Why Dilettantism?

In Tuesday’s post on Habermas, Matt Sheedy noted:

In case it is not painfully clear, Habermas is not a scholar of “religion.” He does not take up the term critically, examine its uses in various contexts, nor ask what interests are being served when it is deployed by various social actors.

I have no intention here of picking on Matt or Habermas, and by no means do I think every scholar on “religion” should take up exactly these tasks. However, one thing that interests me is the fact that scholars in other fields working on “religion” rarely avail themselves of cutting edge research from our field of study.

This is not reciprocal: scholars of religion writing on gender read critical gender studies; scholars of religion writing on culture read anthropology; scholars of religion writing on society read sociological theory.

Yet, scholars in other fields may write on religion without ever having availed themselves of our work. Hence we get Daniel Dennett recreating a 100-year-old wheel, when arguing that religion is animism.

Is this because “religion” in the popular imagination is something so naturalized or self-evident that serious theory on it need not be read? Or is it because our discipline has fallen down on the job?

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12 Responses to Why Dilettantism?

  1. Angela says:

    Craig–which research exactly are you thinking of? That is specific to Religious Studies as a field? Do you mean research in the sense of the use of theories and methods more generally to study various empirical phenomena marked as “religious” and then drawing conclusions about the social phenomena under analysis? Or do you mean different sorts of theories and methods themselves? I’m thinking you must mean the former.

  2. Craig Martin says:

    I mean, for instance, that religion is fundamentally a social thing (per Durkheim), and that the term “religion” is a social construction with a lot of baggage.

  3. Jim Linville says:

    Couldn’t agree more. It seems that one’s impression of Christianity as “a religion” becomes the model of ‘Religion” itself. Really bugs me. It is reinforced in countless ways in popular culture, including the horrible old view that puts monotheism as more “advanced” than polytheism etc (with or without “science” as superior to them all).

    Worse than Dennett is Dawkins’ caricature of the study of religion as providing nothing but a history of human gullibility. I do a bit of speaking at atheist/secular events and always quote him and then ask the audience if the same cannot be said of the history of human politics, marketing, or even the history of nightclubs and online dating sites.

    I always try to get my classes to determine the boundaries between “religion” and politics, sport, art, etc. It is fun to deconstruct high school graduation ceremonies (in Canada they are mostly quite secular) and find all the things in them that “religions” do: like imposing hierarchies, creation of the ideal person who speaks on behalf of all the graduates, deference to a set of culture norms (in some cases that most of the students may even reject). In the end, what makes something “religious” and other things not?

  4. mattsheedy says:

    Great points Craig. First, regarding Habermas, it is true that he doesn’t read the likes of J.Z Smith, McCutcheon, or even Talal Asad, though he is aware of some sociological-historical work like that of Bellah, Kippenberg and Norris and Inglehart. I think his extremely broad interests necessitate this piece-meal approach which, if nothing else, gives the scholar of religion space to mount a fruitful critique.

    I agree with the first point you raise 100% but am not sure about the second. How can we fall down on the job when there aren’t enough resources/support for a vibrant social theory of religion to emerge? Could this be a case of blaming the individual scholar when its (more) the superstructure that’s creating the greatest impediment? Here I’m thinking that too many RS programs are still connected with theological departments, sometimes explicitly, and this includes funding bodies (e.g., churches) and the like that have their own agendas. Add to this the general public’s misperception of RS (e.g., that it’s either atheism or, more likely, God-talk) and the on-going blight of cutbacks, and you’ve got a recipe for conformity to older, safer paradigms. While we all have a role in confronting the doxa, we first need to be made aware of it. On a personal note, it wasn’t until my PhD that I caught wind of these debates.

  5. Kenneth MacKendrick says:

    What counts as “cutting edge research” in our field?

    And why is this discipline “ours?” I don’t see that “religion” belongs to us any more than it does sociologists, anthropologists, historians, philosophers, psychologists or theologians….

  6. Donovan Schaefer says:

    Thanks, Craig–this encapsulates something I’ve just been sort of dimly thinking about for a while now. You mention Dennett, which was the name I came up with when I started reading your piece; I was also thinking about some philosophers–especially in the continental tradition–who use the category of religion as a way of solving philosophical problems they’ve engineered by the bushel–often with a colonialist and anthropocentric bias built in.

    But I think Matt is on target that it’s difficult to assign blame to scholars of religion themselves for this problem. It’s a classic power-knowledge problem: people who want to complicate and problematize the category of religion just don’t have the stature or the pulpit that people who want to use it as a simplistic bogeyman or as a deus ex machina do.

    For me, the more interesting question is how it is that critics and adulators of religion are so irresistibly drawn to the topic that they abandon their scholarly due diligence. Dennett wrote a lot of strong, well-researched books that brought cutting-edge scholarship (not necessarily correct, but definitely the real deal) to popular audiences in the 1980s and 1990s. But _Breaking the Spell_ is a dud, neither scholarly nor particularly well-written. Why?

  7. Craig Martin says:

    @Jim, I’m glad you’re pushing those buttons. What counts as religion or not religion seems pretty arbitrary from my perspective, and getting people to notice that it’s a loaded rhetorical term is pretty important.

    @Matt and Donovan: good points. I might re-post them in a follow up post, if you don’t mind.

  8. Randi Warne says:

    Zia Sardar writes of a phenomenon he calls “knowledgeable ignorance” – having the capacity and resources to know and thin differently. He uses America as an example, but I have found a similar (what word to use? intransigence? self-interest?) dead zone regarding RELS method and theory generally, and gender *in* RELS method and theory (sorry folks, the teaching of the history of gender-critical studies of religion is still anaemic, at best) I did an article some years back, “Further Reflections on the Unacknowledged Quarantine” that was published in Lorraine Code et al (ed), Changing Methods, Wilfred Laurier University Press. It charts strategies of mutual exclusion between Religious Studies and what was then more widely known as Women’s Studies.
    My first Methodology paper at U of T was on Eliade’s gender essentialism and cultural imperialism (for Will Oxtoby, in 1978 I believe.) It is still a useful piece of work, in my view, but it hardly lit the Centre for Religious Studies at U of T on fire, perhaps because it contravened prevailing ideologies too deeply (“girl stuff,” you know – not serious, nervy, uncompromising, masculine, linear, no values here except Truth – Science. I’m not so sure we need more Religious Studies departments teaching this view (any more than we need more “women are always and only victims” studies). Just go back to the “founding fathers” of RELS and follow the logic. However you might regard the adequacy of my own scholarship, the fact remains that gender-critical materials are out there, and have been for a good 30 years. How can it be that folks can get to a Ph.D. level and only there start to hear some of these debates? Blaming theological affiliation is certainly an accepted strategy (cue Monty Python’s Holy Grail – “a witch, a witch!”), but frankly, folks, I think that’s ultimately a dead end,

  9. Randi Warne says:

    Probably it’s best to assume Monty Python as a reference in many of my comments. Soundtracks variable, of course.

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