Real People, on the Ground

Implicit Religion

Dr. David Robertson is Co-Editor of the journal Implicit Religion and co-editor and founding editor of The Religious Studies Project.

If, like me, you use the kind of critical approach that Russell McCutcheon was talking about in his recent post, focusing on processes of designation, then you’ll sooner or later be told by a colleague that you waste time endlessly arguing about definitions. Often this is followed up by the claim that they “don’t do theory.” I’ve even had people exasperatedly tell me that none of what I do matters to real people, on the ground.

Of course, you can’t not do theory – but you can be conscious of it, or not. As Rush said, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” You’ve chosen the implicit folk category, inherited from colonialism and Protestantism – that religion is a special thing, set apart and unique, beliefs about ‘big questions’, of inherent value to people.

(As an aside, it’s interesting how many of those arguing that we can find religion in overlooked places present this as intrinsically a good thing. For those who focus on identifying new forms of spirituality, or religion in new places, the churches may be in decline, but the Nones/SBNRs still have values, beliefs, rituals… We saw the same thing in the early days of the study of religion where Protestant theologians strove to establish a grounding for Christianity outside of the Church and apart from the mythology of the Bible. Their arguments that religion is all about how people themselves relate to the spiritual, it’s just those elitist priests corrupting things, is exactly what most material or lived or implicit religion scholars are arguing.)

There is nothing new about this split in the field between those who see our field as analyzing social processes and those who see it as about being better humans, as Leonardo Ambasciano’s recent book demonstrates most clearly. Although we tend to think of this as a split between Religious Studies and Theology, perhaps, as Russell McCutcheon recently tweeted, this is better framed as a split between those who approach religion as a social science and those using a humanities approach:

But what is certainly true is that the critical/discursive/attributional study of religion needs to better articulate the utility of the approach, in contexts beyond academic debates on method and theory. The fact is that what gets counted as religion in specific contexts is perhaps the most impactful question we can ask as social scientists. Far from being merely discourse-about-discourse in some Ivory Tower, the critical approach shows what the category is actually doing in the real world – both to those whom it constrains, and those for whom it is useful.

The Religious Studies Project has been making resources for the classroom that do this since 2012, and the University of Alabama and The Open University are showing what the post-World Religions department might look like. But we could do more.

Screenshot of the front-page of the Religious Studies Project website.Confession time: when I took over as editor of Implicit Religion with Jack Laughlin, I had no interest in implicit religion as a theoretical framework. Rather, my interest was, and is, in what assumptions are implicit when someone identifies something as religious – be that in the media, the law, healthcare, academia, or whatever. While the excellent journal Method & Theory in the Study of Religion focuses programmatically on this approach, I want Implicit Religion to complement this with articles and themed issues on how these processes play out in the world, especially on the ragged edges of the category.

Implicit ReligionYou know… real people, on the ground. For example, when whether having a Christmas Tree was a civil or religious duty became a serious public issue in Denmark. Or when a judge ruled that nationalism was “religion-like”, so a man kept his job — but other times, allows us to take religion off the table when it would mean that it was implicated in violence or bigotry. Tying state ceremonies to religious institutions makes it harder to challenge either of them. Classifying “mindfulness” as secular means that it can better serve neoliberalism.

And these are just a few examples. I’m sure you can think of any more — and we’re looking for submissions

When is it Spirituality and When is it Religion?

Kumare movie poster

By Jeremy Connor

Jeremy Connor is a music performance graduate from the University of Alabama. He is currently working full time in marketing and finance at West Alabama Wholesale in Newport, Alabama. The following was written for REL 360: Popular Culture/Public Humanities.

The idea behind the movie, Kumare, is a simple, but interesting one. An American man with Indian heritage, named Vikhram, decides to conduct an experiment. He wonders if he can convince people that he is a ‘real guru’ by speaking in an Indian accent, dressing in Eastern clothes, and saying many profound-sounding nonsense phrases. In short, it worked. People followed him and bonded with him over made-up nonsense. After watching the film, two questions that have perplexed me for a while once again popped into my head: What defines a practice as a religion versus just being spiritual, and why is spirituality important to people?

Many non-church going people my age have a phrase that I’ve heard so many times over my life, and I am always confused as to what exactly it means. “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual”, is the credo of these people and there seems to be a trend in their demographic. In my experience, it tends to be those that had a religious upbringing and have since began questioning their faith. What do these people need from so called “spirituality” that they don’t feel they need from religion anymore?

