Disambiguating Normativity

marx+fem+dialecticI’ve grown increasingly frustrated with a certain type of argument about the use of norms in academic study. It usually goes something like this: “If we accept poststructuralist critiques of the field, everything is imbricated with values and power relations—these are, a priori, inescapable. As such, there are no grounds for excluding value-laden approaches from the field. On the contrary, constructive normative or theological approaches should be as acceptable as critique.”

To offer just one example, consider Thomas A. Lewis’ recent book, Why Philosophy Matters for the Study of Religion—and Vice Versa (Oxford University Press, 2015; I pick out Lewis merely because his book was the last I read that made this sort of claim ). He writes,

[t]oo often, we distinguish those who are doing normative work—ethicists, theologians, and philosophers of religion, for instance—from those who are doing more descriptive work—such as historians—as engaged in fundamentally different activities. … [However,] all are making normative judgments; much of what distinguishes them is that the first category are more likely to be reflecting explicitly on the justification for their normative claims, whereas the second are more likely to focus their energy elsewhere. … Nonetheless, both are making normative claims. (53)

Lewis’ conclusion? “Normative claims are inevitable in the study of religion (as in most if not all disciplines). What is important is not to try somehow to exclude normative claims but rather be willing to offer justification for the norms that we invoke” (45-6).

The problem with this, from my perspective, is that it collapses together what I would prefer to separate out as different types of normativity. That is, this argument strikes me as a bit ham-fisted, and I think we need to disambiguate further.

As a poststructuralist, I’ve long since given up on the dream of objectivity or objective truth, and thus I’m completely in agreement with the basic premise of this type of argument. However, I still find it both important and useful to appeal to intersubjective verification (of the sort we see in the work of the American pragmatists)—and it is this concern for intersubjective verification that drives me to seek to disambiguate different types of normativity. Let’s consider four different types of cases.

  1. Scholarly investigation may be motivated by normative concerns or sympathies, e.g., an individual or collective desire for social equality between men and women, or a desire for economic equality.
  2. Scholarship may employ a grid of classification that incorporates normative standards, e.g., “advanced” vs “primitive” societies.
  3. Similarly, scholarship may use evaluative concepts, either praiseworthy or pejorative, e.g., the first generation of sociologists talked about “healthy” and “sick” societies.
  4. Scholars may explicitly make normative recommendations or “should” statements regarding the relationship between the academy and the world at large, e.g., we “should” promote social justice or “should” foster certain values or virtues in our students.

What does intersubjective verification have to do with these examples? I would argue that even when sympathies or antipathies are divided, we can potentially still have intersubjective verification in the first type of case, but not in the latter cases.

Many feminist scholars of religion are motivated by normative concerns about patriarchy. Thus a feminist historical-critical reading of the Torah might demonstrate that the text depicts women as subordinate to men in a variety of ways, and that interpretations of this authoritative text have been used to reinforce patriarchal social relations in Jewish and Christian communities over the last couple of millennia. Provided we’re clear about our stipulative definitions of “Torah,” “women,” “men,” “patriarchy,” etc., even someone who shares no feminist sympathies could potentially agree with the historical-critical analysis. Although normative feminist concerns may have driven the analysis in the first place, the conclusions are, in principle, intersubjectively verifiable even by those who feel antipathy toward feminism.

The same would not be true of the other three cases provided above. As concerns the second and third cases, someone with competing sympathies would likely object to the implicit normative standards set up in the discourse at hand. Of course I can understand why, from Durkheim’s European perspective, he depicted “advanced” societies as superior to “primitive” societies. However, insofar as I don’t share his social or political sympathies or his normative assumptions about which kinds of societies are better or worse, I would wholly reject these normative evaluations embedded in his grid of classification. It would be intersubjectively verifiable—independently of one’s sympathies—that Durkheim made these valuations. But those of us who aren’t sympathetic to the devaluation of kinship communities could not verify the truth of Durkheim’s claims, precisely because we’ve rejected his grid of classification in advance. For those of us with different sympathies, we couldn’t verify Durkheim’s claims any more than a modern doctor could verify the truth of a claim about the balance of the four humors in a human body.

