15 December 2006

Why I Get Frustrated With the Religious Turn in Theory

I came across the following on a post over at dailykos, taken from common dreams.
Men with buzzcuts and clad in their camouflage waved their hands in the air, M-16 assault rifles beside them, and chanted heavy metal-flavoured lyrics in praise of Christ late on Friday in a yellow-brick chapel.

They counted among thousands of troops surrounding the city of Fallujah, seeking solace as they awaited Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's decision on whether or not to invade Fallujah.

"You are the sovereign. You're name is holy. You are the pure spotless lamb," a female voice cried out on the loudspeakers as the marines clapped their hands and closed their eyes, reflecting on what lay ahead for them....

The marines then lined up and their chaplain blessed them with holy oil to protect them.

"God's people would be anointed with oil," the chaplain said, as he lightly dabbed oil on the marines' foreheads.

The crowd then followed him outside their small auditorium for a baptism of about a half-dozen marines who had just found Christ....

The three laid down in a rubber dinghy filled with water and the chaplain's assistant, navy corpsman Richard Vaughn, plunged their heads beneath the surface.
I keep getting told by certain online persons who shall remain nameless that this is a marginal thing, by a fringe group of people. Yet strangely, this fringe group seems to have a tremendous amount of power in this country and seem to be the ones defining what Christianity means. Until I hear strong outcry against this sort of thing, it's very difficult for me to feel sympathetic to those who are claiming that Christianity has been misunderstood or that Dawkin's has a piss poor conception of religious issues. Intricate theology is a nice hobby, but religion should be understood at the level of practice or sittlichkeit, at the level of its being as a social fact with a political impact. I suspect the problem here is that some of us are taking religion as a social fact and viewing it sociologically in terms of what it's actually doing in the States, whereas others are taking it as a body of propositions and divorcing it from its social reality. Read the links. And read the links on the links. I get irritated by the positivism of the Enlightenment thinkers as well, but this makes me feel sympathetic. I'm all for Jesus as a militant revolutionary, but I just ain't seeing it in the public sphere. The videogame is especially nice.

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12 Comments:

Blogger Anthony Paul Smith said...

It's hardly an either/or. And this is hardly a complete picture. Would you feel better if instead of talking about God they were blasting something about "The Fatherland"? I'm too tired to go into this. If you want I would be more than happy to email about this as my dissertation is on religion qua religion.

December 16, 2006 12:49 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

I'd prefer they do neither, and that rather than falling prey to tribalistic oppositions or metaphysical mystifications they do as Socrates suggested and attend to the just and good.

December 16, 2006 1:05 AM  
Anonymous N Pepperell said...

For a very long time, I've been interested in the relationships between the form taken by contemporary religious movements and other contemporary historical dynamics - I experience equivalent frustration at the willingness of some kinds of academic theory to act as though religious movements represent some kind of potentially critical "outside", as well as the (conceptually related) move to downgrade the significance of such movements: both moves seem to propose that there is some kind of automatic identity between secularisation and capitalism or modernity. I suspect the relationship is much more complex than that... But I'm a bit too scattered to be coherent on this issue at the moment...

December 16, 2006 1:35 AM  
Blogger Anthony Paul Smith said...

Sinthome,

Which is exactly my point, but I don't see people complaining about the 'political turn' in philosophy! Obviously the political is complex and part of it is a reactionary to an extreme. I don't know that there is anything like "the religious" in the world (or "the political"), but instead you get strands of it running through life itself, complicating itself with everything else.

I agree that much of the so-called religious turn is complete bullshit. I've grown tired of it more and more, especially as it shows itself to really just be a weak liberalism that pays lipservice to religion without anything like a fundamental inquiry into it's being. I do think we can't turn our back on religion without becoming isolated from much of active force in the world, but I've been unhappy with most attempts to explain it thus far.

I'm often confused as being Christian for this kind of stance, but I find myself increasingly not insulted by this misunderstanding.

December 16, 2006 8:59 AM  
Blogger Anthony Paul Smith said...

So my point is that I wish there were more careful analysis of "religion" instead of the fare we get. I think there have been a few good books in this direction, Goodchild's Captialism and Religion, Henry's I Am the Truth, Nietzsche's Twilight and AntiChrist, and Bergson's Two Sources. In my view these are the least Hegelian and much of the religious turn just parallels Hegel's Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion and doesn't get past the inadaquecy therein.

