Relating Religion in the New York Times

by Matt Sheedy

Appearing in the Beliefs section of the New York Times on November 23, 2012, was an article about the recent SBL/AAR conference in Chicago, entitled, “A Scholarly Affair with a Side of Activism.” Putting aside the problematic pairing of “religion” and “beliefs,” the article’s title seems accurate enough. For all intents and purposes the conference was a scholarly affair, with some participating in a boycott of the Hyatt hotel in relation to the larger event.

While I find myself supportive of boycotts and workers’ rights in general, what I find troubling about this article is the way that it relates the study of religion to a general audience, which amounts a form of symbolic violence in Pierre Bourdieu’s sense that it mis-recognizes existing power relations in a particular social field by allowing an influential discourse within that field to stand-in for the whole.

For example, the photograph that appears with the article (similar to the one above), which features a placard reading “All Religions Believe in Justice,” makes a normative claim about the meaning of religion, as though “religion” possesses some “autonomous agency” (as Suzanne Owen pointed out in a Facebook thread on this article), apart from the social actors and institutions that name, shape, and give it force. While this notion may be fine in and of itself–after all, who I am I to say how others’ should relate to religion as a form of practice–when paired with an article about the largest global conference for scholars of religion, the association, it must be said, is less than benign.

The article itself begins with a cleaver analogy, comparing the meeting with the Mos Eisley cantina in Star Wars:

One saw robed Buddhist monks; priests and friars, collared or cassocked; nuns, in habit or not; imams in kufis; the occasional yarmulked Jew. And thousands more in rumpled khakis, name tag on lanyard like an officer’s medals. They clutched biblical concordances, Hebrew lexicons, Gospel commentaries.

While I grant that to the outside observer the visual presence of “religiously” attired folk from a variety of traditions may appear significant, the proportionality is overstated to say the least. As my colleagues Philip Tite put it, “this article makes us all sound like a weird cross between ComicCon and a large scale, interfaith camp meeting.” To many attending the conference, the appearance of such attire is familiar enough and may have no bearing whatsoever on how they experience the event; that is to say, the “religiously” attired are neither dominant nor necessarily significant/different/other unless we make them out to be. For the record, in my four days at the conference, never once did I see anyone “clutching biblical concordances, Hebrew lexicons, or Gospel commentaries.” This does not, of course, mean that it did not happen.

The rest of the article recounts the experience of Carolyn Roncolato, a graduate student at Chicago Theological Seminary, who spent time during the conference handing out buttons in support of the Hyatt boycott. For Roncolato, theorizing and academic jargon are meaningless if they can’t speak to issues of social justice. As she puts it, “We write papers and present papers on systemic injustice, racism, classism, sexism,” and thus staying at the Hyatt “totally undermines what we do.” While it is true that a good many scholars, myself included, deal with at least some of these themes in their work, it does not follow that we all do it in a prescriptive way (i.e., that theorizing about racism makes us anti-racism activists or requires that we engage in such praxis). This does not, of course, mean that this does not happen, as many do see their work in terms of social justice.

From here the article takes an interesting turn and adds a bit of nuance to an otherwise apologetic framing. Speaking to the boycott resolution, John J. O’Keefe of Creighton University worried that the affair could create a rift between the SBL and the AAR, pointing out that, “The American Academy of Religion includes people of all faiths, researching all faiths; many of its members are not themselves religious.” Likewise John Kutsko, executive director of the SBL, is quoting as saying, “We understand a principle of a learned society is to provide an open forum for intellectual exchange of ideas… Within that there are going to be differences of opinion, including on labor issues.”

As a member of the AAR as well as of NAASR, another learned society not mentioned in the article, I do appreciate this attempt to point out that not all members of these societies are religious and that learned societies should accommodate differences of opinion. What troubles me is that even this attempt at nuance does little if anything to present the study of religion as the highly contested interdisciplinary field that it is. Here, as is all too familiar, questions about competing approaches, understandings, and scholarly identities are all but erased.

And while I do not necessarily object to scholar’s like Carolyn Roncolato using their work to promote social justice, to relate the study of religion in this way reinforces any number of problematic assumptions –e.g. that we are all out to change the world, that we aim to promote a “liberal” understanding of religion or that religion scholarship is more akin to advocacy than to rigorous academic work within the Humanities and the Social Sciences–and thus mis-represents the many methods, theories, debates and controversies that surround what we do in the field. It should also be pointed out that these assumptions have disciplinary and political consequences, especially in a time of cutbacks and austerity measures, where those disciplines that are deemed less “scholarly” and too “political” are often first on the chopping block.

On a final note, in a Facebook discussion about this article, Steven Ramey offered some food for thought for scholars of religion that I feel is worth repeating–“Being exoticized and misrepresented is no fun.” I would tend to agree, though this does not, of course, mean that everyone feels this way.

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