Religion is no "opiate of the masses." Rich and poor, educated and ignorant alike flock to the call of certainty in these uncertain times. Rather than action based on the fear of an angry deity’s surveillance and judgement, this is an escape from the unease within. Certainty is a kind of social power. It indicates authority. Certainty reinforces identity through the use of prescribed language. Certainty is a foundational part of action. Today’s pandemic religion is about something you can be sure of. It’s about a bid for authority seen as stolen by science, by government, by secularism, and by technology. In the same way that 'thoughts and prayers' are more of a dismissive platitude than an actual step towards healing, it’s “Amen” at a distance without much in the way of getting directly in the trenches to rescue the drowning.
Christian but not ideological? Doesn’t promote perspectives in controversy but centers theological devotion? Biblical differences of opinion, but not anthropological ones? The centrality of “belief” as both a core concept and as a linguistic turn of phrase (i.e., “anthropologists believe…” which appears all over the text) is also telling. This isn’t just a Christian perspective, it’s an unexamined recapitulation of Euro-American religious concepts (like “belief”) that formed the Eurocentric academic study of culture two centuries ago and that modern anthropologists have spent a fair amount of time deeply critical of.
The synagogue – a deeply symbolic cultural space – is a place where feminist congregants are increasingly seeking equality. These women wish to read from the Torah (a sacred text within Judaism) during services, typically something only men are allowed to do. Orthodox feminists argue that there exist halakhic (relating to Jewish law) grounds which justify women engaging in this ritual; there is simply a lack of rabbinical willingness to interpret the law in this way.
Anthropologists sometimes study sensitive topics and it is therefore not uncommon for ethnographic work to attract serious criticism along such lines. In a recent social media thread, I encountered one such critic whose principal argument was, that both I the ethnographer and the academic study of religion in general had no business writing about religious traditions (Shaligrams, in my case), should not be participating in rituals or engaging with sacred objects. What should the ethnographer’s response to this be then? What is our role in all this?