Doing Theory

Screen shot from the online OED's definition of the word theoryOften in the study of religion you’ll hear people saying things like “I don’t do theory” (yes, there’s often an emphasis on the verb, akin to saying “I don’t do [insert something with which you disagree or dislike]) or maybe you’ll come across a conversation on when to introduce theory to undergraduate students — right from their first course or, fearing that will alienate them from the field, only doing so later, “once they’ve already got the basics,” as some will say.

There’s a real conservatism embedded here that’s tough for some to see, what with the prominence of assuming that, for good or ill, there’s a variety of discrete things in the world that are just naturally called religions, comprising the defining trait of different groups of people who all interact in various ways with each other or their surrounding circumstances. And so, studying those traits, their expression, and those interactions constitutes the study of religion — at least for some. Continue reading

Looking Over and Overlooking

Malory Nye’s tweet, the other day, got me thinking… So I replied:

Picture of three tweets that start to make the point of this blog post

For a while, now, I’ve had this feeling: as happens with any new and successfully reproduced social developments (or what advocates just call advances), newcomers to the group tend to normalize them. Which is a wonderful luxury, if you think about it — in fact, it’s likely among the things the earlier generation worked toward: the right of subsequent members to take things for granted that their elders could not.

“Of course we ought to have a course on theories of religion” someone might now say in our field, or, “Sure, naming something as ‘religious’ is worthwhile studying.” Why? Coz “#classificationmatters” they my tweet in reply. But the risk of normalizing such gains is that we fail to see them as the accomplishments of historical actors, in prior situations where this was not the case. Continue reading

“A Horse is a Horse, of Course of Course”


In a review essay posted recently at the Boston Review — entitled “Holy Wars: Secularism and the Invention of Religion” — James Chappel looked at several recent books on religion and modernity. In that article he wrote as follows: Continue reading

It’s Complicated

In an earlier post I wondered aloud what the Humanities were, doing so by too briefly surveying some of the standard arguments that we often hear when this topic comes up. I concluded by asking readers what they thought the Humanities were, and left it at that.

To be fair, I ought to answer my own question. And so… Continue reading