Reconstructive religious studies: A manifesto for the study of (non)religion in dark times


In this time of cascading crises, from climate change to the cost of living, from war to populism, many of us feel called to do research that can be put to use by people seeking to build a better world. With the important connection between the way that people imagine the world and their ability to act being increasingly recognised, the study of religion is well placed to do this world-building work. But how to go about it?

With the release of two books, Nonreligious Imaginaries of World Repairing (eds. Lori Beaman and Timothy Stacey) and Saving Liberalism from Itself: The Spirit of Political Participation (Timothy Stacey) I want to offer the makings of my manifesto. This is not a “with me or against me” manifesto. I consider most fields in the study of religion valuable and especially those in light of which I distinguish my approach. Nor is it intended as either a how-to guide or a complete list. My aim is to inspire rather than dictate and I invite those interested to extend, edit and retract where they see fit.

From studying (non)religion to using tools from the study of religion

The starting point for building a reconstructive religious studies is that religion must be in the driving seat. Three strands of research are already doing this. The first explores how people’s religious identity drives behaviours we abhor and admire: from the relationship between certain strands of evangelicalism and climate change denial (Haluza-DeLay 2014), to Pope Francis’ role in conjuring concern for the animals, plants and waterways with which we share the world (Landrum and Vasquez 2020).  Others choose to study the connection between explicitly nonreligious identities and various forms of political action, from gay rights to better wages for workers (Rabbia and Vaggione 2021). My interest, instead, is in using tools from the study of religion to understand and transform the behaviour of people for whom whether they are religious is not particularly pertinent (see also Nita 2020 and Taylor 2009).

From worldviews to imaginaries

Let’s begin with how to frame the focus of our research. In our introduction to Nonreligious Imaginaries, Lori Beaman and I (2021: 3) argue that terms like belief-system and worldviews conjure ‘a robust, systemic or dogmatic way of thinking that neglects the complexity of the ways that many nonreligious people engage with the world’. Instead, we find that ‘imaginaries’ better captures the often cobbled together nature of the myths, rituals, images, senses, feelings and practices that shape people’s engagement with the world.

Imaginaries is an oft-used but rarely defined term. I use it to mean what people imagine to be real and unreal, true and false, possible and impossible, desirable and undesirable, connected and disconnected, alike and alien. I think of imaginaries as captured in myths, rituals, magic, and traditions, and as performed in the way that we carry ourselves, the events we attend, the people we hang out with, the causes we commit ourselves to and the rules we make, break and follow.

From rituals of birth and death to what people live and die for

As scholars turn to study nonreligion, there is a tendency to seek out ways of engaging the world that “look like” what has traditionally been called religion, such as myths of demigods, rituals of birth, marriage and death, and encounters with unexplained phenomena. In moments of crisis, this strategy can be of use, such as when climate activists grieve over their children’s future. But tools from the study of religion are more incisive and arguably more useful outside of our discipline when they can tell us something about behaviours that people might not ordinarily recognise as religion-like.

My focus then, is on using tools from the study of religion to understand the thoughts that keep people up at night, the stories they share on social media and the causes they give up their limited free time and money for. How, for example, might ritual theory be applied to understand protest marches? And how might theories of tradition help us to see what is missing from mainstream political messaging?

From deconstruction to reconstruction

As I explained in Saving Liberalism (2022: 24; 38; 144), there is a long and strong history of using research into religion to shed light on the myths that shape social reality. Primarily, however, this work is deconstructive. As scholars grew in confidence that religion would fade into the background, they turned their attention to alternative opiates, from race to the nation. The scale of this intellectual armoury has proved useful in deconstructing a range of political upheavals, from populism to nativism.

But the question is, why stop at combating what we perceive as negative developments? Why not draw on the many tools we have for understanding how people make meaning to highlight hopeful examples and aid in the process of world building? This was the ultimate aim of both Nonreligious Imaginaries and Saving Liberalism. In the former, Beaman and I drew together a range of innovative researchers who used their expertise in the study of religion to understand how people make meaning and commune with other human and other-than-human beings in a broken world.

In Saving Liberalism, I explore how to build political movements with the sense of meaning and belonging that populism provides without simply revalourising understandings of faith, flag and family that so many have fought to consign to history. Rather than simply extolling from upon high about what a liberal civil religion might look like, I draw on ethnographic research with liberally oriented people as they navigate between their universal ethical ideals and their desire to belong in a community of place with people who don’t share their ideals. I explain how political liberalism, which emphasizes rationality and individualism, makes their path harder to navigate. And I explore the myths they draw on, the rituals they engage in, the magical feelings they experience and the traditions they build in overcoming obstacles.

A call to action

The answers I provide are by no means the making of a civil religion. So long and hard have been the battles to dismantle the oppressive religious and cultural structures of the past that people have barely had time to begin building a new world. What I hope I am beginning to provide instead is a toolkit for better understanding the vital world-repairing and -building work people are doing, and for inspiring similar such work in other settings. I, myself, am now turning to explore how liberal imaginaries limit the range of actions that we realise are available to us in addressing climate change, and the myths, rituals, magic and traditions that can liberate us from our collective writer’s block. I am eager to hear from others doing similar such work.


References

Haluza-DeLay, Randolph. 2014. “Religion and Climate Change: Varieties in Viewpoints and Practices.” WIREs Climate Change 5 (2): 261–79. https://doi.org/10.1002/wcc.268.

Landrum, Asheley R., and Rosalynn Vasquez. 2020. “Polarized U.S. Publics, Pope Francis, and Climate Change: Reviewing the Studies and Data Collected around the 2015 Papal Encyclical.” WIREs Climate Change 11 (6): e674. https://doi.org/10.1002/wcc.674.

Nita, Maria. 2020. “‘Inside Story’ Participatory Storytelling and Imagination in Eco-Pedagogical Contexts.” In Storytelling for Sustainability in Higher Education: An Educator’s Handbook, edited by Petra Molthan-Hill, Denise Baden, Tony Wall, Helen Puntha, and Heather Luna. Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, NY: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

Rabbia, Hugo H., and Juan Marco Vaggione. 2021. “The Mobilization of Religious and Nonreligious Imaginaries in Argentine Sexual Politics.” In Nonreligious Imaginaries of World Repairing, edited by Lori G. Beaman and Timothy Stacey, 59–74. Cham: Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-72881-6_5.

Stacey, Timothy. 2022. Saving Liberalism from Itself: The Spirit of Political Participation. Bristol: Bristol University Press. https://doi.org/10.51952/9781529215502  

Stacey, Timothy, and Lori G. Beaman. 2021. “Introduction.” In Nonreligious Imaginaries of World Repairing, edited by Lori G. Beaman and Timothy Stacey, 1–15. Cham: Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-72881-6_1.

Taylor, Bron. 2009. Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future. First edition. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Timothy Stacey (@godsandsods) is Researcher at the Urban Futures Studio, Utrecht University. With a BA in Philosophy & Theology, a PhD in Sociology, and an interest in anthropology, art, and activism, Tim explores how imaginaries influence political action. He divides his time equally between building theory and planning interventions.

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