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Who Owns Religion?

Scholars and Their Publics in the Late Twentieth Century

Who Owns Religion?

Scholars and Their Publics in the Late Twentieth Century

Who Owns Religion? focuses on a period—the late 1980s through the 1990s—when scholars of religion were accused of scandalizing or denigrating the very communities they had imagined themselves honoring through their work. While controversies involving scholarly claims about religion are nothing new, this period saw an increase in vitriol that remains with us today. Authors of seemingly arcane studies on subjects like the origins of the idea of Mother Earth or the sexual dynamics of mysticism have been targets of hate mail and book-banning campaigns. As a result, scholars of religion have struggled to describe their own work to their various publics, and even to themselves.

Taking the reader through several compelling case studies, Patton identifies two trends of the ’80s and ’90s that fueled that rise: the growth of multicultural identity politics, which enabled a form of volatile public debate she terms “eruptive public space,” and the advent of the internet, which offered new ways for religious groups to read scholarship and respond publicly. These controversies, she shows, were also fundamentally about something new: the very rights of secular, Western scholarship to interpret religions at all.

Patton’s book holds out hope that scholars can find a space for their work between the university and the communities they study. Scholars of religion, she argues, have multiple masters and must move between them while writing histories and speaking about realities that not everyone may be interested in hearing.


“At a time when discussions of the relationship between academics and their publics are more often reduced to utilitarian meditations on ‘impact’ and ‘research excellence’, Who Owns Religion? is a welcome antidote: a rich, timely and dynamic exploration of the uncharted spaces between.”

Times Higher Education

"Who Owns Religion?: Scholars and Their Publics in the Late Twentieth Century First Edition analyzes the public controversies occasioned by scholarly work in religious studies in the 1980s and 1990s. . . . Patton, who in addition to being an eminent scholar of South Asian religions has been president of the American Academy of Religion, dean at a major research university, and is currently president of an elite liberal arts college, is well positioned to make a major contribution to theorizing these institutions. The terrain of the academic study of religion and of the academy in our [s]ociety is shifting again—I would advocate for an ongoing series by Patton. Who owns the academy, and who owns religion in 2021?"

Reading Religion

"The book as a whole makes clear that the moral and intellectual issues faced by the examples surveyed in Patton’s book confront all scholars who study human communities and behaviors. . . . There are distortions inherent in every act of thought, in any translation, and in all teaching. This is, as Patton rightly concludes, not reason to forego scholarship or to blindly or defiantly insist that our way is the only right way. It is instead a mandate to approach our research and writing and teaching with care and thoughtfulness; with awareness of the expectations and vulnerabilities of those we speak to, and about; and to do all of this with curiosity, humility, and an openness to change."

The Journal of Religion

Who Owns Religion? boldly identifies and deftly navigates the complex ‘eruptive public space’ that arises when scholars of religion and their multiple publics collide. Patton presents a grounded understanding of particular controversies across multiple traditions, and provides a searching analysis of the larger question of whether religion can be theorized at all without concomitant theorization of the university, the non-academic institution, and the public sphere. Patton’s constructive pathways across this entanglement make this deeply reflexive and well-written study powerfully relevant to any discipline that claims a public face.”

Leela Prasad, Duke University

“Since its origins in the nineteenth century, the academic study of religion has mostly operated independently of the world of religious adherents. This changed in the late twentieth century, leaving scholars reeling from the intensity of the opprobrium to which their work was subjected. Patton explains the cultural and historical forces that led to the conflict, and, importantly, how we can move beyond the impasse. Filled with insights, Who Owns Religion? is a must read for anyone interested in the study of religion at the turn of the millennium.”

José Ignacio Cabezón, University of California, Santa Barbara

"Who Owns Religion is a vitally important book that should be required reading for all those currently in the field or enrolled in graduate religious studies programs. Although it deals specifically with events in the 1980s and 1990s, the trends Patton analyzes have continued into the present day."

Religious Studies Review

Table of Contents

Introduction: Some Reasons for this Book

Part One      Scandals, Publics, and the Recent Study of Religion

One     Scandalous Controversy and Public Spaces
Two     Public Spheres/Public Spaces
Three   The Nineties: Cultural Recognition, Internet Utopias, and Postcolonial Identities
Four     Ancestors’ Publics

Part Two     Case Studies

Five     Mother Earth: The Near Impossibility of a Public
Six       The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Competing Public Histories
Seven  Songs of Wisdom and Circles of Dance: An Emerging Global Public
Eight   The Illegitimacy of Jesus: Strong Publics in Conflict
Nine    God’s Phallus: The Refusal of Public Engagement
Ten      Kali’s Child: The Challenge of Secret Publics

Part Three   New Publics, New Possibilities

Eleven Scholars, Foolish Wisdom, and Dwelling in the Space Between


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