Life After Religious Studies: An Interview with Nicholas Dion


Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of interviews with former scholars of religion who have, for one or another reason, decided to leave the world of academia. In this series we hope to open up a conversation that can be of use to other scholars in pointing toward some of the pitfalls and alternative paths to life in the ivory tower, as well as to reflect upon on-going struggles to preserve and improve the humanities.

Could you discuss your academic training and what ultimately led to your decision to leave the world of academia.

Nicholas Dion: I completed my BA and my MA at McGill University in Montreal, and my PhD at the University of Toronto’s Department for the Study of Religion. My academic interests always lay in the philosophy and psychology of religion, especially in psychoanalytic theory, but I also took a considerable interest in and did some work on issues related to immigration policy, multiculturalism, and the place of religion in a liberal democratic society. With the exception of a few months off between my MA defense and the beginning of my PhD, I went straight through my academic career without taking any breaks – I knew that I wanted to teach and do research at a university, and I never really stopped along the way to question that certainty or to explore other options.

The second part of your questions is considerably more complex, and a number of different threads ultimately informed my decision to leave academia. First, I came to know of the realities of the academic job market, including the rise in the hiring of sessional lectures and the decrease in the number of tenure track positions. The great opportunity that was supposed to present itself as older faculty members retired and vacated their seats for young blood never materialized, both because those older faculty members stayed on longer than expected and because universities realized that they could save money by contracting faculty instead. While I accepted that a period of contract employment was typical of many different career paths, especially early in one’s career, the academic reality seemed particularly troubling because this period of contract work often extended for several years and, in some cases, seemed to only delay the inevitable choice between perpetual contracts and non-academic work. I wasn’t willing to risk spending five or ten years on contract in the hopes of securing an elusive tenure track appointment.

Second, I got married to another graduate student, and we both came to terms with where we were and were not willing to move for work. We found the latter list to be considerably longer than the former. Third, and ultimately most importantly, I had fallen out of love with the academic study of religion. I found myself passionate about a small sub-discipline of the field that no one else seemed to care about, and I in turn had little interest neither in the questions that others in the field wanted to ask nor in the methods by which they sought these answers. My interests were completely out of sync with the field’s priorities. While I could still see myself as the surly old professor who comes to the office, does his research and leaves, bitter at the colleagues he avoids and ostracized at departmental activities, that didn’t seem like much of a life to me.

At the same time, I was excited at the option of choosing a new direction. I had a growing interest in politics and public policy and I was looking to explore them further. Maybe this was my chance? Without ruling out any options, I worked with the career centre and the various other resources available to me to coordinate a non-academic job search to parallel my academic one. While I had started out looking at non-academic options to hedge my bets against the terrible academic job market, when decision time came I eventually ended up declining two academic positions to pursue an opportunity as editor and researcher with the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), a government-funded advisory body and research agency that works on issues related to higher education policy. That was almost two years ago. My position now combines the best of both worlds, allowing me to expand my interest in public policy while still remaining close to the world I enjoy, that of the university. While I sometimes pick up a lectureship here and there to stay in touch with the students and to indulge my love for teaching, I am satisfied with my new direction.

Do you have any thoughts on how structural changes may have impacted your decision to leave? Specifically, how do you think on-going cutbacks and a general de-valuation of the humanities (e.g., in many institutions and on the level of society), and especially in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, have contributed to this state of affairs?

ND: Let me preface this by making clear that all opinions here are my own and may not reflect the thinking of my employer. HEQCO has done considerable work on this topic and on others closely related to it, publishing in the spring of 2013 two reports that look at the job prospects of students with graduate degrees, So You Want to Earn a PhD? and the labour market anxieties of graduate students at two major research universities in Ontario Beyond Labs and Libraries. I would refer the interested reader to those two publications.

As I said earlier, the poor academic job market played a major role in leading me to explore non-academic options in the first place. Whether this poor job market is a result of the 2008 downturn or larger systemic issues, I don’t know. I’ve spoken to some professors who were first hired into academia over twenty years ago and they claim to have faced similar sorts of challenges. But this might just be a tactic to minimize students’ concerns or a sign of ignorance of the current reality. I suspect that the limitations imposed by space have always been problematic to some extent for those like myself, who sought academic positions in Canada. Like it or not, there are considerably more universities in countries like the US than here in Canada, which makes it difficult for students who are unwilling and unable to move for work. The academic job market also isn’t uniform within a discipline – sub-discipline matters. I may not have seen many philosophy of religion positions when I was job hunting, but everyone seemed to want an Islamist or a specialist in southeast Asia. Academic job markets have their trends too, just like anywhere else.

I also think that it’s important to parse the job market – both academic and otherwise – carefully before jumping to conclusions. One could argue that the economic downturn also led to a rise in full-time contract work in certain non-academic industries, especially in entry-level positions, and has paralleled the ‘rise of the sessional’. The shift in academia is perhaps only more evident – from the inside, at least – because of the cultural currency of tenure. But if you’re looking to avoid contract work and find stable employment, leaving academia is no panacea.

I’m also hesitant to suggest that the poor labour market is a humanities-only issue. Yes, a particular form of societal anxiety surrounding students’ labour market outcomes has returned post-2008, which has in turn led some to question what universities in general, and the humanities in particular, are doing to produce workplace-ready citizens. This discourse feeds nicely into certain images of what the Canadian economy should look like, and the industries in which it should be grounded. But the number of dissenting voices outside the academy is greater than we sometimes think.

On the one hand, I can point to friends in kinesiology or other health science disciplines who have been inundated with offers of tenure track jobs right out of graduate school, while my humanities colleagues consider themselves lucky to find post-doc positions which, I hazard to say, were relatively rare in most humanities fields a decade ago and now function as holding cells for the masses of recent graduates waiting for more permanent positions to emerge. But I remain struck by one particular experience I had in the last year of my doctorate. A few months from graduation and in the clutches of uncertainty, I registered for a condensed MBA course offered through the university’s business school. I figured that, if anything was going to be useful in the “real world”, it was some basic level of business knowledge. Expecting to find myself surrounded by other humanities and social science PhDs similarly concerned about their prospects, I found myself in a class with 23 science PhDs and one engineer. And the more I talked to them, the more I came to learn that the anxiety some graduate students in the humanities experience is hardly unique to that discipline.

