Interview with Professor Craig Martin

Craig Martin is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College. He has published several articles (links below) and a recent book, Masking Hegemony: A Genealogy of Liberalism, Religion and the Private Sphere. Craig is also active in the blogging community and is editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion.

I first became aware of Craig’s work through various blogs and was immediately impressed by his thinking and writing – clear and incisive are words that come to mind. As I read more of his material, including several articles and his book (review forthcoming), it became clear that Craig has much to teach those of us who do not specialize in religious studies but whose scholarship addresses “religion.”

Researchers who approach religion from a cognitive or evolutionary perspective will especially benefit from Craig’s insights. When the object of your research is “religion,” it seems essential to understand the ways in which this non-neutral category is historically and socially constructed. Much of Craig’s work shows how such constructions are made and who benefits from them. Religion is not, in other words, an essential and apolitical category that can be uncritically plugged into an equation or evolutionary story.

I recently asked Craig for an interview to which he graciously assented. Our conversation follows.

Admin: Though this seems exceedingly odd, “religion” is a contested term that is hard to define.  How do you define it?

Craig Martin: In fact, I don’t define religion; the search for a definition of religion too often resembles a search for a Platonic form. I find it more useful to draw attention to how the word religion carries a variable number of normative associations, and consequently how the classification of something as “religion” can be used to advance a social agenda. For instance, I’m working on an essay right now that looks at how the distinction between “spirituality” and “institutional religion” seems always to be applied in a way that sanctions whatever is placed under the label “institutional religion.” “Institutional religion” functions like the word “cult”: it is useful primarily because it is pejorative. In principle, I’ve got nothing against a good stipulative definition of the word religion, but in practice I’ve never seen one that carries sufficient analytic usefulness.

Admin: Why religion?  What prompted your interest in this subject?

Craig Martin: My interest in religion started when I was in high school; I was a conservative, evangelical Christian. I went to Anderson University because I felt “called to the ministry” and they had a “Christian Ministry” major. I enrolled with a double major in “Christian Ministry” and “Bible.” However, the more I studied the Bible the less plausible conservative Christianity became for me. I loved studying the Bible academically, and once you have a B.A. in Bible, there’s not much else you can do except go on to graduate studies in religion (at Syracuse).

Admin: What were your primary research interests in graduate school?

Craig Martin: I’ve always been concerned with what are broadly termed “social justice” concerns. It’s probably not surprising, in retrospect, that one of my favorite books as an undergraduate was one that considered the Hebrew Scriptures as “ideology.” Despite abandoning biblical studies, I continue to have an interest in how the way people think, write, and speak is connected to relationships of power in society. The longer I study religion the more I’m interested in Marxist, Marxian, or neo-Marxist research, such as the work of Anthony Giddens, Pierre Bourdieu, or Bruce Lincoln. I find that Marxist (or quasi-Marxist) approaches shed the greatest light on how religions work, or at least those things about religion that interest me.

Admin: Many people think that religious studies are akin to theology studies: learn a bunch of texts, doctrines, and rituals. How do you approach these issues?

Craig Martin: I think that most of what we call theology tends to reproduce rather than analyze or contest authority. Most Christian theology, for instance, appeals to the Bible as an authority; as such, it naturalizes the continuing authority of the Bible. Academic scholarship, I believe, should show how such authorities function, or even contest such authorities by denaturalizing them. I put it this way in my essay, “How To Read An Interpretation“:

Russell McCutcheon suggests – rightly, in my mind – that scholars should be “in the business of provoking unreflective participants in social systems into becoming reflective scholars of social systems.” Rather than convince my students that Jesus supports my own social agendas, I prefer them to see how the figure of Jesus can be utilized in support of various social agendas. Or, to put it differently, as instructors we can better serve our students by showing how ventriloquism works, rather than by attempting to out-puppeteer the communities we study.

Admin: What courses do you teach?

Craig Martin: I teach Intro to Religion, Hebrew Scriptures (my school calls it “Old Testament”), New Testament, Religions of the West (i.e., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), Religions of the East (i.e., Hinduism and Buddhism), The Evolution of Jesus, and a course on gender and sexuality in American Protestantism. I think my favorite is probably the introductory course. There I lay out a functionalist theory of religion for the students: the elements of religious traditions can be—and are—used to reflect and reinforce—and contest—group boundaries, social hierarchies, and social roles, social norms, behavioral practices, etc. There is a lot of Durkheim, Mary Douglas, Pierre Bourdieu, and Bruce Lincoln behind the course. Often students complain that it appears to be more about “sociology” than “religion”; these students seem to think they’ve been the victim of a bait-and-switch. On the other hand, I regularly have students tell me that the course got them to think about the world in ways they had never imagined, and that it was one of their favorite courses.

Admin: When teaching students who have never taken a religion course, what are your primary goals?

