Religious Proximity and Cultural Distance: An Introduction on the East/West Dichotomy

BSOR June CoverThe following is the editorial introduction to the June 2015 issue of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion (the full table of contents having already been posted). We offer this editorial here on the blog in order to give readers an overview of the most recent issue of the Bulletin.


By Philip L. Tite


A few years ago I was asked to teach the Western religions course for our summer session. This is a required course for all majors, its twin being the course on Eastern religions. Typically, such introductory courses are designed to offer basic information on a tradition’s history, beliefs, sacred texts, rituals, and modern challenges. This is where the reification of “religion” is firmly established for students. Most of us who have gone through the gauntlet of the discipline have studied in programs designed around such an East/West division and many of us find ourselves having to teach within such a paradigm. Although several have raised challenges about the “world religions paradigm” (see the discussions in Owen 2011 and Tite 2013), rarely are students introduced to those processes by which such East/West divisions are constructed and rendered normative or obvious. In my version of this course, we focused less on the Western traditions and more on the discursive construction of “Western religions” as a category. In my theories course, the historical construction of the East and the West, as mutually dependent concepts, arises with far more clarity.

The East/West is the product of colonial expansion, where understanding is interwoven within the maintenance of power relations. As I mention in class, all categorization is an act of establishing, reinforcing, or challenging power relations. No categorization is benign. To categorize is to create a center and a fringe, to discursively locate social actors to the benefit of some and the disadvantage of others. Geographic categorization is an effective tool for such rhetorical moves, as many of us tend to see geography in a simple sense of physical locations such as in basic mapmaking. Indeed, to present students with a global map of the “world religions” often reinforces monolithic cultural divisions. Cultural or human geography, however, draws our attention to the contestation over spatially advocated values and meanings, be those spaces large physical geographies (such as nation states), personal geographies (such as in personal dress choices), or political geographies (ideological “camps”). As Justin Tse insightfully observes, such approaches to religious geographies “are grounded insofar as they inform immanent processes of cultural place-making, the negotiation of social identities, and the formation of political boundaries” (2014, 202). Conflict is a key component in such geographies; there is power distribution through contestation, as social actors take on the authority to “draw maps” and thus create peoples. Often such geographies are tied into an “us/them” dichotomy. As is widely recognized, the study of “the East” (and thus necessarily “the West”) arose within European Orientalism. Orientalist research (and teaching) create links between some people (“proximity”) while reifying distance with other people. Torre and Rallet (2005) have explored mechanisms of such geographic proximity/distance. Geographic relations can be established through (co-)localizations, institutional proximity (“the logic of belonging”), systems of representation (“the logic of similarity”), or some combination thereof (see also Tomlinson 2000).

What Torre and Rallet offer for economic analysis nicely fits religious geographies. The dichotomy of East/West creates moments of proximity, especially between the so-called Abrahamic traditions (Hughes 2015) but also the Eastern traditions —relating diverse traditions within particular localizations. By the very act of grouping various traditions together, they are given conceptual proximity for the researcher (e.g., stereotypes of Eastern mysticism and Western monotheism, as if traditions are interchangeable due to sharing some essential “core”). The dichotomy also creates distance, rendering particular traditions “other” even while sharing physical space (e.g., the large Sikh population in Canada or the Christian population in South Korea), as if the “other” is only a “migrant faith” (thus, lacking authenticity within public discourse in, especially, “the West”).

This issue of the Bulletin offers a panel of papers reassessing the construction of Eastern traditions. Originally this exchange began on our blog, and we are delighted to offer readers a more developed engagement between these scholars. James Mark Shields, Nicole Goulet, Sarah Haynes, and Marianne Fibiger engage the continued problem of “the East” within the academic study of religion. Whether they address Tibetan Buddhism’s positioning in the grey area of the East/West dichotomy, the exoticized portrayal of Taoism and Buddhism as part of neo-colonial processes, the “repackaging” of Japanese Buddhism by a Japanese modernist, or the transformation of “the Westerner” through engagement with the East, each of these articles highlights the continued impact of the East/West dichotomy not only in scholarship but also within the classroom. This exchange continues in a brief roundtable, where each author responds to their fellow panelists. This exchange functions as an invitation to the reader to enter this discussion, for the field to continue theorizing the religious geographies that continue to dominate our discipline.

