Monday, March 6, 2017

Religion and Categories

I am reading a textbook I found a while back in my university of Guelph mailbox from Oxford UP. I have a lot of unread books on shelves and stacked on the floor. This book is nice and short and clearly written and gives a good overview of theory as used by those who teach in Religious Studies departments. My university does not have such a department, though years ago there was a move to create a 'minor' in Religious Studies at the U of Guelph. That came to nothing as the order of the day for universities is to cut back on the Arts and Humanities and move what little money they have into more pragmatically oriented disciplines.

In any case, I teach, write, think about religion from the perspective of an historian. That is to say, I am interested in the place of religion, of faith, of all the aspects of religion within a society and as part of its culture as it changes over time. But this roughly 200 page book gives a good introduction to theory. I have read the introductory section, mostly to see where my intellectual meanderings had placed me in this theoretical universe of thought.

The author, Chris Klassen (whom I met once long ago) teaches religious studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. He goes over various approaches to defining religion, while sensibly noting that definitions are not as solid as one might think or perhaps hope. Definitions fluctuate and change with new research and with the times.
He then looks at different theoretical approaches to the study of religion. He surveys the 'cognitive' approach:  looking at religion as ideas or theology which then affects culture, using the 19th century work of Sir James Frazer as best expressed in the book, The Golden Bough; at the functional approach, as expressed by Emile Durkheim in his book, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), which looks at how religion affects society by attempting to understand  universal basic elements of religion. The he surveys Max Weber and his thesis found in 'The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism'. Weber combined Luther's idea that "labour is a calling from God" (p 12) and the Calvinist view that if you prospered financially in life, this was a sign you were one of God's elect. Prof. Klassen then looked at Marx and his view that religion was part of 'superstructure' and designed to support the modes of production or the 'base' of society. Usually people do remember Marx calling religion the 'opiate of the masses'. Next up is William James, a psychologist who studied religion as an individual experience at the psychological level in his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). I have a little book that builds on this work by the philosopher Charles Taylor called 'Varieties of Religion Today' published in 2002 and based on a Gifford Lecture he gave. James's book was also based on a Gifford lecture. Next comes Mercea Eliade, perhaps the first scholar of World Religions - the others touched on so-called primitive religion, but mostly used Christianity as being 'religion'. Eliade studied a variety of religions and from an historical perspective and focussing on myth and symbolism. He thought religion  should be studied for its own sake, not as an adjunct to other areas of the human experience.
Then Chris Klassen gets to what is the meat of the matter, in my liking and view anyway:  Clifford Geertz and the anthropological approach; and a newer way to study, the 'lived experience' approach. Students of mine will recognize that I teach religion from this latter means: religion is something people do, live, experience and is often different and sometimes wildly different from the official doctrines and practices of a religion.

I think I will post more on this book as I move through it in my spare time. But for now, this introduces the ideas contained within and which will likely spark ideas in me too.

Klassen, Chris. Religion & Popular Culture: A Cultural Studies Approach. Don Mills, ON, Oxford University Press, 2014.

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