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The Work of Religion

Thomas Whitley

A great quote by Russell McCutcheon that I come back to often to remind myself that things are rarely as they seem, and almost never as they are presented, when it comes to social and religious identities, past and present.

What if we approached the study of world events not with the preconceived notion that religion was essentially pure and spiritual matter of disembodied belief but, instead, with the presumption that all classification systems (such as Church vs. State, belief vs. practice and embodied vs. disembodied) are the means whereby all too historical groups negotiate - sometimes violently, always aggressively - sets of interests that determine who they think they are and who they think they are not? A shift capable of answering this question would enable us to see that, regardless by whom they are used, rhetorics of origin, privacy, authenticity, spirit, tradition, essence, faith, along with the common distinction between belief and action (seen in the common-sense distinction between myth and ritual) or content and structure, are useful (and useful to whom is the question that needs to be posed) political techniques that can help to massage and manage an unruly social world that generally does not meet with any group's expectations, interests, and needs.

The quote is from Russ' book Religion and the Domestication of Dissent: Or, How to Live in a Less than Perfect Nation. It is a short read (95 pages), but it packs a punch.