In addition to our panel and roundtable, we are pleased to include a pedagogical piece by Melissa Deckman for our “Tips for Teaching” section. She offers a helpful tip on using fieldwork assignments to highlight for students the intersection of the political and the religious. This issue also includes two pieces that highlight our affiliation with NAASR. Our associate editor, Matt Sheedy, interviews NAASR’s new president, Russell McCutcheon. Russ has a long history with both NAASR and the Bulletin, having served as the Bulletin’s editor in the 1990s (one of the most formative periods for the Bulletin thanks to Russ’s indefatigable efforts). This interview offers key insights into NAASR’s pivotal role in transforming the academic study of religion. We also are including a set of NAASR Notes, a recent feature on the Bulletin’s blog where several NAASR members offer us a glimpse into their scholarship. As any academic society is a composite of its members, we hope that by sharing these Notes, readers will gain further insights into the dynamic ebb and flow shaping the association. Further NAASR Notes are appearing on the blog and readers are encouraged to follow that Bulletin feature.



Hughes, Aaron. 2015. “Abrahamic Religions: A Genealogy.” Bulletin for the Study of Religions 44(1): 3–11.

Owen, Suzanne. 2011. “The World Religions Paradigm: Time for a Change.” Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 10 (3): 253–68. http://dx.doi. org/10.1177/1474022211408038

Tite, Philip L. 2014. “Teaching Beyond the World Religions Paradigm.” Bulletin for the Study of Religion Blog. teaching-beyond-the-world-religions-paradigm/.

Tomlinson, John. 2000. “Proximity Politics.” Information, Communication & Society 3 (3): 402–14.

Torre, Andre and Alain Rallet. 2005. “Proximity and Localization.” Regional Studies 391: 47–59.

Tse, Justin K. H. 2014. “Grounded Theologies: ‘Religion’ and the ‘Secular’ in Human Geography.” Progress in Human Geography 38 (2): 201–20.

Posted in Announcements, Editorial, James Dennis LoRusso, Matt Sheedy, NAASR Notes, Pedagogy, Philip L. Tite, Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, South Asian Studies, Southeast Asian Studies, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Now Published – Bulletin for the Study of Religion 44.2 (June 2015)

BSOR June CoverThe June issue of the Bulletin has been published and is available. Below is the table of contents of this issue, which includes a panel of papers on the construction of “East/West” in the study of religion. This debate began on the Bulletin’s blog and has been continued in this issue, with the hope that others will jump into the discussion both on the blog and in the Bulletin itself. This issue also includes a “Tips for Teaching” entry by Melissa Deckman, who teaches a course on religion and politics. We are also pleased to include an interview with the new president of NAASR, Russ McCutcheon, as well as a selection of NAASR Notes that have become a regular feature on the Bulletin’s blog.

As always, we welcome submissions for future issues – including responses to published articles – from established scholars and graduate students engaged in the study of religion (regardless of discipline) for either publication in the Bulletin or for here on the Bulletin‘s Blog. Our guidelines for the journal are available online.


Table of Contents

Bulletin for the Study of Religion Volume 44, Issue 2 (June 2015)

“Religious Proximity and Cultural Distance: An Introduction on the East/West dichotomy” Philip L. Tite (University of Washington) [Editorial introduction] – (pgs. 1-2)



 “‘Never the Twain Shall Meet’: Disorienting East and West in Teaching and Scholarship” James Mark Shields (Bucknell University) – (pgs. 3-8)

“The Grey Matters: The Use and Abuse of East/West Taxonomies” Sarah F. Haynes (Western Illinois University) – (pgs. 8-11)

“The Pedagogical Issues of Teaching ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ Traditions” T. Nicole Goulet (Indiana University of Pennsylvania) – (pgs. 11-15)

“‘Weasternization’ of the West: Kumbh Melā as a Pilgrimage Place For Spiritual Seekers  from the West” Marianne C. Qvortrup Fibiger (Aarus University) – (pgs. 15-21)

Roundtable on East/West (exchange between Professor Shields, Haynes, Goulet, and Fibiger) – (pgs. 22-26)



Tips for Teaching: “Getting Students Out of the Classroom and into the Pew” Melissa Deckman (Washington College) – (pgs. 26-28)

North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR): An Interview with Russell McCutcheon by Matt Sheedy (University of Winnipeg) – (pgs. 29-31)

NAASR Notes (including Sean Durbin, Jason Blum, Russell McCutcheon, Naomi Goldenberg, and Dennis LoRusso) – (pgs. 31-39)

