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It would take too long to thoroughly rehearse it here (though I have addressed it elsewhere), but the anthropology of religion is dominated by two threads. The first is accounts of religion that are predicated on belief as a category; the locus classicus here being Clifford Geertz’s account of religion as a conceptual exercise in dealing with suffering through the lamination of a vision of how the world should be on top of the experience of how the world actually is.
This account was once the prevailing understanding of religion, but it has been challenged on two fronts. The first front is that this is an overly protestant understanding of religion, based upon a certain kind of sincerity and interiority that is particular to reformed and post-reformation Christianity. The point here is that earlier Christian dispensations were predicated more on various forms of disciplines, either in the sense of Maussian techniques du corps or submission to authoritative institutions and figures. The idea here with these formulations of prior Christian practices is not that one first believes, but that belief is a fruit of discipline, and not something that precedes it.
This observation, put forward most forcefully by Talal Asad, has often been used as part of a campaign to de-essentialize religion, and militate against the idea of it being a unified field (this move, by the way, is an idea that I appreciate, but I think is predicated on a certain nominalism and some other ontological blinders that I’ve discussed in other places). But the chief ethnographic fruit of it has been a wealth of discussions centering on practice and other forms of religious formation, and I think that this has been a tonic to the field. But this foregrounding of religion as a disciplinary exercise overlooks something – why is it that anyone would submit themselves to such exercises? Certainly in many cases, there is some social coercion, but even in the most coercive of cases there is an element of volition that must, at least, be rhetorically produced, and in many cases voluntarism has a particularly important role in how people find their way in. And this suggests that while discipline can be the engine of belief, the act of submission to discipline indicates a certain kind of belief in the effectiveness and putative goals of the disciplining process. This suggests that belief and discipline are not alternative framings, or different stages in a process, but form a single complex. In different religious forms, the ‘ratio’ of the saliency or force of either belief or discipline may be different, and it may be that in different religious forms the ratio between discipline and belief may shift one way or another over the career arc of either the individual practitioner, or the historic unfolding of the religious form. But in the end, they form a whole, and we mistake a causal priority of one or the other for what are merely different intensities within structures that are topologically homogeneous.
And this makes sense if you assume that belief and discipline are in some ways more similar than different. Each involves a certain ‘image of thought,’ a fixed picture of what proper religiosity is. This may be expressed either as a telos of development, an expression of a closed set of privileged religious virtues, or the existence of a set of authoritative creeds and statements; but either way, this is about a fixity. That is, true believers or fully developed adepts of a religious form would be converging on a certain conceptual or embodied ideal. We may ask, of courses, what this fixity means – for better or for worse. The ‘better’ option may seem to be obvious, but the dangers less so, especially when one thinks about the integration of religion with other processes. Religious systems are not closed, and they are either producing figures for other social assemblages or alternately resisting outside countervailing forces. The risk here is that this larger ecology could change. This would leave modes of religiosity vulnerable because, due to these shift of circumstances, the effects of the ideals that informs the production of subjects could also shift. And because of these changes, it is more than possible that the subjects, the religion, or the larger ecology would no longer thrive.
What would be the response? Humans, of course, are inventive, and the kinds of shifts and transformations in the larger ecology may mean that certain preexisting elements in the religious would come to the fore, and a different larger ecology would eventually result. But that is to place a lot of trust in aleatory, blind, and indifferent forces. Religious forms are also capable of internalizing tactics and practices created outside of it, as well, and this, at least, would suggest more control, but at the same time the extraneous tactics and practices may come with entailments that are may be hard for some religious forms to internalize without creating more systematic internal discord; this could hinder the effectivity of these external forms … or possibly poison the borrowing form of religion at the very moment that it is experiencing crisis.
One might suspect that different religious forms would have over time developed their own resources for transformation in these quicksilver moments, and particularly for this time when “all that is solid melts into air.” It’s my suggestion that one common resource during these tumultuous moments is religious speculation. Speculation is the antithesis of the aleatory creativity for religion, then perhaps we should be giving it more importance. One of the first benefits of attending to speculation, ironically, is that it gives us a better understanding of the belief/discipline complex. We have discussed how speculation means a going beyond, and also how belief and discipline are actually a whole, to be taken as a combined totality. But when we think these two things together, we realize that discipline/belief is not just about the formation of subject, as the level of individuals, or at a larger level about the replication of religious forms. Rather, belief/practice at once prepares people for engaging in the work of religious speculation, while at the same time vetting and constraining speculation that threatens to remake the religious form in ways that would interfere either with the utility of religion (whatever that is) for individuals, or with the religion’s capacity to institutionally reproduce itself. Of course, these moments of crisis is exactly when one might expect a religious form to double down on the fixed image of belief…
This is just a quick post mentioning that I have a new review article out in the JRAI (which you can reach directly or indirectly) on the newest edition of the Asad, Mahmood, and Butler edited volume Is Critique Secular?. It touches on the obvious issues of secularism, modernity, religion, and the anthropology of both the West and of Islam, but it also touches on issues relating to the anthropology of ethics that I’ve discussed before.