Can you speak to how you were able to transfer your skills to a different area outside of academia.

ND: First off, I think you’re right to emphasize skills. While academia focuses on knowledge – areas of study, periods of time, geographical regions – the non-academic market speaks the language of skills, which can be confusing and disorienting for recent graduates. It demands a complete shift in thinking. My experience here may be somewhat unique because I was interviewed and ultimately hired by a panel that contained several individuals with graduate school experience, so the task of ‘selling the value’ of my humanities degree was not as difficult as it could have been. Still, what served me best were not the skills that I developed as a direct result of my doctoral study – research, teaching, oral and written communication, critical thinking, etc. – but rather those skills that I had developed as a result of the other activities I pursued while in grad school, like sitting on administrative committees, coordinating and editing journals, and planning conferences. I applied to and was interviewed for a fairly generic entry-level position, only to find out at the interview that they were also thinking of hiring an editor if they came across the right candidate. My extensive editing experience is actually what got me the interview, much moreso that my abilities as a researcher. I think the trick here is to think as broadly as possible about the range of experiences that you have had and to reflect on a wide variety of skills that go beyond those that flow directly from the PhD.

It’s also helpful to keep in mind that the job hunt tends to look very different on the non-academic market. Academic positions are almost always advertised, to attract candidates with a wide range of backgrounds. On the contrary, many non-academic positions are never advertised but are rather filled through the employer’s existing network of contacts. As a result, networking and “meeting people” often plays a much bigger part in finding a non-academic position than does searching the Internet.

What challenges and/or solutions do you see for graduate programs addressing problems with employment that many Masters and PhD students face?

ND: First, I don’t really see academic hiring practices changing organically unless pressure is exerted from within the system. I think that faculty members, faculty associations, and departmental administrators who are unhappy with the current state of affairs have a responsibility to make their voices heard and, more importantly, to adjust their own hiring practices where appropriate. But – let’s be honest – tenure breeds complacency as much as it promotes freedom of thought. I’m not particularly optimistic. I think we’ve crossed the Rubicon on this one, and the current state of affairs is likely to become the new normal.

The opposite side of the issue is to suggest that departments could be doing more to prepare graduate students for non-academic positions. To some extent, I think that many of the difficulties recent graduates face on the labour market are due to the relative paucity of MAs and PhDs in non-academic positions. As more graduate students pursue non-academic careers, employers will come to understand the value of their credentials, in turn alleviating some of the translation work that students need to do.

Until then, at the very least students need to be made aware upon admission of the realities of the academic job market, and they need to be encouraged to develop other skills in graduate school. Yes, students should ultimately be expected to make their own decisions, to research graduate schools the way they would a new car, but that simply isn’t the reality for most. Until this changes, I would argue that departments have an ethical obligation to step in and fill this knowledge gap.

MA and PhD programs should no longer be treated as preparation for a tenure track job. Ideally, graduate degrees would be reinvented to be more than research degrees focused on the development of in-depth disciplinary knowledge. Stanford University’s idea of streaming PhDs into either academic or non-academic tracks highlights how this might be achieved, albeit in a way that is not without its own challenges. Ultimately, we’re asking faculty members who have known nothing but academia to think outside the walls of the university and redefine their primary responsibility to students. That’s not an easy thing to ask.

* For those in the Toronto area, check out the Next Steps Conference at the Career Centre at the University of Toronto.

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Taking Care of Jesus and Muhammad: Reflections on Islamic Studies


by James Crossley

Editor’s note: This post is part of a broader conversation on scholarship in Islamic Studies that was sparked by two recent articles, one by Omid Safi and one by Aaron Hughes. Other articles in this series can be found here and here.

The recent debate sparked by Aaron Hughes’ response to Omid Safi’s article on the state of Islamic studies in North America has again prompted discussion of emic-etic tension, of whether scholars of religion are ‘critics’ or ‘caretakers’ (to use Russell McCutcheon’s terms). In the articles and in the comments section questions about the impact of September 11 on Islamic studies were raised, as well as contentious labelling of those undertaking the quest for the historical Muhammad as ‘Islamophobe’, ‘racist’, or ‘colonial invader’. ‘Carl’, commenting on Hughes’ article, suggested that such categorisations of those ‘whose sole “mistake” is to approach Muhammad as Albert Schweitzer did of Jesus in 1910’ were ‘unfair’  but ‘should certainly not be unexpected (we can ‘thank’ Edward Said for this). As such, the tension here is not simply religious, but political as well (if, indeed, the two are not, in reality, one).’

I cannot assess Carl’s claim for the simple reason that I lack familiarity with scholarship on Muhammad. But these issues are not restricted to Islamic studies, of course. That September 11 changed the ways Islamic studies is understood is not difficult to imagine. But related issues have been intensified in the past decade or so in biblical studies, or at least the sub-field of New Testament studies. Despite the long history of ‘did it really happen or not?’ or ‘did Jesus say it or not?’, post-September 11 has seen the emergence of intensified polarised mainstream debates where scholars have identified or been identified as ‘conservatives’, ‘evangelicals’, ‘agnostics’, ‘atheists’, and ‘secularists’. We have seen mainstream books ‘proving’ the resurrection of Jesus, showing that the Gospels were eyewitness accounts of the historical Jesus and, perhaps as a reaction, even the emergence close to the mainstream of ‘mythicist’ arguments which have claimed that Jesus did not exist. Irrespective of whether these arguments are right or wrong they remain tied to the kinds of intensified ‘culture wars’ after September 11 and, in certain cases, there are some fairly clear Orientalist discourses too. In one sense, we could be more positive in our ‘thanks’ to Said: it is possible to imagine – let us say hypothetically for now – that September 11 has generated controversial interests in reconstructing Muhammad or Jesus which cohere with broader Orientalist or ‘New Atheist’ agendas (the two can overlap, as Carl implied, albeit slightly differently).

