William James and the Divorce Between Science and Religion

Cross Posted at Religion in American History

William James has always interested me because I’ve often wondered why his brand of knowledge production never took off.

Jonathan Rée has a great piece on William James that I found thanks to Ralph E. Luker.  As a whole, the article is a thoughtful review of James’ life and work, including his interest in religion and science.  Below is my favorite paragraph of the article but I suggest you read it in full.

James was not unsympathetic to religion, and on occasion he was prepared to call himself a Christian, though in a thoroughly secular and untheological sense. His abiding intellectual passion was a love of open-mindedness and a corresponding distrust of dogmatism and metaphysics. We should never forget, he said, that all our opinions – even our “most assured conclusions” – are “liable to modification in the course of future experience”. But he warned against allowing a distrust of dogmatic metaphysics to harden into a metaphysical dogma of its own, as seemed to be happening with some of the evangelising atheists of his day. He admired the evolutionary biologist T H Huxley and the mathematician C K Clifford, for example, but when they used the idea of “science” as a stick to beat religion with they were in danger of behaving like high priests of a new religion – “the religion of scientificism” – and defending it with the same intolerant zealotry as any old-style religious fanatic. Knowledge, for James, was not so much the pre-existing premise of human inquiry as a hoped-for future product, and science was more like a tissue of fortuitous insights than a monolith of solid fact. We would not have much chance of stumbling into truth if we let ourselves get too anxious about falling into error, and the first rule of an unillusioned epistemology should simply be: Relax! “Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things,” James wrote: “in a world where we are certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness.”

I’ve always found James compelling as a figure in American history because he lived and worked at the edge of an era where science and religion still saw each other as friends and companions in knowledge.  James died in 1910, and by the 1920s and 30s “truth” would be split between “empirical science” and “religion.”  James is a figure that is worth revisiting and rethinking in the midst of many current cultural debates.  It’s worth at least considering his “pragmatic, pluralist, empiricist approach to truth – what some would call his humanism.”


This Week in Religion, Poetically

My roundup of this week’s religion in the news can be found over at Religion Dispatches.  My favorite story this week has to be Ricky Williams leading meditation classes.  I’d pay for that.


Constructing Religion in the SC Governor’s Race

For me, religion will always be constructed in South Carolina.  As an undergraduate at the College of Charleston I became fascinated with the category or “religion” and began the long road toward a career studying it.  Now, I look back to the Palmetto state again and see the ways the current race for governor is reconstructing Christianity and religion.  Peter Hambly has written a great piece probing into the role Nikki Haley’s religious identity is playing in the race.  In the wake of being slurred a “raghead” by state senator Jake Knotts, Haley has pushed into a primary runoff that many believe she will win.

Haley is a second generation Indian-American whose parents are Sikh, who self-identifies as a Christian, grew up in South Carolina, and even picked up a Southern accent along the way.  It’s the tension between all of these layers of her identity that is beginning to draw curiosity and interest.  As Hambly notes, Haley attends both Methodist and Sikh services, especially with her parents and extended family.  This inter-religious practice is leaving some evangelicals in South Carolina uneasy:

Ray Popham, pastor of Oasis Church International in Aiken, said Haley’s religion is a “big topic” among his congregants, who have posted notes about her religion on Facebook and have lately approached      him for advice about the governor’s race.

“She claims to be a Christian but also attends a Sikh temple and was married in a Sikh ceremony, so a lot of people can’t figure how you can claim both,” Popham told CNN. “I think she needs to be straight      up with people, if she is both. If she believes that you can be both, then she should say that up front.”

Tony Beam, the interim pastor of Mount Creek Baptist church in Greenville, hosts a radio show called “Christian Worldview Today.” He recently posed a question to his listeners: Is Nikki Haley being           honest about her faith?

Beam said several callers were not sure if Haley had completely abandoned her Sikh beliefs.

