A.T. Coates

PhD Candidate in American Religion, Duke University.

Tag: key terms in religious studies

Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (1966)

Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (Routledge, 1966)

Douglas’s classic anthropological study offers an extended meditation on the concepts of dirt and contagion. As a structuralist, Douglas insists that social categories pervade all levels of experience—from the arrangement of homes to understandings of the body. Lest society descend into chaos, these categories require constant policing and maintenance. Ambiguous and anomalous things must be incorporated into some category or another—or banished from society altogether. Certain things must remain taboo or off-limits to define and solidify the boundaries of a community. Pollution spreads without intent or moral wrongdoing: mere contact with the forbidden is enough, since the real issue is transgression of the social order. Unlike earlier anthropologists, Douglas insists that all societies remain similarly vigilant against disorder. This applies not just to the “primitive” societies imagined by earlier anthropologists, but modern Euro-American societies as well. For Douglas, symbolic actions of taming disorder—rituals of purification, strategies for managing danger—provide a strong base for the comparative study of religion, since they reveal the deep structures of societies. She rejects Tylor’s definition of religion, “belief in spiritual beings,” demanding instead that scholars of religion compare “peoples’ views about man’s destiny and place in the universe” (35). Rejecting hard-and-fast distinctions between the sacred and the secular, Douglas studies the social construction of religion via bodily practice, symbolic action, and ritual. In short, she uses cultural analysis as a way of approaching how religions work, rather than identifying religion as any particular thing in the world.

Douglas’s chapter “Secular Defilement” could prove very useful in a religion 101 class—particularly if the class dealt with a topic like zombies, vampires, ghosts, spirituality, etc. In this chapter, Douglas examines our own society’s notions of dirt and cleanliness. While we like to believe that we clean for medically sound reasons, Douglas shows that this simply isn’t true. Everyone in our society stores their kitchen cleaning supplies in the same place: under the sink. If you met someone who kept the Mr. Clean next to the mugs, you would probably run away scared. But why? It’s dirty. The clean bottle of cleaning fluid and the clean mugs together become dirty. For Douglas, the explanation for such behavior reveals the systems of classification operative in our society: “Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements” (44). Later, she explains that “dirt is that which must not be included if a pattern is to be maintained,” it is “matter out of place” (50). In other words, “dirtiness” applies to things that just don’t fit into our cultural system’s normal categories.

But there’s the rub—for Douglas, everything has to fit into the system somehow, even if only as “dirt.” This makes her book a good conversation partner for later works on materiality. In particular, I think it would make an interesting intro to Todd Ochoa’s Society of the Dead, where the question is precisely how thinking matter, especially unbounded matter, can upset our usual categories of analysis. “Dirt” may just have a mind of its own. It may not want to remain the castoff of a neat cultural system. It likes to mess us up.

Review by A.T.

F. Max Müller, Linguistic studies of religion

F. Max Müller, Natural Religion (1888-1892) – http://www.giffordlectures.org/Author.asp?AuthorID=127

F. Max Müller, Preface to Sacred Books of the East (1879) – http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbe01/sbe01002.htm

When Max Müller delivered the first ever Gifford Lectures in 1888, he already had an impressive C.V. Müller’s scientific approach to language helped pave the way for modern linguistics. He “discovered” many of the world’s major language families, systematically tracing connections between languages as different as Sanskrit and English (Indo-European). He presented European readers with some of the first serious translations of the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Dhammapada. His 50-volume edited series Sacred Books of the East brought together some of the best Orientalist scholarship of the day, convincing westerners that Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, Taoism, Islam (which he called Mohammedanism), Buddhism, and Hinduism had their own “Bibles.” His reputation has justifiably suffered in our own time at the hands of postcolonial theory, but his work is indispensible for any interested in the disciplinary history of religious studies. In some ways, Müller represents the most repugnant form of Orientalism: completely oblivious to his work’s relationship to European imperialism (e.g. he heartily thanks the British East India Company for giving him manuscripts of the Upanishads), Müller truly believed that his project leveled the playing field between religions and created a basis for fair comparison. In the preface to Sacred Books of the East, he writes: “If some of those who read and mark these translations learn how to discover some such precious grains in the sacred books of other nations, though hidden under heaps of rubbish, our labour will not have been in vain, for there is no lesson which at the present time seems more important than to learn that in every religion there are such precious grains.” Every religion holds precious grains in heaps of rubbish… yikes.

