Jokes, Group Dynamics, and “Thick” and “Thin” Religion

I have managed to come back to America, safely, but have been six cities in the past two weeks (Kayseri, Istanbul, Tel Aviv, New York, Boston, San Diego), and am traveling more or less constantly until school restarts after Labor Day (September 3rd, for your non-Americans).  I have several half written posts that I’ll try to finish in the coming weeks, but expect blogging to be irregular until September.  And might not fix my typos until then.

After a short break, I feel like I need to ease back into writing entries, so here are two variations on the same (very accurate joke).

First, a recent xkcd called “Crazy Straws”:

Rollover text on the original: “The new crowd is heavily shaped by this guy named Eric, who’s basically the Paris Hilton of the amateur plastic crazy straw design world.”

Which is as true for academic disciplines as it is for crazy straw designers (I was just reading this morning about citation clusters in Sociology, and how there are distinct but interconnected “structural social movements”, “cultural social movements”, and “‘pure’ cultural sociology” citation clusters).  It is also, of course, true for religious groupings, as this Emo Philips joke explains relatively well:


The relevant joke starts at 2:35 (for background, he is trying to convince someone not to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge).  Sorry for the poor video quality, I couldn’t find a better one.

The joke reminds of Sudipta Kaviraj’s (wiki) useful distinction between “thick” and “thin” religion, which appears in his chapter in the edited volume Religion and the Political Imagination.  The distinction is not one related to orthodoxy, but to practice and perceived borders.  The “thin religion” is the type of religious ideology propagated by the Hindu-nationalist BJP, which emphasizes not only the unity of Shaivite, Vaishanva, and Shakti streams of Hinduism, but also that Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists are also really Hindus (indeed, according to Indian law, they are all governed according to the  “legal Hindu” category, which is primarily used in adjudicating family law.  “Hindu by religion” is a different legal category.  “Hindus by religion” are all “legal Hindus”, but not all “legal Hindus” are “Hindus by religion”).  The BJP is classed as “thin” in that they are relatively indifferent to differences in religious practice and doctrine, and, if I can bastardize his argument only slightly, are primarily concerned about matters of identity over matters of religious practice.  This identity is of course defined by what they are constructed to be (autochthonous) but it is also largely defined by what they are not: a Hindu is essentially anyone from South Asia who is not Muslims (or, to a lesser degree, Christian).  Similarly, in the American context, the constant exhortations to honor “our shared Judeo-Christian heritage” is thin religion, wielded against the twin enemies of Atheism and Islam.  This happy, unified “Judeo-Christianity” is a new thing in American society (it’s easy to forget that even as late as Kennedy’s election, there were serious doubts about whether Catholics could fit into mainstream American society because they were so different).  Here’s a Google n-gram for “Judeo Christian” (which gives a more accurate picture of the phrase’s history than the Wikipedia entry does):

Notice the rise over the course of the Cold War.  If I could guess, I’d imagine we’d see another spike since 2001 (unfortunately, n-grams are only accurate between 1800-2000).  If I remember correctly this article which I haven’t read in months, Kaviraj, who has written extensively on modernity, argues that thin religion is new, a product of modernity and perhaps the nation-state.

Thick religion, on the other hand, emphasizes the small differences of traditional, local practice and, for Kaviraj, is typified by his grandfather.  Kaviraj recounts buying his grandfather a Hindu idol, and while his grandfather appreciated the though, he couldn’t use it for religious practice because it was made out of wood, an unacceptable material.  Similarly, Kaviraj recounts that his grandfather criticizing another local Hindu group for being insufficiently religious, in particular for violating the Hindu principle of ahimsa (non-violence).  These Shaktis apparently were merely sacrificing vegetables, but Sudipta’s grandfather found this double offensive: 1) for imitating violence, in violation of ahimsa and 2) for not having the “courage” to “practice their religion properly” (if they’re going to participate in sacrifice, they shouldn’t mime it with vegetables; they should kill real living creatures).  Kaviraj’s grandfather’s religion is different not only from the local Shaktis, but from the Vaishnava’s in the town over. This “thick” religion is the kind of religion being made fun of in the Emo Philips bit, and this kind of group dynamics more generally is what’s being mocked in the xkcd comic.  The distinction is useful beyond merely analyzing religion, but is found whenever you want to group people: it’s the vagaries of idiosyncratic local practice versus (often politicized) larger “imagined communities” with carefully policed borders.

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