Providing historical and ideological contexts for scholarship is one thing; it is not so easy to provide an answer to what can be done in terms of (say) historical research. The quest for a given historical figure does not necessarily have to be part of such agendas and the relationship between scholarly intentions and cultural context is not straightforward, even if historical reconstructions cannot escape contemporary politicised discourses. Indeed, cultural contexts we may not like can generate questions we might find interesting and may have otherwise missed. I personally dislike a lot of New Atheist discourse, particularly as it seems to me to have strong idealist, ahistorical and Orientalist tendencies, but its prominence also provides an opportunity to raise questions about the dominance of theology in the field that might not have been so easy ten years earlier. And explaining the interrelationship of scholarly and cultural tendencies hardly means giving up the enterprise of (say) historical research. Issues surrounding the ‘historical Muhammad’ or the ‘historical Jesus’ are obviously still open to (or theoretically should be) assessment, evidence and argument (as Hughes and Carl stress). I do not have a satisfactory answer to how we deal with this tension between scholarly contexts and historical reconstruction, other than an ideal of a radical ‘anything goes’ attitude to accepting that any question, no matter how uncomfortable, can be raised in academia, or at least should be allowed. Carl’s further suggestion that we take advantage of such scholarly flashpoints to study the tensions between the ‘confusing morass of theologians and Humanities scholars’ seems worth pursuing. One of the functions of an academic society like AAR can be, and presumably is, to provide a venue for such controversies and academics have enough control and privilege to promote and engage in such debate.

The situation is different in biblical studies in terms of potentially sensitive reconstructions of historical figures such as Jesus because this has been happening for some time and, in academia at least, is a topic that has been domesticated. However, it is also a topic that is hardly atheological and we should not forget (as Ward Blanton has shown) that Schweitzer himself had his own theological agendas. We can go further. It is fairly clear that ‘caretakers’ have dominated the agenda in biblical studies, certainly in historical Jesus studies. The major debates in historical Jesus studies, for instance, seem to be over whether Jesus mistakenly predicted end times or not, whether he really did say x, y or z, whether he was a social reformer, what his theological views were about salvation were, his attitude towards women (very rarely men), how he viewed his death, what the Christological titles might really mean, how unique he must have been, and how Jewish Jesus might have been. Even the social scientific contextualisation of Jesus has historically been used to illuminate further these sorts of ideas and is still not widely employed in distinction from theology (irrespective of what academics might claim). And how many debates in biblical studies more broadly are effectively debates between theological liberals and theological ‘traditionalists’, or the heterodox and the orthodox?

While I think debates about proving the miraculous are a waste of time (or, at least, there should be no need for it in the field), it is not as if many of the other questions cannot have historical answers. But it is equally clear that the same questions have been repeated time and time again over the past 100-plus years with minimal change in the answers. One thing is clear: New Testament studies and historical Jesus studies have effectively been a branch of theology and theological concerns continue to frame the debates. While there are different academic histories and different contemporary problems, the issue of caretakers and critics is not entirely different in biblical studies and Islamic studies. Theology unites us more than it divides us.

But there are signs that things are starting to change, at least in the UK. My degree, like most of those of my generation and older, was, tellingly, in ‘Theology’. I remember when questions were raised about changing the title to ‘Religious Studies’ in the 1990s but the suggestion was shouted down very quickly and no-one realistically thought change was possible. Yet within about three years, most degree programmes and departments in the UK (including my old department) became ‘Theology and Religious Studies’ or just ‘religious studies’. It is not that the critic/caretaker debate has necessarily changed dramatically but it is an indication that the dominance of Christian theology and theological biblical studies does not have the same hold it once did. Even at Oxford.  Compare the comments of the apologist and ‘caretaker’ extraordinaire, N.T. Wright:

But these things shift over time. All it takes is one or two people to move on, retire, or whatever. Sadly Oxford has just lost a NT scholar and they’ve replaced him with two people teaching Buddhism. And I have no idea what the Oxford faculty thinks it’s doing, but it’s like, excuse me, Oxford used to be the place where you studied the primary texts of the Christian tradition.

I think there is a lesson to be learned from Wright’s comments but not the one he would want us to learn. There is increasing and influential hostility in the UK to this kind of rhetoric of the superiority of biblical studies and Christian origins. This is understandable. Biblical studies has no right (or ‘divine right’?) to being given pride of place in a religious studies programme and defending it in such terms will not, and should not, convince colleagues outside. Yet behaving more as ‘critics’ might help the field and sub-field be more convincing, if only by avoiding the language of assumed superiority. Behaving more like critics and at least trying to share a common discourse would open up more and more questions and provide a stronger argument for intellectuals worthy of a struggling field. To return to historical Jesus studies, there are all sorts of different questions which might be posed which look at human engagements with social contexts and historical change, and without the endless focus on Jesus the Great Man or without framing the questions in terms of how the earliest Jesus movement was somehow ‘superior’ to, or ‘unique’ in, its context. None of this necessarily excludes some of those questions which have been posed by a history of theological dominance but it can help further understand them in ways of interest beyond the church and for those working more broadly in the field of religion and in the humanities.

This might sound obvious but it is not in historical Jesus studies at least. Maybe historical Jesus studies, or SBL, need its own Carl-style intervention to hammer out these problems. Equally obvious is that I also know what I have done in recent years, though whether it was the right move, I do not know. I have found myself moving to academic areas where the critic/caretaker problem is less of an issue. I found spending a few years working on the use of the Bible in political discourse enjoyable (and the potential for enjoyment should never be underestimated in academia), partly because I realised that I did not have to be as defensive or concerned about acting as an outsider or ‘critic’. This is an area that has not received anything like the attention the use of the Bible has in its ancient contexts and one where ‘insider’ (and implicitly or explicitly) Protestant concerns are less likely to dominate for obvious reasons. I have found it enjoyable to talk to colleagues in if different fields and disciplines and not to be involved in some of the typical battles of traditional biblical studies. As with certain readers of this blog working in ‘religion’, I have also found that being involved with relatively new seminars, sessions, journals and conferences with like-minded people has been both enjoyable (again, no apology) and a context where ideas can be developed with greater ease. While this may well contribute to the fragmentation of the field, it may potentially contribute to ideas being more widely discussed in the longer term, a common enough phenomenon in the history of academia.

