Should We Be Talking to Our Data? A Response to Tenzan Eaghll’s “Brief Letter to Richard Dawkins Regarding ‘Religion’”

By Philip L. Tite

In a recent blog, Tenzan Eaghll challenged Richard Dawkins to approach religion with the theoretical insights offered by many in method & theory circles in our discipline, specifically with an eye toward continental philosophy. For Eaghll, the study of religion needs to avoid essentialisms and reified products, especially when those products are superficial and misleading. As one of the editors of the Bulletin, I am wary of entering this debate (I fully respect the independent views of our writers) but having been encouraged to do so, I want to raise an important question to Eaghll – a challenge I hope resonates with broader debates in the academic study of religion. Therefore, I offer this brief response as an invitation to continue the conversation.

Eaghll offers a corrective to Dawkins on the proper understanding of “religion” within the field of religious studies: “If you were to inform yourself of the theoretical developments in the academic study of religion, you would learn that religion is not a thing, but a complex confluence of political, economic, historical, and cultural forces …” This is an instance of correction through definition, with an end goal implication: “… and that you cannot attack it by blaming it for our modern social ills.” This definition certainly encapsulates much of the theoretical approaches taking root within the discipline, specifically among those scholars who have resisted sui generis discourse such as we find in the older phenomenology of religion camps. Rather than a reified, self-contained “object” of study, “religion” is a discursive product – one that is intertwined with human power relations. In reading this comment I am reminded of such influential theorists as Talal Asad, William Cavanaugh, Russell McCutcheon, Timothy Fitzgerald, and Tomoko Masuzawa (among many others). It is a theoretical school of thought that I identify with and which I find helpful in my own research.

But is this the only way that “religion” is studied within our discipline? Eaghll’s letter carries a subtext of normative consensus: this is how specialists in the study of religion approach the topic of religion and therefore to take an academic approach to religion is to follow this theoretical understanding. But anyone who has been in religious studies for any length of time will recognize that “religion” is heavily contested within religious studies. Not everyone accepts a non-essentialized, anti-sui generis, or discursive approach to religion. There are many who continue to study religion (and not just discursive power relations revolving around the category religion) as an object of study. Often such debates over our object of study are articulated in the wide range of definitions that we commonly introduce to our students in our introduction to religion and theories in the study of religion courses. However, as Craig Martin has so clearly demonstrated, our definitions are not end products of research – let alone self-contained and apolitical descriptors – rather they are founded upon analytical presuppositions and assumptions, which, in turn, direct our delimitations of what we already consider a “fit” for our given definition of religion. This past quarter in my “Theories in the Study of Religion” course, while working through Eric Sharpe’s Comparative Religion with my students, Martin’s point was clearly evident. The various theorists we dealt with posed a range of definitions. Whether we were reading Frazer, Müller, James, Freud, Jung, etc the definition had less to do with the data being studied than with the theoretical agenda underlying the study of that data (as well as in the very selection of what should constitute data).

This observation on definitions also fits Eaghll’s definitional “corrective” in this letter. And like other definitions of “religion”, Eaghll’s makes a normative and hegemonic claim – as if this is the only valid understanding or that this understanding is the consensus of scholarship. Along with such positive claims, of course, is the negative act of marginalizing some other, including older understandings or approaches to religion: for this to be the norm, that must be the fringe (or even what we have “out grown”, such as in a progressive historical narratives). Don’t get me wrong, I like Eaghll’s definition – it’s one that I embrace and it is one that I hope will become the norm within scholarship (and perhaps beyond scholarship). Yet I also realize that it is not the only one out there.

Consequently, I kept asking myself while reading Eaghll’s letter to Dawkins if this is the same “religion” that Dawkins is engaging? Is it possible that Dawkins and Eaghll have two different objects in view, one discursively understood and the other a more popularly understood “thing”? I’m not versed well enough in Dawkins thought or in the so-called New Atheism to authoritatively speak about Dawkins’ object of critique. However, it strikes me that Eaghll’s letter is attempting to translate one object (called “religion”) to another object (also called “religion”) in order to challenge the former as if it should be the latter.

