Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Talk amongst yourselves

For the penultimate session of "Theorizing Religion" - the last one with assigned readings - I had students read two pieces at the intersection of academia, journalism and religion-making.


One was Faisal Devji's provocative and wise "Against Muslim unity" - which, unfortunately, fell flat. It turned out that (one Muslim student aside) nobody knew anything about Islam. (Nobody in "Theorizing" has taken or is taking our wonderful "Introduction to Islam" course, alas.) So they didn't get much from Devji's brilliant take-down of the falsely warm-fuzzy idea of the Abrahamic religions

Proponents of the ‘Abrahamic religions’ want to emphasise closeness and de-emphasise conflict. But Abraham was ready to sacrifice one son and abandon another. This is not a simple and happy family. Nor is it necessarily a close one. 

or the corrective view

Only a minority of Muslims, those living around the Mediterranean basin or the Caucasus, have grown up with Christians and Jews as interlocutors and neighbours. Historically, Islam’s primary siblings have been not Jews or Christians but Hindus, Buddhists and Zoroastrians. Unlike their Jewish and Christian ‘brothers’, Muslims are part of a polytheistic and non-Semitic world. The poor ‘Abrahamic religions’ metaphor tears away the historical experience of the majority of the world’s Muslims.

from which one might develop an appreciation for the power of secular politics to facilitate religious diversity out of non-western sources. Pity. More awareness of the complexity and richness of Islamic worlds will be sorely needed in the dark times ahead.


We fared better with the other reading, Ann Taves' "Is it the job of religion journalists to define 'religion'?" although this was a dagwood sandwich of references. Taves, a scholar of religion known for a subtle understanding of how people deploy terms like sacred/holy/special in their own lives and practices, was invited by Religion Dispatches to comment on a controversy between a journalist and a pundit around the definition of "religion." Specifically, Damon Linker had derided Mark Oppenheimer, responsible for the New York Times' (now defunct) weekly "Beliefs" column, for being willing to count anything as religion. The column which Linker (mis)read was about an analysis of activities like CrossFit as in some ways religion-like activities for the "spiritual but not religious" millennials who flock to them.

A lot of layers to make sense of, but happily our class had read the report on CrossFit which Oppenheimer was writing about, "How We Gather" by two non-religious students at Harvard Divinity School, so it was like a game of telephone: we knew where it all started, and were bemused at what came out the other end. And it was doubly familiar, not just a discussion about "our generation" but an online discussion of the sort we all love to hate... It's the world we all return to when we leave the classroom.

For my part I like the sequence because it starts with millennials trying to understand millennials, filters through the Gray Lady and punditry, and winds up in a website for religion commentary which knows that the person best able to shed light on what's going on might be a professor of religious studies! It allows of a pretty multi-faceted view of "religion making," and the place of religious studies within it. It's a fun and illuminating journey of texts, all online. Try it if you have an hour to spare. Even if you don't, you might get a kick out of what we did next.


There are eighteen comments on Taves' piece, nine people responding - of course more to each other than to anything in the original piece. I had the class perform them. I couldn't have written a better set of by turns lucid by turns ludicrous responses if I'd tried! Many of the questions and issues we've been discussing over the course of the semester are mentioned - and even our very first theorist, Jonathan Z. Smith! And the last comment, an irenic one from a woman perhaps exasperated by the bloviation about dogmatism and science and religion and Humanism and biblicism, was just where I hope my students end up:

I believe that it is up to all of us, no matter
 our religious affiliation, to define religion,
 through our actions, words, and all of what we do.

(But the lack of the most basic religious literacy, even among the students in this class, suggests we have a big problem at Lang.)

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