Similarly, the fourth case involves a type of normativity that would not be intersubjectively verifiable by those with competing sympathies. “We should promote equality between men and women” could only be agreed upon by those who share feminist sympathies. Individuals or groups who hold patriarchal norms cannot intersubjectively verify the truth of this “should” claim.

As a poststructuralist, I accept that everything we do is imbricated with norms and relations of power—whether we like it or not, our work is motivated by social concerns and can advance or retard varying social interests. As Foucault claims, knowledge is a weapon of war. However, because not all forms of normativity are equally intersubjectively verifiable, I still draw the line at negative critique (even as I recognize that critique may be motivated by norms or sympathies), and I think we should attempt to avoid using praiseworthy or pejorative evaluative terms, as well as “should” statements about our objects of study.

Of course, this normative conclusion could be intersubjectively valid only for those scholars who, like me, value intersubjective verification.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment


Whenever there is a “terrorist” attack by anyone who identifies as Muslim, the first tendency of the press is to blame some reified, monolitic “Islam” for the event.

By contrast, when there is a mass shooting by a white man in the US, the first tendency of the press is to isolate the individual from American culture, usually by appeals to the discourse of “mental illness.” White men shoot not because of any cultural influences; they only do it because they, as individuals, are sick. Nothing in American culture (e.g., sexism, racism, libertarian paranoia, etc.) have anything to do with the actions of these mentally ill loners.

Thus it was a shock to see this headline after the recent shooting at a gay night club in Orlando, Florida (a case in which the perpetrator self-identified as Muslim): “Attacker appeared to be self-radicalized.”

Apparently we are now including Muslims in the number of folks whose actions we refuse to historicize. Apparently no one perpetrates illegal gun deaths (as opposed to legal gun deaths, which are justified with a totally different, problematic set of discourses) for any reason whatsoever, other than their inner unmoved-mover randomly flips a switch.

So, we’ll proceed to ignore any possible role of Islamic homophobia, gun culture, American Islamaphobia, etc. in motivating action. Once again, we’re all individuals.

Posted in Commentary | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

No One Misunderstands Their Own Religion

The claim that “this person/group does not understand their own religion” should be eliminated from academic prose. If we think someone misunderstands their religion, it’s we who misunderstand.

Of course it’s clear that many Christians don’t know the history of Christianity, and many Muslims don’t know the history of Islam, just as many Americans don’t know much about the history of the US.

However, imagine someone saying that the 2nd amendment protects the right to bear arms, including semi-automatic assault rifles. While that’s clearly not what the 2nd amendment meant for the framers of the constitution, it would be stupid of us to say that this individual doesn’t understand their own politics. They understand their politics quite well.

When we say that someone misunderstands their own tradition, what we’re doing is constructing an authentic history and placing this person outside of it.

I often hear my students accuse their nominally Catholic peers of not understanding Catholicism. By contrast, I’d say most Catholics are nominally Catholic, and that they therefore represent the majority or the center (at least on the northeast United States). And my nominally Catholic students understand nominal Catholicism expertly. 

Posted in Commentary | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

When Your Theory of Religion Is Part of the Problem

Yesterday the New York Times ran a story about a “decorated Army Reserve officer” and veteran of the war in Iraq who “left bacon at a mosque and brandished a handgun while threatening to kill Muslims.” One of the men at the mosque reported that Russel Thomas Langoford “told me to go back to my country. I said, ‘Which country do you want me to go to? Give me the ticket and I will fly.’ He said, ‘No, I will not give you a ticket. I will kill you and bury your body right there.’”According to the Times, Langford “was charged with ethnic intimidation, assault with a deadly weapon, going armed to the terror of the public, communicating threats, stalking and disorderly conduct,” and it appears that a spokeman for the Army denounced the alleged behavior as “totally contradictory to Army values.”

