When I left Morocco a few years ago, I was certain I did not want to do fieldwork around the issue of religion. Of course, fieldwork and anthropology are rarely "about" one thing -- that's what I love about the discipline and the methods, it would be incredibly dull if any human social behaviors were ever "just" about one thing. (Actually, that's why I left public health as a discipline, its methods felt so reductionist.)
In Morocco, I had situated myself in a religious community. This was how I selected the project. The central question depended on the fact that it was a religious community, a minority religious community that was rapidly dwindling. I felt suffocated, though, by, what I felt were, fundamentalist interpretations of Judaism. It hampered my work, and I knew I could not sustain research for a year or more. But now, a couple of years later, I'm realizing that even a topic that I had focused on for its association with sexual health and political debates, of course, includes religious/moral threads.
I have been keeping an eye on a New York Times "Well" blog, where readers can post a comment. The blog follows up on articles that the Times has published, allowing a public forum for reactions to these articles. As I study a vaccine that is more or less about sex...or cancer...or sex....or...moral rectitude, articles and discussions about the vaccine tend to elicit grand proclamations about social behaviors, teaching children what is right, and who would need the vaccine. The invocation of religious and moral doctrines are kind of freaking me out. I remain agnostic about vaccines. I want to be sympathetic to the antis, if only because big pharma seems not so different than a religous dogma. But I find the vitriol and the emotional imprecations too much to bear. It feels hysterical to the point of extremism.
[I realized I should amend the title and the post to say: there are a lot of people I love and respect who are religious. So perhaps the concern is not so much with personal belief or an investment in a religious or spiritual set of values, but really any sort of collective following raises my suspicion. I feel uncomfortable at protests, as much as I often do in religious sites. As I'm trying to articulate or at least come to terms with, it's not religion per se or even devotion to ideas or beliefs. I am wary of following idols and leaders. Or the idea that some people are more authorities on any thing than any one else. I know this position is contradictory, obviously I must have some beliefs or philosophical positions. I guess I am realizing that in my visceral reactions there's something else that I might need to figure out so that I can do my work more effectively. This reaction is totally unproductive and contrary. If I can respect those who are close to me for holding beliefs different than mine, I ought to be able to extend this beyond my personal circle.]