Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia
By Russell T. McCutcheon
Oxford University Press 249 pp. $32

The academic study of religion is in something of a theoretical muddle at the moment. In its early days it defined itself mostly by contrast with theology, presenting itself as neutral and scientific rather than confessional and committed, in the service of the academy rather than the church. But the impact of postmodernist and poststructuralist thought of various kinds has left its practitioners unsure that this distinction can be coherently maintained, and as a result unsure of the value of what they are doing, or indeed that they are doing anything at all. This self-doubt shows itself in endless fascination with debates about method, and in the tendency of younger scholars to seek the dissolution of the discipline into those that seem slightly less riven by self-doubt (history, sociology, cultural theory). This is the context for Russell T. McCutcheon’s book.

Given that context, it is not surprising that this is not a book about religion. It is, instead, a book about certain kinds of talk about religion; it argues, with an air of drama and mystery, that books about religion should have no other topic. It’s as if a baseball writer, unsure that it’s any longer worth writing about a cultural fiction like baseball, were to argue that the only proper topic of baseball books is the prose style and political convictions of other baseball writers.

Some talk about religion makes its object out to be unique, autonomous, self-generated, essentially independent of culture and history, and not amenable to study by the methods beloved of historians, sociologists, psychologists, and other toilers in the vineyards of the Geisteswissenschaften. It is this kind of talk that interests McCutcheon, who is a teacher of religion at Southwestern Missouri State University. He thinks it a bad thing and one that ought to stop, mostly because of the unpleasant effects he judges it to have upon everything from the university to the geopolitical order.

McCutcheon’s paradigm of the wrong kind of talk about religion is found in the work of Mircea Eliade, a Romanian scholar of religion a good part of whose academic career was spent in the U.S. Almost half the book is devoted to an examination of the ideas about the nature of religion implied by Eliade’s work, and by the scholarly reception of this work. The second half of the book comments on the ways in which religion is understood and presented in college and university textbooks, and in the work of scholars of religion concerned (as they endlessly are) to explain their method; it also offers some arguments about the connections between these understandings of religion and the political, economic, and institutional conditions that make their development possible.

McCutcheon’s fundamental conviction is that if you think of religion in general (or indeed any particular religion) as in any sense transhistorical, autonomous, and unique, you will be using a protective strategy: you will be insulating yourself and your talk from “uncomfortable questions about standpoint and privilege” and from hard-nosed sociopolitical analysis. And you will be doing this principally in the interest of preserving your own power and influence by insulating these things from criticism (and even from discussion). You will become a prophet speaking the word from beyond history and out of this world; or you will become a priest delivering to the people the latest authoritative interpretation of divine revelation. And in either case you will be protected, because what you say will have (or will be taken to have) special status. Christian theologians, thinks McCutcheon, have always adopted these strategies; and many contemporary academics working on religion do the same, using what is in fact an ersatz, transposed form of theology whose object is no longer God and God’s demands upon us, but rather this mysterious thing called religion. McCutcheon’s natives, those whom he studies as participant-observer, are precisely these academics: his fieldwork is done, as he says, at academic conferences, departmental curriculum meetings, and other such exotic sites.

The scale, says McCutcheon (quoting Mircea Eliade), makes the phenomenon, which means that the concepts you use to order your study will determine how that study goes. If you use a concept of religion that makes of it a transhistorical essence you will almost certainly not pay attention to local, contingent, social, and political factors in your study, because such things are not what your “scale” is designed to measure. This seems right, even if trivially so. But McCutcheon adds to it another claim, which is that scholars of religion ought never to use scales that encourage or require them to pay attention to transhistorical or ahistorical matters (such as God or the true nature of things). Instead, they ought always and everywhere to historicize, to localize, to look at what happens on the ground, to study religion in terms only of minds, economies, societies, classes, and genders, and to eschew talk of gods, spirits, revelations, and truth. This normative claim recommends (even requires) the use of one final vocabulary for scholars of religion, and therefore naturally places a ban upon the use of all others. But how, given McCutcheon’s own avowedly naturalistic perspective upon matters religious and philosophical, is it possible to justify or argumentatively defend such a normative claim?

McCutcheon’s first strategy here is simple. He argues that if you study religion as an ahistorical essentialist you will, as a result, be led to ignore (or at least pay insufficient attention to) historical specificity. The implication here is that more is better: the more things a particular method gets its users to pay attention to, the better. The ideal method would get its users to pay attention to everything. In making this argument (and it is made ad nauseam in the book), McCutcheon shows himself to be in the grip of a notion of scholarship according to which the ideal explanation of anything is the total explanation, and in which, correspondingly, the most damaging criticism of any scholarly method is to say that it ignores something.