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Theses on Professionalization Series: Tara Baldrick-Morrone


In this new feature with the Bulletin, we have asked 21 early career scholars to weigh in on Russell McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, first published in 2007. In his 21 theses, McCutcheon offers advice to young scholars entering (or soon to enter) the job market, addressing the all-to-important (but often overlooked) question of professionalization. Each of the contributors in this series has been asked to comment on a single thesis, addressing its contemporary relevance, and how it relates to their own experience moving forward in the academic world. For other posts in this series, see here

by Tara Baldrick-Morrone

Thesis 6. Although it is necessary, the doctoral degree alone is hardly a sufficient credential for being admitted to academia as a full-time employee because most of the other applicants also possess this credential (i.e., it is the level playing field onto which ABDs have yet to be admitted). There was a time, prior to the early 1970s, when the job market was such that merely possessing a Ph.D. would lead to multiple tenure-track job offers; in the Humanities that time has long passed.

After reading this thesis again, I had three reactions, two of which can be defined as “knee-jerk” and perhaps not as insightful as the last one. Each is defined by a key phrase from the thesis:

1) The doctoral degree “is the level playing field …”

Although I will not say too much about this because Drew Durdin will no doubt address this in his comments on thesis #7, this playing field is frequently uneven, as an institution that has awarded one applicant’s degree can certainly carry more social capital than the institution of another applicant (e.g., someone applying for a tenure-track position in early Christianity who has received their doctoral degree from the University of Notre Dame may, in many cases, outweigh the applicant who has received their degree from a state school such as, say, Florida State University). Though, to be sure, there are many factors at play besides the award-granting institution when considering an applicant for a particular position (the institution’s need, letters of recommendation, maybe even teaching experience, etc.).

2) “There was a time … when the job market was such that merely possessing a Ph.D. would lead to multiple tenure-track job offers …”

Although the narrative that we have been told is that tenure-track jobs are going the way of the Cabbage Patch Kids Snacktime Kids Doll, Table 27 in the 2013-2014 jobs report from the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature that Caleb Simmons referred to in his comments on thesis #4 makes it seem as if the tides have actually been turning:

But we cannot look at 80.3% and deduce that the “crisis” is over, or that we should stop attempting to address the contingent faculty issue, which I would argue is of the utmost importance (see the PBS NewsHour’s stories on adjuncts, as well as Kelly J. Baker’s “Contingency and Gender” and “What Can Learned Societies Do About Adjuncts?”). The implications of Table 29 from the report indicate as much:

As Mike Altman has pointed out in his comments on the report, “[O]nly about a third of the jobs went to people fresh out of grad school. The others all spent at least a year doing something else — either outside the academy or in some sort of ‘contingent’ position. This is the new normal … Success isn’t a tenure-track job, success is a job period.”

3) “[T]he doctoral degree alone is hardly a sufficient credential …”

On my reading, this is the crux of the thesis. If we take the playing field as level, then it stands to reason that there are actions that we can/ought/must/are forced to do to set ourselves apart from one another [1] . Thinking about this reminded me of a line in Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities. Donoghue writes,

We in the humanities have adapted to the conditions of our profession by developing a culture as steeped in the ethos of productivity and salesmanship as anyone might encounter in the business world (2008:26).

This hyperprofessionalization, as Donoghue and others have termed it, has crept into the halls of the academy, especially for those of us in the trenches, that is, those of us who have not yet been legitimated by the academy that many of us so desperately wish to be a part of. These things that we can engage in that work to legitimate our existence in the field of the study of religion (e.g., being the Instructor of Record for eight courses [so far], writing an essay for an edited volume, presenting at the annual SBL/AAR meeting, perhaps even writing a blog post or two, etc.) help us to make a name for ourselves, to network with more established scholars, to gain experience that we can use when we obtain that piece of the Aggro Crag that is a tenure-track job (or a job outside of academia, depending on your definition of achievement [2]).

And yet this constant ratcheting-up of expectations does not guarantee us a thing, not even an interview with a third-tier institution. Performing any combination of the aforementioned tasks (or all of them, for that matter) does not equate to a job. Donoghue makes a discomforting point in saying that such developments as hyperprofessionalization “seem to have caught professors by surprise, leaving them unprepared to deal with the very phenomena that directly affect their jobs” (2008:134). It is for this reason that my outlook cannot be as optimistic as Matt Dougherty’s when he says that his “hope is that reflection on McCutcheon’s thes[e]s will encourage mentors of graduate students to make choices that foster the growth of specific professional skills without assuming that work on professionalization must happen in addition to, or even in competition with, the normal demands of a graduate program.” Sure, perhaps steps have been made to rein in the lofty expectations of graduate students, but until there is a sustained conversation of such expectations that are demanded of us (especially in terms of what hiring committees may expect), not much will change.

