Warren S. Goldstein, Executive Director of the Center for Critical Research on Religion (http://www.criticaltheoryofreligion.org), is a Visiting Fellow of the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University and a Religion Fellow at Boston University’s School of Theology. His Ph.D. is from the New School for Social Research. He is Co-Editor of Critical Research on Religion and Book Series Editor of “Studies in Critical Research on Religion.” While his research aims to develop a critical sociology of religion as a “new paradigm” in the sociology of religion, he is more broadly interested in the development of a critical paradigm in the study of religion as a whole. He is also co-chair of the Sociology of Religion (SOR) group in the American Academy of Religion.
Matt Sheedy: In the opening editorial introducing the first issue of Critical Research on Religion (CRR), co-written by yourself, Roland Boer and Jonathan Boyarin, you orient your readers by noting the paradigm shift away from theories about the declining influence of religion in the public sphere in light of such developments as the rise of the religious right in the U.S., the demise of secular pan-Arabism and the collapse of the Soviet Union, among other geo-political factors. Here you lay out the ambiguities of such movements as Liberation Theology and Pentecostalism, various Islamisms, etc., and note the absence of a journal that approaches issues that have arisen from such developments within a critical theoretical framework, which you define as one that is not neutral but rather “engages in the critique of religion based on a set of values” such as scientific truth, freedom, democracy, equality, etc. Could you elaborate on these premises and mention some of the thinkers and schools of thought from which this approach takes its lead?
Warren Goldstein: Although it can be found earlier (for example in Spinoza), the basis of a critical approach to religion is contained in the Kantian critiques – in particular “The Transcendental Dialectic” in The Critique of Pure Reason. Here Kant argues that metaphysical concepts like God are empirically unverifiable. The critique of religion (Religionskritik) took off with the Left Hegelians. A watershed was the publication of David Friedrich Strauss’ The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined in 1835. In his examination of the Gospels, Strauss sought to separate myth from history. Bruno Bauer in own critique of John and the Synoptics went a step further arguing that one could not treat the Gospels could not treat the Gospels as anything other than a literary work (e.g. fiction). Another central figure of this movement was Ludwig Feuerbach who argued that God is nothing other than a projection of the alienated self. Writing in the context of Restoration Germany where there was no separation between church and absolute monarchies, all three of these figures, as a result of their publications, were either dismissed from their academic positions and/or unable to find one.
Karl Marx had hoped to gain a university position through Bauer but gave up on this when Bauer lost his position in Bonn. Bauer and Marx had planned to edit a journal together entitled Archiv des Atheismus. Marx broke with the Left Hegelians in The Holy Family and The Germany Ideology. He argued that they were wasting their time by criticizing phantasms and would be better off paying attention to material conditions. The first historical materialist analysis of religion is in Friedrich Engels’ book on the German Peasant Wars. Here Engels engages in a class analysis of religion and discusses the revolutionary role played by Thomas Münzer. Social Democrats, Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky, picked up the torch and continued to engage in a historical materialist analysis of religion. Kautsky looked at the heretical sects during the Middle Ages and argued that the origins of communism are contained in Christianity itself. He also engaged in a Marxist analysis of the emergence of Christianity.
The work of Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch needs to be seen in the context of their debate with historical materialism. Weber attributes some of the source material for the Protestant Ethic to Eduard Bernstein. In fact, the very core of Weber’s argument that Calvinist asceticism laid the foundation for the spirit of capitalism is taken from Bernstein. Both the introduction and conclusion to Troeltsch’s Social Teachings are an argument against Karl Kautsky, who he accuses of economic determinism. Weber and Troeltsch provide us with two new approaches (interpretive sociology and the historical-critical method), which are a break from historical materialism but were influenced by it. While Weber advocates value neutrality, his methodological framework nevertheless provides the tools for a critical analysis of religion. Critical approaches are based on value rationality–that is they use values such as truth, freedom, equality, democracy, justice, etc. to guide their critique. Despite Weber’s criticisms of historical materialism, his last work Ancient Judaism employs it as a methodology and parallels Kautsky’s Foundations of Christianity. In addition, although one of the bases of secularization theory is attributed to Weber, what he was more focused on was religious rationalization. Weber never conceived of secularization as linear but rather his theoretical framework, particularly his sociology of domination, is characterized by a dialectic between charisma and routinization. Troeltsch further extends this into the tension between the church and the sect.
Two other critical German thinkers need to be mentioned: Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud. Following in the German tradition, Nietzsche described a conflict between master and slave morality, the later which connects Judaism, Christianity, the Enlightenment, and Socialism. Freud, on the other hand, begins to shed light into the psychological dimensions of religiosity.