Craig Martin: My primary goals for teaching are, first, to demonstrate to students that societies are never set up in ways that serve everyone’s interests equally, and, second, to give them the skills to identify who benefits and who does not and how disproportionate social structures are legitimated and maintained. Obviously I think that the authoritative elements in religious traditions are often enlisted to legitimate disparity, domination, etc. Students tend to come into my courses thinking about religion in liberal terms (i.e., it’s a private matter between you and God, it’s basically good, it makes you a better person, it makes you happy), and my functionalist take on religion tends to challenge that. I think their liberal preconceptions are upset when I can persuasively demonstrate that religious traditions are used to legitimate disparity or domination, and that religion – despite pervasive rhetoric to the contrary – is never just a personal or private matter.

Admin: If you could recommend three books on religion, which three would you choose and why?

Craig Martin: Only three? That’s a tough task!

My first would probably be Bruce Lincoln’s Discourse and the Construction of Society. I think this book is paradigmatic of how we can be functionalists about religion without being essentialists. Reading this book in graduate school completely transformed the way I thought about religion; I can’t imagine a book more important for my own trajectory as a scholar of religion.

My second would probably be Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality. I know of no book more clear and comprehensive in its presentation of how societies work. It might not be the most sophisticated (it’s somewhat dated today), but it would be a brilliant first book on sociological theory for someone interested in critical theories of religion.

Last, I think I would have to put together a collection of essays by Russell McCutcheon. I would choose a couple from Critics Not Caretakers, a couple from The Discipline of Religion, and a couple from Religion and the Domestication of Dissent. I would specifically choose those essays that show the limits of liberal discourses on religion and the rhetoric of authenticity. McCutcheon exposes better than anyone else in our field whose interests might be served or what ends might be accomplished by the rhetoric of authenticity.

Admin: Let’s talk about your recent book, Masking Hegemony, which I will be reviewing here sometime soon. Can you give us an overview?

Craig Martin: Basically, I think that when people say that “religion is a private matter,” there is something incredibly fishy going on. In this book I show that not only is this false (there’s nothing particularly “private” about those institutions we called “religious”), but it’s also counterproductive as a rhetorical strategy to force religious institutions to be private. There’s no better way to construct a hegemony than to control education and the processes of socialization, and as long as there is “freedom of religion,” the socialization of many citizens is handed over to religious institutions (churches, families, etc.). There is absolutely no way that the effects of these processes of socialization can remain “private.”

I argue that saying “religion is a private matter” (which can be a descriptive or a normative claim) is a neat way of procuring and masking the means by which religious institutions can gain a hegemony over state functions. That is, on the one hand the freedom to socialize citizens is procured via the claim that religion is a private matter (“you can’t regulate what we do because it’s a private affair”). On the other hand, when liberals insist (in support of the right to abortion or the right for gays and lesbians to marry) that religion is a private matter, they are masking what religious institutions actually do and thereby permitting the work to continue. In the conclusion I suggest another vocabulary to think about religion and politics—that is, something other than the public/private vocabulary.

Admin: In the past decade or so, cognitive and evolutionary accounts of religion have become quite prevalent. What is your sense of this work? Do you think there is anything biological about religious belief?

Craig Martin: My biggest concern about these approaches is essentializing – treating religion as if it were hypostatized or a Platonic form. On the other hand, if we take Foucault and his treatment of “the body” seriously, we need to acknowledge that the body has a brain. Not everything can be explained in terms of discourse or social construction. There are probably aspects of what we call “religion” that can be explained in terms of what we call the biological sciences, but I am not qualified to comment on them.

Admin: Let’s close by talking about what can be a long and winding road. How did you get to St. Thomas Aquinas and how are things going?

Craig Martin: I was awarded a Ph.D. in Religion at Syracuse University in the summer of 2007. I found the job market to be dehumanizing. You spend 7 ½ years in grad school, only to find that the chance of getting a job in the field is as little as fifty-fifty. You spend hours and hours writing and submitting an application, and you’re left with the impression that your application might get a minute or two of attention before—as you fear—it’s thrown in the trash for a typo you missed. You adjunct in the meantime, and “real” faculty members look down on you as someone who must be inferior, otherwise you would have a “real” job. You feel inferior compared to your colleagues who have publications and/or jobs. Most of your non-academic friends and family have no real understanding of what you’re going through, since they have no idea what the academic job market is really like.

St. Thomas Aquinas College is good fit for me. I love teaching and I have a lot of freedom to teach what I want. My colleagues are wonderful and supportive; I found an instant rapport with quite a few of them. And there’s a terrific student body. I serve as faculty advisor to the Gay-Straight Alliance (a great group of kids!), and for the STAC House Band, a rock band I started (which includes students, faculty and staff). The weekly band rehearsals are probably the best part of my week.

Selected Craig Martin Articles:

Delimiting Religion.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, 21/2 (2009).

“On the Origin of the ‘Private Sphere’: A Discourse Analysis of Religion and Politics from Luther to Locke. Temenos, 45/2 (2009).

How to Read an Interpretation: Interpretive Strategies and the Maintenance of Authority.” The Bible and Critical Theory, 5/1 (2009).

Configured for Exclusion: Characterizations of Religion in Liberal Political Philosophy.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, 19/1-2 (2007).

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