The Category of “Religion” in Organizing Contemporary Societies


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British sociologist of religion, James A. Beckford, writes on the opening page of his 2003 book Social Theory and Religion that “disputes about what counts as religion, and attempts to devise new ways of controlling what is permitted under the label of religion have all increased” (Beckford 2003, 1). He calls this de-regulation of religion and sees the development as one of the hidden ironies of secularization.

So far some scholars have responded to the situation Beckford sketches, but the mainstream study of religion has not. Scholars, such as David Chidester, Daniel Dubuisson, Timothy Fitzgerald, Russell T. McCutcheon and others, have analysed the formation of the modern discourse on religion and suggested that it has had two main functions. First, it has supported colonialism by distributing Western meaning systems elsewhere and, more specifically, “religion” has been a tool for deciding how to treat colonized people (depending on whether they were regarded as having “religion” or not). Second, it has been significant for the formation of “secular” nation-states by “domesticating dissent” (McCutcheon 2005), i.e. dividing people, practices and groups into private and non-political (“religious”) and public and political (“secular”) spheres.

The formation of the modern discourse on religion is still in operation in contemporary societies. That is why studies focusing on it are relevant not only for understanding the past, but they help us in analysing today’s situation as well. If Beckford is correct in suggesting that disputes about what counts as religion have increased, we need to pay more attention to recent negotiations and demarcations and see how, where and why the disputes take place.

One of the cases I have studied and written more extensively elsewhere (Taira 2013) dealt with a Jedi Knight who was escorted out of the Jobcentre in Southend in south-east England in 2010, because he refused to take his hood off. Job seeker Chris Jarvis, white young adult, claimed that his Jedi religion requires him to wear his hood up in public places.

Jarvis made an official complaint and three days later he was apologised to by the personnel. The printed apology from the Jobcentre Plus manager stated:

“I was sorry to hear of your recent experience and have investigated the issue you have raised. Jobcentre Plus is committed to provide a customer service which embraces diversity and respects customer’s religion or belief. I would like to apologise that on this occasion you were asked to remove your hood which you have stated is not acceptable as part of your religious belief.” (Levy 2010)

This apology was followed by the media coverage of the case. For Jarvis, this was his “Jerry Springer moment”, a short experience of fame of a person whose social status is low. I have analysed the motives and justification of Chris Jarvis’s claims in detail elsewhere (Taira 2013), but it is important to note that his statements were explicitly directed towards minorities who have gained dress-code exemptions on the basis of “religiosity”, thereby suggesting that increased immigration and discourses about diversity, pluralism, multiculturalism and so on – not only secularization – are important factors in understanding the dynamic of current negotiations over “religion”. Furthermore, without reference to Jediism as a religion and its requirement to wear a hood up, who would listen to Chris Jarvis? Claiming Jediism as his religion gave him a voice and made it count, at least to some extent.

The media cannot prevent Jedis making claims on the basis of “religion”, and the media cannot prevent the Jobcentre from apologising, but the media are more powerful than Mr Jarvis or the Jobcentre in offering the framework for interpreting the case. The tongue-in-cheek style of newspaper coverage indicates that the media makes a distinction between serious or real religions and fake or inauthentic ones, thus downplaying the opinion of Chris Jarvis and maintaining the existing discourse on religion.

What happened with Chris Jarvis is just one case, but it provides some ideas about the prospects for future studies. Scholars can look at the media, courtrooms, government policy debates, healthcare, prisons, army and schools. They are venues where disputes about “religion” are held. Rather than jumping into the debate and suggesting that X is essentially religious or secular, authentic or fake, scholars can ask, what is at stake in these disputes? Why do some people and groups want to be classified as “religious” or (nonreligious) “secular” and why is the issue negotiated at all. What are people trying to achieve by making claims about religiosity? Who benefits?

There is not only an increase in disputes about what counts as religion or religious, but a qualitative shift I call here – for the sake of argument, at least – a reflexive moment. People are strategically and often quite consciously claiming to have a “religion” (or, in other cases, denying it), depending on the practical purpose it may serve. In this sense, the category of “religion” has to face its own modern history. Consequently, “religion” becomes ever more contested and a disputed category in various public institutions.

Scholarly standpoints in the study of religion are often divided between those who see some analytic value in the concept of religion and those who see “religion” as a discursive item to be analysed. This debate is often re-framed as a distinction between realism (or critical realism) and social constructionism (see Schilbrack 2014). I think that the issue is more complicated, because it is possible to be a realist or critical realist and challenge the analytic value of religion as a theoretical concept. Therefore, while the link between social constructionism and studying discourses on religion is common, it is not necessary. Likewise, the link between critical realism and seeing analytic value in the category of “religion” is common, but not necessary. Furthermore, it is possible to say that religion may have some heuristic value in specific research projects, while proposing that the study of discourses on religion is significant. Moreover, even those who think that religion has analytic value and/or regard themselves as realists or critical realists can usually see the significance of studies focusing on the disputes revolving around “religion” and how society is organized by classifying certain people, groups, ideas and practices as “religious” or “nonreligious”. This means that my intention here is to redirect the debate and to emphasise the significance of studying how society is organized by discourses on religion, not to defend either critical realism or social constructionism. The practical problem is that, for reasons that are not clear to me, it is a small minority who is actually doing such studies.

Study of the category of “religion” in society is not just one possible research interest among others. It is crucial for providing case studies for a more general theoretical reflection of study of religion. Furthermore, and contrary to the voices who claim that a critical approach to the category of religion is destroying its institutional basis and the social relevance of the study of religion, I see it also as one way by which to make our work relevant outside academia.

Commisioning Theological Imagery


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Prof. Rudy Medlock and Paige Medlock Johnson working on the full-size template for the FAS stained glass window.

Prof. Rudy Medlock and Paige Medlock Johnson working on the full-size template for the FAS stained glass window.

My father and I have worked collaboratively on stained glass windows for several years. Although he is primarily a stone sculptor and potter, he learned the art of stained glass about 40 years ago and began teaching it in the art department of Asbury University. As a child, I would get off the school bus at the art department and learn alongside the students how to do fiber arts, ceramics, and stained glass, and as an undergraduate student I chose art education as a major with stained glass as my area of concentration. Since then I have worked with him on several commissioned stained glass projects from the Dominican Republic to Kentucky to Scotland for religious and secular institutions, although that demarcation often becomes blurred in the space of installed stained glass.

Stained glass is traditionally an art inherent with ecclesial associations, but now it is found in all corners of public domain; in a sense stained glass is missional as it has migrated from cathedrals to hospitals, homes and pubs, to galleries and libraries and offices. Stained glass is commissioned for symbolic messages, political agenda, architectural decor, for someone’s honor or memorial, and even still for religious purposes and places of worship, such as chapels and temples and churches. What we have traditionally considered distinctly ‘religious’ or ‘secular’ spaces has, in the placement of stained glass, fused or confused those boundaries.

A commissioning body requests a work of art from an artist or studio whom they know to be reputable, and their conceptual design will be for a specific place and purpose, and include a particular image to communicate that purpose. The artist needs to understand the context for the commission in order to create a visual hermeneutic that fills the intended physical space and fulfills the aesthetic and theoretic need. Here is one example of a commissioned stained glass project that changed imagery, artists, and message, illustrating the significance of commissioning theological imagery today.

The Francis Asbury Society is an organization that exists to promote a message of holiness – that people’s hearts and lives can be renewed to live a holy life in connection with God. The message is promoted via publication, itinerant speakers, and retreats and their headquarters recently moved from a modest cramped office space in the basement of an apartment building to an impressive timber frame building at the entrance to the town that is mostly known for Asbury Theological Seminary and Asbury University. Although FAS shares the same name and town in Kentucky as those two institutions, they are not affiliated.

