Is there anything good to be said for ‘religion’?

By Richard H. Roberts
2 Sep 2011

As readers of the Critical Religion series may be aware, my trenchant colleague Tim Fitzgerald has once more launched a missile against the category of ‘religion’ in his recent article (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14920) as the word reappeared in what he regards as the wholly illusory notion of ‘the global resurgence of religion’ advanced by Scott M. Thomas in his book, The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations: The Struggle for the Soul of the Twenty-First Century (NY & Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2005).

Tim Fitzgerald has written a series of major books in which he has with unsparing consistency sought to deconstruct the ‘religion and secular politics binary’. Fitzgerald’s, The Ideology of Religious Studies (OUP 2000), his magisterial historical study Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A critical history of religion and related categories (OUP 2007) and the forthcoming Religion and Politics in International Relations: The Modern Myth all bear rich witness to this ongoing preoccupation.

In the opening pages of Civility and Barbarity Fitzgerald expatiates at length upon the awesome potency of Arturo di Modica’s bovine masterpiece, the Bull of Wall Street, the very embodiment of the power of capitalism. In a paean of admiration reminiscent of Marx’s hymnic response to the capacity of capitalist (and bourgeois) modernity to melt all that is solid, Fitzgerald writes:

For this Leviathan is no sacred cow dwelling in the pastures of agricultural hierarchies. Looked at from the back view, you can see he has bronze balls the size of mystic gongs, and you wouldn’t want to be tossed, mauled or trampled in this arena. The Beast of Capital can normally be placated through the performance of the appropriate ritual proprieties, but he will fork you on his horns if you waver in your faith (p. x)

Indeed, this reader envisages Fitzgerald as a slaughterman repeatedly striving to confront the bull, avoid its horns, plant his bolt gun on the brow of the beast, pull the trigger and fell it for good.

There are, however, problems associated with this kind of approach to ‘critical religion’ and the oppositional reification, even fetishisation of the mythopoeic and alienative capacity of capitalism. These problems do not, for me, stem from any inadequacies in Fitzgerald’s erudite analysis, that is once a reader has accepted all the basic postulates of his standpoint. As it happens, although I share with my colleague a belief in the validity and importance of aspects of Marx’s mythologised account of capitalism as ‘the jealous god’ as it is expounded in the posthumously published Grundrisse and elsewhere in the Marxian oeuvre, I do not agree with other aspects of his analysis and the lines of argument associated with, for example, leading contributors to the journal Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, notably the prolific writer Russell McCutcheon.

I believe that the difficulty resides in a confusion between ‘religion’ understood as a ‘category’ on the one hand and the study of the religion as a ‘field’. In principle, I remain critically loyal to the updating and renewal of the approach to the study of religion pioneered by my own esteemed first teacher, the late Ninian Smart, who had a free hand at Lancaster to develop as an interdisciplinary cluster of insights within an area of human experience and concern. This was an approach inspired by such figures as Edmund Husserl, Gerhardus Van Der Leeuw and Mircea Eliade, which was shared and then developed by, for example, Edward Conze, Michael Pye, and now Gavin Flood of Oxford. Within what the French sociologist of religion, Danièle Hervieu-Leger, has called ‘le champ religieux’, there is space for many interdisciplinary coalitions to emerge that may then harness the appropriate theories and methods with which to access and represent the multifarious contexts in which the phenomena of human needs for community, transition and transformation occur.

Given Fitzgerald’s ongoing critique and deconstruction of categories what are we to do – and to think – if we find ourselves compelled to engage in ritual or other spiritual practices? This is, of course, on the assumption that such an aspirant practitioner might detect some vestige of human benefit in what we are not allowed to call in the most general terms in Anglo-American and European societies ‘religion’. In the interests of purging and purification where may those who like the customers exploited in Carrette and King’s ‘spiritual marketplace’ and the victims exploited in Heelas and Woodhead’s ‘spiritual revolution’ now turn?

The situation as it emerges in Fitzgerald’s critique may well remind us of that described in the early writings of Friedrich Engels, who observed that the weavers of Wuppertal ‘who do not fall prey to mysticism are ruined by drunkenness’ and presented the memorable image of the blacksmith, ‘on his right side the Bible, on his left - very often at any rate - a bottle of Schnapps’, captivated by the revivalist preacher Pastor Jürgens who entrances the congregation so that ‘first the young girls weep, then the old women join in with a heart-rending soprano and the cacophony is completed by the wailing of the enfeebled drunken pietists’.

In short, we are right back with ‘religion’ as the opiate that numbs the pain of existence and deludes the mind with structures of false consciousness and ideology.

While the category of ‘religion’ may indeed be construed as a merely modern category conjoined with emergent liberalism that may then be inappropriately projected onto societies and cultures of a perpetually estranged ‘other’, we should not fall victim once more to the contemporary analogue of the fallacies of a displaced version of the German Ideology, through which we dismiss the state and liberalism as simply the illusory and oppressive constructs of the dominant class, and seek their destruction in the secular eschatological hope of some kind of benevolent political Aufhebung.

As scholars in the field of religious studies (and I do not exclude from this the critically reflexive study of the discourses of traditions under the rubric of ‘theology’) we need both to interrogate and to investigate with empathic understanding that dimension of human life that originates in prehistoric antiquity, informs the lives of countless millions of human beings, and now manifests itself in an array of displaced and surrogate forms in the contemporary world. The world is in desperate crisis and in equally urgent need of beneficent shared symbolic universals. Religious and spiritual practices can serve as a benign source of such universals along with an array of other sources energised by what I refer to as the shamano-ritual complex.

Ironically enough, the quest for the extirpation of the category of ‘religion’ through its analytical deconstruction runs the acute risk of going way beyond critique into unmitigated destruction. Such an academic mission can further the current tendency to close down the Humanities in British higher education. The deconstruction of a category is therefore in imminent danger of becoming the destruction of a field. Such an attitude brings comfort to those in higher education deploying the techniques of human resources management who can now simply step back and watch scholars declare themselves devoid of viable categories and thus render their quiet elimination all the easier.

This situation enables the real enemies of what the Scottish historian George Elder Davie has called the ‘democratic intellect’ characteristic of the Scottish university tradition to conquer by default. The foes of an informed democracy will scarcely have to lift a finger if scholars in Religious Studies (and the Humanities at large) declare themselves and their colleagues to be relying upon nothing but figments of the class interest of the Western bourgeois imagination and the interstitial traces of a vanquished primitivism.

The recent disturbances in England show that fundamental issues pertaining to the legitimation of government, social justice, and societal stability need to be addressed, or the anomie now evident in riots on the streets may engulf us all. In my view, scholars in Religious Studies should not simply remain the reluctant but paid tools of an industrialised system of defective socialisation that initiates students into informed passivity, but the source of a truly critical discourse that broadens the imagination and enhances personal agency.

------------

© Richard H. Roberts is Visiting Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Stirling. His work, background and publications history are summarised here.


This article is one of a continuous series appearing on Ekklesia through our association with the University of Stirling Critical Religion group blog. CR is a research project bringing together academics from a wide range of backgrounds to explore the way 'religion' is employed as a a marker, construct and category in public and intellectual discourse. You can also follow Critical Religion on Twitter: http://twitter.com/StirCritRel

Critical Religion articles and news on Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/criticalreligion

Moderated comments can be left on: http://www.criticalreligion.stir.ac.uk/blog/

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales License. Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.