The Right Question

The other day I received an email asking where, in my work, I think with the category religion instead of just thinking about it.

It’s a common distinction; do we, as scholars, use the word religion, defined however we might define it, to name things in the world that we then describe, compare, interpret, and maybe even explain, or, instead, do we study how social actors use that very word in going about their own daily lives, i.e., examining its role, however they may define it, in helping them to establish a sense of place, self, and other?

With or about?

The fact that my work has, over the years, pretty consistently focused on the latter presumably makes it seem like it’s missing something — at least to those who are after the former. I’ve heard the critique plenty.

So I replied as follows:

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It seems to me that this is the interesting thing: that it is uncontroversial among scholars (at least those who think of themselves as something other than theologians) that our focus is anthropocentric — that is, we study people who talk and act in certain ways. We may hear someone say something like “God is love” but we likely don’t go looking for others’ opinions in order to figure out what God really is like. No; scholars of religion instead hear that claim as saying something about the speaker, perhaps doing something for that person, in their particular situation, and we try to figure out just what that might be — keeping our gaze always on the person making the claim and not the thing that they claim to be talking about.

But some scholars seem unable to entertain that religion too is just something people talk about — a term people we study may (or may not!) use to collect together and name certain things in their world, in order to prioritize them or, as in the “I’m spiritual but not religious” crowd, so as to critique them.

Studies about this word religion therefore make a lot of sense, if you think about it.

So why do so many of our academic peers see it as radical?