By Kenny Smith…In his recent piece in the Atlantic, “Taking a Hellish Tour of America’s Most Satanic Landmarks,” John Metcalf notes the many places across the U.S. “whose names draw on demonic, hellish, and Satan-flavored elements… Devil’s Swamp, Mount Evil, Satan Hill, Lucifer Falls, Lake Chaos… and in one case, a highway so damned the authorities had to change its name.” Thousands of such sites have, apparently, been brought together in the United States Devil Map which, Metcalf suggests, creates the impression that “the country’s pioneers picked geographic names by sacrificing goats and studying the entrails for messages from Dark Lord Lucifer.”
Metcalf’s entertaining and thoughtful post offers an important insight for scholars of religion. We might note, for instance, the ways in which the activity of mapping creates, rather than merely discovers, the data revealed in the Devil Map. Let me explain. Certainly, these geographical sites existed prior to being collected in the Devil Map – or so my own metaphysical leanings suggest – but what did not exist was the sense of a unified landscape in which a diverse range of cultural phenomena, with what are most likely particular local histories, meanings, and contexts, are said to be linked by a single theme: their infernal connotations. This is important for thinking about the study of religion because, just as the activity of mapping “the Satanic” leads us to collect and group together some things rather than others, so too concepts such as “religion.” Give us your starting assumption as to what religion is, and we can see in advance the forms of social production that will be brought together under that definition and those which will be ignored and obscured.
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