Stained glass window of Francis Asbury installed at The Upper Room, Nashville, Tennessee.

Stained glass window of Francis Asbury installed at The Upper Room, Nashville, Tennessee.

Bishop Francis Asbury was one of men sent by John Wesley to spread Methodism in America, which he did on horseback from 1771 for 45 years. His message, the heart of Methodism, was to spread the gospel and serve people – heart and hand, faith and good works. When the Francis Asbury Society began construction on their new headquarters, a few years ago they envisioned a stained glass window in the center loft space of the building.

Campaign booklet showing original stained glass image with materials for interior design choices, taken at the studio while working on the new stained glass design.

Campaign booklet showing original stained glass image with materials for interior design choices, taken at the studio while working on the new stained glass design.

The overseeing president contacted my father about fulfilling the stained glass project, but upon hearing their desired image, he recommended a different stained glass studio that would be able to work with their desire for a realistic memorial image. After FAS contacted the other studio, the commissioning body still wanted my father to do the stained glass but now they were interested in changing their desired design to a more stylized symbolic image of a Celtic trinity knot, to be interpreted by the artist. They were familiar with The Power of Images and wanted, rather than to honor a person who spread a message, to commission an image of that mysterious message. This was interesting to my father, who then contacted me in Stirling to determine if we wanted to work collaboratively on the project. We both knew the organization and its founder and president, and we both liked the idea of working on a Celtic trinity knot, for its design potential, cultural heritage, and its theological meaning.

The evolving design included a fairly symmetrical geometric modern triquetra with interlocking trefoil, woven through a ring, all superimposed over and interacting with the background of three three-dimensional crosses mirroring the timberframe beams of the building in which it was to be installed.

The stained glass design is about the Trinity, the triune Christian Godhead constubstantial hypostates and relationship between God the Creator, Christ the Messiah, and the Holy Spirit, which is the central mystery distinct to Christianity. Without unnecessarily delving into Trinitarian theology, a simple explanation of the mystery of the trinity is important to understanding why a Christian ministry institution would desire to have this image prominently displayed. This same-essence-different-persons as monotheistic God is not only unique to Christianity but, simplified, is the essence also of Christianity. The illustration of this abstract theological concept by way of triquetra (Celtic trinity knot) and trefoil (architectural triad) is more easily accepted in visual terms than verbal complexity, and it is put forth with aesthetic beauty that is inviting to the viewer.

Like Dewey suggests, this art is experienced as a normal activity, not set apart or autonomous from human living. In fact, this particular stained glass window is installed in the midst of clerical work, scheduled meetings, publications, people in vocation. Unlike Dewey suggests, this art is also experienced spiritually – not set apart from so-called secular living but rather as part of holistic living including the thoughts and the feelings of a spiritual nature. Art can be a spiritual aesthetic experience, not excluded from everyday experience, but rather an everyday experience because it is a spiritual experience, in other words being and doing are not mutually exclusive; it is pragmatic because it is theoretical. This stained glass window can be experienced as artists’ co-creation of visual expression, as theological mystery being wrestled and glorified, as a purely pleasurable moment in passing by, as a creedal affirmation of faith, or even as an invitation to experience the verbally indescribable. It is not so relative that it is not personal, but it is so personal that it is relative.

For visitors to the Francis Asbury Society headquarters now, the stained glass window cannot be missed; as one enters through the front door into the main lobby, the window is centered overhead on the balcony above the main floor entry. Details throughout the building echo the trinity knot motif with wood inlay in the banister woodwork and the unique table configuration in the main meeting room. This stained glass window is here because it cannot not be here. Without it the building would be lacking in visual structure as well as theological foundation. There is a blurring of the sacred/secular where, in this space, the tedium of work becomes infused with the light of something holy while visual theology becomes part of the mundane rituals of work.

FAS stained glass window installed, shows scale, completion, and detailed woodwork.

FAS stained glass window installed, shows scale, completion, and detailed woodwork.

All photos © Paige Medlock Johnson.

Myths and Superpowers: “Metaphysical” Superheroes?


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This blog post is primarily about the language surrounding “mythology” “myths” and along the lines of the thinking behind the Critical Religion Association, “religion”. I look at these terms as tools for categorization using stories of superheroes.

In 80s and 90s India, most available comics available were stories taken from “Hindu mythology” such as Ramayana and Mahabharata or stories based on these works in books such as Amar Chitra Katha. Also popular were the Jataka Tales, a collection of Buddhist moral stories. On the television front, we had two state-run television channels and programs on South Indian channels were dubbed versions of Hindi programs produced mostly in Delhi, the capital city of India. Dramatized adaptations of Ramayana (produced by Ramanand Sagar) and Mahabharata (produced by B. R. Chopra) were televised during these two decades. The personification of Hindu deities and demons, the grandeur of the production and film-sets, and the visualization of these stories (that until then were only narrated orally) in these shows was awe-inspiring. As is common for “mythology”, several different television and film adaptations of both Ramayana and Mahabharata have followed since; however, the early versions set the standard for how subsequent adaptations would be made. What has prompted me to write about superheroes and their superpowers is primarily the language that we use to describe on the one hand, “Hindu mythological” stories and on the other, stories of caped-crusaders produced primarily in the West. What I want to explore here is how the language of “mythology”, “myths”, and “miracles” puts the stories of Rama and Krishna in a different league from that of, say, Batman, Superman, etc. Superheroes in these contexts are defined or understood as someone with ‘higher mode of being’ transcending the mundane human lives; indeed as Indologist Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty puts it, ‘an enlightened sage’ who transcends the ‘world in which reality is defined by normal, social, conventional human existence’ (1980: 97).

The television shows Ramayana and Mahabharata portray central stories surrounding the lives of the Hindu deities Rama and Krishna, respectively. These stories include some of their heroics that establish their identities as deities amongst humans and thus, set them apart. For example, in an article that discusses the “myth” and “reality” of such stories, O’Flaherty gives an example of a story about Krishna: when Krishna, as a toddler, was caught eating mud by his mother, she asked him to open his mouth. He did, to reveal the entire universe, signifying that he was the embodiment of everything in this universe. Or the story where Krishna protects his devotee Draupathi by providing her with clothing when the cousins of her husbands attempt to humiliate her by disrobing her, as this video shows.

There are numerous such stories in Ramayana and Mahabharata (and other similar works classified as “Hindu mythology”). O’Flaherty, her problematic language aside, makes an important argument, that “mythology” made into a field of study has forced stories such as the above to fit within the framework of “myths” that need to have a function on a practical level because they concern deities (1980: 93) and are classified as “religious myths”. In doing so, these myths must then prove ‘whether or not there really is anything “out there,” and, if so, what it is’ (1980: 93). This, I contend, is primarily because, as flagged above, the language that is used to describe the stories of these deities, i.e., “myths” and “mythology”; that is, “myths” that need to within the framework of human rationality.

