A Report from the 2014 NEH Summer Institute “Problems in the Study of Religion,” July 7th – July 25th, 2014


by Natasha Mikles

This summer I had the pleasure of working with Professors Kurtis Schaeffer and Charles Mathewes to run the National Endowment for the Humanities-funded Summer Institute “Problems in the Study of Religion.” Each year, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) strengthens the American study of the humanities through funding dozens of summer workshops, seminars, and institutes, which bring together university and secondary school educators to discuss pressing issues in their fields. After their successful 2011 NEH-funded seminar on a similar theme, Professors Mathewes and Schaeffer wanted to continue the rich conversations and intellectual development through sponsoring a larger summer institute at the University of Virginia.

We accepted 25 faculty and upper-level graduate students from across the country to participate. Professors Schaeffer and Mathewes were committed to creating an interdisciplinary space which nurtured voices from across the humanities—not merely those from the field of religious studies. To that end, almost half of our accepted participants were from fields and departments outside of religious studies, including anthropology, political science, English, area studies, and environmental studies. This wide mix and diversity was a huge success in generating an enthralling and compelling dialogue throughout the three weeks of the institute. As a field, religious studies has much to gain from its colleagues throughout the humanities (and beyond), and one the greatest pleasures of the institute was developing academic connections and conversations across disciplines.

Our first week focused on the problem of the category of religion—and its necessary opposite, the secular. We began with Brent Nongbri’s recent work Before Religion, which looks at the concurrent development of the concept of “religion” with the concept of “secular.” We delved deeper into this topic through examining Talal Asad’s Formations of the Secular. Our final week concluded with Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety. The majority of participants concluded that Mahmood’s central claims have been accepted by most scholars of religion and, therefore, perhaps generate less controversy than they once did; however, it was generally agreed that her work still provided an excellent resource for upper-level undergraduates and early-career graduate students. Our week ended with a trip to the nearby Monticello where we were able to explore the founder of the University of Virginia Thomas Jefferson’s complicated relationships with slavery, religion, and the intellectual currents of his day.

In our second week, we delved into the trending topic of the relationship between science and the humanities, beginning with a critical reading of Edward Slingerland’s book What Science Offers the Humanities. Slingerland’s call for a deeper engagement with the embodied nature of human experience was well-received, but the at-times polemical nature of his work was noted by almost all participants. We next read Ann Taves’ Religious Experience Reconsidered and were fortunate enough to welcome Dr. Taves to the university to speak with us about her work. Her visit was the highlight of the summer institute for many participants, and allowed participants to refine their understanding of her theory—particularly her idea of “specialness” and “special things.” Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution closed out our second week, where we all greatly benefited from the expertise of Heather Ohaneson, whose own research centers on play—a crucial component of Bellah’s argument. Our final weekend together was busy with a tour of James Madison’s Montpelier and a trip to the nearby town of Staunton to attend a play at the American Shakespeare Center.

Our third week focused our attention on pedagogy and how to approach religion in a classroom setting by inviting back two participants from the 2011 seminar. After reading Kevin Schilbrack’s Religion and Philosophy: A Manifesto, we welcomed Dr. Schilbrack to speak with our participants. Dr. Schilbrack’s invitation to incorporate critical evaluation of religious truth claims into some classroom settings inspired several participants to reevaluate how they approach teaching about religious traditions and how the techniques used by philosophers of religion can benefit their pedagogy. We next read Tyler Roberts’ recent work Encountering Religion, which speaks to the central importance of encountering the other in classrooms through the study of religion in order to deepen our understanding of the totality of human experience. Several participants explored the complications of encountering an other who is distasteful or painful with Dr. Roberts himself when he came to speak with us about his work. We closed our final week by reading the recent volume edited by Christopher Lehrich of J.Z. Smith’s essays On Teaching Religion. Many participants discussed Kathryn Lofton’s recent impassioned critique of J.Z. Smith as a pedagogue and Russell McCutcheon’s vigorous response in the pages of JAAR. In fact, Russell McCutcheon—who was an invited speaker to the seminar in 2011—was a specter throughout the institute; in nearly every conversation, his name or work was brought up to critique or support the book under discussion.

Although pedagogy was an explicit focal point only on the final week of our institute’s syllabus, it was a frequent theme throughout nearly all of our conversations, initiated particularly by Annie Blazer, Elliott Bazzano, Beatrice Marovich, and Ata Anzali. Our institute’s interest in pedagogy was particularly supported via three participant-led pedagogy sessions, which allowed participants the opportunity to share their own experience in the classroom while also expanding their repertoire of pedagogical tools. The pedagogy workshop around the insider/outsider question was especially spirited, thanks to the thoughtful comments of Elliott Bazzano, Audrey Truschke, and Jayme Yeo. While this note-worthy institute-wide interest in pedagogy possibly reflects the interests of this particular group of participants—many of whom were early-career scholars—it is my hope that it also signals a critical turn in the field of religious studies as a whole. In my experience, a specific and sustained interest in implementing effective pedagogical training for many early-career scholars and graduate students has been a largely secondary focus in religious studies departments and the academy more broadly. In light of the pressure faced by department chairs, graduate advisors, and faculty leaders to justify their existence within the larger academic system, such pedagogical training will not become a priority unless specifically and vocally requested by early-career faculty and graduate students. These pedagogy seminars were particularly valuable occasions to discuss what we do when we teach religion, and I hope that both our NEH summer institute participants and others will continue to inspire such conversations across the academic community.

Kurtis Schaeffer and Charles Mathewes hope to have the opportunity to again lead a similar NEH-funded summer institute in the future, and we eagerly hope many other scholars will consider applying to participate.

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Caution: Technical Terminology Ahead


by Russell McCutcheon

* This post originally appeared on the Studying Religion in Culture blog at the University of Alabama.

