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.

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About Craig Martin

I am an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College.
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