However, I still feel drawn back to engaging with more traditional biblical studies, partly because I struggle with intentional or unintentional exclusion of ideas, partly because I still want to convince people no matter how much they will not listen to ideas that might be troubling to them, and partly because I do not like the attitude of some colleagues outside religious studies and biblical studies who believe their subject is more ‘valuable’ because it generates more income. But it is also because there are more resources and a bigger market and audience for ‘caretakers’ in biblical studies. In fear of being misunderstood, this is emphatically not to say that voices should be silenced. But would not a retreat of those more strongly identifying as critics potentially facilitate an overall victory of caretakers?

What this further suggests is that there are topics where being a critic is easy enough and topics where being a critic is problematic. I have never had a problem teaching on the constructions of ‘religion and terror’ or the Bible and contemporary politics. However, teaching on Paul or the Gospels is different and caretaker commitments do come to the fore and are very difficult to avoid in debate, try though some of us might. Presumably the main reason for this is what we have seen throughout: that the discourse of origins – whether the ‘historical Muhammad’ or the ‘historical Jesus’ – continues to hold its power in academic as well as confessional circles and it is where the tension over caretakers and critics is at its most acute. What this also shows, in biblical studies at least, is that the assumptions of a Protestant construction of time remain: the sacred time of the ‘biblical world’ and the less relevant time – i.e. the rest of history – that follows. Such theological constraints remain in the world of academic biblical studies. But by promoting alternative seminars, societies, publications and conferences, this can be, and is being, challenged. If we want to push forward with arguments about standards of evidence and argument – rhetoric that cuts across critics and caretakers – then should we not push an agenda across the fields of religion and biblical studies that all students and all academics (caretakers and critics alike) have to realise that there will be engagement with lots of ideas and arguments they do not like? This is not an earth-shattering conclusion but it is one that I do not think is reflected widely in practice in main academic societies that remain a ‘confusing’ – and I would add fragmented – ‘morass of theologians and Humanities scholars’.

James G. Crossley is Professor of Bible, Culture and Politics at the University of Sheffield. He presently co-edits Biblical Refigurations for OUP and is on the editorial board of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus. Among his books are: Jesus in an Age of Terror: Scholarly Projects for a New American Century (Equinox, 2008); Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: Scholarship, Intellectuals and Ideology (Acumen, 2012); and Harnessing Chaos: The Bible in English Political Discourse since 1968 (Bloomsbury, forthcoming 2014).

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Reflexive Religious Studies: A Note

Jason Ānanda Josephson

* This post originally appeared on the author’s blog.

I’ve been lecturing about and, even calling for, what I term “Reflexive Religious Studies” for some time. My comments about it will be appearing in print in the near(ish) future in greater detail, but I thought a small note about the idea here might prove useful.


As I have been arguing for a long time, the category “religion” is transformative. [i] Various entities become “religions.” I want to emphasize that this is not a teleological or transhistorical process, but one that came out of a particular logic at a particular moment in Western Christendom, and its globalization was necessarily selective and to some extent arbitrary. It should also be noted that this was a modern process, articulated in various stages, but in essence coinciding with the formation of globalization or transnational modernity.

This process is always incomplete. Christianity, Buddhism, and so on always retain remainders that are not fully brought under the category. Moreover, this process of becoming a religion is still ongoing. Indeed, in a certain sense it may be seen as having permeated the whole intellectual stratum of modernity. Even in modernity, “religion” cannot be taken as a self-evident category. Religious Studies must therefore be the discipline that suspends its primary object of inquiry, never taking for granted religion’s meaning.

To put it in different terms and to indicate this non-universal category, one might say that: things become religions. At the risk of skirting typographical silliness, I want to use the strike through here (evocative of the Lacanian barred subject) in order to indicate religion as an impossible object, something like a term “under erasure” (Sous rature) in the Heidegger/Derrida sense, which for our purposes we might identify with a de-essentialized process. By this I mean more than the reification of an abstraction. Irrespective of any “essential” nature, to designate something a religion is to place it into a series of relations with other “religions.” Various entities become religions by being linked up to the world-system in a way that transforms them. Here I mean to gesture toward the insights of both Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems analysis and Niklas Luhmann’s social systems theory (as well as those articulated more recently by Peter Beyer). According to a synthesis of these accounts, our current world-system came into effect along with the formation of a system exchange of knowledge and capital, which began to encircle the globe over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In so doing, it produced global systems of self-reinforcing discourse.

Once this insight has been granted, it provides an opening for a new vantage in Religious Studies that would study these processes of becoming, a way to study the term “under erasure.” Not as a universal or essential part of human nature but in its transformative effects.

What I have in mind is what I call “Reflexive Religious Studies.” I model this on a movement in sociology, which notes that you have to have different kinds of sociological techniques to examine those societies in which sociology as a discipline is itself an influence.[ii] You need a new “reflexive sociology” to take into account the way that people’s social identities are shaped by “sociological surveys” or transformed by governments that have already internalized some form of the discipline of sociology. Put differently, there is a place for a higher order sociology that recons with the fact that academic sociology is in a sense porous and tends to seep into the societies that it purports to study.

I want to extend this move to Religious Studies. Reflexive Religious Studies would examine those societies in which religion and its attendant differentiations (e.g. secularism) have begun to function as concepts. It would trace the continuities and disruptions that this category produces in older conceptual orders and aim for precision. And it would also necessarily take into account how the discipline of Religious Studies shapes and produces religions.

Secular Studies.


If Religious Studies had a counter-discipline, a shadowy field implied by its focus but which largely failed to cohere, it would be Secular Studies. This discipline would trace not the things defined as “religions” and therefore included in the disciplinary matrix of Religious Studies, instead its task would be the reverse to study the potential substitutes for religion. This too would be a long and varied list but which includes many of the things that we think of as incompatible with religion. It would be a shadow discipline because while it never gets to be formalized, it comes to take over the academy.