I see posts like this on social media all the time (click here if you’re dying to find out what those 22 words are); what I think drives them is a general failure on the part of many to understand language as a tool used by groups to achieve a variety of social ends and not a universal medium in which we all just naturally swim. For only if we assume the latter would we be shocked to find out that what we mean by some word is not what they mean by it.

This is a hill that we continually have to climb in the introductory course in our Department: to persuade new students that just because they might use, say, the word myth or ritual or cult or even religion itself as part of their daily speech, the words might mean something entirely different in our class — that the words do different work in different settings. (Anthropologists surely experience much the same with “culture”…)

Those who resist this strike me as failing to understand that the academic study of religion is no less specialized than any other domain within the university; but other fields have the benefit of a technical terminology far removed from daily speech — few of us walk around talking about “the gravitational constant” even though we all know what happens to a ball when we throw it. So we arrive in a Physics intro course feeling rather humble, maybe even intimidated, for we know from the outset that our commonsense view of the world is not something we’re drawing upon in that class, that we’re there to be introduced to a technical specialty that will depart considerably from the taken-for-granted. In fact, our commonsense view of the world might even become our data (e.g., studying the blind spot of the eye in an anatomy course).

And thus, while recognizing that these two processes are of course inter-related, the skill of the many 100-level professors is likely to familiarize students with a field’s technical terminology, whereas the skill of the intro Religious Studies professors is possibly first to defamiliarize students with their folk view of the world before ever getting on with the business of teaching them the new material; for only by doing the former will space be made to entertain accomplishing the latter.

But how to do this though?

Well, one thing I try to do is never to have students use regular dictionaries for technical terms — we’re not looking for a broad sample of how people who speak English use this or that word (say, society) but, instead, were interested in how scholars use the term and what sort of work it makes possible for them carry out. Unless we’re seeking to accumulate data (such as examining how some population talks about, and thereby organizes, their world), we’re probably acquiring tools in that class, and refining technical vocabularies; so dictionaries of the Oxford or Webster variety are of little use to us in the introductory course.

* This post also appeared on the Practicum, Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy blog.

Russell McCutcheon is the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. Interested generally in issue of theory in the study of religion, and specifically in the social and political utility of the very term “religion” itself, he has worked at three different public universities in the US. He teaches a variety of courses in the Department, on such topics as the rhetoric of religious experience or authenticity, and continues his research on such topics as religion and modernity. He also has a dog, Izzy.

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Humor, Crazy Cults, and a Final Tribute to Mork from Ork

By Philip L. Tite

robin-williams-mork-mindyThe shocking death of Robin Williams this past Monday has sparked a flurry of tributes, reflections, and, of course, outpourings of grief by admirers. For myself, his death recalled my recent use of clips from Mork & Mindy in my humor and religion course at the University of Washington this past Spring. Although I had grown up with this show – and loved it as a kid (and still do as an adult) – I had never noticed the strong religious elements woven throughout the show. During the Fall of 2013, I re-watched all four seasons, working through the episodes in order. I was overwhelmed by the strong religious themes in much of the humor. Besides the political humor that was so prominent in the series, religion was perhaps the most enduring of topics. Indeed, Mork’s first encounter with Mindy is a misunderstanding with a religious twist, where he is taken as a harmless priest (due to wearing his suit backwards) and, only when she sees the “front” of the suit on Mork’s “back” does the religious motif give way to the “crazy guy in my apartment” shock.

Mork and Exidor VenusOne of the recurring religious topics in the series, however, is that of “cults”. One of the main support characters, Exidor, is presented as a self-proclaimed religious prophet – in effect, a charismatic “cult” leader. The “new religion” that Exidor launches varies in his first two appearances in 1978; first, he establishes a UFO cult (“Friends of Venus”) and then a sports cult revolving around O.J. Simpson and American football. Both of these appearances occur in the first season. (There is also a fourth season episode that addresses cults; “Alienation” [1981], where Mork and Mindy’s child, Mearth, is seduced by a cult and the parents have to sneak into the cult center and retrieve their son. This later episode nicely reflects aspects of the Cult Awareness movement that flourished in the 1980s onwards.)

The first clip is from the episode “Mork Runs Away”. In this episode, Mork feels that he’s interfering with Mindy’s dating life, that his very presence is making her unhappy. He runs away and thereby meets Exidor. At the end of the episode, the two main characters, Mork and Mindy, are reconciled. Here is the relevant clip:



In the second clip we find Mork in jail for allowing a criminal to escape from the police. While in prison, Mork once again runs into Exidor, who has lost his faith in the Venusians and has now found his truth faith: O. J. Simpson. This is a wonderful nod to “sports as religion”:Mork and Exidor OJ

Mork & Mindy – The Church of O. J. Simpson

The narrative structure of both encounters between Mork and Exidor are identical:

1) a meeting between the two characters;

2) presentation of the “cult”;

3) Mork’s initial attempt to understand the cult;

4) Mork’s parody of religion through an exaggerated adherence along with Exidor’s declaration that Mork is “a true believer”;

5) Mork’s undermining the religious foundations of the cult; and

6) Exidor’s rejection of Mork.

Each scene follows this tightly woven narrative progression, driving home the illegitimacy of the cult (and thus, perhaps, of “religion” or at least of religion that would have been viewed pejoratively as a “cult” in the late 1970s/early 1980s). Both scenes present motifs that reflect the “cult scare” of the day along with the attendant negative stereotypes attached to the label “cult”.

