Important, not Particular: A Reflection on Religion in 21st-Century America


Note: This post originally appeared on the Religion in American History blog.

by Charles McCrary

According to the new Pew study “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” 6.9% of respondents identified their religious affiliation or belief as “nothing in particular” and also reported that religion was somewhat or very important to their lives. For a minute, let’s set aside questions about the reliability of the survey, the phrasing of the questions, whether the “nones” exist and/or matter, and why we need to distinguish between Older and Younger Millennials (I’m in the latter camp apparently, and I feel [insert emoji] about that.) For now, let’s think about how these people—a group Pew labeled the “Nothing in particulars (religion important)”—came to their position, or at least how that position became possible. At first, this position struck me as funny. Who could believe deeply and sincerely in nothing in particular? What does a life look like when the belief and practice of nothing in particular is central to it? And perhaps it is funny. But it might also tell us something about the state of “religion” in the United States. In a couple weeks at the Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture, a panel and audience will consider the question, “What do we mean by ‘religion’ in a time of ‘spirituality,’ ‘lived religion,’ and ‘non-religion’”? The answer I’d give: nothing in particular, and it’s very important.

We are all Nothing in particulars (religion important) now.

A hospice chaplain cited in A Ministry of Presence summarized the purpose of his job: “We are there to be there” (185). Sullivan explains how, through legal and cultural history, simply “to be there”—not to convert or preach or even to dole out advice—came to be what is required of chaplains. The case that sets the stage for the book is Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Nicholson (2008), wherein the FFRF challenged a VA hospital program that measured individuals’ “spiritual fitness.” As Sullivan points out, seeing spirituality as integral to a person—even at the measurable, material level—is not new. She cites, for example, John Modern’s discussion of phrenologists’ invention/discovery of the faculty of spirituality. And, self-promotionally, I should add that my dissertation will include a chapter on various efforts to determine individuals’ sincerity by examining physical evidence of interior belief. This logic also structures a certain brand of psychology of religion, starting with William James and carrying forward through today. Religion—or maybe “spirituality” is better—is a thing, a real thing, that everyone has. It’s part of your brain. Thus, nothing in particular (religion important) is not an anomaly; it’s a natural stasis. To be very particular (religion important) might be to verge on “fundamentalism” and thus fail to be adequately pluralistic. If you believe nothing in particular but it is not important to you, well, perhaps you need to wake up. Your spiritual needs, like nutritional needs, are there whether you pay attention and act accordingly or not. As Sullivan demonstrates, this type of essentialized spirituality is important because it circumvents the “high wall of separation” of mid-twentieth-century jurisprudence. If spirituality is natural and part of the human, the state ought to help care for it.

Chaplains are everywhere now. Sullivan’s book focuses mainly on hospitals, prisons, and the military. But sports teams and corporations have them too. There is such a thing as a tech chaplain. Innate, quasi-medicalized spirituality is a work-around in the face of stringent forms of modern disestablishment, but it’s not only that. It allows spirituality and spiritual practices to be utilized and commoditized, which further proves their importance. If everyone has spirituality then they should exercise it, tap its potential. Yoga and meditation will improve your life. So will having a “higher purpose.” Proselytization might not. So, the professional work that chaplains do, especially in governmental, self-consciously secular spaces, usually cannot be too particular. A memorable anecdote from Sullivan’s book is about a Pentecostal minister named Franklin Baz who in 1978 was dismissed from his job as a chaplain at an Illinois VA hospital (156; see the case here). As evidence of his effectiveness, Baz cited in his quarterly report the twenty-nine “decisions for Christ” he had facilitated. He was not a nothing in particular. His dismissal was upheld in court and again on appeal.

