[Note: this could be kinder, longer, more detailed, and better written, but I’m super busy and have to move on to other projects on my summer to-do list. Sorry, Galen, that my response couldn’t have been more constructive.]
In “Can Critical Religion Play by Its Own Rules?,” Galen Watts and Sharday Mosurinjohn offer a number of criticisms of the “methodological school” they call “Critical Religion” (CR). In their narrative, the central claim of CR scholars is that “religion” is a problematic concept that we should view with a great deal of skepticism; in addition, they argue that this has become a hegemonic “common sense among most, if not all, scholars of religion.” Watts and Mosurinjohn’s criticisms of this “school” are threefold: (1) CR scholars are inconsistent when historicizing (they historicize some concepts but reify others), (2) they are crypto-normative (they pretend to be value-free or value-neutral yet their projects clearly reflect normative investments), and (3) their arguments for abandoning “religion” as an analytic term are ultimately arbitrary. Their primary targets appear to be Russell McCutcheon, Tim Fitzgerald, and myself, although they point to many others along the way.
It is difficult to know where to begin in response to the essay. As was immediately apparent on social media, some of those targeted in the essay felt as if they were caricatured, some claimed that there is no such thing as a “methodological school” here, as what the scholars named share is perhaps their conclusions—the concept of “religion” is deeply problematic—more than their methods, and some complained that the essay appeared to ignore a good bit of the already existing literature criticizing this type of scholarship. More than a few people reflected on the fact that it appears that the journal—purportedly the “flagship” journal of our field of study—has a history of publishing weakly argued articles that criticize this type of scholarship (see, for instance, the essay by Atalia Omer, “Can a Critic Be a Caretaker too?” , which was terrible). It seems as if the journal’s editors are hostile to the type of scholarship produced by McCutcheon, Fitzgerald, Martin, et al., and as long as an essay is on the right side of the fault line, apparently the quality of the arguments is beside the point. (Of course, I’m not privy to the editors’ private thoughts or the review processes this and other articles have undergone, so this is merely an impression based on what I’ve seen them publish and what they apparently won’t publish.)
I find myself largely in agreement with these initial responses. In my opinion, the authors resorted to caricaturing their opponents, they problematically reified “critical religion” as a “methodological school,” and they did not engage with many of the existing conversations about the body of scholarship that finds “religion” to be a problematic concept. Most importantly, as I will note below, although I was targeted in this essay, I don’t think my scholarship is guilty of most of their accusations. In addition, I have never identified as a “critical religion” scholar, and there are many tensions and disagreements among those scholars grouped together under the abbreviation “CR.” (I suspect that many of those targeted similarly found their work poorly represented in the presentation of “critical religion,” not just me. I’ll leave it to others to point out where in particular their own work was caricatured.)
Some have objected that “we’re not a school” is a lazy objection designed to dodge the substance of the arguments. As a friend of mine said to me, even if we’re not a “school,” we “do in fact function like a type of school despite some of their differences.” Perhaps. But, even if true, that does not give critics the right to paint with a broad brush and riff on their general impressions. I recently wrote a piece on the phenomenon of “postcritique,” wherein I discussed the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Bruno Latour, and Rita Felski, whose criticisms of “critique” overlap to some extent. Nevertheless, in my essay I addressed each of them individually, because what was true about one might not be true of another—the overlap is only ever partial, and we must be sensitive to that. Anything else is intellectual laziness.
In any case, let me turn to the substance of the accusations in the essay. Why do I think my scholarship is largely not guilty of the charges laid out here? First, I’ve devoted myself to historicizing not only “religion” but many other discourses as well—some of which I continue to use, some of which I have abandoned—such as the following: the discourses of liberalism and the idea of a “private sphere”; the concept of “things-in-themselves”; discourses related to ideology and domination, particularly the language of false consciousness and internalized oppression; subjective definitions of social domination; the language of autonomy and liberal discourses on subjectivity, freedom, and repression; and more. It is hardly the case that I focus only on the problems with the concept of “religion.”
Second, I’ve written at length about what is problematic or objectionable about the concept of religion—by no means is my recommendation to use other terms entirely arbitrary. Unfortunately, Watts and Mosurinjohn do not address any of my arguments, other than to point out that I allege the concept has a great deal of normative baggage. Nowhere do they consider my arguments about what that baggage is—outlined in Masking Hegemony and Capitalizing Religion—and nowhere do they make an argument that the concept is worth saving despite that particular baggage. How can I accept their assertion that my arguments for avoiding the use of “religion” are arbitrary when they never actually address any of my arguments?