Indeed, the polemical utilization of the term “cult” as a “normative” description for New Religious Movements (NRMs), as James Richardson succinctly and effectively demonstrates, was largely reinforced by the media’s popularization of cult as pejorative. Richardson, quoting Robbins and Anthony, presents the following popular definition of cult:

 … certain manipulative and authoritarian groups which allegedly employ mind control and pose a threat to mental health are universally labeled cults. These groups are usually: (1) authoritarian in their leadership; (2) communal and totalistic in their organization; (3) aggressive in their proselytizing; (4) systematic in their programs of indoctrination; (5) relatively new and unfamiliar in the United States; and (6) middle class in their clientele. (Richardson, “Definitions of Cult: From Sociological-Technical to Popular-Negative,” in Cults in Context: Reading in the Study of New Religious Movements, edited by Lorne L. Dawson [Toronto: Canadian Scholar’s Press, 1996], 33)

The two cults founded by Exidor fit most of these elements. Exidor is the authoritarian founding figure who is mentally unbalanced (note the imaginary people! – later in the series, he even has an imaginary dog that Mearth plays with). There is (in Exidor’s mind at least) a closely knit group bent on proselytizing (and in the first clip, Mork parodies evangelical preachers to emphasize – and poke fun at – this aspect of the cult). The belief content of each cult is odd and unusual within the American context (at least American culture as implied in the two scenes), though both are relatable to an American audience. Finally, while on earth Mork’s socio-economic context is that of the middle class. The parody motif in both scenes certainly renders each cult something to laugh at.

More recently, Joe Laycock has offered an excellent analysis of media presentations of NRMs as “cults” (see Joseph Laycock, “Where Do They Get These Ideas? Changing Ideas of Cults in the Mirror of Popular Culture,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 81.1 [2013]: 80-106). By looking at how NRMs are portrayed in film and television, Laycock elucidates three rhetorical mechanisms by which “popular media has particularly served to reinforce public narratives about NRMS” (84).

The first mechanism is medicalization (“defining deviant behavior as a medical problem or illness”; 84). In these two Mork & Mindy episodes, this mechanism is clearly the quintessential character trait of Exidor. The guy is off his rocker. His lack of connection to reality is exemplified by his entourage of imaginary people, along with his eccentric physical behavior and prophetic clothing. The second mechanism is deviance amplification, where the media emphasizes the violent, criminal, or dangerous aspects of a new religious group so as to suggest that this example is only the “tip of the ice-berg” (thus the danger of a cult is extended to all or other NRMs, so that the “moral panic” over cults is amplified). The third mechanism, convergence, is not dissimilar to the second though it is distinct. Here the presentation of one characteristic of a cult (e.g., a charismatic leader) evokes and applies other characteristics to the NRM even when those other characteristics are not present (e.g., brainwashing or suicide).

Fictional presentations of NRMs are particularly salient, as they often conflate a range of stereotypical characteristics of cults. With our two scenes, we find the charismatic leader, the UFO motif, mental imbalances, anti-social (possibly criminal in the prison scene?) attitudes/actions, and apocalyptic escapism. With the later episode where Mearth is seduced by a cult group, brainwashing and financial exploitation along with physical danger are evoked. Added to these “typical cult motifs”, we find parodies of so-called mainstream (American) Christian religion (e.g., Mork’s evangelical preacher persona and the parody of gospel songs and prayer).

So what do we do with this data? So far we have been discussing the what question of religious cult discourse in Mork & Mindy (the substantive content of the narratives). But what about the question: to what end? How is such discourse used? Laycock suggests that such media discourse can result in reinforcing the dangerous nature of NRMs or that they can counter public portrayals of NRMs as dangerous cults.

The two examples I’ve looked at in this blog post seem to do both. Recall the narrative structure of each scene, specifically the closing elements. After rising to a climax of complete adherence to the NRM, Mork undermines the very foundations of Exidor’s religion: the Venusians don’t have the technology to destroy the Earth and O.J. Simpson is a just a man and football is just a game. Each religion is judged to be false (and perhaps by extension all religions are false, if indeed a secularization value underlies the treatment of religion in Mork & Mindy; but this extended evaluation may not hold true for all treatments of religion in the show). The break between the two characters reinforces the rejection of Exidor’s religion; i.e., while Exidor falls into a stubborn and sullen adherence to his delusional religious beliefs, Mork is reintegrated into the normal world of the show [reconciliation with Mindy and release from prison when the criminal he released does return as promised]). Thus, NRMs (and perhaps religion more generally) is characterized negatively. Such a negative portrayal certainly would fit the dominant public discourse over emergent religions in the United States when these episodes aired in 1978. This negative portrayal is certainly reinforced by the 1981 episode with Mearth.

There is a more positive side to these episodes, however. As Laycock also has demonstrated in his study of parody religions (Joseph Laycock, “Laughing Matters: ‘Parody Religions’ and the Command to Compare,” Bulletin for the Study of Religion 42.3 [2013]: 19-26), the humorous presentation of a religion – specifically through an act of parody – will often serve to challenge certain hegemonic privileges or assumptions enjoyed by particular religious groups. When we look at these two scenes from Mork & Mindy, we are immediately hit with the humor. This is clearly a comedy show and the audience is expected to laugh at the jokes. But notice that the joke in these two instances is that of religious parody. By juxtaposing various elements – both elements attached to “cults” and elements attached to “mainstream” religion and culture – the audience is left laughing at the ridiculousness of religion, specifically the silliness of the stereotypes attached to NRMs.

Often to laugh at something that is perceived as threatening is to discursively move from apprehension to a calmness where the feared object is no longer viewed as dangerous (rather, it is rendered silly). This discursive use of religious humor seems to underlie the humor in the Canadian comedy series, Little Mosque on the Prairie, in light of 9/11 and the War on Terror (I am indebted to Amir Hussain for introducing me to Little Mosque as well as this appreciation of the function of humor in, especially, the first season).

