The Identity of NAASR and the Character of the Critical Study of Religion

The following is a response from William Arnal, president of the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR), to issues discussed during a panel titled “The Identity of NAASR and the Character of the Critical Study of Religion,” which was held at the recent NAASR annual meeting in Chicago. Since the Bulletin recently became affiliated with NAASR, we thought it would be worth sharing here.


To NAASR’s members:

Last year I decided to ask the NAASR membership to discuss, formally and publicly, the issue of NAASR’s identity and raison d’être, hardly a new question, but certainly a pressing one. That discussion, or at least an important element of it, took place at our last annual meeting, in the form of a panel and subsequent discussion devoted to this issue. The panelists (Aaron Hughes, Julie Ingersoll, Nicole Kelley, Russell McCutcheon) and respondent (Don Wiebe) — representing a variety of active participants in NAASR — expressed genuinely substantive disagreements. But there was also shared and considerable agreement on several points, an agreement that I saw also reflected in the preponderance of the panel’s audience.

One of those points of agreement is that NAASR does not have an indefinitely broad mandate. It is not our agenda to be inclusive of any and every effort being made to study religion, nor yet of any and every effort to do scholarship that could fall between the cracks. The AAR is a vast professional organization, incorporating many voices, including, for the time being, confessional and theological voices that do not represent what I at least think of as the study of religion. Nonetheless, as long as the parameters of that study are under dispute — and they certainly are — it is the job of the AAR to accommodate those different voices in their multiplicity. We have no such responsibility. We represent a certain kind of approach to or interest in religion, one that emphasizes its scientific study (“scientific” in the broadest sense), the reflexive and corrective impact of methodological self-scrutiny (including that of the discursive creation of our subject-matters), and those big questions — especially of explanation — that are signified by the label “theory.” Our job is to clear space for those kinds of discussions, and only those kinds of discussion; to try to make links with other people who are having them, and only those people. It is not to function as a parallel or miniature AAR.

In my view, NAASR’s tone or feel as an organization requires some work. This includes an insistence on having a rather less minatory and a rather more collegial style of interaction, including with people with whom we disagree (in general, the agonistic tone of academia as a whole just makes me tired). This includes spending more time looking at actual data and less time arguing about how or whether we should look at that data. And it includes drawing those people who share our interests into a respectful, productive, non-sectarian conversation. But we are not obligated, morally or professionally, to open our conversation to those who are in fact uninterested in its subject-matter, which is considerably narrower than just “the study of religion.” And if this narrower focus — as opposed to matters of style, personality, or organization — limits our size and our appeal, so be it.

It is healthy and appropriate for us to have these kinds of conversations, and I wish to thank the panelists, the respondent, and everyone who attended this session. There are plans to submit the papers and response to MTSR, and I intend to offer my own observations in more detail in that context. Hopefully, this panel and its anticipated publication will represent a touchstone of sorts in an ongoing discussion.

William Arnal

President, NAASR

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