Stories such as this are appearing more and more often, particularly with presidential hopeful Donald Trump publicly fanning the flames of communalism. For most of us on the political left, such incidents are immediately denounced as offensive and appalling. And the Times article, although written with neutral prose, gives pride of place to the voices of the Muslim men at the close of the article, in a way appeared to be designed to elicit sympathy for those at the mosque over Langford and his actions.

From the perspective of ideology critique, identify formation, and social categorization, Langford’s actions are easily explained , and thus the story isn’t all that provocative or interesting to those of us who do critical theory, except insofar as it’s an opportunity to express collective disgust.

However, much more interesting is the way the Times explains Langford’s use of bacon. According to the story,

Advocacy groups say pork is often used to insult Muslims, whose religion does not allow them to eat it. The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations said the act constituted a desecration of the place of worship.

Although just one phrase, the “religion does not allow them” line does a great deal of explanatory heavy lifting for the article. This is an incredibly abbreviated version of the theory or religion according to which “religion” is fundamentally about “beliefs” that are based on “doctrines” or “sacred texts”—and these “beliefs” directly guide the behavior of the practitioners in the “religion.” It’s a simple formula, and a common one:

Belief —> Behavior

While I’ve little doubt that the editors at the Times find Langdon’s actions reprehensible, I would argue that this theory of religion is part of what directs these sorts of actions in the first place. Why is Langdon so hostile to Muslims? Likely because he thinks their religion is something that makes them do things like not eat pork, or, perhaps, fly planes into buildings. Disseminating or reinforcing this theory of religion—one that assumes everyone in the tradition partakes of the same central beliefs that universally drive their behavior in the same ways—is an excellent way to provide the conditions under which it is rhetorically effortless to demonize the group as a whole.

In addition, presenting “religion” as a form of culture that directly drives behavior is consistent with a sui generis perspective that treats “religion” as fundamentally different than other forms of culture. For instance, I have a hard time believing that the Times would ever publish a story about how French secularism forces the French to oppress religious practitioners. Beliefs that force practitioners to behave a certain way seems to be uniquely a feature of those forms of culture we label as “religious.” The other forms of culture, we presume, are more complicated than the Belief —> Behavior formula we use for “religion.”

While I doubt the Times wants to reinforce Langdon’s “us vs. them” ideology, by presenting “Muslims” as forced by their “religion” to behave in ways that are different from their neighbors, that is exactly what they’re doing.

Posted in Commentary | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Problem of the Mystic East

mystic eastAfter having read Robert Orsi’s rather odd essay on “The Problem of the Holy” (in The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies, ed. by Robert Orsi), it was suggested to me that a parody might be in order. In his essay, Orsi grants that Rudolph Otto’s concept of “the holy” as something ontologically transcendent from all eternity is no longer sustainable—he thus grants that some of the historicist critiques of Otto were legitimate—but that there is nevertheless something very real about experiences of “the holy” that we as religion scholars must hold on to. I wondered what it might be like to take Orsi’s text and substitute “the mystic East” for “the holy” and see what it might look like. Most of what follows is word for word out of Orsi’s essay.

Many (not all) scholars of religion become restive sooner or later with the simple sufficiency of social or ideological explanations of “orientalism.” It is not that these scholars of religion propose foregoing social explanations. It is that they recognize that such accounts fall short of the realness of the mystic East and the rational West in people’s experience. And not just this: critical accounts that pretend to be exhaustive distort those experiences and diminish them, precisely as historical and cultural phenomena. Such explanations are empirically insufficient, in other words. These restive scholars have witnessed something in their fieldwork or historical study which they want to name as the East or the West and without which our social account is beside the point.