Recognizing such a use of parody (i.e., parody redirecting public discourse) requires situating the parody within the broader historical, cultural, and political context within which the parody is utilized. In the case of Little Mosque, the context is undoubtedly the aftermath of 9/11 for many North Americans. In the case of Mork & Mindy, it is worth noting that the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s (when the show aired) was a period where anti-cult fears hit a high point in especially the United States (but also Canada and the UK). By articulating a parody of such cults via Exidor’s religious innovations (and by rendering Exidor a loveable, eccentric recurring character), the show both reinforces and counters such anti-cult discourse. Perhaps it is this very tension that gives the humor an enduring resonance with viewers.

In this post, I have attempted to explore one of many religious elements in Mork & Mindy. This exploration in part builds on ideas kicked around with my students back in the Spring. It is also meant as a small tribute to Robin Williams, a loveable and thoughtful person who has had a huge impact on many of us as we grew up. Throughout his career, Williams used humor and laughter to challenge viewers to seriously reflect on the condition of humanity (and perhaps to be a little more humane in our treatment of others). In his early work as the delightful alien from Ork, we find just such a social message presented. How religion – and in particular NRMs – plays into such a discourse, is a bit ambiguous. These scenes seem to push in both directions laid out above, yet without an overt contradiction I leave it to my readers to struggle with this ambiguity.

On a personal note, I am saddened by Robin Williams’s death. It is a horrible loss. A beautiful voice has fallen silent. As a scholar, I am even more fascinated by his legacy and how that legacy has helped shaped public discourse over religion.

Philip Tite is editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from McGill University (2005) and is currently an Affiliate Lecturer at the University of Washington and Lecturer of religious studies at Seattle University in Seattle WA, USA. His most recent book is The Apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans: An Epistolarly and Rhetorical Analysis (TENT, 7; Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2012).

Posted in Humor, Joseph Laycock, Philip L. Tite, Politics and Religion, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Teaching Ethics and/in the World Religions Paradigm


by Matt Sheedy

* This post originally appeared on the Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy blog.

Like many PhD students, adjuncts, and even the occasional tenured professor, I inherited a course some years back, textbook, and all, called Ethics and World Religions. The course was designed to provide students with a general introduction to “world religions” with an emphasis on the ethical systems of Judaism, Jainism, Hinduism, “Indigenous religions,” etc. Over the years, on average, over half of the students have come from my university’s business school, which requires their graduates to obtain one half credit in a course on ethics. These are but a few examples of the practical constraints that religion scholars face in the classroom, especially in first year introductory courses.

After my first semester of teaching this class in an online format, where the texts and on-line lectures cannot be changed due to copyright restrictions, I quickly moved to supplement this material with a number of theoretical essays for the classroom version of the course. In recent years, I’ve set things up so that the textbook, The World’s Religions by William A. Young, is not just a resource, but the primary object of study.

Some essays that I’ve found useful for this task include J.Z Smith’s “Religion, Religions, Religious” and the chapters on “Authority” and “Habitus” from Craig Martin’s A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion. Martin’s text has been particularly helpful in calling attention to how authorizing strategies function in the discourse of the world religions paradigm. For example, his suggestion in the chapter on “Habitus” that we begin our investigations by paying attention to the form (e.g., language-use, diction, performance, etc.) rather than leading with the presumed content (e.g., axioms about Islam, such as the “5 Pillars” or passages from the Qur’an) helps students to see that religious identities can be more productively explained by showing how particular habits, tastes and preferences shape the ways in which theological ideas are embodied and practiced in the everyday world. Many Muslims, for example, might adhere to some version of the “5 Pillars,” though simply stating this as fact (as Young’s textbook does) tells us next to nothing about the ways that it is authorized, modified, selectively privileged or ignored and, most importantly, for what reasons?

Beginning the class with these essays (along with a case study or two) also makes it easier for students to see how the phenomenological approach that is presented in the textbook is trying to square a highly fractured circle by lumping large groups under a particular cluster of shared beliefs and practices, thereby authorizing certain norms and principles over others. It is precisely for this reason, however, that the textbook is useful since it reproduces a variation of a generic liberal approach to comparing religions common in the Euro-West.

Turning to the question of ethics, I get students to read Seyla Benhabib’s essay, “The Generalized and the Concrete Other,” where she demonstrates that while social norms in Western liberal democracies are based upon generalized principles, such as equality and fairness, they tend to tilt in the favor of dominant groups. In her analysis, Benhabib traces representations of women in Western political theory since Thomas Hobbes in order to show how such principles reflect a patriarchal bias. Like Martin, she also recommends that scholars start from particular contexts in their investigations and not some generalized map that claims to represent the whole.

I’ve found this combination of essays (though I always test out new essays each year) in a course on ethics and world religions helps students to see the relationship between general principles and concrete group identities, and helps to make it apparent how the textbook works as a comparative strategyrather than a definitive representation.

Instead of presenting what is “ethical” according to certain insiders’ self-descriptions or, as Young puts it, of aiming “to understand religion from the perspective of religious persons themselves,” (which begs the question, which insiders, and which representations?) my aim is to point out the always existing tension between generalized norms and how they are interpreted by various groups, especially those on the margins who do not fit the “official” mold.

By the course’s end, my hope is that students not only understand something about how religious insiders describe themselves, but that the explanations of those insiders (whether coming from priests, scholars or sworn enemies) are best understood by applying theory in an attempt to explain how they work in the social world. Far from neglecting those sticky questions of evaluation and judgment common to most classes on ethics, this approach also demonstrates some of the main challenges to addressing the problem of ethics in the first place.

Matt Sheedy is a PhD. candidate in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, ritual, myth and social formations. His dissertation offers a critical look at Juergen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere. He is also conducting research on myths, rituals and symbols in the Occupy movement and discourses on ‘Nativeness’ and ‘Native Spirituality’ in the Aboriginal-led Idle No More movement.