O’Flaherty argues that a definition of both “myth” and “reality” cannot be pinned down, but these terms are used as such: while “myth” refers to those experiences that are seen as metaphysical, “reality” is seen as pertaining to the physical world where “natural sciences” dominate (1980: 94). It is this construction and resulting understanding that problematizes how we understand stories surrounding the deities. By classifying what is perceived as metaphysical as “myth” or as the opposite of the physical world or natural sciences, stories of the deities are automatically classified as “religious” and supernatural. What then happens is a “mystification” of these stories as if they belong to a realm that is beyond human cognition or imagination. Richard King, whilst tracing the origins of the term “mysticism” as a Western construct, argues that “mysticism” is seen as pertaining to perceptions of God or deities, that is then seen as ‘antithetical to rationality’ (1999: 25). Using the term “miracles” because deities are involved makes these stories a mystified, otherworldly phenomenon: not in the sense of fiction, but as something that is supernatural. The mystification that derives from seeing these characters as “religious” pushes them towards a “religious-secular/scientific” dichotomy, in which attempts to “prove truth” automatically falter due to the false categorization. This is, of course, not to say that audiences believe that the superheroes in the DC Comics and Marvel Comics universes really exist or that the superpowers of these heroes are “rational”. There is a general level of acceptance and understanding that these characters are fictional; therefore, they enjoy a certain amount of legitimacy as fictions.

Of course, both “mythologies” and superhero comics to a large extent suspend reality or what we perceive as reality. As O’Flaherty argues, the purpose of these “mythologies” is for the superhero to reveal the tribulations in mundane human existence, and ways to resolve them (1980: 97). There are thus similarities between deities in the “mythologies” and the superheroes of the comics’ universes. In my view, Rama, Krishna, and other Hindu deities can be seen as superheroes, and to distinguish these stories from other superhero comics is problematic. The distinction is based on, as I have shown above, the distinction we make between “mythologies”, which as soon as deities are involved, is classed as “religious” or “spiritual mythology”. To categorize “mythology” as such then prompts us, with our problematic understanding of the category “religion”, to question whether these stories are “true”. We then ask “did it really happen?” The idea then is that if we cannot prove that it really happened, it is untrue and therefore, a “myth”.

Thus what I am pointing to is the binary categorization that results from pseudo-empirical tests of proof; whatever is seen as “religious” must be empirically provable as science (supposedly) is; if it is not, it is “mythology” – and therefore, superficial. Instead, we must see these stories as something beyond empiricism and/or otherworldly mystification, recognizing the role that miscategorization plays in our interpretations.

Fictions and Contentions


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The editors of a recent collection of essays entitled Accumulating Insecurity: Violence and Dispossession in the Making of Everyday Life begin their study with the following observation concerning the general state of political economy in the world today: “There is a growing consensus that the world today is in dire social and economic crisis that extends to housing, personal financial debt, and the absence of adequate health care and education, a crisis that finds increasing numbers of people vulnerable to dearth and death as the ability to secure daily life is eroded” (2011, p.1). In the book, scholars working in the fields of sociology, political science, and law examine the various ways that the recent financial crisis has contributed to an escalation of political violence that is not taking place primarily through acts of war or terrorism, but rather through a form of political violence that is being executed through the appropriation and privatization of society’s basic means of social reproduction. They define social reproduction as “the historically contingent processes by which we reproduce the conditions and relations of economic and social security. These include not only the technical means of reproducing the physical integrity of our bodies, but also the methods by which we reproduce ourselves as political subjects—that is the relations we legitimate” (2011, p.2). Although this crisis of reproduction is a global phenomenon, in the United Kingdom and throughout Europe, it is primarily being advanced through the ongoing implementation of a politics of austerity that has effectively shifted the financial burdens of the private banking and finance sector onto the wider population. Despite the fact that a number of economists have challenged the logic of austerity as a pathway to recovery, the narrative of profligate public spending and the need for greater sacrifices on the part of the average citizen continues to be a regular feature of the current government’s public discourse. What is perhaps most worrying about the ways that the crisis of social reproduction is currently taking place is the extent to which the underlying narrative of financial scarcity has become so difficult for many to contest.

For an outsider, finding a point of entry into the world of economic theory is no mean feat. Although there are countless introductory texts for the subject, macroeconomic theory often begins by elaborating a theoretical language that relies very heavily upon terminological agreement. As it turns out, like so many other disciplines, economists fail to agree upon the definitions of some of their most fundamental terms and concepts. Likewise, texts written from the perspective of micro-economics tend to move very quickly into the baffling world of econometrics and mathematical formulas that are also highly debated by experts in the field. Fortunately, the economic historian Mary S. Morgan has offered those of us who are less mathematically proficient a way of approaching the discipline through her assertion that economic theory is primarily a modelling science that relies upon visual and literary representations of the world which are essentially fictional. Although the curved lines in a classic econometric diagram of supply and demand may be based upon personal experiences of purchasing and some casual observation of market behaviours, according to Morgan, the lines of course do not reflect actual observations of supply and demand because such invisible phenomena are not there to be seen in the world. Instead, as Morgan suggests, “Each curve shows how economists imagine what consumers and producers imagine they might buy and supply at different prices; and what might cause these curves to shift.” There is therefore a double-layer of imagination reflected in these diagrams which reflects the highly speculative and fictional nature of economic modelling. According to Morgan, the answer to the question, “How do economists use models? is, in one sense, easy to answer: they ask questions with them and tell stories! Or more exactly: they ask questions, use the resources of the model to demonstrate something, and tell stories in the process” (2012, p.217-18). The narrative power of these fictive models enables them to function as epistemic instruments which present and represent the world to minds of those who rely upon them for evaluating and predicting behaviour in the so-called “real world.” There is a striking similarity between the way that Morgan describes the hermeneutic operations which characterize the ways that economists interpret their models and the notion of the self-interpreting bible which emerged during the time of the Reformation. When economists read their own diagrams, they entertain the illusion of self-mastery and self-presencing that accompanies the experience of reading an all too human text that has nonetheless been imbued with divine powers.

In addition to the fictive quality of the ways that economists visually represent economic behaviour, at a philosophical level, modern economic theory also relies upon a certain fictional description of human nature—the figure of “man” the rational maximizer of economic satisfaction also known as homo economicus. According to Morgan, this simplified depiction of the human in economic theory developed as the discipline became increasingly concerned with constructing explanatory models. Although the figure of homo economicus has been criticized and assailed from practically every vantage point in the humanities, and it has even been challenged by economists themselves who acknowledge it as an oversimplification of human behaviour, this fictional character remains popular, particularly among scholars of a distinctly neoliberal persuasion. In his book Economic Analysis of Law, the ever-prolific legal scholar Richard Posner begins his study with the assertion that “economics is the science of rational choice in a world—our world—in which resources are limited in relation to human wants. The task of economics, so defined, is to explore the implications of assuming that man is a rational maximizer of his ends in life, his satisfactions—what we shall call his ‘self-interest’”(2003, p.3). (It is worth noting that Posner insists on using masculine pronouns throughout his study; problematically, he claims that they “are used in a generic rather than a gendered sense.”)

In an effort to respond to one of the common criticisms of rational choice theory, which is that human consumption is rarely motivated by conscious calculation, Posner claims that “Economics is not a theory about consciousness. Behavior is rational when it conforms to the model of rational choice, whatever the state of mind of the chooser” (2003, p.3). It appears that Posner is capable of disregarding the fictional nature of economic analysis through his uncritical acceptance of the myth of homo economicus. The appeal of this myth for Posner as well as other advocates of law and economics is that it offers a simplified narrative of human behaviour which allows for a supposedly scientific approach to making legal decisions that may otherwise appear ethically complex when considered within the larger context of human social interactions. But when the maxim that what is economically efficient is most beneficial for society is introduced as a hermeneutic framework for making legal decisions such ethical and moral complexities apparently recede from view. Like lines upon a graph, the creation and application of law comes to represent a theoretical model of human life that exists in a supposedly scientific vacuum that is increasingly isolated from the complexities of everyday life and the reality human suffering.