I read A Ministry of Presence in the context of a class I co-taught last fall with Mike Graziano on religion and American law (for more on that course see here and here.) Before this book we read Hugh Urban’s The Church of Scientology. One of the things that stuck out to me in Urban’s book was that L. Ron Hubbard’s initial attempts to play up, as he put it, “the religion angle” (i.e., self-consciously rebranding their organization as a religion) was not in order to receive tax exempt status. Later, of course, that would be the point, and it led to a decades-long feud between the Church and the IRS, culminating with the Church winning the status (although paying their back taxes) in 1993. At first, though, in the early 1950s, the religion angle was about the FDA, with whom Scientologists were in hot water for using their e-meters to do what was legally the realm of medicine and, thus, subject to credentialing, certification, and so on. If an auditing session were a religious exercise, these restrictions and standards would not apply. In the recent case in Encinitas, California a court determined that yoga is in fact religious but nevertheless legal, since “a reasonable student” wouldn’t perceive it as evincing a “message of eastern or anti-western religion.” So, indeed it is religious, but it is not, to use the language of nineteenth-century school debates, sectarian. It’s nothing in particular (but important.) In the same way, the chaplain must be religious only in the most general, widely applicable sense. It is not a coincidence that these three examples (“spiritual fitness,” e-meters, and yoga) all have to do with bodily health, which I suspect is due to their supposed pre-discursiveness and universality.


“Religion” in America is in the odd position of being at once eminently special and necessarily ineffectual. It is protected, privileged, and even encouraged by the state. Nevertheless, it is relegated to a place from which it cannot make medical claims or be too particular or proselytizing. This, I think, is one of the central problems illustrated by recent Religious Freedom Restoration Acts and similar executive orders and the reactions to them. Debates about “religious freedom” today are about individuals’ rights (quite broadly considered) versus the public good, which might be harmed by the exercise of individual rights. (Sincere anti-vaccination beliefs cause basically the same problem.) Broad definitions of religion (not to mention “person”) ensure expansive protections. However, with that broadness often comes vagueness. What these new acts and orders attempt to do, in part, is to protect a wide range of sincere beliefs and include very particular or sectarian beliefs in that expansive definition, even when those particularities cause them to do discriminatory things that, according to critics, are detrimental to civil society and the public good.

The operative understanding of religion, for some jurists, psychologists, counselors, chaplains, and apparently a growing number of other Americans favors a “hopeful,” “moral,” and forgiving style of religion that benefits individuals’ mental, physical, and spiritual health. As seen in the chart above, the spiritually fit among us are “engaged in life’s meaning/purpose.” But this religion cannot be taken so seriously—or, rather, misunderstood or improperly lived—that it precludes pluralistic respect for other “faiths.” Indeed, the religion of the spiritually fit sounds like Nothing in particular (religion important.) Of this type of religion, the type the chaplain practices when he or she administers “spiritual care,” Sullivan writes, “It is religion stripped to the basics. Religion naturalized. Religion without code, cult, or community. Religion without metaphysics. It is religion for a state of uncertainty” (174). Thus the chaplains simply are “there to be there.” American religion, supporting some secularization theses and upending others, hangs around.

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NAASR Notes: Ian Cuthbertson


by Ian Cuthbertson

I suppose I had better just come out and say it: I’m interested in lucky charms. My research in Montréal, Québec involves an online survey and in-depth semi-structured interviews with individuals who possess and use lucky or protective objects – that is objects that confer luck or protection via supra-empirical means. I am interested in lucky and protective objects for a number of reasons. First, because these objects and the stories behind them are fascinating in their own right, but also because these objects and their uses remain largely invisible in contemporary scholarship. Part of my ongoing research and Ph.D. thesis is concerned with explaining this curious fact and before I give details concerning my qualitative research and describe some of my more interesting findings, I would like to take a moment to explain why I seem to be one of only a very few people who are interested in the presence and use of lucky and protective objects in Western, urban, and seemingly secular contexts.

The answer, I think, depends on two factors. The first is a general disdain for magical practices in religious studies scholarship and the second involves dominant conceptions of the world as disenchanted, which is to say un-magical. Of course this habit of pushing magic to the sidelines is nothing new. Although James George Frazer is perhaps the most forthright in his dismissal of magic, noting that magic is “practiced only by the dull, the weak, the ignorant, and the superstitious” (1940, 55), Durkheim, Evans-Pritchard, Malinowski, and Mauss also make clear distinctions between religion and magic. Importantly, these distinctions often involve value judgments: whereas religion tends to be cast in a positive light, magic is associated with secrecy and superstition and is therefore, in Keith Thomas’ words, “rightly disdained by intelligent persons” (1971, ix). Randall Styers (2004) traces the ways magic has served as religion’s rather unpleasant constitutive other in his excellent book Making Magic and I will not reiterate his arguments here. But magic is also given short shrift outside of religious studies scholarship as well, which brings me to my second factor: the ascendency of disenchantment discourse.

