As I discussed in an earlier Bulletin post, in defending the continued employment of “religion” as analytically distinct interpretive category, scholars such as Ivan Strenski argue that, relative to other modes of human behavior, what we typically identify as religion is “different enough” to warrant, even require, an autonomous interpretive frame. To read the intense cultural production associated, for instance, with the 2011 End Times predictions of Harold Camping without recourse to the conceptual tools of religion, this view argues, is to obscure important dimensions of this sort of human behavior.
Other scholars, most notably Russell McCutcheon, have argued in precisely the opposite direction. Religion, this view holds, represents an ordinary form of social production, no more, no less. To continue with the example above, Harold Camping, his followers, as well as his detractors, were all engaged in semantic and symbolic attempts to elevate their own preferences above those of others. Good scholarship, this view has it, is not faithful transcriptions of what the faithful do and/or believe, but rather incisive redescriptions of what our data call “religious” as various modes of ideological production.
There is a good deal at stake in this sort of argument. For, if the latter view proves correct, then scholars who continue to deploy “religion” as a category turn out to be more akin to our data, not our colleagues (as they are merely re-inscribing first-order, phenomenological, reports). More, the field of religious studies itself would seem in drastic need of complete conceptual overhaul, conversion, or even replacement by academic disciplines better suited to decoding ideological work in “religious” guise.
I do not believe, though, that this is the sort of argument that can be resolved by simply adducing a sufficient number unambiguous examples or extended arguments for (or against) either side. For, whether or not we side with Strenski or McCutcheon here depends, I think, upon which analytical level we choose to focus upon. If we are working close to the phenomenological level, that is, what self-identified religious traditions themselves teach, we find a great wealth of data suggesting that religion is “different enough.” Along such trajectories lies Bob Orsi’s well-known definition of religion “as a network of relationships between heaven and earth involving humans of all ages and many different sacred figures… I can think of no religious world,” he writes, “that does not offer practitioners opportunities to form deep ties with saints, ancestors, demons, gods, ghosts, and other special beings.” (2005) But if the phenomenological level yields discontinuities separating “religion” from other modes of cultural activity, focusing upon the level of ideological production yields precisely the opposite. For the Camping example discussed above, as with virtually all “religious” activity of which I am aware, involve some claim to cultural authority, whether shouted from highway billboards or muted by silent devotions. Thus, whether or not we think religion is “different enough” to justify or require a distinct interpretive frame depends greatly upon our analytical starting point.
As Moshe Idel suggests in his recent and comprehensive treatment of 20th century Jewish academics and intellectuals (Old Worlds: New Mirrors, 2010), perhaps we should cease looking for singularly correct analytic starting points from which to launch scholarly studies, and embrace instead a much messier “perspectivism” that recognizes the analytic value of different, even conflicting, interpretive frames.