The Critical Study of Religion at the University of Alabama

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Have you ever been to one of our Aronov Lectures? Well, Dr. Steven Ramey, Associate Professor in REL and Director of UA’s Asian Studies program, has just a published an edited collection of the first decades’ worth of these annual guest lectures (established in 2002), entitled Writing Religion (University of Alabama Press). We recently asked him a few questions about the volume. 

Your new edited book, which collects the first ten year’s of the Department’s annual Aronov Lecture, is entitled Writing Religion, but there’s definitely a play on that title, as evident in the organization of the volume. Can you tell us a bit more about that title?

Ramey: The title developed from analyzing what happens when we write the word religion, understanding that the word does not stand for a pre-existing entity. In the process of using the term, the person determines what it refers to. While putting the different contributions in the volume together, a play on the word developed, expanding from writing to righting and riting. So the first section focuses on the act of writing discourse, with scholars analyzing legal, historical, and media discourses in relation to the category religion, but also recognizing that in the process of writing essays, the scholars themselves write their own discourses. The second section shifts to the term “riting” in two senses. First, rites have power in the construction of social groups, and second the analyses in this section also engage in riting, as in designating appropriate action, for social groups (including academics). The third section focuses on academic work as the data for analysis, with each contribution working to right, or correct, the discipline of religious studies in some manner.

FullSizeRender (4)The other part of the title has the phrase “critical study of religion” in it — we find this notion of critique or even criticisms used in a variety of ways in the field today, so what do you intend by advocating for a critical study of religion — and could you give us some examples of how some of the contributors work toward that end?

Ramey: Critical study, as I use it in this volume, refers to analyses of discourses and classifications that consider how the people employing the discourse construct the category religion and its limits for particular purposes. Such analyses do not treat religion as something unique, about which the questions are restricted, nor does it treat religion as something self-evident. As I put this volume together, I was more and more intrigued by the variety of ways contributors work with these discourses critically, from an analysis of gendered discourses and the development of feminist consciousness (Judith Plaskow), to a critique of efforts from some scholars to construct Judea ans Samaria 2000 years ago in ways that separated Jesus from Judaism (Amy-Jill Levine), to an examination of the strategic shifts in the representation of the “Assassins” in Marco Polo’s various texts (Bruce Lincoln). With such variety, the volume illustrates different ways of enacting the critical study of religion as an analysis of discourse and the construction of categories without dictating adherence to a narrow theoretical approach.

writingreligion2The lecture series, established 14 years ago, didn’t start out intending to produce a volume after its first decade, so collecting together these papers from discrete lectures, deciding on an organizing scheme for the set, and crafting an introduction all seem to make a nice example of the sort of hindsight social formation that we, in fact, study, as scholars of religion. Would that be accurate? Might that sort of analysis apply to writing any text?

Ramey: Writing the introduction for this volume became an opportunity to construct a narrative to bring together these diverse and useful contributions beyond the origin narrative of the lecture series itself. While the various Aronov Lecturers over the first decade were selected because of the contributions to the academic study of religion and various issues that our department wanted to address, they did not approach their topics in a uniform manner. Critical study became the narrative thread that tied these pieces together. More than just writing any book, this process of identifying a common thread is the way that we make sense of our lives more generally, how do these disparate activities, changes, and interests intersect to construct a whole self. While it sometimes feel like fictionalizing a forced unity, the commonalities that we recognize in such reflections can generate new and useful insights. As I put the volume together, the broad commonalities made the value of the volume increasingly evident to me the longer that I worked with it.

writingreligion3Who is your ideal reader for the book — i.e., to whom is the volume aimed and what might you see those readers doing with it? What conversations might it press forward and in what direction?

Ramey: That diversity of approaches makes this volume particularly useful for students and established scholars to consider the range of approaches and the various ways that they contribute to contemporary debates, including Jonathan Z. Smith’s analysis of the understanding of religion within the Supreme Court decision, Ann Pellegrini’s analysis of the discourse of tolerance and democracy, and Arjun Appadurai’s connection of violence to the outsized fear that majority communities often have of a minority whose existence is felt as a threat to the majority. The ideal reader is a religious studies scholar (at any career stage) who is grappling with the uncertainty of critical and theoretical approaches, and wants to consider various ways that such an approach can be employed and the different issues that it can address. The question of the relevance of what we do in our research and our classrooms is something that I have been considering recently, and I hoped that this volume illustrates ways that detailed, specialized studies can address, directly or through inferences, contemporary issues in useful ways.

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