About Secret History

Commentary on Latin America.
Mostly about Mexico - but not always.
Designed to encourage readers to learn about
the apparently "secret history" of 500 million people
spread across two continents
- but not always.
You can always count on a little snark.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Religion, Exoticism, Race, and Intellectuals

I attended a panel at a conference that made me feel as though we were talking about sex ed in front a pack or junior high students. One of the panelists was relating the beliefs of a particular religious group as practiced in the United States and then how it was received in Mexico. The group's beliefs are fairly outside the mainstream of U.S. religious thought, and every time one of those beliefs was mentioned the audience participants laughed. The panelist, sensing blood in the water, turned on the extra snark for entertainment value. However, when the Mexican believers put their spin on those beliefs, the room was silent - apparently those same beliefs were no longer funny.

Jainist Digambaras? Not funny. Glossolalia in the US south? A laugh a minute. Kaparot? Oooooh...bet that last one would play to mixed reviews, though I think Woody Allen once did something with it - who doesn't love a good chicken ritual?

I'm beginning to think that Brad Gregory has hit it on the head when he quips in his Salvation at Stake that many scholars simply won't put away their personal baggage when it comes to religion - hence the level of sardonic comments at beliefs practiced by "white" Americans or Europeans which are supposed to be subject to the boundaries of enlightenment thinking.

This is where a certain amount of racial exoticism comes in. Groups considered outside of "western" enlightenment traditions (rightfully or wrongfully), particularly those that have been subject to colonization projects (yes, I see the irony) are not subject to the snearing head shaking. Their practices are traditional, acceptab, and, yes, romantically exotic. Exceptions? Yep...and I think those are telling. Consider the religious practices outside of the the European dominated traditions: The Hijab and Burka, female genital mutilation, or stoning for adultery. Like our puritain ancestors of old, we have our own little captive narratives in which women are held bound by dastardly practice and where intellectuals and enlightenment thinking is to serve as the rescue party of colonists from Deerfield (sorry for the broad range of historical references today).

I'm not saying that you have to agree with all these practices, but if a US American thinks we all came to earth from the planet Globbitybong and were born from tamarind pods, don't laugh your head silly at it then nod your head gravely when a tribesman from Borneo does the same. Genuine reaction with disregard to processes of exoticism, please.

And finally, as a person that focuses on religion in his studies, this practice most disturbs me because it betrays a scholars inability to look at a religious practice in the terms the practitioner perceives it OR to even take religion serious enough to be conisdered as a key factor in a cultural, political, social, or, yes, economic process. As Alfred Schmidt states in his comments on Fragments of a Golden Age, if scholars refuse to take religion seriously as scholars, then they won't even bother to examine it. A problem, I would argue, that becomes all the more apparent when the subject under study is closer in proximity of ethnicity or social background.

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