A Social Redescription of Belief

The statement “I believe in…” is sensible only when there are others who do not; it is an agonistic affirmation…. Thus a statement of belief is a convention appropriate to a specific situation, sanctioned by a history and a community. As Wittgenstein notes, “the expression of belief … is just a sentence; — and the sentence has sense only as a member of a system of language; as one expression in a calculus.

Donald Lopez, “Belief” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies (1998: 33-34)

Should we follow Lopez, then statements of belief are no longer understood as signs of private and prior dispositions but, instead, as evidence of a public dispute over ways of acting and organizing in the world; this suggests that people don’t have beliefs in isolation from one another — meaning that we are not just taught them, as some might conclude, but far more than this: that our different practices prompt us to engage in this talk, as a way of registering our resistance to some while signaling our affinity for others. If so, then rather than studying beliefs, scholars should instead examine situated belief claims, seeing them as the residue not of internal states but of ongoing social contests.

“A confidential informant is not a spy…”

The title of this post is a quotation from US Senator Lindsey Graham, during a recent radio interview — find more details here, in a recent Washington Post report, along with a transcript of that portion of his interview. It concerns the President characterizing someone who is now much in the news as being a “spy” planted in his campaign by the FBI. That others understand this person as an informant — someone who, of their own volition, apparently decided authorities needed to know something he himself knew — is one among many current examples in US politics where it ought to be profoundly obvious that, yes, classification matters. Continue reading

Faculty Reading Group: Transitions

On page 117, in the essay entitled “Historicism, History, and the Figurative Imagination,” we read the following:

But if my hypothesis is correct, there can be no such thing as a non-relativistic representation of historical reality, inasmuch as every account of the past is mediated by the language-mode in which the historian casts his original description of the historical field prior to any analysis, explanation, or interpretation he may offer of it.

We read this classic Hayden White piece (originally published in History and Theory, Vol. 14/4 Beiheft 14: Essays on Historicism [1975]: 48-67) in a faculty reading group in our Department last Friday, that met for the first time, during lunch. I’ve not read the essay for years; yes, I first went looking for what I’d previously underlined in my copy of the book but the above sentence jumped out at me for the first time (to be honest, it was only when a colleague quoted it during our discussion, which made me flip through some pages looking for it). For, as I later elaborated, in agreement with another colleague who detected some curious ambiguity in White’s essay, this sentence nicely captures his place as a transitional figure.

For at least with some of us who have been influenced by his work, reading that sentence now seems to be just a little unsatisfactory since it reads as oddly conservative, and thus not nearly as radical as it likely read forty years ago. Continue reading

A Strategic Political Tool

townhallDid you watch the town hall meeting the other night, the second of this season’s Presidential debates?

Because scholars of religion are trained in the study of how rhetorics of privacy are used by social actors, I think we might have more to say about what’s going on than we at first realize. Continue reading

“But as a businessman, there are things you do for business…”

Picture 5If you’re interested in how people use rhetoric or how they divide and classify social space in order to make a more persuasive image of the world that’s conducive to their interests, then give a listen to this interview that aired yesterday morning. (Or click here if the player doesn’t load properly.) Continue reading

Our Highest Ideals

Picture 6I recall a close friend, almost 30 years ago, to whom I asked the following often-heard question, when they’d just had their first child:

Is he a good baby?

His reply?

We don’t believe in making moral judgments about our child.

I admit that the answer came as a bit of a surprise, since I was simply interested in knowing if the baby was sleeping the whole night through and eating ok; but, sure, after I thought about it for a moment, it was pretty evident that the old “good baby” trope wraps up an awful lot of unstated things and I had asked it pretty unthinkingly. After all, I could have just inquired if he was sleeping the whole night through and eating ok.

I thought of that exchange yesterday when I first read through the American Academy of Religion’s draft statement on responsible research, posted online for member commentary. (Click the graphic to read it.) Continue reading

“A Reluctance to Put the Religious Label”

Picture 2Did you hear about the White House summit this past week? It was in the news a fair bit and was on “countering violent extremism” — not just those attributed to Muslims but, because such adjectives as Islamic or Jihadist are often glued pretty tightly, at least in some North American and European media and politics, to the words violence or terrorism, that angle on the event has received a lot of attention. Continue reading

Backstory: Prof. Russell McCutcheon

russell3

Backstory” is a series that asks the REL Faculty to tell us a little bit about themselves, to explore how they became interested in the academic study of religion and their own specialty, elaborating on their current work both within and outside the University.

Where are you from?

I was born in Port Colborne, Ontario, in Canada, not far from Buffalo, NY, actually, in a region that is called southern Ontario. It’s both an industrial and a farming region—lots of grapes for wines being grown along the shore of Lake Ontario, about 45 minutes north of where I was from, which was on the north shore of Lake Erie—I could see Pennsylvania on the other side. And lots of heavy industry, like car manufacturing and steel mills, though not as much as when I was a kid. Now, tourism is probably as big as the manufacturing industry once was. There was a canal cutting through my town, which lakers took so they didn’t have to go over Niagara Falls when going to and from the ocean—good thinking. Continue reading