When, over dinner party chitchat, I am asked what religion I specialize in, I typically answer with my training in continental philosophy and cultural studies. This disciplinary background means, I say, that I don’t approach religion primarily through an institutional location or historical narrative (the church or Jewish History) but instead through the diverse ways in which claims for and about religion “pop up” in socio-cultural exchanges. For instance, when and why do films or stage-plays turn to overtly religious figures (an Imam or a New Age hipster) to vocalize certain positions or practices? When and why, in a debate about mandatory prison sentences among friends, does one friend find it important to assert their religious identity: “I’m Buddhist…” Why are regional debates between conservative Christians and, say, secular humanists about whether and how to teach evolution, or whether and with what restrictions our nation should allow women to abort pregnancies seemingly so endless and unresolved?
What links each of these examples is what I think of as structures of valuation. “Religion” denominates and functions as complex and murky coagulations of values that are lived and received, actual and remembered, resisted and hoped-for. Sedimented in our bodies, our technologies, and our institutions, structures of valuation are always only partially available to epistemological or logical investigation because, as social terms and functions, “value” and “valuation” are fundamentally affective. The affective dimension of valuation is at the heart of Marx’s attempt to demarcate use-value and exchange value, an always blurry line that aims at the fact that some values (use values) are closer to biological and social needs (food, clothing, shelter), while other values (exchange values) pivot around factors like desire, aesthetics, and symbols of distinction.
That humans have some needs that are more basic than some wants is uncontested, but it is difficult to make a more specific assertion without raining down the chaos of history, because valuation not only solidifies a group (however spatially or temporally dispersed) but also solidifies who is not of that group. Valuation and its sedimented structures are, therefore, vehicles of social power and oppression, and therefore also can be leveraged as vehicles of social transformation against those very same relationships and assumptions about power and oppression.
Two important aspects of structure and value lie in a possible (sometimes contested) etymology of “religion,” both the binding evoked by “ligare” and the repetition of that binding indicated by “re-“. I can have my personal slew of idiosyncratic values, but these do not take on the discursive weight of “religion” unless they are patterned and shared, that is, unless these values take shape in, are formed into, specific verbal, embodied, inter-relational, or institutional attachments and practices, that bind persons to one another, not once but over and over again. Values are structured through repetition into valuations; and valuations take shape in lived orientations that maintain their importance and intensity through repetition.
Religion, in my work, is thus the structuring of valuation that binds (some) people together over and again. This repetitive binding engendered from and by structured valuations can also focus a line of inquiry about what separates religion from other types of valuation. I find this question interesting but not crucial. Religion signals the multiple repositories, capacitors, and intensifiers of human value. We certainly can ask what separates this kind of structured valuation from, say, a Bourdieuian habitus, or political normativity but I doubt we’ll find clear and consistent answers. It seems better to pay attention to when, where, how and by whom “religion” is used, and arrange our analyses around the difference this use makes.