[1] What I refer to here is that some of us have to sing for our supper (i.e., teaching or assisting a professor in research while we are in coursework, preparing for comprehensive exams, and writing our dissertations in exchange for a stipend). There are many graduate students who do not share this burden.

[2] Commenting on Altman’s response to the jobs report, one of his friends critiqued his definition of success by saying: “You continue to maintain the very unhelpful status quo idea of ‘success’ as a teaching position. You revise expectations ‘downward,’ I suppose, but you don’t look outside of teaching at the college level as any form of ‘success.’ I think this expected outcome, and the way that graduate programs indoctrinate students into this form of reproduction, is one of the most myopic and harmful aspects of PhD programs in our discipline. We need an entirely different kind of subject formation that has a wider vision of ‘successful’ outcomes. I agree that we have to broaden outcomes beyond just teaching positions. However, this report has nothing to say about that. One takeaway, then, is that a report like this is too narrow to address the larger question of what counts as success for a Ph.D. graduate.”

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Theses on Professionalization Series: Matt Sheedy


In this new feature with the Bulletin, we have asked 21 early career scholars to weigh in on Russell McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, first published in 2007. In his 21 theses, McCutcheon offers advice to young scholars entering (or soon to enter) the job market, addressing the all-to-important (but often overlooked) question of professionalization. Each of the contributors in this series has been asked to comment on a single thesis, addressing its contemporary relevance, and how it relates to their own experience moving forward in the academic world. For other posts in this series, see here

by Matt Sheedy

Thesis 5. Whether as an ABD or after having been awarded the Ph.D., some candidates accept year-to-year work as a full-time Instructor or Lecturer (sometimes also called a Sessional position or a Part-time Temporary Instructor). Such positions often entail teaching loads that are heavier than tenure-track or tenured faculty members and, depending on the salary offered, may necessitate supplemental teaching (e.g., evening or summer courses) for one to earn sufficient income. Although the benefits of teaching experience and an academic home can be invaluable to an early career person, the costs such temporary employment entails for one’s ability to carry out research and writing can be high. Navigating these costs/benefits is no easy task; for instance, one might learn that, sometimes, time is more valuable than money.

I am reminded here of the now-infamous remarks by Mitt Romney in his presidential bid in 2012, when he stated the following about how college students struggling with debt might find a way out of their predicament:

We’ve always encouraged young people: Take a shot, go for it, take a risk, get the education, borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business.

While borrowing money from one’s parents is not an option for many the idea that those with an advanced education (either pursuing or having recently completed a Ph.D) could be strapped for cash seems to be at odds with what many (rightly) take to be a path of privilege that leads to the ivory tower, instead of the unpaved road that it often resembles, with numerous casualties along the way. The recent student strike and arbitration settlement for TA’s at the University of Toronto is but one of numerous examples of present challenges.

All of which is to say that we must acknowledge the larger issues at play effecting departments in the humanities—political, economic, and structural—giving rise to both creative solutions, entropy (left unlinked for professional reasons), downsizing or mergers (both with other humanities departments or, in the case of the Study of Religion, with departments of classics, philosophy, historytheology [or some kind of realignment]), and death. Although McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization was written before the economic crisis in 2008, and thus before the most recent round of belt tightening effecting the academy, such realities are nothing new (see Part VI: Religious Studies and Identity Politics in Reinventing Religious Studies 2014).

To whatever extent creative solutions might aid this current lull, it cannot be overlooked that the primary reason for the plight of sessional and part-time temporary instructors has much to do with larger social forces and the glut of recently minted Ph.D’s trying to fill fewer positions in a highly competitive market. Unless these problems are addressed, time will be a commodity only available to a privileged few who are able to avoid the need to teach more than a productive scholarly life can easily afford.

I find myself in a similar situation to that described in thesis 5, though with several important caveats that offer a useful point of comparison.

