Grist for the Millstone

I recall a conference, quite some years ago, where, as part of a panel discussion, I was once called “a vulgar Smithian”; it was a criticism that responded to my interest in the category “religion” itself, thus linking me to Jonathan Z.’s often-cited (and, these days, often-criticized) claim from the opening to his 1982 essay collection, Imagining Religion:

… while there is a staggering amount of data, phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religion — there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no existence apart from the academy.

Continue reading

A Word from the Balcony

Picture 9A yesterday a colleague posted a blog with three hypotheses on the topic of studying a thing called American Religious History — concerning how it may very well be a nationalist project, from start to finish (no matter how it is done), and that it is a discourse that may have historical continuities with (and practical effects akin to) the world religious discourse that so many in our field now claim to critique.

His point, as I read him, was not how to do it better but why we do it in the first place. Continue reading