MRBlog | DISPATCHES. NEH Summer Institute on Problems in the Study of Religion (pt. 1) by Sarah E. Rollens

(Photo Credit: Sarah E. Rollens)

By Sarah E. Rollens

On May 31, the NEH Summer Institute on Problems in the Study of Religion was convened at the University of Virginia. Whether you’re wondering, “what problems?” or alternatively asking “how the heck are you going to cover such an enormous topic in three weeks?”, you should just keep reading. My goal here is to simply relay some of this scholarly discussion to MRB’s readers and describe (briefly) some of the books we engaged with in order to showcase the kinds of issues that are currently occupying religionists’ minds.

In the first week, participants tackled the thorny relationship between religion and science. Peter Harrison, the author of our first book The Territories of Science and Religion (2015), suggests that the insurmountable conflict that many people perceive to exist between religion and science is a very recent phenomenon, resulting from significant changes in how religion was understood in the early modern period and how science came to be defined as a specialized enterprise in the 19th century.

To make this argument, Harrison traces the discourse of both concepts in the pre-modern and modern periods. In his analysis, he discovers that ancient scientia was understood very differently from today, and in fact, was routinely marked by moralizing discourse. To have scientia in pre-modern contexts was to have a kind of virtue that oriented one toward knowledge (through the pursuit of understanding the world) and thus toward the oft-sought Good. In this sense, scientia and religio (understood similarly as a virtue that disposed one toward living well by understanding what God wants one to do) shared a conceptual territory. Through time, religio started to claim more authority over morality, at the same time as it (especially in Protestantism) started to become more and more interested in articulating certain propositional beliefs to differentiate various denominations.

Once those “interior” (a category with which many participants were rather uncomfortable) virtues were externalized into propositional beliefs, according to Harrison, they could then be assessed as true or false statements—just like scientific claims. Suddenly in modernity, therefore, religion and science are both competing for factually correct claims about reality in a way that they had not prior. And given the dominance that religion still had in early modernity, Harrison suggests that religion (by this, he really means the Church) was not ready to give up its authority on morality, which was still embedded in the hybrid “natural theology,” but was willing to cede the territory of the physical sciences to a separate domain.

Harrison’s work is best understood as a warning for scholars not to import anachronistic categories such as science and religion into the past to chart some artificial trajectory or to explain the origins of a contemporary conflict of categories. His analysis convincingly shows that the histories of the categories are far for complex than that.

Yet his argument ends up with a perhaps too neat trajectory of how both discourses develop over time. Participants in the Institute saw this tidy narrative as a result of his method and of the nature of his sources. In particular, since he is charting a very specific intellectual genealogy of concepts, his sources tend to draw from elite, literate males such as Augustine, Aquinas, Origen, and the like—at the expense of how folks on the ground may have understood religion and science. This means that though he seems to be creating a meta-narrative of these discourses, many voices are left out. But this makes some sense when we realize that it is precisely this elite intellectual genealogy that has been so influential in “the West” so as to suggest the insurmountable conflict between religion and science.

Next up was the work of Edward (Ted) Slingerland, who takes for granted the oppositional nature of “science” and “religion” in his book What Science Offers the Humanities: Integrating Body and Culture (2008). His main concern is how cognition and perception work in the creation of meaning, especially when it comes to things that occupy the realm of religion. Before he proposes ways that the sciences can help the humanities better ground the discussion of the construction of meaning, he frames his study as an intervention in a wider scholarly debate in the humanities: the impasse between hyper-objectivism and complete social determinism. He wants to find a way to take seriously the common, bodily-based cognitive structures that all humans have and to use them as a starting point to understand cultural expressions of religious belief. In other words, for him, analyzing perception, cognition, and meaning-making entail far more than just discussing discursive constructions.

Since Slingerland’s book is intentionally provocative (for instance, postmodernist analyses are described as “intellectual masturbation” [100]), the Institute had a number of questions. In particular, it seemed to many that his notions of “science” and “humanities” were oddly rigid. When he discussed what “science” could offer the humanities, what he really seemed to mean was what could cognitive science offer. On the flip side, in a couple places in his book, his understanding of what humanities scholars do seemed to presuppose that we dealt only with interior “mind matters”—a rather reductionistic notion of the humanities.

