“Beyond Tocquville: A Plea to Stop ‘Taking Religion Seriously’.”
We have all heard the admonition to “take religion seriously.” It is a perplexing command, since AHA statistics indicate that graduate students have been flocking to religious topics for years. Library shelves groan under the weight of recent works that take religion seriously. What, then, might it mean to take religion more seriously, as it has been such a booming academic field for decades now? As Elizabeth Pritchard has pointed out, the imperative is not a methodological recommendation at all, but an ethical–political one. To take religion “seriously” is to grant it its rightful place as an independent variable amidst others, without reducing it to the old categories of politics or class or gender. It is implicitly frivolous to see religion as a superstructural manifestation of a deeper social or economic reality, as have many functionalist theories from Marx onwards. These accounts are routinely pilloried as condescending towards the past, and as failing to take historical actors at their word when they claim to act for religious reasons. There is much to this; nonetheless, the currently reigning assumption of religious autonomy, like that of other cultural artifacts, has been perilously undertheorized. In this joint review, I would like to show how this understanding of religion impedes historical understanding. It might be the case that, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, religion is too important to take seriously.
Modern Intellectual History
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