Let me put this differently, disciplinary objects are constructed through a process that comprises both inclusions and exclusions. Art history for example has spent a lot of time attempting to adjudicate what counts as art and what doesn’t. In so doing certain kinds of human activity, like painting, have been subject to art historical scrutiny while others, like toy manufacturing, have largely been excluded. We could imagine all these acts of exclusion as producing a kind of negative space around a disciplinary object, which serves to demarcate its limits. In other words, art has been defined as much by what doesn’t count as art, as what does.

It shouldn’t surprise you that Religious Studies has had its own kind of negative space. It consists in different potential contenders for membership in the category religion. Obviously just as the category religion has changed over time these different potential contenders have changed as well. If one were to make a discipline out of exploring this negative space around the category of religion, one might call it Secular Studies. While the study of “Secularism(s)” (or laïcité) has been a growing issue, this discipline would examine not merely the mirror-exclusion of religion in the political realm, but various sundry forms of rejected substitutes. Although it quite doesn’t yet exist, this is the other side of Reflexive Religious Studies, and another image of the field I want to call into being.

This is just a brief note for more details you’ll have to read my monographs Dialectic of Darkness: The Genesis of Disenchantment and/or Absolute Disruption: The Future of Theory After Postmodernism.

[i] See Josephson, The Invention of Religion in Japan.

[ii] Extending on the insights of thinkers like Robert Merton and Karl Popper, more contemporary sociologists such as Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens have begun to work out the way that sociology itself reflexively shapes society. We might also add Bourdieu to this list and note that they are also drawing on Alvin Gouldner, The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology.

Jason Ananda Josephson received his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Stanford University in 2006 and has held visiting positions at Princeton University, École Française d’Extrême-Orient, Paris and Ruhr Universität, Germany. He is currently Chair and Associate Professor of Religion at Williams College. He has two primary research foci: the history of Japanese Religions and Theory more broadly. Common to both foci is an attempt to use the Japanese case to decenter received narratives in the study of religion and science. His main targets have been epistemological obstacles, the preconceived universals which serve as the foundations of various discourses. Josephson has also been working to articulate new research models for Religious Studies in the wake of the collapse of poststructuralism as a guiding ethos in the Humanities.

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Defining Postsecularism: A Response

JC10by Donovan Schaefer

In response to a question from a colleague, I asked a small group of scholars working on issues of secularism and secularity how they would define postsecularismpostsecular, or the postsecular (hereafter just “postsecularism”). Their responses are posted at these links (Part 1 and Part 2).

Postsecularism as, these short reflections show, can be approached from a range of perspectives. In the introduction to their 2008 anthology SecularismsJanet R. Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini define secularism in terms of what they call the “secularization narrative”–the hypothesis that reason, politics, and morality are advancing steadily and in tandem while something called religion remains paralyzed and locked into a trajectory of irreversible decline. They identify eight features of the secularization narrative: rationalization, enlightenment, social-structural differentiation (“With the evolution of knowledge comes the possibility of differentiating specific tasks into different sections of society, so that, for example, the functions of the church can be separated from those of the state.” “Introduction,” 5), freedom, privatization, universalism, and modernization/progress. Although Jakobsen and Pellegrini do not use the term, postsecularism can be seen as a critical frame that skeptically engages elements of the secularization narrative.  If the secularization narrative proposes that as reason and science advance, religion will gradually be erased, postsecularism is, in a nutshell, any perspective that says It’s not that simple.

The archives drawn on by postsecularism are heterogeneous and complex. They include the “return of religion” in the late 20th century, increasingly politicized global religious movements that identify themselves as explicitly religious rather than democratic or populist, complications in the integrity of the public/private divide, deconstructions of the category “religion” itself that either expand its borders to enfold traditionally non-religious formations of power or contract its borders to render it unintelligible, and the emergence of new global epistemological and political challenges to liberal democracy and neoliberal capitalism.

Postsecularism, in other words, is interlaced with other critical projects that push back on the overconfidence in universal rationality represented by the European Enlightenment–specifically as that overconfidence is applied to religion. As Grace Jantzen writes, “both secularism and religion need to be radically rethought as mutually imbricated in some of the most objectionable aspects of the project of modernity.” (Becoming Divine, 8)

By these lights, “postsecularism” in no way means that the secularization narrative has evaporated, in the same way that postcolonial theorists do not presume that colonialism is extinct. It may be best to think of the post in postsecularism as indicating that the secularization narrative has been placed under erasure, in Derrida’s sense: it has been theoretically disrupted–deconstructed, situated in a genealogy that locates it within a particular European imperial-intellectual context–but it continues to shape systems of power-knowledge-affect. These interactions with power are often complex–even unpredictable–such as the imperative, among anti-evolutionists, to claim the mantle of scientific authority by repudiating evolution as “just a theory,” or the way that my students at a liberal arts college in the northeastern United States are entirely comfortable reciting the limitations of the secularization narrative, yet are still deeply reluctant to abandon the normative value of Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state.” The “post” in postsecularism means “we are grappling with the legacy of the secularization narrative,” not “Secularism is over and done with.”

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Religion Snapshots: Defining Postsecularism, Part 2


Religion Snapshots is a feature with the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, where a number of contributors are asked to briefly comment on popular news items or pressing theoretical issues in the field, especially those topics relating to definitions, classification and method and theory in the study of religion more generally. For previous posts in this series, see hereherehereherehere and here.

Editor’s note: The idea for this topic was spurred by Donovan Schaefer’s recent post, “Partisan Science: Evolution and Creation in Postsecular American Politics.” For part one in this series, see here.

Question: How do you define postsecularism, postsecular, or the postsecular?

