Is Nothing Sacred? Notes from the International Association for the History of Religions

A Martin Luther magnet from the IAHR Conference
A Martin Luther magnet from the IAHR Conference. Photo by the author

Brian Pennington

A rare convergence of scholars of religion occurred recently: the World Congress of the International Association for the History of Religion (IAHR), which convenes only once every five years, took place in Erfurt, Germany, in August. This brainy and multilingual affair brought 1500 scholars from six continents together to present their research and confer on collaborative projects. The sub-disciplines they represented ranged from Anthropology of Religion to Philosophy of Religion. The biggest obstacle to their work, as it turns out, is religion itself.

The IAHR bills itself as “the preeminent international forum for the critical, analytical and cross-cultural study of religion past and present.” Maintaining this preeminence and pursuing the realization of its ideal–a truly scientific study of religion–requires an exclusion underscored repeatedly in the organization’s materials and in the opening address offered Sunday night by IAHR General Secretary, Tim Jensen: “The IAHR is not a forum for confessional, apologetical, or other similar concerns.” The gods made any number of appearances at the World Congress (tamed, of course, by the interpretive work of historians, psychologists, and the like), but there was nary a theologian to be found.

Central to the IAHR’s mission and its very raison d’être is the belief that all facets of human religiosity–from the erudite and philosophical to the banal and absurd–can be understood and described by hard-edged empiricism. For most of the scholars committed to the principles of the IAHR (and I should be clear: I fancy myself one of them), there is nothing special or unique about religious belief or practice: religious ideas, spirituality, and the human deification of powers and forces can all be reduced to social drives, psychological mechanisms, and historical or political factors that encourage their emergence. The IAHR is a late product of the attack on institutional religious authority that began in the Protestant Reformation, gained steam in the Enlightenment, and brought us, eventually, Madonna and R.E.M.

This policing of the boundaries was often in evidence as, for example, when David Haberman of the University of Indiana at Bloomington presented new research on the Hindu practice of anthropomorphizing rocks by applying eyes and otherwise humanizing them in preparation for their worship. Haberman cited a University of Chicago psychology study on the importance of seeing faces in the emotional and cognitive development of human infants to hypothesize about the “connection” with a deity that such faces allow Hindu worshippers to feel when they approach these images. This kind of bracketing of religious belief is common among religion scholars in the US who will sometimes not subject even outlandish claims to scrutiny in order to analyze the underlying logic of religious devotion. It was too much for Cameron Warner of Aarhus University in Denmark, who greeted Haberman’s uncritical invocation of an unverifiable “connection” with incredulity that such subjective data might be introduced into this empiricist forum.

Actually a coalition of many regional and national associations for the study of religion that span the globe, the IAHR nevertheless bears the deep imprint of European intellectual history that dates to the founding of the modern university, and this helps explain its scruples. Since the Middle Ages, Theology, the confessional effort to articulate the rationale and ends of Christian belief, has held a privileged place in the European academy. Think Thomas Aquinas or son of Erfurt himself, Martin Luther. Faculties of theology are still entirely common in the state-supported university systems of an allegedly secularized Europe, and some scholars have tired of the favored status they are accorded. Founded in 1950, the IAHR can be understood as a successful effort to carve out a space for disciplined inquiry into the roots and logic of religion freed from the scrutiny or interference of these theologians.

Wresting this space has proceeded along two fronts: undermining the very idea of “religion” and attacking the common-sense idea that there are religions that can be known and signaled through such names as Judaism, Hinduism, and Pastafarianism.

No crisp summary of the multitude of theoretical reasons or the mountains of data that produce this intellectual agenda is possible, but let’s just say that these schools of thought see nefarious political designs at the root of these categories: calling something a religion or clothing an idea in religious language elevates it above other spheres of human activity and offers it a degree of status and protection. Consider, for example, the Church of Scientology’s dogged campaign for legitimacy that would include official state recognition in places like Germany and Russia that steadfastly refuse it. Groups can effectively use, moreover, the broad labels we generally think of as the World Religions to force social acceptance as well. Think about how much Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign did for the acceptance of Mormonism as a Christian faith. Scientologists and Mormons both know that tales of alien abduction and a history of polygamy will acquire a degree of legitimacy over time if we all come to accept that they are explained and accepted by an actual religion. Those aiming to subvert religion can use this principle to their own advantage, as we learned last year when a former porn star managed to get Utah (Utah!!) to allow her to be photographed for her driver’s license wearing the signature colander of the Flying-Spaghetti-Monster-worshiping Pastafarians.

