Thus Spake Hercules: On Atheism and the Uses of Critical Theory

 

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by Matt Sheedy

In a Raw Story article from this past Wednesday, entitled “Kevin Sorbo: Atheists are angry because they secretly know God exists and is judging them,” Scott Kaufman discusses a recent interview with the actor best known for his role as Hercules on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. The interview in question took place on Rick Wiles’ internet-radio show Trunews, where Sorbo repeated a line that he has been asking throughout his DVD promotional tour for the film God’s Not Dead (see my film review here)—“Why are atheists so angry at something they don’t believe in?” Sorbo’s response is described as follows:

Atheists, he claimed, secretly believe that God exists, and are upset with him because they know he is going to judge them. They are a “small group of people, and they get on Fox or CNN and they rant and they rave,” Sorbo said, “and I pretty much based my character [in God Is Not Dead] off of these guys that I see who are just angry — they’re just filled with anger and hatred.”

Sorbo continues,

“On the one hand I feel sorry for them, but then I kind of laugh at them,” Sorbo explained. “Why would anybody spend so much time ranting and raving about something they don’t believe in?”

In her brief reply on Salon.com, columnist Sarah Gray quotes Sorbo from the Raw Story feature, offering only one line of commentary in response to the statement that I’ve quoted directly above, followed by a restatement of his position that is made to appear as a logical absurdity:

What is more ridiculous than Sorbo’s above question? Sorbo’s inane answer to his own question: “I know these guys must believe in something, otherwise, they wouldn’t get so angry about it, and they don’t like the fact that there is a higher power out there that is judging how they live their life.”

Atheists must secretly believe in something, therefore they’re just angry that God is judging them.

The pithy length of Gray’s reply, clocking in at 240 words, highlights the ease with which she feels that she can dismiss Sorbo’s arguments, relying mostly on his own words to point out the absurdity of this position. While she no doubt has a point that his statement is “logically” absurd, her method, commonly associated with the analytic tradition in “Anglo-American” philosophy, is to respond from the elevated plain of rational thought, where every problem, every contradiction, can be resolved by simply pointing out where logic has gone off the rails.

In one sense this type of response is intuitively appealing, especially when one is confronted with a claim that can be easily refuted by showing its obvious contradictions. What is often missed in this type of criticism is that practical or pragmatic arguments against a proposition (e.g., God exists/does not exist) often function to re-inscribe the very ideas that they seek to overturn. For example, while many who identify as atheists may argue that Sorbo’s claims regarding their own motivations are wrong, his explanation about atheists “secret beliefs” has a certain rhetorical appeal to insiders’ who share his views. Since these beliefs are “secret,” and thus unconscious, they are hard to disprove, which provides a “logical” defense mechanism that works to protect against criticism of this kind–not unlike the rhetorical appeal to “true Islam” as a response to the claim that “Muslims” are inherently violent. In both cases, the objects in question (atheists and Muslims) are represented as embodying a singular meaning that is defined in opposition to some alleged claim about who or what they are.

For many scholars of religions this type of criticism is old hat, going back at least to David Hume (1711-1776), as Samuel Preus details in his book Explaining Religion: Criticism and Theory from Bodin to Freud. Whereas it was necessary for early “Enlightenment” thinkers to challenge views about the natural world that seemed to contradict evidence produced through empirical methods of observation (think Galileo), and whereas similar battles are still being fought today (think climate change), popular discourses about religion and atheism (at least in the Euro-West) seem to exist within a framework that has not learned from the 150 odd-years of what we have come to call “critical theory,” a term that is often attributed to Max Horkheimer’s 1937 essay, “Traditional and Critical Theory.”

Perhaps it is the short-term “sound-bite” nature of public debate and its penchant for sensationalism (theists vs. atheists, fight!) that contributes to the perpetuation of these binary views, and the concomitant rise of social groups who identify as atheist (or humanist or secular, etc.) that have created space for these particular rhetorical fault-lines and new identity formations to emerge? In any case, the fact that some scholars of religions are beginning to see atheist groups as data, (see posts by McCloud and Ramey) should signal the limited use-value of this mode of criticism, as well as the ways in which taking it up tends to perpetuate a discourse about “religion” that mystifies its object to a narrow set of easily identifiable variables. Reductionism at its purest.

