North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR): An Interview with Russell McCutcheon


1. For readers unfamiliar with NAASR, could you briefly outline its history and its general aims?

Russell McCutcheon: The North American Association for the Study of Religion—of which the Bulletin and thus this blog are representative publications, along with Brill’s quarterly peer review journal, Method & Theory in the Study of Religion—was established as a non-profit scholarly association in 1985 by E. Thomas Lawson, Luther H. Martin, and Donald Wiebe. Those interested in some of the details of its founding may find this unpublished paper, co-written by Martin and Wiebe, interesting. While our website describes the organization in detail, suffice it to say here that NAASR’s very existence is evidence of a dissatisfaction in the field, in North America, on the part of those who had hoped that, once it was re-established in public universities all across Canada and the US in the early to mid-1960s, the academic study of religion would be something other than a well-meaning paraphrase of what the people we study were already saying about their own lives. But, in too many cases, scholarship on religion seemed merely to reproduce a set of assumptions commonly found among the more liberal groups we study—e.g., that religion is a product of deep, inward faith or experience, that this experience is the sine qua non of being human, and that all people share in it but, inasmuch as our expressions and communications are inevitably flawed (e.g., “I can’t quite put it into words…”), the institutions we devise pollute what William James once described as “the originally innocent thing” (by which he meant the unique experience of the religion’s founder).

For those interested in studying religion as nothing more or less than human behavior, as historically discrete or socially enmeshed actions and institutions that come with interests and consequences, the scholarly apparatus to support such work (conferences, journals, etc.) just wasn’t there 30 years ago. So Lawson, Martin, and Wiebe created a small corner of the field where those interested in doing something different could present and discuss their research. They gained membership for NAASR within the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR) and also within the then Council of Societies for the Study of Religion (an organization that is now defunct), and, eventually, obtained an affiliated society status for NAASR within the American Academy of Religion (AAR; like many other societies, NAASR’s annual meeting traditionally takes place along with the AAR and SBL annual conference). An early alignment between NAASR and MTSR, which was itself established quite apart from NAASR, in the late 1980s, by grad students at the University of Toronto, led to what many of us today think of when we think of NAASR: a small but active scholarly association, that meets annually and publishes peer review research, with an emphasis on the role theories and methodologies play in making scholarship on religion possible, persuasive, and innovative.

So although there’s surely a variety of viewpoints within NAASR concerning almost any topic of relevance to the field, I’d wager that one thing that unites its members is their assumption that this thing we call religion is not a pristine, sui generis thing but, instead, is all too human, through and through (as is scholarship on it!), and thus something to be studied using the tools we bring to virtually any other instance of human belief, behavior or institution. Religion, as well as scholarship on it, is ordinary and that’s what makes it all the more interesting.

2. What do you hope to bring to the table with your tenure as president?

RM: I’ve written about this, prior to knowing that I’d again get involved in NAASR’s leadership (I was Executive Secretary/Treasurer from 2004-7, a role Craig Martin now fills quite nicely). I tend to think that (I’m being a little ironic here) NAASR was too successful and that, like any social institution, its members can’t take gains for granted and so we need continually to press toward what we think to be the cutting edge, challenging the field to move in new directions and tackle new topics.

For if I think back on my own career (I was a doctoral student at Toronto in the late 1980s and early 1990s), I recall when almost no one would list the word theory on their C.V.; in fact, as I’ve described elsewhere no long ago, I was once advised, very early in my teaching career, to change the word “theories” to “approaches,” in a syllabus, so as not to alienate older (and, yes, more powerful) members of the Department where I then worked. This was the context of NAASR’s (and MTSR’s) founding—a time when description and interpretation (aka phenomenology and hermeneutics) exhausted most scholars’ toolboxes. To explain these actions that so interested us (seeing them as the result of, say, economic or psychological factors) was quickly dismissed as reductionism (as if Eliade wasn’t reducing sheer variety to some sort of abstract uniformity in his work as well). Daniel Pals, Robert Segal, and Don Wiebe had some great exchanges on this in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But today, the phrase “method and theory” appears on almost everyone’s C.V. and also in every second job ad; for Departments across the country took notice of what was happening in the field and so began developing and requiring such courses at the undergrad and graduate levels, because people began reading what were, back then, only marginal voices in the field. And, voila, we arrive at the present moment when everyone seems to know, for instance, all about the critique of the world religions category.

Yet, to stick with this one example, the curious thing is that world religions courses show no sign of disappearing.

In fact, judging by W. W. Norton’s investment in marketing their new world religions anthology, this way of talking about what people do, how they supposedly organize and identify, is as strong now as it ever was. So the question that comes to my mind is what’s going on in a field that claims to be theoretically aware and knowledgeable, on the one hand, and, on the other, which is comprised of scholars who are, in many cases, doing little different now than their predecessors were back when theory was a dirty word? So this is what I mean when I say that NAASR experienced a level of success—not that it was the lone cause, of course, for theory swept through the human sciences back then, but I think it and its members have played an important role over the past three decades—but that these advances were sometimes taken for granted and domesticated, such that now one can cite a number of problems with using the category “world religions,” near the opening of a paper or a book, yet then just get on with studying something called Hinduism and know that it is obviously related to this other thing we call Buddhism or Judaism, or… , and doing so as if those critiques of the world religions category that you cited earlier were of no lasting consequence.

So that’s a long way of saying that our hope—I think I can also speak for Aaron Hughes here, our new Vice President (who I passed this text by, for comments, before sending it on to the Bulletin blog)—is to try to ensure that NAASR is always pressing toward a critical edge, for neither of us think that we’ve arrived at the end of history or that the academic study of religion in North American has achieved its full potential.

And we know we’re not alone in sharing this view.

3. Could you say a few words about the theme for NAASR’s upcoming annual meeting in Atlanta, “Theory in a Time of Excess,” which marks the organization’s 30th anniversary?

RM: This was Willi Braun’s excellent wording—he, Aaron, and I met together in San Diego, at last year’s annual conference, and conferred with Craig Martin, discussing the topics I just referred to above, and Willi (himself a former President of NAASR [2008-11]) nicely captured the problem: what does it mean to “do theory” when everyone now claims to be doing it too, though few, if any, understand it to mean generating explanations that account for the cause of the item under study. So we invited members to submit proposals for substantive papers that examine what they think ought to count as “doing theory” in the study of religion today—we were looking for bold statements. And we have settled on four such papers and are now working on putting together a group of respondents for each (so each session will be one main paper plus its responses), and so we hope to announce the full 2015 program very soon.

What also sets this year apart is that we aim for all of the main papers to be pre-distributed to all NAASR members by October 1, with each paper then being summarized briefly at the session itself. Add to that several brief responses per paper (from largely early career people, those who constitute the next generation of scholars) and we hope that we arrive at provocative sessions with plenty of time for conversation and spirited debate. And since Equinox Publishers has already agreed to publish the 2015 program as an edited book (which will also include papers from our traditional Presidential Panel, which this year will feature presentations by two more scholars, each also focusing on the situation of the field today and where it might be going), we hope that we’re setting a new tone for NAASR sessions not only in terms of the topic and format but also by finding new ways to distribute the work our members do so that we can continue to press the field in new directions.

4. Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

RM: Just that I hope any current NAASR member reading this will take seriously the longstanding linkage between NAASR and MTSR—as well as the Bulletin and its blog, since both are now also NAASR publications—and submit their work so as to keep pressing the field. And for those who are not (yet) members, I hope they’ll stick their heads into one of the Atlanta sessions this November to see what we’re all about.

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