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Teaching Beyond the World Religions Paradigm?

By Philip L. Tite

western_religious_symbolsCurrently I am teaching an undergraduate course, Introductions to Western Religions. This introductory course (along with its companion course, Introduction to Eastern Religions) is a common one in universities across North America. These are the basic “feeder” courses, or foundation courses, that support the religious studies major. Often they are designed to teach the basic content associated with such religions: historical survey, beliefs system, ethics, social/community structure, and (perhaps most importantly) the major religious texts associated with each tradition.

These introductory courses are supported by academic presses, especially those which specialize in textbooks. There is a plethora of textbooks out there on the market that continue to compete for that coveted “intro textbook” status. Many of these books are constantly being issued in new editions, forcing students to purchase expensive books with little opportunity of re-sell. From a purely commercial perspective, there is definitely a market for “world religions” in textbook publishing. And likely this is due to the continued market for such courses – courses that may be keeping some departments above water in an era when the humanities have once again come under fire as students and parents react to the Great Recession and the astronomical cost of higher education (especially in the United States).

The entire approach to the study of religion that is exemplified in such world religions courses (whether covering the major world religions or divided into the eastern and western camps) falls under what has been dubbed the “world religions paradigm” (WRP).

In the past few years, the WRP has been challenged by scholars. Suzanne Owen’s (Suzanne Owen, “The World Religions Paradigm: Time for a Change,” Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 10.3 (2011): 253-68) has offered an excellent analysis of the paradigm, pointing out several problems with the WRP and calling on educators in the United Kingdom (and beyond) to discard it: The WRP largely emerges out of European colonialism; it universalizes and thus essentializes a cultural tradition (a sui generis product that transcends the historical); it obscures the distinctly local cultural practices, thereby decontextualizing those cultural practices while authenticating a constructed “core”; it imposes Western (i.e., Judeo-Christian) models of “religion” that have emerged since the Enlightenment as normative for cultures encountered through colonial expansion and thereby creates and defines that very “other” in terms of the “us” (e.g., religion as a private, internal belief system separate from public or mundane matters); it tends to stop at the descriptive level, albeit with a moral agenda of promoting pluralism and tolerance, and thus avoids – indeed resists – reductive explanatory approaches.

Owen has noted the challenge facing scholars who reject the WRP but are required to teach the basic introductory courses. Many end up teaching these content driven courses, following the standard layout of the world religions textbook. A further challenge I have noticed in North American religious studies departments is the implicit presence of the WRP in those very departments where the paradigm has be overtly rejected. I recall one university I taught at where I was told “we’ve rejected that model” (i.e., the WRP), yet then I saw that they organized their major into eastern and western traditions with the standard “intro to” Judaism, Islam, Eastern Religions (an odd conglomerate of traditions!), etc. So while there may be no “Introduction to World Religions” or “Western/Eastern Religion”, the WRP continued to be the subtext (with all the implicit problems that Owen highlights for us) driving the entire degree program. For me the problem was not only the inconsistency of “rejecting” the WRP while embracing it on the larger structural level of the degree program, but more importantly the blindness in even seeing that they were still following this model. I felt that there was a failure to really challenge the WRP.

Since teaching at that university, I have tried to think through possible ways to teach such required courses in a way that would guide students to not only learn content about diverse religious traditions (I do think we can know something about the world around us), but also, and more importantly, to critically discern and analyze the constructed nature of “religion” and in particular the WRP. This summer I have had the opportunity to experiment with such an approach when offered the “Intro to Western Religions” at the University of Washington.

My basic idea is that we shift our focus away from just studying the major traditions from the West (i.e., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and instead look at “Western Religions” as a constructed category that shapes data into commonsense categories. Thus, the very category “Western Religions” (and not just religions of the West) becomes our object of study. My claim is that the intro course can be the site where we deconstruct the very nature of the course we are signed up for. I tend to do this a lot in my teaching; i.e., to take the course title and description and to work with my students to undermine (or to look at the underlying presuppositions of) that very course title. The intro to comparative religion course offers an excellent opportunity to overtly challenge the WRP, not only in scholarship but within the broader, media-driven view of religion that we continually find imposed upon students as the “obvious” construction of reality. By bringing these “Western” religions together in such a course, we can finally look at the underlying power dynamics involved in the construction and internalization of the WRP.

So for my Intro to Western Religions course, we do not use a standard textbook. Rather, we are taking three or four mainstream intro to world religions textbooks that are on the market today and comparing the ways in which the authors construct/present as normative the three so-called “Abrahamic faiths”. The textbooks have become our object of study rather than our guide into our object of study. The idea is that while we are learning “content” (i.e., something about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) we are also looking at the “spin” given to those traditions. We began by setting the stage for our critical analysis by discussing theoretical problems in the study of “Western Religions”: the definitional problem of “religion” (reading J. Z Smith and incorporating Craig Martin’s insights on the “delimitation” underlying definitions of religion); the WRP (reading Owen); the exclusion of certain “fringe religions” or those cultural processes that are often excluded from the category “Western Religions” (New Religious Movements, Native American cultures, hybridization of African cultures within North American contexts, civil religion, etc); and the entire eastern/western division of world religions. This opening module helped establish the analytical lens by which we looked at the various “narrative mappings” of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Certainly we are learning descriptive “facts” about these three religions, but more importantly we are learning how those facts are created and given a spin by each author – and this critical gaze has been applied as well to any lecture I may give (such as an historical overview) or to a documentary (such as a BBC documentary we watched on Andalusian Spain).

