Simple Things You See are All Complicated: Random Reflections on the 2nd Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture


Paul Harvey

The simple things you see are all complicated
I look pretty young, but I'm just back-dated, yeah
The Who, "Substitute"

If it's a lie, then we fight, on that lie. But we gotta fight.
Slim Charles in The Wire

Elesha, Janine, and Kelly have initiated a vigorous conversation arising from one particular session at the 2nd Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture which concluded just over a week ago. Because I had to leave just before this particular session, I don’t have much to add to it in particular, but I had a few stray thoughts on other parts of the meeting to throw up here. Today’s post will be lighter, more observations about some key phrases and indelible memories that I’ll carry from the conference. Tomorrow I hope to develop a few more serious thoughts about one session in particular, the one involving a discussion about the "bracketing" of religious belief in religious studies -- its rationale, its benefits, and its costs.

Before continuing, the last session was on "The Future of American Religion," but I was unable to be there, so am really hoping that one of ya'll out there will post on the discussion that went on there.

The first thought: a shout out to my partner in crime Philip Goff for organizing the conference in the first place, a huge undertaking of fundraising and organization. I don’ t know whether Phil got thanked at the end, but having lunch with him just before I left, he told myself and someone else present about his death struggle with the J.W. Marriott (the conference hotel) to get them to do what they had in fact been contracted to do (such as set up our room chairs in a circular pattern, put us in the room agreed to, etc.). Conference attendees don’t normally think about stuff like that, but suffice to say after threatening to call in his university lawyers and engaging in numerous conversations with the Marriott staff, the hotel at last came through with what they were contracted to come through with. That was a lot of work they had to go to just so we could sit around and talk.

All went smoothly, but not without a lot of background fighting leading up to the event. Anyway, since scholars tend to bitch and find fault with individual sessions or presenters or anything else, a shout out for those (Phil and his assistant Becky Vasko in particular) who make these things possible.

Second, I have no doubt that long after some of the substantive intellectual discussions have been forgotten, I’ll still remember some of the shorter or even “throwaway “ observations, conversations, and barroom late night jesting. Here are a few that stick with me (I had some others at the time, but they disappeared after the third martini).

One presenter, Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, discussing her research on the styles and head scarves of inner-city Muslim women, related that the women she studies refer to their scarf styles as “hood-jabs.” Her entire discussion of the phenomenon of "Muslim Cool" was the single most interesting ethnographic description I've heard in a good while, and a reminder of the tireless vitality of American religious cultures. She might have been the only person there from the discipline of Anthropology (maybe there were others, but I didn't see any), and as someone who did a minor field in Cultural Anthropology lo so many years ago I still enjoy hearing work from that perspective.

At the session on religion and market models, James Hudnut-Beumler, a scholar of religion and economics, author recently of In Pursuit of the Almighty's Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism, and Dean of the Div. School at Vanderbilt, related a conversation he had once with Ben Bernanke at some kind of conference or meeting. Bernanke asked him what he studied, and he replied “religion.” Bernanke answered back, “I can explain that.” Bernanke was being a little facetious, but only a little, for he went on to give an economic analysis, based on rational choice theory, on why women historically would predominate in many types of religious organizations (basically, their “wages” from this participation were equal to or greater than the discriminatory wages they would have faced – and would still face – in the secular marketplace and workplace). The idea here was both to suggest what we can learn from approaches drawn from market models of religion, as well as why we resist the hegemony of those models – the irritation we feel at the “I can explain that,” even when meant only half-seriously, is an irritation at a reductionism run amok.

And yet, reductionism is a tool that leads to significant insights (like, what's causing that e coli outbreak? and why are there more religious "nones" now than there used to be?), so it never hurts when humanists get exposed to social science scholars who use the word "data" a lot. There will always be a fair amount of cross-disciplinary carping at these kinds of conferences, a small price to pay for crossdisciplinary conversations.

At the very first session, we had a great “ethnographic moment,” in an impromptu discussion between Robert Orsi and Jan Shipps, renowned scholars both but slightly separated generationally, concerning whether we can “bracket out” religious belief in our studies. In reflecting on her pioneering studies of Mormonism, Shipps noted how she always said (or implied) “for them,” as in “for them, these visions were real.” Orsi replied that the problem with the “for them” bracketing was that it could easily lead to “for them, these visions were real – and they are crazy.”

I hope to develop a fuller post on this conversation early this week, as it was the session that ultimately interested me the most, but just this brief conversation between the two raised the same kinds of issues and back-and-forth responses which Orsi and Richard Bushman discussed recently in the journal Dialogue (see Chris Jones’s post on that), and which Orsi and Stephen Prothero batted back-and-forth several years ago in a discussion that is still frequently referenced – click here for a useful summary of that. I have noted recently that a lot of folks are assigning that discussion to students in classes, because it really gets to the heart of the matter of how scholars conceive of themselves and their work in religion.

