Breaking Out Of The Guild

Dr. William Morrow
School of Religion

9780802868657My new book on biblical law has just been published: An Introduction to Biblical Law (Eerdmans). This was my first comprehensive effort to write something in my field for people who don’t belong to the guild, i.e., for more than “the twenty-five people in the world who care.”Actually, if you are schooled to the point of becoming a creature of the academy, it can be pretty hard to break out of the guild.

That insight struck me forcibly after recently giving a public lecture on the nature of the Islamic State. I used a number of theories current in the academic study of religion and violence to explain what I thought was going on. My audience, however, was not particularly interested in the theoretical perspectives I used. Q &A quickly moved to discussion of the current military and social challenges posed by ISIS. I came away from that experience wondering about the connection between scholarship and the needs of a general readership or public.

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For example, in Religious Studies we tend to spend a lot of time agonizing about the definition of religion—or whether there is one. But, I don’t think my audience cared very much for such nuances. In fact, I am sure they were confident they knew what religion was; if they didn’t like the religious vision of ISIS, they knew why. In part, I think that might be a function of the fact that I was addressing something of immediate concern. That’s one of the reasons why I prefer to discuss historical events rather than current events in my course on “Religion and Violence.” Time gives a certain kind of distance that allows for reflection and theorizing. Nevertheless, we scholars in religious studies have an obligation to speak to the publics that don’t belong to the guild.

I have undertaken that commitment in writing my new book. I am not sure what the experts will say about it, but I hope it says something to a public that needs to know how the knowledge we create can benefit them.



Dr. Ian Alexander Cuthbertson
Postdoctoral Fellow
Adjunct Assistant Professor
School of Religion

The term ‘religion’, as James Miller has pointed out on this blog, is inescapably tied to power. But decisions as to what counts as religion have consequences. These decisions cause some groups to become eligible for tax-exempt status (but not others) and some individuals benefit from constitutional protections of religious freedom (but not others).

Religious Studies presents itself as a neutral scientific investigation of a particular object of study: religion. Yet in grouping some individuals, practices, and institutions under the label ‘religion’ while excluding others, we scholars participate in a normative project. We adjudicate. We help determine which individuals and institutions merit the label ‘religion’ and which do not. In other words, the academic study of religion involves a process of religionization.

Religionization is perhaps unavoidable. I religionize each time I include a particular object, practice, or institutiojn in my syllabi. But I hope I have been successful in reframing the guiding question in my courses away from ‘what is religion?’ and toward ‘why does this count as religion?’ and its corollary, ‘why doesn’t this?’


How Liberal Are We Really?

Ruth Chitiz
MA Student
School of Religion


Scholars have presented a variety of theories as to why religion persists in the current Western world. Classical theories of secularization underestimated the extent to which religiosity would prove salient in contemporary societies and political arrangements because, let’s face it, the Western world is still very religious. This seems to be a contentious fact given the current liberal-conservative schism that continues to take place in the Western world, as has been most poignantly demonstrated in the recent American election. This polarization of worldviews has resulted in what appears to be all sorts of fundamentalisms, both secular and religious.

One solution to this schism scholars have proposed is the notion of postsecularism, that bearers of both secular conceptions and religious worldviews would start taking each other’s contributions seriously through a process of complimentary learning. This concept implicitly rests on the presumption that both secular modernity and religious traditions are capable of self-reflexivity. Western modernity has always prided itself on being an ongoing process of self-critique and has juxtaposed this ethos of rational criticism with religion’s frozen and incontestable nature. I want to suggest that the reason a postsecular society seems like an improbable cognitive enterprise may actually have more to do with a general unwillingness from secular individuals to reform their worldviews than their religious counterparts. The pervading secular narrative consistently presents religiosity as an intellectually inferior and therefore regressive mode of thought, making religious worldviews incapable of penetrating and potentially aiding Western self-reflexivity. It seems that secular dispositions are only self-reflexive in so far as they continue to be critically evaluated based on internal presuppositions. In doing so, they limit religious paradigms of thought by defining religion (and its worldviews) as oppositional to the glory of Enlightenment ideals through systematic dispossession and subjugation (sounds a bit like intellectual colonialism, no?).















It seems to me that by disallowing religious worldviews from having a seat at the table of public discourse, Western secular ideologies make it increasingly difficult for a dialectical, complimentary learning process to occur. Is it possible that the secular epistemic disposition has become a form of secular authoritarian discourse purveying the ethos of a second wave Enlightenment where those with religious convictions can be educated out of their worldviews once they understand liberal convictions, and will thus, inevitably, disappear? It seems that religious individuals in the West do not make such claims about their secular counterparts. I guess the real question is—how ‘liberal’ is Western society really? Or rather, are Western societies liberal so long as those with dissenting views start playing by their rules to fit within a secular normative framework?