What immediately jumps out to me in the midst of this kerfuffle is that there are various understandings of what counts as religion and as Christianity flying around.  For most conservative evangelicals their religious identity centers around belief.  The belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus is what makes one a Christian.  Yes, there are other things that make one an evangelical Christian but they tend to center around correct belief.  It’s all about orthodoxy.  But what about other religious cultures?  This focus on right belief–on an orthodox religion–doesn’t translate across cultures.  The Sikhism of Nikki Haley’s family is more about orthopraxy.  That is, it is about correct practice.  You do things because they are what you do.  To be Sikh is to do the things a Sikh does first and foremost.

Indian religions have sometimes struggled to adapt to an American religious landscape that emphasizes meaning and belief over ritual and practice.  As a white guy visiting Hindu temples in North Carolina I’ve often noticed how practitioners there felt the need to try and explain their religious practices to me, mostly through references to Christian symbols and meanings, when such explanations wouldn’t happen in India.

I really have no interest in deciding whether or not Haley is a good Methodist or a good Sikh, or whether she’s religious at all.  What these questions about Haley’s religiosity point out, however, is the ways our public definitions of religion are generally shallow and Christian at bottom.  They are about what one believes first, and what one does only matters insofar as it can be grounded in doctrine or explanation.  The problem with focusing on right belief is that you can never be sure.  It is impossible to really know what someone believes and so there are always anxieties and questions of authenticity.  That’s what lies behind much of this discussion of Haley’s religion.  Is she authentic?  I don’t know nor do I think that it is an important question.   I’m more interested in what gets lost in translation between Anglo-American Christian notions of orthodoxy and Indian forms of orthopraxy.

Edit–this post is now cross-posted at the Religion in American History Blog


Bringing you the week in religion

I’ve got a new gig over at Religion Dispatches writing a weekly review of religion in the news. Check out my first attempt.


Burning Man, Green Acre, and Ritual in U.S. Religious History (Cross-Post))

This is a cross-post from the Religion in American History Blog.

This morning I came across an interview with Lee Gilmore at Religion Dispatches where she discusses her new bookTheater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man (UC Press).  The full interview deserves a read, especially the story of how she came upon the books title, but what jumped out to me were the following portions:

This decadent ritualism, which can be both sincere and satirical, casts the festival as a semi-religious cultural happening. Furthermore, many participants describe Burning Man as a “spiritual” experience, but deny that it constitutes a new religious movement as such. Organizers too explicitly hope that the event will “produce positive spiritual change in the world,” even while they also stop short of characterizing the event as “religious.” My work sought to explore the tension between “spirituality” and “religion” in the narratives of Burning Man participants in order to better understand how religio-cultural systems operate and adapt.

The popular term “spiritual but not religious” only goes so far in describing an event like this. I think Burning Man shows us the enduring importance of ritual as a vehicle through which humans connect with one another and as well as with a mysterious “more,” while also showing us how these expressions are increasingly displaced outside the bounds of the dominant Western cultural concepts of “religion.” Burning Man is on the vanguard of contemporary religious movements that resist easy classification by favoring eclecticism and hybridity. Yet in articulating a clear ethos that places a core emphasis on building and supporting community—both inside and outside the confines of the week-long event—Burning Man manages to be individualistic and idiosyncratic without being solipsistic.

I haven’t read Gilmore’s book, though I’m really excited about it after reading the interview, but it did remind me of something I had just finished re-reading.  I’m in the midst of that wonderful summertime project known as “studying for comprehensive exams” and I just finished going back through Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Restless Souls: The Birth of American Spirituality.  In that book, Schmidt has a great chapter on the Green Acre community founded by Sarah Farmer in Eliot, Maine.  But when reading the chapter recently I was struck by what little material Schmidt gives on the ritual practice of the community  There are a few mentions of morning walks on the dewy grass and meditation and a great narrative of the history of the community and its participants but I never got a picture of what life was like on daily basis within the commnunity.  Perhaps that information just isn’t in the record and I don’t mean to take pot shots at an important book.  Rather, I merely want to speculate that the same ritual life represented by Burning Man has antecedents in Green Acre.  I bet Schmidt would grant that, as well.

