Pushing the Boundary of Acceptability

While browsing some religious studies oriented blogs for 502, I came across this post from Religion Dispatches. I will be presenting this post in class in a couple of weeks — that’s what Tuesday’s posts are for, remember?

The post, entitled “Status Updates at the End of the World: The Religious Imagination and Our Latest Apocalypse,” tells the story of Jane E. Lythgoe, a doomsday prepper who spreads her message through memes and the like on social media. In the post, Spencer Dew explores the ways the terms “religion” and “religious belief,” as well as “Christian” are defined when people operate on the periphery of the accepted norm. He spends the bulk of the post describing Lythgoe’s views on the apocalypse and the business she runs selling end of the world paraphernalia on Etsy. The final twist of the post is that the move of labelling her views as “unchristian” is no different than what scholars often do when labelling groups as “cults” or even “New Religious Movements.”

I found this post particularly interesting precisely because of this point that scholars often do the same type of work, just with different labels. But then Dew’s concluding line confuses me. He describes Lythgoe as, “an invested believer seeking to mark and protect the boundaries around acceptable orthodoxy.” While I take his point about marking boundaries, the label “invested believer” does the same work, does it not? This phrase evokes all kinds of jargon often found in the field of religious studies, including the phrase I find most befuddling: “taking belief seriously.”

It is one thing for the executive director of Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center for Evangelism to dismiss Lythgoe as peripheral and “unchristian.” As Dew points out, it’s not all that different for scholars to label her as a leader of a “cult.” These both limit her to the boundary of acceptability. But I maintain that Dew overcorrects. The label of an “invested believer” merely does the work of pushing the boundary out to include Lythgoe, rather than critically  investigating the boundary to begin with. The labelling on either extreme creates boundaries of what gets to count as acceptable “religion” or “religious belief.” If we are to reprimand scholars for labelling groups as “cults,” because the label carries derogatory connotations all that really accomplishes is the same boundary being drawn in a different place for different purposes. I think Dew is on the right track of critically scrutinizing these terms and how people apply them. I just can’t help but wonder, does Dew realize he’s doing the same work with a label like “invested believer?”


Photo credit: Carol Baby via Flickr. CC BY 2.0.