By Kenny Smith
My grandparents enforced very few rules at their dinner table, but one they absolutely insisted upon was, “Never talk about religion or politics at the table.” For in their view, “the table” represented a quasi-sacred familial site reserved for eating good food, enjoying good company, and perhaps a late afternoon tea or friendly game of cards, any of which would be readily frustrated by such fractious topics. Not only was this policy a resounding success (their dinner table was almost always peaceable), but those unable or unwilling to comply were clearly marked as “too extreme” in their views.
Not surprisingly, for many years I tacitly assumed that this particular way of seeing things was simply how things actually were, and I planned my dinner and holiday invitations accordingly. While this strategy served my interests nearly as well as it did my grandparents (I too like a peaceable dinner table), I later realized that I had rather unconsciously mistaken a certain kind of cultural mapping system for a social reality “out there.” There are, of course, many different ways to map social worlds, and my grandparents’ taxonomy was itself shaped by the values and expectations of 1950s Eisenhower America.
Now, I consistently argue to my students that “the study of ‘religion’ is as much about us, who do the studying, as it is about the stuff out there we find,” and the notion that there are two kinds of religion- the normal kind that can tolerate and get along with others and the “extreme” kind that cannot or will not- represents a wonderful example of this insight at work. Mapping ‘religion’ in this way may well serve our interests; it allows us, for example, to raise up the religious communities we like above those we do not like, but this is something altogether different from telling students (or anyone else, for that matter) how things actually are “out there” in our social world.