The following essay was written for the course Theories and Methods in the Study of Religion. Utrecht University & UvA, autumn & winter 2018/2019.
The Impossibility of Universality and the Lacks of Particularity
in Religious Studies
Literature essay for Theories and Methods in the Study of Religion
Tim Bouwhuis, Utrecht University
Who or what decides what ‘’religion’’ is? On which conditions can we remove the brackets that implicitly relativize our own scholarly enterprise? In this essay I scrutinize some of the theoretical and methodological tensions that featured in a neatly selected set of texts situated within or related to the versatile field of Religious Studies. I focus on a specific question: how can we reconcile the problematic nature of universality claims with the (presumably) intuitive impetus to move beyond particularity in the study of religion?
There is a strong reciprocal relation between the rise of the academic study of religion, from the nineteenth century onwards, and the critical process of deconstructing and questioning notions of the term. The standard question that prefigures any attempt to define ‘religion’ (will it ever be possible to come up with a comprehensive definition in the first place?) is further problematized by a current awareness of the predominance of Christian theology, protestant notions of ‘pivotal inwardness’ and the Eurocentric concept of ‘world religions’ in former frameworks of conceptualization.
One solution to the problem might be to shift from religion as something ‘that is’ towards religion as a phenomenon that does something to particular people in specific contexts. This anthropological turn is not without its risks; as Tomoko Masuzawa states in The Invention of World Religions (2005), the anthropology of religion stems from a scholarly focus on cultic practices that were excluded in the paradigm of ‘historical world religions’. Birgit Meyer has pointed out that academic scholars of religion should grasp the ‘dynamics of power that constitute and ‘normalize’’ their enterprise within historically and socially specific formations. The situation is especially tense for Religious Studies. Wouter Hanegraaff goes as far to say that the worldviews and assumptions pivotal to modernity [and thus, he implies, to our own existential ground zero] emerged together with ‘’religion’’ as its rhetorical other. And indeed, whereas the notion that scientific ‘explanations’ and religious ‘experiences’ diverge in a strict binary can and should be challenged, the scholarly enterprise of Religious Studies does adhere to a discursive incompatibility of ‘scientific’ and theologically grounded theories and methods. Phenomenologists of religion have often resisted anthropological approaches at the cost of preserving a more essential and universal view on religious phenomena as ‘irreducible’ and ‘sui generis’ (unique).
The cognitive effort
While overarching philosophical and phenomenological perspectives on religion tend to have become obsolete due to critiques from within and a lack of empirical support, the almost idealistic quest for a ‘homo religiosus’ (to borrow Eliades term for a second) continues in the expanding field of CSR [The cognitive study of religion]. One of this discipline’s flag-bearers, Pascal Boyer, wrote a thought-provoking article called ‘’Why do Gods and Spirits Matter at All?’’ (2002), in which he probes which mental systems are most susceptible to religious concepts and ideas. At first glance, CSR might please the scholar that favors a hypothesis that can be tested. In the work of Ann Taves (2013), for example, the cognitive approach is implicitly presented as the methodological tool to bridge unproved essentializations of religion and culturally and historically determined conceptualizations that are doomed in their particularity.
This could be a satisfactory answer to the question regarding reconciliation that I asked in the introduction of this essay, were it not that truth efforts and presuppositions in CSR can be equally problematic as the phenomenological assumptions that colored and colors devalued non-empirical research. In Boyers article, ‘religious’ concepts are stressed to equal ‘supernatural’ concepts. Boyer argues that our main intuitive criterion for what is ‘religious’ can be found in associations between a supernatural concept and one or several social effects (i.e. emotions, rituals, moral understandings). Boyers preliminary ideas about what religion is strike me as narrow criteria that are imposed on, rather than yielded by , the cognitive framework. His understanding of mental systems has a presupposed universal nature, but this universality also suggests a normative attitude that is incongruent with the empirical enterprise. Why is witchcraft excluded from the domain of religion so easily? And how could CSR scholars possibly work with a conceptualization of religion that [inevitably?] misses out on any cognitive foundations of the ‘supernatural’? Lastly, then, Boyer does not devote any attention to power relations and the human construction of meaning when he rigidly states that the selection process of religious concepts is evolutionary and cognitively induced.
