I thought a lot about the field of Religious Studies over the fall semester. Religion was an important theme in a course I took under ethno-historian Raymond DeMallie, titled History of Anthropological Thought. For my term paper, I traced the use of religion as an analytic construct in North America from the proto-anthropological era of the Bureau of (American) Ethnology up to Clifford Geertz’s famously encompassing definition of religion as a cultural system. I analyzed a number of important definitions of religion from the position of someone training in the methods of anthropology but working primarily from the Department of Religious Studies. I won’t bore you with a summary of that essay here, but I will highlight several theorists I consider relevant to these issues.
While I researched for the essay, I wrestled with a number of questions: What is Religious Studies? What is religion? What has religion to do with society or culture? Does religion produce societies and cultures or is it produced by them? If scholars can reduce religion to some vague postulate to be identified vastly across the spectrum of human socio-cultural formation, does the subject then deserve its own field of study? Is religion really a universalized special form of socio-cultural formation, something that is truly distinct from other analytic categories, such as kinship, politics, economics, and so forth? Like all scholars interested in the study of the study of religion, I wrestle with these questions every time I pick up a book or article themed in this direction. These are in no way new questions, although they are relevant to me at this important juncture of my academic training.
Unfortunately, the word religion has become so sedimented in our academic vocabularies I fear it is rendered meaningless. Is not the word an empty descriptor, a vague signal that has no substantive value with the exception of clarifying a field of study? Consider, for instance, this application of the term from my own university department’s web page. Religion, such a description infers, is universal, ubiquitous, and influential. It is a force that exists before other institutional categories (e.g., literature, politics, art, and economics) and serves to shape and influence said categories. Yet, other than a “major force in human experience” that shapes other important institutions, the description provides no concrete definition. Vague definitions, however, demonstrate another point. Scholars themselves don’t exactly agree about what religion is. I give this example not to criticize my department’s webpage but to show the difficulties in definition and description of contested secondary categories.
Claude Levi-Strauss, in an obscure passage in his Totemism, speaks to these issues:
But the human sciences can only work effectively with ideas that are clear, or which they try to make so. If it is maintained that religion constitutes an autonomous order, requiring a special kind of investigation, it has to be removed from the common fate of objects of science. Religion having thus been defined by contrast, it will inevitably appear, in the eyes of science, to be distinguished as no more than a sphere of confused ideas. Thenceforth, any attempt to make an objective study of religion will have to be directed to a domain other than that of ideas, one which has be distorted and adapted by the claims of religious anthropology. The only approach routes left open will be affective (if not actually organic) and sociological ones which will do no more than circle around the phenomena. . . . Conversely, if religious ideas are accorded the same value as any other conceptual system, as giving access to the mechanism of thought, the procedures of religious anthropology will acquire validity, but it will lose its autonomy and its specific character. . . . This is what we have seen happen in the case of totemism, the reality of which is reduced to that of a particular illustration of certain modes of thought (103-104).
Levi-Strauss speaks conjecturally, here, but his thoughts underscore my questions. Is religion really an “autonomous order”? Should scholars define it “by contrast” to other formative systems? Does religion require “a special kind of investigation”? Modifying his words for my own purposes, I worry that at worst Religious Studies departments constitute nothing more than “sphere[s] of confused ideas.” Bronislaw Malinowski, earlier than Levi-Strauss, warns against such artificial programs of inquiry. “An Ethnographer who sets out to study only religion, or only technology, or only social organisation,” he writes, “cuts out an artificial field of inquiry, and he will be seriously handicapped in his work.” By defining religion (“Religion is x and y and z but not a or b.”) and lifting it up and above and apart from other systems of socio-cultural formation (“I study religion, not economics.”), I worry that scholars construct an artificial field of inquiry.
To clarify, I don’t necessarily feel that religion as secondary term of analysis is a bad thing, although some recent anthropologists such as David Schneider go as far as declaring the “quartet of institutions” [i.e., kinship, economics, politics, and religion] as “vacuous,” “empty,” and ultimately, useless. For these scholars, scholarly terms of meta-analysis, terms originated during periods of imperialist expansion, lose their meaning. I’m reminded of Jean Baudrillard’s conceptualization of the simulacrum. In media theory, this refers to the idea that images-qua-symbols no longer retain external referents. The images themselves retain symbolic meaning (and possibly) apart from any historical linking to a concept, idea, or presence. This may be what has happened to the construct in focus. Scholars project religion, as a category, onto cultural practices (“This is religion; that is religion. That is not religion.”) and fail to recall that the term itself is second-order. Religion, in a way, is a fiction. It’s etically derived. The real issue, at least from my perspective, is whether or not religion is a productive fiction. Does the term help us? Is it useful? Does the term elucidate or obscure?
Scholars are human, too, just like Levi-Strauss’s anthropological subjects, and we look out into the world and try to make sense of various phenomena via analytical and classificatory systems. As academics, we need useful terms regardless if they are problematic. I think in the pragmatic sense, Religious Studies is important in that it draws together eclectic scholars who are studying analogous things and asking analogous questions of human histories, cultures, and societies. But religion should probably not be construed as anything more than an analytic construct. I don’t really believe in religion proper–religion as some vague thing spread across all human cultures, so to say. But I am committed to religion as a scholarly term of contestation. Religion as an analytic fiction–to be determined and defined per researcher, per research context–is helpful.