Notably, the fact that Watts and Mosurinjohn clump together a wide variety of scholars under the category “CR” is most problematic on this point. They insist that the arguments against religion used by some so-called CR scholars contradict the arguments of other so-called CR scholars, and rule that ultimately the arguments against “religion” are arbitrary. That point would make sense only if those “CR” scholars claimed to represent a unified school of thought and if multiple arguments for a position made the position arbitrary. If this group does not identify as a coherent school of thought—and they don’t—then pointing out that there is disagreement as to exactly why “religion” is problematic isn’t particularly interesting—it just means that people disagree. Bizarrely, Watts and Mosurinjohn claim that these scholars are probably correct that the concept of religion has a great deal of “unduly normative baggage,” but they drop the point and never return to whether or not that’s a good reason to drop its use, other than to point out that all discourses are normative in some way or another. However, the fact that all discourses are in some way normative probably wouldn’t be a reason to retain any particular concept. That all discourses are implicitly normative is not a reason to continue to use of the concept of, for instance, “primitive savages”; whether a normative concept is worth retaining or not likely depends on the historical specifics rather than the abstract point “all discourses are normative,” but the authors here offer no defense for why “religion,” despite its apparent baggage, still warrants use.
There is one point this particular essay makes that, arguably, is worth taking seriously: none of these so-called “critical religion” scholars have produced a systematic account of the nature of normativity or have fully accounted for what kinds of norms might be appropriate or inappropriate in scholarship (they do cite a short blog post I wrote more than half a decade ago, but which I’ve never fleshed out in detail in print—an unfinished project, to be sure). As Watts and Mosurinjohn rightly note, the claim that “colonialist” discourses reified “religion” in ways that supported colonialism is implicitly normative: the assertion appears to be relevant only if one has some sort of moral objection to colonialism. As a result, scholars who make such claims may very well inadequately reflect upon the extent to which their own work is normative even as they use “normativity” as a weapon against other scholars’ work. Scholars like myself could do a better job of accounting for why we depend upon some norms in our work even as we criticize the use of different norms in the scholarship of others.
The authors imagine this to be a truly damning imminent critique because it catches their opponents in an apparent contradiction: CR scholars are implicitly normative even as they claim to “refrain from normative evaluation.” That is, they pretend to be value-neutral while their scholarship is value-laden. However, while some scholars they criticize have written or do write as if their purported goal is to be value-neutral in some fundamental way, this criticism falls wide of the mark as concerns my own scholarship. In my first monograph, Masking Hegemony: A Genealogy of Liberalism, Religion, and the Private Sphere, I explicitly noted that what drove my criticisms of liberal discourses is that I thought they did a poor job of securing gay rights and the right for women to have an abortion—something that troubled me because I support gay rights and the right of women to have abortions. In Capitalizing Religion: Ideology and the Opiate of the Bourgeoisie, my second monograph, I criticized capitalist discourses because I hate capitalism and the harms I’ve seen it has done to others, and I explicitly said so in the introduction. In my introductory textbook, A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion, and my latest book, Discourse and Ideology: A Critique of the Study of Culture, I explicitly cite my normative opposition to social domination as a motivating impulse behind my desire to produce sophisticated methods for studying discourse and domination. Consequently, pointing out that my scholarship is value-laden is not a surprise to me or any of my readers, but rather repeats what I’ve explicitly said in print. I’ve never pretended to be value-neutral or non-normative, something that should have been evident to Watts and Mosurinjohn if they had read any of my books.
At one point the authors deride myself, William Arnal, and Russell McCutcheon for criticizing “religion” while simultaneously deploying the concept of “colonialism.” They note that I once said in print that “our role as ‘critics’ is precisely not to ‘fall back on those folk classifications schemes that have been naturalized for us,’” but then point out that Arnal and McCutcheon appear to fall back on the folk classification scheme that talks of colonialism:
Needless to say, establishing what deserves the label colonialism, much like determining what merits the label religion, is no neutral act. In fact, far from it. So, we might ask: which definition of colonialism are Arnal and McCutcheon working with? What necessary and sufficient criteria are they applying? And from whence do these criteria emerge? They nowhere actually define it, so we are forced to hazard a guess. One hypothesis we think plausible is that their criteria emerge from the folk classification schemas that have been naturalized for them—schemas that their readers (us) probably share. Indeed, Arnal and McCutcheon know full well that their academic readers likely share their folk understanding of colonialism (negative connotations and all) and therefore take advantage of the semantic shortcut to save space in their writing. In other words, by reproducing this schema in their historical analysis, they do exactly what they have repeatedly criticized others for doing: they “authorize the specific local as the universal.”
