How To Rid Yourself of a Constructivist Argument in 3 Easy Steps

ikea-man

Step one: Assert that the constructivist is saying nothing new.

A constructivists’ criticisms are obviously true and we know this already and we’ve already incorporated them into our work and so all this is old news

Step two: Assert that the constructivist is wrong.

These criticisms are obviously false because they misrepresent how real people (ie., not academics) understand religion themselves

Step three: Assert that it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter whether these criticisms are true or false because we’re just going to do what we’ve been doing anyway and so all this critique amounts to is time-wasting navel gazing that distracts us from doing the real work that we’ve already decided to do. For this last reason, deconstructive critiques that tell us that work in religious studies is analytically incoherent are not helpful because they might prevent scholars of religion from doing the analytically incoherent work that we will inevitably do because, hey, no one’s perfect.

(Thanks, Finbarr.)

Hindoos, Hindus, Spelling, and Theory

What is the relationship between spelling and theory? I often tell people my research is about “Hinduism in nineteenth century America.” But it’s really not. It’s not about Hinduism at all. It can’t be because the idea of “Hinduism,” a world religion comparable to other world religions, isn’t invented until the late nineteenth century. That’s kind of the point of my research. Most other scholars writing about this period will still use the term “Hindu” to describe the people that Americans or Britons were describing during this period. But when an American missionary or Unitarian pastor refered to the people in India doing something that they recognize as religion they most often used the term “Hindoo.” Hindoo–that double O of colonialism.

So, here’s the question: Is the difference between Hindoo and Hindu just a matter of spelling? Or is there more going on here?

On the one hand, you could argue that though the sources read Hindoo, it makes sense for the scholar today to write Hindu, even when talking about the 1820s. There are all sorts of terms that we alter when we bring them into the present from the past. No one puts the long S in their scholarly prose, for example. So, maybe Hindoo to Hindu is just like taking that long s out of Congress in the Bill of Rights?

The long s in "Congress" from the Bill of Rights

The long s in “Congress” from the Bill of Rights

But maybe it’s not. It seems to me a Hindu is actually someone quite different from a Hindoo. That is, a Hindu is someone tied up with this world religion called Hinduism. There is the Hindu American Foundation, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (or World Hindu Council), and the Pew Research Center tallies up the number of “Hindus” in America. But in the early nineteenth century, a Hindoo was a product of the American and British imagination. When I discuss what Americans thought about India and the people who lived there and these things they did that Americans thought were religion, I am not talking about people in South Asia. I’m talking about representations of people in South Asia. These Hindoos are imaginary. “Hindoos” and their religion were invented by Europeans and Americans. During this period, people in India did not present themselves to an American audience. Rather, they were represented by American and European authors to an American audience and in that process they were represented as Hindoos.

Perhaps the one exception to this would be the Indian reformer Rammohun Roy who wrote in English to an American and British audience. However, Roy self-identified as a “Hindoo,” as in his work “A Defence of Hindoo Theism.” Swami-Vivekananda-Hindoo-Monk-posterEven as late as the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, Americans represented Swami Vivekananda, the South Asian who garnered an audience throughout America, as a “Hindoo Monk.” Vivekananda and Rammohun Roy served as transitional figures as Hindoos became Hindus. That is, as South Asians went from imagined representations to immigrants representing themselves in American culture. In 1893 Vivekananda was a “Hindoo monk” but by 1930 he is part of a “Hindu Movement” in Wendell Thomas’s book Hinduism Invades America. Vivekananda goes from Hindoo to Hindu, from a South Asian represented by Americans in Chicago to the founder of a movement representing itself in America.

Here’s the shift from Hindoo to Hindu in one handy Ngram. The lines cross in the year 1884:

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 1.23.53 PM

 

For most of my brief career I’ve fallen back on the term “Hindu religions” to describe whatever it was that Americans and the British were trying to describe in their writing. But I’ve decided to eject that term from my work going forward because it implies that there is something there that is essentially “Hindu” before someone labels it as such. There is no there there, however. There is only the discourse about whatever people in South Asia seem to be doing to Europeans and Americans. So, I’m going back to Hindoo, colonial Os and all, to emphasize that nothing is “Hindu” or “Hindoo” until someone categorizes it as such. And then, once categorized, my job is to unpack the conflicts, arguments, ideologies, claims, and competitions behind that categorization. But I am curious to hear from others on this question–and similar questions about, say, “evangelical” or other such categories. Is this all simply a word game?

 

“Diverses Pagodes et Penitences des Faquirs.”

“Native” is not a native term

A colleague on categories of practice and categories of analysis:

That this distinction between practice and analysis is itself a form of identification for that thing we come to call the academy is certain (for we can indeed study the social practice of scholarship itself, no?), but I would argue that the result of these practices, the social formation that we call the academy, is comprised of interests different from those of the people whose lives its members describe. This difference cannot go unnoticed, however, all depending on the degree of affinity the scholar may feel for the lives of the people he or she may study. But we must never forget that defining and studying their culture is our culture, no matter how sympathetic or empathetic one aims to be in carrying out that role; for it is hardly a compliment to the people they may happen to study for scholars to fail to see that their own lives are rather different from living the lives of those others who have no benefit of the critical distance and time for reflection, reconsideration, writing, reading, and discussion that scholars may take for granted.

