Dressler & Mandair (eds.), “Secularism & Religion-Making”

Here is a collection of essays by religious studies scholars, Secularism & Religion-Making (OUP 2011), edited by Markus Dressler and Arvind-Pal S. Mandair.  Given the description of the contents of the essays, it should come as no surprise that it has been praised heartily by Talal Asad.  To my mind, it also tacitly suggests why religious studies and law often seem to be academic ships passing in the night.  The publisher’s description follows.

This book conceives of “religion-making” broadly as the multiple ways in which social and cultural phenomena are configured and reconfigured within the matrix of a world-religion discourse that is historically and semantically rooted in particular Western and predominantly Christian experiences, knowledges, and institutions. It investigates how religion is universalized and certain ideas, social formations, and practices rendered “religious” are thus integrated in and subordinated to very particular – mostly liberal-secular – assumptions about the relationship between history, politics, and religion.

The individual contributions, written by a new generation of scholars with decisively interdisciplinary approaches, examine the processes of translation and globalization of historically specific concepts and practices of religion – and its dialectical counterpart, the secular – into new contexts. This volume contributes to the relatively new field of thought that aspires to unravel the thoroughly intertwined relationships between religion and secularism as modern concepts.

6 responses

  1. I’m really interested in what exactly this book reveals about the disjunct between law & religion studies in law schools & in religious studies contexts. This is a quite pertinent topic for me. Would you mind expanding on your point? thanks–best, CTMathewes

  2. I have not read the book and made that comment based on the publisher’s description and a skimming of the table of contents. But if it is really true that the essays in this volume advance the position that the category “religion” is a kind of Western colonial instrument of hegemony, then the suggestion might be that we ought to dispense with the category altogether as an object of legal protection. I have found some of this suggestion in the work of Talal Asad. The tension with law, as I see it, is that religion is given special treatment (positive and negative) in the First Amendment. A case law has grown up around that Amendment. So to say that we ought to get past it, or get rid of religion as a conceptual category, strikes me as something of fairly limited use to legal scholars.

    Again, though, I have not read the essays in this volume, which may say something completely different than what the publisher’s description says.

    How do you see it, Prof. Mathewes?

  3. Well, that’s very useful for me. It maps on to what I’ve encountered when law profs & rel profs get together sometimes. On our side many of us don’t grapple with the pragmatic fact that, well, the religion clause is there, you know? I’m a huge evangelist for people reading Asad, and Dressler’s stuff is terrific, and there are many others (Fish is sharp on this, though sometimes annoying, I grant you). There’s a glib way of talking about religion as wholly a product of western colonialism, and I grant you that you can find that all too easily in a lot of the literature. But it’s also the case that the recognition of the charged & contingent history of the development of the category of “religion”–a fact that has gotten a great deal more attention in recent years in relstud than it did before–needn’t move in silly political ways; I actually think (unlike, perhaps, Asad), that claims like this are possibly even–dare I say?–true; and if that’s the case, then it opens up a huge front, as what looks like a “natural kind” and is (I think) treated as such in the Constitution may need to be re-thought. (I take it that this is what Winnie Sullivan, among others, are trying to do, no?) All within the admission that the research of some ill-clad profs won’t change the constitution. Anyway, this issue seems to me really, really important, over the long term. May this blog go from strength to strength…

  4. Thanks for the excellent and generous comment. I agree on all fronts, and I do think that this is Sullivan’s general approach. And I also should add that I don’t at all mean to suggest that the work of religious studies scholars which moves along these lines is without value. To the contrary, I think it is both important and interesting. I just think that there is a gulf which is difficult to bridge with legal studies.

    Nelson Tebbe published a nice piece recently in the Virginia Law Review which describes some of the distance between the fields — the article is “Nonbelievers” and discusses some other issues too, but you may find it useful.


  5. Thanks much! I believe I have the NT piece in my “to-read” pile. I think this is a big topic in coming years. Cheers, Chuck

  6. My current research focuses on the relationship between first amendment scholarship among legal theorists and critical studies of religion, and my general sense is that legal scholars do find the sort of critique of the concept of religion offered by Asad (and, presumably, the contributors to this volume) of limited use – though you would be in a better position to confirm this than I would, Professor DeGirolami. I wonder, though, if claims that the concept of religion is contingent will necessarily prove unwieldy and/or unattractive to legal scholars. Professor Tebbe offers good reasons to think so, but I think that a common law tradition could be open to the use of contingent terms as indicators of central concepts in the law. If the common law tradition is built upon culturally available concepts and terms, then it shouldn’t surprise us to find that the concept of religion in American jurisprudence is rooted in Western culture and history.

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