Robbins, “Engaged Disbelief: Communities of Detachment in Christianity and in the Anthropology of Christianity”

Robbins, Joel. 2015. Engaged Disbelief: Communities of Detachment in Christianity and in the Anthropology of Christianity. In Thomas Yarrow; Matei Candea; Catherine Trundle; Jo Cook, eds., Detachment: essays on the limits of relational thinking. Manchester : Manchester University Press, p115-129. 

Excerpt: This chapter takes up some of these kinds of tasks in the realm of religion. It is worth noting at the outset that this realm is likely to be a hard case for theorists of detachment. At least in the Western (and in this respect profoundly Protestant) imagination, what is more given to forming bonds than faith or belief? To believe in some being, to have faith in that being, is to tie yourself to it in a highly committed way. If religion is a matter of belief, then it is nothing if not a matter of connection. This is surely yet another way to cash out the often proposed etymological root of the word ‘religion’ in *leig, ‘to bind’. For social theorists, the link between religion and connection has evidenced itself both in the assumption that relations of belief are strong ones, and in the claim from Durkheim forward that the bonds between people who share beliefs in the same things – for example, in gods, or ideas or values – are also unusually strong. And this double assumption of a link between religion and connection remains as true today as in the past. For example, some of the currently most important and influential work in the anthropology of religion is focused on religious mediation: the very problem of how to make the presence of deities evidence so that people can connect to them and can form communities around these connections. If religion is all about connections in the ways I have just listed, we might ask, what room can there be to introduce detachment into discussions on this subject?

I am going to approach the problem raised by the question of how to think about detachment in relation to religion in two ways here. I first want to go over some pretty well-known ground concerning Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity by means of a slightly different path than usual and to use the results of this exercise to make a point about the role of detachment in Christianity more generally and in other monotheistic faiths. I hope this part of the chapter helps us further the task of exploring differences between kinds of detachments and the social roles they can play by laying out one influential religious family of detachment dynamics in very clear terms. I then turn to the relationship between anthropologists who study Christians and the Christians that they study. As it happens, anthropologists often find this relationship somewhat fraught precisely because they worry over the way, as Elias would have it, involvement and detachment balance out on their side of these relationships. In conclusion, I suggest that the options I make about detachment in my discussion of Pentecostal Christianity can help us think through the problems of involvement and detachment anthropologists of Christianity experience in the field, and I will consider how both of these analyses of detachment can contribute to a broader theoretical investigation into the way social relations are constituted.

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