So, “native” isn’t a native term. That is, there is no “other” out there in the world without first an “us” to posit them. This is what I’ve seen in my study of American encounters with India during the nineteenth century. For American Protestants, the “Hindu” and “Hinduism” came into being through a process of categorizing everyone that wasn’t “American” or “Protestant.” So it was that the “heathen” in the late eighteenth century became a “Hindu” in 1893.

AAR Redux: Roundups, NY Times Story, Twitter Fail, and Butchering the Elephant #sblaar

The American Academy of Religion’s annual shindig is over and with Thanksgiving in the rear view mirror and a fridge full of leftovers it’s back to work. I won’t do a full recap, but I will say that my favorite two panels were both “author meets critics” style. One on Tracy Fessenden’s Culture and Redemption and another on John Lardas Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America. I got nonspecific Protestantism on the brain; or as someone on the Fessenden panel described it, “nefarious Protestant hegemony.”

Over at Religion in American History, Karen Johnson posts about the feast of great panels at this year’s meeting. Meanwhile, Matt Sheedy thinks through the experience of conferencing.

And if you haven’t seen Mark Oppenheimer’s NY Times article on the AAR’s decision to shun the Hyatt over it’s labor dispute with hotel staff be sure to check it out. It’s been blowing up my Facebooks over the weekend. Apparently it blew up Craig Martin’s too, as he posted a response to the story that argued the newspaper article misrepresented and exoticized the AAR.

I tweeted Oppenheimer a link to the Martin post and he responded:

That seems fair enough.

Speaking of Twitter, I think it’s time for the AAR to step up its game when it comes to organizing the use of social media at the annual meeting. The tweets were all over the place, under different hashtags, and with no idea which panel they were reacting too. The #sblaar hasghtag was a mess. And this was with only a relatively small number of attendees tweeting. Without going back and sifting through the tweets (and was anyone even archiving them?), all I remember seeing were tweets from religious studies folks I already knew about panels I was already in (mostly related to secularism, American religion, or pop culture) or biblical studies types. (BTW, those NT and OT folks are much harsher on each other via tweet than us Americanists. We’re downright cuddly.)

The AAR needs to include a “Social Media” info box in all of the pre-conference and conference books they send out that lays out the hashtag (that includes the date, e.g. #aar13) and recommends how to identify the panel (e.g. #A14507). And someone needs to archive these. Ever the social scientist who knows how to code his data, Jonathan VanAntwerpen offered great examples of how AAR tweets should look next year:

Reflecting on the conference as a whole, though, I think the use of Twitter, split mostly between Americanists and SBL-ers, and Martin’s critique of the Oppenheimer piece are examples of a larger theme I noticed throughout the weekend. The AAR is a fractured society. We have folks arguing for a liberal political theology while other folks analyze Protestant hegemony in American culture. Even on the same panels I continually see a divide between papers that are rigorously critical and those that are, to borrow a phrase from a colleague, “woo woo.”

Often in introduction to religious studies courses the instructor will trot out the well worn story of the blind men touching the elephant. We all describe different parts of this big religion elephant. The story can be an apology for a big tent approach to theory and method or a lesson in perennialism. But that story doesn’t really capture the state of the field and the AAR right now. We are not all blind men feeling the religion elephant. There are some of those blind men out there, grasping after this thing called religion as if it was the elephant in the room and finding different aspects of this giant unknowable beast. But there are also others standing in a corner yelling “There is no damn elephant!” And then there still others who can see the elephant and are standing over it with knives in hand ready to butcher the pachyderm, hoping to dissect and parse its organs in order to discover how it ever came be in the first place.

The challenge for the AAR in the next 10 years is to find places for all three of these folks and maintain some sort of institutional identity that can hold them. Can it provide a space for the blind men to debate the nature of the elephant? Can it offer a podium and megaphone for those who want to deny the elephant of religion and claim the animals of ideology or culture as their species of study? Can it sharpen the tools and provide the laboratory for the dissection–after all an elephant requires a lot of space? We shall see. But in the next year, let’s just get a better hashtag.

WaPo Column Ignores History, Colonialism, and the Problem of Religion

Savage Systems

The Washington Posts’ foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius has written a remarkably simplistic column based on the findings of the Pew Research Center. Here’s how it starts:

God had a good convention: The Almighty’s name was mentioned (albeit at the last minute) in the platform at the Democratic National Convention. And He was invoked no less than 12 times in the Republican platform, in case He is keeping score.

But the real news is that God is having a strong millennium, according to some fascinating poll results from the Pew Research Center. The data show that even as the developing world is getting more modern, it is also getting more religious, with especially sharp gains for both Christians and Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa.