Towards a pragmatic reconstruction of the term religion
Boyers work tends to reaffirm that universality claims on the nature of religion and religious are questionable even before they are rigidly specified. Indeed, the currently common view of many religious studies scholars that ‘religious’ phenomena only translate themselves within specific cultures and/or historical time periods may be conceived as yet another indication that general terms which transcend culture and time-related boundaries are bound to fail. This does not mean, however, that any effort to reconstruct religion should be abandoned. Meyer, Hanegraaff and Kevin Schilbrack are among the many scholars that have agreed upon the fact that deconstruction of the term ‘’religion’’ cannot remain an end in itself. I take Meyers words here: ‘’Even though it may be impossible to offer a universally valid definition, as scholars in this field we need at least a minimal agreement on what the term religion refers to’’. Ultimately, following Hanegraaff, any working definition of religion should be ‘close’ (particular) enough to be recognizable and palpable, but also ‘distant’ (more ‘universal’), in order to evade being discarded as normative.
Religion and film and the universality – particularity debate
The future challenge that I see, to gradually move towards a personal conclusion in the context of the universality – particularity debate, is to combine [yet to be] specified research on ‘religiously’ inspired and/or denotated form (for instance: transcendental style in film, c.q. Schrader 1972, 2018) and medium/mediation (I disagree with Mattijs van de Ports argument here that ‘what a medium is can only be sensibly researched in the light of the specific research in which it is used’) with questions of reception and spectatorship. My focus on mediation and form is partly (re-) inspired by the work of Meyer, who talked about ‘the rehabilitation of form’ and the ongoing need to engage with the concrete ways through which ‘humans ‘fabricate’ – by mobilizing texts, sounds, pictures, or objects’ when she accepted her chair for the study of material religion. The subsequent questions on reception and spectatorship stem from my conviction that the construction of meaning never remains the exclusive domain of authorship and ‘decoding’. My intention to scrutinize the construction of understanding and meaning on the internet displays my aim to move beyond the particularity of specific anthropological projects, in order to come to terms with the various ways in which people see, understand and recognize religion in our digital age.
If universality and particularity are ever likely to meet, it might be through the media that express the same content [through form] to very different people. Unity and dispersion are each other’s brothers in arms on the film screen, a two-dimensional mirror for the intriguing interplay between form and meaning in and beyond the study of religion.
Formalities: this essay was written for an RMA course on Theories and Methods in the Study of Religion. UU/UvA. Instructors: Gerard Wiegers, Pooyan Tamimi Arab.
Boyer, P. “Why do
Gods and Spirits Matter at All?,” in Ilkka Pyysiäinen and Veikko Anttonen
(eds.). Current Approaches in the
Cognitive Science of Religion. London: Continuum, 2002. 68-92.
Chidester, D. ‘’Beyond Religious Studies? The Future of the Study of Religion in a Multidisciplinary Perspective’’. NTT Journal for Theology and the Study of Religion 71 (2017): 74-85.
Hanegraaff, W. H. ‘’Reconstructing ‘’Religion’’ from the Bottom Up’’. Numen 62 (2016): 577-600.
Lanman, J.A. “An Order of Mutual Benefit: A Secular Age and the Cognitive Science of Religion”, in Guido Vanheeswijck, Colin Jager and Florian Zemmin (eds.). Working with A Secular Age: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Charles Taylor’s Master Narrative. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2016. 71-92.
Masuzawa, T. ““The Religions of the World” before “World Religions,”” in The Invention of World Religions: Or, how European universalism was preserved in the language of pluralism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005. 37-71.
Meyer, B. 2012. Mediation and the Genesis of Presence. Towards a Material Approach to Religion. Inaugural Lecture, Utrecht University. 19-10-2012.
Shilbrack, K. ‘’After we Deconstruct ‘Religion,’ Then What? A Case for Critical Realism’’. Method and Theory in the Study of Religions 25 (2013): 107-112.
Smith, J. Z. “On Comparison,” in Drudgery Divine: On the comparison of early Christianities and the religions of Late Antiquity. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990. 36-53.
Taves, A. 2013. “Building Blocks of Sacralities: A New Basis for Comparison across Cultures and Religions”, Chap. 7 in Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, edited by Raymond F. Paloutzian and Crystal L. Park. New York and London: The Guilford Press, 2013. 138-161.