But to push it further, as Lee makes the point above, certain rituals associated with the “spiritual not religious” challenge the notion of what counts as “religion” in American culture and, I would argue, push historians of religion to reconsider ritual as the central category for these post-non-Protestant forms of the sacred in America.  The point that belief has been central to narratives of American religious history is worn out, but I think that as we begin to reconsider and write the history of religion in America during the latter half of the 20th century into the 21st we may have shift our consideration to ritual.  Many people have done this and continue to do this.  But the challenge is not to simply adopt existing definitions of ritual and write them into our histories, but rather to use the diversity of sacred phenomenon in American history to reconsider the category of ritual and its relationship w/ things like belief, myth, identity, etc.

Look out for more on this when I get my hands on Lee’s book.


Power, Authority, and the Academic Journal: Thoughts on UC vs. NPG

Why do we need academic journals?

In the midst of the ongoing dispute between the University of California system and the Nature Publishing Group over the rates of science journals, I’ve been wondering what exactly is the function of the academic journal?

I see two.  First, journals like those published by NPG function to distribute knowledge.   Second, journals act to authorize academic work.  The current spat between UC and NPG is beginning to reveal the ways these two functions are related and how they are also falling apart.  What is missing from the current discussion of the UC vs. NPG battle is an analysis of how power and authority move through the current journal publication structure, which at bottom, is a question about how journal publication functions .

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‘Punk’ Academics, ‘Jam’ Academics, and the ‘Culture Industry’

This morning a couple of weird thoughts began to criss-cross in my mind that linked ‘punk’ academics, jam bands, and Theodore Adorno.  In the end, I began to see the political edge of the digital humanities in opposing what Adorno and Horkheimer call the “culture industry.”

To start off, I was reading Adorno and Horkheimer’s “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as mass deception” essay and thinking about ways for humanist academics to fight the totalizing power of late capital and the culture industries in the age of new media.  Not too heavy, huh?

Then I noticed a great link on twitter about an archive of electroacoustic music being distributed via torrent.  I replied that etree.org is another great site that is distributing music via torrent for all sorts of bands in the ‘jam music’ scene, most notably Phish but also Dave Matthews, String Cheese Incident, etc.  All of these bands have a liberal taping policy that allows fans to tape their live performances and the distribute them non-commercially.  (Another example of this is the Live Music archive over at archive.org, also run by etree.org)

The combination of academia and music reminded me of once hearing about the Do-It-Yourself culture of ‘punk academics.’  Now, I don’t really know that much about punk academics–I did spend most of my teen years listening to punk bands like NOFX, the Descendents, and the Dead Kennedy’s–but thinking about them alongside the open access taping policy of bands like Phish prompts this question:

Don’t we need some ‘jam academics’?

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Enacting Identity: Toward an Interdisciplinary Theory of Religions in Diaspora

The following is another old conference paper.  I gave the following paper on rethinking diaspora to the History of Religions section of the Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion in Atlanta, GA in March 2008.

The term diaspora seems to carry with it an imperative for interdisciplinary work.  Diasporas are approached by Judaic studies, anthropology, sociology, Caribbean studies, and various other cultural and area studies disciplines.  But what does religious studies have to offer for an understanding of diaspora?  I argue that while anthropology offers strong theoretical definitions and models for what diasporas are and what they do, religious studies, through a study of lived religion, offers an understanding of how diasporas are experienced and lived out in ordinary daily life.  In order to show how religious studies offers an “on the ground” understanding of life in a diaspora I take the example of South Asian Hindus living in the United States as my point of departure for two reasons.  First, because Hinduism in the United States is an under studied tradition and, second, because when it is studied, studies of American Hinduism have yet to take on lived religion approach found in other studies of American religions.  As such, the conclusion of this paper is a theoretical gesture toward the solution of these two disciplinary lacunas.

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Know Your [Digital] Archives

I have  a new blog post up over at the Religion In American History Blog entitled “Know Your [Digital] Archives” that comments on the Making of America Collection at Cornell/U-Michigan and the 19th Century Schoolbooks Collection at U. of Pitt.


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