Magical explanations were deemed unnecessary as early as 1917 when Max Weber famously described the disenchantment of the world. In Weber’s formulation, “one need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits, as did the savage” since “technical means and calculations perform the service.” Somewhat like its cousin, the secularization thesis, the disenchantment thesis has been extremely popular in recent years – though it is not without its critics. In Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic (2002), Simon During describes stage magic, modern advertising, and film as sources of modern re-enchantment. Similarly, The Re-enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age (2009) contains chapters on popular fiction, spectacle sports, mass culture, and stage magic. But what about lucky and protective objects? Unfortunately, the kind of magic I am interested in is conspicuously absent from these accounts. While Christopher Partridge does mention the growth of occult societies in The Re-enchantment of the West (2005), these descriptions of re-enchantment actually reinforce the dominant disenchantment discourse. For one thing, all three works describe apparent re-enchantment (which means the world really was disenchanted to begin with), but they also push enchantment out of the everyday and the ordinary into the extraordinary.

This is where I come in. I am interested in the ways individuals entertain magical thoughts and engage in magical practices in their everyday lives. While my data is in no way representative of Montréal more generally, magical objects are used by a surprising number of Montrealers on a daily basis: hundreds of Montréal residents reported possessing and using lucky or protective objects in my online survey. Some examples include: a pentacle pendant, a St. Christopher medallion, a silver angel, a four leaf clover, a rabbit’s foot, a work out top, a cross necklace, a dream catcher, a Buddha pendant, a good luck bracelet, an evil eye medallion, a pocket knife, a melted Ken doll head, lucky keys, lucky stones, lucky marbles, and lucky interview pants.

While I am still sorting through some of my data and while I have yet to transcribe all my interviews, I have noticed a couple of interesting trends. The first of these came up in the surveys. A large number of respondents left lengthy comments after completing the survey and many of these contained clarifications. Respondents who wrote paragraphs describing their particular lucky or protective object, how it works, and its role in their lives wanted to assure me that of course they did not actually believe in magic. Broadly speaking, these kinds of comments can be divided into two groups: non-religious individuals who explained that they were actually rational and scientific, and religious individuals who explained that they knew the object itself had nothing to do with its apparent powers. A related trend came up in the interviews. Several interview participants mentioned that they had never before spoken of their lucky or protective object, not because it is unimportant in their lives, but because they lacked the vocabulary with which to speak about these objects. Two individuals who self-identify as atheists noted that while they suspected religious individuals would have an easier time talking about lucky or protective objects, they lacked both a framework and an appropriate terminology for doing so.

So what is going on here? My no-doubt thrilling conclusions will be presented in my Ph.D. dissertation (forthcoming) but I suspect it has something to do with the dominant disenchantment discourse described above. In other words, magic is disdained not only by scholars but also by the people who possess and use magical objects in their daily lives.

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NAASR Notes: Dennis LoRusso


by Dennis LoRusso

Abiding the Habitus, or the Habitus Abides: Getting acquainted with Bourdieu

Chances are, if you’ve had the (mis)fortune of reading any of my scholarly work, I probably mentioned some aspect of Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas. His ambitious efforts to construct the sociological equivalent to a “theory of everything” always seem to offer up a relevant explanatory framework or, at the very least, a quotable tidbit to which I can anchor my own modest intellectual contributions. Bourdieu’s work traverses the unsteady terrain between the subject and the object, agency and structure, and although he only attends to “religion” sparsely, in some ways his project resembles some ancient theological exercise to explain human freewill (agency) in light of some all powerful God (structure). Like his theologically inclined forebears, he attempts to explain how, on one hand, we can experience our lives as if it resulted from our decisions, and the recognition on the other hand that we, even at the most fundamental psychological level, are largely shaped in and through forces over which we exert little control. Bourdieu elaborates a theory of the humans as social agent, acting strategically according to their particular location in various social fields. It is the “habitus,” a set of cultivated dispositions, through which we emerge as subjects. “In so far as he or she is endowed with a habitus,” he writes, “the social agent is a collective individual or a collective individuated by the fact of embodying objective structures. The individual, the subjective, is social and collective” (Bourdieu 2005, 211).

