Postmodernism describes a perspective that questions ideas, values and assumptions associated with modern history. Postmodern art like the “Pop Art” of Andy Warhol challenged modern ideas about abstract, impressionistic, and even unaccessible styling that were all the rage in the 19th and early 20th century art scene of the US and Europe. As in the case with the image below, Warhol boldly depicted what people knew as if to argue that if art is about connecting with people and saying something important, then what could be more artistic than advertisements of what we consume–the images where recognition and desire meet? The phenomenon of “influencer” culture on social media is certainly an extensions of this.

An illustration of a can of Cambpell's Condensed Tomato Soup.
Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup I (1968).

While our book does not use these two terms, I want you to be familiar with them going forward because they reflect two common observations in the Postmodern study of religion.

The first is ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is a word we use to point out an understanding that takes a certain people group (cf. “ethne-“, Greek for people, nation) as a norm for comparison. It centers one experience at the expense of others. So if someone were to assume that life in Alabama were like everywhere else in the United States (let alone, the world), that would be ethnocentric. Alabama certainly has similarities to the other 49 states, but there are likely quite a few aspects of Alabama living that we would be unwise to just assume are common to customs and traditions elsewhere. As someone who has lived in a fair number of states and has traveled to quite a few countries, I can tell you that something “normal” one place is anything but in another.

The second term is Christocentrism. Similar to ethnocentrism, Christocentrism centers Christianity as a norm. When Christianity becomes the measure and baseline for how things are and should be, we have centered Christianity at the expense of other comparable ways of perceiving the world around us.

In the Postmodern study of religion, scholars try to step outside of the public’s everyday usage of the term and its associations in order to see how it works. This is a process commonly referred to as deconstruction (not to be confused with destruction). We want to see what’s under the hood, what’s going on when people talk about “religion.”

As you read for our assignment, you’ll find that many conversations about religion are rather Christocentric and ethnocentric. And while people are free to say and do as they please, these Christocentric and ethnocentric framings can keep us from a scholarly understanding of what’s going on.

To help us arrive at a scholarly understanding of how religion works in the world, I want you to pay attention to how Martin deconstructs the following debates. In addition to defining the words above, I want you to very briefly summarize Martin’s point about the following items below:

  • Science v. irrational religion
  • organized religion. v. spirituality

I also would like you to take note (literally) of what Martin has italicized on pages 14, 15, and 16. These are all common ways people define religion that you could. You’re likely to encounter them in the news, on the street, and around the dinner table. Just make sure you are familiar with these characterizations of religion.

  • Religion as a “belief system”
  • Religion as something the specifically concerns “supernatural”
  • Religion as “matters of faith”
  • Religion as concerning “the meaning of life”
  • Religion as concerning “spirituality” or “spiritual well-being”
  • Religion as “communal institutions oriented around a set of beliefs, ritual practices, and ethical or social norms.”

So far as the postmodern academic study of religion is concerned, when we deconstruct how “religion” works, we begin to see how “none of these definitions match the colloquial use exactly” (Martin, 16). As Craig Martin explains, this is “Because there are no features that are uniquely common to all traditions we typically call religions” (Martin, 14).

This doesn’t mean we should never use the term religion. But as scholars we need to ask what precisely do we mean when we say religion. Clarity on this point is harder than you think. But it can make all the difference in the world.

In class, we’ll deconstruct with how “religion” is treated in the following video. To prepare, I’d like you to watch it a couple of times after completing the reading and the notes above. Jot down anything you notice given what you’ve read. Note that the video is headlined as “The Decline of Religion in the US.” When we come back together, we’ll discuss how a postmodern scholar might respond.

Around 1:15, Barry Kosmin of Trinity College is saying and spelling the word “nones.” The Closed Captioning incorrectly uses the homophone “nuns” and says “not any of us.” The misrendering of Kosmin’s accent leads to an accidental reading of this identity label to which you might give some thought. Put differently, “nones” is more of a self-descriptor of individualization than it is a scholarly statement about religiosity. If you’re interested in thinking about this more, read University of Alabama Prof. Steven Ramey’s brief blog post on the phenomenon of the “nones” and the so-called decline in religion in the US.