Discussing this concept in relation to the work of Marx on the question of religion, Wendy Brown points out an important distinction that he made between criticism, “mere criticism” and critique.

Mere criticism marks religion as false; critique connects religious illusions, and the need for them, to the specific reality generating and necessitating religious consciousness. (Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech, 11)

While Marx’s theory of religion has long been critiqued (and “criticized”) for its reductionism, the point that Brown wishes to highlight here is the shift from “mere criticism,” which presents the opposite side of an argument, toward a conception that relies on critical theory to describe, explain, and evaluate just what is going on in the social world. For Marx, such a critique found expression in the idea of historical materialism.

Thus Marx brings together in the notion of critique a comprehension of the Real identified as the material, a practice of objectivity identified with science, and the realization of true emancipation of religion, true secularism, in place of what he decries as “merely theological criticism.” (12)

Thinking with Marx and against him, the call for critique is a tricky one, since it means moving beyond the binary logic that we are always forced to confront in the use of every-day language and asks us to take a look at what’s going on behind it, in the margins and in the seams. Perhaps one point of entry in this debate is to recall the lines that follow from Nietzsche’s oft-quoted phrase “God is Dead.”

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

Thus spake Hercules.

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

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My Inherited Elephant

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by Adam T. Miller

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

On August 13th, Matt Sheedy’s “Teaching Ethics and/in the World Religions Paradigm” (originally posted here) appeared on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog. The piece opens with an overview of some of the struggles associated with teaching inherited introductory courses in religious studies. Although I have only been teaching for a year, his words resonated with me; edited to reflect my admittedly minimal experience (without eyesores like brackets and ellipses), they read:

Like several others, I have inherited an accelerated online course called Religion and the Human Adventure. The course was designed to provide students with an introduction to “world religions” using the comparison of case studies to illustrate themes/categories. Over the past year, several of my students have come from my university’s nursing program, which requires their graduates to take one course on religion. Most of these students enter the class expecting/hoping to learn about the beliefs and practices of other religions in order to be better nurses–a respectable goal, to be sure, but not necessarily what courses on religion are about.

For my first two terms of teaching this class, I supplemented my inherited textbook (Gary E. Kessler’s Studying Religion: An Introduction through Cases) with some extra readings focused on a tradition or theme relevant to the assigned reading from the textbook. More recently, however, I’ve opted to supplement Kessler with chapters from Craig Martin’s A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion.

Sheedy closes the second paragraph saying that he uses his inherited textbook as “not just a resource, but the primary object of study.” This is something I cannot yet say, but I’m working on it. And Martin provides a point of entry for me in “Conceiving the ‘We’ in Pluralism.”

Introductory textbooks in religious studies often promote pluralism/tolerance, the idea that “we can get along once we realize that we are, at bottom, similar in essential ways [and that] we might attenuate social conflict with a deep, empathetic understanding of others.” The textbook I use is no exception. In fact, its last chapter (titled “Religious Diversity and Truth”) comes to a close with the story of the blind people and the elephant, a narrative culled from the Buddhist tradition that I’ve seen used more than once in arguments for pluralism/tolerance.

In short form, the story tells of a scenario in which a king orders a handful of blind men to describe an elephant on the basis of limited tactile experience. Each blind man touches a different part of the elephant and, ergo, provides a different report to the king. (The man who touched the leg said “an elephant is like a pillar,” and so on. And let’s not ignore that only men were given access to the elephant.)

According to Kessler, the take home point of the story is that all religious views are partially true, but never completely so. But this leads to a paradox–for how can we know that views are partial without seeing the whole?, and if we can see the whole, have we not moved beyond partiality? Skirting around this paradox, however, Kessler says: “Perhaps we should not read too much into this parable. After all, it is only a story.”

But on the basis of this mere story, Kessler constructs what he calls the Elephant Principle. Outlining the contours of this principle, as well as the motivations underlying its construction and promotion, he writes:

Perhaps we cannot do much better than to adopt the principle that all religions have a partial grasp on truth … It seems that the only justification for adopting the notion that all religious contain some of the truth is pragmatic … If we talk to others who disagree, if we study their religious beliefs and practices, if we listen with the principle of charity to their myths and legends, we may learn something of real value that we did not know before.