Now, as enthralling as Bourdieu’s prose can be, it is not the easiest to comprehend. Admittedly, I was more bewildered than enthused when I first encountered Bourdieu (which, as it turned out, was on a French translation exam. “Habitus” was not in my French-English dictionary, needless to say). What are “structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures” (Bourdieu 1977, 72) anyway? Upon reflection, I think Bourdieu has become important to my work primarily because previous experiences and scholarship prepared me to accept it, and it is this path that, of how I came to know Bourdieu’s work, of how I came to appreciate the subjectivity as a social process, that I would like to resurrect in this essay.

A few years earlier when I was completing a master’s degree in religion, one professor assigned a short piece by anthropologist Susan Harding entitled, “Convicted by the Holy Spirit: The Rhetoric of Fundamental Baptist Conversion” (American Ethnologist, 1987), in which she approaches the “conversion process” as a rhetorical social practice rather than as some inner individual experience. “At the center of the language of fundamentalism is a bundle of strategies—symbolic, narrative, poetic, and rhetorical—for confronting individuals, singly and in groups, stripping them of their cultural assumptions, and investing them with a fundamental mode of organizing and interpreting experience” (Harding 1987, 167). While the same could be stated about any number of social groups, Harding claims that fundamentalist rhetoric is distinctive because of its highly formal quality, which takes over “the listener’s dialogic imagination,” producing a transformed self in the potential convert.

The potency of Harding’s theoretical claims lies in her method: a reflexive ethnography of her personal experiences with preachers, many of whom were actively attempting to convert her. She deliberately allowed herself to be affected by her subject, to “go native,” or as she writes, “I had been invaded by the fundamental Baptist tongue I was investigating.” Harding called this method “narrative belief,” entering that often contentious space between “objective” observer on one hand and “subjective” participant on the other. The article, a version of which appears as the first chapter in her Book of Jerry Falwell (2000), displays individuals as intentional strategic actors and, yet, captures experience as socially constituted and agency as a byproduct of larger discursive arrangements.

Of course, such methods, which emphasize subjectivity, are not without their limitations. Harding locates herself “in the gap between conscious belief and willful unbelief,” a move that “opens up born-again language” (Harding 2000, xii). Yet, as one review states, “How can we ‘learn to hear Jerry Falwell as his people do’ unless we pass over into belief and take on the real consequences of commitment?” It seems that Harding might be overstating her claims here, since this “invasion” of fundamentalist language never apparently fully reformulates her identity.

Despite this shortcoming, the article prepared me for Bourdieu for two reasons. Not only does she provide a clear account of her own socially produced Self, but her work demonstrated how I might incorporate the critical theoretical perspectives into ethnographic research, the narrative focus of which can too often become overtly constructive. Harding aspires to neither undermine nor reify the “religious” claims of adherents. She is ultimately interested in how practices might uphold or contest particular social structures.

Although her scholarship has been influential, I was already fixated on the problem of agency when I first encountered her work. Looking back, I can say unequivocally that my nascent curiosity stemmed in part from a fascination (I dare say obsession?) with “the Dude,” the main character of the Coen Brother’s masterpiece The Big Lebowski (1997). Considered only a modest box office success, the film has emerged as cult classic over the last decade and a half. From Big Lebowski themed parties to internet-based “religions”, like The Church of the Latter-Day Dude, people have found it a rich cultural reservoir from which to draw meaning.

From start to finish, the film could be understood as an exploration of habitus-in-action. The “Dude” epitomizes the socially produced agent, Bourdieu’s “collective individualized by the fact of embodying objective structures.” First, although we know his real name, he remains nameless, resisting all attempts at identification beyond empty signifiers (“His Dudeness,” “Duder,” or “El Duderino” if you’re not into that whole brevity thing). Rather, others affirm their identities by attempting to (mis)identify him. He becomes a “bum” for the “Big” Lebowski, Maude’s potential partner to conceive a child, and even gets mistaken for a sleuth by private investigator, De Fino.