Of course the authors are correct that the label “colonialism” is not neutral. What is surprising to me is their suggestion that this point would be lost on Arnal and McCutcheon who, I’m certain, know quite well that “colonialism” is a discourse that is neither neutral nor universal, but rather arose at a particular place in history—in particular, their use of the term likely arises less out of the discourses that legitimated colonialism than postcolonial discourses that delegitimated colonialism by pointing out how they functioned to reinforce European domination over others. In addition, it’s unlikely that Arnal and McCutcheon are here falling back on a “folk” understanding of colonialism; rather, it seems clear that only those exposed to quite sophisticated postcolonial scholarly discourses would fully understand the nature of their arguments here. Last, while Arnal and McCutcheon were not engaged in historicizing discourses on colonialism, it seems clear to me that they would likely be open to such a project. Ultimately, no one can historicize their entire vocabulary at once, and criticizing a scholar for historicizing x, y, and z but not a, b, and c would be like criticizing a sociologist for not focusing on psychology, or criticizing a climate change scientist for not focusing on the latest string theory.
Watts and Mosurinjohn’s essay spends a lot of time “in the weeds,” so to speak—there is a lot of emphasis on details about which CR scholar said this and which said that, why that contradicts something they or another CR scholar said, etc. That made it difficult for me to read, as I would agree with some of these folks but not others; as a result, after reading through all the details I’m left a bit confused as to exactly which of the criticisms are supposed to stick to me and which are not.
Ultimately, at the end of the essay, I am left with the following two questions, which address considerations that are front and center in their criticisms.
- What is their argument for which kinds of scholarly normativity are appropriate and which are not? I assume they don’t think it is okay for scholars to say “Jews are evil,” but where do they draw the line?
- If we are to retain the concept of religion (and other concepts we might otherwise historicize rather than deploy) as an analytical tool, what is their justification? What is it useful for? What does it pick out from the world, and how does it pick it out in a way that is more useful than other vocabularies? Scientists no longer refer to the “ether,” not because no use could be made of it or because nothing could be said about it, but rather because it was superfluous for describing the world in a useful manner. Where do they draw the line between useful and less useful concepts, and what are their criteria?
As I reflect on the essay, it seems like they object to how so-called CR scholars answer those sorts of questions, but fail to offer answers of their own. As such, it reads (to me, although I’m sure others read it differently) as a series of “gotcha claims” (gotcha! you contradicted yourself!) but without adding anything substantive to the general matters being addressed. Given time, I could similarly pick apart the claims of any scholar like this (even my favorite ones—I could do this with Foucault or Derrida, for instance), but if I’m not contributing to the substance of the discussion, are there any gains other than a petty sense of intellectual superiority? I suppose they “got me” by pointing out that I once implied in print that our scholarship should perhaps refrain from “engaging in a social or political field in which we or others have something to gain or lose from our application of this contested term,” while my own scholarship is to some extent engaged in social or political fields. I’ll have to be more precise in the future, and thus I guess I’m grateful for their criticism there. But while I believe I have offered many reasons to avoid the concept of religion—not least of which is the fact that in some political contexts its use appears to enfranchise dominant groups and disenfranchise minority groups—Watts and Mosurinjohn have offered absolutely nothing of substance about the nature of scholarly norms or why we should or shouldn’t use any concept.
They imply at one point that they want to continue to use the word religion because religions “have significant consequences for people’s lives,” consequences that they want to insist may be “good or bad, just or unjust.” Unfortunately, they offer nothing to support this claim, don’t defend their definition of “bad” or “unjust,” and nor do they point out that their social critique crucially depends upon the concept of religion—rather than less problematic concepts—to make such judgments.
Anyone can take shots at other scholars by focusing on minor details while ignoring the larger issues. If Watts and Mosurinjohn have anything of substance to add on those larger issues, none of that substance appears here.