Response to
Kim Knott's Issues in the Study of Religions in Locality
Michael York
16 November 1996


The Community Religions Project in Leeds is similar to the Religions in Bath Project out of which the Bath Archive for Contemporary Religious Affairs (BACRA) has developed. BACRA is a two-tiered effort to retrieve and collect material relating to religion ubiquitously. Its second tier is essentially event-motivated. As newsworthy developments occur and material then becomes available relating to specific issues (e.g., Aum Shin Reikyo, the Solar Temple, the breaking of celebacy vows by Roman Catholic clergy), the Archive can direct its efforts toward gathering and storing the relevant information.

BACRA's first tier, however, is a focus upon its home base, namely, the Southwest of England comprising the counties of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire. In other words, BACRA's primary interest is a concentration on the religions of its own locality and region. The Archive seeks not only to be a resource base for the study of religious manifestation throughout its immediate environs but also to facilitate interactive dialogue between the institutions and organisations which comprise the religious fabric of the Southwest.

Contemporary sociology of religion, like the phenomenological study of religion, avoids the confusion of theology with religious studies. Both disciplines seek objective, value-free understandings of their subject matter. Whereas phenomenology embraces a more descriptive approach, sociology endeavours to employ a more rigorous methodology as the foundation of its investigatory enterprises. Since my training has been in the sociology of religion, I speak in what follows as a sociologist who hopefully is able to keep from falling into what Michael Hill (1973:9-11) refers to as sociologie religieuse, an autonomous intellectual activity which remains beyond the scrutiny of other sociologists.

But sociology today differs in an important respect from the epiphenomenal approach of August Comte, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim or Karl Marx. This difference is one of perspective and can be understood in terms of the modern-postmodern dialectic. Where modernism may be thought of as looking for the statistical average, postmodernism by contrast seeks for both statistical and actual comparisons. There are in essence two schools of postmodernism: the deconstructionists including Jacques Derrida, Jean-Françoise Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Fredric Jameson and perhaps Michel Foucault; and the constructionists or reconstructionists, namely, Charles Jencks, Charlene Spretnak, Margaret Rose, Linda Hutcheon and Andreas Huyssen among others. The former is often cynical or pessimistic and attains at best a Zen satori-type emancipation through an endless dismantling of all structure, form and content. The reconstructionists, on the other hand, follow their predecessors up to a point, but then seek ways of reassembling the deconstructed components into new and dynamic constellations. This school is positive, affirmative and celebratory and can contend that the French `postmodernists' and their colleagues are really espousing a form of late modernism.

One common error made in criticism of postmodernism is to consider Lyotard and his The Postmodern Condition (La Condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir) as the last word on the subject. Lyotard provides at best an initial statement for postmodernism; certainly not the last. But the denial of metanarrative is an attempt to counter privileging - to undermine the single and established perspective as being the one which is solely legitimate. It is the effort to break the monopoly of hierarchical and myopic thought and action erected by the dominant powers of the status quo. Derrida's undertaking `to hear the other' is the attempt to see or hear pluralistically. Both schools of postmodernism endeavour to know the many and the differences understood in and through the many, for only in the knowledge of difference can comparisons be made and be real and the stranglehold of the mythical statistical average be broken.

In a paper given during the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion's recent annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee titled `Discourse, Identity and Power: Modernity, Postmodernity and the Future of Religion', Marsha Aileen Hewitt argued that the postmodern `Other' is simply a reified concept and another attempt to suppress difference. Through its theoretical ambiguities, she contends that postmodernism reconstructs totality through constructions of other/ness and undermines the attempts of women for freedom. I cannot agree with this interpretation. While the `Other' as a category is certainly meaningless, the very call for the other is the quest to recognise difference and plurality. In fact, it often can seem that postmodernism has been appropriated by feminism, namely, in the writings of Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Sandra Harding, Susan Rubin Suleiman and Nancy Fraser & Linda Nicholson.

The Jencks-Spretnak school of postmodernism does not reject modern rationalism and scientific methodology but seeks alternatives and complementaries to these as well. In this understanding, postmodernism is a double-coding or even multi-coding between different discourses - including the methodological reductionism of which Steven Sutcliffe has already spoken. Postmodernism is the non-rejection of any particular discourse and the affirmation of plurality as the source of knowledge. When we turn to religious studies, the richly varied and polyglot communities which have evolved in the Western world (Bath, Leeds and London - to name but three) allow for firsthand observation and comparisons between several religious communities.

