“A Horse is a Horse, of Course of Course”


In a review essay posted recently at the Boston Review — entitled “Holy Wars: Secularism and the Invention of Religion” — James Chappel looked at several recent books on religion and modernity. In that article he wrote as follows:


As with much current work on secularism and the category religion, I find such work rather problematic, for although the critique of the category religion in which some of us have engaged for the past twenty years or so has had some traction, it has pulled in a direction rather different than at least I had hoped. For instead of taking seriously the binary nature of this sacred/secular pair and thereby seeing them as forever co-constitutive, as a thoroughly recent concoction crucial to that social formation that we call the nation-state and that condition that we call modernity, sooner or later one pole of the binary is assumed to be normative, self-evident, eternal, etc., while the other is portrayed as ad hoc and socially constructed.

So it’s the “of course” on the fourth line of the above quotation that catches my eye.

Those game to take seriously the critique of the category religion, as some of us have articulated it, would understand the word “religion” and our ability to organize the world by means of it — however its defined — as the item that ought to catch our attention; but, instead, all too often some variation on the thing which it presumably names is naturalized, as if it is “of course” there and thus “of course” in need of a unique denominator. In this manner what scholars historicize with one hand is dehistoricized and essentialized with the other.

For the unique object is seen as the agent in such cases — it invites those who just passively observe it to name it as religion. I find this a rather troublesome approach to identification.

Instead, as I’ve tried to argue in a variety of venues, and which my co-author Bill Arnal laid out so nicely in the closing to chapter one and especially in chapter three of our set of essays, The Sacred is the Profane, we might entertain not the stance of the opening quotation, above, but its opposite: that “religion” is a name given to discrete items in the world precisely as a form of management. So it’s not that there either are or are not things in the world — such as certain “forms of authority and practice” — that “of course” ought to be labelled in this manner; rather, in saying that there’s no such thing in the world that must be known as religion the position I espouse focuses on how people use this word, and the practical situations that its use makes possible, to manage their social worlds in particular ways. Unwilling to presume that, say, references to transcendental agents are some necessary or essential trait (after all, references to non-obvious states of affairs and beings abound all across culture but that doesn’t make it all religious), this approach looks for how self-interested the term’s use always is (is this a religion or a cult?), however it is employed, thereby shining a light on what is at stake in its use rather than presuming that some necessarily religious things in the world require a unique identifier.

Whether that identifier is applied widely and generally or narrowly and precisely.

For it is the very presumption of an a priori distinct identity — one that demands recognition of its own accord — that some of us are trying to examine and not just reproduce.

As for my title…?

Well, the distinctive nature of Mr. Ed, from the once popular TV show (1961-6), seemed not a bad jumping off point for this post; for the trick is in seeing that distinctiveness not as a quality Mr. Ed. “of course” possesses but as a quality given to him by us (we are the agents, not him!), inasmuch as he unwittingly defies our expectations — after all, he’s just doing what he does.

His presumed uniqueness, that which makes him stand out, therefore turns out to be a product of our expectations — a realization that turns our attention to studying how we then manage what we perceive as an anomalous situation of our own making. And so a focus on anything but these expectations, such as scrutinizing the horse and what “of course” makes him different, simply naturalizes us and our view of the world.