Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Breadth of Critical Religion


The relevance of Critical Religion

The first issue to mention is relevance: that ‘critical religion’ is not only concerned with ‘religion’ as a category, or with religious studies as a discipline. We are equally concerned with other leading categories such as ‘politics’, ‘economics’, ‘political economy’, and the ‘nonreligious secular’. In fact one element of our position is that these apparently separate categories are really parts of a system of representations which have no meaning in themselves, but rely on an under-lying binary construction with the religion-secular dichotomy as its constitutional expression. What we have developed is a theory, a method and an attitude towards the critical deconstruction of modern categories. We therefore claim relevance for interdisciplinary work throughout the arts, humanities and social sciences. This is because we are questioning the ideological components in the disciplinary structures of the academy as a whole, and the ways these act for the maintenance of liberal mythology more widely.
When someone says or writes that they are studying ‘politics’, for example, we have our own line of questions about what this could mean. The questions are rather similar to the ones we would ask if someone claimed to be studying ‘religion’ (or economics). This approach converges well with – but goes constructively further than – much critical and postcolonial theory. Yet it makes unwelcome reading (judging by some of the reactions which have been encountered) for those who are deeply invested already in the established disciplinary structures, and feel that their careers might be damaged if they question the basic assumptions which their discipline works with.
We have sympathy with academics in that position, but the logic of argument raises problems with the arbitrariness of many over-lapping domains. It suggests that the divisions which keep academics corralled in separate departments, journals, conferences, and professional organizations share at least one rarely acknowledged purpose, which is to stop us noticing each other’s work. Specialization, say between ‘religion’, ‘economics’ and ‘politics’, reifies segments as though each had an independent reality of its own, related by only by externalities, rather than by an organic encompassment of all analytical parts in the whole. We are thus encouraged to proceed in a way reminiscent of the Indian fable of the blind persons each holding one part of an elephant. The one holding the trunk or the tail or the hoof or the ear will imagine the whole in terms of that part. This presumably (and to stretch the metaphor) is what is meant by ‘the elephant in the room’, when all one has is the trunk or the tail or the ear or some other part of the joined-up anatomy of the organic whole in one’s hands.

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