Adopting [the Elephant Principle] not only promotes [interreligious] dialogue, but also a religiously tolerant society in which “the religious beliefs, or rejection of religion, of the citizen are not allowed to affect their legal right to live, marry, raise children, worship, pursue careers, own property, make contracts, participate in politics, and engage in all the other activities normally open to citizens in that society.

In the first paragraph, the plural pronoun “we” shows up frequently. But Kessler never discusses who constitutes this “we,” who constitutes the “them” in contradistinction to which the “we” comes into being, who gets to draw the line between the “we” and the “them,” whose interests are being served in constituting the “we” in this-or-that way, and whether the interests of all members of the “we” are served equally.

In the last paragraph, “citizenship” and its attendant duties/expectations are called upon as pragmatic justification for the promotion of the Elephant Principle. But Kessler never critically addresses the configuration of power that this principle upholds–he just describes it as if its political and social value were obvious.

But just as it is not my job to privilege one religion over others (or one understanding of a particular religion over others), neither is it my job “to domesticate social differences to prepare students for life in late capitalism.” On the contrary, I see it as my responsibility to expose those processes by which contingent social orders are rendered natural.

I want to do the best I can with my inherited elephant. Like Sheedy, I aim to take Kessler’s book as my primary object of study. And my first step toward accomplishing this goal will be (1) to assign Kessler’s final chapter and Martin’s post in the same week, and (2) to have my students wrestle with the critical questions Martin poses as they relate to the Elephant Principle. It’s probably not realistic to expect my students to grasp and unpack fully the import of such questions. But if it gets them thinking, I’ll mark it down as a win.

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

Adam Miller‘s academic interests gravitate toward Indian Mahayana Buddhist literature and history, particularly (at least at the moment) past-life stories and expand to include South Asian Buddhism more generally, early/medieval Chinese Buddhism, Swami Vivekananda, and Theory and Method in the Study of Religion. He received his training at the University of Missouri (MA 2013) and Western Illinois University (BA 2011), and will start working toward his PhD in the History of Religions at the University of Chicago this fall.

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Calvary: Imagining Postsecular Sacrifice (Film Review Essay)

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by Donovan Schaefer

Warning: All the spoilers.

To “sacrifice” means to make sacred. In the wake not only of the critique of religious authority by the secular tradition, but the contemporary critique of liberal reason that has complicated the secular tradition itself, what would a postsecular sacrifice look like?  Calvary, by Irish director John Michael McDonagh, puts forward a vision of Christianity that has passed through the critiques of religious faith offered by secularism and emerged to offer a radically transformed version of sacrifice that is both religious and secular.

A rural parish priest, Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson), is confronted by a man in his confessional booth who announces that he was raped as a young boy by a now-dead priest. The man tells him that he will kill Father James in one week—with full knowledge of his innocence—as a distorted act of revenge. Father James spends the week visiting his parishioners and spending time with his daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), who, still recovering from the death of her mother, has unsuccessfully attempted suicide. Over the course of the week, James interacts with a range of characters, including a canny altar boy, an imprisoned serial killer, a bankrupt bartender, an atheist doctor, an adulterous woman, her immigrant lover, and her husband (a butcher), a dying American writer, a Catholic French widow whose husband has just been killed in a car accident, a despairing banker, and James’s own bishop and subordinate priest. On the day before the threat is to be realized, James leaves the town en route for Dublin, but encounters the French widow at the airport. His encounter with her turns him around and he returns to the village. On the last day of the week, James meets the man who threatened to kill him—the butcher, as James had known all along—on the beach, where he is executed after a brief conversation. In the final shot of the film, Fiona confronts her father’s killer in the visitation room of his prison.

The genre of the film is best understood as that strange confluence of plot elements, settings, styles, and characterizations that is unique to the Christian tradition: the gospel. In a Christian gospel, the plot proceeds in fits and starts through a halting dynamic of mystery and discovery. Christian religious biography is both tragic, in being built around an inevitable unjust death, and comedic, in the way that it invokes an even more profound structure of redemption. As a gospel, the film suggests a trajectory of sanctification—a sacrifice that resonates clearly with the tones of an eminently Christian narrative.

