Religious Studies and Normativity

Guest lecture for the McMaster University, Department of Religious Studies methodology seminar “Issues in the Study of Religions,” taught by Dr. Dana Hollander. December 9, 2020.


Atalia Omer, “Can a Critic be a Caretaker Too? Religion, Conflict, and Conflict Transformation,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 79.2 (June 2011).

Selections from Rainer Forst, Normativity and Power: Analyzing Social Orders of Justification. Trans. Ciaran Cronin (London: Oxford University Press, 2017).

The following text is my prepared material for the seminar and although it does not reflect the entire discussion, it does contain the major questions that I posed to the group.

I have selected Rainer Forst’s work on normativity to discuss in this seminar because I think that a key question for the discipline of Religious Studies is:

  • How should Religious Studies scholars understand the relationship between normative prescription (advocating for something, or arguing that something ought to be the case) and description (giving an account of what is the case)?

Already, this is a normative question about the distinction between values and facts. When we ask how Religious Studies scholars should understand something, we are asking a question about what norms our discipline should aspire to. At the root of my question for this seminar is a distinction between descriptive accounts of “what is” and normative assertions that prescribe “what ought to be.”

However, one common problem in the study of religion (and the social sciences and humanities in general) is the tendency to derive an “ought” from an “is,” or an “is” from an “ought” (sometimes this is called the “naturalistic fallacy”). For example, we may say that “Religious Studies is pluralistic” when we really mean that this ought to be the case (for there are doubtless examples of Religious Studies scholars whose approaches exclude certain disciplines and perspectives in ways that are not pluralistic).

In my work I try to be very clear about when I am making a descriptive claim about what is the case, and when I am making a prescriptive claim that asserts that something ought to be the case. Each time we prepare to say “Religious Studies is x” we should pause and consider whether we are truly making a descriptive statement with specific evidence or making a prescriptive and aspirational statement about what we want Religious Studies to be. It is one thing to say that Religious Studies is interdisciplinary (a claim that we could find evidence for in our department which hosts professors of many disciplines), but it is another thing to say that Religious Studies ought to be interdisciplinary (which is a normative assertion that may lead to conflicts of values about what interdisciplinarity should look like).

The question that I posed above lies at the root of many debates about Religious Studies methodology. For example, there is a question of whether religious practitioners should be Religious Studies scholars, and if so, how. This question is informed by related questions like “if you belong to a religious group will you be able to look at it with enough critical distance to represent it in a balanced way?” or “if you have no experience being within a religion, or are morally opposed to a religion, will you be able to represent its self-understanding sympathetically enough?”

At the root of these questions is the worry that a normative commitment to the truth claims of a particular religious tradition will have a blinding effect on how the scholar represents that tradition (possibly preventing critique), and the inverse worry that a normative commitment to remaining outside the religion one studies will prevent a charitable and sympathetic account of that religion.

By paying attention to how the power of normativity (saying what ought to be the case) and conflicts of values (disagreeing about what ought to be the case) are part of methodological debates about Religious Studies we can gain some perspective on the essay by Omer assigned for this class.

Atalia Omer, “Can a Critic be a Caretaker Too?”

Omer’s essay calls her readers to move beyond McCutcheon’s distinction between critics and caretakers and become both critics and caretakers at the same time. This is a normative argument that makes a case for how scholars of religion ought to conduct themselves in their research.  

I suggest that Rainer Forst’s work on normativity can help us understand Omer’s argument and help us to navigate between the figures of the “critic” and “caretaker” that Omer suggests we should combine.

Omer is a professor of Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute and Forst is a critical theorist whose work continues the work of the Frankfurt School (building on the work of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Jürgen Habermas, Axel Honneth, as part of a new generation of critical theorists including Rahel Jaeggi, Robin Celikates, and Martin Saar). What I find interesting is that, as disciplines, both Peace Studies and Critical Theory have a normative core. The former seeks to promote the interests of peace and justice in a world of conflict and the latter is concerned with the meaning of freedom and emancipation. Both disciplines concern themselves with the problems of violence and injustice.

For Omer, scholars of religion who are critics rather than caretakers are not prepared to transform the conflicts and injustices that they encounter. In her “problem-oriented” approach, Omer’s values like “peacebuilding” and “conflict transformation” inform her call for scholars of religion to move beyond McCutcheon’s idea that scholars of religion must be critics rather than caretakers (p. 459-460). When Omer calls her readers to “rethink narratives” and “denaturalize” assumptions about identity (p. 459-460), she is asking her readers to question whether things they thought were the case (“what is”) are really not the case, but instead are ideas that have been normalized or naturalized by means of normative prescription (“what ought to be”).

Rainer Forst, Normativity and Power, Chapters 1 and 2.

For insight into this relationship between what is and what ought to be, I turn to Forst’s Normativity and Power, which is premised on the idea that there is no normative assertion about what ought to be the case without the exertion of some kind of power.