Is the “whoosh” that we get from sporting events (or from some other mass group activity that induces emotional excitement in individuals) the same as the “whoosh,” the rapid firing of neurons and physiological response, that “we” get from religion? If so, is religion some sort of minor subdiscipline of cognitive psychology and neuro-biology? This became the theme of a lively discussion between Ann Taves (whose recent work has been done in collaboration, so I gather, with neuro-psychologists and other scientists) and Tracy Fessenden, who spoke eloquently of her resistance to adopting the scientific model of study as a means of accessing the huge money and prestige that scientists win at universities, in comparison to the perpetually impoverished and denigrated state of the humanities at many (most?) institutions nowadays – especially state institutions where “productivity” is measured in grant dollars raised. I don't mean to suggest that Taves was leading that direction -- certainly not true for the President of the AAR! But we are entering a new era of discussion (beyond the "two cultures" model) of sciences and the humanities, and there's an awful lot at stake in those discussions.

Rachel Wheeler concluded one session by noting how our generation of scholars always ends up saying, in effect, “it’s complicated.” That is certainly my classroom mode, and the message one would end up with at a conference like this. Yet others in the room, especially those in the social sciences, bring more concrete questions (and therefore answers) to the table, as when Roger Finke discussed some of the findings that can be gleaned from sociological studies of religious behavior such as he has conducted in some of his well-known studies. That brings us back to the discussion that Hudnut-Beumler and Ben Bernanke had about “I can explain that.” The humanists in the room stiffen their backbones against any explanation that does not invoke complexity and some degree of unknowability; some (not all) of the social scientists naturally are drawn to projects that focus on concrete questions and answers – has religious/philanthropic giving risen or fallen over time as a percentage of people’s incomes? Has the pay of clergy risen or fallen relative to other professions over the longue duree (answer: fallen, but you already knew that)? And so on.

As a humanist at heart, naturally I gravitate towards “It’s complicated” as my answer for most important questions. For the smaller questions, we can find answers, but for the bigger questions that drew me into academic studies in the first place, our answers will be tentative at best. Therefore, my classroom pedagogy tends to be deconstructively Socratic, in the sense of proposing questions, letting students pose hypotheses, poking holes/finding problems with those hypotheses, and then commanding them to “go and research some more” at the end of the period (they probably go to toga parties instead, but at least I want to leave them with the idea of the beautiful confusion of historical research). Is that, ultimately, where I want to leave it? I don’t think that will leave the assessment committee at my university very happy, since we are supposed to be assessing concrete bits of student learning.

But that leads to a final irony: I am chair of our departmental assessment committee (that's a committee of one -- but full of self-doubt as I am, reaching consensus is surprisingly difficult), so I get to develop the instruments to test exactly what bytes of data students "learn." Since I developed them, our instruments, therefore, essentially capture the degree to which students "get" the concept "it's complicated."

Is “boring from within” the way to beat a bureaucratic system that inevitably beats down individuals? On the other hand, as a lover and scholar of The Wire, I also know that, ultimately, the institution always wins, so we shall see whether, like Slim Charles, I "fight on that lie," just because we have to fight, or whether "boring from within" is simply carving a hole in my own academic soul.

Ultimately, in this age of the privatization of public goods such as education, the game does change, while it also just gets more fierce -- as Kathryn Lofton and Sylvester Johnson reminded us in their presentations on/critiques of (respectively) neoliberalism and its influence in market models of religion, and the relationship of American religion to the American imperial state. Reflecting further on the privatization of the public good of education (as in Colorado, where state funding now represents less than 8% of the CU budget) threw some cold water on the neural "whoosh" that conferences such as this, at their best, provide. (And if, like Janine, you live in Illinois, then that water bath is even colder.)


Anonymous at: June 13, 2011 at 5:11 PM said...

Thanks, Paul. Really excellent summary of the most salient points and issues covered at the conference. I would add that behind the major discussion between Orsi and Shipps, in part prompted by a comment from Kathleen Flake, was the question of whether religious phenomena (such as Joseph Smith's visions, the plates, etc.) were ontologically or really real and whether scholars can avoid (from Orsi's perspective) describing and explaining such phenomena without recourse to categories such as the psychological or social (in a reductionistic sense). I suppose too the implicit concern was: where do we rest our final explanations? Or what are the adequate criteria for a more compelling explanation/description/interpretation of religious phenomena?

Yes, you rightly note that there was a lot of side comments and seemingly dissatisfied spectators, though to get into that would verge into the realm of gossip and general carping. Overall, I was simply happy to see old friends and be part of the conversation, though I missed the last two sessions on Saturday.

Curtis J. Evans

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