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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.