First of all, Forst conceives of human beings as “justifying beings” (p. 21. Par. 1). In his other work, especially The Right to Justification, Forst argues that to understand justice we must first consider the human being as having “the right to justification,” such that:

“They not only have the ability to justify or take responsibility for others by giving reasons to others, but in certain contexts they see this as a duty and expect that others will do the same.” (Forst, The Right to Justification, 1).

In Normativity and Power, Forst extends his definition of the human as a justificatory being by arguing that “reason itself is normative” (p. 22. Par. 2). This means that when we say that something is “reasonable” or “rational” we are not making an objective and descriptive claim that simply states what is the case. For Forst, the very idea that something is reasonable relies on a normative foundation where what counts as a good and justifying reason is socially decided.

This leads Forst to question the sphere of “normalizing normativity” (p. 23. Par. 3) wherein our assumptions and justifications are unexamined. Forst’s insight is that all justification involves power. We never give reasons to others who ask for them or ask for others to give reasons without exercising some power – whether that is power over others or power that is shared with others.

For Forst there are ways of reasoning that liberate and those that dominate (p. 24, Par. 1). No matter what it is we are seeking to justify and give reasons for, we can choose to give and ask for reasons in ways that work for freedom and emancipation, or we construct arbitrary justification narratives that dominate others through what Forst calls “noumenal power” (Chapter 2).

In Chapter 2, “Noumenal Power,” Forst provides a “normatively neutral” (p. 37. Par. 1) definition of power. He writes,

“In order to understand how an exercise of power moves persons, we need a cognitive account of power that is neutral with regard to its positive or negative evaluation. Let us begin by defining power as the capacity of A to motivate B to think or do something that B would otherwise not have thought or done. Power exists as the capacity (“power to”) to be socially effective in this way— that is, to “have” power— which leads to power as being exercised over others (“power over”), where it is open whether this is done for (and by using) good or bad reasons and whether it is done for the sake of or contrary to B’s interests— and by what means.” (p. 4. Par. 2).

Forst insight is that exertions of power take place within the normative “space of reasons” (p. 38. Par. 2-3). The realm of justifications where we decide together what counts as a good reason to think or do something is a realm where power can be exercised. Forst later extends his definition of power to include the ability to control what counts as good or bad reasons using “justification narratives” (p. 42. Par. 2). A justification narrative is a story about what counts as a good, reasonable, justifiable, legitimate, or natural reason to think or do something. Forst advocates for the “right to justification” and argues that

“all those who are subjected to a normative order should be its co- authors as equal participants and normative authorities in adequate justificatory practices that critically reflect on and constitute that order. In the present context, this means that those subjected to forms of power have the right and the requisite “normative powers” (i.e., social and institutional discursive power) to make implicit or “tacit” justifications explicit, to question given justifications (as well as dominant or hegemonic ways to construct justifications), to reject faulty ones, and to construct better ones, as well as to demand the existence of proper practices and institutions of justification in the first place.” (pp. 42-43)

My question for our seminar is: how do Forst’s main ideas (humans as justificatory beings, the power of normativity, the right to justification, and justification narratives) help us to think about the caretaker/critic distinction challenged by Omer?

If caretakers promote and critics criticize, then both are engaged in normative contestation about how religion and its study ought to be conceived.

Questions for Discussion

Given that an important question for scholars of religion is how to negotiate the impulses to be a caretaker, critic, or some measure of both, how does the concept of “normativity” give us resources for situating ourselves in the field?

My sense is that students in the social sciences struggle with the notion that a scholar of religion should have a normative and prescriptive agenda regarding the purpose or use of their subject matter. Forst challenges the notion that we can ever be non-normative, and instead suggests that we ask questions about the meaning of normativity and justification. I am curious to hear your thoughts on what reasons and justifications are common in the methodologies of Religious Studies.

More generally, I notice that discussion of ‘power dynamics’ is common in the humanities and social sciences, but ‘power’ often remains undefined. Does Forst’s definition of power help us be specific about how power dynamics play out in specific scholarly discourses? How does this relate to Omer’s approach to power?

Omer’s essay is an interdisciplinary intervention from the field of Peace and Conflict Studies that argues Religious Studies scholars to pursue justice. For Omer, scholars of religion should move beyond McCutcheon’s distinction between critique and caretaking, and to intervene in political and public debates about nationalism and religious identity. I have the following questions about how Forst might help us to read Omer:

• How does Omer’s project of ‘denaturalization’ (p. 460, 484) and her ‘counter-hegemonic narratives’ (p. 487) compare to Forst’s critique of justification narratives?

• Omer challenges the notion that a normative secularism should determine how we think about religion. What reasons / justifications does she give for this?

• One clear methodological norm that persists in Omer’s work (and others!) is the rejection of ‘reductionism.’ How does Omer’s rejection of reductionism (p. 484) stand in relation to the wider justification narratives in Religious Studies?

• Omer teaches at the Kroc Institute in the field of Peace Studies. Peace Studies distinguishes itself from other disciplines like Security Studies and Terrorism Studies by asserting the normative status of the pursuit of peace and justice. Does Religious Studies have a comparably central aim or common set of normative prescriptions? Should it?

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