Democracy is Risky

Picture 9A couple years ago I gave a talk at Lehigh University (a lecture that became chapter 8 in a book I published not long after). The topic was on my frustration with how scholars of religion — because they define their object of study as a universally present and deeply meaningful human impulse — often assume their research is always relevant. As evidence I drew on a recent national conference where scholars of religion were encouraged to think about how their work on this or that ritual or text could contribute to solving the problem of climate change. I could just as easily have cited the program for that very annual conference (something I wrote on long ago, actually), and how the “religion and…” rubric was infinitely variable (e.g., Religion and Literature, Religion and Film, Religion and Science, Religion and Politics, Religion and Food, etc., etc.); we often presume our object of study always to be relevant because we think that it somehow points outside of, and thus before and beyond, the happenstance of history. So it is assumed to play a role in anything that happens.

The problem, though, is that we also claim to be historians, e.g., historians of religion — but, defining religion in this way, makes us historians who study the transcendental. And that’s very unhistorial if you ask me. Continue reading

Embedded in Religion

Rigoberta_Menchu_2009_croppedWhat ideological positions are embedded within the practices and conceptions that we commonly identify as religions? Depending on one’s own ideological position and perspective, various people emphasize the patriarchy, ethnocentrism, and violence within various examples of religion. People will certainly debate if those ideological positions are typical in expressions of religion or an accretion to some idealized form. What about common definitions of what counts as religion? What ideological positions are embedded there? In classes I often emphasize the ways that claiming “religion” becomes a way to establish special status for particular conceptions, symbols, or actions. You cannot use that image because it is religious. You cannot prohibit this action because it is religious. So, what counts as religious in a society makes a big difference. But our analysis should also extend to broader implications of definitions of religion and the ideological assumptions that they support. Continue reading

Do You Eat Them for Dessert?

tomatoFile this story under “Classification Matters”: is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable?

I’ve used the Nix v. Hedden 1893 US Supreme Court decision in intro classes for quite some time, to illustrate the point that identity is the product of negotiations within practical conditions. Such as winning the right to count carrot marmalade as “fruit” for the purposes of trade within the European Union, perhaps? (Search for “carrot” in the following PDF document.)

Even when it comes to defining religion, let alone defining toys.