Book: On the Subject of Religion
Chapter: Response: The Beauty of the “Religion” Problem
This chapter attempts to critically nuance Russell McCutcheon’s argument that little has changed in the study of religion in recent decades. McCutcheon argues that despite the “critical gains” made by scholars such as Jonathan Z. Smith, Bruce Lincoln, Tomoko Masuzawa, and even his own work, contemporary scholars of religion continue to deploy sui generis notions of religion and tired phenomenological pathologies from earlier generations. These are now simply repackaged under the auspices of various new and putatively innovative methods. Yet, if McCutcheon persuasively demonstrates the persistence of these ideas in the study of religion, this chapter raises the questions of how to explain historically this perceived persistence. In other words, noticing repetition over time is one thing, accounting for it historically is something else. What are the specific historical circumstances—social, cultural, and institutional—that might explain the continued appeal of sui generis ideas of religion and phenomenological approaches to scholars of religion? By way of an answer, this chapter suggests that critical scholars’ overemphasis on the late 19th and early 20th century historical origins and formative ideologies of the field has produced a rather procrustean view of these matters in discussing later historical developments. Such a view posits a long and unbroken arc of rather vague sentiments of Protestant prejudices and colonial chauvisms that sidesteps careful dissection of how the category religion, its field of study, and their specific relationship to wider institutional and social arrangements has changed in the mid-to-late 20th and early 21st centuries.