Make It So

Did you catch Titus Hjelm‘s excellent post the other day?

His argument concerned the manner in which otherwise routine claims or actions are represented by specific groups, for specific reasons, as controversial; the apparent controversy of some religions (notably, in his post, Islam — at least to a number of people in so-called Western countries) is thus not an essential trait but one that is acquired in the public marketplace.

I couldn’t help but juxtapose his post with another that hit social media yesterday, concerning a British judgment denying the claim of adherents of Jediism that it was a religion.

Why? Well, according to the commission:

Elaborating, the article continues:

(Read the Commission’s press release.)

A number of people reposted the article but I have a suspicion that it wasn’t posted as an example of Hjelm’s argument — that something counts as religion only because we make it so — but as an example of how a government body got it wrong by arbitrarily defining religion in a self-interested manner (i.e., in order to exclude this group). The assumption being that government incorrectly defines religion all the time, in its attempt to control it.

After all, who says religions have to aim for moral improvement or have a positive effect? For that matter, who gets to judge what counts as positive?


But to approach this news item in that manner entirely misses the point, I’d argue. For the answer to those last two questions is, at least in this case:

… the Charity Commission, that’s who.

In other words, it’s not that Jediism (or Buddhism or Taoism or Judaism, etc., etc.) already was a religion and the government body does or doesn’t recognize it correctly. (Do you detect the essentialism still lurking in this approach, despite it seeming to be progressive in its anti-government stance?) No; instead, thinking back to Hjelm’s post, we have here a situation where there are claims being made, in the public sphere, about some mundane social formation — claims that don’t all agree, of course (the adherents were hardly pleased with the decision, after all) and not all of which have the same consequence. For as much as member’s may assert that it is, this wing of the nation-state, authorized by the full weight of that interconnected series of institutions, claimed that it was not.

And so, case closed.

So this news story form the UK strikes me as interesting not as an example of a mistakenly arbitrary definition being devised to accomplish dominant interests but, instead, as an e.g. of how dominant interests are regularly operationalized through the use of arbitrary (aka tactical) definition!

So, according to its members, it is a religion. Sure. But according to the Commission, it isn’t. (Interested in reading its full decision?) And that’s the key thing, here: according to. We can’t forget that; the presumed identity does not predate the claim, the act, and the institution in which such claims and acts are sanctioned. Instead, right before our very eyes we’ve just seen it made so. And each time we drop the “according to” we participate in re-making it just so — reinforcing the prior construction, when we could instead be highlighting the constructive activity.

Sure, things can be appealed, other bodies sometimes chime in, and decisions can be overturned, which means that we may get to see Jediism made into something else, over and over again, in the future. It all depends on the claims and situations in which those claims are made. For, like Hjelm concludes, things change — after all, “Americans learned to live with Elvis Presley even though he was very controversial in his time…”