by Charlie McCrary
On New Year’s Eve 2013, The Atlantic ran an article entitled, “Why Getting Drunk and Making Resolutions on New Year’s Are Profoundly Religious Acts.” If you’re the sort of person who reads the Bulletin Blog, it’s likely that your eyes rolled upon reading that title. Maybe you chortled. It’s also likely, though, that you’re the sort of person who’s on the lookout for examples of how the category “religion” or “religious” is used in culture. The article, which is for the most part Atlantic editor Emma Green’s recounting of a conversation with Wendy Doniger, provides some great data for how these words function and the assumptions built into them. The word “religious” must mean something to Atlantic readers. So, what does it mean? What work does it do?
The piece begins by running through a variety of possibilities for why people make New Year’s resolutions, including psychological and historical reasons. “But there’s another explanation,” Green writes. “New Year’s resolutions play a role similar to religious observance in our lives.” From the beginning we see that religion must be something else, “another explanation.”
From there, Green (and Doniger, secondhand) discusses New Year’s traditions and the “religious” traditions they mirror. For one, Doniger offers, “the idea that you’re suddenly going to change is a magical idea” (“magic” is to sociologists as “God” is to monotheists, Green explains.) Ergo, belief in resolutions is religious. “The whole thing about ‘the magic moment’ and counting down—that’s a real religious thing to do,” Doniger said. It is not clear to me whether she means “real” as opposed to fake, or if she means “really,” intensifying the adjective by the same logic that makes “profoundly religious” thinkable. Either way, the countdown is religious. Likewise, “Wearing sparkly hats, drinking champagne, and promising yourself that you’ll actually go to the gym this year may seem silly, but structurally, these acts have a lot in common with religious observance.” Notice the work being done by the conjunction. It might seem silly, but it’s kind of like religious. Religious is not silly. The reader is expected to know this.
Green concludes that, “Even traditions that seem patently secular—bar-hopping on New Year’s Eve, for example—have a hint of religious flavor.” What does it taste like? If the word “religious” has any value, then we should be able to answer. What is that religious flavor, that salt on the rim that elevates a ritual from patently secular to something, just, more than that? Further, why are Lent, Diwali, and Rosh Hashanah self-evidently religious, but bar-hopping isn’t? The fact that Green and Doniger can’t say anything about the substantive qualities of the “religious” or interrogate its construction and contingency demonstrates the term’s analytic bankruptcy. The fact that they don’t seem to care to do so speaks to its power. And that’s the point; that’s how it works.
Immediately before reading the article I had been working on the syllabus for my American religious history class this semester (more posts about the class will follow), specifically the statement on what it means to study “religion.” This obligatory section, which mostly serves to tell students not to try to convert other students, is authoritatively and misleading titled “The Academic Study of Religion.” (I don’t like the singular nouns, but I relish the power in that definite article.) In this section I attempt to distance myself from a label my course title and departmental affiliation force me to use. But it is also here that I can introduce a basic theoretical and methodological supposition. As it stands, this is my explanation of The Academic Study of Religion:
This course surveys a wide variety of beliefs and practices that people have called ‘religious.’ ‘Religion’ is not a thing in the word that exists, but a category—and a very powerful one for Americans, especially since it is written in the U.S. Bill of Rights—used to label some groups, practices, and ideas and to deny that label to others. The academic study of religion seeks to understand and contextualize this politics, not to argue for or against non-historical truth claims.
I like this brief statement, because it opens me up to criticism. It renders the whole syllabus a primary text, each category open to scrutiny. If I’m teaching “American religious history,” my selection of topics necessarily labels some things religious. We will be talking about the Second Great Awakening and Kentucky. We won’t be talking about organic chemistry or medieval Japan. Whatever the case, you have to own and defend your categorization. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with talking about this and not that, but there is something wrong with not telling students why, not knowing why, or, worst, never really thinking about it.
I’ll write again in this space with updates on how the course progresses, starting with a post about the first lecture on the politics of classification. The first assignment (presuming my co-instructor obliges) will be to read Green’s piece on New Year’s and use it as the basis for a definition of religion. My pedagogical question for the new semester and new year is this: How do we teach courses that equip our students with the tools not to understand what is and is not a “profoundly religious act,” but to see that phrase’s analytic uselessness and its considerable rhetorical power, which itself is in part a function of its analytic emptiness?
Charles McCrary is a PhD student in American religious history at Florida State. His 2012 MA thesis focused on autobiography and historiography among 19th-century Methodists, and his current research is on antebellum public schools, religion, and secularity. He also is finishing an article on disestablishment cases and specialty license plates. He can be found on Twitter @CharlesMcCrary.