Matt Sheedy: In his essay “The Secular, Secularizations, Secularisms,” (2011) José Casanova proposes an interesting way of slicing up these conceptual pies. For example, he defines the secular as a modern “theological-philosophical, legal-political, and cultural-anthropological” category that is positioned in relation to “the religious,” while secularization signals an attempt to understand patterns of differentiation between ecclesiastical and state institutions, economy, art, health, etc. Lastly, secularism is likened more broadly to a worldview or ideology that is taken for granted and, as he puts it, “unthought.” (54-55) When considering the “post” varieties of these terms, it is worth asking whether or not they can be neatly grafted upon these iterations.

While the term “post-secularization” is not all that common it would no doubt signify something different depending on whether it was used to refer to a paradigm shift in sociology or, say, an epistemic or ontological idea. That there has been a paradigm shift in secularization theory is clear enough, though some still hold onto its central tenants, (e.g., Bruce 2002) such as the idea that trends in religious belief and affiliation decline as nation-states gain more “existential security.” (e.g., Norris and Inglehart 2011)

As for the other two iterations—“the post-secular” and “post-secularism”—I would argue that they are more and less controversial depending on whether they are used:

1) as normative descriptions of an existing reality (e.g., we are now “post-secular”); or

2) to describe the claims of certain groups (i.e., scholars) who take them up, as well as those who deploy them in order to test their validity. (e.g, asking how or why or who is post-secular?)

Here I’d like to briefly consider a few of these iterations with reference to a 2008 essay by Jürgen Habermas, who helped to popularize the term post-secular in his essay “Faith and Knowledge,” (2003) which was first presented as a speech in October 2001, one month after 9/11.

Habermas asks whether the term post-secular can be used to describe a significant change in the “behavior and convictions of the local populations” in Western Europe? He is not convinced that it can and argues for a revised version of the secularization thesis, where the “differentiation of functional social systems” (e.g., church, state, entertainment, economy, etc.) are better understood as processes that continue at an uneven pace and in non-linear directions.

When turning to “the post-secular,” Habermas argues that it could effectively describe “public consciousness” in Europe “to the extent that at present it still has to ‘adjust itself to the continued existence of religious communities in an increasingly secularized environment.’” In this sense, he is making the claim that while the substance of the old secularization model is more or less valid in West European societies, the future role of ‘religion’ (his scare quotes) within public and political life remains uncertain.

Habermas lists 3 reasons for this uncertainty:

1) Global conflicts that are framed around “religious strife”;

2) An increased presence and influence of “churches and religious organisations” in the public sphere of “secular societies”;

3) Increased immigration, “guest-workers” and refuges from “countries with traditional cultural backgrounds,” which has sparked a so-called Kulturkampf between “radical multiculturalists” and “militant secularists,” especially in relation to “Islam” (my scare quotes).

Given the apparent resurgence of “religious communities” in the Euro-West, Habermas wants to marshal the term “post-secular” as a sort of regulative idea in the hope that relativist and secularist camps will address their “religious” fellow citizens in a manner that is  not grounded upon apathy or antipathy, but is, rather, adjusted to deal with the constitutive social realities that they face.

While there are many more angles to Habermas’ conceptualization of this idea (see 2006; 2009; 2010a; 2010b) his interest in developing a norm-oriented political theory, as I have briefly touched on here, reveals a tension between his use of these concepts to describe certain constitutive ideas (i.e., hypotheses on the differentiation of social systems and demographic trends) versus his use of (the) “post-secular” as a regulative idea, which he has, at times, suggested is an actual, existing reality. The latter use of this concept is by far the most contested since it makes the leap from a recently constructed idea(l) to a social fact in a single bound. If only we were Superman.

Consider the following book title, Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Postsecular World. (2006) This takes a cue from Casanova’s, Public Religions in the Modern World, (1994) and suggests that the challenges that he posed to classical secularization theory have proven correct, in a manner of speaking.

This idea has a corollary in the shift toward talk of “secularisms,” which was the title of a 2008 book edited by Ann Pelligrini and Janet Jakobsen, and was preceded by the idea of “multiple modernities,” made popular by the work of Schmuel Eisenstadt. (for a fusion of these concepts, see Multiple Modernities and Postsecular Societies [2012])

On another level, this concept has been of interest to certain philosophers, critical theorists (e.g., some post-structuralists [Blond: 1999] and especially those influenced by the Frankfurt School [Gorski]) and political theologians, including some non-theologians with an interest in theological ideas, along with certain trends in feminist thought. In these cases, the “post” seems to mark a shift toward articulating a normative conceptual reality of the “modern” or “postmodern” condition.

Needless to say, much of these debates appear to be caught up in the familiar tension between the “is” and the “ought”—that is, the scholarly task of describing and explaining how things are versus the more political or theological aim of suggesting how they should or ought to be understood. I would suggest that at least part of this tension can be resolved by scholars rigorously clarifying and distinguishing their theories and methods from their aims and interests so that all can be laid bare and held to account rather than having certain agendas snuck in the back door.

Furthermore, I would argue that the use-value of these concepts and their various iterations hinges in no small measure upon the aims and interests of different fields and sub-fields, both within and outside of “religious studies” proper. (incidentally, I am yet to overhear a conversation in line at the grocery where someone casually refers to our post-secular condition) For some scholars, terms like “secular,” “post-secular” and “religion” are fraught with problems that are deemed to be either in need of clarification or rejected altogether in favor of more accurate descriptions of the phenomena that they attempt to describe.

For others, such as political scientist Elizabeth Shakman-Hurd, grappling with a more nuanced understanding of the religion/secular binary is caught up in both critical theoretical issues (e.g., she acknowledges these terms are social constructions) as well as practical and pragmatic concerns that relate directly to matters of public and foreign policy, international legal regulations, etc. (see The Politics of Secularism in International Relations [2008]) In this sub-field of political theory, problematizing the discursive ground upon which scholars talk about these terms (e.g., what defines a “secular” state) has a direct relation to policies and practices in the messy world of realpolitik and thus requires a more immanent engagement with ideas already in circulation–ideas that require answers in the here and now.

