New Review of A Critical Introduction

Kristian Peterson has written a very nice review of A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion for the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Peterson writes,

A Critical Introduction offers a clear, thorough, and effective introduction to critical approaches to religion as social phenomena. It brings the often-verbose theoretical lenses of sociology, anthropology, and cultural studies, and the sometimes-complicated critiques of the field of Religious Studies to a novice readership. Martin has accomplished his goal of offering useful concepts for critically thinking about religion and society. A unique and notable contribution is that he provides effective approaches from which students can ask new questions of our subject.

You can find the full review here.

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Radical Acts

burackIn Sin, Sex, and Democracy: Antigay Rhetoric and the Christian Right, Cynthia Burack writes:

I can say with complete honesty that I know of no move afoot in the LGBT rights movement to deprive nonhomosexuals of civil rights, convert heterosexuals to homosexuality, or prohibit the free exercise of religion. Of course, unlike many of my peers, I understand that these assurances are all beside the point. Homosexuals and transgender people are dangerous not because we intend or aspire to do anything to anyone but because we are more emboldened than ever to live openly and without apology, to call into question the settled beliefs of our fellow citizens, and to alter historical patterns of the distribution of rights and status. Make no mistake: these are radical acts, and it is understandable that those challenged by them are dismayed, disgusted, anxious, angry, and determined.

I think she’s right, and pretending otherwise is liable to be received as disingenuous, condescending, or downright obfuscating. It’s worth considering which strategy might be more effective in the long run: pretending not to change society while obviously and fundamentally changing it, or admitting that one is changing things and mounting a persuasive account as to why things deserve changing?

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Extra Credit

Imagine a student coming to a professor, the first week of class, and asking: “Hey professor, I really need this course to graduate, but I don’t really want to do the assignments you’ve listed on the syllabus. Can you make up a single, alternate assignment—preferably an easier one—that I can just do the last week of class and pass the course?”

Of course the answer would be no. Why should the answer be any different when the question is asked at the end of the course?

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On “Individualism”

eliasIn The Society of Individuals, Norbert Elias writes,

At present words such as “individual,” “society,” “personality,” “collective,” being ideological weapons in the power struggle of various parties and states, are so permeated with emotive content that it is difficult to extricate their factual core from the desires and fears of those involved in the struggles. Just as, earlier, magical formulae were used to heal sicknesses that could not yet be adequately diagnosed, today people often use magic doctrines as means of solving human and social problems …. And in such doctrines words like “individual” and “society” play a considerable role as symbols and passwords. (84)

I might bicker about whether or not there is a “factual core” in there—as opposed to seeing the use of such terms as constituting facts—but overall I quite like the sentiment.

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Violence Rhetoric


I wonder if the categorization of forms of violence perpetrated by civilians as “senseless” is designed to make forms of violence perpetrated by the state as somehow “sensible” by contrast?

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Forget “Secularism”

Early modern social actors made a distinction between spiritual institutions and temporal institutions. The distinction was crucial for tolerance rhetoric—philosophers like John Locke argued that spiritual institutions were properly outside the jurisdiction of temporal institutions, such as the state.

Such a distinction makes sense only if we assume a supernaturalist ontology, according to which there are inter-human relations, and then there are relations with God, “the divine,” “the sacred” or something like that. The argument is homologous to the following contemporary slogan:


If we assume a materialist ontology, however, “temporal” institutions are all we have. On such a view, the distinction between spiritual and temporal institutions lacks all analytical usefulness.

If that’s the case, is a materialist theory of secularism (or its opposite: the claim that “religion” persists) even possible?

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Abrahamic Religions, by Aaron W. Hughes

Abrahamic-Religions-Hughes-Aaron-W-9780199934645I just finished Aaron W. Hughes’ recent book, Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History (Oxford UP, 2012). In this book, Hughes makes the (not so) radical claim that “we must necessarily be aware of the motivations, methods, and cultural baggage that we bring to our study” (102). Hughes writes, “we must ultimately confront the reality that many of the terms and categories that we are fond of employing are little more than untheorized folk taxa” (103).

[O]ur use of words, especially when it comes to the academic study of religion, is never value-neutral. Rather, there is a tendency to create terms, definitions, and essence that create the type of reality that we want to see. In the case of “Abrahamic religions,” many of the terms employed even today in academic study derive their meanings and potencies from interfaith circles. (116-117)

“Abrahmic religions” and the rather romantic narratives we spin about this construction appear to be designed—at present—to reconcile communities that often see themselves at odds with one another. While “interfaith” objectives might be admirable, the aims of “interfaith” work are not necessarily academic, and the concepts used in such work do not have a clear analytical usefulness. In addition, all too often it turns out that the “past that is appealed to is one that has been retrofitted with the concerns of the present” (121).

It’s an excellent book that deserves to be the book on the subject matter.

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