It was the synthesis of Marx, Weber, Nietzsche, and Freud (among others) that is to be found in the work of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School. For most of the members of the early Frankfurt School, religion was, if anything, a subtext. They had greater concerns: the rise of Fascism and the emergence of advanced industrial capitalism. Nevertheless, some of their members–Erich Fromm, Leo Löwenthal and the late Horkheimer did address it more directly. In addition, for Ernst Bloch, who was not a member of the Frankfurt School but closely associated, religion was a primary concern. Bloch, along with Walter Benjamin, saw Marxism as the secular inheritor of Judeo-Christian Messianism. This theme can be found in many of the writings of the Frankfurt School. Jürgen Habermas, who is the standard bearer of the second generation of critical theory, has returned to the theme of religion with his notions of the post-secular and the post-metaphysical.
Up to this point, I have given a brief summary of the German tradition–which I see as the basis for a critical approach. However, there are many other critical approaches to the study of religion as well. On the other side of the border, in France, the writings of Michel Foucault have been most influential in the study of religion–particularly his genealogical method (inherited from Nietzsche) and his emphasis on sexuality. Jacques Derrida provides other tools–in particular that of deconstruction. As is stated in our Aims and Scope, aside from critical theory, Marxism, psychoanalysis, and poststructuralism, there are other critical approaches to the study of religion. Included among these are feminism, queer studies, and post-colonialism. Theorists that provide a basis for this include Judith Butler and Cornell West. But there are many others as well. As a journal, we are open to all these different perspectives and want to include them as part of our content. We see the journal as a way for many critical approaches to the study of religion to inform each other thereby contributing to all of our understanding and knowledge.
MS: You also point out in your editorial that a critical approach is not just about engaging different methods (e.g., post-structuralism, feminism, queers studies, etc.) but also about a shift in paradigm for how religion is studied. Here you note problems, for example, with positivist claims in the social sciences or the outright dismissal of (critical) theology as having no role in these conversations. While stressing that CRR is not a place for confessional or apologetic perspectives, you argue that an approach to religion as both ideological and grounded in material conditions requires a range of engagements that cut across disciplinary boundaries. Accordingly, you stress a desire for CRR to bring these (often) disparate conversations in “pure theory” and empirical research (e.g., sociology, anthropology) closer together, including a nod to areas outside of the academy such as domestic and foreign policy concerns, which may also benefit from and contribute to this broad engagement. With reference to some of the articles that have appeared in CRR since the first issue in April 2013, could you discuss how you have attempted to bring these aims together the journal’s pages thus far?
WG: In our editorial in the first issue of Critical Research on Religion (April 2013), we laid out our vision of the journal. In this issue are thirteen short articles, each of which deals with themes that we would like to see the journal address. These include the intersection between religion and Marxism, psychoanalysis, critical theory, feminism, queer theory, post colonialism, and race. It also included articles, which contained roadmaps to critical approaches to the study of religion in China and post-communist societies in Eastern Europe. In doing so, we wanted to demonstrate that the journal does not only deal with theory but the application of critical theories broadly conceived to particular cases.
The second issue was a special issue, guest edited by Rhys Williams, exploring the possibilities of a critical sociology of religion. The logic behind it is that sociology of religion is one of the subfields that has a paucity of critical research. The aim of this special issue was to push the subfield in that direction.
As demonstrated by what we have published, the journal is very interdisciplinary. Contributors include not only those in religious studies and theology but also philosophy, sociology, anthropology, psychology, literature, history, etc. Likewise, not only are the editorial and advisory boards of the journal international in composition, but we are also publishing contributions from all over the world. The journal has published research from secular academics as well as religious ones. An example of this is a forthcoming article in CRR 2(2) (August 2014) by Hanan Ibrahim, of Al-Ahliyya Amman University in Jordan, which reinterprets the concept of Jihad in the Koran. What this research shares in common is that all of it, in one way or another, is employing critical approaches to the study of religion. We are very loose in how we define critical because we want the journal to be as open as possible to wide range of approaches, which could be considered as such. Up until now, there has been no journal devoted exclusively to taking these disparate critical approaches and uniting them in a single venue.
In launching such a journal, there are tremendous possibilities. There are many topics, which we would like to further explore. Religion plays an integral role in driving socio-political conflicts in the world today (for example, Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, or Buddhist fundamentalism). At the same time, these religions provide us with the tools to help us resolve these conflicts. It is only through a critical analysis of religion that we can come to discern the multiple roles that religion plays–both negative and positive.
We would like to encourage scholars to submit their articles for consideration if they think their research fits with the Aims and Scope of the journal. Information about the journal, including its aims and scope as well how to submit can be found on the journal homepage at http://crr.sagepub.com.