At the same time, Calvary is not intended to suggest any sort of painless continuity with Christianity or nostalgia for an upright Christian empire. It even moves beyond the exhausted cliché of a true holy man emerging out of a corrupt and indifferent church to a far more troubling image of sacred biography. It would have been easy to make James into a man of virtue who channels some sort of authentic vision of Christianity by holding a church accountable to its own abandoned values. Instead, James is himself a broken, disturbing figure. When he meets his former student, an incarcerated serial killer, he doesn’t try to maintain his composure. He feels the force of the man’s violence and delusion and angrily wrestles with it, rather than claiming to understand him or neutralize it with theological platitudes. When he is feeling sorry for himself in the pub, he gets sloppily drunk, draws a gun, points it at two men, then unloads the chamber into the bottles on the wall, precipitating a fight with the bartender, which he loses. These are not marks of nobility, but of passion and imperfection. He resembles Yeshua, the earthbound, animal messiah described by Catholic philosopher of religion John D. Caputo in The Insistence of God: “The four ‘elements’ circulate through the body of the earthman,” Caputo writes, “in his fiery anger at hypocrisy, in the pneuma by which he is filled, in the earth and water of his spittle.” (Caputo: 2013, 253) His is an “animal kingdom” rather than a city of God. But Calvary shows us that such a body really is a disturbing and upsetting force rather than a romantic rebel. This priest is no saint, but a body wracked by his own history of pain and the pain of the world.

At the same time, the film clearly wants to establish that James is a deeply compassionate man laboring to bring healing to the bodies around him. From the opening shot, when the butcher is whispering the details of his sexual abuse to James in the confessional, we see the heavy reverberations of another body’s pain moving across his face. When he encounters the adulterous Veronica, his concern is only over whether or not she’s being abused in either of her relationships—unlike his priestly colleague who takes her confession and curls his lip in disgust at her infidelity. This same colleague is later driven out of the rectory by James, who furiously accuses him of having “no integrity” and of being an “accountant” rather than a priest. Embedded in these actions are a series of gospel motifs directly linking James to Jesus—binding Jesus’s ethereal presence with James’s own earthly bad behavior.

The key line of the film comes in James’s unpretentious—but heartfelt—conversation with Fiona before she leaves the village. “I think there’s too much talk about sin and not enough talk about virtues,” he muses with unusual thoughtfulness. “I think forgiveness has been highly underrated.” This short tract of dialog not only attaches James to the postsecular motif of the healer of bodies, it makes intelligible the closing shot of the film, where Fiona visits her father’s killer in prison. In this scene, Fiona is called on to do the hardest thing she can imagine: to forgive this broken man for taking away her only surviving parent, not as part of an abstract theological commitment, but by recognizing that his brokenness is a feature of an economy of pain that cannot but enfold her and her father. Her act of forgiveness, presaged by her conversation with her dad, is an embodied gesture that demands strength from the resources of Christianity, even as it lets go of theological authority.

This attention to religious bodies rather than religious doctrines is highlighted by the dialog between James and the atheist doctor, Frank (Aiden Gillen), who confronts him in the shadows of the pub. Frank, looming over the priest with a cold sneer, whispers a story about a 3-year-old boy who was admitted to surgery but, because of an anesthesiologist’s error, was left deaf, dumb, and blind after the operation. Frank dwells—almost gleefully—on the terror the boy must have felt on waking up trapped, painting a picture of a profound, irreconcilable injustice. The hackneyed genre is immediately recognizable: this is an atheist smugly confronting a believer with a proof for the non-existence of God.

But rather than returning to the stalemate of debates about philosophical theodicy—the attempt to keep the fortress of religious authority intact under the secularist’s assault—James’s response is decidedly more animal: “Why the fuck would you tell me that?” he growls, his eyes welling with tears. This calls attention to the crudeness of the snide secularist’s insistence on deploying human pain in an abstract philosophical chess game. Father James’s response to the crass atheist is not an attempt to defend the intelligibility of the world according to a divine plan, but an embodied, affective reaction to suffering. Precisely where the atheist icily calls the man of God to account, the postsecular priest responds with his body instead of a parcel of doctrines.

