This portion of my site was created as a requirement of my Digital Humanities in Religion course that I took as a graduate student in the Fall of 2020. The goal of the project was to problematize supposedly self-evident definitions by complicating data through textual and technical analysis. To follow along, start with my Statement of Purpose below, then proceed to my Interpretive Essay and Process Statement.
Statement of Purpose
In the U.S. religion and spirituality are often considered private matters — topics that should be avoided in small talk, in the workplace, and generally avoided in most social environments. While somewhat taboo, these areas of conversation are not often left to their own private devices, but heavily debated in politics and court cases, on social media, in the news, and — if you are really looking to pick a fight — in conversations with strangers. The issue with religion and spirituality is that both categories are very public but society masks them with individualistic privacy. Religion, as defined by one person, could be the antithesis of religion for another but, rather ironically, both are correct in the sense that it is that person’s privately held belief. In other words, almost every debate over religion and spirituality could be promptly ended with a, “well, that’s just my personal belief”. How can you counter someone’s ‘belief’? What even is ‘belief’ and why do we try to compare them if every single person’s individual belief is their own? More importantly: How do we study religion and spirituality?
This issue of definition is not new and certainly not unique to religion. All of the terms society relies on as self-evident are not so straight forward. Religion, spirituality, language, race, gender, equality, science, data; none of these topics explain themselves just by existing. Humans, as social actors, attribute meanings to these terms to categorize, make sense of, and just generally function in changing social environments.
The problem here is not whether or not religion actually exists (as Craig Martin pointed out during a NAASR panel in 2017), but what is accomplished when, for example, colonizers name an indigenous group’s traditions as religious, non-religious, anti-religious, or savage. Any one of those naming’s is in the hands of the colonizer doing the naming and the representation of an entire social group relies entirely on the category the colonizers choose. So, the problem is that the person doing the naming has the privilege of representing reality without getting any closer to what is or is not real.
All of this might sound a bit meta, but the way the world is defined (or not defined) has real-world implications on real people, regardless of whether or not the name itself can or cannot represent reality. I hope to demonstrate this argument throughout the following project by comparing the categorization of religious families in several surveys. In showing the many ways that religion can be defined, surveyed, collected, and represented, I hope to show the ways that the words society relies on have tangible impacts. By the end of this work, I hope readers are encouraged to critically re-evaluate the sources of information they take to be self-evident and straight-forwardly ‘true’.
To continue, read my Interpretive Essay.