“The Orient” has the musty smell of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century bourgeois European ethnocentrism about it, as it was implicated in the European ideology of Western superiority that underwrote the colonial project. Yes, but—the Orient still seems to me to name both a reality and an approach to religion and culture that scholars ought to think about. For one thing, people all over the world and in different historical periods have experienced something of either the West or the East, and they know what they mean when they use the terms, even feel compelled to use them, as the only possible words for what they have experienced. The mystic East is apprehended as immediately and undeniably real by those who, for instance, practice meditation. Consequently, the concept of the East requires reconsideration, even rehabilitation.

Edward Said was of course correct to offer the critique of Orientalism in his now famous and widely read work. When I hear something called “Eastern,” I am on the lookout for domination, denial, and exploitation. Sometimes “the Orient” is a term of appropriation and domination. However, to insist that the East is not eternally persisting and homogeneous is not to have said very much about it. To explain it as a function of cultural formation (which it is) does not adequately take into account how the people having the experience of the mystic East described it or how it acted upon them. Contemporary scholars like Said want to stop with the social formation of the East, but this is really only the beginning of understanding this human experience. How is “the East” experienced as really real and what does this mean for people’s lives and for the social world?

My work with people who have experienced the mystical East has prevented me from being able simply to dismiss the term, unstable and treacherous as it is in experience and flawed and problematic as a concept. This is my deeper problem with the idea of the mystical East, the place I come to after critical analysis and deconstruction. The East describes something real in culture and history, with real, if ambivalent, effects. I do not mean something free of time and space, at least in its inception. I do however think it becomes free of time and space. It comes to have a life of its own independent of the humans out of whose imaginations, inheritances, and circumstances it emerged.

In conclusion, the mystic East is experienced as “objective.” It is known as objectively real, not as delusion or fantasy. The key category of the East is its realness. The East takes on a life and efficacy of its own, like a ghost with its own aims and intentions.

(Note that the words “believe in” [as in these people “believe in” the mystic East] have not appeared here. This is because the East is met as the really real and this renders otiose such terms that connote ignorance on the part of those who experience the East.)

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Differentiating Fields

bird flight 2

S. Brent Plate’s recent post at Religion Dispatches suggests that when it comes to religious studies, scholars are, in a sense, both insiders and outsiders at the same time. He comes to this conclusion through a comparison of the field of art to the field of religious studies. Iconoclasm in art, he suggests, is actually its own sort of iconification (my horrible word, not his). Artist Ai Weiwei, for instance, photographed himself destroying ancient Chinese artifacts. According to Plate, “iconoclasm is itself an iconic act. One image replaces another. Ai was careful to have his iconoclastic act documented, skillfully shot on camera and reproduced for many to see.” Recently another artist publicly smashed some of Ai’s art in an art gallery, where the act appeared to be partly protest and partly performance art. Iconoclasm is yet again a new iconification. Outsiders who are critical of the tradition are at the same time insiders, extending the tradition in new ways. Plate concludes that “Tradition is itself a series of creative and destructive acts, stability and instability; the icons are the tradition as much as the images of iconoclasm. Nothing stays the same.”

Plate similarly sees religion scholars who criticize religion as also being both insiders and outsiders at the same time, although he suggests that we should avoid using a hammer when a more gentle tool would do. He writes:

To teach and write about religious traditions is to enter that fray, to pull from tradition, to find one’s place within it, and to turn that in new ways, often breaking things in the process. Teachers and writers on religion can have an understated aim of performing an iconoclastic move toward the students’ own assumptions, their own ideals and images. We call it “critical thinking,” and modern universities are founded on such an ideal. But, translated across the inside-outside divide, critical thinking becomes a shaking up of faith, or worse, in the wrong hands, faith bashing.

Nietzsche gave us philosophy with a hammer—though what is more often needed in the classroom is a screwdriver.