The fact that theoretical abstractions have a tendency to disguise or otherwise disregard the complexities of human life is of course not a new insight for those working in fields which take seriously the particularity human subjectivity. And for scholars working in the fields of theology and religious studies, this has meant challenging in theory and in practice a great number of dogmas and philosophical traditions which have historically sacrificed the irreducible complexity of human life for the sake of elaborating highly debatable answers to life’s most perplexing questions. From the perspective of Christian theology, questions concerning the meaning and sources of human suffering, poverty, and evil have led many to abandon the project of theodicy altogether. And yet still others set out from strong ideological or theological positions to wager conclusive answers to such questions. Frankly, these people scare me.

Following David Cameron’s rather infamous opening speech at the annual Downing Street Easter reception, many Christians were troubled by his assertion that the Big Society was in fact invented by Jesus; others took issue with his proclamation that Britain is in fact a Christian country. Although I find both of these statements troubling, Cameron made another point that I find both insightful and disturbing. Commenting on the similarities between the challenges that churches face in Britain and the challenges facing political institutions, he suggests:

“We both sometimes can get wrapped up in bureaucracy; we both sometimes can talk endlessly about policies and programmes and plans without explaining what that really means for people’s lives. We can sometimes get obsessed by statistics and figures and how to measure things. Whereas actually, what we both need more of is evangelism. More belief that we can get out there and actually change people’s lives and make a difference and improve both the spiritual, physical and moral state of our country, and we should be unashamed and clear about wanting to do that.”

It feels strange to say that I mainly agree with the Prime Minister on this point. The only problem of course is that the world that he wants to create and the one that so many who are opposed to him would like to create are so very different. Perhaps it would serve Mr. Cameron well to remember that evangelism is not simply a matter of ideological fervour, it is a matter of sharing good news; in terms of the gospel story which presumably forms the basis of his notion of spiritual and moral health, to use the Greek term, it is a good news that is directed specifically at the anawim, who, as Terry Eagleton provocatively suggests, are “the dispossessed or shit of the earth who have not stake in the present set-up, and who thus symbolize the possibility of new life in their very dissolution” (2001, p.114). The good news means loving your neighbour as yourself, even when that neighbour fails to reciprocate in kind. The fact that the Prime Minister would have us disregard statistics and instead allow ourselves to be swept away by the spirit of philanthropy is an all too convenient ploy. When we look at the consequences of austerity for those who are most vulnerable in society, the numbers and graphs do tell a story that is worth reading. They tell a story of shifting geo-political relations, desperate attempts at securing the stability of a faltering banking and finance industry, concerted efforts at privatizing health care, education, and public housing, and most importantly a strategic attack on the advances made by labour movements throughout the twentieth century. Narratives of economic crisis and the myth of homo economicus have largely supplanted the narratives of equality, human rights, and social responsibility which emerged in the wake of the First and Second World Wars. Challenging the politics of austerity requires a thoroughgoing reassessment of the values that have thus far shaped the notion of political liberalism in western society and a re-examination of the fictions which necessarily bind us to the neighbour we so rarely see.

Works Cited:
Eagleton, Terry. 2001. The Gatekeeper: A Memoir. London: Penguin.
Feldman, Shelley, Charles C. Geisler, and Gayatri A. Menon, eds. 2011. Accumulating Insecurity: Violence and Dispossession in the Making of Everyday Life. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
Morgan, Mary S. 2012. The World in the Model: How Economists Work and Think. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Posner, Richard A. 2003. Economic Analysis of Law. New York: Aspen Law.

More than the One Ring? Tolkien, faith and critical religion


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Interest in the world of Middle Earth is riding high again with the successful Hobbit films currently being released by Peter Jackson a decade after his adaption of the longer story The Lord of the Rings. Both stories, and others (personally I am hoping Jackson takes on ‘The Children of Hurin’), were written by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (J.R.R. as he preferred, or Ronald to his friends) whom many know was an Oxford professor of philology and mythology. What is perhaps less well known is Tolkien’s approach to his personal faith and his understanding of religion which he infused all his stories, indeed his created world of Middle Earth with.

J.R.R. Tolkien lost his father when he was 4 years old. His mother, Mabel, responded to his death by converting to Catholicism. This resulted in tension and ostracism from her Unitarian and Methodist family with the consequences that she moved her two sons to live in the countryside outside Birmingham and worked hard to sustain them. She provided their early education but succumbed to complications arising from diabetes when Tolkien was 12 years old. The Catholic Church took them in and provided for both boys’ education in good schools. For Tolkien, Catholicism took on “the place in his affections that she had previously occupied.” (Carpenter, 1977, p50)

As is well-documented, Tolkien began to create his world of Middle Earth, and indeed to write the beginnings of what would become ‘The Silmarilion’ during his time serving in the trenches in World War 1 (he was badly injured during the Battle of the Somme). His experiences in the war caused him to become focused on the questions of good and evil in man and the notion of forgiveness, with redemption being the ultimate expression of it.

After the war he was appointed first to Leeds then to Oxford where he remained for the rest of his career. He was joined by numerous scholars and writers the most famous probably being Clive Staples Lewis (C S Lewis author of the Narnia tales). Another was Charles Williams, a poet and author who was fascinated by Christian mysticism and alchemy. These men, along with various others at different points, formed the group known as The Inklings who met once or twice a week in a pub to discuss language, read their current writings and receive criticism and then to debate matters of faith and ideas. Of them all Tolkien was closest to Lewis and was devastated when Lewis turned from his agnostic path back to his Ulster heritage of Protestant Anglicanism.

Although a devout Catholic, Tolkien was critical of any notion of an absolute or universal religion and he frequently chided Lewis for treating religion as a sacred thing that existed in its own right and place in the world. Tolkien lamented that this was a childish understanding of faith. In one of his many letters (he was prolific as a letter writer) to Lewis in regards to his book ‘Christian Behaviour’ he takes Lewis to task for treating all Muslims are being the same as each other, while demanding that they recognise the variety that exists within Christianity. He refers to the use of Muslims as a counterfoil for Christianity as “a stinking red herring” (Carpenter & Tolkien, 1981, p60) by Lewis to disguise the presumption that religion exists because it exists and cannot therefore be challenged or altered. In the same letter he continues to reprimand Lewis for ignoring that irreligious folk live and behave in moral ways as determined by their laws, their society and their own conscience.

Partly in reaction to Lewis and partly because he genuinely believed what he was arguing, his own writings contain no explicit reference to religion at all, but rather they deal with vague matters of faith. He viewed this as a necessary form of freedom if faith was to survive and be relevant in the world (both the physical world he lived in and the imaginary world he created). So, for example, in a letter to W. H. Auden he outlined that he does not deal in absolutes such as good and evil but rather in perceptions. He writes; “The Eldar and the Numenoreans believed in The One, the true God, and held worship of any other person to be an abomination. Sauron desired to be a God-King, and was held to be this by his servants.” (Carpenter & Tolkien, 1981, p243) He reasoned that each acted according to their own perception and so for each their cause was right. He then continues to liken it to his current world of wealthy bosses who rule over the masses who must live in fear and squalor while the state (he later changes this to state-God) promises them that doing so will ensure “peace and abundance and … mutual esteem and trust.” (ibid p244) It is unknown how Auden responded to this as the letter resulted in a personal visit rather than a written response.

