How to Be Curious

Among my courses this Fall semester — starting in a little over a week — is one on theories of religion; in one way or another I’ve taught elements of a course like this many times (in fact, my intro course even touches on some of these topics), but rarely in a seminar devoted to nothing other than attempts to account for why people are religious.

So deciding what to do in the course is always something worth thinking about.

One place to start is to realize that, at least when I talk about theories in a course like this, I mean naturalistic, explanatory accounts that attempt to identify the factors that cause religion. Sure, much of my work now is on why people might call what the lady and the little boy are doing religious (as depicted in Norman Rockewell’s well-known 1951 painting), and so the term theory is used in a rather different way there; but early on my interest was in attempts to explain religion and not the category “religion” — all in distinction from those scholars who claim that religious things defy explanation, prompting them merely to interpret (sometimes even to appreciate or maybe re-experience) its meaning.

In fact, an explanatory approach to the study of religion, despite a noble lineage (something we’ll address in the class by means of the late Jacques Waardenburg’s reissued volume), can sometimes seem a bit rare these days. But, as a scholar, what I appreciate about explanatory approaches is that they’re willing to entertain that something came before the thing that we happen to study. To rephrase: they’re historical accounts, and by that I just mean that they take their object of study — a woman and boy bowing their heads before they eat and saying a few closed-eye words, for instance — as a contingent, situated human action, one that came into being, at some point and for some reason(s). Thinking back to Roland Barthes, I guess I could just say that the sorts of theorists of religion I have in mind steer clear of assuming that their data is necessary. For if it was then there would be no point in trying to identify the factors or circumstances that made it to happen, for it always would have been there, inevitably, naturally.

Necessary topics therefore strike me as resisting explanation.

What’s curious to me is how the resistance to explanation in our field is often portrayed as being more humane, as if those who might see religion as a result of some prior psychological or sociological factors are somehow inhuman for seeing the people we study as thoroughly psychological and social beings. Seeing people, and the situations in which they live and interact, as contingent is a problem, or so some tell us. Yet in other fields the resistance to theorizing in this way — what I’d call a refusal to be curious about currently unseen factors that might have impacted a situation that we take for granted — can itself be seen as highly problematic.

Cases in point, consider an August 1, 2017, exchange (as part of a town hall meeting) between James Eskridge, the mayor of Tangier Island (in the Chesapeake Bay) and former US Vice President Al Gore, in which the two men discussed the erosion that, within a few decades, may make Eskridge’s island home uninhabitable (because it will have vanished into the sea).

After hearing him describe the erosion that’s chipping away at their island, Gore asks a misleadingly simple question:

“What do you think the erosion is due to, mayor…?”

I find this to be a very interesting exchange, because here we have two social actors who seem to agree on the descriptive account (i.e., the island is disappearing, to be sure) but they offer two rather different accounts to explain it: erosion is due to natural factors vs sea level rise is caused by climate change (in which human agency plays a role). But what’s important to recognize is that Gore’s approach takes the apparent explanation of erosion as no explanation at all; instead, it’s just a paraphrase of the description, and we still need to identify what non-inevitable or contingent factor(s) might be causing that erosion — some hitherto unseen factors that could account for the disappearing island.

And about which, maybe, we could do something.

But to press further, it wasn’t difficult to find people online on the political left, once that clip was posted, who criticized the mayor for his lack of intellectual curiosity, i.e., for taking the erosion at face value, as if it was inevitable, natural, and thus something that defies the sort of explanation (let alone action and intervention) that climate science makes possible.

(Sure, commentators on the right saw the exchange entirely different, to be sure — seeing the mayor as schooling the Vice President.)

Yet in the study of religion all sorts of people seem to me to mirror Eskridge’s approach — for they take religion to be a natural, inevitable, necessarily element of the so-called human condition, and thus something that, though perhaps in need of understanding, certainly doesn’t need to be explained in non-obvious or non-religious terms. And so it’s this shared resistance to explanatory analysis that strikes me as worth mulling over — for all of us routinely use explanatory analysis in our daily lives (as I say in my own intro book’s opening, don’t we all use causal analysis when we flick a switch and the light doesn’t come on, so as to figure out that the bulb needs replacing?), yet when it comes to certain elements or situations we seem content to take the moment as given, as unexplainable, and thus something merely to accept.

So, come to think of it, when I consider all this and the course I’m teaching this semester, it really is not about explaining religion; instead, it’s about thinking through how to be curious about something that, at first, we might not be so curious about — and not just how to be curious but also some of the ways to pursue that curiosity. It’s a course all about the tools that might come in handy if we’re not content to take the erosion as a given or saying grace as inevitable. So yeah, we’ll learn about a variety of classic and contemporary theories of religion, and we’ll surely talk about a bunch of theorists too, but that’s really just the site where we’ll do some thinking about why some things strike us as deserving an explanation whereas others just don’t.

If asked, I guess I’d say it’s a course on the power, and limits, of curiosity.

And so, like pretty much all of the courses I teach, the hope is that we’ll come to see how what we talk about in class, though it certainly seems specialized and tightly focused, has pretty wide applications — though we might not see that at first.

One thought on “How to Be Curious

  1. Thank Russell, so much to think about; will be rereading a few times, I reckon.

    Reminded me of my first serious discussion of religion, w/ my mom the night before my emergency appendectomy @ age 12. Kept asking questions about death & ideas of life after until we reached the point of “If the reason for everything is that God made this all, who made God?” There wasn’t a satisfactory answer to that, of course, but although the painted Sistine Chapel scenes were flaking off of the painted bowl I’d been growing up under, I wasn’t frightened because Mom was there beside me all night.

    Going back to that as an adult, I’ve concluded that being “religious” is a choice, if you are naturally curious. Which is fine for some folks, I think.: life must certainly be easier & presumably more comfortable is you choose to stop asking questions before you get to the ones that are, well, unanswerable. But gosh, just think of all the interesting stuff ya miss if you can’t be comfy w/ the “unanswerable” questions!