Saturday, August 18, 2018

An Army of Non-Conformists Cannot Lose!

I've been reading numerous fascinating books about the history of "religion" as a concept and social phenomenon, which I should have written about here before.  Currently I'm in the middle of Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Clichés (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), edited by professors Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin.  It's intended as readings for college-level courses, and draws on the same scholarship that has taught and clarified so much for me.  The writing is meant to be accessible to undergraduates, so it's probably a good introduction for anyone who's interested in sorting out what religion is.  That question interests me as an atheist, and ought to interest other atheists as well as theists because so much discussion of atheism vs. religion makes assumptions about what religion is or isn't.  If you're a champion of rationalism and critical thinking, you should be concerned that your own assumptions are correct, no less than your opponents'.

Briefly, the scholarship I've been reading shows that there's a specifically modern, historically and culturally contingent concept (or definition) of religion that, if it didn't originate in the Christian "West," became normative here at around the time Europe was coming into contact with other cultures it hoped to conquer and colonize.  There was considerable debate as to whether these culture had "religions" that should be respected, or mere "superstitions" that could be replaced (by force if necessary) with True Religion, viz. Christianity.  The case of Islam, which had achieved enough temporal and power that it couldn't be so lightly dismissed, had also provided fodder for debate as to its nature and status.  At around the same time, the rise of Protestantism raised questions about the status of religious dissent within Europe.  Up till then, "religion" was an inseparable part of one's culture, not a freely chosen lifestyle from a smorgasbord of possible "faiths."  By the time the US forced its way into Japan in the late 1800s, demanding "religious freedom" (including the freedom to missionize) for its nationals there, the question had to be addressed because "religion" and "religious freedom" had to be translated into Japanese for inclusion in treaties, and the Japanese had no equivalents for those terms.  Conflict and confusion over the meaning of "religion" persists down to the present day.

This summary oversimplifies, of course, and I refer interested readers to such works as Timothy Fitzgerald's Discourse on Civility and Barbarity (Oxford, 2007) and Jason Ananda Josephson's The Invention of Religion in Japan (Chicago, 2012).  I'm glad I read them before I got to Stereotyping Religion, because it seems to me that most of the contributions, while drawing on their scholarship, also get some things wrong.  One recurring motif is a tendency to blame the formation of "religion" as a concept on Protestantism and its associated "individualism."  I think this is mistaken, because it tends to reify Protestantism in much the way that "religion" reifies religion.  For one thing, the nature of religion would have had to be sorted out anyway, just because of European imperialism and the need to deal with different beliefs and practices in the places Europe sought to dominate.  For another, there had always been "religious" dissent in Christian Europe; Protestantism got a foothold and survived by aligning itself with political trends that weakened, undermined, and eventually broke down Roman Catholic hegemony.  But Protestants didn't originally see theirs as a separate "religion" -- they accepted the prevailing conceptions.

After all, Christianity originally emerged as a cult of individual salvation, hostile to established institutions of Family and State, and there are precursors of arguments from individual conscience in early apologetics; it only became Religion after its competitors had been effectively eliminated.  Something similar was true of, for example, Buddhism, which required individuals to split off from their families and conceptions of holy thought and practice.  Remember, for example, that when Buddhism got a foothold in China, traditionalists attacked it for its rejection of traditional values.
Judged by these standards, the ideal monk presented a disturbingly flawed picture of aberrant manliness.  He abjured marriage, renounced fatherhood, was ill positioned to care for parents, did not own property, declined public office, deprecated secular learning, mutilated his body (a gift from his parents) by shaving his head, and rejected orthodox manners and rituals for an alien set of rites.  According to the masculine standards of the time, how could such a person even be called a man?*
Here you can see how new, imported "religious" practices were characterized as attacks on a culture assumed to be natural, the mandate of Heaven.  In time, Buddhism became part of the Chinese landscape, and what had been outrageous violations of common sense became acceptable variations.  As with Christianity, one asserted "individual" rebellion by appeal to higher authority, that of the Buddha or of Christ.  This tactic was also used by the early Christians against Judaism -- in the gospels, for example, Jesus defends his innovations by asserting that they are the law of God rather than the law of men, by which he meant the supposedly God-dictated Torah -- and by religious dissenters within Christianity centuries later.  (I'm not a rebel, you're a rebel!)  But a standard approach by traditionalists trying to refute rebels appealing to a higher authority is to define them as selfish individualists.

In the chapter of Stereotyping Religion I'm now reading, the authors, Andie R. Alexander and Russell T. McCutcheon, discuss the popular "I'm Spiritual But Not Religious" (SBNR) position adopted by many people in the US today.  Alexander and McCutcheon see SBNR as a modern, individualist stance, though their argument is that those who adopt it are mistaken in seeing it as such: any individualist, they argue, doesn't really stand alone:
[W]hat do we make of someone who comes along and says: “I’m spiritual but not religious”? For, as already suggested, this claim (at least as understood by some who make it) seems to signify that there exists something pre-social, something this person (and not that—the one who simply identifies as being religious, we guess) possesses or experiences that is more deeply significant because it is outside of (i.e., preexisting) all institutional constraints. While our commonsense way of understanding ourselves might suggest that such a claim is sensible—lots of people seem to think it sensible to say it—the excursion we just took into an alternative way of thinking about meaning now suggests that such assumptions are rather problematic, inasmuch as they seem to take the social work and thus institution-specific setting of all meaning-making as invisible, as if it wasn’t even there [loc 1879 of the Kindle version].
They then ask rhetorically (and don't you love rhetorical questions?):
What is it about our age that prompts some members of our society to understand themselves as existing apart from it, despite using the same language, economic system, and so forth as those from whom they feel alienated? [loc 1889]
As I've already suggested, it's not really about "our age" or "our society" but about the felt necessity of defending a minority position in any society.  The apostle Paul, for example, like other early Christians, characterized his sect as in but not of the world, despite their reliance on the same language, culture, economic system, and so forth as those from whom they felt alienated.  Alienation too is not "natural" but constructed and maintained.  Rhetorical details vary in emphasis, but the overall picture hasn't changed much.  I also think that this question caricatures the SBNR, leaving out some important features that I'll return to in a moment.

