The Hegemony of Normalcy and the Academic Study of Religion


by Daniel Jones

“The hegemony of normalcy is, like other hegemonic practices, so effective because of its invisibility.”-Lennard Davis

“We must… take account of the persistence of a model of interpretation and the inversion of its sense, if we wish to engage in a genuine critique of critique.”- Jacques Rancière

For those of us involved in the critical study of religion, we often find ourselves embroiled in debates about what the object of our study actually is. For we are a tribe of diverse scholars with diverse methods. I, for one, cherish Bruce Lincoln’s “anti-disciplinary” sensibilities, and nomadic approaches to scholarly inquiry (think BraidottiDeleuze/Guattari).

How we each “find” data depends on the relationship between what we see and the discourse that precedes (and thereby makes possible) our observation. It shapes our view of “religion” as observational data—what it is, does, or where it might be absent or found.

A recently re-posted 2012 book review nicely represents how particular ways of speaking of religion—analysis, defense, observation—are, in fact, entangled with particular ways of seeing or perceiving it as an object “in the world.” That is to say, that when someone speaks of an object that they understand as religion, in both academic and poplar discourse, they produce an image reflecting what constitutes, for them and their group, an authentically shaped object of religion. This production inherits, and benefits from, previous discursive forms of religion with which they are already familiar. Following Bourdieu, we often reproduce, unwittingly, social forms by which actors behave strategically.

In the review in question, entitled ‘A Philosopher Defends Religion,’ what struck me was the very normalcy by which its language of religion, conceived in a rather narrow and thus traditional form, went uncontested. That form favored particular theological commitments present in ecumenical, liberal Protestant, and in Evangelical discourse, both of which have been influential in the trajectory of the shaping of religious studies scholarship in “Western” academia. The book under review, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, authored by noted philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, was presented as a defense of “religion,” though qualified as “theistic.” The review’s author, NYU emeritus professor of philosophy, Thomas Nagel, was seemingly content with allowing Plantinga’s to define the terms of theistic religion, and in doing so dictating the characteristics which shaped the object by which a taxa of religion was defended as compatible with modern science, over and against philosophical naturalism. Nagel, a self-identified atheist, therefore does something interesting by accepting these parameters and engaging the book as a defense of “religion”: he reinforces the hegemonic normalcy by which one looks for and finds certain forms of “religion.” The version we find here is common enough: it is primarily about beliefs and/or faith (Plantinga splits the two), includes a theos/God, and resulting in a very particular cosmological textual traditions.

Nagel may therefore be doing more than he realizes when he quips that Plantinga’s “religion is the real thing, not just an intellectual Deism that gives God nothing to do in the world.”

For by not challenging Plantinga’s very Christian, very ecumenical Protestant synecdoche for “religion” (even for what constitutes “theistic”), Nagel, though an atheist, reifies a hegemonic way of seeing religion. Doing so, I would argue, masks very important historical empirical data, as well as political dynamics that are present, though now undetected in, Plantinga’s work. This de-historicized vision of religion as an object to defend serves—at least for those critical scholars of religion interested in studying social facts—as valuable data, but not method. That this is a very normal way of speaking about religion in scholarship, however, is worth studying, not reifying. At the very least, it provides an example of the very different labor that some philosophers of religion do from many of us in the Religious Studies. Those who appreciate Lacanian Gaze Theory might posit a form of Protestant Gaze which has affected how scholars often look upon their data, even if they reject the authority and identity of Protestant theology.

Now, of course Plantinga is free to defend and follow what he wishes as a follower of a system of beliefs like that which he is defending.


If we are to be engaging in the academic study of religion, no matter the discipline, we must be attentive to the implicit theories of religion created by academic discourse. How language is employed in theorizing human activities and “experiences” across time and space should be subject to the politics of recognition.

To rephrase my point, I am left wondering why this review wasn’t called “A Philosopher Defends a Particular Theology” as opposed to the usage of the term “religion,” since (as is sometimes the case in the philosophy of religion) when the terms are so clearly defined by a particular type of Christian discourse. I might therefore ask what the term “religion” does, how it functions. But, I am also left with another question: how does the tyranny of normalcy in the academic discourse on “religion” contribute invisible limitations on how we frame what we observe?

Daniel Jones is a graduate student in the Department of Religious Studies at Missouri State University. His research focuses on critical discourse analysis of the intersections of religion, nature, science, and humanity.  His research interests also pertain to theories of religion, culture, communication, and anthropology.

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