Elizabeth Shakman Hurd | Beyond Religious FreedomIt is not surprising that our language should be incapable of describing the processes occurring within the atoms, for…it was invented to describe the experiences of daily life.

Werner Heisenberg

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In the late 1920s, the theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg wrote a series of scientific papers proposing that the universe could not be known with perfect certainty. His theory, which came to be known as the “uncertainty principle,” blamed the limitations of scientific measurement. Perfect knowledge was impossible, Heisenberg theorized, because scientists changed the quantum universe through the very act of measuring it. Observers could not watch the universe voyeuristically, as though from the sidelines. To sight quantum reality was to alter it.

Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion introduces something like an uncertainty principle into the targeting of religion in international relations. In a manner not dissimilar to Heisenberg, Hurd argues that, in the process of singling out religion for support or censure, governments, lawmakers, advocacy groups and others alter the complex field of social relations that they purport to manage. They change religion through the process of sighting it.

As described by Hurd, religion, in its pre-targeted form, behaves a lot like quantum particles: it occupies numerous locations and takes multiple forms. Religion merges inextricably with other social dynamics, such as gender, politics, and economics. However, once brought into the view of policymakers—once “operationalized” in programs of religious outreach or campaigns for religious freedom—religion is transformed: what was once a shifting and unstable amalgam appears isolated, hardened, bounded, centralized, internally consistent, self-evidently “good” or “bad.”

Hurd’s book is not simply a story of the misfit between categories and realities (although I suspect that some readers will choose to focus on this). A distance always yawns between life-as-lived and life as represented in law. Hurd recognizes this. Moreover, Beyond Religious Freedom refuses to offer a better way of measuring religion. It leaves religion, as a human practice, purposefully under-theorized, arguing neither that “[r]eligion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study,” nor that it is uniquely complex or resistant to analysis. Hurd’s project, although drawing broadly on a wide variety of critical scholarship in the study of religion, remains far more circumscribed. It queries the causes and effects of mobilizing the category of religion in international relations scholarship and practice. It asks: What happens when policymakers single out religion, not just as one social category among many, but as an especially crucial object of intervention, reform or liberation? What happens when our sense of regulatory uncertainty fails on a massive scale?

What happens, the reader learns, is a process that, depending on the perspective one adopts, looks like innocent mistranslation, or convenient reduction, or willing (and instrumentally motivated) distortion. In all cases, a failure to acknowledge uncertainty on the part of powerful, governing authorities leads to the entrenching and authorizing of a narrow form of “governed religion” (informed by “expert religion”) that, we learn, tends to render religion as though it is obvious, stable, rooted in belief, and hierarchically organized. It also assumes that religion exists in bounded, isomorphic forms: Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, etc. It is governed religion—not religion as people encounter it in their daily lives—that is valorized through government- and NGO-led religious outreach programs, campaigns to promote religious freedom, and efforts to secure the legal protection of religious minorities.

In this process, Hurd demonstrates, “lived religion” disappears from view.  Variegated and shifting forms of “everyday religion” succumb to the narrow prototypes of religion as mobilized by political and legal authorities. Alevis, Rohingya, and Copts are compelled or encouraged to be Muslims or Christians. Practitioners of “witchcraft” in Africa find themselves devoid of religion for the purposes of domestic or international legal protection. Powerful legal and political agents artificially fix the parameters of religion and non-religion through the process of targeting it as an object of political and legal action.

Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle points to the limits of scientific observation; and to some extent, Hurd’s book does as well. What Heisenberg said of conventional language and sub-atomic processes, Hurd might also say of regulatory language and social processes: regulatory language is incapable of describing the complex processes occurring within societies. Despite these strong principles of similarity, however, a key difference applies to Hurd’s and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principles. For Heisenberg, the distortions of scientific observation were temporary and, mostly, benign. Bumbling attempts to sight quantum particles did not permanently affect the functioning of those particles in the universe. For Hurd, more ominous implications follow from the distorting effects of expert knowledge. In Hurd’s narrative, expert religion and governed religion appear to be changing society in alarming ways. These forms of knowledge are actively remaking the social universe into a place of governed religion. And this remaking, Hurd persuasively argues, frequently increases the potentials for strife and conflict, while also diminishing the possibilities for reconciliation, understanding, or mutuality.

I have come to similar conclusions in my own work. In a forthcoming book, I argue that the process of constitutionalizing religion in Sri Lanka—of using constitutional law to represent and reconcile competing claims about religion—has deepened and perpetuated conflicts there, and elsewhere. That is, what Hurd describes at the scale of international relations I also find at the scale of domestic legal systems. (Although I identify different mechanisms and dynamics to explain this phenomenon.) In the attempt to stem “religious” persecution, violence and conflicts, legal and political agents have created structures and incentives that, in fact, amplify the religious element of social struggle. Internationally and domestically, the legal and political regulation of religion may be a self-fulfilling prophecy: it sustains the very disputes over religion it is deployed to resolve.

All of this, however, begs larger questions for those of us who study religion. It is in this frame of reference that I find Hurd’s analysis especially sobering. What would it mean to apply Hurd’s uncertainty principle to the academic study of religion? That is, bracketing the question of whether religion is (sui generis) or can be (for the purposes of analysis) a consistent and comparable object of study, what are the implications of our academic practices on the persons, places, and fields we study? After all, even those scholars who orient their research towards what we assume to be everyday or lived religion inevitably make choices about their objects of inquiry. Scholars choose church camps as opposed to soccer camps or examine the archives of monasteries rather than banks. These choices reflect habituation, education, and intuition. They also reflect the realities of grant funding and the requirements of publishing within a particular field. Are we producing new, expert forms of religion that will feed into official religion? Are we participating in and perpetuating the hegemony of a particular form of governed religion? And, if so, whose form is it? Can the production of scholarly religion (perhaps a particular form of expert religion) impact the lives of people or the conduct of government in consequential ways? What would it mean to encounter lived religion ungoverned, or outside of expert expectations? Would such an encounter even be legible as ‘religion’ to scholars and participants?

Hurd refuses to answer some of the questions she provokes. In her phrasing, she resists the rush to “normative closure.” However, can the rush be avoided? This book is not a trade wind but a typhoon. In Heisenbergian ways, it does not just observe; it intervenes in an entire field of activism, policy, and scholarship. Beyond Religious Freedom has wide implications, even if it does not give those implications top billing. We should avoid “cornering religion” in public policy, or be cautious in so doing: that much seems clear. But can there by any corrective, any prescription, beyond this? Some readers will inevitably see Hurd as coming down on the side of lived religion and will see this book as calling for a defense of everyday religiosities. But, as Hurd knows well, lived religion also has its asymmetries, its polarities, its rigidities. Moreover, any attempt to expand or exalt lived religion would inevitably alter it. It’s turtles all the way down.

One wonders, then, what the next step is if it is not a defense of unofficial, everyday modes of religiosity. If Beyond Religious Freedom shares something of the spirit of the above quote from Heisenberg, it does not share the tone. There is nonchalance in the tone of Heisenberg’s quotation. The dissonance between everyday language and quantum reality is, for him, unsurprising, a matter of banal truth. Hurd’s rhetoric pleads with the reader. Beyond Religious Freedom addresses urgent matters. There is a tone of scandal here, even revelation. And, as pious people will tell you, revelation demands action.

Thank you to Isaac Weiner for valuable comments on an earlier draft of the above piece.