’s title — a use that did not go unnoticed by some on Facebook who soon were debating what was termed the dehumanizing effects of such objectifying terminology. Continue reading “Using Four-Lettered Words: Part One”