And so while narratives about religion in this sub-field are, as Shakman Hurd argues, socially constructed in relation to dominant ideologies and interests and thus constitute objects of study in and of themselves (and she is a voice in the wilderness in her sub-field), they are also constituted by a practical intention that aims towards more nuanced and inclusive ways of addressing these problems in international relations. In this sense, these concepts are measured by how useful they are, for example, in creating representative legal frameworks or as regulative ideas that aim to orient citizens and policy makers in modern societies toward adopting a different or “enlarged mentality,” to borrow a line from Hannah Arendt.

Whether or not religious studies scholars (as opposed to, say, scholars in international relations) should be engaged in advocating for certain expressions of “religion” as better or worse, I leave to the side, though it should be clear that confusing the “is” and the “ought” leads to serious problems, as seen when the leap is made from describing or testing concepts such as “post-secular” to asserting them as a fait accompli. In this sense, (the) post-secular(-ism) provides a useful comparative example for how we define religion.

Mike Graziano: I think the term “post-secular” is fraught with many of the same problems as the rest of our disciplinary vocabulary. When the term is used in an American context (with which I’m most familiar), it seems to me it is often used uncritically to describe a situation in which it’s cool to say “I’m spiritual but not religious.” 

I’m not particularly attached to the term but I will consider how it might be analytically useful in certain situations. “Post-secular” might be used productively to describe a state of affairs in which those in power recognize some of the problems of a religion/secular dichotomy while, at the same time, drawing their power and authority from a system that is premised on just such a dichotomy. In this situation, those in power recognize an area of social existence called “the secular” (in which there is ostensibly no religion) and have to apply that neat framework to a messy reality. For better or worse, the most powerful theorists of the post-secular in American life are the nine members of the Supreme Court who have possessed, since at least 1947, the power to determine the particular religiosity/secularity of public spaces and acts under review. 

Consider Chief Justice John Roberts’ comment in _Hosanna-Tabor_ (2012) in which he compares the ingestion of peyote by Native Americans (ruled Constitutionally unprotected in _Smith_) to a Protestant church’s power to fire any employee it deems a “minister” (unanimously protected in _Hosanna-Tabor_):

_Smith_ involved government regulation of only outward physical acts. The present case, in contrast, concerns government interference with an internal church decision that affects the faith and mission of the church itself.

It is as if the justices haves some sort of theological geiger counter with which to take readings: how religious is the act in Case XYZ? Fully religious? Only 80%? Where’s the tipping point? This might seem absurd (it is), but it is also one practical response to the “post-secular” situation described above. Many of the benefits (i.e., exceptions to generally applicable laws) of the First Amendment are premised on an individual or institution being religious or secular. While the justices may not always see a hard edge between religion and secular, it turns out that there’s no such thing as “a little bit tax-exempt.” As Charles McCrary rightly points out in part one of this series, this is why the question of “Is it religious?”—a question which many of us are tired of hearing—remains an incredibly important and powerful question in the realms of law and policy. And I wonder whether a term like “post-secular” might help to describe these competing paradigms.

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Religion Snapshots: Defining Postsecularism, Part 1


Religion Snapshots is a feature with the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, where a number of contributors are asked to briefly comment on popular news items or pressing theoretical issues in the field, especially those topics relating to definitions, classification and method and theory in the study of religion more generally. For previous posts in this series, see hereherehereherehere and here.

Editor’s note: The idea for this topic was spurred by Donovan Schaefer’s recent post, “Partisan Science: Evolution and Creation in Postsecular American Politics.”

Question: How do you define postsecularism, postsecular, or the postsecular?

Karen de Vries: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. My work could easily be considered “postsecular” and I’m a fan of some of the work that happens under this sign, BUT I don’t use the term to describe my position or my intellectual work. I think about postsecularism the way I think about many “posts” (e.g. postmodernism, posthumanism, postfeminism), which is to say that I have a slight allergy to the temporal register of “getting past” or “getting beyond” because it connotes an overcoming of all these allegedly erroneous ways of thinking because we post-x’s have figured out a new way of thinking. Yes, we have figured out a new way of talking about knowledge and I’m on board with much of it, but the temporal register of “post” tilts toward the future and disavows past complexities that I think need to be taken up with thicker nuance than the postsecular frequently grants.

An example. One of the features of work described as “postsecular” I appreciate is the critique of secular rationality and its legacies of oppression, but do we really have to call ourselves “post” to engage in these critiques? Feminists have been critiquing racist masculinist objectivity for several decades now with terms like “situated knowledges.” In theorizing desire, feminists and queer theorists have also been doing what could be called “affect theory” for some time. I’ve always appreciated the feminist t-shirt that says, “I’ll be post-feminist in the post-patriarchy.” Perhaps the correlate for this topic is, “I’ll be post-secular when we’re post-religion.” 

Of course, definitions and understandings of differences between “religion” and “secular” are all over the map. My frame of reference for thinking about these terms revolves around authority. Just as one might say that feminism developed out of a critique of patriarchal authority structures, one could also say that secularism developed out of a critique of religious (i.e. Christian) authority structures. I want to hold onto that critique of “the god trick” and also be vigilant of the many places it is deployed in, to use Talal Asad’s term, secular formations. Additionally, I want to hold onto a perspective that recognizes difference in the kinds of subjectivities and governmentalities that religious and secular formations entail (e.g. the authority mechanisms undergirding a young earth creationist perspective are significantly different than those undergirding an evolutionist perspective).

While I appreciate the epistemological nuance (i.e. the critique of objectivity, the attention to affect, and the understanding of “secularism” as a particular kind of episteme and political project) promoted under the banner of “postsecular,” it’s simply not a name I readily identify with. Finding myself in the borderlands of the religious and secular, I think of these conversations as building emergent knowledge practices that aim to undo the religious/secular binary in queer ways with yet to be determined effects. To inherit the differential and constitutive relations of the contemporary episteme, I’ve begun to describe them as “religio-secular” conversations instead of as postsecular. 

