“Bad Religion” and Religion Scholars Gone A.W.O.L. (Part 1)

I have recently been chronicling on this blog a tendency by scholars, politicians, and the media to proclaim certain instances of violence and conflict to be “not about religion,” “not just about religion,” about “politics not religion” and other variations on this theme in a way that seems to indicate a process of distancing or distinction of religion from phenomena and mechanisms of violence.  The problem has recently become acute in considerations of the terrorism of the Islamic State or ISIS.  But it had an earlier flowering in the attempts to understand the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the perceived need to distinguish “bad religion” from “good religion”–or more specifically “bad Islam” from “good Islam”–as in the mantra, oft-heard at the time, that Islam is a “religion of peace.”  In truth, most, if not all, religions seem to be religions of both war and peace.  This is the ambivalent and ambiguous nature of religion that many scholars of religion have described.

What is interesting about the recent attention to the religiosity of ISIS is how much of it seems to be coming not from scholars of religion, but from political scientists, researchers in “terrorism studies.” and other areas outside of the ambit of the academic study of religion. In one sense, this may be just another instance of the social sciences “stealing the thunder” of religion scholars. The editors of one interdisciplinary journal in religion had a laugh some years ago when, in an internal survey regarding possible topics for upcoming content, one intrepid scholar cited “apocalypticism” as an emerging issue worthy of Special attention. We were amused at the time, but with the recent attention to the apocalypticism of ISIS, that scholar now seems prophetic!

My concern about this apparent phenomenon of the academic study of religion distancing itself from religion’s more undisciplined and unruly side recently led me to consider other instances where religion scholars might have weighed in on some of religion’s more violent and apocalyptic dimensions.  2013 recently saw the 35th anniversary of the People’s Temple massacres in Jonestown, Guyana, and the 20th anniversaries of the first World Trade Center bombing and the attack on the Branch Davidian conflict in Waco, Texas.  2014 brought the 20th anniversaries of the Rwanda genocide and the First Chechen War. 2015 ushers in the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia and the Beslan massacre of Chechen school children in Russia. It seems like every year brings new anniversaries of atrocities in which religion and religious identity (often with ethnic and national identity) are deeply intertwined.

It’s worth noting that the first World Trade Center attack and the Branch Davidian incidents “broke” in the news on the same day, February 26, 1993, as news coverage of the WTC attack was interspersed with word of an escalating situation at the David Koresh “cult” in Waco that would result in the government siege of the Branch Davidian compound on April 19, 1993.  April 19, recognized in some parts of the country as Patriot’s Day, is the day the first shots of the American Revolution were at Lexington and Concord, and it is also a date beloved by “Patriot,” militia, neo-Nazi, and other right-wing groups for falling between the eve of the April 18 midnight ride of Paul Revere and the April 20 birthday of Adolf Hitler. It has also become a repeatedly violent date in American history in recent years–being also the date of the beginnings of the U.S. government siege of the Ruby Ridge compound of apocalyptic white separatist, tax-evader, and anti-government activist Randy Weaver, as well as the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 and the Boston Marathon bombing by the originally Chechen Tsarnaev brothers in 2013. Some Americans get anxious around tax time on April 15–but April 19 may be another date we should be keeping our eyes on.

After recently re-viewing two separate documentary films on the Jonestown massacre and reflecting on the temporal connection between the first WTC bombing and the Branch Davidian incident, I took the opportunity to read two texts that I had been planning to read for some time–both by leading historians of religion at my doctoral alma mater at the University of Chicago Divinity School.  The first was Jonathan Z. Smith‘s oft-cited analysis of the Jonestown massacre in an essay titled “The Devil in Mr. Jones”, in Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (University of Chicago Press, 1982), said also to have been the basis for analysis that he offered of the Branch Davidian incident years later.  The second was Bruce Lincoln‘s analysis of the motivations and rituals of the 9/11 attackers in Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11, 2nd. ed. (University of Chicago Press, 2006, originally published in 2002).  These books, published exactly two decades apart. are very interesting for what they say about the capacity and/or inclination of scholars of religion to address religion’s darker and more violent side, especially when it hits close to home.  I supplemented these two texts with a third, an essay by leading sociologist of religion Nancy T. Ammerman, titled “Waco, Federal Law Enforcement, and Scholars of Religion”, in Stuart A. Wright, ed. Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Cult (University of Chicago Press, 1995).  Kudos, by the way, to the University of Chicago Press, for its willingness to publish the “darker side” of religious studies in these three volumes–another reason to be proudly Maroon!

