“Religion” and the “Secular” at the 2013 AAR Conference


by Matt Sheedy

In a recent Huffington Post article entitled, “How to Find the Secular at the American Academy of Religion,” Brandon G. Withrow points to an increase in the number of panels that were focused on questions of the “secular” at this year’s AAR conference in Baltimore (November 23-26) as a way to convey to the general public that the study of religion is more than just theology and inter-religious dialogue.

As he writes,

Religious studies, however, covers a variety of approaches from historical and sociological studies to cognitive sciences and evolutionary psychology. One does not have to be religious to study religions.

Withrow goes on to cite 2012 Pew Research on the “Nones” as evidence that,

[T]he nonreligious and the secular are a significant part of American society and no discussion of religion and society is complete if secularity is ignored. For that reason there is (and should be) an increasing conversation on secularity at conferences like The AAR.

Putting aside for a moment debates over the construction of categories like “religion,” the “secular” and the “Nones,” which was also the subject of a panel at this year’s conference entitled, Discussing the “Nones”: What They Say about the Category of Religion and American Society, Withrow’s article is clearly designed to draw the general public’s attention to the fact that the study of religion is not just about theology, as is commonly assumed, but also about social scientific studies and the ways in which new groups identify themselves in relation to the category of “religion.”

This, it would seem, is an important and necessary distinction for a general audience that may be unaware of what the study of religion does (or at least can do) in all its’ methodological and theoretical plurality. More than this, however, I would also suggest that increased attention to questions of the “secular” can help the study of religion not only convey its’ complexity to outsiders, but also broaden awareness about the ways that the classification of such terms function in society.

For scholars like Russell McCutcheon, the category “religion” is “nothing but a name representative of a bundle of relations that sets apart certain social practices” from others, where the “secular” serves as its’ imagined opposite and is thus no more reliable as an accurate description of the social world. (The Sacred Is The Profane, 202) Part of McCutcheon’s aim is to highlight the “artful use of categories and definitions that might otherwise strike users as static and stable” (203) and to facilitate a method for the study of religion that does not rest content with merely explaining how insiders (i.e., the “religious”) describe themselves, as is common with phenomenological approaches. Among other things, this means acknowledging that the classification of terms is always caught up in social interests, (123) which, as he notes in the case of “secularism,” has been produced and circulated in a particular social and historical location; namely, “the liberal democratic nation-state.” (118) To not analyze the rhetorical strategies behind the construction of concepts like “religion” and the “secular,” then, is to ignore the ways that dominant groups—priests and scholars, Gods and demons, to evoke Bruce Lincoln—impose their own preferences for defining how things are in the world, which works in subtle and not so subtle ways.


Kevin Schilbrack, for his part, agrees with McCutcheon that the classification of “religion” (and by extension the “secular”) is dependent upon people recognizing it as a particular cluster of “things” in the world–as a “this” instead of a “that,” as McCutcheon might put it–and that the critique of such concepts should be an integral part of our work as scholars. Unlike McCutcheon, however, Schilbrack suggests that we should attempt to define religion despite all of its’ heavy baggage.

In his essay “What Isn’t Religion,” for example, he argues that beyond the functional aspects of groups identifying certain beliefs and practices as “religion,” scholars might also consider a substantial definition, which highlights that “religious communities understand their practices and the values they teach as in accord with the nature of things.” (304) For Schilbrack, this also includes “those who believe in religious realities that are not theistic,” (310) so long as they maintain “that some nonempirical realities exist independent of empirical sources.” (313) Somewhat ironically, this definition includes a certain percentage of the so-called “Nones,” whose broad classification according the folks at Pew consists of those who identify as having “no affiliation,” but still affirm some sort of nonempirical reality. Here it would seem that Schilbrack’s desire for a substantial definition and McCutcheon’s emphasis on the rhetorical strategies and social interests of those doing the classifying are not at odds and could even help to clarify what is at stake in the study of religion today.

While much is at stake in these theoretical debates—much more than I can touch upon here—it is worth considering that while terms like “religion” and the “secular” always include choices that privilege a “this” instead of a “that” in the interests of certain groups—a point forcefully made by Steven Ramey and Monica Miller in a recent article for the Huffington Post—one potential argument in favor of working toward a critical-yet-substantial definition of “religion” and the “secular” is that much is also at stake for the development and even survival of the discipline in the general public having a grasp on just what it is that we do in the first place.

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’ and ‘Native Spirituality’ in the Aboriginal-led Idle No More movement.

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