Tsuria, R., and Yadlin-Segal, A., Vitullo, A. & H.A. Campbell. ‘’Approaches to digital methods in studies of digital religion’’. The Communication Review, 20:2 (2017): 73-97.
Van de Port, Mattijs. 2017. ‘’In love with my footage: Notes on the psychodynamics of mediation’’. Visual Anthropology Review, forthcoming.
 B. Meyer, Mediation and the Genesis of Presence, Inaugurational Lecture, Utrecht University, 19-10-2012, 23.
 Meyer, Mediation, 8-9. W.H. Hanegraaff, ‘’Reconstructing ‘’Religion’’ from the Bottom Up’’, Numen 62 (2016), 589. D. Chidester, ‘’Beyond Religious Studies? The Future of the Study of Religion in a Multidisciplinary Perspective’’, NTT Journal for Theology and the Study of Religion 71 (2017), 75-76.
 A critical comment by Pooyan Tamimi Arab here is that the influence of the non-West in the crafting of ‘’world religions’’ (through global and colonial encounters) should not be underestimated. T. Masuzawa, ‘’’’The Religions of the World’’ before ‘’World Religions’’’’’, in The Invention of World Religions: Or, how European universalism was preserved in the language of pluralism (Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2005), 42-43.
 Meyer, Mediation, 10.
 Hanegraaff, ‘’Reconstructing ‘’Religion’’’’, 583.
 Meyer, Mediation, 5. J.A. Lanman, ‘’An Order of Mutual Benefit: A Secular Age and the Cognitive Science of Religion’’, in Guido Vanheeswijck, Colin Jager and Florian Zemmin (eds.), Working with A Secular Age: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Charles Taylor’s Master Narrative (Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2016), 1-2.
 J.Z. Smith, ‘’On Comparison’’, in Drudgery Divine: On the comparisons of early Christianities and the religions of Late Antiquity (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990), 41.
 P. Boyer, ‘’Why do Gods and Spirits Matter at All?’’, in Ilkka Pyysiäinen and Veikko Anttonen (eds.), Current Approaches in the Cognitive Science of Religion (London: Continuum, 2002), 68-69.
 A. Taves, “Building Blocks of Sacralities: A New Basis for Comparison across Cultures and Religions”, in Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, edited by Raymond F. Paloutzian and Crystal L. Park (New York/London: The Guilford Press, 2013), 138/39, 154.
 Boyer, ‘’Who do Gods and Spirits Matter at All?’’, 68-69.
 Boyer, ‘’Who do Gods and Spirits Matter at All?’’, 87.
 Boyer, ‘’Who do Gods and Spirits Matter at All?’’, 70.
 Taves, ‘’Building Blocks of Sacralities’’, 138-39.
 Hanegraaff, ‘’Reconstructing ‘’Religion’’’’, 579. Meyer, Mediation, 23. K. Shilbrack, ‘’After we Deconstruct ‘Religion,’ Then What? A Case for Critical Realism’’, Method and Theory in the Study of Religions 25 (2013), 109.
 Meyer, Mediation, 23.
 Hanegraaff, ‘’Reconstructing ‘’Religion’’, 585. Hanegraaff’s own ‘solution’ to the definition problem is to take religion as a pre-comparative tertium, against which phenomena that fit the tertium can be compared. The advantage of this approach, according to Hanegraaff, is that the tertium cannot be committed to any ideological position. Furthermore, it absolves the notion of ‘magic’ that was heretofore excluded from the discursive domain of religion. My own objections to this approach stem from the idea that, in the tertium approach, ‘religion’ is considered to ‘speak for itself’ (Hanegraaff unseasonably uses the example of fruit; we all know what the tertium fruit is, so we do not have to explain or elaborate on it), whereas I think that a discursive phenomenon as religion always demands reconsideration and thorough assessment (Hanegraaff, ‘’Reconstructing ‘’Religion’’’’’, 601) .
 M. Van de Port, ‘’In love with my footage: Notes on the psychodynamics of mediation’’. Visual Anthropology Review, forthcoming. 1.
 Meyer, Mediation, 11, 22.
 I adopt this term from cultural theorist Stuart Hall (1973).
 Our last lecture week focused exclusively on researching religion on the internet. See: R. Tsuria, A. Yadlin-Segal, A. Vitullo and H.A. Campbell, ‘’Approaches to digital methods in the study of religion’’, The Communication Review 20:2 (2017), 73-97.