On Maps and Territories: Some Thoughts on Confronting the World Religions Paradigm

by Matt Sheedy

In a recent blog post, Steven Ramey discusses his own teaching strategy of assigning and analyzing a traditional “world religions” textbook when teaching an introductory course. As he writes,

The textbook represents one version of the common public discourse, at least in relation to the existence of distinct religions. It is difficult for students to enter a critique of the discourse when they have only heard some of these labels in a limited fashion. In my experience, many undergraduates can engage and find this critique fascinating, even in entry-level courses.

I find myself in agreement with Ramey’s claim that it is difficult for students to critique this discourse without first exploring it themselves–after all, it still remains the dominant paradigm in much of the academy and reflects a widespread liberal assumption that the core of all religions are the same, affirming the notion of some timeless, essentialized ‘good’ that can be distinguished from the ‘bad.’ Such discourses represent meta-narratives that always work by exclusion and serve to minimize difference, presenting religion as some independent variable that can explain human behavior.

Kate Daley-Bailey, in her own recent blog post, notes a similar pattern of exclusion when she writes:

If a chapter on the history of Buddhism is read as what Buddhism truly is… then this chapter functions as a ‘history’ of Buddhism. It has taken on the role of dominant super-narrative which subsumes difference, claims to reflect cosmic or ‘natural’ structures, and names itself as the great arbiter of reality and universal truth (for the tradition of Buddhism, that is).

In the current incarnation of my own introductory course, I draw on J.Z Smith’s appropriation of Alfred Korzybski’s dictum “the map is not the territory” as a way to distinguish between a standard world religions textbook (the ‘map’) from the various ways that both scholars and practitioners grapple with, contest and re-imagine such maps in relation to their own distinct ‘territories.’ In this way, the text is framed as a meta- or “super-narrative,” while the inclusion of a number critical essays serve to highlight how difference has been subsumed by the dominant discourse on “world religions.”

On the theoretical front, I draw on two chapters from Craig Martin’s A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion, focusing on “Authority” and “Habitus” respectively. While Martin’s chapter on authority does not align precisely with Smith’s formulation of the ‘map,’ his focus on how processes of “selective privileging” always take place amongst insiders in their own textual interpretations, provides a useful model for problematizing the standard phenomenological paradigm.

After introducing the concept of habitus–how human dispositions (tastes and preferences cultivated through processes of socialization) serve to influence the many ways that authority is represented (e.g., the use of scriptural justifications for homophobia or snake handling)–I pose the same problem that Martin does, suggesting that it may be more useful to start by looking at the particular habitus of certain religious groups (e.g. white southern US Pentecostals) rather than assuming that they all share a unified set of doctrines and beliefs that can somehow explain them, capture their “essence.”

Here the notion of habitus is meant to emphasize how social embodiment and reconstitution of a purported “religious” authority functions in relation to a seemingly endless chain of cultural products that shape the inflection and appropriation of a particular tradition, like so many different spices in a pot of stew.

As one example, we look at a chapter from Suzanne Owen’s book The Appropriation of Native American Spirituality, in order to provide a contrast with William A. Young’s presentation of the Lakota tradition in this textbook The World’s Religions. Among other things, Owen’s discussion helps to highlight why the Lakota were chosen to be represented as a “world religion” (albeit lumped into a chapter on “indigenous traditions” along with the Yoruba of West Africa) among hundreds of other groups, given the outreach efforts of figures like Frank Fools Crow and the alliance between certain Lakota communities and the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the early 1970s, and subsequent popularization/politicization of “Lakota spirituality.”

In addition, Owen’s treatment highlights how certain presumptively timeless ideals, such as the medicine wheel teachings on the unity of the four races of humankind, are always subject to change given the myriad social forces that determine their conditional significance. Whereas Frank Fools Crow sought to salvage the practice of fledgling Lakota ceremonies by opening them up to non-Natives prior to the 1970s, the influence of AIM helped to create a stronger and more autonomous sense of Lakota identity and contributed to an increased suspicion of outsider appropriations.

Ultimately, my goal is to get students to see how the presentation of a normative version of “world religions” sets up a dichotomy between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ religion, thereby selectively privileging one version as ‘natural’ to the exclusion of all others, and ignoring the many ways that religions are socially conditioned as sites of contestation and difference.

My hope, if I am successful, is to get students to move away from seeing religion as a primary taxon of human behavior towards a view that sees it as one of many sites of cultural production, where the tension between ‘map’ and ‘territory’ is an ongoing battle for authority and representation.

Matt Sheedy is a PhD. candidate in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, ritual and myth, and social movements. His dissertation offers a critical look at Juergen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere. He is also conducting research on myths, rituals and symbols in the Occupy movement and discourses on ‘Nativeness’ in the Indigenous Idle No More movement.

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2 Responses to On Maps and Territories: Some Thoughts on Confronting the World Religions Paradigm

  1. You write: “My hope, if I am successful, is to get students to move away from seeing ‘religion’ as a primary taxon of human behavior towards a view that sees it as one of many sites of cultural production…” I’m curious what “it” refers to. That is, would it be fair to say that you are mainly interested in enlargening the tent concerning what counts as Hinduism, for example, rather than understanding why anyone even identifies in that manner to begin with? For the former goal would be in keeping with the traditional usage for the map/territory pairing–i.e., there is a real place out there and we’re interested in how it is represented. The more radical use, of course, would be to see the latter as a product of the former, much as those old maps whose shorelines just ended in blank space because they hadn’t been there yet and had no way of conceiving the territory without having mapped it first. Thus mapping makes territory…

  2. Randi Warne says:

    I want to be more convinced of the ultimate usefulness of the infinite-hall-of-mirrors approach than I am. I understand the notion of the instability of the category “woman” for example (“Am I That Name?”), but somehow, somewhere along the line about 1/3 of those designated in variations of that unstable category still end up getting the crap kicked out of them in their domestic partnerships – and if that is all the damage they suffer, they’re lucky. However unstable the categories, stuff still suffers the fate of the name, and the naming.

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