As Eion O’Mahony tweeted: “The use of the phrase “God is having a strong millennium” should be indication enough to stop reading.” Exactly. Ignatius assumes that if Christians and Muslims are gaining numbers then religion is growing. As Per Smith pointed out, Ignatius equates religion with the Abrahamic traditions. This gets particularly problematic in his discussion of what’s going on in Africa.

Sub-Saharan Africa is seeing one of the great religious booms in history, according to data in an April 2010 Pew study that drew on more than 25,000 interviews in 19 countries. The study found that, since 1900, the Muslim population has increased 20-fold, to 234 million. The growth of Christianity there has been even more spectacular, growing 70-fold to 470 million. People are passionate about their religion, either way, with nine in 10 saying it is very important in their lives.

Apparently there was no religion in Africa before Islam and Christianity showed up. I wonder why Christianity has grown so much in Africa since 1900? I wonder how it got there to begin with? Maybe the long history of European colonialism has something to do with it. Maybe this isn’t “a religious boom” but the results of a much earlier mercantile boom in which Christian Europe carved Sub-Saharan Africa into a RISK board.

Ignatius offers no explanation for this religious boom but it seems irresponsible and simplistic to ignore the role colonialism has played in shaping religious identity in Africa. Claiming that the rise of Christianity is a religious boom relegates all African religious practice before Christianity to some category outside of religion. It rehearses a history in which Africa is characterized by the absence of religion prior to European contact.

I don’t want to knock Ignatius around too much, but his column should serve as a reminder that the problems of defining and measuring religion are often ignored in the press. Now, I’ll leave it to David Chidester to make the final point about the relationship between the absence of religion and colonialism:

The discovery of that absence developed layers of strategic value in European encounters with others. Although the denial of religion carried a significance that varied according to he specific context in which it was issued, the assertion that people lacked a religion signified, in general terms, an intervention in local frontier conflicts over land, trade, labor, and political autonomy.

- David Chidester, Savage Systems, p. 14

[HT Kelly Baker for the link via Facebook]

James Freeman Clarke and the Post-Protestant Metaphysical Roots of Comparative Religion in America

Ten Great Religions

I came across this on page 1 of James Freeman Clarke’s Ten Great Religions (1871):

[The present work] is an attempt to compare the great religions of the world with each other. When completed, this comparison ought to show what each is, what it contains, wherein it resembles the others, wherein it differs from the others; its origin and development, its place in universal history; its positive and negative qualities, its truths and errors, and its influence, past, present, or future, on the welfare of mankind. For everything becomes more clear by comparison. We can never understand the nature of a phenomenon when we contemplate it by itself, as well as when we look at it in its relations to the phenomena of the same kind.

It is remarkable to me that I have rarely seen James Freeman Clarke mentioned in histories of comparative religion or religious studies. He gets three mentions in Eric Sharpe’s Comparative Religion: A History. Tomoko Masuzawa gives him two pages in her book The Invention of World Religions. But both Sharpe and Masuzawa put the American Clarke into a story that is mostly about European approaches to comparative religion. Clarke’s place as a Unitarian minister and his location within the history of liberal religion in America is neglected. Within American religious history, Clarke comes up in discussions of mysticism and Asian religions. Leigh Eric Schmidt highlights Clarke’s interest in universal mystical experience in Restless Souls and Catherine Albanese briefly analyzes Clarke’s representation of Hindu religions in Ten Great Religions in her book A Republic of Mind and Spirit.  There are two Clarkes, the comparativist who imagines a universal religion based in Christianity and a metaphysical interested in the mystical East, depending on the history you are telling.

I am sympathetic with the story of Clarke as a metaphysical. I am approaching him in the same vein as Albanese. I have the benefit of a narrower project than hers that will allow me to really dig into Clarke’s representation of “Brahmanism.” Yet, I can’t escape the nagging feeling that there is another story to tell about Clarke and other 19th century liberal (post)Protestants interested in world religions that unites the comparativist narrative with the metaphysical one. In the rush to throw off the bonds of comparative theology–indeed any kind of theology–I think the academic study of religion in America may have misplaced its history. Perhaps we owe more to Clarke than we do to Max Mueller.

 

Should we compare American Atheism and American Christianity?: An Impromptu Twitter Discussion

The following conversation emerged on Twitter between myself and Per D. Smith, a Ph.D. candidate at Boston University. Check out Per’s great stuff over at irritually. Per specializes in studying irreligion and so I sent him a link to a CNN article and, well, click on the storify link and you can see what ensued.

[View the story "Atheism, Humanism, Prosperity Gospel, and the Mainline" on Storify]

The question I’m left with is this: Is there a force within American society/culture that is shaping atheists and Christians in similar ways such that evangelicals look like New Atheists and old school humanists look like the mainline? What could it be? How could we find it? Is it the market? Politics? What?

What do yall think?