For Tolkien religion was a term he was uncomfortable with (and of course he would have known its etymology intimately in a variety of languages) and he did not want the concept of it to be overt in his writings and his imagination. He reasons for doing so were complex, they were bound up with the death of his mother, the experiences on the battle fields of the First World War, and his mistrust of a rising ‘secular’ state that he thought worshipped only ‘damned capitalism, money and power’. He wanted to create as realistic a world as possible, it was to be his gift to his country (to replace his lament that England has no mythology) and for Tolkien religion as a concept was a false one and so had no place in Middle Earth. This cue he took from Old Norse and Celtic mythology in which aspects of faith were suffused within everyday aspects of life rather than a separate institution. (Shippey, 2000, p174) In the midst of the phenomenal writings, the spectacular films there is an important message that continues to speak to the work, interests and purpose of Critical Religion.

Should Religious Studies Scholars Provide Expert Opinions in Court Cases?


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When contention arises in the courtroom, it is a common practice in many countries to call upon experts to help validate or discredit arguments, made either by the defendant or by the plaintiff. These experts, often professionals or scholars, can use the specialised knowledge gained in their field to clarify any points that may otherwise be misunderstood by the general public or the jury. In the case of conflicts dealing with religious freedom, a priest or other religious official may be invited to offer his or her expertise, but it is often the scholar of religious studies that is called upon. It is he or she that is responsible for provide a balanced, objective viewpoint on a variety of religious practices and beliefs, and to decide whether or not the practices or beliefs in question can be said to be “sincerely religious”.

While it is fairly standard to use scholars’ statements as expert opinions in court, I would like to suggest that this practice produces as many issues as it does advantages. Religious studies scholars can provide an unbiased viewpoint on matters relating to religion, but in doing so they are also participating in a system that reinforces the existence of “religion” as a sui generis category. They are made to speak about “religion” in an authoritative way, which in turn leads the general public to believe that “religion” is a benign descriptive label applied logically to groups of the same genus and not, as critical religionists argue, a historically and culturally specific term with political connotations and a term whose definition is still contested. However, the testimony of scholars of religious studies still serves a distinct and equalising purpose, and prevents the jury from being swayed by inaccurate stereotypes and unhelpful assumptions about particular traditions.

The issues that arise when a scholar of religious studies gives an expert opinion in a legal setting are varied. First, the audience are not specialists, and so the scholar must generalise and use “religion” in a general sense. This lends a notion of stability to the category of “religion”, and reinforces the idea that certain groups, practices and beliefs belong in the category, while others should be excluded. Second, validating whether or not something is or is not “religion” not only serves to reinforce the category in an abstract sense, but also has significant repercussions for those groups whose practices are dismissed as “not religious” and therefore cannot be protected by human rights provisions, such as that of Section 2(a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In addition, the reliance on expert opinions in matters of “religion” implies that the scholar is more qualified to define a practice or belief as “religious” than the practitioner themselves, when the matter of “religion” is otherwise viewed as a personal and subjective decision by the court. The Supreme Court of Canada made a statement to this effect in the landmark case Syndicat Northcrest v. Anselem (2004):

The State is in no position to be, nor should it become, the arbiter of religious dogma. Although a court is not qualified to judicially interpret and determine the content of a subjective understanding of a religious requirement, it is qualified to inquire into the sincerity of a claimant’s belief, where sincerity is in fact at issue. Sincerity of belief simply implies an honesty of belief and the court’s role is to ensure that a presently asserted belief is in good faith, neither fictitious nor capricious, and that it is not an artifice. Assessment of sincerity is a question of fact that can be based on criteria including the credibility of a claimant’s testimony, as well as an analysis of whether the alleged belief is consistent with his or her current religious practices. Since the focus of the inquiry is not on what others view the claimant’s religious obligations as being, but what the claimant views these personal religious “obligations” to be, it is inappropriate to require expert opinions.

Curiously, although the court in Anselem claims that “it is inappropriate to require expert opinions”, expert opinions are still sought out in the very same case. This is because, as religious studies scholar and former lawyer Dr Lori Beaman writes in her book Defining Harm: Religious Freedom and the Limits of the Law (UBC Press, 2008), “[t]he expert voice is heard in religion… and is perhaps most visibly hegemonic in the collusion between religion and law.” (48)  It is these experts that “act as gatekeepers in the discursive construction of religion”, determining the boundaries between legitimate and illegitimate religion. (48) It has been historically deemed important by courts in Canada to determine that a “religious” belief is sincere, and not capricious or artificial. Therefore, the voice of the scholar of religious studies has the power to legitimise particular groups as “truly religious”; yet this decision is made with an illusion of objectivity, using a contested and unstable category as its basis.

Expert opinions are, however, still useful in the case of practices that while sincere, are easily misunderstood or seen as strange. This is often the case with new religious movements or syncretic religions. I will use another Canadian case to demonstrate this advantage. In the Supreme Court of Ontario case R v Welsh (2007), the court attempts to determine whether or not Obeah (a collection of folk practices, religion and sorcery originating in West Africa and flourishing in the Caribbean) can be considered a belief system or “religion”. The entire case rests on this decision, as the claimant can only argue that the actions of the defendant infringed on their right to freedom of religion if their practices are validated as “religion”. Helpfully, court aligns itself with the stance in Anselem, and sees itself as “reject[ing] a narrow, overly-precise definition of religion in favour of a broad perspective that could conceivably capture an array of beliefs that, like Obeah, fall outside of well-recognized religious boundaries.” (Para 28) The court recognizes, with the help of expert opinions, that “Obeah is a religious belief system that meets the Supreme Court definition of such in [Anselem] and thus warrants s.2(a) protection.” (Para 29)

In light of this information, should Religious Studies scholars provide expert opinions in court cases relating to religious freedom? I am still unsure what is to be done with the practice. While the instability of the category of “religion” gives the scholar (and thus the court) the ability to validate or dismiss practices based on a contested definition, the use of expert opinions can also be (and often is) beneficial to lesser-known traditions, and even to groups who regularly experience discrimination or prejudice, such as Islam. To cease the practice would leave these groups in a vulnerable position, but to continue advising the court under the illusion of objectivity may lead to misguided decisions. The issue is complex and multi-faceted, and it is my intention to treat the topic more extensively in my further research.

A Sociology of Religion Category: A Japanese Case


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Over recent decades, the academic concept of ‘religion’ has been examined critically by a number of scholars, especially, in Religious Studies. First of all, I would like to suggest, as a sociologist, that sociological discourse on religion (‘Sociology of Religion’) should be a subject of the same kind of critical examination. In the light of this scrutiny, I would like to take the concept of ‘religion’ itself as a subject for sociological investigation, and tentatively call this approach ‘Sociology of Religion Category’. Finally, I would like to demonstrate what a sociology of religion category might probably look like, by briefly examining the social construction of ‘religion’ in Japan.

Conceptualisations of ‘religion’ in Marx’s, Weber’s and Durkheim’s writings, for example, have been significantly influential over subsequent sociological discourses on religion. The existing literature focusing on their writings on religion implicitly indicates that the concept of ‘religion’ utilised by each Founding Father carries various historical and cultural baggage, specific to the society in which each of them lived, not necessarily denoting exactly the same social phenomena and the same aspect of human activities as each other. Likewise, it can be assumed that the notions of ‘religion’ shared by contemporary sociologists might have different meaning and nuances from those of the Founding Fathers, although they might also share some similarities.

Given this, the religion category in sociological discourse needs to be critically examined in the ways which have been carried out in Religious Studies. In my view, however, this has not been considered by many sociologists. When such an examination is posited, sociologists become defensive or positively acknowledge the criticisms but only partially reflect them in their own sociological discourses of religion, continuing the analytical use of the concept.