I defended my Ph.D in January 2015, waded through three months of bureaucracy to finalize the process, and convocated in May. Having been without the official Ph.D stamp throughout most of the application process for positions starting in 2015-2016, I was (arguably) at a competitive disadvantage and did not secure anything for this coming academic year. Despite these obstacles however, my position is an extremely fortunate one… for the time being.

For some years now I have taught a course with Distance and On-line Education at my university, which functions as a public-private partnership, and thus offers a different pay-scale than other in-class sessional positions that fall under collective bargaining agreements (the pay for these is quite paltry at my institution). This has, in certain years, provided more money than my yearly fellowship (which was good for four years) and has allowed me to keep my financial head above water without having to search out a heavy teaching load or (as is not uncommon) find part-time work outside of the university. Criticisms of on-line courses and MOOCs notwithstanding, I know of no other Ph.D student who has had such a position, and therefore take it to be an anomaly and not a path toward the future. This is doubly fortuitous in my case, since recent cutbacks at my institution have meant that there are no other teaching positions available for this coming year in my department. Add to this the fact that I am located in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which, unlike Southern Ontario or, say, the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, does not have many other universities in close proximity where I can find part time work.

As editor of this blog, Bulletin for the Study of Religion, I have been afforded numerous opportunities to gain contacts and establish professional relationships. I’d like to think that those who have contributed to the Bulletin over the years have also been able to establish contacts through this forum, contributing not only the occasional blog post, but also essays that have appeared in the Bulletin’s journal. Likewise, my tenure as editor has given rise to opportunities for collaboration with other scholars on a number of projects, and the Bulletin has benefited greatly from our affiliation with the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR). All of which is to say, there have been numerous opportunities outside of research and teaching that I have been fortunate to tap into that have aided my process of professionalization.

In the coming six months I have three conference presentations (two at the upcoming NAASR/AAR conference in Atlanta), a few book projects that I am planning to edit, two essays slated for books, and at least three essays to submit to journals. On top of this, I will be chipping away at the dissertation-to-book process (see the helpful guide by William Germano, From Dissertation to Book, Second Edition 2013), and fielding the firestorm of job and post-doc applications that come my way starting in September. This will be a grueling period, to say the least, and one that aim to rise up to with shinny gold stars.

If I were saddled with three or more courses to teach during this time (I will be teaching one on-line course in the fall), as many in my position are, methinks that premature wrinkles and grey hair would be sure to follow. Indeed, for many early career academics, myself included, time is more valuable than money.

Matt Sheedy recently defended his Ph.D in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.

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Study of Religion as an Analytical Discipline 2015: Canon and the Analytical Study of Religion

Friday, November 20, 2015 12:20-5:45 pm Atlanta, GA

“…in any given society, the social practices of reading and writing are systematically regulated. The social effects of this regulation are produced, therefore, by the concerted operation of social institutions, not only by acts of individual judgment.

Once this point has been given its due, it should be possible to shear away the philosophical problem of aesthetic value from the historical problem of canon-formation… The problem of canon-formation is one aspect of a much larger history of the ways in which societies have organized and regulated practices of reading and writing…”

John Guillory “Canon” in Lentrichia and McLaughlin, Critical Terms for Literary                   Study, 239, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1990 (1995).

In canon, the canon would limit me. We students are the laboratory of canon, the experimental space of working on, working out, and augmenting what it is. In metaphor canon is a limitless language I use, whose origins are my origins. To paraphrase Baruch Spinoza, nothing is canonical in an absolute sense apart from the mind. A canon is an act of the mind. It is a metaphor. The aporia, the opportunity, is the question of the relationship of the two metaphors of laboratory and canon; the relationship, further, of the two canons of laboratory and metaphor. Course, canon, introduction: In what sense am I bound? And to what?

Nancy Levene, “Courses and Canons in the Study of Religion (With Continual            Reference to Jonathan Z. Smith)” JAAR, December 2012, 1001-02. Emphasis ours.

In year five, SORAAAD will focus on the role of canon. Twenty-five years after Guillory, what does canon mean as a conceptual valence of research design? How is canon – its creation, imposition, and contestation – meaningful for those we study? We will look at the implied and overt canons we deploy in designing qualitative research, the canons deployed by the subjects of our research, and the politics of representation and classification. Karen King, Jennifer Knust, Kecia Ali, Terje Stordalen, Karen Fields, Rudy Busto, and Doug Cowan will speak. Topics will include canon and canon-making in the study of Early Christianity; Gender and Islam; Race; and Science Fiction.

