I recently wrote a review essay on the current state of scholarship on the category “religion” for the European history of religions journal, Numen (which comes out in 2015, I gather). It was fun to write, since its been 20 years since I first wrote a review essay on the same topic — “just how far have we come?” now becomes the question.
While not wanting to spoil the ending, I can say that I’m ambivalent about the progress we’ve made in historicizing our field’s main taxon. For while it isn’t difficult to find someone writing about the history of the category religion and how it is a European invention and colonial-era tool (even imposition), etc., etc., sooner or later the other shoe drops and we read the same person telling us all about “religious beliefs” or the details of “ancient Egyptian religion” (to refer to a recent message from a friend on Facebook concerning a book he was reading). Our Latin-based category, we’re told, has been unjustly applied to what turns out to be other peoples, for lack of a better word, religions.
That is: while we’ve certainly come some ways, over the past two decades, toward understanding the historicity and politics of the word modern religion, we still seem pretty confident that the word, flawed as it may be, necessarily points to some ancient, widespread, and interconnected thing in the world — i.e., some tangible and enduring bond among assorted items, claims, behaviors, and institutions, thereby making them all religious (or not) — a bond of identification that needs naming as collective and requires our careful study. In this way, and despite the comfort many scholars now seem to have with talking about “the category religion,” we’re not so very far from Wilfred Cantwell Smith‘s attempt, back in the 1960s, to relativize “religion” but doing so by claiming that the insufficient word nonetheless pointed toward something deeper and more real still (what he called “faith in transcendence” — merely opting for a modern synonym [e.g., faith, belief, experience, feeling, sentiment, etc.]).
But this is hardly progress. Instead, I’d argue it’s a rear guard (re)action to defuse efforts to take our very ability to think of something as religious seriously as itself being an item of history, of discourse.
Most recently, I see an example of this in Winni Sullivan‘s commentary on the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in the so-called Hobby Lobby case. Her article, well worth reading (especially in light of it being aimed at politically liberal readers who rally around “freedom of religion” talk while working hard to stack the deck by narrowing down what’s really a religion worth tolerating — not unlike how we routinely police what sort of speech counts as worth protecting as free expression [Can you yell fire in a crowded theater? What to classify as "hate speech," libel, etc.?]), is an extension of her 2005 book, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, in which she used a court case over what counted as an allowable grave marker at a city-owned cemetery (not vertical but flat with the ground; does enforcing the rule infringe on people’s right to freely express their religious beliefs as manifested in headstones?) as the way into the thorny issue of the status of religion in U.S. law. (The case eventually went to the Florida Supreme Court.)
However, commenting specifically on the Hobby Lobby case, she elaborates on the contradiction that she finds at the heart of disputes over so-called religious freedom:
While currently not interested in contesting her approach to the case (I’ve already written some comments of my own on the case both here and here), it is this common distinction between two types of religion — actual or so-called lived religion throughout human history, on the one hand, and religion as legal fiction or instrument in constitutions etc., on the other — that I find troublesome.
Well, consider this article that was making the rounds of social media the other day: “How Racism Invented Race in America,” which argues as follows:
So identity is the product of practice and the codification/policing of that practice, not the other way ’round — a thesis we can entertain even in the case of such a hotly contested identifier as race. This is hardly a controversial approach to many identifiers that we today take for granted (you’ve read your Judith Butler, perhaps?). Applying this thesis to that domain known as religion would then mean that practices like writing a constitution or a code of normative behaviors (i.e., laws allowing for, say, tax exemptions to certain groups) actually invent religion in human affairs — affairs that, otherwise, were just indistinguishably human and social and contestable and happenstance and taught and practiced (or not) and either forgotten or remembered.
But the fact that we hedge our bets on the historicity of religion (i.e., the word has a history but the feeling it names is eternal, evident in Sullivan’s “on the other hand” move that substantively distinguishes these two) tells us something, though; for exempting it from a thoroughgoing historicization suggests that our confidence with naming something as religion is deeply woven into how daily life takes place in liberal democracies — sure, many of us can entertain that gender or race are constructed, as we say, or that the distinction between myth and history is rhetorical, all items of discourse. But religion? Never; for even if people didn’t have a word for it until Europeans arrived on their shores, asking them “What religion are you?”, we somehow know it’s, as they say, ubiquitous, even necessary.
But if we did entertain that law and policy create the domain, institute the practical conditions in which it is possible, maybe even desirable because beneficial, to identify something as religion in distinction from something which is not (and, by extension, something that is allowable or not, favored or not, etc.), then we’d see that there is no contradiction between policing what counts as religion and wanting universal freedom of religious expression, for we’d now see “universal” as a rhetorical trope and we’d then redesribe the entire issue as but one more “cake and eat it too” moment in which members of groups seek ways to rationalize and thereby legitimize their own taken-for-granted privileges while retaining the right to curtail the extension of those privileges to others — which, as far as I can see, is just normal operating procedures in social life. For most of us likely don’t want just anything to count as free speech or as accepted behavior, so we work diligently to enshrine in our normative behavioral codes ways to limit what counts, what is allowable, while simultaneously creating elaborate work-arounds for situations where the “wrong” person gets caught in that web we’ve created — thus politicians with whom we agree no longer lie, they just “misspeak.”
So it strikes me that the category “religion,” always used in situations of identify and social interest (“Are you religious?”), to name a zone of distinction or exemption (whether for the good or ill of the people or actions so named), plays a crucial role in the Rube Goldberg machine that is social life today, by creating the impression that some elements of the social are ubiquitous and necessary, and thus personal and private, while others are local and contingent, making them public and negotiable. The former must then just be accepted while only the latter are open to change — a nifty management technique, if you’re able to make the case — which is precisely what Hobby Lobby’s lawyers successfully did.
So, contrary to Sullivan’s claim that its legal and political use may have reached the end of its shelf life, it seems to me that the category religion — at least as evidence in the U.S. — is more useful than ever, evidenced in the many groups that are now reported to be scrambling to hire lawyers to work the system in order to get them a piece of the Hobby Lobby pie. We could revoke this legal tool, of course, but I’m not sure everyone would accept losing a way to gain an edge on your neighbors, no matter how equal we all claim to be.