More importantly, such critical examinations of ‘religion’ can be extended to outside sociological literature, analysing the construction of religion category (and nonreligion categories) in the wider social context. Taking the critique of the term ‘religion’ seriously, studying religion sociologically should mean critically examining how the category of religion came into existence in the first place, in a particular social context; how particular value orientations and organisations have come to be socially categorised as ‘religion’; and what kind of assumptions and beliefs govern inclusion in and exclusion from, the category. This is what I call ‘Sociology of Religion Category’.

Now I would like to briefly examine the religion category in Japan in order to demonstrate a sociology of religion category.

In his book The Invention of Religion in Japan, Jason Josephson demonstrates how the concept of ‘religion’ was introduced to Japan in the mid-nineteenth century. When Japanese translators first encountered the English word ‘religion’ in the 1850s, there was no indigenous equivalent. It was during the Meiji period (1868-1912) that the term ‘religion’ was gradually indigenised as a concept which included Christianity and Islam as well as Buddhism, with cultural baggage from the West, denoting a Christian notion of belief, especially that of Protestantism. ‘Religion’ as a newly imported concept was translated into Japanese in a number of different ways, but in the 1880s the word shūkyō established its place in the Japanese language as the translation of the term ‘religion’.

Importantly, the social category of shūkyō was constructed outside the realm of the Shinto national ethos (or ‘Shinto secular’). The state classified Buddhism, Christianity and sectarian Shinto (which had divorced from the state-authored Shinto institution) as shūkyō and utilised them as a means of ‘moral suasion’. Through the operation of interpellating or hailing particular groups and value orientations as shūkyō, the state had successfully made them docile and mobilised them for propagating the national ethos to the population. Any popular movement outside this state-religion coalition, which did not harmonise with the orthodoxy of Shinto secular, constituted the heterodoxy called at best ‘pseudo religions’ (ruiji shūkyō), and at worst, ‘evil cults’ (jakyō). They were subject to harsh persecution.

The social category of shūkyō was reformulated after the Second World War during the Allied Occupation between 1945 and 1952. While the pre-war category of shūkyō was limited to the ‘three religions’ (i.e. Buddhism, Christianity, sectarian Shinto), the post-war category of shūkyō includes various other faith groups, which would have constituted the pre-war heterodoxy. They are currently termed (mainly by scholars) as ‘New Religions’ (shin-shūkyō) or ‘new New Religions’ (shin-shin-shūkyō). Importantly, it also includes Shinto, which constituted the pre-war Japanese secular. After Japan surrendered to the Allies on 15 August 1945, the first task of the Allied authority was the demolition of the pre-war Shinto secular. The so-called Shinto Directive, issued by the Supreme Commander for the Allied Power (SCAP) on 15 December 1945, effectively reduced Shinto to the status of a voluntary organization by defining Shinto as a religion.

In addition, the post-war Japanese religion category was configured as an ostensible entity which is somehow distinguishable from the state. However, this constitutional separation has not been clear-cut. One example is ‘official visits’ by the prime minister and his cabinet to the Yasukuni Shrine. The interpretation has been polarised along ideological lines between right and left. The Japanese right perceives visiting Yasukuni as an expression of patriotism, while the left sees its veneration as a ‘religious’ act, therefore, in breach of the constitutional separation of religion and state.

Another example of the ambiguity of the term is how the Japanese term shūkyō is deployed strategically in people’s everyday language. For example, most Japanese people associate the term shūkyō with Christianity and Islam as well as ‘New Religions’ and ‘new New Religions’. The stereotypical image of these specifies that adherents show their commitment to daily practice of their faith, including a participation in activities to propagate their beliefs to others. For this reason, the Japanese are likely to identify themselves as ‘nonreligious’ (mushūkyō) when they are asked the question: ‘Do you believe in any religion?’ The claim of mushūkyō could be seen as an expression of the social norm, to which the emphasis on personal faith is fundamentally alien. The social norm of mushūkyō discursively and symbolically eliminates shūkyō from the structure of social relations, as a source of conflict, disharmony, or ‘pollution’, in order to maintain the existing order.

What various sociological studies of ‘Japanese religion’ have indicated, but not discussed extensively, is that the term ‘religion’ has been employed strategically at different levels of society, in order to distinguish what is called ‘religion’ from what is in turn defined as nonreligion or the secular. What remains to be investigated critically are the ways in which the boundaries between religion and nonreligion or the secular, are demarcated.

Words don’t come easy: an example from Jaina Studies


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Jainism is increasingly included among the “world religions” with a growing number of books available for both academic and general readers. Typically, Jainism is introduced as an Indian religion with around 4 million members and with a strong focus on personal development through non-violence and asceticism. The BBC website, for example, states that “Jainism is an ancient religion from India that teaches that the way to liberation and bliss is to live lives of harmlessness and renunciation.”

However, when I spoke to Jainas as part of my doctoral research in Karnataka, I found that many Jainas object to the idea that Jainism is their religion. For example, a lecturer at a Jainology department told me that he considered there to be only one true religion, and that would not be Jainism but non-violence. A bhattaraka, a highly venerated Digambara functionary, said that every religion claims to have the ultimate solution, but when new problems arise, subgroups will just form new religions, and that to him race, caste or religion did not matter for defining a person. Another bhattaraka told me that Jaina dharma, Christ dharma and Muslim dharma were all limited but that the universe was unlimited. All these people shared an aversion against having their Jaina beliefs and practices categorised as religion not because they believed in the superiority of secular labels but because to them fencing off a part of reality as “religion” or “Jain-ism” carried connotations of a narrow-minded ideology and arbitrary boundaries.

This highlighted a problem I experienced again and again when trying to write about Jaina teachings: what concepts and phrases do I use for talking about what Jainas believe and do?

Jaina Studies at the University of Mysore

Jaina Studies at the University of Mysore

My doctoral research is about anekantavada, the Jaina teaching that every object in the world has infinitely many aspects even though only a limited amount of information can at any single point in time be grasped by human perception or expressed by human language. In that respect anekantavada is a philosophical teaching that involves questions of ontology and epistemology. But anekantavada is also one of the most important teachings of Indian rhetoric or, as the study of argumentation in India is commonly called, Indian logic. If objects have infinitely many aspects, this impacts on the way we should speak about reality, especially in arguments about ultimate meaning. The claim is that ideally the expression “from a certain perspective” should be added to every statement, to show that it reflects only one of many equally justified possibilities. This has strong ethical implications which have become predominant in contemporary discussions about anekantavada as “tolerance”. However, anekantavada also has to be seen in the light of the ultimate goal of the Jaina, becoming an omniscient, a liberated being who can grasp at will all aspects of past, present and future simultaneously. According to Jainism these omniscients, who have cleansed their souls through right conduct and knowledge of karmic particles, already exist in higher spheres. Anekantavada tries to show the limitations of human perception while bringing us as closely as possible to the reality of the omiscients. So is anekantavada a religious teaching?

I found that anekantavada cannot be properly understood if it is labelled either philosophy or religion, so throughout my dissertation I kept somewhat unhappily repeating the expression “Jaina philosophy and religion”. Trying to avoid controversial terminology I also spoke of the “Jaina worldview” though I was not happy at all with this term because it lacked the emphasis on praxis. Just using Indian terms did not seem a solution to me either because an important part of my dissertation was explaining an element of one culture for the readership of another. Of course concepts overlap and there are ways of explaining how they are connected but every concrete text passage calls for a concrete choice. It does, after all, make a big difference if I write that anekantavada is part of “Indian logic” or “Jaina rhetoric”.

