Critical Thinking Begins at Home


* This post originally appeared as part of the Religion in Culture Lectures in association with the University of Alabama.

by Russell McCutcheon

A letter came out recently from the President-elect of the main U.S. professional society for scholars who study religion concerning the conference theme for the 2014 meeting in San Diego: “Climate Change and the Coming Global Crisis: Religions and Responses” (read the full letter here [PDF]). Taking the letter as one’s object of study–since we, as scholars, are just as human, and thus our artifacts are just as interesting, as those we usually study, no?–provides an interesting moment in just how far critical thinking can take us when it comes to our own practices as scholars.

Although I happen to believe–a key term in the memo–that global warming is happening and that human behavior has played an important, perhaps even definitive, role, I am no climatologist and can’t even name the different academic specialties that are required to gather the data needed to draw a sensible conclusion on the matter. So be clear–I’m no so-called denier; but I have a Ph.D. that, like anyone else with one, is in a precise specialty, credentialing me within a specific domain of knowledge, so I sensibly leave to others more qualified than me to pronounce on the so-called “facts” (as they are phrased in the memo) of global warming. Apart from the curious way in which the repeated statements of belief slide into proclamations of fact, I therefore find the well-known fallacy of misplaced authority throughout the text. For only if we presume that (A) the object studied by scholars of religion is somehow necessarily beneficial and that (B) those who study it therefore have some special duty to spread the good news of their findings to the benefit of humankind, would a convention of scholars of religion (whether humanists, social scientists, or theologians of whatever stripe) be called upon to apply their research to help solve the climate change crisis.

For a group of scholars whose motto is “Fostering Excellence in the Study of Religion,” I therefore find the unproblematized notion of belief employed as an actual motivating source for action (the following essay is helpful in thinking through the issue involved in such a claim), the uncritical notion that those things we call religions are self-evidently a source of hope for people in crisis (more than one theorist would see them as among the sources of these crises!), and the ease with which scholars trained in the careful study of ancient texts or in doing ethnographies of human behavior are assumed to have a special task in addressing climate change all to be extremely troubling. That this sounds remarkably like a restatement of Mircea Eliade’s “new humanism”–something that has received its own share of critique–is even more bothersome.

So my question is: Just how much excellence are we fostering if no one questions these sorts of claims? What do we even mean by “excellence”?

I recall an earlier university where I worked and how, when we discussed the specialty we needed for an open faculty position, someone would inevitably cut off the discussion by saying, rather grandly, that we were simply looking for the cream of the crop, the best applicant–in a word, excellence. It was a handy rhetorical move, of course, since it papered over the controversies in the room concerning just what excellence meant–best according to what measure? That one happens to share some of the beliefs that are credited with animating our President-elect’s memo should not, I would hope, prevent scholars of religion from knowing their professional limits or curtail them from questioning the sort of excellence that allows our peers to make such claims.

If we’re going to sell the practical utility of the critical thinking that we say we’re teaching our students, then maybe we should consider applying these skills a little closer to home than we usually do. Whatever one thinks our “scholarly duty” is to the fate of humankind, isn’t this at least one that we owe to our own profession–perhaps leaving to our civic duty the diagnosis and correction of the various social ills that we may or may not come to believe in.

Russell McCutcheon is a Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. Interested generally in issue of theory in the study of religion, and specifically in the social and political utility of the very term “religion” itself, he has worked at three different public universities in the US. He came to Tuscaloosa in 2001 to be the Chair of the Department, a role he played until 2009. He teaches a variety of courses in the Department, on such topics as the rhetoric of religious experience or authenticity, and continues his research on such topics as religion and modernity. He also has a dog, Izzy.

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4 Responses to Critical Thinking Begins at Home

  1. Russell McCutcheon says:

    To which I’ve replied…

  2. Amod Lele says:

    Thank you. I’ve continued the dialogue over there.

  3. Russ, I want to thank you for posting this with the Bulletin’s blog. This is an important issue, as the memo sets forth (or attempts to set forth) not only a direction for the discipline but also a value system by which the entire academy is to evaluated. You speak of the limits of a specialism, and I think you’ve hit on part of the problem here, but the problem is even greater than just the social scientist or humanities scholar stepping into the environmental science camp (and yes I take the point raised that the social scientist/humanities scholar can explain those social processes at work within ongoing debates about the environment).

    We are also faced with an imposition as to what religious studies scholarship should be, indeed must be, in order to be acceptable. Specifically, all of us are now expected to become advocates of normative ethics with an eye toward this one ethical issue (i.e., environmental ethics). Yet, as a scholar of religion, that’s not what I do. I neither study environmental ethics (as a scholar; as a person I have strong opinions that I hope are informed) nor do I try to advocate a normative ethical position (at least I try not to in my scholarship, though I do take positions in my scholarship in debate with other scholarly positions as I try to attain my analytic goals). So I’m seeing the dual problem of a normative/applied advocacy being exhorted in the memo and a radical delimitation of the study of human interactions that we tend to throw under that troublesome little label “religion” (an ironic imposition no less, given the pluralistic ethos advocated by many in the AAR these days).

    It is that tone of advocacy that has really thrown me, however. Last year we were had a moral obligation imposed on us (because we are scholars in the study of religion) to back one side of a labor dispute – the implication was that as moral, religious people (i.e., because we study “religion” we must be “religious” in some moral sense qua scholars) we more than anyone else should fight for labor rights. This memo strikes me as following the same discursive act of moral positions. Perhaps I’m reading too much into the memo or the talk around the memo, but as a scholar of religion, as a member of the AAR, I just can’t see my job as an academic in this discipline reflected in that moral imposition.

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