But this is an odd move to make. Obviously, McCutcheon’s own preferred program in the study of religion leads him to ignore various things. He has no time, for example, for arguments about God’s nature or existence, or about whether there are any necessary truths. The truth is that all intellectual enterprises inevitably ignore some possibilities in favor of looking at others, and so it can hardly be a criticism of any particular enterprise to point out that it does this. If McCutcheon had no other arguments in support of his recommended program and against ahistorical essentialism, it is hard to see why anyone would take his recommendation of it seriously.

But he does offer another, broadly ethical, argument for the desirability of his program. McCutcheon thinks that if you’re an ahistorical essentialist when you study religion you will abstract both those you study and yourself from “socioeconomic and historical particularity” and turn them and yourself into “generic, disembodied minds . . . easily quantified and-on the geopolitical scale at least-governed.” This, says McCutcheon, is part of the process of alienation, a process that removes agency and specificity from particular human subjects, makes of them tokens of a particular type (perhaps the type “religious believer”) and thus commodifies and subjugates them.

This is a puzzling argument-if, indeed, it is an argument at all. A connection is asserted, but not developed with anything like conceptual precision. It’s hard to see just why McCutcheon thinks the connection obtains, especially since the institutional arrangements that provide a safe haven for his despised ahistorical essentialists (the modern university) are precisely the same, economically and structurally speaking, as those that provide a safe haven for him and his beloved naturalists. Given his own views about the importance of paying attention to the institutional arrangements that harbor and make possible any intellectual enterprise, McCutcheon ought to think that when these arrangements are identical, strictly intellectual or conceptual differences are relatively insignificant. If the institutional location of ahistorical essentialists contributes to alienation, why doesn’t that of naturalists? The locations are, after all, the same, and someone who is really interested in the significance of the material conditions of the possibility of holding any view (as McCutcheon claims to be) ought to worry when the victory of one view over another makes no discernible institutional difference. If the institutions that harbor ahistorial essentialists are intrinsically alienating, replacing them with naturalists in the same institutions won’t have much effect-or so McCutcheon ought to think.

There’s another oddity about the ethical argument. It claims that thinking there are tokens of the type “religious believer” or “lover of God” has the alienating consequences mentioned, and that this is because it essentializes. But why should the same not be true of thinking that there are tokens of the type homo economicus or homo politicus (which McCutcheon does think)? Why isn’t this also essentialism, and why doesn’t it also have deleterious effects upon those about whom it is thought?

A final oddity about McCutcheon’s program is the extent to which it exhibits precisely the blindness against which it inveighs. McCutcheon criticizes essentialist scholars of religion (Mircea Eliade and Wilfred Cantwell Smith, among others) for being insufficiently aware of the complex connections between their theoretical views and the institutional, political, and economic setting that makes the development of these views possible, and which is in turn supported and validated by these views. But his book shows almost no awareness of the relations between the intellectual program he advocates and its institutional and political setting. It is certainly correct that “the mid-twentieth-century discourse on sui generis religion and the rise of new forms of political, economic, and military hegemony are intimately related”; it is correct, too, that making this fact explicit is helpful in many ways. But to what forms of hegemony is McCutcheon’s program related? For what institutional unpleasantnesses and oppressions is it both lackey and paid theorist? McCutcheon doesn’t even ask: he seems to think that his work and the kind of work he recommends are immune from such connections. But this is exceedingly odd given the fact that his book argues that there are always such connections, and that they ought always be paid attention to.

What mcCutcheon wants is for scholars to study religion by producing nothing other than a “tactical, oppositional discourse.” By this he means a discourse committed only to historicizing (showing the local and contingent historical location of) that which it studies. He thinks it possible to do this in such a way that the scholar who does it makes no claims, either explicitly or implicitly, about transhistorical, unverifiable matters of fact or value (such as the claim that God exists). But to think that such a neutral, tactical discourse is available is the last illusion of the positivist; McCutcheon’s own work is riddled with ethical and metaphysical convictions, some explicit and more implicit. This is inevitable, but its denial is either disingenuous or blinkered.

If McCutcheon were able to recognize his search for a merely tactical discourse as a quest for an illusion, the scales might fall from his eyes and he might come to see that everything is, in the end and in the beginning, theology. This is in fact the charitable way to read his book: as prolegomena to theology. The only other way to read it-probably too uncharitable-is as a tissue of self-aggrandizing confusions.

Paul J. Griffiths is Professor of the Philosophy of Religions in the Divinity School of the University of Chicago.