This Class is Not About “Profoundly Religious Acts”: Pedagogy and Method for the New Year

NYE 1945 Hangover Heaven

by Charlie McCrary

On New Year’s Eve 2013, The Atlantic ran an article entitled, “Why Getting Drunk and Making Resolutions on New Year’s Are Profoundly Religious Acts.” If you’re the sort of person who reads the Bulletin Blog, it’s likely that your eyes rolled upon reading that title. Maybe you chortled. It’s also likely, though, that you’re the sort of person who’s on the lookout for examples of how the category “religion” or “religious” is used in culture. The article, which is for the most part Atlantic editor Emma Green’s recounting of a conversation with Wendy Doniger, provides some great data for how these words function and the assumptions built into them. The word “religious” must mean something to Atlantic readers. So, what does it mean? What work does it do?

The piece begins by running through a variety of possibilities for why people make New Year’s resolutions, including psychological and historical reasons. “But there’s another explanation,” Green writes. “New Year’s resolutions play a role similar to religious observance in our lives.” From the beginning we see that religion must be something else, “another explanation.”

From there, Green (and Doniger, secondhand) discusses New Year’s traditions and the “religious” traditions they mirror. For one, Doniger offers, “the idea that you’re suddenly going to change is a magical idea” (“magic” is to sociologists as “God” is to monotheists, Green explains.) Ergo, belief in resolutions is religious. “The whole thing about ‘the magic moment’ and counting down—that’s a real religious thing to do,” Doniger said. It is not clear to me whether she means “real” as opposed to fake, or if she means “really,” intensifying the adjective by the same logic that makes “profoundly religious” thinkable. Either way, the countdown is religious. Likewise, “Wearing sparkly hats, drinking champagne, and promising yourself that you’ll actually go to the gym this year may seem silly, but structurally, these acts have a lot in common with religious observance.” Notice the work being done by the conjunction. It might seem silly, but it’s kind of like religious. Religious is not silly. The reader is expected to know this.

Green concludes that, “Even traditions that seem patently secular—bar-hopping on New Year’s Eve, for example—have a hint of religious flavor.” What does it taste like? If the word “religious” has any value, then we should be able to answer. What is that religious flavor, that salt on the rim that elevates a ritual from patently secular to something, just, more than that? Further, why are Lent, Diwali, and Rosh Hashanah self-evidently religious, but bar-hopping isn’t? The fact that Green and Doniger can’t say anything about the substantive qualities of the “religious” or interrogate its construction and contingency demonstrates the term’s analytic bankruptcy. The fact that they don’t seem to care to do so speaks to its power. And that’s the point; that’s how it works.

Immediately before reading the article I had been working on the syllabus for my American religious history class this semester (more posts about the class will follow), specifically the statement on what it means to study “religion.” This obligatory section, which mostly serves to tell students not to try to convert other students, is authoritatively and misleading titled “The Academic Study of Religion.” (I don’t like the singular nouns, but I relish the power in that definite article.) In this section I attempt to distance myself from a label my course title and departmental affiliation force me to use. But it is also here that I can introduce a basic theoretical and methodological supposition. As it stands, this is my explanation of The Academic Study of Religion:

This course surveys a wide variety of beliefs and practices that people have called ‘religious.’ ‘Religion’ is not a thing in the word that exists, but a category—and a very powerful one for Americans, especially since it is written in the U.S. Bill of Rights—used to label some groups, practices, and ideas and to deny that label to others. The academic study of religion seeks to understand and contextualize this politics, not to argue for or against non-historical truth claims.

I like this brief statement, because it opens me up to criticism. It renders the whole syllabus a primary text, each category open to scrutiny. If I’m teaching “American religious history,” my selection of topics necessarily labels some things religious. We will be talking about the Second Great Awakening and Kentucky. We won’t be talking about organic chemistry or medieval Japan. Whatever the case, you have to own and defend your categorization. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with talking about this and not that, but there is something wrong with not telling students why, not knowing why, or, worst, never really thinking about it.

I’ll write again in this space with updates on how the course progresses, starting with a post about the first lecture on the politics of classification. The first assignment (presuming my co-instructor obliges) will be to read Green’s piece on New Year’s and use it as the basis for a definition of religion. My pedagogical question for the new semester and new year is this: How do we teach courses that equip our students with the tools not to understand what is and is not a “profoundly religious act,” but to see that phrase’s analytic uselessness and its considerable rhetorical power, which itself is in part a function of its analytic emptiness?

Charles McCrary is a PhD student in American religious history at Florida State. His 2012 MA thesis focused on autobiography and historiography among 19th-century Methodists, and his current research is on antebellum public schools, religion, and secularity. He also is finishing an article on disestablishment cases and specialty license plates. He can be found on Twitter @CharlesMcCrary.