Müller attempts to establish a scientific system for studying religion by linking religion with language. There’s a fine distinction worth noting here: Müller links religion to language, not to texts. Though his systematic approach to the documentation and translation of sacred texts still drives much of religious studies today, Müller himself understood the study of religious texts as only one necessary part of the historical study of religion and language—if there’s one thing textual studies do well, after all, it is to document miniscule changes in language over time. But Müller’s scope is much bigger than just textual study, for he sees texts as a window into the “purer” data provided by ancient minds. He aims at nothing less than discovering the basic essence of religion, and uses texts to remove the accretions that have built over time. For Müller, religion forms part of human nature—it belongs to the natural world, to humanity’s capabilities as creatures in nature. It begins with the basic experiences of sensation, perception, conception, and naming. As many a pot-smoking high school student has discovered, we perceive that the sky is blue because we have a word “blue” that names a particular concept (not red, green, yellow, etc.). Müller goes one step further, asserting that we understand why the sky sometimes seems to hurt us if we attach religious significance to the word “sky.” Religion, according to Müller, helps us to make sense of the infinite in our finite experience, allows us to conceptualize and explain things like the boundlessness of the horizon, the world in a grain of sand, and elemental causes: “Anything that lifts a man above the realities of this material life is religion” (lecture 20). Müller argues that we can only achieve accurate comparison and classification of religions by beginning with this “natural religion,” since it levels the field between bookless religions and religions of the book, individual religions (with a founder) and non-individual religions (no founder), primitive religions and advanced religions.

Review by A.T. Coates

David Bebbington, “The Dominance of Evangelicalism: The Age of Spurgeon and Moody” (2005)

David Bebbington, The Dominance of Evangelicalism: The Age of Spurgeon and Moody (InterVarsity, 2005)

Image: Charles Haddon Spurgeon preaching at the Music Hall in the Royal Surrey Gardens, 1856.

Bebbington delivers a very readable introduction to evangelicalism in the late nineteenth century. Aimed at a non-specialist audience, it would work well in an undergraduate survey of evangelicalism or in a graduate class on approaches to the study of evangelicalism. Most famously, this book presents a succinct definition of evangelicalism—one that has become standard in the field. Bebbington identifies four defining emphases of “evangelicalism”: 1) crucicentrism, emphasis on the centrality of Christ’s atoning work, 2) conversionism, emphasis on individual faith and conversion experience, 3) biblicism, emphasis on the Bible as the revealed Word of God, 4) activism, emphasis on spreading the gospel. Given its wide audience, the book focuses more on surveying the landscape than offering a controversial argument: Bebbington’s thesis claims that nineteenth century evangelicalism, carrying forward the “vigor” it inherited from the awakening of the eighteenth century, assumed a “dominant” role in the churches and cultures of the English-speaking world (see 252). Evangelicals stood at the vanguard of innovative church practice, set the trends in theology and in popular spirituality, and led all other churches in numerical growth. More than that, evangelicalism exerted major influence on cultural debates about sentimentalism, science, public education, sports/recreation, temperance, and women’s suffrage.

There’s much to praise about this book. Bebbington treats evangelicalism as a network that spanned the English-speaking world. Though most of the book’s action takes place in Great Britain and the United States, Bebbington traces evangelical connections around the globe—Canada, South Africa, Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand play their parts. More importantly, he stresses that evangelicals themselves thought of their movement in global terms. That said, Bebbington is also careful enough to draw attention to the “diversity” of this global movement. While historians have tended to slice the evangelical pie nation by nation, Bebbington suggests that theological, social (esp. race and class), and denominational differences mattered more to evangelicals themselves. Canadian, American, Australian, and African Presbyterians probably shared more resources, styles of worship or devotion, and feelings of connection than most white American Presbyterians shared with black American Methodists. Despite such deep fissures, Bebbington insists that these were “internal contrasts… less important than the unity of the evangelical movement” (81, emphasis added).

As my regular readers will probably suspect (the few, the proud, the bored), I have some concerns with the centrality of “belief” in Bebbington’s definition. Though he calls them the evangelical movement’s “enduring priorities” (23), his crucicentrism, biblicism, conversionism, and activism are all abstract ideas to which individuals, or aggregates of like-minded individuals, can assent. They are “beliefs” of a very particular kind, though we hear nothing about their making. This set of intellectualized “priorities” floats through history like a ghost, manifesting and appearing in different expressions here, now there, now then. This ghost generates an “essence” of late nineteenth-century evangelicalism, one that gets embodied in Spurgeon and Moody (267). As far as I’m concerned, “belief” needs to remain under constant interrogation. We need to ask how “belief” gets assembled and reassembled in particular contexts. This certainly means examining the self-understandings of individuals if and when they assert them, but it also means attending to the objects, images, discourses, body disciplines, subjectivities, and social formations that constitute “belief” in a given case. The category of “belief” constantly gets made and remade, so whenever we invoke the category, we need to trace the associations that make it.

Review by A.T. Coates

Birgit Meyer and Dick Houtman, “Material Religion: How Things Matter”

Birgit Meyer and Dick Houtman, “Material Religion: How Things Matter” in Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality, ed. Meyer and Houtman(2012).

In their concise introduction to Things, Meyer and Houtman offer a very useful overview of the state of the field in material religion. If you are curious about what people mean by the supposed “material turn” in religious studies or if you just are looking to introduce the topic to an undergrad class, this essay lights the path well.

