Scholar of American Religion

Tag: Theory and Method

The History of “World Religions” in American History

masuzawa coverAn earlier version of this post appeared on the Religion in American History blog.

Recently I have found myself thinking about the role of “World Religions discourse” in shaping U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War. This led me to a broader set of questions about the place of World Religions discourse (WRD) in U.S. history. As the New York Times recently noted, the study of World Religions is alive and well in the United States. What are the historical roots of this? How might we make sense of WRD within the history of American religion?

Where I started—and I imagine where many others did too—is with Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions. (Side note: this book has a fantastic cover.) Masuzawa is interested in how, when, and why certain people started talking about the “religions of the world.” You can get a sense of her conclusions from the rest of the title after the colon: “…Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism.” Masuzawa writes that

This book concerns a particular aspect of the formation of modern European identity, a fairly recent history of how Europe came to self-consciousness: Europe as a harbinger of universal history, as a prototype of unity amid plurality.

Masuzawa’s research is part of a larger body of work looking at WRD as it relates to European expansion and colonialism. Other work with this focus that I’ve found helpful includes Donald Lopez’s Curators of the Buddha, Nicholas Dirks’ Castes of Mind, Josephson’s The Invention of Religion in Japan, and David Chidester’s Savage SystemsBut what about the American context? Of course, much in these books can be applied—and is indeed directly relevant—to American history. But since this blog deals with religion in American history specifically, I wonder: How has the study of world religions been institutionalized in the United States, by whom, and to what ends? How have Americans come to understand foreign “religions” as part of a coherent global system, and what effects has this had on American religion at home?

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Paging Edward Said

There’s a lot to say about the coverage of Reza Aslan’s interview with Fox News.

Andrew Kaczynski over at Buzzfeed covered the interview under the title “Is This The Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done?” (I bet you can’t guess how he answers that particular question.) Amusement and outrage was evident on Twitter as well, where the #foxnewslitcrit hashtag has become popular in religious studies circles.

The most interesting part of this, to me, is Fox News host Lauren Green’s opening question: “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” The logic of Green’s question seems to be that being a Muslim precludes one from studying Christianity. At the very least, it seeks to color with suspicion those Muslims who choose to study it. There’s much to be said about this, of course, and one of my colleagues Thomas Whitley already summed up much of what I’d like to say. So, too, did Imran Ali Malik:

Karen Armstrong Continue reading

Cross-Post: Response to Kelly J. Baker

This post originally appeared on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion’s blog. You can view the rest of the responses as they are posted on the Bulletin’s blog.


“When we conceal from our students our hard work, that which is actually the way we earn our bread and butter, we produce a number of consequences. I remember testifying once before the California state legislature and facing a legislator who wanted to know why professors should be paid to read novels, when the legislator himself read novels on the train every day. Well, that was the price of our disguising the work that goes into things.”

                                     -J.Z. Smith, “Duplicity in the Disciplines”

“A new present requires a new past.”

                                                            – Sydney Ahlstrom (1972)

In “Evidentiary Boundaries and Improper Interventions,” Baker argues that our field suffers from a lack of attention to the boundaries which separate legitimate from illegitimate evidence. She puts it most succinctly in the footnotes: “What I want to point to, however, is how some evidence is employed to mark legitimate religion/religions” (Baker 2012, 10). Baker’s attentiveness to these boundaries is helpful, as are her suggested improvements. Baker argues that it cannot be improved by simply adding more to the canon. Expanding coverage to every group for the sake of doing so, she suggests, smacks of an outmoded trust in pluralism as progress. However, since I suspect a post detailing my agreement with Baker’s article would not make for an interesting read, I will highlight a few areas to challenge. In short, though I agree with the substance of Baker’s critique, it is with the why of the critique that I am more troubled.

Baker’s evidentiary concerns are evidence of astute scholarly analysis: “If the “illegitimate” functions as code for “inauthentically” religious, we should push against that boundary to know why exactly legitimacy or illegitimacy still matters for the subfield” (Baker 2012, 7, emphasis my own). While Baker’s observations are insightful, her normative claims about the state of the field and its potential future—that which “we should push against—warrant further analysis. Authenticity struggles matter to Baker because “authentic” religion still matters for American culture as a whole. Yet whether it is to achieve tax-exempt status (Urban 2011) or to secure political representation (Flake 2003) the boundaries of legitimate/illegitimate are not just those drawn (or imagined) by scholars. The fear that Baker identifies and hopes to alleviate, then, is unavoidable because the category of religion is contested in the broader public sphere. Continue reading

Religious Studies and Social Media

Joined by several of my graduate colleagues from FSU, I spent this past weekend in Indianapolis at the Third Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture. Hosted by the Center of the same name, the conference brought together a variety of scholars broadly interested in Religious Studies in an American context.

One of the most interesting panels was the Saturday session on “Religion and Social Media,” featuring Verity Jones, Kathryn Reklis, Scott Thuma and Jonathan Van Antwerpen. The panelists began by discussing how religious groups have made use of various forms of social media, but the conversation quickly shifted to how scholarly approaches to digital media are informed by our own theoretical frameworks. Reklis challenged attendees to conceive of the digital world as “cyberspace” rather than “virtual,” arguing that “virtual” suggests a degree of un-realness reflective of an old way of thinking about the Internet. Everything on the Internet, Reklis suggested, is very much real. Van Antwerpen employed the vocabulary of Pierre Bourdieu to suggest that social media may best be understood as improvised fields of discursive struggle. The attendees seemed to be split about the utility of social media for scholars of religion. Not surprisingly, that split seemed to be largely (but not entirely) generational. Continue reading

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