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7 Responses to This Class is Not About “Profoundly Religious Acts”: Pedagogy and Method for the New Year

  1. Chris says:

    Interesting post. It is possible I lack the necessary underlying assumptions but I cannot see how the term ‘religious’ lacks analytical usefulness. Given that every term can be deconstructed to the point of disappearing – most especially terms used in the constructing of self – I would suggest that the ‘flavour’ of a word is all that most people are able to grasp. Indeed, the act of defining a word is the act deconstruction, rendering a term to a long list of what a thing is not, until the quest ends in a void. While the definition of the word eludes, it seems to me that the analytical usefulness is clear. ‘Religion’ is a form of fencing, not of épées and foils but of posts and rails (although, truly, both uses of the word work). ‘Religion’ is a way of demarking the world, not unlike a course syllabus, a way of saying ‘this not that’. I can certainly agree with a frustration when a person uses a term “not knowing why, or, worst, never really thinking about it” but I am not clear how and why the term ‘religious’ has no analytical usefulness.

  2. Joe says:

    I don’t think Charles is saying that the category of religion is analytically useless. It seems, instead, that he’s saying it’s always embedded within a politics of naming, and that trying to use it to describe something that “actually exists” and arguing with others over the primacy of that existence is to limit yourself to talking only among those who either already agree or who take you at your word because you’re some kind of knowledge authority (e.g., indirectly sanctioned by Wendy Doniger). Chris, you seem to be saying much the same thing, though perhaps adding a semiotic argument about oppositional binaries v. bundled traits, which we might call the Saussure v. Hume argument.

    • Chris says:

      I admire your generosity and certainly agree with the position you seem to take. However, we are faced with paragraph 4: “The fact that Green and Doniger can’t say anything about the substantive qualities of the “religious” or interrogate its construction and contingency demonstrates the term’s analytic bankruptcy.” and with paragraph 7: “How do we teach courses that equip our students with the tools not to understand what is and is not a “profoundly religious act,” but to see that phrase’s analytic uselessness . . .”

      The difficulty I face is the internal conflict of this post. I quite like the course description wherein we take the word ‘religious’ and clearly identify it as a category: “‘Religion’ is not a thing in the word [world?] that exists, but a category . . .” but I am not sure how we can make use of it if the term is analytically bankrupt.

      Charlie, your input is required. How would you like us to understand your use of the terms ‘bankrupt’ and ‘useless’?

      • Charlie says:

        I am talking about the terms’ uselessness for scholars’ purposes. The act of naming things “religious” is for our subjects, our data, to do, not for scholars. So, it’s a category, but always one we find others using, never one we employ in order to describe something.

  3. Charlie says:

    Thank you both for the thoughtful comments. What I’m saying is not that the category religion or religious has no value or meaning for people. Of course it does. Many people, though certainly not all or always, understand some parts of their lives as religious and others as secular. Religious organizations have different tax codes. And so on and so on. So certainly the category matters in the world.

    But I do mean to say that the category is analytically useless from my perspective as a scholar and teacher. I can’t think of any example where finding out that something is “actually” religious–and “religious” here is quantifiable in some way, so we have “quite religious,” “profoundly religious,” “somewhat religious,” etc.–would do anything to help us understand the event, belief, practice that’s taking place. To take the cited article as an example, have we as scholars really learned anything about New Year’s Eve by calling it religious?

    I agree with Chris that the uncritical way that Green and Doniger use the category is a big problem. But I want to argue that even if we’re much more careful about defining the category, it doesn’t help us at all. We can say, Religion = x. New Year’s Eve = x. So, by the transitive property, NYE is Religious. All right, fine, but what exactly does that add to our understanding of particular historical occurrences?

    So, in other and shorter words, I’m very interested in studying how people use the words religious and religion. I’m not at all interested in employing them myself, especially when they aren’t already in use by the people I’m studying.

    • Chris says:

      I am pleased to see that it was merely a lack of understanding on my part.

      Another approach to this conversation may be through the lens of ‘naturalisation’. I think we could both agree that it is problematic when an object/event . . . is seen as inherently religious; when religion (indeed, anything of the social) is thought to possess an exiatential reality. In spite of this lack, ‘religion’ is still used and, to those who do, it is useful. But, as a researcher, there is little value in an uncritical acceptance of the term: it is a net too porous cast too wide.

  4. Zoe says:

    Speaking of the transitive property, I think what you have described is a fallacy of the undistributed middle. Instead, I think it is fairer to say that elements of religion are like elements of NYE festivities. But keeping the same transitive idea going, if all scholars of religion study the designations of ‘people,’ and if all ‘people’ use the term religion in a way that conveys its usefulness, then scholars of religion use the term in the same way. In order to avoid doing so we need to come up with an alternative use of the term ‘religion,’ or, describe what the ‘people’ are describing in a different fashion. Performing the latter with variants on ‘culture’ and ‘politics’ is a possible route, until we are faced with the situation of needing to appropriate, once again, the usages of ‘people’ to explain ourselves. For example, religion is a political tool, but religion does not exist outside of this tool, so from whence comes the utility of the tool?

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