Religion & American politics:

The cheese, the worms, and Major Hasan

posted by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan

What does the academic study of religion have to contribute to public discussions concerning Major Hasan’s religious identity? What do we know about religion and religious identity? We are worried about stereotypes and we are anxious, but what do we know?

It is common in the academic study of religion to speak of groups of people–Muslims, Christians, atheists—as enjoying certain common characteristics over time and space, even while we give attention to the limitations of these denominations. In these conversations we work on further specifying characteristics—evangelical Christians—catholic Christians—orthodox Christians. Or further still—liberal Catholics—conservative Catholics—Irish Catholics—Hispanic Catholics. Or cradle Catholics, Catholic converts. In all these efforts we are speaking of collectivities, of the characteristics of collectivities, generalized across these populations. We know about these characteristics from our study of historical evidence and from sociological research.

We also write about individuals—usually virtuoso individuals. Ibn Arabi, Asoka, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Anne Hutchinson, Martin Luther King, Gandhi. Prophets, saints, seers, shamans, visionaries . . . innovators and conservators of traditions.

Linking these two ways of speaking is almost always awkward. Are we fascinated by these individuals because they are exemplary or because they break the mold? Is Luther properly regarded as Catholic or Protestant? Is he better understood using psychology or theology? Was Anne Hutchinson more or less true to the church than those who condemned her? Was her fate sealed by her gender or by her religious ideas and practices? Was the Buddha a Buddhist? If these famous exemplars do not fit the crude forms we make, what about ordinary people?

I recently re-read a classic text that attempts to specify the life of a single historical individual who was not a world historical figure. Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms. I did so during the week of the shooting at Ft Hood. I found the parallels between Major Hasan and Mennochio striking. Or perhaps, more carefully, the cautionary lesson we might take from Ginzburg’s masterpiece in trying to understand Major Hasan.

Immediately after the news broke, major news sources produced theories of who Major Hasan is/was and what/who might have motivated him to violence: his religious commitments, his lack of a wife, his dead-end career, his treatment by fellow soldiers, his suffering from vicarious PTSD. Everyone had a theory.

I will leave the psychological theories to those who understand them better than I. From the perspective of religious studies, however, I think it is interesting to consider in this context exactly what we mean when we assign a religious identity to a particular individual, or when we assent to such assignments.

What do we mean precisely when we ourselves assign or assent to the identification of Major Hasan as a Muslim? Or to the religious identity of any particular individual? Does this mean simply, as liberal theory would have it, that he has chosen certain religious beliefs, as is his right? How do we, as scholars, know that he is a Muslim? Because he associates himself with other Muslims? Because his parents were Muslim? Because he follows the precepts of a collectivity within the world-wide collectivity of those identifying themselves with Islam? Or because he says so? And what do we know when we have made such an assignment? What does saying that someone is a Jew or a Christian tell us or allow us to say further about a particular individual?

Menocchio’s judges seem to have struggled with these very questions. They were the religious experts of their day, members of the Inquisition, and yet they seem to have been uncertain of how to assess Menocchio’s religious identity. What exactly was Menocchio up to when he speculated in un-orthodox ways about the origins of the earth or the virginity of Mary? We can see the same struggle among the forty-five judges at the trial of  Joan of Arc, judges who were mostly faculty at the University of Paris, the religious experts of their day. What claim was Joan of Arc making when she asserted that God spoke to her through the voices of Sts. Catherine, Margaret, and Michael? Both Menocchio and Joan also made highly pious statements of association with the Church and its teaching. Were they heretics or Christians? Or both?

One of the features of the time in which we are living—a time in which it seems newly salient to speak of religion—is a certain lack of care about the assignment of religious identity. It is as if we had not learned the dangers of such assignments in the last century.

Today we lack institutionalized and legally-established religious authorities whose work it is to define the parameters of religious collectivities, and we profess to be committed to a completely unfettered individual right to define such identities on an individual basis. And yet we continue to speak as if such assignments carried with them certain non-negotiable habits of mind and practice. Catholics must be obedient to the Pope. Evangelical Protestants must read the Bible in a literal way and be intolerant of persons of other religious commitments. Jews must reject inter-marriage. Muslims must favor jihad.

How do we mean these attributions? Is it that by individually choosing to associate ourselves with a religious community, we sign on to a set of precepts and practices that are required for membership? Or do we mean something more involuntary? Either in a biological or social scientific way? That we act this way because we are either genetically or psychologically predisposed—even hard-wired—to such actions because of our involuntary membership in such groups? That they control us in some way?

To say “his religion made him do it” is to ascribe to an understanding of religion that is at variance with liberal theories of the individual.  But it is also to make a claim for the predictive quality of sociological groupings that is largely unwarranted by the evidence. While sociological and historical evidence might permit the claim that Protestants work hard, there is no evidence that should be permitted in court or in any context with rigorous standards of evidence, given our present state of knowledge, to warrant a claim that a particular person, because he is a Protestant, works hard—or worked hard on a particular day. Or that because a person might be denominated Muslim due to his social location, or his personal choice, he performed any particular action.

What does Ginzburg tell us about Menocchio? Before Menocchio we thought everyone in the sixteenth century had a defined religious identity. Certainly all peasants. After Menocchio we know that even peasants invented their own identities. And Ginzburg says we also know that there was another possible religious identity that we had under-valued—the identity of the orally transmitted religion of agricultural peoples over centuries, a religion characterized by a this-worldly practicality and immanent mythology. Ginzburg claims that by reading about Menocchio we can have access to this other religious form. But even knowing of this new religion, we wouldn’t have been able to predict that Menocchio himself, as a member of that collectivity, would act or believe in a certain way. How to parse the individual and the collective remains largely uncharted territory in the academic study of religion.

Why do we assign these identities? It could be because our brains are so structured as to require such categories in order to think. Or maybe we do so because it reassures us as to the order of the world. Or maybe it is because we are moderns. Or is it because we are Christians?

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