The R&AC Conference: Taking Religion "Seriously"

Adam Park

"Why so serious?"--The Joker

With tongue perpetually in cheek, admittedly, I get a little nervous when people get "serious." My skittish ears are therefore perked at the very mention of the s-word. In all its stern demand, the s-word happened a lot this weekend at my favorite conference ever--the Religion & American Culture Conference. And, not incidentally, the s-word happens a lot in Religious Studies. "Taking religion seriously," so it goes. As Michael Altman Twittered (sp.?) the first morning of the conference: "what does it mean 'to take X seriously'? I've heard a lot of that this morning." I second that Twitter query. Though testing my incessantly satirical nerves, I think it worthwhile to explore the nature of our cultivated tone, our asserted imperative, our assumed position, our seriousness. 

Here's what I think is going on. As Charlie McCrary suggested in his previous post, "taking religion seriously" has much to do with assertions of proximity or intimacy to our subject(s). And as Elizabeth Pritchard so insightfully argued, the scholarly injunction to take religion "seriously" is laden with secular liberal assumptions about the existence of a power-neutral space within which to discuss a given topic. Both points taken. Additionally, here's some other things I think we mean when we issue calls to take X "seriously." 

1) I'll start with a mostly benign/obvious point. Serious means both good and thorough. Since the First Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture in 2009, Philip Goff has introduced the purpose of the conference to begin a "serious" dialogue. A serious study is a quality one. With ever the analytic, loquacious, and nimbly nuanced minds, then, serious conversation is how we academics enjoy ourselves. Serious is a scholarly word for fun. A little sad, but whatever. Conferences are our spring breaks. I got so serious Saturday that I could only eat a couple bites of granola and some Advil Sunday morning. But what happens in Indianapolis, does not stay in Indianapolis. 

2) Serious functions to maintain academic boundaries. What is not serious? To take X seriously is to contrast one's seriousness with other unlearned, popular, un-footnoted, or media soundbite discussions of X. In a room full of serious types, Besheer Mohamed had to justify his Pew-ish penchant for brevity and simplification. Cara Burnidge wondered if "history" was code for "legitimate." Probably. Serious certainly is. Language of seriousness is the rhetorical "hallmark of sound scholarship," Pritchard reminds us. Serious is not truthiness. Serious is not Trump tweets. Serious is our academic hegemon's lingua franca. Greek to others. 

3) Serious marks importance ... particularly for an embattled discipline and a presumed neglected topic. Is anyone listening? Historians? Once king in the academy, Kathryn Lofton noted, religion is now lowly pauper. Political scientists and quantitative sociologists don't take religion seriously, but we do. For it is special. To take religion seriously is to protect it. Pastoral. But one is left to wonder, we may take religious "nones" seriously, but do Pastafarians evoke our sense of seriousness? Does Kirk Cameron's acting in Left Behind? Perhaps, partial pastoral. Some things get protected by our seriousness. Other things, well, get left behind. Serious hegemony.

4) Serious is a moral posture. Seriousness is an academic ethic with a (Christian-inflected?) preoccupation with truth and pure intention. To be serious is to be a proxy to the authentic, a voice for the real. To evoke seriousness, Pritchard writes, is "rather like an instance of good manners." Though the source of all this taking religion seriously is somewhat unclear to me, I think a primary wellspring for seriousness is "lived religion." Ahlstrom didn't need serious language. Ethnographic turn. As Robert Orsi spoke at the first R&AC conference, "To take religious experiences of real presences seriously means understanding imaginary beings as having historical life and agency of their own." To believe as they is the serious mantra. Caretaker more than critic. However, as scholars of religion, Orsi adds, this "does not entail ignoring questions of social power." Somewhere between heaven and earth, to be serious is to be disoriented. To be serious requires a certain self awareness, a high degree of introspection. To be serious is to, at least partially, oppose reductionism or simplification. To take religion seriously is to enact an imperative that obliges a certain kind of relation to our religious subject and our inner selves. Charlie got it right. To be serious is to be sincere, honest, true to self and others.

Doing little more than writing a dissertation for the past three years, I've been thinking more unseriously all the while about the place of irony, satire, and humor in writing, in the academy. Levity in analysis. I think there's room. Mama Lola can take it. I would like to see more. I would like to laugh more as I learn more. I'm betting our audiences would like that too. Courtney Lacy Tweeted how "Katy Lofton's speech was a whirlwind of laughter and critique." She wondered "how will this room of traditional intellectuals respond?" Well. Encore. There is, however, a catch. Just as seriousness includes as it excludes, so too does comedy. Muhammed cartoons can kill. Just as seriousness presumes a power-neutral space for dialogue, so too does humor appeal to modern secular liberal assumptions about the right to laugh. There's an impasse here, an irony.


Unknown said…
Thanks for the write-up on the conference!

I think Melissa Wilcox's presentation at the Biennial really pushed this set of questions, too. Her forthcoming book on the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence with NYU Press and my recent JAAR piece on "Ray Navarro's Jesus Camp" ( also address some of these questions, but thinking about them through the category of camp, taken up as both an object of study and a mode of analysis.

Much of Mark Jordan's work also suggests ways of writing and analyzing that work through a camp aesthetic, which I think is an interesting alternative to earnestness, irony, and sarcasm!
Unknown said…
Thanks for the references, Anthony. I was thinking about Melissa's presentation as well. The playfulness of religionfuck, specifically. But camp had never occurred to me. That's perfect. I like the idea of play as something we do together, a shared language and way of thinking, whether it be through irony, camp or otherwise. Peter Manseau's jocular iconoclasm is is equal parts fun and insightful as well. Along these lines I think I'm going to write a follow-up piece to this on "scholarly voice." Stay tuned!

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