So far this has been working in class. It has been fun to identify and compare structural components in the presentation of the “same facts.” For example, Mary Pat Fisher’s Living Religions (I have the 7th edition published in 2007) begins and ends with a focus on 9/11 and the “war on terror” – a framing mechanism that allows her to try to correct misunderstandings of “authentic” Islam in the wake of 9/11:

In fact, ignorance about Islam and perceived targeting of Muslims in general by the US-led ‘war on terrorism’ have exacerbated a dangerous and growing divide between Muslims and non-Muslims in the contemporary world. Therefore it is extremely important to carefully study the origins, teachings, and modern history of this major world religion (376).

Thus, the construction of Islam in this textbook and importance of studying Islam through such a construct is needed in order to correct misunderstandings of Islam within current geo-political crises. This tells us something about the contingency of scholarship (and teaching!), moral undertones driving pedagogy, and the role of the scholar (at least some scholars/teachers) in “saving” a religion as authentic (e.g., in the close of this chapter, Fisher spends a great deal of time arguing that violent acts by Islamic groups such as Al Qaeda are not authentic or correct understandings of Islam, specifically the concept of jihad). In these discursive moves, Fisher makes a normative claim about Islam, its future hopes (via inter-faith dialogue and progressive ideology), and its inherent goodness.

With a very different “spin”, Warren Matthews makes a different normative claim about Islam. In his World Religions (I have the 6th edition published in 2010), Matthews opens with the following statement:

The ensuing account tries to present the facts of history with respect for the Muslim views that Muhammad’s actions, words, and teachings were inspired by his own religious experiences. Nevertheless, other forces interacted with his recitations of the Qur’an and his actions based on them. In the history of this religion, as I have with others, I try to present a sympathetic, understanding account of the religion’s beliefs about its origins and development  (327).

Rather than authenticating this “religion” via geo-political conflicts currently affecting public perceptions of Islam, Matthews exemplifies the very theoretical approach of the phenomenologist of religion, where sympathy with those being studied stands alongside giving interpretative force to the insider’s private experiential truth claims (which also evoke the notion that religion is essentially a private, irreductive experience that the outsider can only approximate in his or her understanding of the insider’s truth claims).

My students were quick to note that these framing mechanisms were not as overt in the chapters on Judaism and Christianity, where the presuppositions underlying the presentations are more tacit. While the overt articulation of the authors’ agendas were convenient for us in our analysis of the construction of “Western/World Religions”, they also helped us discern something about the target audience (or the assumed Christian demographic of the North American classroom). The other two chapters in Matthews in particular began with historical surveys that re-presented biblical narratives as historically reliable (we discussed some possibilities for such presentation for the likely target/assumed audience of the textbook). The assumption that students entering these courses would have a background in Christian tradition also was evident to me when I read the study questions at the end of Matthews’ chapter on Christianity (e.g., “What major social issues should Christianity address in the twenty-first century?”).

We were also able to note normative – or universalizing – assumptions in the discussion of Judaism. For example, Fisher opens the discussion of Jewish beliefs with the following claim: “The central Jewish belief is monotheism” (271). On the surface this does not seem all that problematic. After all, aren’t we talking about the three great monotheistic faiths? Doesn’t the Jewish Shema embody a commitment to monotheism? But then we looked at what is excluded by such a totalizing, universal claim by Fisher. Not only are possible polytheistic and/or henotheistic aspects in the changing understandings of God within the emergence of Judaism omitted from discussion, but we also fail to include the rise of Jewish atheism and secular Zionism in the 20th century. We also fail to consider the ancient ideas of the manifestation of God in, for example, the Shekhinah, the Kavod, or Wisdom/Sophia (and the whole process of divine attributes being personified extensions of the divine).

At the end of the course, we will come full circle to the theoretical problems with the WRP, the colonial and post-colonial power dynamics underlying that paradigm, etc. My hope is that my students will not only learn something about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but will also (more importantly) learn that these traditions are socially constructed, contingently presented and evaluated, and consumed by particular audiences as commodities or products that shape perceptions and social interactions. They are not “things unto themselves” but are built up as “things unto themselves” for particular, underlying agendas to which those constructs serve.

So should we be teaching courses such as “Introduction to Western Religions”? Absolutely. But not in the way that these courses are often taught. I like to see the course as an opportunity to expose my students to the very idea that religious traditions are discursive products; i.e., narrative maps that guide and shape human interactions and social perceptions of reality. Even though an introductory course, I think that we can use such courses (and should use such courses) to encourage critical “looking below the surface” rather than simply stopping at the descriptive level of content to which the student is expected to memorize and re-articulate on an examination. In my own view, that’s what higher education should do, especially within the field of religious studies. Graduates of our programs should not simply have overly expensive pieces of paper declaring that they are culturally sensitive and can ace a trivia game at the local pub (if religious topics ever arose), but rather they should be culture critics. They should be able to discern and analyze the constructed, normative world around them that is often taken for granted. “Religion” – as a discursive object – continues to be one of those very “taken for granted” discursive maps. And our students should not simply be map readers or map makers, but analysts of the purposes, mechanisms, and assumptions in the very production of those maps.

This task does not (or should not) be pushed off to graduate school or even upper level undergraduate courses. This should start at the get-go. My current course is a pedagogical experiment for me. It is an attempt at teaching beyond the world religions paradigm by teaching through the world religions paradigm.

Author Bio: Philip Tite is editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from McGill University (2005) and is currently an affiliate lecturer at the University of Washington and also teaches at Seattle University in Seattle WA, USA. His most recent book is The Apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans: An Epistolarly and Rhetorical Analysis (TENTS, 7; Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2012).