The essay begins with a justification for the project of studying religion by studying things. Like most of those committed to materializing the study of religion, Meyer and Houtman insist that the terms “religion” and “things” need not be conceived in antagonistic terms. Though some scholars want to eschew the term “religion” altogether, Meyer and Houtman think it can still serve useful functions if properly qualified. The historically contingent term “religion” is part of our public and scholarly discourse, like it or not, and it may yet have something to teach us. For the study of religious material culture, this especially means not privileging immaterial “beliefs” in our scholarly work. By turning our attention to things, we might learn new things about how “religion” operates in public discourse, in the academy, and in people’s lives. Like “religion,” things seem to be all around us, like it or not. But far from just inserting “things” into established scholarly paradigms (e.g. throwing a few pictures into a church history book), Meyer and Houtman insist on interrogating, situating, and historicizing “things”: “rematerialization [of the study of religion] is not simply a question of bringing ‘things’ back in, but requires a critical, reflexive endeavor that rescripts the meaning of materiality itself on the basis of detailed historical and ethnographic research” (8). In other words, we ought not take for granted what “things” are, what they can/can’t do, what people can/can’t do with them, for them, to them, etc. The study of religion proves an especially rich ground for investigating things because it contains so many examples of “bad objecthood”: totem, idol, and fetish to name just a few. Such “bad objects” reveal people’s assumptions about materiality and immateriality, about the “proper” spheres and relationships between “the spiritual” and “the material.”

Review by A.T. Coates

William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish”

William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish, II: The Origin of the Fetish.” Res: Anthropolgy and Aesthetics. No. 13 (Spring 1987): 23-45.

Rather than accepting and deploying the anthropological concept of “the fetish,” Pietz historicizes it. Far more than just a descriptor of “religious” practices, “fetishism” operated as an accusation that separated rational Europeans from irrational Africans, rational traders from deluded tribesmen, people from things, moderns from non-moderns. As Pietz demonstrates carefully, it was only peripherally related to pre-existing medieval religious concepts. Fetishism, in other words, did not come out of theological evaluation of a foreign religion—fetishism was never located within the traditional theological frameworks of witchcraft or idolatry. Rather, it was coined to describe undue allegiance to venial things, petty trifles, undeserving objects. Predicated on particular assumptions about materiality, fetishism served to reinforce a specific arrangement of power and the purity of the autonomous subject. Despite a little post-structuralist mustiness, the essay still offers much food for thought on religion and materiality, modern subjectivity, and “secular” exchange. In particular, the essay reminds us not to assume that exchange is–and has always been–secular and rational. Exchange offers a rich (and largely unexplored) field for analysis in religious studies.

According to Pietz, the word “fetish” derives from the Portuguese pidgin word “fetisso.” It emerged in the late 16th century on the West African coast. This is no curiosity: the term acquired its meaning in the context of colonial trade, bridging two cultures that were practically incomprehensible to each other. The European (primarily Portuguese and Dutch) traders used the term “fetish” to describe objects worn or ingested by the Africans, which were thought to be “quasi-personal powers” that could be coerced into exerting force on the material world (40). The Europeans found two major problems with the fetish—but both concerned economics. First, as far as the traders were concerned, all objects possessed exchange value. However, this exchange value easily became “distorted” in the fetish object. Africans would overvalue “trifles” as fetishes. Although often highly profitable, trading such items became much more complicated than “rational” exchange would require because the object of desire held personal, social, and/or religious value in addition to its exchange value. In short, what the Europeans regarded as the “secular” rationality of the market broke down in the face of the fetish. Second, in order to engage in trade with locals, Europeans frequently found themselves required to swear oaths on a fetish object. Instead of entering contracts between autonomous, rational individuals, Europeans had to enter social relations via “quasi-religious ceremonies” (45). It was precisely such “perverse superstitions” in matters of trade that conditioned the general theory of fetishism that developed later.

Pietz identifies four major aspects of the idea of the fetish. First, the fetish always denoted objects, things, “mere” matter—the fetish maintained “untranscended materiality” (23). The fetish concerned what things were and weren’t, what they could or couldn’t do, what their proper worth might be. Second, the fetish is not a natural concept, but arose out of a very particular historical encounter between two cultures in the context of colonialism. The term retains the weight of this historical encounter in every subsequent usage. Third, the “meaning and value” of the concept of the fetish depends on a particular social order (23). The concept of the fetish is an accusation that only makes sense under particular arrangements of power, arrangements which the term itself helps to establish and support. Fourth, the fetish served as an antithesis to the autonomous subject. Worn on the body of an individual, the fetish exerted its power from the outside. The accusation of fetishism sought to establish the proper bounds and responsibilities of the embodied subject.

Review by A.T. Coates

© 2014 A.T. Coates

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