Participants and panelists in this year’s workshop will explore questions crucial both to their areas of specialization and to religious studies as a discipline. How can we track the varied and dynamic ways that ‘canon’ morphs as an assertion of hegemony across space and time? How do we relate deep studies of relatively small populations to larger discourses without distorting particular expressions as definitively representative? Who gets to canonize? How do we track factional fixations within canon? To what end and with what pivots can we productively compare canons? How do we continue to integrate research that demonstrates how canonical concerns have warped our study of religions both in- and outside a “Western context,” e.g., by privileging some forms to the detriment of scholarly understandings of factionalisms, esotericisms, indigenous religions, fictional religions, and new religions? Beyond text and logocentrism, how can we talk about canons of emotion and art?

Canon and the Analytical Study of Religion” will be of interest to scholars who already enact social science and critical humanities research methodologies; to those who want to develop techniques to denaturalize canon; and to anyone who wants to rethink how canons materialize, function, and are used to normalize specific power structures.

The Full Program is available as a PDF.

Recommended for Smart Phones

12:20-12:30 Introduction: SORAAAD Year Five

Ipsita Chatterjea , for the SORAAAD workshop committee.

Part One: Canon, Canonicity, and Comparison

How do we compensate for or contextualize privileging extant texts without distorting particular expressions as definitively representative? Who gets to canonize?   How do we shake up our understandings of the complex time- and space-contingent structures that generate Canon?

12:30-1:35 Segment One: Canon: Anatomies and Materialities

As we work across case studies in different traditions where canon is a key component, to what end, with what compromises, and with what pivots can we productively compare canons?

Terje Stordalen, University of Oslo

Deconstructing Canonical Anatomies

Jennifer Knust, Boston University

There is No Bible/There is a Bible: Thinking about the Materiality of Text

Krista Dalton, Columbia University – Moderator

1:40-2:35 Segment Two: There is No Author/There is Author-Function: Further Thoughts on Practices of Ascription and Canon Formation

Karen King, Harvard University

William Arnal, University of Regina – Moderator

2:35-3:15 Workshop Break

Part Two: Shaking off Canonical Constraints

How has canon constrained our units of observation for research on religion? Can we use work in fields that have to contend with canon as a problematic or warping frame to shake ourselves loose of canonical presumptions? How do we do that at the level of designing, coding, reading, or notation?

3:15 -4:20 Segment One: Canon, Collective Identities, Hegemony, and Social Regulation

Who are you calling “fringe,” “heterodox,” “apostate” or “primitive”? How is canon created? What functions as canon? How does any thing become “Canon” or canon? How has canon malformed our research design for indigenous religions, new religions, esotericism, secularism, and the paranormal in relation to “religion.” What of our understandings of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity? Or, what has been useful in restructuring work where this has been a problem?

Kecia Ali, Boston University

Canon and Gender in the Study of the Muslim ‘Tradition’

Karen Fields, Independent Scholar

Race in America: An Elementary [or Elemental] Form of Religious Life

Ipsita Chatterjea – Moderator

4:25-5:45 Segment Two: Canon and/in Science Fiction

What is Canon for those we study and what are the terms of Canonization and how are understandings of Canon wielded? What functions as canon for those we study, how do we track this and talk about it? On message boards, moderators admonish posters not to argue with each other on the basis of “Head Canon” and then ban them from discussion when they will not stop. How have people analyzed events where fights over priorities in variously asserted common canon play out? How do we chart the evidence of self-identification of elements within a canon, discern the rules of deployment and note the emergence of conflicting canons? How do we analyze these phenomena where notions of canon are very much in play, sites of extended, personal heated arguments and other forms of enactment?

Rudy Busto, University of California, Santa Barbara

The “Nine Billion Names of God” and Science Fiction’s Disloyal Canons

Doug Cowan, Renison University College

Lo(o)se Canons: Rethinking the Need for Canons at All

Laura Ammon, Appalachian State University – Respondent

David Walker, University of California, Santa Barbara – Moderator

The Full Program is available as a PDF.

Recommended for Smart Phones

The SORAAAD workshop is sponsored by: the AAR’s Critical Theories and Discourses on Religion Group, the AAR’s Cultural History of the Study of Religion Group, the SBL’s Metacriticisms of Biblical Scholarship Group, and the SBL’s Redescribing Early Christianity Group

The SORAAAD workshop has been underwritten by the University of Regina Religious Studies Department, whom we thank for its ongoing support and the support of William Arnal, Head of Department.