I cannot say that I have found a solution to this problem of categories and terminology but I try to make the tensions visible in the text. A first point was to reflect the different conceptualisations in the structure of my text. Anekantavada is about the many perspectives one can have on the world, and I therefore discuss in one chapter anekantavada as part of ontology, in another as part of epistemology, in another as soteriology. Then I try to bring them together in an overarching, more organic section, hoping that every time I present anekantavada in one way the other presentations will have some presence in the reader’s mind. The other point was that I decided to provide a substantial amount of background information on terms that should not appear natural but contested. When I speak of anekantavada as being part of Indian logic I devote a whole section to discussing the field of Indian logic in comparison to Western logic, and that it is based on rhetoric and grammar, not mathematics. I thereby hope to draw mental landscapes that present a realistic impression even if the embedded terminology remains deficient.

I am not sure if the Jainas I spoke to in India would agree with how I present their tradition but I hope they would acknowledge that at least I have learned a lesson from anekantavada about the complexity of the world and the limitations of language.

Modern Government, Sovereignty and the Category of Religion: Beyond the Post-Secular


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Having participated in a number of Critical Religion events, including two workshops held at Stirling, I can report that Tim Fitzgerald, Naomi Goldenberg and I have submitted for review the manuscript of a volume with the title Modern Government, Sovereignty and the Category of Religion: Beyond the Post-Secular.

The core argument of the book is that religious-secular distinctions have been crucial to the way in which modern governments have marked out their sovereignty – as crucial as the territorial boundaries that they have drawn around nations. Our authors, selected from a host of contributors to seven workshops held between 2009 and 2012, bear out the argument through a range of disciplines including history, anthropology, moral philosophy, theology and religious studies, combining theory with the detailed empirical analysis of contexts as diverse as Japan, Mexico, the United States, Israel-Palestine, France and the United Kingdom. Taken together, the chapters provide a multi-dimensional picture of how the category of religion has served to define the sovereignty of modern government.

Edith Doron spoke at an Aberdeen workshop in 2009 of the Abrahamic hut that she constructed while working at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. Just tell me one thing, asked the anxious director, is this a cultural or religious exhibit? Similarly, employers and teachers alike find themselves deciding whether someone’s dress falls within the boundaries of acceptable “cultural” diversity or constitutes an inappropriate and perhaps illegal display of “religious” symbolism. There can be ambiguity and that can lead to controversy, such as when the UK Supreme Court in 2009 was asked to rule on whether Jewish Free Schools were deciding admissions on the basis of legitimate “cultural” criteria or were discriminating on the basis of “religion”. The distinction between “religious” and “cultural” is only one example of the range of ways in which we distinguish between religious and non-religious or secular. In the same year, The Times columnist Libby Purves complained of an Islington clerk who was allowed to refuse to perform same-sex civil partnership ceremonies on religious grounds. She should, wrote Purves, have “sighed, muttered a prayer, and found another job. The tribunal should never have rolled over as it did, agreeing to exempt a public servant from civic duty. Religion is religion, law is law”. Such controversies indicate that the distinction is anything but cut-and-dried. Only rarely, however, does the ambiguity lead us to question the categories themselves—to ask what we mean in the first place by religion and by culture or law or politics, and why we find ourselves moved to distinguish between them.

The volume is the fruit of several years of sustained debate in our workshops and conferences (including a major British Academy conference in 2010) about what happens when “religious” gets distinguished from “non-religious” or “secular”. Our debates have focused on the consequences of religious-secular distinctions. How and why do people – politicians, academics, peasants, managers, teachers, journalists, clergy, workers, lawyers – distinguish between “religious” and “non-religious” or “secular”? And what happens when they make such a distinction? Some of those consequences are very specific while others are general and far-reaching. The Brooklyn Children’s Museum director was clearly anxious about losing funding or visitors. Employees may have to think about what jewellery or clothing to wear to work. School pupils and their parents need to reflect on the uniform code, while Catholic or Jewish school boards may find themselves defending their admission policies. The Islington Civil Registry had to find another clerk to perform the ceremony, while taking back the clerk who was suspended. Those are specific consequences of particular ways in which “religion” gets distinguished from the “secular”. Our authors focus on the more general consequences of more structural or systematic religious-secular distinctions. The Islington Civil Registry was only applying a piece of legislation which defined the limits of “religious freedom” in administrative law, and was itself was likely modelled on legislation elsewhere. School uniform codes and admissions policies have a long and complex history; the case of Jewish Free Schools was only one episode of it. Beyond the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, the broader history of museums has much to do with marking out a sphere outside “religion” in which objects can be displayed in ways that might otherwise prove sacrilegious.

In the volume, we concentrate mainly on the category of religion as it has crystallised in modern times, by which I mean the past three centuries, roughly, of Europe’s struggle to establish the world order under which we live. There are lively debates about the possible pre-modern roots of what we mean today by “religion”. My co-editor Naomi Goldenberg, for example, draws on Daniel Boyarin (2004), S.N. Balagangadhara and De Roover (2007) and other scholars who trace our modern concept of religion further back into the history of Christianity. Goldenberg even suggests that its roots lie in ancient Greek ways of classifying cults. I accept that our modern category of religion was already in gestation before the modern period. Indeed, I argued in a previous publication (2012) that the Jesuit missionary José de Acosta, writing in 1590 of the pre-Hispanic civilizations of the Americas, took an important step toward our contemporary sense of “religion” by distinguishing Aztec “religion” from other, implicitly “non-religious” things that Aztecs did. It was only a step, however, and I believe that the category continued to develop in the centuries that followed. Of course “modern” is a gross generalization for the period, especially if one takes a global perspective as we have done. Our authors make it abundantly clear that modernity has had no single history. But the historical processes of this period – state-building, colonialism, capitalism – have connected up places in a way that warrants generalization.

Our authors show that the category of religion has played a key role in this modern period. Religious-secular distinctions are written into the entire fabric of modern life, such that to figure out the category of religion is to figure out much of what passes for modernity. Or at least, to take religion for granted – to assume that religion is an object in the world, independent of the category – is to miss much of what modernity has meant. To take religion for granted is, to begin with, to mistake for history one of modernity’s foremost origin myths, the Wars of Religion story. Religion was the cause of the 17th-century European wars, we are told, and the wars ended when European powers decided to tolerate religion instead of fighting over it. William Cavanaugh (2009) and co-editor Tim Fitzgerald (2007) have argued that the modern idea of religion was itself a product of the wars; in my terms, that it was an important stage in the gestation of what we mean today by “religion”. They have shown, moreover, that the category of religion developed in tandem with many other categories, such as tolerance. It was not just that people decided to add “religion” to the list of things that they tolerated. The idea of “tolerance” was transformed in the process – religion was the first object of the modern idea of tolerance.

We converge on one key aspect of the modern history of “religion”: the role of modern government in shaping the category. “Modern government” is another gross generalization, but there are important similarities in how governments have gone about the business of governing in these past three centuries. Governments everywhere have been caught up in colonialism and capitalism, which have pushed them to develop the extraordinary power that they now have at their disposal. Governments have not only appropriated functions that were exercised by other institutions, such as schools and law courts, but they have created an array of functions that did not exist previously, such as healthcare. Scholars have observed that governments exercising such functions have classified populations by gender, race, class and region and treated them accordingly. Less attention has been paid to the way in which governments classify institutions, practices and persons as “religious” and “non-religious”. Just as with gender, race, class and region, it is not that governments have simply applied religious-secular distinctions; governments have, our authors contend, played a key role in developing religious-secular distinctions in the first place. A 2007 volume edited by Fitzgerald highlighted the role of colonial encounters in shaping the modern idea of “religion”, and Fitzgerald went on to argue in his 2009 monograph that global capitalism is another arena in which “religion” has been forged. Our authors pay attention to the colonial and capitalist dimensions of modern government’s concern with the category of religion, while including other dimensions such as gender politics (Goldenberg and Finn), immigration policy (Nillson), church-state conflict (Stack), and peace-making (Israel).