He concludes by suggesting that in the classroom scholars of religious studies are artists negotiating the remains of the old and navigating its connection to the new—neither exactly insiders nor outsiders, but rather somewhere in between the two.

While I think Plate is absolutely correct that all cultural traditions involve ongoing creation and destruction, and that iconoclasm is iconic in its own right, he loses me when he compares the artist to the scholar. I would argue that artists smashing other artists’ work are playing in the same structural field, in Pierre Bourdieu’s sense—to smash Ai’s work is likely done with the hope of gaining some of the distinction or prestige in the art world that Ai already enjoys. By contrast, I understand religious studies and, e.g., Christian churches to occupy separate fields, with different habits, rules of competition, and forms of distinction.

As noted above, Plate writes that to “teach and write about religious traditions is to enter that fray, to pull from tradition, to find one’s place within it.” Consider this: in my course on the “Evolution of Jesus,” I often teach “The Aryan Christ: The Electrochristology of Ariosophy” by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke (found in Alternative Christs, edited by Olav Hammer). According to this essay, Jörg
 Lanz invented a version of Jesus in the early twentieth century that combined a naive understanding of electricity with a racist theory of the evolution of humanity. According to Lanz, the pure Aryan race has slowly degraded over time as a result of miscegenation with beasts; consequently their electrical powers have similarly degraded. On this view Jesus—an electric being with miraculous, electrical powers—came to renew the covenant between the Israelite’s god and the pure Aryans. The chapter is fascinating because it shows how Jesus was reread in light of nascent scientific discoveries in support Aryan racism and antisemitism.

However, when I teach this chapter I am not entering Lanz’s fray or pulling from his tradition. On the contrary, my social field—the academic study of religion—doesn’t overlap with Lanz’s field at all. I am not at all interested in engaging with his Christianity, his racism, or his scientism, either to promote or to critique it.

Of course, it is clear that the conclusions I might reach in my analysis—“Lanz’s racism depends on false assumptions about racial difference” or “Lanz’s views on electricity are based on demonstrably false and outdated scientific views”—might well be at odds with Lanz’s own view. However, the purpose of these critical points is not to retard Lanz’s agenda but rather to explain to students how he manipulates the authoritative cultural tools available to him in service of his agenda.

I am rewarded in my social field not when I engage Lanz, but when I demonstrate to students how culture is continually transformed and whose interests are advanced with this or that transformation. Of course, this is exactly what Plate was doing with his analysis of Ai, but that makes him unlike rather than like Ai, whose interests likely would not have been served by drawing attention to how his own iconoclasm is iconic. As J.Z. Smith rightly notes in Relating Religion, the purpose of ornithology is not to learn how to fly but to understand birds. The difference here is between playing a sport and writing a history of the sport. From a the perspective of a historian, explaining a team’s strategy commits one neither to rooting for nor against the team.

Which game do we, as scholars, want to play in the classroom?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Tilting at Windmills?

DQWindmillSome would have it that the work of scholars such as Don Wiebe in The Politics of Religious Studies, Tim Fitzgerald in The Ideology of Religious Studies, and Russell McCutcheon in Manufacturing Religion is both passé and off the mark. They are tilting at windmills, it seems: religious studies has long since incorporated and moved past their criticisms. It’s silly to be paranoid about crypto-theology and ontological assumptions about “the Sacred” these days.

Are we tilting at windmills? Consider the content of this co-authored piece titled “Roundtable on the Sociology of Religion: Twenty-Three Theses on the Status of Religion in American Sociology—A Mellon Working-Group Reflection,” authored by a number of big names in the field (including Christian Smith and José Casanova), and forthcoming in our discipline’s “top” journal, the Journal for the American Academy of Religion. According to the abstract,

American sociology has not taken and does not take religion as seriously as it needs to in order to do the best sociology possible. Despite religion being an important and distinctive kind of practice in human social life, both historically and in the world today, American sociologists often neglect religion or treat it reductionistically. We explore several reasons for this negligence, focusing on key historical, conceptual, methodological, and institutional factors. We then turn to offer a number of proposals to help remedy American sociology’s negligence of religion, advance the study of religion in particular, and enhance sociology’s broader disciplinary capacity to improve our understanding and explanation of human social life. Our purpose in this analysis is to stimulate critical and constructive discussion about the significance of religion in human life and scholarly research on it.