Posted in Pedagogy, Philip L. Tite, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Suzanne Owen, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Sam Harris: You Are My Data


by Matt Sheedy

As a scholar of religions, I find your arguments about religion both frustrating and wrongheaded, which is a sentiment that is shared by most of my colleagues, though often for different reasons. Your recent post, “Why I Don’t Criticize Israel?” is but one example in a litany of arguments where you reify (I know you don’t use this term so I’ve provided a link) the concept “religion” in such a way that it functions like some contagion infecting all those who come into contact with it, unable to escape the grasp of its most virulent strains (read: literal interpretations of scripture).

Having read most of your books along-side the other so-called “New Atheists,” it became apparent to me as early as The End of Faith (2004) that you were the most reactionary among them, endorsing torture and writing the following remarkable lines in Letter to a Christian Nation, (2008) which I was recently humoured to see annotated in my personal copy with the letters, WTF?

If the basic tenets of Christianity are true, then there are some very grim surprises in store for nonbelievers like myself. … So let us be honest with ourselves: in the fullness of time, one side is really going to win this argument, and the other side is really going to lose. (5)

Since this time, to your credit, you have put your money where your mouth is, earning a PhD. in cognitive neuroscience in 2009, which you drew upon in your argument for a scientific morality in The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (2011). More recently, you have doubled-down on this proposition with the release of Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. (2014)

I would imagine that most scholars of religions do not object to your quest to find a scientific basis for morality per se, since theories of mind and cognition are but one of many tools in the collective toolbox of the study of religions. Notwithstanding some of your arguments on topics such as neuroscience and free will, however, you do not provide any sort of theory that we can take seriously. For a brief overview of the kind of work that we do, I’d suggest starting with this concise taxonomy of scholars of religion by Travis Cooper. But I digress.

In “Why I Don’t Criticize Israel?” you raise a variety of points in defense of this question, including qualifying notes that you place in brackets in an attempt to nuance your previous statements on this topic, such as the following:

[Note: Again, I realize that not all Palestinians support Hamas. Nor am I discounting the degree to which the occupation, along with collateral damage suffered in war, has fueled Palestinian rage. But Palestinian terrorism (and Muslim anti-Semitism) is what has made peaceful coexistence thus far impossible.]

It is not my aim to engage you here on your arguments relating to the conflict at hand, but rather to offer my thoughts on how they bear upon the ways that we talk about religion. While the claims that you make about Israelis and Jews, Palestinians and Muslims are selective and limited (as I’m sure you’d acknowledge, after all it is a blog post), they nonetheless constitute claims that can be reflected on and challenged with alternative facts and additional evidence, which can then be re-interpreted, re-evaluated and revised if found to be compelling. As with any conflict, I endorse the ideal of taking up as many critical perspectives as possible in order to better grasp the messy world of politics and I encourage any honest efforts to do so.

When it comes to the question of religion, however, your reasoning comes up against a wall, which muddies your ability to clarify what is at stake in this and many other situations that involve groups that identify as religious (note the displacement of “religion” here, as we are still debating whether it is best understood as a first- or a second-order category). Curiously, you seem to make one exception to your general rule, which is worth quoting in full:

There are something like 15 million Jews on earth at this moment; there are a hundred times as many Muslims. I’ve debated rabbis who, when I have assumed that they believe in a God that can hear our prayers, they stop me mid-sentence and say, “Why would you think that I believe in a God who can hear prayers?” So there are rabbis—conservative rabbis—who believe in a God so elastic as to exclude every concrete claim about Him—and therefore, nearly every concrete demand upon human behavior. And there are millions of Jews, literally millions among the few million who exist, for whom Judaism is very important, and yet they are atheists. They don’t believe in God at all. This is actually a position you can hold in Judaism, but it’s a total non sequitur in Islam or Christianity.

You suggest that those who identify as Jewish are, on the whole, capable of aligning their beliefs in such a way that is compatible with modern, liberal ideas and that “Judaism” permits its members to hold a dual-membership in “atheism.” Putting aside the rather sticky question of Jewish identity and where “its” authority comes from, it is certainly true that there are many more people who identify as Muslim than those who identify as Jewish and that the inflation of such identities can have negative consequences, not least of which is the reliance on certain political theologies as a primary lens for interpreting events in the social world, which sometimes aligns with anti-Semitic sentiments (anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments also abound, I might add, though I’d wager that you’d disagree that holding the second of these positions is problematic). This no doubt plays into the existential insecurity of Israel, which is surrounded by countries where such theologies and sentiments regrettably persist (and again, the reverse persists in many other countries too, including the US and Israel).

While you argue that Jews are able, on the whole, to take a self-critical stance on “God” so that the (scriptural) claims about “Him” don’t have much of an effect upon human behavior, you also suggest that the Hebrew Bible is the worst among equals:

Let me remind you that parts of Hebrew Bible—books like Leviticus and Exodus and Deuteronomy—are the most repellent, the most sickeningly unethical documents to be found in any religion. They’re worse than the Koran. They’re worse than any part of the New Testament. But the truth is, most Jews recognize this and don’t take these texts seriously. It’s simply a fact that most Jews and most Israelis are not guided by scripture—and that’s a very good thing.

Let’s assume for a moment that both of your claims are correct—that parts of the Hebrew Bible are highly unethical and that the majority of those who identify as Jewish are not guided by them. Why might this be the case? What historical, political and socio-cultural reasons might account for such a shift? What variations do we find within distinct sub-cultures within, say, Israeli society or in diaspora communities in different parts of the world that might help to explain these variations in the outward performance of Jewish identities as it relates to scriptural beliefs and practices?

While I know that many of my colleagues in the study of religions, especially those who conduct fieldwork, would object to the claim that similar “atheist” and “secular” beliefs and practices (though there’s some magic in those concepts too, no?) don’t also occur in many communities that identify as, say, Christian or Muslim, that is somewhat beside the point. I wonder though, if “Jews” can adopt such a position despite their “sickeningly unethical documents” then why not “Muslims” too? There appears to be a logical inconsistency here.

