This past weekend Religion & Ethics News Weekly posted a brief video and transcript of recent interviews with Occupy Wall Street (OWS) participants. “Religious groups,” we are told, “are offering spiritual and moral support” in a variety of ways: “regular interfaith prayer services…. donating tents, food and money…. opening their facilities to the protesters, giving logistical advice and helping to get the [OWS] message out.” Indeed, those interviewed claimed that “there is a prominent spiritual dimension to what’s been happening. Inside Zuccotti Park [for instance] is a makeshift community altar, where protestors of all faiths come to pray or meditate… protest chaplains—many of them seminary students—minster to the protesters.”
Given my own preoccupation with methodology, one question in particular emerges: how are such developments best analyzed? For some theorists, most notably Russell McCutcheon, because religion is no different from any other form of social production (they all, for instance, elevate certain ideological preferences at the expense of others), OWS should be studied by means of the same interpretive strategies we would use anywhere else: re-describing discursive products in terms of the ideological work they attempt. While “faith leaders at the Wall Street protests deny any political agenda,” this claim is itself part of the social production a re-descriptive approach would identify as data and unpack.
For other theorists, such as Ivan Strenski, social production may become discernibly religious in an objectively real sense under certain conditions, for instance, when it is mobilized by notions such as sacrifice or martyrdom, as was the case with the terrorist attacks of Sept.11, 2001. If OWS activities display these or other features that make religious behavior “different enough” from other modes of social activity, then they may (and should) be interpreted under religious categories, since failing to do so would result in significantly flattened interpretive results.
For still others, such as Eric Mazur and Kate McCarthy, since in “today’s American culture, it seems that religion is everywhere” (God in the Details: American Religion in Popular Culture, 2001, p.2), OWS like all other sites of social activity may be mined for its religious patterns, symbols, and structures.
Faced with such different (even contradictory) and yet powerful methodologies, recourse to a “toolbox” metaphor is often criticized for its lack of theoretical coherence. What theoretical principle(s) might hold together wildly divergent approaches, outside of sheer eclecticism and institutional efficacy (so that we it all get along at conferences)? One such principle is giving up what seem (at least to me) to function as ontological questions–Is X religious?–and pursuing instead questions explicitly framed in terms of interpretive efficacy: What do we gain by examining X as if it were religious? So doing makes important concessions to the manifold nature of our social worlds and the limitations of our epistemic capacities. Indeed, our methodological commitments do not merely open up divergent ways of seeing reality, but divergent realities. Given such considerations, examining the different OWSs that arise–e.g., as ordinary ideological work; as emergently “religious”; as secularized religious elements–might in fact prove more interesting and helpful than relying upon a single hermeneutic.