In this piece, here is what we learn:

  1. Sociology of religion has been too reductionistic.

    “Religion” is not reducible to power relations. “To the extent that the theoretical worldviews of sociologists today still revolve primarily around matters of material interests, economic forces, political interests, social dominance, relational power, and so on, religion remains largely reducible and ignorable. By theoretical presupposition, the former are taken to be ‘real’ while religion is believed to be peripheral or epiphenomenal. But, we believe, religious commitments in the end cannot be completely reduced to interests, power, and material resources, so an interest- and resource-based general sociological model cannot account for religion well.”

  2. What we call “religion” is not just another form of culture or ideology.  Too little has been “done on the theoretical front of the new cultural sociology to take on religion as a particular social object and to significantly improve our sociological understanding of it. If anything, religion became viewed as simply another ‘ideology’—ontologically and conceptually indistinct from any other belief system. Indeed, dominant sociological views of culture secularize religion, treating it as a subcomponent of culture, when, we think, a plausible historical and sociological argument can be made that culture is actually a subcomponent of religion.”
  3. By contrast, perhaps religion should be viewed as a “distinctive” object. “[M]any cultural sociologists saw little reason to theorize religion as a particular kind of social entity—even though cultural sociology should be well-equipped theoretically to study religion as a distinctive kind of social object.” We need “a theory that treats the religious dimensions of human experience as real in their own right,” and this will involve defining the distinctly “religious” part of experience as somehow connecting to the “transcendent.” (In addition, sociologists are insufficiently familiar with “the ontology of unobservable entities.”)
  4. Because so many people report experiences of the “transcendent” or “sacred,” they should be taken seriously. “[M]any people, by all their accounts, actually experience “religion” as something transcendent, sacred, and important. They experience it as making a difference in their lives. For at least those kinds of reasons, religion deserves its own field of study.” Despite the hegemony of reductionist scholars, there is a “very-real religious world that [imposes] itself upon their crumbling academic verities.”
  5. At present, cultural sociology cannot adequately make sense of the subjective experiences of religious practitioners. “[C]ultural sociology has constrained its own ability to make adequate sense of the subjective aspect of human existence, which we think is important.”
  6. Too little research is written by insiders, who have a “more personal, substantive knowledge” of their subject matter. “[T]he relative lack of personal religious commitment, identity, and knowledge among mainstream American sociologists arguably provides an obstacle to taking religion seriously in scholarship.”
  7. Consequently, we should develop “a two-way stream between religion and sociology,” as theology “might be able to offer [something to] our conversations and debates.” We must integrate “both knowledge about religion and religious knowledge into the discipline of sociology.” “[D]isciplines such as theology or traditions of spiritual disciplines may contain valuable insights for sociologists of religion.”
  8. Last, if we are going to let in implicitly normative approaches—like Marxism—then there’s no reason to exclude religious views. “[S]chools of thought in our discipline unapologetically begin with particular intellectual and moral locations, commitments, presuppositions, and interests; some even argue that these particular positions privilege their sociological understandings. Examples include feminist theory, Marxism, queer theory, some forms of critical theory, and projects of ‘real utopias.’ One might ask why or how such value-committed scholarly approaches that start with particularistic intellectual and moral presuppositions are legitimate in sociology, while religious perspectives on human person and social life are a priori excluded. The uneven privileging of certain intellectual and moral positions

    deserves ongoing questioning and consideration.”

When this sort of work appears in our “top” journals, I’m not sure we’re titling at windmills.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 27 Comments