Constructing "Data" in Religious Studies

Examining the Architecture of the Academy

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Leslie Dorrough Smith
NAASR Working Papers
  • Sheffield, UK: 
    , October
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Constructing “Data” in Religious Studies offers theoretical and reflective discussions of the ways that religious studies scholars engage their work as an exercise of construction. The volume includes nineteen chapters divided into four sections, on “Subjects,” “Objects,” “Scholars,” and “Institutions.” The first three of these sections are helpfully opened by a keynote chapter to which the others respond, and the final section on institutions, though lacking such a keynote, reads well as a coherent whole because its chapters discuss institutions of higher education in particular (colleges, universities, and religious studies departments). Leslie Dorrough Smith’s introduction provides background for the volume in the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) 2017 conference. An epilogue coauthored by Aaron W. Hughes and Russell T. McCutcheon discusses the notion and limitations of scholarly collegiality, and may have served better as a part of the section on institutions than as a conclusion for the entire volume.

The locus classicus guiding this volume is Jonathan Z. Smith’s famous passage from the opening page of Imagining Religion (University of Chicago Press, 1982) stating that “there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar's study” (quoted at 4 and passim). As a result, data itself isn’t discussed in the essays as often as the title would suggest, nor even a problematized “data” set in scare quotes. Rather, the interest of most contributors lies in the construction that goes on within religions and the scholarly gaze upon religions. As all contributions cannot be discussed in the space of a review, I will focus mostly on the three guiding essays and some exemplary responses to them.

Annette Yoshiko Reed’s opening chapter reviews current discussions about categorization of religion and presents a prehistory to this discourse in how categorization of texts including the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies and Epiphanus’s Panarion utilized the hybrid descriptor “Jewish-Christian” and through such categorizations exhibit some of the difficulties in analyzing data as “religious.” In the following chapters, Adam Stewart makes promising connections to the way that indigenous self-understanding and distinction can be obscured by categories of government recognition. M Adryael Tong proposes that desire for a totality of knowledge and a recognition of oneself in the past are integral to categorization practices. John Soboslai and Jennifer A. Selby discuss, respectively, how classification affects the self-identity of Sikhs as a religious group and of everyday Islamic practices as they relate to or depart from taxonomies dependent upon the “Five Pillars” of Islam. These essays demonstrate, across religious contexts, Smith’s conclusion that the historian of religion’s own self-consciousness constitutes their “foremost object of study” (Smith, xi).

Matthew Baldwin’s essay is perhaps the most direct engagement with “data” in its usual sense because of his discussion of objectivity. Baldwin considers the material turn in religious studies as being a potential danger of reversion to errors of phenomenology, an effacing of human agency, an ignoring of the instrumentalization of objects, and a refusal of critique in defining and redescribing religion. He closes with theses on the “object,” locating it as posited through various methods, objections, and intersubjective contexts.

Craig Martin’s essay defends philosophical anti-realism from “a place of anger and frustration” (151) primarily at the misrepresentation of Jacques Derrida by critics of anti-realism. Martin seeks to “denaturalize” our sense of the object of religious studies by showing how this object is created through scholarly discourse.

The critical tone that Baldwin’s and Martin’s chapters, as well as the volume in general, take toward naked data is not incorrect; something is a datum or a piece of evidence because of its being enmeshed in or even produced by prior systems through which inference and communication can occur. Data is given as a result of this prior situation rather than as such. But the energy that many of these papers exert in establishing this fact, despite presenting themselves as critiques of phenomenology or theology, of realism or essentialism, often feels like autoethnography. This is a fine project to undertake, but probably ought to be made more explicit.

Perhaps because of my stance as a relative outsider to how religious studies discourse operates in the guild as represented by NAASR, it is difficult to see the approach of this volume contrasted with more object-oriented approaches as anything more than a methodological pendulum swing away, perhaps with Robert Orsi’s statement “if it doesn’t offer the opportunity to lick something, kiss something, eat something, or put something in your mouth, it’s not a religion” (80) standing as the opposite extreme to Smith’s “there is no data for religion.” Both statements are unhelpfully hyperbolic if read overly literally; likewise, both probably afford more than adequate room for recognizing the reflexivity between scholars and religious data.

For this reason, some essays in the volume were especially helpful in their ability to offer a “yes, but . . .” to a conversation sometimes intent on framing itself as more critical than it needed to be. Petra Klug’s contribution defends the material turn in religious studies against the concern that it implies an inevitable reversion to certain errors of the phenomenological tradition. Similar to Klug’s materiality-without-phenomenology, Holly White convincingly argues that the encounter with excess and abundance in religious “data” need not appeal to “universals or eternals” (115). Joel Harrison, in response to Martin’s use of Derrida, argues that in fact, “deconstruction moves us away from debates over religion’s ontology (whether religion is ‘real’ or not, what religion ‘is’, etc.) and toward a critical analysis of the ways the category of religion ‘slips away’ from those who deploy it” (203). Finally, Lucas Wright argues that the very reflexivity at the heart of the volume’s critique of data necessitates a more sustained philosophical discourse about the nature of construction, critique, and dialectic.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Evan F. Kuehn is assistant professor of information literacy at North Park University.

Date of Review: 
November 29, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Leslie Dorrough Smith is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies and Philosophy at Avila University (Kansas City, MO), where she is also the Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program.