Perhaps this distinction boils down to “potato, potahto,” but for those of us invested in language, the difference is key. It points to different mentalities and emphases regarding how we inherit the terms, theorists, and knowledge formations that are our conditions of possibility. So while I’m pleased that a larger-scale discussion complicating understandings of secular and religious knowledge formations is taking place, the nomenclature of the “postsecular” connotes a bit more disavowal than I am comfortable with.

Charles McCrary: A clean secular/religious binary imagined by some scholars and commentators has in recent years broken down. This is true in scholarship but also, I think, in institutions like law and government, and in American culture more broadly. However, questions like “Is that practice really religious?” or “Is that idea of religious or secular origin?”–questions that many scholars now find unhelpful–have relevance due to religion’s special place in law. So, these questions, odd as they are, must be answered. In the last, say, 70 years, but especially the last decade or two, in American law the individual has been the beneficiary of more rights, especially “religious” ones, as legal understandings of religion expanded. As Winnifred Sullivan and others have pointed out, these developments have helped lead to a conception of the individual human as in some way inherently “religious.”

The postsecular, then, seems to me a way to signal recognition of this situation. If “religion” is no longer clearly confined to institutions and official doctrines, if it’s something personal, “spiritual,” private, and protected–and this is the way a significant percentage of Americans, including legal thinkers and judges, understand it–then there is less left for the realm of “secular.” When applied to legal and cultural conceptions of human nature, I like the term “postsecular” because it indicates a historical change.

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Aronofsky’s Noah and Ours’


by Matt Sheedy

Not since Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ has a biblical-themed film garnered so much attention, spurring a wave of commentary from supporters and detractors on one or the other (or the other) side of the fence. Such is the ability of popular media to construct dominant narratives, where, in this instance, interest in biblical accuracy and of winning over more traditional Christian audiences in order to make up for the $125 million dollar price tag have tended to lead the charge. While most scholars of religion purport to sit atop the fence and observe what is happening on either side, they frequently fall off their perch, to the left or to the right, and even get pilloried from time to time.

This post is an attempt to step back from political and theological commitments and look at a few examples of how narrative and ideology function to shape discourses about religion and religious identities amidst this deluge of (mostly) Christian-themed films in 2014.

In his well-known essay “The Death of the Author,” (1967) Roland Barthes argues that writing does not represent some one-to-one connection between the author and her text, where meaning is discovered through a correct interpretation of her intentions or how they relate to her life story, but instead places authority upon the reader who provides the text with an ever expanding range of meanings, a “multiplicity” as Barthes would have it.

We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.

In his lesser-known essay “What Is an Author” (1969), Michel Foucault looks to expand Barthes thesis by asking what role or function does an author’s name serve? For example, he asks us to consider how our impressions of Shakespeare might change if we discovered that he was also the author of Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum? For Foucault, an author’s name is always linked to certain types of discourse, which carry particular ideas and discursive frames of reference within different cultures and societies.

Pulling these ideas together:

1)    It is the reader and not the author that gives the text its’ meanings;

2)    The text is an un-original production that is derived from multiple sites of culture;

3)    The author’s name influences how it is received within a given culture/society.

Darren Aronofsky’s feature films include Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000), Below (2002), The Fountain (2006), The Wrestler (2008), Black Swan (2010) and Noah (2014). In all of these works, flawed characters grapple with personal and moral dilemmas amidst difficult circumstances. According to Aronofsky, The Fountain is a prequel to Noah, just as The Wrestler and Black Swan represent similar themes in ‘low’ and ‘high’ performance art (wrestling and ballet). The “author” in Aronofsky’s case has a professed artistic intention, which he repeats, defends and modifies in interviews about his various productions. For example, he has called Noahthe least biblical biblical film ever made,” while describing his interest in this particular narrative as one that he has had since the age of 13.

More instructive than the author’s stated intentions, however, and recalling Foucault’s point about the cultural reception of an author’s name, is what “Aronofsky” signifies. Both prior to and after its’ creation, Aronofsky’s Noah was already symbolically linked to to a variety signifiers such as “Hollywood,” “liberal” and “atheist,” all of which are attached to other chains of signification, deemed good, bad or somewhere in between, depending on the reader.

Likewise, the story of Noah has its own culturally normative and contested meanings and reflects differently depending on whether it is discussed in relation to cultural/political (e.g., race and gender), Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist or religious studies discursive frames of reference.

In short, Aronofsky the author lives, but only, to quote Barthes, as “a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.”

Aronofsky has also noted that his interest in the story of Noah stems less from his Jewish upbringing (which he describes as more “cultural” than anything else, while also likening it to a Midrash on another occasion), and more from a desire to retell a “great fable,” which he refers to as the “first cautionary tale.” Apart from the ambiguous question of Aronofsky’s own “spirituality,” which he claims is distilled in his film The Fountain, he is clearly attempting to re-imagine a biblical narrative by highlighting such topics as ecology (e.g., dominion vs. stewardship and the value of vegetarianism), good vs. evil (e.g., as the balance between justice and mercy) and the idea of second chances or new beginnings.

For conservative commentator Glenn Beck, Aronofsky’s Noah is “hostile to God” and teaches “planet over man,” which is why he has urged his radio audience not to see the film, concerned that such “dangerous disinformation” will influence children and “come alive in their imagination.” In this sense, Aronofsky’s Noah has become one of many sites of “Biblicism,” as discussed in a recent post by Dan Mathewson.

For many, of course, the author doesn’t matter at all, as Bill Maher’s recent invective nicely illustrates, where the very mention of Noah (signifying religion/irrational, etc.) serves only to confirm the ill-logic of “the Bible,” despite Aronofsky’s professions to the contrary.

While these and other narratives about Aronofsky’s Noah have often relied on the claims of the author as a site of affinity or estrangement with certain theological and/or political preferences, and thus represent forms of ideological persuasion, to borrow from Bruce Lincoln, when we consider Barthes’ point about the death of the author and the role of the reader, the range of narratives and ideological representations multiplies from “innumerable centres of culture” and will no doubt continue to “increase in number; fill the earth and [attempt to] subdue it” … in the readers’ own image, that is, especially as Aronofsky’s ability to influence its’ reception fades along with the spotlight on his Noah.

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