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This gathering of about eighty scholars at the Circle Centre of Indianapolis includes a mix of ages and disciplinary training – four groups of 20, seated in tiers and “in the round,” with a center table of the conversation starters at the center. This conference is intended to be more interactive, and everyone can see each other.
This morning, the discussion concerns the variety of groups and subgroups involved in the study of American religion. What keep us separated? How can we interdisciplinarity?
From Indianapolis, I offer here a few highlights from the conference.
Historian Jon Butler of Yale University begins the conversation by discussing a review how historians usually do their “work” of history by focusing on particular denominational lines (e.g., focus on Puritan, Mormon, or Jewish history). Not only do they tend to focus on “internal” dynamics of particular religious histories, but most of these histories tend to be uncritical in their approach.
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Several people here are bothered with Butler’s seeming dismissal of denominational history; he clarified saying he didn’t mean that denominational history was “bad” history, but rather that it wasn’t “American” history. Butler wants a more comprehensive look at religion in America. There's a big difference between a reciting of facts and successions and articulating dynamics to would help anyone wanting to understand how religious things “happen” in the world over time.
Sociologist Jay Demerath, of University of Massachusetts, Amherst is next and muses on the difficulties of being a sociologist of religion. Both inside and outside of sociology, he finds it difficult to express to people exactly what he does.
Inside, many in sociology have great suspicion about “studying” religion as a significant social phenomenon. And people outside the discipline seem to be bored, offended, or enthusiastic (in an almost unpredictable manner) that a sociologist neither advances nor assaults religion but rather tries to understand and explain.
Overall, Demarath appears to imply that sociology makes distinctive contributions through its methods and theories, and making those contributions should be a sociologist’s first priority without being overly concerned with connections to other disciplines.
Paula Kane from the Department of Religious Studies, University of Pittsburgh, seems to be concerned with the future of scholarship in the production of useful and important knowledge about religion.
She makes an interesting case based on the video game “guitar hero” (look it up if you don’t know what this is) in saying that the media-oriented fantasy of being a rock star allows for entertainment and involvement that has little to do with actual music (being able to play notes) or involvement of meaning (being able to compose and interpret lyrics). Similarly, the value of studying religion is needed moreso than simply consuming religion (even when done in a highly academic way).
The ability to produce meaningful knowledge is what needs to be our priority. What is needed is an attempt to deal with broader questions and issues. For Kane, this means the need to resurrect past theoretical riches (particularly critical theory) and not be overly caught up in academic trends of the day.