Beyond definitions and objects, perhaps we should also ask ourselves if the end goals are different for Eaghll and Dawkins. Furthermore, should Eaghll’s even be talking to Dawkins? From my limited knowledge of Dawkins’ work on religion, it strikes me that he is engaged in a debate over insider truth claims. Does God exist? Is religion morally valid or harmful? Should we have religion in society? Have we outgrown religion? Should we reject religion? At least this is how Dawkins is often invoked in debates I’ve heard over religion and science or religion and atheism. This end goal is very different from what I understand as the end goal of scholarship (at least the scholarship that I and, I think, Eaghll advocate). Rather than affirm or deny insider truth claims, my job as a scholar and teacher is to understand and explain human interactions or social dynamics revolving around “religious” claims. My job is not to tell my data what they should belief or how they should conduct themselves but to figure out why and how they believe or conduct themselves in the myriad ways that they do so.

Dawkins, however, strikes me as engaged in such normative debates. He is engaged in validating or invalidating insider truth claims. Thus, for the scholars of religion he is not our colleague (with whom we debate how best to study whatever we are calling “religion”) but is part of our data. For Eaghll to engage Dawkins the way this letter does is to conflate data with theorist (though, of course, theorists can become data for those who study the study of religion). So the question arises for me: should we be talking to our data? For the sake of understanding our data, then certainly we should be talking to our data (and I say this not as a phenomenologist; see my 2004 article on the role of insider perspective in theorization in contrast with, for example, Arvind Sharma’s To the Things Themselves). But to tell our data what should be their approach to religion would be a prescriptive move on our part. Dawkins and the New Atheists are data for the scholar of religion. To tell Dawkins what he should understand as religion is the same as a scholar telling a Christian that a particular soteriology is or is not the truth or that the resurrection is a reality (physically or spiritually). Those insider truth claims lie at the level of data collection, re-description, and understanding. At the level of theorization or explanation, on the other hand, that data is used to accomplish such analysis as Eaghll articulates in the definition of religion offered.

So what do we do with the essentialisms and reifications that are so anathema to many scholars of religion? Perhaps instead of undermining those constructs, we could be theorizing such constructs – as discursive acts where insider truth claims are contested by the phenomena that we are studying. Dawkins strikes me not as a problem to be corrected, but as a datum worth theorizing.

Author Bio: Philip Tite is co-editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from McGill University (2005) and is currently an affiliate lecturer at the University of Washington and also teaches at Seattle University in Seattle WA, USA. His most recent book is The Apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans: An Epistolarly and Rhetorical Analysis (TENTS, 7; Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2012).

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4 Responses to Should We Be Talking to Our Data? A Response to Tenzan Eaghll’s “Brief Letter to Richard Dawkins Regarding ‘Religion’”

  1. Randi Warne says:

    Thank you for this clear and economical laying out of the issue – and thank you and those responsible for the Bulletin overall.

  2. Kate says:

    Hello Phil,
    Thank you so much for this brilliant synopsis of the issue. Beautifully articulated! My only suggestion, and this is something which I wish to suggest to all my peers, is that we refer to the materials our subjects create as data but refrain from referring to people as data. Calling other human beings data seems terribly colonial to me. Does that not seem pejorative and dehumanizing? We study what people do and think… they produce our data but they, themselves, are not our data.
    Thanks again for this lucid rendering of said topic,

  3. Ian Brown says:

    Great reflection, Phil. It seems to me the key issue here is how prescriptive we as scholars should be. Yes, Dawkins is potentially data for many of us study religion (again, his fitness as data will depend on our working understanding of religion), but he is also a public face of critique of religion/anti-religion. In this sense he functions in some ways similarly to a religious pundit (he espouses a particular theological view point), but in other ways quite differently. Unlike, say, the Pope (who would probably not be confused with a non-committed scholar of religion), Dawkins is primarily viewed as a scientist communicating informed and scholarly opinions on religion to the public.

