Agency, Structure, and the Myth of the Immaculate Perception

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National Public Radio on the weekend played a story (an interview with Neal Gabler, the author of an Atlantic article on the same topic) about how hard many in the US have it economically.

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The interview ended with Gabler’s concern for what he characterized as a myth that we perpetuate, especially here in the US, that individuals are largely responsible for their lot in life — that, as he quoted Donald Trump on the campaign trail, you’re a loser if you don’t succeed. Instead, he argued that we ought to take more seriously what we could call the structural factors, well beyond any one individual’s control, that play a (sometimes considerable, even determinative) role in one’s situation — a recognition that, he argued, would take away some of the shame that people associate not just with poverty but even with being a little short on cash.

Given that I’m a scholar of religion who is interested in how most assume religion to be a uniquely interior affectation that is only subsequently expressed in public (via ritual or narrative, for example — things that are said to embody or manifest other things we call faith, feeling, belief or experience), what struck me as interesting about the interview was how central to this individualist myth religion is — or at least how most of us talk about religion. For if, along with this author, we are agreed that we need to rethink how social life happens and the way prior structural settings make certain things possible, then isn’t rethinking how we use this word religion, and what using it in certain ways makes possible, not also part of what needs to be rethought?

Given how most scholars of religion talk about what they portray as pristine, personal, and private dispositions and sentiments and how we see them as unconditioned causal forces that, at some later date, motivate actions (sure, faith might be said to be “shaped” or “affected” by this or that social or political factor but hardly ever do we entertain that it might have been caused by it), it seems that the discourse on religion is at the very heart of the individualist story that people like Gabler consider to be in need of rethinking. If so, then it may turn out that there’s not much distance between the myth of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps and the myth of the immaculate perception (to borrow a phrase that J. Z. Smith borrows from Nietzsche [Drudgery Divine, p. 51]).