Alexander and McCutcheon conclude:
For if we instead start from the standpoint that it’s, well ..., standpoint all the way down and that there is nowhere to stand that isn’t situated, that isn’t invested, that isn’t implicated, that isn’t part of a prior conversation that we didn’t start ourselves, and that isn’t therefore part of a social and thus institutional world, then those who talk as if their private, true, or authentic self somehow trumps the so-called derivative forms that other people’s lives take will be seen by us as fascinating players in an ongoing contest, working with what’s at hand, to give their position a competitive edge [loc 1898].
This is true enough as far as it goes.  As a whole, this part of the book makes many important and valid points.  But as here, the writers omit to recognize that the proponents and defenders of "social and thus institutional world" against which SBNR define themselves are also individuals: they seek to pretend that they stand on solid ground, that it isn't "standpoint all the way down," and that the absolutes they espouse were created and perpetuated by people like themselves. 

The thing that occurred to me while I was reading this material was that people who present themselves as SBNR do not always claim that their "private, true, or authentic" selves trump the forms that other people adhere to. They generally draw on a buffet of ascended masters, spiritual teachers, cultural icons and other sources as authority for their personal versions of spirituality -- even though many of those figures are associated with Organized Religion themselves. They also frequently find community in study groups, classes, shops of spiritual paraphernalia and accessories, and the like; they rarely stand completely alone.  As Alexander and McCutcheon point out, standing alone is a tactical claim, not a reality. We are all both individuals and members of collectivities; these are aspects of ourselves, and neither one represents us completely.

And then I remembered that in the previous chapter of Stereotyping Religion, Steven W. Ramey had argued against the belief that "religions are mutually exclusive," that people can and should be classified as belonging to one and only one religion.
This cliché, though, is far from universal, as people in other parts of the world often have different conceptions. Many people in Japan, for example, participate across a lifetime in practices associated with both Buddhism and Shinto, seeing them as addressing different aspects of human existence. Some people understand all religions to be doing the same thing, allowing people to employ whatever practices or beliefs that they find beneficial. Within the context of South Asia, praying at the shrines and temples associated with different religions provides opportunities to access supernatural power or wisdom, without undermining a person’s identification with one religion. For example, Qutb Ali Shah, whose followers in British India identified him as a Muslim Sufi, did not require his followers who identified as Hindu to convert to Islam. In fact, he incorporated deities and practices commonly seen as Hindu in his own activities (Gajwani 2000, 39–41), and Hindus and Christians who claimed a high social status often participated in each other’s festivals as an expression of their higher status while excluding others who identified with the same religion from participating (Bayly 1989, 253, 289–90). Many people who identify as Chinese do not identify as a follower of any particular religion but follow practices that we commonly label Buddhist, Daoist, Confucian, and folk traditions. In fact, it is common for temples in Chinese communities to incorporate a range of figures that we commonly identify with different religions [loc 1428].
This is true and important, though Ramey overlooks similar attitudes and practices within European and American Christianity: think of the welter of "pagan" elements in European and North American celebrations of Christmas.  Rabbinic Judaism has been trying to root out magic and "superstition" among lay Jews for millennia.  (But also think of New Atheist Sam Harris, who practices his own version of Buddhism, trying to convince himself that there's no conflict.)  Christianity itself is a syncretistic mix of Judaism and Greco-Roman religion and philosophy.  Which didn't mean that the early Christians didn't refuse to conform to Jewish or Roman demands for conformity that they found objectionable (burning incense to an image of the Emperor, for example), or to represent their sect vis-a-vis Judaism and "paganism" as mutually exclusive.

Ramey even acknowledges that
One trait of what people sometimes call New Age religion is the adoption of practices associated with different religious traditions, which becomes a point of critique for some people opposed to New Age practices. A similar issue arises in the language of “spiritual but not religious,” which rejects institutional forms of practice for an individualized selection of practices ... For example, in the British colonies that became the United States, those identified as Christian incorporated astrology and similar practices despite the common Puritan teachings that such practices were not acceptable for people who identified as Christians [locs 1584, 1594].
So I think there's a contradiction here: "Spiritual But Not Religious" is not a modern, Euro-American, Protestant, individualist deviation (even if some of its adherents may defensively present themselves as such); rather, it fits comfortably into almost universal, traditional cross-cultural practices of people around the world and throughout history.  Attempts to purify a particular tradition are not inherent in religion, but represent minority, usually elite efforts to construct regularized systems that appeal to them aesthetically and intellectually.  Most people construct the constellations of meaning that they use to structure their lives ad hoc, opportunistically; the "Cafeteria Christian," as objectionable as he or she may be in many ways, is simply being religious in a normal, traditional manner, the way most believers have been religious.

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*Bret Hinsch, Masculinities in Chinese History (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013), p. 50.