My colleague tweeted the following the other day:
If only there was an academic discipline that studied myth, history, and meaning-making that could say something about these monuments.
— Michael J. Altman (@MichaelJAltman) August 17, 2017
It was a bit tongue-in-cheek to be sure, but it made a good point, I think, as he elaborated in a few tweets that followed, such as his claim that “religious studies has theorized myth since its foundation & has a set of theoretical tools useful in the case of confederate monuments.”
As I read him he’s tackling the longstanding assumption that religion is a special case — the stance that made our field possible, inasmuch as those responsible for helping to revive it in North American, back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, anchored their arguments in the unique status of religious experiences and thus the autonomy of those things called religion from all other sorts of cultural and historical phenomena. That’s why, or so they argued, we couldn’t sit content with religion being studied by just historians or sociologists. Sure, as Mircea Eliade famously argued, there’s a political and social and economic side to religion, how could there not be, but…, to quote his own words (from the opening paragraph to the author’s foreword from his still well-known Patterns in Comparative Religion):
Now of course few claim to be influenced by Eliade today, but, from where I sit, it’s not hard to see the residue of this position — such as those who now study popular culture by looking for where else they can find this so-called element of the sacred. And so we find scholars of religion studying all sorts of stuff today, but often in terms of how the supposed uniqueness of religion (still often understood as an ineffable experience of some sort) is also found in unexpected places. And so they might wax eloquent about the religious aspects of sports or a rock concert or this or that cuisine, for example — the sort of reverential scholarship that you’d expect, perhaps, from an aficionado or devotee.
But what I read Altman to be saying — and I hope he corrects me if I’ve misread him — concerning our relevance, is something different; for if we instead approach these things we call religious as but mundane, everyday elements of historical, social worlds, seeing them all as devices (whether narratives, practices, or ways of organizing) that creative social actors, in specific situations, use to accomplish practical interests in their worlds, then we likely have something to say about the wider family of techniques, of which so-called religious claims are but one instance. If so, then it’s not the specialness of religion that we’ll go looking for in other places but, instead, its routine, ordinariness will attract our attention — though that’s not to suggest it’s uninteresting or ineffective.
Not at all.
So the sort of scholar of religion I have in mind might, for example, zero in on the recent use of the comparative method in U.S. disagreements concerning the future of its Civil War monuments. For we’re skilled in how that tool gets used — either by our colleagues, in going about their work, or by the people we study. For instance, I think of President Trump’s juxtaposition, at a recent press conference, of statues dedicated to Civil War figures, on the one hand, and, on the other, the longstanding national celebration of such slave-owning founders as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. For example:
In response, historians and political commentators on the left have done some comparative work of their own; but where Trump suggests a crucial similarity (leading to the so-called slippery slope — when, one might ask, will the removal of statues end if we start it now?) those who disagree with him see an important difference that enables them to acknowledge the slave-owning status of the so-called founding fathers while preserving them as members of a category set apart from Civil War-era southern leaders. For while the former, as those replying to the President argue, were privileged white men inevitably of their time the latter rose up in open rebellion against the nation, making them what some on the left now just call traitors (in stark difference to those called founders). And so some conclude that statues commemorating the ambitious hopes of the earlier group can be effectively distinguished from the celebrating the wartime deeds of the later.
So, as I read him, Altman is simply saying that, for those seeking to understand something about what’s happening in our present moment, the scholar of religion has some useful tools that aren’t often enough put to work.
If you’d like another example, maybe you’d benefit from reading Bruce Lincoln‘s analysis (chapter 7) of old photographs from the Spanish Civil War, in which people posed with exhumed corpses of church officials (e.g., long deceased priests and nuns) — maybe even pointing guns at churches — so as to, perhaps, make some sense of the efforts to which a variety of people went, just the other day, to stomp and spit on the freshly toppled Civil War statue in Durham, NC (pictured above and below; see video here).
But one can’t be naive — offering the sort of analysis that our expertise offers might not sit well with every reader (regardless the political side they occupy); for this sort of study isn’t necessarily about taking sides but, rather, strikes me as being about trying to understand the logics or structures that allow people to engage in a wide variety of actions or that enable them to occupy a certain sort of subject position in these situations. It’s the role of the social theorist — a role different from that of engaged social actor, I’d argue. It’s the attempt to understand how people create sides to begin with, and how they either nurture or discourage affinities.
But that’s an argument that’s also based on a comparative analysis and so I’d hope that it too is open for debate and study. I’ve written a fair bit on this elsewhere, of course, and this likely isn’t the place to go on about it. So I’ll end, wondering what readers think of the scholar of religion’s relevance for understanding the moment in which we now find ourselves.