Although the film is centered on an individual, pinning down the quality of the Dude’s agency stubbornly eludes the audience. His identity is inextricably bound to his social world. As Sam Elliot’s prologue echoes, “Sometimes, there’s a man. And I’m talking about the Dude here-the Dude from Los Angeles. Sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.” In some ways, the context itself exhibits equal if not more agency than the Dude. It is what happens to him, and how these events move him along, which drive the storyline. The Dude, along with the audience, gets dragged along a series of events: the “soiled rug,” Walter’s split-second decision to toss out “the ringer” instead of the money, the brutality of the “reactionary” police chief of Malibu.

However, the more I watched the film, the more I was fascinated with the manner in which it explored how language operates as a medium for social reproduction. Time and again, the Dude recycles words and phrases that others have uttered. In the very first scene, when he writes a check for $.70 to purchase half-and-half, we catch the Dude catching a sound byte of President Bush stating, “this aggression will not stand,” a phrase he will later employ during his visit to the Lebowski estate. We also hear him reuse words like “coitus,” “in the parlance of our times,” or “johnson,” each time slightly altering their meaning (some might say he even misapplies them, but making such a claim might render me very “un-Dude”). The point here is that the film invites us to consider the ways in which language does not merely signify our inner experiences; it challenges us to consider our experience, and subsequently our acts in the world, as produced through the words we pick up in our social worlds. While in some sense we are “eating the bar,” at the same time, “the bar is eating us.”

Overall, it was these kinds of experiences that prepared me for Bourdieu. I may superficially believe that I made some kind of voluntary decision to become the scholar that I am, but ultimately, I accepted Bourdieu, in part, because I watched a movie on some night twelve years earlier, and then some professor assigned a short article that I would have otherwise not read. In other words, my intellectual identity emerged through social relations, through the mechanisms of habitus.

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Can an Atheist Believe in God?


By Steven Ramey

My last post generated an extended exchange with a colleague who has rightly pushed me concerning my disavowal of judging identity claims. My colleague suggested, for example, that someone who believes that Jesus is the Son of God does not fit with atheists, a reasonable statement. While many within communities (and scholars) add more stipulations than my colleague’s very basic criteria, his point raised for me another dynamic related to religious identities.

Such definitions assume that one’s chosen religious identification (as opposed to an ascribed identification) correlates with belief and/or practice. This position ignores the social and political motivations for choosing a particular identification and community. For example, consider two hypothetical individuals who hold the same basic beliefs. They acknowledge the existence of a divine power that created the cosmos, but they reject suggestions that this divine power interacts with humans, a position historically labeled as deist. One of these two, having rejected religious practices as unnecessary, identifies as an atheist, thus protesting the prevalence of religious language and practice surrounding her. I can imagine communities of atheists willing to accept her into their community because their social and political interests correlate, even if their beliefs vary. Some Christian communities might similarly accept the second hypothetical person, if he wanted to participate in their community, possibly even labeling his beliefs as acceptable “doubt” within the mystery of Christian theology. Participation in the Christian community for him can provide particularly important social and political benefits that outweigh any qualms he may have with some beliefs and practices that the community promotes.

Rather than suggesting that these individuals or these communities are insincere or corrupted, these hypotheticals illustrate the diverse motivations for claiming an identification and accepting members into a community. Even the most basic definitions overlook these motivations. A self-identified atheist could easily believe that God exists.

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Scripture Made Me Do It: On Images of Mohammad and Scholarly Offence


by Matt Sheedy

A recent article from CNN on the shootings in Garland, Texas outside an event sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative on May 3, 2015, provides a useful example of some of the pitfalls that often occur when scholars of religion offer up their expertise in a popular media forum.

The article in question, entitled, “Why images of Mohammad offend Muslims,” attempts to provide a “Muslim” perspective to non-Muslims by tracing a brief genealogy on the Islamic prohibition against the depiction of his image.