This promise of healing also makes sense of the key plot hinge of the film: Why does James go back to the village to confront the butcher after already setting out to join his daughter in Dublin? The decision stems from his encounter with the French widow, Teresa (Marie-Josée Croze), at the airport. In part, we sense James’s admiration for her faith as it carries her through the aftermath of her husband’s death. But James still moves to board the plane until he and Teresa are arrested by the sight of the baggage handlers leaning on Teresa’s husband’s coffin in idle conversation. James sees Teresa’s pain and realizes that where the mingling of the profound and the mundane produces pain, James’s own body—in that moment dressed in street clothes rather than his soutane—has the potential to heal by sanctifying things in the world. Rather than expecting God to enter the world and delimit the path of compassion (or lapsing into a metaphysics of the inalienably sacred and profane) James realizes that in order to begin the cycle of healing, he must put his body on the line. The postsecular orientation of the film both claims and suspends religion—as illustrated by James’s frequent moments of reflection staring at the simple crucifix on his wall, and his cruciform posture after he is gunned down by a tormented man—to reimagine sacrifice as an act of healing.

One could criticize a potentially anti-feminist dimension of the film—a sense in which James prioritizes an obligation to enter into a transcendent relationship (that seems to subsist primarily in the world of men) over his responsibility to his daughter. With the closing scene—in which Fiona tearfully confronts her father’s killer in prison, forced by her father into her own deeply painful spiritual drama of forgiveness—there almost seems to be a self-indulgent pedagogical axis to the film—as if James had sacrificed himself in order to teach his daughter to forgive, trapping her in a paternalistic monologue. But I think this reading—though unavoidable—is offset in light of how deeply flawed the protagonist is. James, the violent, stumbling, drunken, broken priest, is not the architect of a calm, expansive plan of redemption, but a solitary, trembling body trying to enact a rite of healing with no certainty of success. Just as the film is post-secular, the religious body at its center must be post-sanctity—an animal saint sacrificed in sorrow and uncertainty in the hope of earthly healing, rather than a far-seeing martyr who moves confidently toward the promise of the cold light of salvation.

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No “Root Cause” to the Israel-Palestine Conflict (Rhizome)

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by Zachary Braiterman

* This post originally appeared on the author’s blog, Jewish Philosophy Place.

What’s at the root of the Israel-Palestinian conflict? When people on the left want to talk about Gaza or the larger Israel-Palestine conflict they often say that you can’t solve this or that aspect of the problem, this or that local eruption, without resolving “the root cause.” But what’s the root cause? By this is generally meant not the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but rather 1948 and the Palestinian Nakba. For their part, people on the right, as per Benjamin Netanyahu, see the root cause as the inability of Palestinian political leadership, historically, to accept the establishment of a Jewish majority state in a part of Bilad al-Sham (Greater Syria) or the smaller territorial unit defined by British Mandate Palestine.

You think you get to the bottom of the conflict when you say you want to get at the root cause, when, in fact, there is no root to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Less like a “root,” it’s more like a rhizome, composed of underground stems that shoot off in this or that unexpected way across a wide terrain. Isolate one part of the system, and the sections simply regenerate. There’s no end to it. The historical tendrils are too complex and decentralized composed of too many heterogeneous directions to tear up “at the root.” A root, you can dig up at a source, whereas a rhizome has no such single source. You can start tearing it up, but there’s no getting at it because its form is too multifaceted.

In the case at hand, the tendrils defining the conflict predate the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. This is not to say that the conflict is irresolvable. But there’s no way to “resolve” the root of the problem. One would have to pore over Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Ottoman, and European maps, tracing out shifting demographics, and the history of religions and empires, all in the plural. If there’s no “root cause” to the conflict that one might hope to eradicate it is because we are looking at a network. Impossible to untangle, in Israel-Palestine the main constituting and re-constituting historical and geographical nodes spread out across ancient Jewish memory, the Arab conquest of Palestine, and European anti-Semitism.

Zachary (Zak) Braiterman teaches modern Jewish thought and philosophy in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His work explores the interface between Jewish religion, continental philosophy, aesthetic theory, and visual culture.

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Practicum’s Syllabus Project–Call for Contributors

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Would you like to contribute to the Practicum blog’s syllabus project? In a sense every course is an argument. Of what do we want to persuade students over the course of the semester? We invite instructors to share a course syllabus and reflect on the argument their course attempts to make. What readings, data, or examples do you use to advance the argument? We’re particularly interested in strategies for the various intro courses, but all courses are fair game. Email us (practicumreligionblog@gmail.com), Facebook message us, etc.

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

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by Natasha Mikles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Caution: Technical Terminology Ahead

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by Russell McCutcheon

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

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

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

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

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

But how to do this though?

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

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

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

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