Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Not too nice

Had a somewhat difficult discussion in "Lived religion in New York" class - or tried to! Students had submitted drafts for papers on what "lived religion" means and most argued that religion is irreducibly subjective, entirely individual and something nobody else has any business judging. The reflex relativism is, I've suggested before, an understandable response to difference and plurality, and probaby better than the alternatives politically, but I thought it was time to push back a little. If people's religious lives are so completely individual and self-contained, I asked first, why do people congregate in formal and informal settings, commit to creeds and practices, etc.? For that matter, if religious life is so rooted in individuality, how is this even possible? Next I wondered about how people change their religious practices? Outsiders may not be able to judge a person's practices as mistaken or ineffective, but people might say that about their past selves... again: how is this possible, if all standards come from the individual?

Reflection on how people's stories of religious change are likely to exaggerate these changes, and their suddenness, led - finally! - to students' conceding that sometimes we can see things others cannot see about their own lives. We didn't get to the academic implications (and responsibilities) here, but this was already a breakthrough. And then suddenly we'd switched from bland tolerance to critique: people told of grandparents who don't realize the contradiction between their values and what they hear at church, of a long atheist brother whose family staged an intervention when he started going to church (I'm sure he'll end up an atheist again, said his sister), and a friend whose creative integration of Buddhist and Christian practices had earlier been praised (she suffers from depression, we were told, but she won't admit it). It wasn't hard for me then to observe that judgments about religion are ubiquitous and probably inevitable - that religion is the sort of thing one can't really truly be indifferent about. So perhaps our picture of people's religious worlds needs to take this into account (why do people congregate again?!), and our idealized view of approvingly neutral observers needs a reality check.

Interesting as I reflect on it is that the shift to acknowledging our discomfort and disdain at other people's religious practices went through discussion not of weird religious practices of strangers but through family and friends. It's easy to be indifferent to people we don't know or care about, especially in the abstract. Perhaps it will be harder for students to see indifference as a form of care and respect now...? Is it too much to hope they'll come to appreciate the ways in which scholarly reflexivity can take us beyond indifference and disdain?

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