Religion Snapshots: How to Make Sense of ‘Religious’ Language, Part 1


Religion Snapshots is a feature with the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, where a number of contributors are asked to briefly comment on popular news items or pressing theoretical issues in the field, especially those topics relating to definitions, classification and method and theory in the study of religion more generally. For previous posts in this series, see hereherehere and here.

Question: In a recent blog (re-posted on the Bulletin from the University of Alabama’s Studying Religion in Culture blog), Russell McCutcheon suggests that the use of “God-talk” by a woman in Tennessee–who had received a very large anonymous tip at her job as a waitress, thereby drawing the attention of the media–could be productively understood as one species of a larger human genus that tries to figure out causes and motivations. Specifically, McCutcheon muses:

But what if we, as scholars of religion, reconsidered how we focus on her attempt to make sense of this unanticipated event — drawn as we surely are to zeroing in on her use of God-talk — and, instead, saw her efforts to make sense of this anomalous situation as but one species of a far wider human genus that includes you and I trying to figure out causes and motivations of any sort?

In this Religion Snapshots feature, contributors were asked to weigh-in on the usefulness of this approach.

Kenneth MacKendrick: This is cognitive theory 101. 1) theory of mind, mindreading (anticipating and reading intention, meaning, significance, motivation) 2) theory theory (so it’s called – we’re cognitively predisposed to coming up with theories for this and that). Both are key parts of Alison Gopnik’s The Scientist in the Crib and her more recent The Philosophical Baby. Cog theory would agree – making sense of things is just how the mind works – it is because of the kind of mind we have….. and of course J.Z. Smith says as much in Map is Not Territory…..

Charles McCrary: McCutcheon suggests that we, scholars of religion, focus less on God-talk and worry less about what is or is not “religious,” in favor of an approach that instead zeroes in on “sense-making, and the study of how we allocate significance.” I agree (especially regarding the utility, or lack thereof, of scholarly pronouncements of “religious” and “not religious,” delivered like verdicts in criminal cases), but I do want to make one quick point about this. There is a distinction to be made between our categorizations—our schemes for sense-making and significance-allocating—and those of our subjects.

“Religion,” when employed as a sort of last-ditch effort at explanation when others fail, is, for scholars, unsatisfactory and even amateurish or lazy. But for plenty of historical actors, the Cheddar’s waitress perhaps included, this is exactly what the category “religion” serves to do, and their explanatory function itself relies on the differentiation between natural and supernatural. The example of the waitress Khadijah Muhammad demonstrates both kinds of thinking. There are (at least) two questions posed in this story. First, why did these customers leave such a large tip, and why was it left for someone who was so in need of it? The news reporter and, presumably, Muhammad’s coworkers have determined that “normal” explanations do not seem to suffice. The reporter introducing the story contrasts it with similar stories, noting that this one “felt a little bit bigger,” given the circumstances of Muhammad’s life and the fact that her customers must not have known said circumstances Muhammad did conclude that a supernatural or theological explanation is satisfying: “What I’m thinking now is I believe it.” It isn’t even her own proposition, though. It was originally the customers’, who felt a need to explain their tip, writing that God “led them” to do it. In this way God-talk functions as the type of explanation for something that does not have an obviously causal (should we say “mundane”?) explanation.

But Muhammad is doing scholarly work as she is seeking an explanation for this story’s second, more difficult question—Why $1075?—hypothesized that these customers might have been the type of people who find the Bible and its numbers significant or symbolic in some way. Which is a pretty good guess, and one that doesn’t rely at all on her own classification of the Bible as “religious” or not.

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