Comparing Religions: On Theory and Method
A Conference in Honor of Martin Riesebrodt
January 14, 2011
Conference Rationale and Objectives
"Comparing Religions: On Theory and Method" takes place at a crucial juncture for religious studies and the sociology of religion. For at least two decades, these areas of scholarly inquiry have confronted deep and persisting questions about whether a universal definition of religion is possible or even desirable. To insist that comparison is indeed possible and in fact unavoidable and necessary is still to run very much against the current in the study of religions today.
Taking its inspiration from the work of Martin Riesebrodt, this conference returns comparison to the center of religious studies, sociology, and the social sciences, generally. The critical questions the conference seeks to address build on those that Martin has posed in his recently published book, The Promise of Salvation: A Theory of Religion (Chicago, 2010; published originally as Cultus und Heilsversprechen: Eine Theorie der Religionen, Munich: C.H. Beck, 2007). This book, the culmination of two decades of research and teaching at the University of Chicago, builds on Martins' earlier studies on fundamentalism (cf. Pious Passion: The Emergence of Modern Fundamentalism in the United States and Iran, Berkeley, 1993; published originally as Fundamentalismus als patriarchalische Protestbewegung, Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1990) and the implications of religious resurgence for an increasingly globalized world (cf. Die Rückkehr der Religionen und der "Kampf der Kulturen," Munich: C.H. Beck, 2000). The appearance of Martin's theory, which seeks to justify a general concept of religion and explain the vitality of actual religions across diverse historical periods and cultural settings, is already generating an appreciative and critical discussion. A.W. Klink (Duke University) has written in Choice that although "specialists might quibble with his interpretations of their respective traditions" Martin's theory nevertheless is "one of the most insightful and sophisticated contemporary theories of religion that students and scholars at all levels can profitably use." Similarly, in an August 2010 review appearing in the Canadian Journal of Sociology(http://www.cjsonline.ca/advancepub/mckinnon10.html), Andrew McKinnon (University of Aberdeen, Scotland) declares, "Sociologists are apt to be talking about this book for a very long time to come." Mickinnon explains that "general sociological theories of religion are uncommon; good general theories of religion, even rarer." What makes Martin's theory compelling in Mickinnon's eyes is its contrarian claim that "there is such a thing as religion, such that it can be defined and studied across cultures and through history." He also praises the particularly innovative way in which Martin locates meaningful action institutionally within liturgical practices.
The core of Martin's theory is a definition of religion that makes "interventionist practices" the center of analysis. Martin defines interventionist practices as any type of practice that "aim[s] at establishing contact with superhuman powers" with the objective of averting or mitigating misfortune and securing salvation in areas of existence--individual, social, and in the natural environment--that exceed "direct human control" (cf. Promise of Salvation, 75). Other religious practices--second-order discursive or behavior-regulating ones, for example--"logically, systematically, and pragmatically...presuppose the existence of interventionist practices." Interventionist practices "ground and strengthen the experience of religious reality emotionally and cognitively" by dramatizing "the existence of superhuman powers and their accessibility." The legitimacy and effectiveness of discursive or ethical practices flows from the prior existence of these interventionist techniques and the "aura of factuality" they instill within practitioners. Methodologically, too, interventionist practices "offer the clearest and strongest basis" for trans-historical and cross-cultural comparison because they "are much more strictly regulated and fixed in their liturgical meaning" (86-87).
This conference seeks to pursue the implications of this focus on interventionist practices for empirical studies. What new questions arise for comparative sociohistorical or socio-ethnographic studies of specific religions when we emphasize such practices? How does this methodological perspective, in particular, help us discover new points of departure in understanding the continuing relevancy of religion in the three areas of acute human vulnerability that Martin identifies-the human body, society, and the natural environment? How, especially, does it lead to new insights concerning the unpredictable effects of secularization processes and the possibilities inherent in them for creating new conditions of crisis that elicit collective retrievals and revivifications of religion? Finally, what, if any, unforeseen problems arise when we place the emphasis on interventionist practices? What biases are we introducing? How are these biases shaping our perspective? How might this methodological approach address these problems?
8:15 - 8:45 Coffee, informal conversation
9:00 - 10:45 Session 1: Religion, Generations, and Gender
- Paul Kollman, Associate Professor, Department of Theology, University of Notre Dame: "Comparative Perspectives on the Africanizing of Christianity"
- Erin J. Augis, Associate Professor of Sociology, School of Social Science and Human Services, Ramapo College of New Jersey: "Women Revivalists and Senegalese Islamic Specificity in Sub-Saharan African"
- Respondent/Chair: Omar M. McRoberts, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Chicago
10:45 - 11:00 Break
11:00 - 12:45 Session 2: Religious Virtuosity and Asceticism
- Randall Reed, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Department of Philosophy and Religion, Appalachian State University: "Of Prophets and Propaganda: A Comparison of Modern and Ancient Apocalypticism Using the Work of Martin Riesebrodt"
- Mihwa Choi, Assistant Professor of Religion, Department of Philosophy and Religion, University of North Carolina at Pembroke: "Two Levels of Asceticism: A Comparative Study of the Confucian Tradition"
- Respondent/Chair: Andreas Glaeser, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Chicago
1:00 - 2:30 Lunch
2:45 - 4:30 Session 3: Religion and the State
- Geneviève Zubrzycki, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Michigan: "The Present Uses of Religious Pasts: 'Cultural Heritage' in Quebec and Philo-Semitism in Poland"
- Yanfei Sun, Ph.D. (Chicago, 2010), Society of Fellows, Columbia University: "Religions in Sociopolitical Context: The Reconfiguration of Religious Ecology in Post-Mao China"
- Respondent/Chair: Malika Zeghal, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Professor in Contemporary Islamic Thought and Life, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and the Committee on the Study of Religion, Harvard University
4:45-5:00 Reflections: Martin Riesebrodt, Professor of the Sociology of Religion, University of Chicago
Conference Participants and Panel Respondents
Paul Kollman, Associate Professor, Department of Theology, University of Notre Dame
Erin J. Augis, Associate Professor of Sociology, School of Social Science and Human Services, Ramapo College of New Jersey
Omar M. McRoberts (respondent), Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Chicago
Randall Reed, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Department of Philosophy and Religion, Appalachian State University
Mihwa Choi, Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy and Religion, University of North Carolina at Pembroke
Andreas Glaeser (respondent), Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Chicago
Geneviève Zubrzycki, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Michigan
Yanfei Sun, Ph.D. (Chicago, 2010), Society of Fellows, Columbia University
Malika Zeghal (respondent), Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Professor in Contemporary Islamic Thought and Life, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and the Committee on the Study of Religion, Harvard University
Please direct any questions you may have about the conference to the organizers. We will make every effort to respond as promptly as possible to your inquiry.
Loren D. Lybarger
Assistant Professor, Department of Classics and World Religions, Ohio University, Athens
Mary Ellen Konieczny
Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Notre Dame
Kelly H. Chong
Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Kansas, Lawrence