Whither the Study of Religion and Culture?

So I’m in a pickle.

I’ve been invited to speak to the senior seminar in religious studies course at my institution. They are working through Malory Nye’s Religion: The Basics (Second Edition) as a touchstone for considering the field. Each week, one of my department colleague drops in to situate her or his own work in conversation with Nye’s discussion of an issue explored in our discipline.


As an architect of this carnival, I have no one to blame but myself for having drawn the “culture” chapter of Nye’s books.

This wouldn’t be a problem if the team at The Religious Studies Project hadn’t done such a fantastic job of stirring up the debate about the usefulness of the term, “religion.” It’s not a new imbroglio, just a reinvigorated one thanks to Teemu Taira’s look at the Karhun Kansa, the People of the Bear, and the implication of categorizing them as a religion—for the Finnish government, for scholars, heck, for anyone wanting to meaningfully use the term, “religion.”


Loads of folks have weighed in since Taira’s interview with Breann Fallon. And between responses from Neil George, Paul Hedges, Russell McCutcheon, Malory Nye, and others, there’s a lot to recap.

For the sake of my undergraduate students’ sanity, I’m not going to do so. The crux of the matter for them may be different than for professional scholars.

…but then again, maybe not.

Losing “Religion”

For those just entering the discussion, I think the issue is, to quote Hedges, that “religion…is such an empty signifier that it can have no analytical validity.” It’s been pulled apart by critiques that include:

  • its origination from a particular context, limiting the likelihood of universal relevance,
  • its sordid colonial track record,
  • its contested definitions by academics,
  • its fluid organizational limits in history.

But if the term is absent of value, what have my students been studying all this time?

I find myself in agreement with Kevin Schilbrack, who contends that “‘religion’ is descriptively and analytically useful, and it is useful because there really are religions that exist “out there” in the world.” Thus the bulleted points above are the data, the “social facts” that constitute our peculiar interest.

Nye recently wrote a brief comparative history of “chocolate” and “religion” to showcase the sort of work—subtle and conspicuous—that goes into developing these concepts.

Religion is not like chocolate. But the ways in which we think about the idea of religion are similar to the ways in which we think about the idea of chocolate.

And the ways in which we think about religion (as a common human experience, across all humanity, through particular religions) have come to us from particular historical processes, just as chocolate has.

By definition, students are committed to forming an awareness of these constructions. Do they have to abandon using the term? No. But they should think carefully about what they intend by doing so, especially when trying to convey their observations, questions, and arguments to others.

Losing My Religion

“In the song, Michael Stipe sings the lines ‘That’s me in the corner/That’s me in the spotlight/Losing my religion.’ The phrase ‘losing my religion’ is an express form the southern region of the United States that means losing one’s temper or civility, or ‘being at the end of one’s rope.'”   Caption and WB Records Image From Wikipedia

The debate here is whether the term “religion” is worth the hassle. As George writes, “if a word is not useful, it may be better to relegate it to the junk heap.” The answer, for my part, depends on one’s commitment to empiricism. This is where the humanistic and/or social-scientific approach to the study of religion gets tricky, for it quickly leads to how or whether one distinguishes religion from the other human doings.

To this end, many scholars describe themselves as scholars of religion and culture—a gesture that acknowledges religion as a human activity with resemblances to other human activities.

Hedges rightly points out how often these moves fail to salvage terms like “religion” so far as “the words which we used to destabilize others are themselves unstable.” Put differently, why should we tether “religion” to the equally contentious term, “culture?”

In all seriousness, if Nye can illustratively compare religion and chocolate, then why not?

Religion & Culture

The benefit of culture is threefold for me.

In my own scholarship, I use “culture” to signify the making of difference to make a difference in the world. I’m interested in the politics, products, and even theoretical problematics this line of inquiry entails. I appreciate conversations that help me tease out this understanding, and so far as I’m able, I try to use it to help others in their research agendas. For me, the term “religion” and the way people discuss/debate/decry religion(s) are intriguing case studies.

But I don’t really need [many] others to share my fascination. It’s important to my study and not necessarily others.

So far as I employ “culture” to speak about human difference-making, culture seems to operate for many in religious studies as a way to delimit human social formations for analysis. That is to say, “culture” maps what scholars choose to care about. Hence, with their signature “religion in culture” approach, McCutcheon and the University of Alabama’s Department of Religious Studies make clear that religion is situated in—and not outside of— “human belief, behavior and social systems.” This is not necessarily the same as the drivers behind the journal, Culture and Religion, (the need for an interdisciplinary approach to religion as a particularly complex phenomenon) or Virginia Tech’s Department of Religion and Culture (the pervasiveness of religion(s) in various spaces and times) Thus “culture” becomes an intellectual boundary marker within the profession, a shibboleth for outlining disciplinary dialogues.

Lastly, in contrast to the complexities of “religion,” the nuances of “culture” more readily resonate with our publics, making for some easy teachable moments. As a teaching example, I can quickly spur a discussion by asking students to list definitions of the term—as the best of a people, as a mode of a people, as a people. This is the stuff of Raymond Williams, yes? (Nye does a great breakdown of this in the seminar’s assigned reading.)

But I can also ask students to think about their responses in light of the word’s root and extensions: cult, cultivate, acculturate, culture wars, culture shock. Already we have grounds for a richer conversation about what humans are doing.

To be clear, this is not a simple question of etymologies. It’s about genealogies of human meaning-making. We’re better with the social facts of culture than we are with religion. In trying to move past the privileging of “religion” that Taira and others critique, scholars are trying to bring at least the same order of questioning. That’s the point of tethering religion and culture.

Think of the Children

It’s on this note that my thoughts turn back to my students. What’s the take away for them? Here is where I think they have at least one up on professional scholars. They’re duly engaged in an enterprise that’s a means to an end, not an end itself.

Who really knows what the butterfly effect will be from Wednesday’s class?

My hope is that all this historicizing, deconstructing, and wordsmithing is not an end in itself.

Likewise, deconstructing, historicizing, and wordsmithing may be a part of our job, but I sincerely hope they’re not ends in and of themselves.

What intrigues me most about Taira’s study on the People of the Bear is his recognition that discourse can come with a body count. On this score, I’m also appreciative of Nye’s understanding of the racial valence of “reconstruction.”

So when my students ask me whether these debates over “religion” are worth it, the answer for me is yes. It’s the discipline of paying attention to all manner of human machinations–good, bad, and ugly. I may stop short of labeling which is which in my scholarship, but as Taira argues, there are some noteworthy stakes in how and what we name. What fuels my interest is not that we’ve taken too seriously our definitions of religion but the likelihood that we have yet to take our cultural proclivities seriously enough.

I like to think that this is what the history of religion has to offer the rest of the human sciences. Our familiarity with the inspired and insipid maneuvering that has happened under the banner “religion” should prod ancillary disciplines to ask whether they’re seeing what we’re seeing.

Whither the study of religion and culture when we pride ourselves on naming what only some can see?

Richard-Newton PictureRichard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at  Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @seedpods.


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