On the one hand, this angle offers a corrective to many of the narratives that emerged in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, which tended to focus disproportionately on “freedom of expression” and dealt little with how those who identify as Muslim may have perceived the cartoons and how they relate to broader global events. As I wrote in an earlier piece, two days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre:

As this story unfolds, one further line of inquiry that is in much need of critical examination circles around depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, as discussed in the aforementioned text Is Critique Secular?, featuring contributions from Wendy Brown, Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, and Judith Butler in response to the 2005 publication of the Danish Cartoons.

In the CNN piece the problem is framed as one of competing textual authorities, orthodoxy, and interpretation, extending back to the foundations of Islam and up to the present day. For example, the article opens with the following remarks:

Violence over depictions of the Prophet Mohammed may mystify many non-Muslims, but it speaks to a central tenet of Islam: the worship of God alone.

The prohibition began as an attempt to ward off idol worship, which was widespread in Islam’s Arabian birthplace. But in recent years, that prohibition has taken on a deadly edge.

Three scholars of religion and two imams are interviewed for this story, providing a range of ideas and perspectives in order to help explain some of the common reasons behind the prohibition. Here we learn that:

  • Unlike in Christianity, Mohammad is a man and not a God
  • The prohibition against depictions of Mohammad is rooted in idol worship, where any depiction of sacred figures should be avoided
  • Although the Quran does not prohibit depictions of Mohammad, most Muslims abide by the prohibition due to the legal rulings of scholars
  • In Europe, where Muslims are a minority, the images are seen not as “criticism” but as “bullying,” where reaction is “not so much about religious anger as it is about vengeance.”
  • Violence is always wrong and disproportionate as a response
  • While most Muslims are acclimated in the United States, extremist sometimes react violently
  • In Sunni mosques there are no images of any kind, but instead calligraphic verses from the Quran
  • There have been historic instances of the depiction of Mohammad, especially in Shiite branches outside of the Arab world (e.g., in Iran, Turkey, central Asia), where prohibitions are stronger
  • While Muslim depictions of Mohammad have sometimes been used to bridge gaps in illiteracy, they are careful not to use too much detail (e.g., by covering his face with a veil)
  • The prohibition comes from the hadith, which because of its sometimes contradictory nature has lead to debates within the global Muslim community (umma)
  • Depictions of Mohammad were not much of a problem in earlier centuries, though globalization has changed this through increased integration and the proliferation of social media

The first problem that comes to mind here is the ease with which the ideas of imams are blended with those of scholars of religion. While it is perfectly understandable that a mainstream network such as CNN would want to offer a variety of perspectives (in this case, only those of men), and were seeking answers to very specific questions, this conceptual framing does little to answer the question posed in the article’s title, “Why images of Mohammad offend Muslims.”

With the exception of a remark about how such images are understood among European Muslims as “bullying” and not as “criticism,” and brief mention of some historical, cultural, and sectarian variations on how Mohammad has been depicted, this narrative is entirely ahistorical and without context, leaving readers to believe that the reasons behind the offence allegedly felt by most (perhaps all?) Muslims is due to a strict adherence to the dictates of scripture and those who have authority over its interpretation.

It is ironic that in a piece intended to defend Muslims, Christianity is upheld as more liberal than Islam, since the latter is bound by the authority of revered texts and the judgement of legal scholars. While some nuance is suggested in relation to competing interpretations, they are presented through the well-worn trope of good vs. bad Muslims (see Mamdani 2005), where those who are deemed “good” don’t allow themselves to give in to violence on account of their offence, but rather engage, we might assume, with more critical (read: Western liberal) modes of interpretation. Interestingly, Arab Muslims, who are by far the most symbolically represented Muslims in the Euro-Western imagination (see, for example, Alsultany 2012; Shaheen 2014), are framed as less liberal than their non-Arab co-religionists, thus implying (however unintentionally) a racialized distinction.

In an attempt to offer a “Muslim” perspective then, the take away here is that all Muslims are offended by depictions of Mohammad because they adhere to traditional authority. While history shows some variations in terms of how he has been depicted by Muslims, including contemporary debates among the global umma, in our present age of globalization and social media, such images are bound to reach those extremist minorities who will, regrettably, react with violence. In the end, one is left with the impression that little can be done but condemn the bad Muslims and support the good ones.