Here, I take up the argument of Jonathan Z. Smith–with others to follow in subsequent posts. Of the People’s Temple massacre in Guyana, Smith writes, “From one point of view, one might claim that Jonestown was the most important single event in the history of religions, for if we continue, as a profession, to leave it ununderstandable, then we will have surrendered our rights to the academy.” (104) In an interesting prefatory note, he cautions, “To interpret , to venture to understand, is not necessarily to approve or advocate. There is a vast difference between what I have described as ‘tolerance’ and what is now known as ‘relativism.’ The former does not necessarily lead to the latter.” (104) “If the skandalon of Jonestown requires that we make the effort of understanding,” then religion scholars, Smith warns, must eschew positions and postures in which “‘Translation becomes impossible in principle.” (105) Indeed, he argues that “if this be the case, the academy, the enterprise of understanding, the human sciences themselves, become, likewise, impossible in principle since they are fundamentally translation enterprises.” (105)

But what happens when the translators flee the task. Smith writes:

Since the events in Jonestown, I have searched through the academic journals for some serious study, but in vain.  Neither in them, nor in the hundreds of papers on the program of the American Academy of Religion (which was in session during the event in 1978 and which meets each year about the time of its anniversary) has there been any mention. For the press, the event was all too quickly overshadowed by other horrors. For the academy, it was as if Jonestown had never happened. (109)

But this, it appears, was only the public manifestation of the religious studies profession, for Smith elaborates:

The profession of religious studies, when it would talk, privately, within its boundaries, had a different perspective. For many, Jones’s declarations that he was a Marxist, a communist, one who rejected the “opiate” of religion, were greeted with relief. He was not after all religious. Hence there was no professional obligation to interpret him.  . . . For others, it was not to be talked about because it revealed what had been concealed from the public, academic discussion for a century–that religion has rarely been a positive, liberal force. Religion is not nice; it has been responsible for more death and suffering than any other human activity.  . . . Religion was not civil. And so a new term had to be created, that of “cult,” to segregate these uncivil phenomena from religion.

But civility is not to be reduced to “nice” behavior. A concomitant of the Enlightenment “domestication” of religion was the refusal to leave any human datum beyond the pale of reason and understanding. If the events of Jonestown are a behavioral skandalon to the Enlightenment faith, then the refusal of the academy to interpret Jonestown is at least, an equivalent skandalon to the same faith. (111)

Against this refusal of interpretation, of translation, Smith recounts the notable words of a United Methodist minister who lost two daughters and a grandson in the Jonestown massacre to the effect that “Jonestown people were human beings.” (111)

With this human dimension of the massacre in mind (and religious studies exists for many practitioners in equipoise between the social sciences and the humanities), Smith argues:

This recognition of the ordinary humanness of the participants in Jonestown’s White Night must certainly be the starting point of interpretation. For, “nothing human is foreign to me.”

Our task is not to reach closure. Indeed, at present this is factually impossible, for we lack the majority of the necessary data.  We know the pornography of Jonestown; we do not know its mythology, its ideology, its soteriology, its sociology–we do not know almost everything we would need to know in order to venture a secure argument. . . .

A basic strategy, one that is a prerequisite for intelligibility, is to remove from Jonestown the aspect of the unique, of its being utterly exotic. We must be able to declare that Jonestown on 18 November 1978 was an instance of something known, of something we have seen before. We must perform an act of reduction. We must reduce Jonestown to the category of the known and the knowable. (111)

This, Smith’s view is both an essential task of and a justification for the study of religion.  Thus, Smith concludes his analysis of the Jonestown massacre by warning scholars of religion that “if we do not persist in the quest for intelligibility, there can be no human sciences, let alone any place for the study of religion within them:” (120)

At at time, in which the humanities are under siege and when phenomena from cannibalistic and amulet-laden Christian warriors in the Central African Republic to the apocalyptic caliphate of the Islamic State beg for interpretation and translation, can the discipline of religious studies return to active duty instead of floating in the ether of its own theoretical and methodological discussions?  Will it do so?  Stay tuned here for further analysis.


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