I don’t study religion: so what am I doing in the study of religion?

I have considered myself a student of religion for around 30 years now, particularly since the time I enrolled for a PhD programme on religion in social anthropology (back in 1988), and then went on to teach religion in various university and college contexts.

However, I am a student of religion who does not study religion.

For one thing, I don't think religion is a ‘thing’ to be studied. ‘It’ is not an entity in itself.

In particular, I study what people think and talk about as religion.

I study the spaces, places, things, objects, ideas, practices, and conflicts that can be found in particular discourses that get labelled and thought about as ‘religion’.

I study the idea of religion.

Very often this can feel like I am not studying (or teaching) about religion at all.

To study the bits of peoples’ lives that slot into the bracket of ‘religion’, it is also necessary to try to understand the ‘bigger picture’ — the bits of their lives and cultures that appear to exist beyond the ‘religion’ tag.

For this, sometimes the boundaries are clear —people can often articulate clearly where they consider ‘religion to end’ and ‘culture to begin’. This is interesting in itself, since it gives us some insight into how the idea of religion is understood.

But it does not give us any definitive understanding of whether a certain action is either ‘religion’ or ‘culture’.

Most significantly, such statements are part of what the study of religion is considering:

That is, how the idea of religion is understood. And from there, how such an idea(s) is embedded and lived out in material and discursive ways.

In saying this, I am not saying that religion is embedded and made material, since it is not a thing to be embodied in such a way. It is the idea of religion that is embedded and embodied.

Understandings of religion are lived out, on and through peoples’ bodies.

This is not so different from many other ideas and discourses that exist within the complexities of what we think of as culture.

Thus, likewise the study of race is not about any realities of differences between people that are defined by the term ‘race’.

The study of race is not about measuring intelligence or ability, or skull sizes. It is about studying the idea of race, the discourses that define differences between people, and in being embodied such ideas become very real, social, economic, and political realities.

Similarly, the study of gender is not about physical, anatomical differences — it is about the idea of gender: how such ideas are understood and put into practice. Such ideas create particular differences of gender — people talk about specific genders, such as a binary division between women and men. And then on this are elaborated many other levels of ideas of difference, which in themselves create social relations and are reproduced through such relations.

So, in short, the study of religion is about the study of ideas.

However, the word ‘idea’ seems a rather lame understatement of what is examined. It suggests a simple category of thinking that exists in a detached cognitive world, separate from the ‘real life’ of embodiment.

But the focus on ideas (the idea of religion, for example) leads us to an approach of understanding an ‘ideology’ — which in itself needs to be unpacked.

An ideology is not just simply a ‘false consciousness’, a deliberate misrepresentation that is imposed on a populace by force and through propaganda.

The concept of ideology is much broader than this: we all live within a world that is based on assuming certain ideas as obvious and self evident, so real we do not have to question their existence.

Sometimes these ideas can be seen as religious, but very often they are not. Ideas about the reality of race and gender are also ideological, they are the ideas that people live within to understand their bodies, and to talk about their differences.

And behind such ideas of religion, race, and gender are relations of power. They are means by which power and influence are exerted — rich over poor, men over women, white over black, and so on.

Ideas matter.

They exist within times and places. They are the basis through which people experience and live within their worlds. They are how social and power differences are understood and exerted.

This is why I study religion by studying the idea of religion.

By studying the intersections of power and ideologies of religion, race, gender, and sexualities.

Religion Bites is edited by Malory Nye, an academic and writer who teaches at the University of Glasgow. He can be found on Twitter (@malorynye) and on his website, malorynye.com.

He produces two podcasts: Religion Bites and History’s Ink.

Malory Nye is also the author of the books Religion the Basics (2008) and There Shall be an Independent Scotland (2015).

Malory Nye has created some further resources which can be found here:

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