Who Owns Religion? Scholars and Their Publics in the Late Twentieth Century, by Laurie L. Patton

Ruby Guyatt considers the ‘eruptive public spaces’ where conflict can flare up between scholars and the faith groups they study

April 16, 2020
Jewish people celebrate festival of Purim in Hebron, West Bank
Source: Getty
Clowning around: Patton compares the contemporary scholar of religion to the fool, who wields words and debate to reinterpret scripture and undermine the clerical class

“You will soon die for your acts against us.”

Those menacing words, which Laurie Patton recalls on the first page of her new book, were directed not against a high-profile politician, a controversial activist or a global celebrity. Instead, the death threat was made against a more unassuming figure, a colleague of Patton’s hailing from that murkiest corner of the academic underworld: religious studies.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, a series of controversies, scandals and threatening situations destabilised the space previously occupied by the humanistic study of religion – a tradition that, in Patton’s words, had seen itself as “liberal, tolerant, and appreciative”. The communities whose histories and rhythms these scholars had dedicated their intellectual lives to now rejected this attention from outsiders.

“Authors of seemingly harmless and arcane studies on the origins of the idea of Mother Earth or the sexual dynamics of mysticism,” we read, “found themselves the targets of hate mail or the subjects of book-banning discussions.”

While none of the religions Patton discusses in Who Owns Religion? were free from controversy before the 1980s, she argues that these scandals were something different altogether; they concerned “the very rights of secular, Western scholars to interpret religions at all”.

The drama played out in the book is not confined to the academic stage, but spills out into the public square.

In late September 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 “satirical” cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. The newspaper claimed that the cartoons contributed to debates about self-censorship and the criticism of Islam. Danish Muslim groups, offended by the depiction of Muhammad and particularly incensed by the nature of those images, complained. These sparks of outrage, fanned by the Danish government’s refusal to intervene, soon ignited into protest, with flames of violence spreading around the world. By January 2006, 200 people had been killed, Danish embassies in Beirut and Damascus had been destroyed, and Christian organisations in some Muslim-majority countries threatened.

The controversy came during a period punctuated by terrorist outrages and rising tensions between Muslim-majority and Western countries. Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen described the controversy as the country’s worst international relations incident since the Second World War. It was followed by further terrorist attacks in retaliation for the cartoons and their reprinting, including the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris that left 12 people dead.

While supporters of Jyllands-Posten argued that the cartoons were a legitimate exercise of free speech and made important points about vital issues, the episode saw “free speech” become the focus of fierce international debate, with Talal Asad and Judith Butler asking “Is critique secular?” Patton interrogates not the nature of critique as such, but instead the often ambiguous, sometimes explosive, spaces “between scholars and their publics”. Here we find one iteration of a phenomenon she calls “eruptive public space”: a sudden and controversial public conversation concerning the representation of religious traditions. Unlike the public sphere, with its behavioural norms, eruptive public space is punctuated by the taking of extreme offence, violating the cultural conventions of  open debate.

Jürgen Habermas, one of Patton’s key interlocutors in Who Owns Religion?, theorises that religious individuals and communities become unintelligible once they enter the modern public sphere. Participation in the democratic realm thereby demands of these people that they translate their religious thinking into secular forms. The communities in Patton’s case studies – including Native American environmentalists, North American Sikhs, conservative Ismaili Muslims and the Christian right – all exemplify a refusal to do so.

What marked the controversies of the late 1980s to the early 2000s – what Patton calls an “awkwardly recent period” – as different from those that had come before? She convincingly argues that these scandals involving scholars and their publics, like the vitriolic tone of much current popular discourse, are rooted in several related conditions: the emergence of a multicultural politics of recognition; the internet and its democratisation of debate and scholarship; and the growth of a post-colonial global awareness on the part of transnational religious communities.

