Author Pankaj Mishra to reframe modern religiosity

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Panjak Mishra, shown above, is the author of several books that examine modern cultural religious issues. Mishra is also a columnist for Bloomberg Review and the New York Times Book Review. Photo courtesy of Vassar Communications

Religion is a multidisciplinary topic. It tran­scends mere culture and tradition and takes root in politics, economics and anthro­pology. On March 9, Pankaj Mishra will be dis­cussing the role that religion plays in our mod­ern world in his lecture sponsored by the Asian Studies Department, “Religion in the Modern World.”

Associate Professor of Religion and Direc­tor of Asian Studies Michael Walsh explained that while Mishra’s lecture is co-sponsored by the Religion Department, it is not only for reli­gion majors. “He is a journalist, he is a novelist and he is somewhat of a public intellectual, so I don’t think he’s going to come from a heavy academic angle but I could be wrong,” Walsh said. He went on, “I am kind of curious. We said to him, as is quite typical with these big names, come and give a talk on whatever you want.”

Mishra has a reputation throughout many fields. Walsh said, “He writes stuff for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Guardian in England and it’s on a range of topics. His latest book was looking at how Asia has reformulated both imagined and constructed, had very little to do with religion per se.” He added that Mish­ra’s writing covers many topics: “Mishra is the author of several books that examine cultural issues, including ‘From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West’ and ‘the Remak­ing of Asia,’ which has been widely acclaimed.”

Walsh went on to speculate about Mish­ra’s choice of topic, “I have no idea exactly what he’s going to talk about, my guess is he’s probably going to touch on Islam a bit.” Were Mishra to bring up Islam in his lecture, Walsh explained, he would most likely be using the term “religion” in the colloquial sense. “But I’m hoping I’m wrong,” Walsh said. He went on, “I’m hoping that he’ll give a more sophisticat­ed picture of it. One of his questions that he had on his poster blurb where he says: ‘Can one even be religious in the modern world? Given the impact of science, given the impact of ra­tional thinking.’ But then he’s going to have to explain what do you mean by ‘being religious’ because that can mean a lot of different things.”

Although the topic is undecided as of yet, students have already thought about what they hope to gain from the lecture, which generally centers on a theoretical discussion of religion. Madison Carroll ’18 who is planning on attend­ing the lecture added, “It’s scary how much conflict belief can cause. It is really hard for me to cope with how much hatred and struggle there has been between religions, because that concept is so opposite from how I look at reli­gion.” Walsh went on to say that religion itself is a touchy word. “In the study of religion, we all are very sensitive to talk about what the cat­egory means,” he said. It is a word that stems from Latin, and bears the taint of western im­perialism. Walsh explained, “There is no native term for religion in any of these languages: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, whatever. There’s no native term, the category doesn’t exist, per se. It’s a colonial category.”

Religion is such a broad term that it can be difficult to generalize. Carroll said, “Religion fascinates me because it is so deeply tied to hu­manity and its origins, and it provides insight into what people worry about and their ques­tions about the world they live in.” Walsh went on to explain that part of Mishra’s lecture will probably have to include an explanation of his own definition of the word “religion.” “If I’m going to be unfair to him, I would think that he’s going to use it in a very common, everyday sense of ‘religion,’” he said.

The discussion of religion differs based on personal experiences, making a lecture on the subject and Mishra’s personal definition en­ticing. Carroll explained, “In my opinion, re­ligion and the basic motivation behind it are so beautiful and historical and emotional for every kind of faith. I’m also interested in the idea that religion is both individual and com­munal. I think that every individual has their own unique relationship with their faith, but I think it’s amazing that despite this, a group of people can come together and share in the joy and community that comes with that faith.”

Walsh pointed out that in western culture religion is often generalized. “When we say ‘re­ligion’ we think of a set of texts and institutions and practices and beliefs, and we tend to think of the monotheistic traditions: Christianity, Is­lam.” For Carroll the specification of religious study is particularly intriguing. “I’m planning on having a concentration in religion because I honestly really enjoy learning about it. I want to become more familiar with the numerous belief systems that exist in the modern world, as well as learning about their origins and the people that follow those systems.” She added, “I’m also interested in how what people believe impacts their daily lives and contributions to society.”

At Vassar, religion is taught from many per­spectives. Carroll said, “The religion class I’m currently taking is titled ‘Imagining China,’ and we are exploring the roots of Chinese culture especially as it has grown out of the various be­lief systems in Chinese history.”

Mishra’s lecture will hopefully unpack the complexities of talking about religion. Walsh said. “I think back in the ’70s and ’80s, a lot of sociologists predicted the decline of religion: that, as we became more scientific, as we be­came more knowledgeable about the universe, religion would decline.” As it turned out, Walsh explained, the inverse has occurred. “We’ve ac­tually seen the opposite. How do we explain this? No matter how much science you throw at it, no matter how much rational thinking, how modern we are, religiosity still keeps increas­ing. So it’s got something to do with human identity that is very complicated.”

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