SORAAAD’s committee would like to thank Matt Sheedy and The Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog for their ongoing support of the workshop.

Registration. Please send an email to Place “registration” in the subject line, and include your name, indication of rank (independent scholar, graduate student, professor, etc.), and institution if applicable in the body of the email.

You might wish to review the SORAAAD Workshop Ethos.

Registration is free.                                                           

Registration Limit: 55

SORAAAD is on Social Media

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NAASR Notes: James Linville


by James Linville

The Creation of Myth and Meaning Among Young Earth Creationists

Numerous studies exist of Christian Young Earth Creationism’s (YEC) history, political strategies, impact on public discourse on science and education. My new research project intends to supplement these with an in-depth study of YEC’s symbolic and mythological repertoires and the different contexts in which adherents generate and employ creation mythology. Creationists are not simply foisting an iron-age mythology onto a scientific and rational world. Rather, they are engaged in a complex process of ritual and mythic resistance in which the Bible is but one tool in the continual generation of a meaningful mythology.

Ancient creationist thought was contextual: depictions of how the god created depended on the institutional, political, social, and personal circumstances addressed by the mythmaker or storyteller. Similarly, the Bible contains a diversity of creation mythology that offers multiple portrayals of the deity, and his actions and relationships to humanity, social institutions, and nature. Genesis begins with a seven-day creation and rest cycle, and then begins again to tell of the creation and the expulsion of humanity from a primal garden. Poetic and prophetic literature often imagines the deity as a cosmic warrior, violently bringing order to the primordial (and hence contemporary) world. Yahweh defeats the serpents Leviathan and Rahab, and asserts his power over “sea and river” (e.g. Habakkuk 3, Psalm 74, 89, Isaiah 51). In reflecting on the nature of divine wisdom, scribes personified feminine Wisdom as God’s co-worker (Proverbs 8). Christians would displace her with the masculine Christ in the guise of the Greek concept of logos (John 1). It seems as if different writers had access to, or generated, a multiplicity of views on creation and divinity to serve different ideological, literary, and religious purposes. The early collectors of this literature do not seem to have been much concerned with harmonizing it all.

Consistency is a major issue for modern creationists, however, who need to address the accusations that the Bible is contradictory and therefore to be dismissed as a source of information. The Creation Week account bears most of the burden in modern creationists’ arguments with scientific cosmology, while the Garden story is used to explain the world of death and sin. Other biblical references play little apparent role in modern creationist cosmologies and are often regarded as “poetic”, non-literal descriptions. Modern creationist myths have a rather different cosmos than that of the ancient Israelites. The earth is spherical, there are no pillars holding up the heavens, no underworld beneath or solid firmament (at east not anymore) above, and space is really, really big.

There is more to this than simply reducing the variability of “bible based” creation mythology in response to demands for science-like logical consistency in divine revelation. Scholars studying YEC typically do not look much beyond the creation narratives that are given as “biblical” alternatives to scientific cosmologies and the theory of evolution. Nuances within this repertoire are not well studied. Moreover, there is a large body of YEC material not immediately concerned with the struggle against secular sciences. My research is directed towards providing a fuller picture of how and when different YEC views on creation appear, including the use of the “figurative” passages to create—in various contexts—different conceptions of the deity and the nature of creation and the proper human responses to this. The purportedly “historical” mindset of scripture is not a position exclusive to creationists. Indeed, it is a central part of liberal Western Christianity’s (and Judaism’s) self-perception, and part of the wider Western cultural biases that validate “history” to the exclusion of “mythology”, and narrative over poetry. Critical scholarship of the Bible has yet to become fully aware of this cultural baggage.

YEC creation mythology exists not so much in the Bible but in the paraphrases, retellings, and adaptations in narrative or poetic form, or alluded to in other kinds of verbal or written communication, or represented in image and sculpture and performing art. Creation myths are only part of a wider body of mythology though which YEC adherents create their personal and social identities. Some scholars have already noted how creationists seem to be motivated by key cultural myths, wrapping themselves in the discourses of the frontiersman, striking out into new intellectual and scientific lands a moribund mainstream science fears to tread. What my research hopes to uncover, however, is something of the depth of the creationists’ symbolic universes, in which biblical and non-biblical stories, motifs and symbols provide a rich and complex repertoire through which myths are constantly rewritten, reapplied and generated anew. I tend to follow J. Z. Smith, see myth-making as a kind of “play” in which various models of the world are juxtaposed, provoking opportunities for deeper levels of social thought, and in turn, new juxtapositions and new mythic variants.

