Russell T. McCutcheon
University of Alabama

Anyone familiar with our Department at the University of Alabama may know that we have a pretty active social media presence, among which is a Facebook group devoted to our current students and graduates of our program. Apart from putting a variety of Department announcements there, such as recent posts from our blog (on everything from student writing to updates on how we’re handling the Fall 2020 semester), I occasionally put a news item there, with #inthenews as the tag, to suggest to our students that there’s considerable application of the skills that they’re learning in our classes—such as understanding groups via the way that their members classify, rank, and thereby organize themselves. That the grads who stay current with the group sometimes offer guest blog posts of their own, illustrating this very point—despite each of them working in pretty diverse careers today—confirms for me that opting for such a focus in a Department of Religious Studies was a wise choice.

Just the other morning, for example, I posted an item from that day’s New York Times concerning a just-released U.S. Supreme Court decision that will allow employers to opt out of what had previously been Federally-mandated health insurance requirements—opting out based on religious grounds. As the article’s opening lines phrased it:

The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a Trump administration regulation that lets employers with religious or moral objections limit women’s access to birth control coverage under the Affordable Care Act. As a consequence of the ruling, about 70,000 to 126,000 women could lose contraceptive coverage from their employers, according to government estimates.

As for the text that I wrote to accompany the post?

Need another reason why it’s a good idea to have someone studying the practical effects of classifying some things, claims, or people as religious?

I offer this example to make a simple but, I think, far-reaching point that sometimes seems to elude those who seem tired of work that focuses on the category religion. (It’s a weariness that surprises me, I admit, given that people are still turning out plenty of dissertations on Augustine or St. Paul, so just a couple decades’ worth of focus on “religion” itself hardly seems to have exhausted everything that there is to say about it—suggesting that claims of tedium are but a handy way to dismiss what is increasingly becoming a focus of people’s work in the field.) For the ease of assuming that “religion” innocently and properly names an obviously distinct and self-organized set of items in the world is something that we need to work against should our interests be more aligned with studying how groups of people signify, navigate, and, yes, contest their worlds. So any opportunity to provide a manageable thought experiment, where the impact of the designation itself can be considered or seen to be working in real time, isn’t something to pass up. And that Supreme Court decision—as with a host of legal rulings over the years in liberal democracies, all of which focus on the extent to which exemptions can be granted as a way to manage social discord—struck me as yet another moment where designating something as religious could be seen to have a practical effect of real consequence to people’s lives.

Whatever else this thing some now call critical religion may be, it at least strikes me as an agreement that this shift—from studying religion or religions to studying why we even call anything religious in the first place—helps us to produce new knowledge about the way our modern lives work, the way our spaces are managed, and the way that identities are created and reproduced within them. Contrary to those who study religion or religions, then, I have no interest in normalizing let alone using any given understanding of the term, something that inevitably occurs, I’d argue, when we just get on with studying religion, as some call us to do. So, with another recent but rather more international news story in mind, the goal of such work is not to decide whether the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul really ought to be understood and used as a museum (as it has been for eighty years) or, as the Turkish government today wishes, a mosque, and, should its religious identity be successfully asserted, neither is it to do a careful ethnography of what some call religion on the ground at this location; instead, it’s the contest itself that can attract our attention, as a way into studying—in this case—a long history of conflict between two modern nations, which draws on pre-national allegiances and disputes, and the manner in which these disagreements have (or have not been) been managed by that artful designation of “museum.” For the issue is not whether the building really is a Greek Orthodox cathedral or a Muslim mosque but, instead, is whether we can understand why the compromise of designating it as a museum now fails to negotiate not just these differing significations but the larger socio-political structures of which each designation is but the visible sign.

So the shift that I am recommending, and which an increasing number in the field are now exploring, opens our field to working with those across disciplines who are equally interested in such things as how identities are formed, reproduced, and contested—whether those identities are local, national, or trans-national. And, along with them, it draws us into studying the structures, whether political, economic, gendered, racial, etc., in which identification and, to put it more broadly, signification takes place. It thus invites us to take our Durkheim all the more seriously, by examining those unified systems of beliefs and practices that, insomuch as we participate in them, establish a social world in which significance can be established or undermined.

Long ago I lamented the strategy adopted by previous generations, insomuch as they sought to build an autonomous field based on the presumably unique and set apart nature of their object of study—and, along with it, the distinct methods needed for its study and the Departments that housed those doing such work. I thought that while helping to create the modern field such an approach inevitably marginalized it as well, given that such scholars lost their voice and their relevance when it came to studying anything but the supposedly ethereal and elusive thing that was once called the sacred. (By asserting that the sacred animated everything Eliade thought that he could reinstate the field’s preeminence, by the way—a claim I certainly resist.) I thought that shifting the field to studying classification, and the socio-political worlds made possible by designating things either in this or that fashion (such as sacred/secular, religious/political, private/public, religion/cult, myth/legend, or ritual/habit, etc.), would not only make good use of our skills but would also demonstrate to those outside our field—whether on or off our campus—that we had something to contribute to understanding this thing that so many of us also study: people, what they do and what they leave behind once they’re gone. Sure, we might each study it a rather specific and different site—those places we known as modern India, the Afro-Caribbean, or maybe ancient Greece—but our work is animated by a shared set of questions which we’re not the only ones asking.

And it’s that shift to broader questions, explored at discrete sites (made possible by an interest in what contestable systems of designation tell us about groups of people) that demonstrates the relevance of our work—something apparent to me last week when a grad of our undergraduate program, who has been out working in her career for 14 years, contacted me asking about some of the books that we read in a course long ago, since she was aiming to re-read some of them. Why? Well, she and her sister-in-law were discussing U.S. monuments commemorating the Civil War, what they meant, to whom they meant it, and whether they should just come down—at least here in the U.S. there’s few more prominent issues than racism demanding our attention in the daily news. While I’m not sure what conclusions they’ll reach, what seems to have been clear to that onetime student was that the sort of scholar of religion that I’m discussing here, and which was modeled for her long ago in our Department, has a surprising amount to contribute to making sense of how and why we talk about the past as we do, how we manage the many possible pasts that are all competing for our attention today, and the sorts of people that we will see ourselves and others to be by adopting this versus that way of signifying a statue.

And it’s just that shift to studying these enabling conditions, made possible by a focus on classification, that comes to mind when I think of what it means to adopt a critical religion approach to our material.