What you don’t seem to understand is that “religion” is not a material object like a table or a chair that can be classified in a generic sort of way, nor is it a condition, like the Ebola virus, that can be diagnosed and cured (or not cured) of its symptoms. It is, rather, a discursive concept with multiple variations. Most in my field, in fact, have been talking about it in the plural for some time now (e.g., Judaisms, Christianities, Islams), while others have done a fair bit of leg work identifying its linguistic and cultural roots in the Euro-West (with a healthy dose of Protestant theological influence, I might add) and in showing the ways in which dominant classifications of “religion” have been applied to a wide variety of cultural practices, which, of course, are constantly changing. Frankly, we have a tough time keeping up with it and are not at all clear on how to square the circle.

Because of the political nature of any field of study that reports its findings and engages with the general public, many scholars of religions get sucked into debates on the ideas and representations that go by the name “religion” (myself included), which sometimes distracts us from examining its unstable meaning and compels us to engage directly with its practical uses. What tends to get the most attention and carry the day in the popular public sphere (and this won’t surprise you, Sam) are those loud, dominant voices that claim to offer a definitive representation of this or that (or all) “religion,” for or against as the case may be. As many scholars have pointed out, this field of representations constitutes the discourse about religion, which, as I noted above, varies widely across time and space.

Becoming aware of this discourse, charting its themes and variations, is what some of us (though not all) in the study of religion are trying to do, which we hope will add more theoretical clarity to the field and, perhaps, may even have some positive social effects.

Once you take this bitter pill, Sam, you’ll quickly realize that there is no stable object, across cultures and across centuries, that can be placed into the tidy little box that you call religion, but only groups and individuals who identify what this or that tradition—your Buddhisms, your Hinduisms, your Islams—that we have come to call religions, who take up beliefs and practices in literally countless variations, though often with certain commonalities, to be sure. It is this problem that many of us are trying to get a handle on and until you realize this “fact,” you are my data.

* Photo credit from Wikimedia Commons.

Matt Sheedy is a PhD. candidate in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, ritual, myth and social formations. His dissertation offers a critical look at Juergen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere. He is also conducting research on myths, rituals and symbols in the Occupy movement and discourses on ‘Nativeness’ and ‘Native Spirituality’ in the Aboriginal-led Idle No More movement.

Posted in Matt Sheedy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

The Magical Religion of Richard Dawkins


by Tenzan Eaghll

Have you heard the good news? The world is not a dark and dreary place of myth but is filled with true magic and wonder! No longer must you live under the weight of sin and myth foretold by generations past, for you can step out of the cave of delusion and see the world for how it really is!

In Richard Dawkins new book, The Magic of Reality, this is the truth he reveals. Each chapter begins with a question, such as ‘what is a rainbow,’ or ‘what is the sun,’ and then discusses various myths from different cultures that try to account for these things. However, the real bulk of each chapter is spent discussing the magical scientific explanation of what a rainbow, the sun, or an earthquake (etc.) actually are. By his use of the word “magic” Dawkins does not mean anything supernatural, and he is not referring to the conjuring magic used by magicians, but the kind of magic you experience when you look into a telescope, glance down a microscope, or learn that consciousness is produced by thousands of firing neurons. What the book discloses is that we do not need myths about imaginary figures who live in the sky to encounter the wonder of reality, because the truth is far more magical than anything foretold in the Bible, or Ancient folktales for that matter.

In The God Delusion Dawkins argues that religion is like a misfiring gene or virus that is uselessly infecting mankind; it developed at some point in our evolution and just keeps replicating itself through cultural memes, regardless of the fact that it does more harm than good. Religion is of no cultural use, he suggests, because it causes fanaticism, bigotry, and ignorance, and does not improve the lot of mankind. What he claims is that religion is inoperative; it doesn’t work to some beneficial evolutionary end but is in fact useless, like the human appendix. As he writes,

The general theory of religion as an accidental by-product – a misfiring of something useful – is the one I wish to advocate. (188)

And again,

The very same peoples who are so savvy about the natural world and how to survive in it simultaneously clutter their minds with beliefs that are palpably false and for which the word ‘useless’ is a generous understatement. (165-166) 

Dawkins argues that we should only keep those things around which work, and we should discard those that don’t work. This is especially true of dangerous things like religion because they only produce social ill. What is so special about his new book, The Magic of Reality, is that Dawkins provides a scientific replacement for the fantastic promises of religion. Dawkins argues that reality itself is magical and that we do not require the supplement of the supernatural. The truths that science gives us are so wondrous that they can replace myth with a magical feeling of awe.

I only have one question: Why the need for magic at all? What is the purpose of this wondrous supplement? Because I must say, it seems rather odd to make an argument to do away with all cultural elements that are useless, and then to claim that the actual truth is far more magical than the discarded myths. What I find interesting, is that Dawkins argues that the inoperative elements of society must be discarded but then also argues, with the same vigour and enthusiasm, for his own type of inoperativity. He seems to suggest, simultaneously, that religion is useless and that the feelings it produces are similar to those revealed by scientific discovery. Indeed, he seems to argue that the feelings reality generates match, nay, surpass, those feelings promised by religious myth.

My question here does not concern Dawkins science, but his magical supplement. What is this experience of wonder that reality generates? Why does he spend so much time attacking religion, only to turn around and appropriate the very sublime awe he condemns?  Why the need for the magical supplement?

Tenzan Eaghll is Ph.D candidate in the department of religious studies at the University of Toronto. His dissertation analyzes Jean-Luc Nancy’s work on the Deconstruction of Christianity.

Posted in Politics and Religion, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, Tenzan Eaghll, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World | Tagged , , , , , | 20 Comments