Scholars of religion the world over will hardly be shocked at the degree of suspicion with which the category of “religion” itself is now regarded by those academics who aspire to a scientific study of it. Among those who learned in graduate school to use words like “hybridity” and “imbrication” in their everyday speech, this debate is old news. It is easy to see, however, what an uphill battle everyone recognizes this is. Taken as a whole, the IAHR has tied itself in knots over the issue, demanding in some quarters that the category “religion” itself be abolished as meaningless, reluctantly recognizing, in others, just how impossible realizing such a vision will be. The organization’s governing committee considered and soundly rejected an effort last week to change its name to the “International Association for the Scientific Study of Religion” in recognition of how unfamiliar such an idea might be.

The first problem with the effort to abolish the idea of religion is that to the public the existence of “religions” that include such entities as Christianity and Buddhism is utterly self-evident and hardly questionable. It is simply common sense to all but rigorously trained specialists that there are different religions (probably 9, but maybe 10), that they believe distinct things, and that virtually all people identify themselves as “belonging” to exactly one of them. This fact frustrates scholars who decry the tenacity of what they call the “World Religions Paradigm,” now routinely abbreviated among those in the know as “WRP.” While some engage the battle against WRP with a Quixotic devotion, others betray an impending acceptance of defeat. At a session celebrating the release of a college textbook intended to supplant the ubiquitous, popular, and highly profitable “World Religions” course supplement, one panelist, pushed insistently on the inescapable fact that those who cherish their personal religious identity may powerfully resist their own deconstruction, grudgingly accepted that common parlance would never be cleansed of religious language, saying it would be “fine” with him, so long as scholars abandoned the categories, hardly the defiant and uncompromising stance one finds when reading their studies.

A second problem with the effort to make the world see religion differently is that the most powerful forces on the planet are constantly reinforcing the public’s ideas that religions are real and distinct things, that you can have only one, and that they merit a privileged place in society. Rights and access to social goods are granted and withheld on the basis of religious identity throughout the world. “Religion” is enshrined in the constitutions of many individual countries, including, we all know, the U.S.: how could we ever progress towards a state where it no longer operates as a category in the lives and imaginings of actual people? There is an IAHR working group probing exactly these issues, namely, how do real people and their governments understand and employ the idea of religion, and what effects do they have? When “The Category of Religion in Public Life” group presented the results of its ongoing studies of those questions, we learned the following: In the U.K., something can only gain official recognition as a religion if it is publically beneficial, and so Druids, of course, now count; “The Order of the People of the Bear” in Finland figured out on their second application attempt how to meet the state’s criteria for religion, so they’re now in; and weekly sermons in the Scottish Parliament are very tightly managed for non-controversial content, sanitizing content and flattening religious difference. All of this points to one unmistakable conclusion: modern democratic governments, in their efforts to maintain neutrality, have manufactured religions again and again.

As I have noted, the IAHR advances an agenda that I have had something to do with, and most scholars like me would be thrilled to develop a public discourse about religion that is more sophisticated in its understanding of what religion is and how it works. Powerful industries ostensibly arrayed against one another, however, are deeply invested in keeping us simple. On the one hand, the steady generation of anti-religious propaganda by neo-atheism and the delirium stoked by the Islamophobia industry continue to crush any nuanced discussion about how religion actually operates. On the other side are those who celebrate religious pluralism uncritically, rapt in admiration of what they see as the spiritual wisdom of all peoples. On the horizon is the Parliament of the World’s Religions, already filling my inbox with predictions about the sincere dialogue and harmony among the faiths of the world we will all see taking place when they meet together, as they do only every 10 years, in October in Salt Lake City. We are sure to hear plenty of press coverage and commentary about the Parliament, replete with colorful images of robe-bedecked, bearded, and turbaned faithful, comforting us with a reassuring picture of the world as a collection of different religions that can heal all our global problems if we simply recognize that they all offer the same message of peace and humility.

Take that, IAHR.


Brian K. Pennington is the Director of Elon University’s Center for the Study of Religion, Culture, and Society and Professor of Religious Studies. He is author of Was Hinduism Invented?: Britons, Indians, and The Colonial Construction of Religion, editor of Teaching Religion and Violence (2005), and co-editor with Amy L. Allocco of the forthcoming Strategic Interventions: Ritual Innovation in South Asian Religion.