    So perhaps Eaghll’s address was a little off, he should have addressed his letter to the general public who read Dawkins, not to Dawkins himself. This change of address, however, doesn’t get around the prescriptive issues you raised, it just changes whose point of view we are trying to correct. But if we can’t be prescriptive from time to time, what is it exactly that we’re doing, beside talking to ourselves?

  4. Philip L. Tite says:

    Hi Kat,

    Thanks for the response (and Ian and Randi as well). You raise a really important point and I’ve been thinking about your comments for the past few weeks with the intent of responding. I suppose calling a person or group data can be dehumanizing and potentially an act of (implicit perhaps) colonialism. Just a quick look at the history of our discipline will reinforce the validity of your caution.

    However, I still think “data” is a valid term to use, not in the sense of turning people into things (it *can* mean/do that, but is that a necessary outcome?). Rather, I use data to refer to those subjects, objects, etc that our analytical focus is directed toward. It’s the “what or who we are studying” level of understanding/description/re-description. So perhaps instead of talking about data we should be talking about our foci of research.

    This is distinct from our theorizing or explaining that data/foci. At that second order level, it seems that this is where we ask heuristic analytical questions to “make sense of” those points of research interest. As Tenzan correctly noted in a follow up blog, such data sets/sets of foci are not untouched by theory. Theory drives the very construction of our data sets, it shapes and determines what we delimit and then pass off as definitional (to evoke an excellent article by Craig Martin in MTSR). But even with Tenzan’s discussion there is still a distinction: that which is/those who are foci of interest and those who engage in the analysis of such foci/data. They *do* interact and are co-dependent levels, but each level is a distinct level. Such a distinct arises even in Tenzan’s challenge to that distinction. A key point of distinction (for me at least) is the goals of the each player in the analytical drama. In the case of Dawkins, he is less interested in understanding those very processes at work in the production, contestation, and modification of discursive products, as he is in *being part of* those very processes. This is not a bad goal, but is different from what Tenzan was advocating and which I would also advocate. To use Russ McCutcheon’s metaphor, there are different games being played, both games but not the same game.

    But back to your other observation about data being the products and not the people who produce those products. I actually like this distinction. It’s not one I was working with, but it’s worth adding to our discussion as it helps clarify and direct scholarship. In historical research, for example, it’s common to recognize that we don’t work with direct access to the people (or even the events, groups, social structures, etc) that we are actually interested in learning something about. Rather, we have “evidence” – remnants or clues left over – from which we infer, approximate, and make educated guesses about. And yes, as Tenzan points out, those things we take as “clues” are driven by our theoretical maps, our analytical presuppositions, and our own situated prejudices (i.e., our historical contingency). But in the end, those clues are not necessarily our foci – i.e., our research interests – though in some cases they can be (such as in literary analysis where the focus is on the text and not on the people behind that text). The same point works for physical anthropology, where the very bodily remains being studied become remnants/clues (and thus data = objects) from which we derive some sort of understanding of the people who once lived in a particular historical and cultural context. Inference becomes a key approach.

    But if our foci are not just the evidence from which we infer (and thus create) knowledge, but are the points, questions, and areas of interests to which we use such evidence, then perhaps actual people become data — but not as objectified and colonized entities, but as focal points of interest.

    Not focal points of interest can certainly be as colonially driven as objects/evidence for such study. Again, this gets back to Tenzan and Craig’s valuable observations. What drives that curiosity? What motivates us? Are we interested in certain questions and certain types of data becomes we find them exotic or because we can use them to support our own cultural values, superiority, etc? What is our “interest” in conducting such studies, in constructing such data sets? That’s as important to ask as what is our “interest” or drive in offering certain theoretical approaches/explanatory products? The answer may not always be colonialism, but there is certain no disinterested form of scholarship.

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