December 16, 2006 9:25 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

I think you miss my point. In evoking the concept of "sittlichkeit", I was not referencing Hegel's lectures on religion, but living customs and practices that a group of people actually engage in. That is, religion as a sociological actuality or fact, religion as it's actually practice and conceived outside the academy. In my view, most of what you mention in these texts is little more than academic rationalizations and abstractions, divorced from a living reality. That said, religion, of course, is a multiplicity that comes in a variety of flavors as a sociological actuality. It just so happens that a particular flavor happens to be particularly dominant in the United States.

December 16, 2006 10:08 AM  
Blogger Anthony Paul Smith said...

Well you seem convinced that you know what those practices are, I'm not so sure. I think the books I reference actually do quite good at not engaging on some abstract level, but you're also working in an abstraction by invoking something like "What they actually do." Was the story you mention an actual religious practice?

"It just so happens that a particular flavor happens to be particularly dominant in the United States."

In the popular imaginiation, yes, but I think that it is effectively over in reality. I also wansn't saying you were still too Hegelian, I was making a general comment. I don't think the things you mention here on religion go beyond a bloggy discourse anymore than mine go beyond a comment. I mean, you're not devoting the time to writing on this that you to individuation (and I'm not saying you should!), which is just to say we're having a pretty normal conversation.

December 16, 2006 10:35 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

I believe that when one is enthusiastic about something like say the nationalistic American patriot, it is difficult for that person to see clearly their own country as their first instinct is to always defend that country. For instance, you remark "in the popular imaginiation, yes, but I think that it is effectively over in reality." What evidence do you have for this claim when stories are in press every day about things similar to this. Rather than dismissively saying these things are effectively over, why not instead call a spade a spade, recognize that it's there, and offer an alternative? This is the frustration I was expressing in a previous post. In these sorts of discussions, step one of discussion can't even be reached as those critical of these phenomena are shot down by the pseudo-victimized Christians that stick their fingers in their ears and say either 1) "it doesn't exist!", or 2) "they're only a minority" (nevermind the legislation they were writing up until this last November), or 3) these people just misunderstand things.

This, I believe, is reactionary. The critic's knowledge and understanding of religion is then denegrated as in the case of the recent Dawkins affair. Frankly, as someone who has seen books actually burned by these groups (Orwell's 1984 in highschool for its sexual content), or made to pray by high level administrators at a public school before meetings, and who has also witnessed the campaigns against women, homosexuals, science, and then seen videogames being marketed based on the Left Behind series that have kids killing those who don't convert following the apocalypse, including Jews and U.N. members, I can certainly understand Dawkin's point of view and lack of sympathy towards nuance and theology. You can call it effectively dead, but I ask you, which Christian groups are currently raising the highest dollars and which Christian groups currently boast the largest and most organized followings? Hint, it ain't the liberation theologists, who I would be delighted to see own this discourse. I just don't have much patience for intricate theological discussions, when I hear one thing and see quite another.

A more effective rhetorical strategy would be 1) to acknowledge that these things are the target of the vehement atheists (I tend to think the militant atheist gets confused, getting unproductively caught up with discussions of whether God exists and not attending to the reactionary religious movements that led her to her animosity in the first place), 2) that it is a legitimate target, 3) that this phenomenon is something real, of genuine concern, and worth struggling against, and 4) offering a healthy alternative that distinguishes ones position from this and forming a social movement that makes this alternative voice heard.

December 16, 2006 10:58 AM  
Blogger Anthony Paul Smith said...

We're talking past one another. You think I'm saying something I'm not and you keep responding to that. I don't think you can blame religion for the Bush administration anymore than you can blame secularism for Stalinism. That doesn't mean I don't think there are powerful evangelicals in the US, but you are making sociological claims about people without any sociological evidence (and then ask me for some).

If it is in the media I have a tendency to think it is probably news worthy and not somehow dominant.

December 16, 2006 12:53 PM  
Anonymous Jodi said...

ahh--I only just saw this post; had I seen it earlier, I'd have linked to it from the outset. seems like our concerns overlap quite a bit

December 18, 2006 7:14 AM  
Blogger Adam Kotsko said...

I unequivocally reject and denounce the contemporary American religious right. Maybe we could be allies! In fact, I know a lot of people who could be allies with you against the religious right -- the president of my seminary, for example, who very regularly appears in the press propagandizing against them.

Oh, except that you gratuitously insult people like me because of your (completely false and unfounded) position that we're somehow apologists for the religious right due to our refusal to make the (obviously empirically false) claim that the religious right just is religion tout court.

If you need to vent, that's okay. Venting is cool. But your doctrinaire atheism is blinding you to necessary distinctions and to potential allies.

December 18, 2006 4:36 PM  
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