The people in Vikhram’s experiment that were so swayed and influenced by Kumare all had problems that they needed to solve. Kumare acted as a therapist who could listen and give back kind words, though they may have been broken and nonsensical. It wasn’t what he was saying that mattered, but more that they were able to talk to someone about what was bothering them. This was all solidified and made more important through the use of ritual. Similarly to how his words were not important, the content of the ritual was not important, only that there was a ritual that they could follow and get into the right mindset to do some introspective thinking.

So, is this considered religion? In the movie, they didn’t ever state to the followers that any of the teachings that Kumare gave were from any holy tradition. There was no worship, no creation story, nothing that people usually identify as important parts of religion. But it had many of the other important aspects of religion: the community, the therapeutic settings, and the ritual that made these people feel very strongly connected to it.

In my opinion, the main difference between religion and spirituality is the amount of organization and the level of reliance on supernatural explanations. Religions tend to rely more on explanations that are supernatural in nature, putting their faith in a god or gods and praying, while spirituality may contain something like that, it isn’t necessary to fit under the broad category of being “spiritual”. Religion also is usually much more organized with different institutions that have leaders and hierarchies, rather than just existing as a perspective in someone’s mind.

After seeing the people in Kumare get fooled so easily, I have come to the conclusion that the true importance of religion and spirituality in this day and age is to provide people with a way to bond with others in a close way, a way to feel like they can talk to someone (preferably with authority), in detail about their life problems, and rituals that they believe help to do something in their lives, whether they make any effect or not.

The Sociology of Individuals

capitalizingreligionMy REL 245 course presses on and now we’re about to tackle Craig Martin’s Capitalizing Religion: Ideology and the Opiate of the Bourgeoisie.

So I’ve got some weekend reading to do.

The course is asking whether the study of religion ought to be founded on the assumption that the public, observable, material elements of religious life are but secondary manifestations of prior immaterial things — usually called beliefs, experiences, feelings, meanings, etc. Calling this common assumption into question is a way to further complicate how scholars (especially Americanists studying the pluralism of the US) often talk about religious change, such as the supposed decisions that so-called individual, rational actors are said to make when they convert or “shop for” a religion. Continue reading

“If I tell you I believe Elvis is still alive…”

Picture 3Do you know about the sometimes outspoken Sam Harris, the American neuroscientist much associated with the so-called “new atheist” movement?

Well, he’s got a new book out, published last Fall. Continue reading

Religion on the Television (Part 1)

1 Nashville REV

A recent article in the online journal Religious Dispatches discusses the Southern Christian presence, or lack thereof, on the hit television show Nashville. In an intriguing analysis, writer Carrie Allen Tipton points to the popular “spirituality” the show displays instead of the evangelical piety one would expect to find in a program situated in the Bible Belt and devoted to the culture of country of music. Perhaps the a-religiosity of the show can be attributed to the presumed proliferation of the unaffiliated—the “nones” so visible in the press of late. In any case, church going, if it is mentioned at all, seems a matter of nostalgia for Nashville’s leading characters. The church choir of long ago is recalled with affection, but those sacred precincts of yesteryear have been replaced for the show’s heroes with new sanctuaries: the Bluebird Café, in particular, and the famous Ryman Auditorium. Continue reading

The 12th Annual Aronov Lecture

aronovkingOn March 4, 2014, Dr. Richard King, Professor of Buddhist and Asian Studies at the University of Kent, UK, delivered his “From Mysticism to Spirituality: Colonial Legacies and the Reformulation of ‘the Mystic East'” as the Department of Religious Studies’ 12th Annual Aronov Lecture, named after the late Aaron Aronov — the founder of Aronov Realty and the person for whom the Department’s endowed chair in Judaic studies is also named. To learn a little more about Dr. King, take a look at his interview. Continue reading

From Mysticism to Spirituality, From Tradition to Individual

richardkingProf. Richard King, from the University of Kent in the UK, was on campus to deliver our 12th annual Aronov Lecture. Perhaps best known to some for his interest in the history of the study of religion in south Asia during the colonial period (e.g., his 1999 book, below), Continue reading

It Was Just My Imagination

Picture 5I just saw this New York Times blog post, thanks to The Religious Studies Project’s post on its Facebook wall. The photographer, Jim Estrin, is quoted as follows:

“The challenge for me is capturing the essence of an invisible event”… Continue reading