While “academic” knowledge used to be sealed in hardback volumes and locked away in the exclusive libraries of closed institutions, or exchanged in plummy male tones within oak-panelled seminar rooms, the internet has terminally destabilised this state of affairs. This growth in connectivity and the (partial) opening up of the academy, paired with the global awakening of a post-colonial consciousness, has certainly not razed any ivory tower. But it has meant that those who work within it can no longer do so away from the interest and scrutiny of their publics. To this end, Patton compares the contemporary scholar of religion to the fool, who in Christianity and Islam, William Shakespeare and Leo Tolstoy, wields words and debate to reinterpret scripture and undermine the authority of the clerical class. The holy fool’s wisdom is mocked and often rejected by those in the society his fooling disturbs. According to Patton’s metaphor of the scholar-fool, while religious communities once assumed the scholar of religions was their advocate and support, they have realised “that with [such a] fool present, they can no longer tell their stories in the same way”. Meanwhile, the scholar-fool’s retelling of history is transformed when the communities whose history is being described are listening in.

The scholar of religion’s foolery is directed not only at religion, but also at the academy. Who Owns Religion? explores spaces between scholars and the religious communities they study, but also those between scholars and their patrons: universities. This is vital work; as Patton observes, just as the “life-script” imposed by a religious community “can be potentially oppressive as well as liberating”, so “the academy can figure as coercive”. Academics, particularly in the humanities, and more especially in “religious studies”, are often in precarious servitude to the neoliberal, secular university.

Patton’s metaphor is a compelling one; scholars of religion can – arguably should – play the fool both to the academy suspicious of their work and to the religious communities that are the subjects of this work. But does Patton, in juxtaposing the religious studies scholar and religious communities, overlook another space between? Theologians belonging to these faith communities often identify with the fools, challenging and redefining “orthodoxy” from within. To this end, the work of scholars of religion may cohere with that of theologians, who remodel – while inhabiting – their faith communities.

However, such questions – here being posed, as I ought to admit, by a philosophical theologian – are not the ones that Patton claims to answer. Hers is an account of the relationship between scholars of religion and their publics, not of that between religious studies, philosophy of religion and theology. And at a time when discussions of the relationship between academics and their publics are more often reduced to utilitarian meditations on “impact” and “research excellence”, Who Owns Religion? is a welcome antidote: a rich, timely and dynamic exploration of the uncharted spaces between.

Ruby Guyatt recently completed a doctorate in philosophy of religion at the University of Cambridge and is training to be an English teacher at the University of Sussex.

Who Owns Religion? Scholars and Their Publics in the Late Twentieth Century
By Laurie L. Patton
University of Chicago Press, 320pp, £79.42 and £26.00
ISBN 9780226649344 and 9780226675985
Published 27 November 2019

The author

Laurie Patton, president of Middlebury College in Vermont, was born in Boston, Massachusetts and grew up nearby in Danvers – once Salem Village, where the infamous witch trials took place in 1692-93. Because of this, she recalls, she was “imbued with a deep sense of local history. For me, there’s no such thing as ‘just local’ history; every local story has broader social, cultural, political and religious implications”.

After a BA in comparative religion at Harvard University, Patton went on to an MA and a PhD at the University of Chicago. It was at Harvard, she says, that she “learned how to ask big, universal questions while paying attention to the small details that would help me answer them”. At Chicago, however, “she found [her] intellectual home in the study of South Asian culture, history and poetics” and also “developed a lifelong interest in the relationship between academic institutions and the communities around them”.

While three of the case studies in her new book relate to contested interpretations of South Asian religions, Patton found that their “complexity and pathos…led me to return to the central questions of who can represent a religion and why, and how university departments play a role in that human drama”. She therefore also decided to examine “similar controversies of the 1990s that originated in the study of Native American, Catholic and Jewish traditions”.

Asked about the likely impact of the Covid-19 crisis on religion and spirituality, Patton replies that she has been “struck by how quickly religious communities have turned to online forms of worship, meditation and prayer…I also see a longing for the patterns of regular gathering in physical public places that made up the geometry of our social lives. I hope we return from this crisis with a deeper sense of how much care and tending those forms and spaces of gathering need.”

Matthew Reisz


Print headline: Battlegrounds of the holy fools

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (1)

It would be quite useful to introduce courses in Multicultural Studies with Religion 1and 2 as two of the courses, Comparative Religion, Psychology of Religion, Sociology of Religion and Religious Education at Certificate, Diploma or as courses in Liberal Studies, Social Sciences or the Humanities degree programs. It would serve to widen the discussion of religious issues.