While I don’t want to suggest that the long and complex history of Euro-Western representations of Mohammad is without any effect on the dispositions of those who identify as Muslim (a point forcefully made by Asad and Mahmood in the above mentioned text, Is Critique Secular?), by presenting the idea of prohibitions against depicting Mohammad as an ahistorical reality–as more or less true in all times and places, while accounting for some minor variations–both CNN and the scholars they interview participate in form of apologetics that, ironically, lays blame for violence committed by Muslims on account of their beliefs.

It should go without saying that missing from this picture is any analysis of how and why particular Muslims might draw upon and interpellate the idea of offence in contexts of, for example: post-colonial or immigrant societies (as in this case) vs. Muslim majority countries; xenophobia and racism amongst marginalized communities; the proliferation of images of death and destruction surrounding the “War on Terror”; the prevailing discourse on Islam vs. the West; or the strategic use of social media by groups like ISIS to shape sentiments of affinity and estrangement, and draw upon certain theologies as a source of their own legitimacy.

In the absence of such analysis, one is left to conclude that scripture made them do it, while the reasons why such ideas are made palatable are all but washed away.

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

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Call for Participants: NAASR Job Market Workshop (Atlanta, 2015)

If the phrase “academic job market” makes you feel like this…


…you’re not alone. There’s no shortage of posts, essays, tweets, and columns devoted to how to position yourself on the job market: what to study, how to shape a CV, and what to say in a cover letter. The rules—both written and unwritten—can seem inscrutable.

That’s in part why, at NAASR’s 2015 Annual Meeting, there will be a no-cost workshop addressing the employment concerns of junior scholars. The title for the workshop, “…But What Do You Study?,” reflects the challenge faced by many junior scholars with an interest in theory and method when it comes time to talk about themselves, their work, and their scholarly interests with potential employers.

Participants will have the opportunity to work with more senior NAASR members, including both current and former department chairs from a variety of institutions. Through several activities (which you can read more about here), participants will be able to workshop practical and strategic job market advice with veterans of the hiring process.

Not a member of NAASR? No problem! This workshop is open to all, though preference will be given to those scholars at the “ABD” stage and currently on the job market. If you haven’t been to a NAASR panel before, fear not: we’d be happy to have you, too.

To register for this workshop, or to learn more about it, please click here. If you have any questions, feel free to e-mail me (mgraziano [at] fsu [dot] edu) or reach out to me on Twitter.

We hope you’ll join us in Atlanta!

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NAASR Notes: Naomi Goldenberg


NAASR Notes is a new feature with the Bulletin where we invite members of the North American Association for the Study of Religion to describe books they are reading and/or research and writing projects that will be of interests to scholars in the field. For previous posts in this series, follow the link

Read This Thesis!

A recommendation from Naomi Goldenberg, Dept. of Classics and Religious Studies, University of Ottawa.

I just finished reading “Becoming Recognizable: Postcolonial Independence and the Reification of Religion,” an outstanding doctoral thesis by Maria Birnbaum, who recently completed graduate work in the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the European University Institute in Florence. Birnbaum’s work will be of interest to anyone engaged in analysis and critique of religion as a category of public policy because 1) it advances theorizing about how religion becomes constructed in the discourse of international relations about the recognition of states and because 2) it illustrates why such theorizing matters in the practical functioning of international statecraft. I expect to cite Birnbaum in my work and will recommend her dissertation to graduate students and colleagues.

Before proceeding any further with a short summary of the thesis and a brief discussion of how it relates to my project, I want to indicate a significant lacuna in what Birnbaum has written: with the exception of works by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, there is very little mention of current critiques of the depiction and use of religion in international relations theory (IR). Most notably, Birnbaum makes no reference to Timothy Fitzgerald’s benchmark book, Religion and Politics in International Relations: The Modern Myth (Continuum 2011). This is unfortunate since Fitzgerald’s substantial interrogation of themes and authors Birnbaum engages in her text would enrich her own analysis considerably. I hope that she will remedy this omission as she proceeds with publication of her important work.