Our authors treat many different aspects of government but emphasise how modern government has used the category of religion to stake its claim to sovereignty. Although Foucault (1980: 121) famously suggested that sovereignty was a thing of the past (“cutting off the King’s head”) and that modern government relies instead on disciplinary measures, it seems more reasonable to conclude that discipline and sovereignty have developed in tandem. The term “sovereignty” has been used in many ways historically and in recent years, but I mean it in the sense of the power to authorise. To have sovereignty is to decide what is and is not legitimate, as well as who can legitimately deviate from the general rule and when. Sovereignty in this sense is not new. Medieval European free cities, for example, were somewhat autonomous in their government, and burghers were allowed to trade in goods that were normally reserved for the Crown, yet the Crown claimed to authorise the activities of towns and cities by issuing them with royal charters. In the past three centuries, however, governments have extended the reach of their authority, as scholars such as Agamben (2005) have argued. They have appeared, on the one hand, to concede sovereignty by allowing for democratic representation. On the other hand, governments have created labyrinthine rules and regulations for any and every area of life, including health, education and the economy, while retaining the authority to decide what exceptions can be made.

We show in the volume that “religion” comes during this period to designate an extraordinary range of practices and institutions that government is unable to control directly, including some on which government is heavily dependent. Government is dependent on such institutions both for the business of governing (Owen and Taira list the roles performed by The Druid Network in prisons and hospitals) and for displaying its own sovereignty (Goldenberg and Finn point to the role of churches in state ceremonies). As such, these institutions pose a potential threat to governments’ sovereignty, but governments try to contain the threat by claiming to authorise them as “religion” and by policing the boundaries of that category. Thus government continues to rely on these institutions that it cannot control directly, while performing its sovereign ability to “authorise” these institutions in the first place. What government recognizes and thus admits as “religion” is subject, of course, to innumerable institutional struggles.

Trevor Stack

Lest we forget or are forgotten


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In 2013 Richard Harries’ “The Image of Christ in Modern Art” was published. In his book he outlines four specific criteria for considering a piece of modern art as being ‘religious’. They are:

  1. All genuine art has a spiritual dimension, just by being good art.
  2. It is possible to point to the work of believing Christians regardless of their subject matter because it is still an expression of faith.
  3. It expresses or evokes certain characteristics associated with the Christian faith such as redemption, forgiveness and loving kindness.
  4. It is related to in some way, traditional Christian iconography. (Harries, 2)

Harries exploration of modern art having to come to terms with and express a seismic rupture as well as contend with expressing faith in an increasingly secular society is laudable and the book is recommended on that basis (it would make an nice companion piece to Tarnas’ Passion of the Western Mind for undergraduates). However, there are a number of areas where issue has to be taken with the treatment provided within the text. For the purposes of this posting I am going to focus on the four criteria and relate them to the specific context of Northern Ireland.

The first criteria immediately rings alarm bells, what is genuine art? Can art exist that is not genuine but false? A quick read through the introduction and first chapter quickly reveals that what Harries means by good art is high art, there is an added layer of exclusivity to the art under consideration. Why then does high art have a spiritual dimension, and low art, by implication, not? The third criteria could have a blog posting on its own on the basis of why are those qualities associated with Christianity alone, when they exist in other contexts including secular ones? However Harries does make it clear he is only dealing with ‘Christian art’ and the Christian faith so I leave that for another time.

It is with the second and fourth criteria that I want to focus in on. Both assume that personal faith, religion to be a distinct and separate thing capable of motivating an individual by force or will. The fourth criteria further assumes a timeless quality and universalism to iconography and its images and symbols. Neither seem to realise, or acknowledge, as Nietzsche did that art is the highest form of expression of the human spirit (The Birth of Tragedy). As such an expression it carries a clear intent for the artist regardless of how well that translates to the viewer. What the viewer interprets comes from his own perspective. Finally, art and artistic expressions are not encapsulated forms of religious expression. In his posting Per-Erik Nilsson argued that:

religion and secularism are contingently articulated categories bound to power and ideology … these articulations have been used to legitimate Western politics and expansion (colonialism, neo-colonial politics and imperialist ambitions).

In Northern Ireland we have a long tradition, on both sides of the divide, of painting wall murals. These are often imbued with what Harries would consider elements of traditional Christian iconography or imagery. Below are two such, the first from Hopewell Crescent in the strongly loyalists Lower Shankill area of Belfast. It depicts Martin Luther nailing his treaties to the Wittenberg door and has a banner stating in German “Here I stand. I cannot help it. God help me. Amen” (Camera did not capture the Amen which is lower down).

Hopewell Crescent, Lower Shankhill Road, photo © Francis Stewart

Hopewell Crescent, Lower Shankhill Road, photo © Francis Stewart

The second is from the nearby Republican area of Divis Street. It depicts the Virgin Mary standing over a dying hunger striker who is saying his rosary and contains the script “Blessed are those who hunger for justice.”

Virgin Mary watches over a hunger striker

Virgin Mary watches over a hunger striker

Are these forms of Christian art as Harries would perhaps argue (although given they are not high art he may well desist) or are they rather an example of Nilsson’s articulations of categories bound to power and ideology? I would argue for the latter, there are clear political messages in both – the giving of one’s life through starvation for a cause one believes in, and a defence of the very essence of Protestantism, which in this context means a defence of one’s community and right to remain British.

What I would argue about these murals is that they are a means of remembering the past and ensuring that one’s current struggles are not forgotten. Tom Shippey (writing of the works of Tolkien, but none the less pertinent) reminds us:

The very fragility of record in such societies makes memory all the more precious, its expressions both sadder and more triumphant. (Shippey, 97)

The religious imagery, if one can call it that, is used in these murals as a means to an end there is no distinct religious or spiritual impulse behind them. They serve the purpose of telling the past when those in authority or power will not listen. I do not agree that those in weaker positions are voiceless, they are perfectly capable of speaking; those in positions of power must learn to listen. Michael Marten reminds us:

What we need is a realistic exploration of ‘historically specific acts of resistance’ to avoid silencing the subaltern. (Marten, 231)

In creating these murals, the people of Northern Ireland are finding a way round the deaf ears of those in power. They are telling and retelling their history, speaking of their hopes for the future, speaking out against injustices done on them and in the process adding to the further division of the country and the re-entrenchment of their own communities. These are not forms of spiritual or religious art but an engagement with critical religion in that they demonstrate the entire interdependancy of religion, secular, political and power and the tangled web they weave.


Richard Harries, The Image of Christ in Modern Art, (Surrey: Ashgate, 2013).

Michael Marten, “On Knowing, Knowing Well and Knowing Differently: Historicising Scottish Missions in 19th and Early 20th Century Palestine” in Ellen Fleischmann, Sonya Grypma, Michael Marten and Inger Marie Okkenhaug, Transnational and Historical Perspectives on Global Health, Welfare and Humanitarianism, (Kristiansand: Portal Books, 2013) p210 – 238.

Tom Shippey, J.R.R.Tolkien Author of the Century, (London: HarperCollins, 2000).


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