In following this line of thought, my new research project will involve interviewing creationists and examining the different contexts for the generation of myths of origins, and the use of origin stories for diverse social discourses. This will include attending debates and conferences, surveying children’s literature, sermons, homilies, etc., and visiting a number of the so-called creationist “museums”. There are a few dozen such installations in North America along with a number of travelling exhibitions of replica fossils and similar wares designed to affirm YEC. A few more can be found in Europe and elsewhere. A number of new facilities (some quite large) are under construction or in the planning stages. There are also some groups who regularly offer tours of sites such as the Grand Canyon. My as yet incomplete map of these institutions can be found at

James Linville

Associate Prof.

Dept. of Religious Studies

University of Lethbridge

4401 University Drive

Lethbridge AB, Canada

T1K 3M4

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The Harm of World Religions


* This post originally appear on the Culture on the Edge Blog.

by Steven Ramey

While discussions of “World Religions” often attempt to encourage appreciation of human diversity, these presentations have become the focus of scholarly critiques because of the harm that they cause. Such presentations appear to provide a clear way of describing the world (as illustrated in the map above), but the assumptions behind them often serve to promote European dominance that people present as simple descriptions. A recent animated presentation on Business Insider illustrating the spread of the five major world religions becomes the object of a range of critiques.

The conclusion of the animation makes almost all of the world one of these five religions. When compared to some of the cited sources, similar to the map at the head of this post, areas that others list as “indigenous religions” become either one of the five major religions (as in all of Canada is Christian) or left blank (as in Siberia) within this animation. The selection of five religions reflects other assumptions, as Sikhism (according to cited sources) has more adherents than Judaism but is excluded, not to mention Shinto/Japanese religions, Chinese religions, and the aforementioned indigenous religions. Jonathan Z. Smith in his “Religion, Religions, Religious” essay had a useful insight on the selection of which religions to include.

It is impossible to escape the conclusion that a world religion is simply a religion like ours, and that it is, above all, a tradition that has achieved sufficient power and numbers to enter our history to form it, interact with it, or thwart it.

In other words, what counts as a world religion is more about the people making the list (their interests and perspectives) than a straightforward description of a separate reality.

I want to push these critiques further. What commonality is our basis for recognizing groups as part of a specific world religion/community? Is it self-identification, belief, practice, text, birth, or some combination of these? While the animation starts with Hinduism in the Indus Valley 4500 years ago, what do the people of that valley have in common with people who identify as Hindu today? What about the Israelites and contemporary Judaism or the crucifixion of Jesus and Christianity.

The narrative that the animation follows applies the assumptions, interests, and labels of today back in time to construct the origins of each religion. Following a common understanding of the time of Jesus, at the time of his crucifixion his followers did not have the New Testament or even the Gospels, did not have the sacraments or creeds of today, and did not identify as Christian. Similarly, Abraham and David neither identified as Jews nor followed the same beliefs, practices, texts, etc., as Jews today. Those who composed Vedic hymns in the Indus Valley, commonly seen as the originators of Hinduism, similarly did not identify as Hindu, did not have the same conception of the world, the same texts or practices of today. While we can trace connections from where we sit back to these points of origin, labeling these figures/events as points of origin for each religion has very little to do with the people and events at the point of origin. Rather, they have everything to do with giving a legitimating history of communities today.

Such descriptions of world religions and their origins have serious implications. Besides marginalizing those communities who do not make it into the presentation, the simplified origins narratives reinforces those (often those already in power) who use the narrative of a singular origin to legitimize their own sense of acceptable practice and necessary reform while further marginalizing those who see the development of society and practices as more fluid and complex and resist the more narrow reforms based on a constructed origin. Such constructions, therefore, often have shaped communities (rather than describing them) and furthered physical and ideological conflicts that utilize these narratives and labels to mobilize support.

We cannot fully blame the creator of this animation. He did his homework, at least on one level, and cited a variety of academic sources. Scholars need to incorporate the best in academic research, including the complicated theoretical reflections, into public representations and introductory courses. Too many World Religion courses and textbooks simply retell this type of simple narrative as truth, despite knowing the problems with the narrative. Such presentations encourage its repetition and continue to influence the complicated negotiations and contestations that exist in our world.


Image credit: TheGreenEditor [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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