The thesis is a clear and concisely written argument for practicing what Birnbaum calls “genealogical sensitivity” in IR theory. She uncovers major flaws in the work of Daniel Philpott, Scott Thomas and Jürgen Habermas – three authorities in IR theory who argue for the recognition of religion in global politics. Birnbaum shows that although religion is assumed to be an “already present and intelligible” phenomenon that is a powerful determinant of identity and agency, none of the three can identify what it is that ought to be recognized. Furthermore, she argues that the process of recognition they support works to create that which it purports to be acknowledging. She claims that, in general, IR theory tends to be unaware of the contingencies of history, economics, and power relations that underlie what gets labeled and institutionalized as ‘religion.’ Thus, Philpott, Thomas, and Habermas exemplify what Birnbaum sees as forgetfulness and naiveté in IR theory – forgetfulness (her word) about the processes of history that have brought about social groupings and classifications and naiveté (my word) about how the very rhetoric of difference and particularity functions to produce the groups that governments aspire to manage.

Birnbaum condenses a great deal of complex theory and analysis in her text. Philosophical and political discussions pertaining to “being and becoming” are summarized and evaluated. She favors an approach that would balance the necessity of stabilizing social and governmental entities – i.e., “being” – with attentiveness to constant change that requires flexibility of boundaries and group definition – i.e., “becoming.” She reviews debates and literature related to the foundation of Pakistan as a Muslim homeland and Israel as a Jewish state to show how religion emerged during the twentieth century dissolution of the British Empire as a “taken-for-granted juridical, cultural and political category” that affected the lives and deaths of millions. Her moving conclusion restates her argument that religion ought not to be used as a stand-alone analytic category because such a practice represses and thus disguises what is at issue in the struggles for power and resources that continue to fuel global conflicts.

Presently, I am at work on developing theory about how the category of religion is used strategically in technologies of statecraft to at times support existing orders of authority and at other times to undermine them. I argue that ‘religion’ has emerged rather recently as a placeholder for conquered and marginalized groups that are allowed to exist with some degree of cohesion within the jurisdictions of dominant sovereignties. The dominated group is allowed a circumscribed degree of autonomy as a religion if it agrees to abide by certain limitations chiefly in regard to a renunciation of the forms of violence – i.e., police and military functions – that the ascendant state reserves for itself. Thus, I understand religions to operate as the weakened vestiges of former states within fully functioning states. However, the very fact that religions are accorded some degree of sovereignty within dominant governments gives them a platform on which to strive for increased power and recognition.

Religions are always restive to some degree and therefore behave like once and future states. Likewise governments habitually aggrandize religions by invoking theistic traditions as honored predecessors in order to glorify authority wielded in the here and now with a mantle of mystified and ancient grandeur. Examples abound in the preambles of contemporary legal and quasi-legal documents that make vague reference to a divine power as the ultimate justification for the present governing order. Because such theistic antecedents are almost always male, such contrived practices of nostalgia result in the shoring up of patriarchal ruling structures that characterize current governing regimes.

The thrust of the theory I am proposing undermines difference between so-called secular and religious orders of governance. Instead, I posit the existence of two unequal registers of government that eye one another with alternating degrees of competition and collusion, that jockey each other for domains of influence and that make use of one another to maintain and increase power.

I am developing such arguments along with several colleagues in a series of essays, edited collections and a monograph in progress. Religion as a Category of Governance and Sovereignty, edited with Trevor Stack and Timothy Fitzgerald, will to appear this year from Brill. My essay in the volume, titled “The Category of Religion in the Technology of Goverance: An Argument for Understanding Religions as Vestigial States” is an overview of my position.

By showing how theorists in international relations articulate ideology that first reifies religions under the guise of recognition and then works to create and solidify contemporary state apparatuses to manage what is imagined as already there, Birnbaum enhances understanding of how ‘religion’ is linked to processes of governmentality. She also documents a sinister side to the whole business by pointing out some of the ways in which reified religions have become carriers of rigid and policed identities that exacerbate inter-group tensions and undermine progressive politics. Her work contributes to a growing and urgently necessary body of theory that is unraveling confusions propagated in the narratives of government in which we are all enmeshed.

I welcome any comments and reactions –

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