Friday, December 04, 2015

Maker community

You know I've introduced a new framing category to "Theorizing Religion" this year: religion-making. Here's how I described it in the course syllabus:

What has recently been called “religion-making” isn’t just something scholars do. We experience “religion” as a natural kind because it is woven into our individual, social and even political experience. “Religions” are made and unmade not just by participants but by critics, by high and popular culture, by individuals and communities negotiating complicated identities, by those who claim to be “spiritual but not religious” - and by the law. The academic study of religion is not an escape from these practices of making and unmaking “religions” but the chance of an overview, critique, dialogue, intervention. Its opportunities for reflection and comparison with the practices of other times and places offer more than just scholarly rewards. 

This week students shared the last of three "Religion-Making Reports":
The second and third of these assignments predate the "religion-making" rubric, but take on (I trust) a further interest in this new frame. The first was explicitly designed to tap students' "prior knowledge" regarding religion, and to invite it into the space of our discussions. (It was the focus of the "pedagogical project" I'm doing for my pedagogy seminar at Teachers College.) But that was a long time ago, so I decided to devote part of our Wednesday class to discussing "religion-making" explicitly.

The discussion flowed nicely from student analyses of various constellations of religion stuff online, which had examined not only the often dodgy content of internet sources but their unnamed sources, glib generalizations, hidden agendas, marketing strategies, etc. A particularly interesting discussion arose out of a student's celebration of chat forums, ideally democratic places where users generated the content in response to their own questions and concerns. (These were a great resource, she argued rather charmingly, for those who didn't have the privilege of participating in seminar discussions like our own!) Soon we were learning about online forums for members of particular religious traditions such as, an entirely different ballgame than beliefnet, religionfacts or even On Being.

In the class' last ten minutes I asked students to bring their thoughts back to the particular enterprise of religious studies in this context.

The responses are utterly fascinating, offering totally different ways of understanding why and how to do religious studies than I have encountered before. Some excerpts:

It leaves room for the debate of religion. The many different theoretical understandings of religion change from person to person; by establishing a place where this “debate” is acceptable, it allows individuals to create and further develop their own thoughts on religion: how that impacts them individually, how it impacts their community, etc.

As intellectual beings, we need to explore religion not just through experience or emotions but through our intellect, through academic study. It can be difficult because academia attempts to isolate the idea from the personal and that can be extremely difficult especially if you identify as religious. But it is also extremely helpful, because it allows for more of an objective perspective and analysis on religious subjects. The academic study of religion also really forces one to be critical and honest (because it's so depersonalized) in ways that they might not be able to do otherwise

For the rising numbers of Spiritual But NOT Religious (SBNR) individuals in America and elsewhere, a great number of them are gaining their information on various religions in an academic setting. ... As society begins to value secularism on a grander scale, and American children are raised with less and less religious upbringings and do not get access to religious information in public schools, we are becoming a generation of individuals seeking knowledge of religion, particularly those we have not encountered in our own lives. While the internet and various commercialized "religions" offer an introduction to an assortment of religions, most college students are aware of the unreliable nature of these sources and seek a more trustworthy source of religious information, which does not expect them to participate or to commit to practice. 

In light of studying religion through the view of philosophy, I have had a very difficult time understanding the practice of spirituality within my own personal life. ... We must be prepared to understand our incapacities in speaking for the religions which we academically explore, because the most important aspect of all of them can and will always be the lived experience of them

An academic study of religion allows us to take a step back and ask ourselves what we're looking at. As we've noticed, we may not know how to speak about it and may get things completely wrong. But there is something valid and beautiful in how as time goes on, we develop new understanding and new ways of speaking. I feel this separation (from the spirituality of religion) can help in understanding the role of religion in human life (as it may be hard to see how it affects your life when you are fully immersed within it). ... The academic study of religion seems to be plagued with the stigma of secular/western understanding. I wish to eliminate this stigma and bring in an understanding that the academy, while allowing us to remove ourselves, also allows us the time and place to deeply immerse ourselves in religious study and understanding without being bound by spirituality.

I believe that the academic study of religion should expand outside of the university and intellectual, hard to access places, and become available in more accessible terms. It can take years to understand any religion, and instead of doing all of the research by themselves, people can instead read papers and books written by people who have spent years and years studying different religions. The study of religion helps people to gain a wider understanding of other people and the different faiths that other people carry with them. The idea of understanding multiple different religions can lead to a pluralistic society.

It's one thing to read what some scholars think about religion, but it's another to delve into a website or a news source that deals specifically with the way that actual religious people live their actual religious lives. So, what should academia do? Firstly, I believe that academia should record, track, and write thoroughly about the act of religion making. I believe that studying online religion, religious blogs, websites such as and the like that actually detail religious lives can infuse the importance of the study of experience into the academic study of religion. I don't believe that academia has a space to "debunk" religious beliefs, so to speak. I believe that academia can and should be a part of the religious world, to critique and foster dialogue both within and outside of religious communities.

An interesting thing about scholarly work on religion is that most people who have been religious for most of their lives seem to have no need for, or at least do not regularly consult, those types of sources. ...  So I think that the most pivotal role played by academic religious studies is in providing information for non-believers (and of course other academics). This leads to an interesting situation, where it is possible and often happens that outsiders who have consulted the rigorous scholarly work on a tradition and then go out and observe or talk to practitioners find that what they see is nothing like what they expected. 

Basically the role of the academic study of religion is so that people don't take religion for law, but as something that can be used as a reference, or rather as a guide. 

I think that engaging with questions about what makes something a religion can help someone figure out which aspects of their life they consider religious or what they consider their religion to be. ... but I also think there's a reality to the fact that people do things in ways that resist categorization. 

The two forms of proof accepted by academics (previously published studies and field work) are seemingly flawed and self-propelling. Like all academia it focuses on examining the world but seldom examines itself. As far as religion making, I feel very few people outside the ivory tower of academia take academic views of faith as important, instead focusing on experience. I feel this is a healthy thing. 

I am thinking of safety and security in relation to the world of internet forums, where thoughts and opinions can be shared behind the mask of a screen. By contrast the classroom can be a space where discourse can be made without threat of danger or extremism. It is also a place where conversation can illuminate the limitations of distinctions and boundaries that can be made in the privatized action of observation of personal research. This reaction is aimed towards academic discourse and round0table discussions like we have at Lang, rather than academic writing, though I'm sure you can't isolate one without the other. Even though I do not have deep religious beliefs or a certain tradition, it is comforting to know religion, scholarly info or not, helps others or positively influences others. 

Academic study is my way of accessing something that is important to someone else, since I cannot access it the way they do. Academic study is both disillusioning and beneficial in this way.

There's a lot of religion-making going in our class discussions every day. It's a little humbling to know just how much! What to do with this is another question. Does it outline new vocations for academic religious studies scholars and teachers?

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