by Matt Sheedy
In his book The Promise of Salvation: A Theory of Religion, Martin Riesebrodt looks at the ways that “religious complexes” are emphasized in relation to “the respective social position and interests of the actors” (22) involved in any historical period as a way to differentiate “religious” from “non-religious” modes of action. In looking at Buddhist reaction to the T’ai-p’ing Ching, for example, a Confucian polemic of the late Han period, he points out that “Buddhism is criticized for its lack of piety toward ancestors,” while noting the Buddhist counter-polemic as follows:
Thus they falsified texts and presented sutras in which filial piety was stressed. […] In addition, the Buddhists argued that there could be no more perfect expression of filial piety than helping one’s parents to achieve salvation by converting to Buddhism. (28)
What interests me here is not so much in affirming or contesting Riesebrodt’s particular theory of religion, but rather in observing the general dynamics of interaction that he alludes to when subordinate and dominant groups compete for “authentic” self-representation.
To take a more mundane example, while I was reading over the above passages yesterday, I couldn’t help but recall an article that I had read earlier in the day from the Huffington Post entitled, “Canada Day Facts for Americans.”
The article contains 13 “facts” and is addressed to not only Americans, but also non-Canadians and new Canadians more generally.
While many of these “facts” are rather prosaic—where’s the best place to celebrate Canada Day; but what if I live abroad; and do I have to know the words to the anthem?—the bulk of the categories, not surprisingly, trade in normative assumptions about Canada as a whole.
Among the more generic include: what to wear (anything with a flag and/or red and white colors); what to eat (BBQ); what to drink (beer); what music to listen to (humorously deriding Nickelback, Celine Dion and Justin Bieber); and what to talk about (hockey)?
Other categories provide basic information regarding Confederation in 1867 under the British North America Act, the holiday’s former name (Dominion Day) and, to my mind the most interesting, “So you didn’t go to war or anything?” to which the authors’ reply,
Nope. We asked Queen Victoria politely. She said yes.
While I could on here to discuss the exclusion and extermination of Aboriginal peoples prior to Confederation or the fact that Canada, as a nation, has always played a junior-partner role to British, American and Euro-Western militarism and imperialism, I’ll spare readers that little exercise of shooting fish in a barrel.
What I’m interested in is how comparison, whether it’s between religions or nation-states, works in part by contrasting what the purveyors of a particular group-ideology wish to highlight in relation to some Other, however real or perceived.
While the image of Canada as a peaceful nation is far from uncontested, as I’ve written about in a previous post, it still holds enough currency in the nationalist imagination to make the list, especially when compared with its neighbor to the south. Would this still be the case, one might ask, if Canada was neighbors with the Swiss?
For my part, I’ll be spending the day engaging in political debates at a local street festival, though I imagine that this type of activity won’t crack any top ten lists of what to do on Canada Day any time soon.
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 Aboriginal-led Idle No More movement.