We also wondered if his focus on a pre-cognitive, universal dimension to human cognition and perception could be used—at least in theological circles—as a way to make space for a real, grounded experience of religion, and in some sense, it keep it as an objective and “true” thing.

A highlight of the Institute was that Slingerland himself was able to come discuss his book with us in the session following our initial discussion of the book. Despite the provocative rhetoric in his book, his responses to our critiques were far more measured than many had anticipated. He acknowledged that What Science Offers the Humanities made too little of the cultural dimension of the construction of meaning, but also clarified that this was a result of the wider aim of dislodging the primacy that many religionists assign to cultural and social constructivism. Some of his more recent publications have taken a more nuanced approach.

(Ted Slingerland; Photo Credit: Sarah E. Rollens)

He also discussed his current work on the digital humanities and religion, funded by a hefty granted from the Canadian government, which aims to synthesize a remarkable amount of data on religious studies into an accessible data base. Since this is still a work in progress, it remains to be seen what the end results will look like. I, for one, had a lot of lingering questions about how one goes about organizing the “data” of religious studies and how one’s presuppositions affect that organization.

The last book that the Institute read in the first week was Anne Taves’ Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things (2009). Taves proposes a functionalist approach to breaking down and then analyzing the elements of religious experience—or, in her words, “experiences deemed religious,” which is a crucial distinction. Since she admits that the experiences themselves are inaccessible to the scholar, all we can really study are the processes of identifying certain experiences as significant: “the deeming,” as she calls it. Moreover, she wants to access the process that creates all levels of significance, not just religious significance. Thus, she jettisons “religion” for the broader category “special things.” As she argues, we need to focus on the process of singularization, whereby some experiences are deemed “special” (and hence, capable of being understood as religious), the “special paths” that are understood to achieve them, and the processes of ascription and attribution that incorporate meaning into this process. “Experience” is thus not a singular thing that we can study, but a multi-stage process of signification that we can see play out in ordinary human cognition. These facets of experience are the “blocks” that she will use to “build” her approach to religious experience.

Part of Taves’ project appears to be to negotiate (and in some ways, placate) the huge amount of diversity among scholars who study religion. Her carefully plotted strategy of focusing on “special things” and the ways that individuals engage with them is intended to offend neither insiders nor outsiders. Put differently, she wants to find a way for us to take seriously and negotiate insider claims to experience without buying into the reality of their interpretive framework. And she leaves room for the political dimension of the discussion when she acknowledges that the researcher needs to ask about who is allowed to deem and under what conditions.

Some participants in the Institute were uncomfortable with her awkward language when speaking about these objects of study (“special things,” “special paths,” “things deemed religious”), but it does help to keep in mind that she sincerely seems to want to find a way forward to break down “religious experience” into manageable elements for analysis and achieve some consistency in the discussion. That seems to be the real conceptual payoff for her strategic use of these categories. Even so, I am still uncomfortable with the seemingly uncritical acceptance of the insider’s account of their experience.

Taves’ method, many participants noted, really only applies to certain sorts of remarkable, individual experiences that people deem “religious.” It does not really help us with, say, the very routine and ordinary aspects of religious belief and practice that are not deemed “special” at all by the participant—and religions are full of such mundane dimensions. Moreover, her focus on the processes of signification does not allow us to focus on static “states of being” or really even on communal experiences. In my understanding, religious experiences in her analysis are restricted to those that are individual, dynamic, and transient.

If you’re looking for some tidy conclusions about these issues, look elsewhere. These books are engaging with on-going problems in religious studies that will likely never be definitely resolved, because they depend so strongly on one’s theoretical assumptions and methodological orientation toward one’s objects of study. So I’ll give the last word for this initial report to Captain Jack Sparrow:

“The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude toward the problem. Do you understand?” –Captain Jack Sparrow

In the second week, the Institute will look closely at so-called “deep” histories of religion—Stay tuned!

All pictures are property of the author. The views expressed represent author’s experience in the Institute and not necessarily those of the other participants or the directors.