Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Interview with the Editors: Stereotyping Religion

Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Clichés (London, UK: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017)
Interview with Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin

What is the main argument in this book?

CM: In a sense, this book is the exact opposite of the “Religion for Dummies” or “The Idiot’s Guide to Religion” sorts of literature. Whereas those books are designed to tell us what “religion” basically is, this book suggests that “religion” is not basically anything.

BS: This book takes some of the more common cliches about religion as its object of study. Each essay addresses one of the ten more common cliches (religions are belief systems, religion makes people moral, religions are bullshit, to name but a few) where it discusses the cliche’s history, assumptions, and political work that the cliche performs.

What motivated your work?

CM: Much of my teaching involves un-teaching, in the sense that I have to fight against popular cliches about religion. Frustratingly, they come from multiple directions at once: some liberal students assume religion is somehow essentially oppressive, while some conservative students might assume that religion is essential to morality, etc. Perhaps above all else is the assumption that religion is in some way a fundamentally private or spiritual thing; for some this means that religion does not or ought not have public consequences, and for others this means that religion concerns an individual’s relation to a world above--what both views have in common is that “religion” is not seen primarily as a social thing, or only secondarily a social thing. Since I tend to be very Durkheimian in my approach to the subject matter, this kills me!

In addition to wanting a text that would help with un-teaching, I wanted a text that I could recommend to friends outside religious studies who are confused about what is it we do in our field. No, we’re not studying “faiths” or “belief systems.” No, we’re not teaching students about the nature of the divine. And, perhaps most importantly, no, we’re not promoting religious tolerance and ecumenism. Some of my liberal friends seem to assume--on the basis of the fact that I’m left-leaning--that what I do in class might best be represented by those “co-exist” bumper stickers. But no!!! We’re historicizing discourses and ideologies!

What theory or theorists inform your method and methodology?

CM: I think poststructuralist anti-essentialism lies behind the book as a whole. While there are clearly differences of opinion across the contributors, all of them accept that any attempt to offer a “here’s religion in a nutshell” narrative is destined to be greatly problematic.

Secondly, I think the authors also widely assume that the historicization of the use of the concept of “religion”--by scholars such as Russ McCutcheon, Tomoko Masuzawa, and Tim Fitzgerald--are crucial to our work. The modern invention of “religion” was thoroughly imbricated with colonialism, imperialism, and Euro-centirsm, and we must be continually vigilant regarding the normative baggage our discourses carry.

BS: Building off Craig’s answer, critical theory lurks in the background of every essay, although it’s rarely evoked explicitly.

How might the book be used or how has it been used in a classroom?

CM: I haven’t had the chance to use it yet, but I’m anxious to give it a try. We’ve designed it to be accessible to 18 year old college students--we demanded a lot of revisions for clarity from the contributors!

BS: We imagine the book can be used in any RS class, but it’s best suited for an intro class or any class that addresses method and theory. Each chapter is free from jargon and should be accessible to any undergraduate.

How do you think students would most benefit from your book?

BS: Some students might read this book and assume we’re critiquing specific cliches, but that some unexplored cliches about religion might be more relevant or insightful. In the book’s intro, we make it clear that this is not our goal. Instead, we argue that students can apply the book’s methodologies to interrogate any and all cliches about religion. Ideally, students will use this book as an opportunity to question some of their basic assumptions about religion. Who would most benefit from this book? Anyone who claims to have a universal theory about religion or who hasn’t thought about the history of a particular cliche or about the partisan interests it serves.

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