In this light, I found Kim Knott's paper on the Community Religions Project in Leeds both interesting and informative. It is also one which raises a number of questions. Some which came to mind were those concerning religious conflict and cooperation. The paper did not appear to address the issues involved when there are competing interests within the locality. Another unaddressed problem is that concerning religious isolation. I have here Roy Wallis' world-rejecting new religious movements in mind. Sophie Gilliat touched on this same question when she asked about those groups which remain unwilling to dialogue. Various expressions of fundamentalism might fall into this category as well. A third area of questioning concerns negative or unworthy acts of local religious groups. All acts need not be positive - such as, for example, the AUM Shin Reikyo's gassing of the Tokyo underground. Does the Leeds-based Community Religions Project consider such possibilities?

From the research point of view, Professor Knott's basic premise is whether `local religions can only be fully understood when a researcher appreciates their dynamic engagement with the character of the locality'. I have a few comments on this statement. Firstly, I would suggest deleting the word `fully'. It is doubtful whether we can ever fully understand a situation. Contemporary sociology, in eschewing the reductionism of positivistic or epiphenomenal methodology, clearly recognises that there are some questions we cannot answer but which remain beyond the scope or possibility of a value-free, consensual study. Today's sociology openly acknowledges its limited position.

Another word I would suggest deleting from the premise statement, even though it is one of my personal favorites, is `dynamic'. Not all encounter between local religion and locality need necessarily be dynamic. Religion can often be diffused throughout society and work in non-obvious and subtle manners. If we concentrate on the dynamic alone, we could easily miss other, more immediately invisible effects of religion on community or locality on religion.

Finally, what do we mean by locality? This relates to the question of what is a local religion? My real question is whether religions are in fact local, or are they more globally-centred communities which posit various relationships between humanity, the world and the supernatural in terms of meaning assignment and value allocation? In other words, is not the question really how do specific religions manifest and interact locally? But if so, we still come back to the question of how do we assess and define the locality?

Professor Knott draws on Haddon Willmer in answer to this question and rightly stresses, in my opinion, the need for coherence and conceptual manageability in the understanding of locality. The preferred locality is one which is small and manageable. But again, what is a locality? How do we define it?

Is a locality identified by distinguishing features? Or is the locality constituted by the sense of identity felt by its inhabitants? In the Netherlands where I have lived for many years, a capitalistic uniformity has been established by national supermarkets, department stores and chain outlets throughout the country. The same things are available everywhere. The single most distinguishing feature from one community or locality to the next is found in the local bakery. The kind of bread which is available and the kinds of cookies or other bakery goods which are on offer often become the locality's most salient feature.

Unlike the ubiquitous flatness of the Netherlands, in Britain we find more topographical variety: hills, valleys, variable terrain and so forth. In my course on the Geography of the Sacred, we are examining the role of the physical in both framing and expressing sacrality - in terms of both topography and human demographics. Similar themes have recently been touched on by Colleen McDannell in her book Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America.

When we are addressing issues of how environment shapes or becomes regarded as the holy, then we are speaking of local religion - whether Christian, Hindu, pagan or whatever. India provides a high relief illustration of local religion. Regardless of a certain uniformity of belief which exists in what is labelled Hinduism, there are countless local manifestations and practices. For instance, the great transcendent deity of Shiva manifests most locally in a specific and highly revered stone. In Varanasi (Banaras), among the many manifestations of Shiva in lingams of all sorts, the most important is that of Vishvanath in the Golden Temple. This physical presence constitutes a local religion: a cult of specific devotion. But it also has national or pan-Hindu significance in becoming the object of pilgrimage from throughout India.

Local religion is to be distinguished from religion locally. But whether we are speaking about local religion or local manifestations of religion, these can only be analytically useful in terms of research if they can be compared to religious expressions in other localities or communities. From the postmodern perspective, I contend that we are looking for patterns as much as clear-cut distinctions. So I agree with Kim Knott that we need detailed research - what she calls working "outwards from the particular" - but in depth investigation has no real utility or handle by which to grab it unless there is some basis for comparative analysis. Professor Knott raises this point herself - and I think it is vitally important enough to be reiterated - when she says that particularity and local history offer "us ideas that we may take into our consideration of other localities and their religions."

Perhaps the `middle path' suggested by James Cox and Gavin Flood in itself suggests an implicit understanding of comparison between other, contrasting paths. Contemporary sociology of religion likewise implies the same when it eschews a purely subjective sociologie religieuse on the one hand and a reductionistic epiphenomenal positivism on the other. While this last has bequeathed the vitally important research legacy of value-neutrality, terminological precision and consensus among colleagues, postmodernism allows us to recognise that there is no one methodology. We need multiple approaches and different tailorings depending on the specific situation. Suspension of judgment is of extreme importance in the unbiased collection of data. As the participant-observer, the researcher must often adopt a role. He or she becomes a role-player, an actor or actress. In our research encounter with religions locally, we often must assume a position akin to that of the stage player who becomes a certain character without ultimately identifying with the construction he or she is portraying. In this way, we procure an access to information and retain a quality of detachment which allows us to make comparisons and finally draw conclusions.