The comparative anthropology of religion, or the anthropology of religion compared: a critical comment
The comparative anthropology of religion, or the anthropology of religion compared: a critical comment In this commentary, I argue that we need to expose the multiple layers of historical thinking about the production of the category of religion that play into both our scholarly thinking and the way religion is lived, understood and fought for in the lives of our informants. We can no more take the contours (or limits) of any particular religion for granted, or as self-evident, than we can take
... the category of religion, named as such, as a natural human phenomenon that is somehow free from the domain of culture. to, or emerge from, something that seems like a singular category, like Buddhism or Christianity. Like physicists refracting the different bands of colour contained in a single stream of white light, we attempt to expose difference within what might appear at first glance a unitary identity. This is what contemporary anthropology is good for: the insistence on diversity, multiplicity, contestation and difference within a particular heuristic framework. But what are the side effects of perpetuating a heuristic framework that underscores the world religions as the primary entry points for our study of religion in general? The aim of this paper is not to revisit the definition of religion -that discussion is more than 100 years old and is tired -but to interrogate the anthropological interest in furthering the particular categories these world religions constitute through expanding our attention to the anthropology of each. We seem to be using the categories of specific world religions as concrete, if multiple, ontologies -real ones, grounded in space, to be sure, but also somehow transcending historical time. Our response to the reality of religious multiplicity, both within and across religious categories -each of which we know to be dynamic -is to detail their contemporary manifestations in multiple locations. In this construction, we may reflect on religions as historically produced, and reproduced, phenomena, or sets of practices, but we rarely emphasise how they are also historically constructed categories with lives of their own -which our own academic work sometimes fuels. In short, we are in danger of using the heuristic categories as always and in every case real, or as having ontological (if not necessarily doctrinal) truth. The intellectual costs of this slippage are high; as things stand, our use of these categories too easily forgets that they are historical productions, and that they remain, in some contexts, precisely heuristic. In others, of course, they are not, such as when the contours of a particular religion constitute the terms of deeply felt, sometimes violent, encounters or assertions of identity in the modern world. Something can be real, and experienced, and meaningful -while still being constructed, and reconstructed, and without ontological essence: arguably all human categories are. So, as a scholarly anthropological practice, describing and even comparing religious lives within (and across) the heuristic categories of the world religions can be productive. But where, in our anthropologies of these separate religions, is the demonstration of the construction of the categories themselves? The difference between these two approaches is subtle, but at base they differ considerably, and they do not always combine well. In the model of the former, our task is simply to show what a range of practice, across location, may look like, while in the latter we focus on assessing the contemporary and historical constructions of a particular category of religion, on the part of both practitioners and scholars. Unqualified, the former can have regressive effects on the latter, and on our understanding of the variable constructions that are human religions. Our field needs to expose the multiple layers of historical thinking about the production of the category of religion, and those of particular religions, that play into both scholarly thinking and the way religion is lived, understood and fought for in the lives of our informants. We can no more take the contours or limits of any particular religion for granted, or as self-evident, than we can take the category of religion, named as such, as a natural human phenomenon that is somehow separate from the domain of culture. Let us ensure that our resistance to comparison does not translate into an unquestioning acceptance of the world's dominant categories, even as we describe them in multiple, diverse settings.