Reflections on RELS 161: Contemporary Problems in Religion and Culture

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by Ian Alexander Cuthbertson

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

Last year I redesigned a first-year religious studies course at Queen’s University in Kingston Ontario. The course is one of two full-year intro courses offered at the School of Religion, the other being a typical introduction to world religions course. In past years, the course had been split between two instructors and tended to be taught as a religion ‘and’ course where each instructor developed content in line with her own interests (religion and sex, religion and the environment, religion and science). Given the opportunity to teach the entire course myself, I developed a new syllabus with the goal of giving first year students a broad introduction not to ‘religion’ per se but rather to the academic study of religion. The theme for the course became ‘religion in modernity’ and topics included secularization, religious fundamentalism, new atheism, and new religious movements. Owing to my own interest in critical theory, I attempted to integrate a critical perspective into the course readings using Malory Nye’s excellent introductory text Religion: The Basics along with excerpts from J.Z. Smith, Talal Asad, Russell McCutcheon, and others.

Entering the classroom last September I naively hoped that my students would become as excited about critical theory as I am. They didn’t. And although the course wasn’t a complete flop, it did not live up to my expectations. For the most part, the students hated the theoretical components that I included. Or perhaps they simply couldn’t understand why I seemed so interested in pointing out what religion isn’t – that it isn’t just beliefs or churches – that ‘it’ isn’t really an ‘it’ at all and is instead made up of countless acts of classification performed by self-interested actors. What came across instead was that different people see religion differently. Yes, the students seemed to say. We get it. But we want to learn about religion, not what people say about religion.

This summer I had some time to reflect on the challenges of including critical theory in a first-year intro course and went back to the drawing board. First, I identified some of the major challenges I had faced and then developed some strategies for addressing these. In what follows I briefly outline these challenges and strategies.

Challenges:

1. Preconceptions (lack thereof): I had originally decided to focus almost exclusively on Christianity in the first half of the course – not only because Christian categories have so deeply influenced the academic study of religion, but also because I assumed my students, who had been for the most part raised in a society dominated by Christianity, would be familiar (at least in general terms) with that religion. They weren’t. In fact, most students came to the class with very little base knowledge of religion. Of course some students were themselves religious and had insights into their own particular traditions and denominations. Still, most seemed only dimly aware that there were different kinds of Christianity in the world, let alone religions in which god(s) are largely peripheral figures. It became difficult, therefore, to criticize dominant conceptualizations of religion (the world religions paradigm, say) when students had never taken a world religions course to begin with.

2. Relevance (lack thereof): Precisely because the students had very little basic knowledge of religion, it became difficult to show why they should care about any of the critical theory that I kept talking about. I was clearly very excited about critical theory, and that helped. But the relevance of critical theoretical approaches was lost when I would introduce a dominant way of understanding religion (as sui generis, say) and then proceed to critique that view. For one thing, I typically had hard time showing the students that one approach was, in fact, dominant. But my explanations (that this view renders religion apolitical, say) also failed to stick either because each view (religion as sui generis and ‘religion’ as culturally determined) seemed just as plausible as its opposite or perhaps because students couldn’t see why this actually mattered outside of the classroom. The satisfaction that comes with questioning a taken-for-granted way of understanding something was lost because any given way of approaching religion was never taken-for-granted – it was always a brand new idea presented by me.

3. Trust. A final challenge is that the students trusted me. When I designed the course I included primary source readings thinking the students would not want to trust my interpretations and would instead prefer to read the original sources themselves. But for the most part, students preferred to have me (or secondary sources) tell them what early twentieth century Protestant fundamentalists thought or what contemporary new atheists are all about. The problem was that this basic trust also made it difficult for the students to understand that I was presenting various opposing views that were not necessarily my own and that none of them were ‘right.’ Students seemed to have a hard time understanding that any particular view depends upon an historical context and is contradicted by a host of other, equally plausible and well-argued opinions. Rather than view a given theoretical approach as being better or worse for some particular issue or problem, students simply accepted each in turn.

Obviously I had a lot of re-drawing to do. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

Strategies:

1. Making the Taken For Granted: My goal this year is to encourage the students to take certain things for granted – at least at the outset. To do this, I will depend largely on the trust issue outlined above. This year, rather than providing a wide variety of opposing ways of understanding and approaching religion at the start of the course, I will consistently take a single approach. I plan to stick with the overall ‘religion’ in modernity theme and to keep secularization, religious fundamentalism, and new atheism as topics. But rather than question the ways fundamentalists, new atheists, and (some) scholars describe religion in terms of belief, I will present this view uncritically. The fate of religion in the modern world, I will argue, is really all about the struggle between religious and secular/scientific beliefs. Rather than presume, as I did last year, that students will come to class with a host of preconceptions about religion, I will work to create these views in my students.

2. Breaking the Spell: The title of the first lecture of the spring term will be: “Everything We Learned Last Term Is Wrong.” In the first few lectures of the second term I will give concrete examples of the preconceptions under which I (we) operated in the first term. Religion, I will reveal, is not only about belief; it is also about practices. In other words, I will wait until students have developed opinions about what religion is before working to critique and expand these views. Only in the second term will we do readings on ritual and habitus – readings that I had originally included in the first weeks of the course. Our exploration of ritual and habitus will not, of course, be limited to ‘religious’ ways of being and doing in the world, which will (hopefully) lead the students to wonder why certain kinds of ritual are deemed religious while others are not.

3. The Other Jay-Z: Having shown students (and not merely told them) that there are vastly different ways of studying religion, I will be better able to introduce them to Jonathan Z. Smith, Russell McCutcheon, and other critical theorists. At this point the students should be better equipped to see not only that there are different ways to study religion but that these approaches trace the contours of the very thing they seek to analyze and describe. The students will have had the experience of operating under a set of preconceptions (religion is about what people believe) and will have seen how this view led us to be interested in certain kinds of phenomena (fundamentalism, new atheism). They will also have had the experience of criticizing this view and replacing it with a different one (religion is about what people do) and will have seen how this new perspective caused us to turn our gaze to other kinds of phenomena (rituals, clothing, meals). They will have experienced, first hand, that there is no data for religion and that religion is, instead, “created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization” (Smith, 1982). In other words, the students will experience first hand that the kinds of things that counted as religion in the first term depended upon the approaches we opted to take.

4. So What? I mentioned above that I found it difficult to explain why the students should care that different ways of studying religion actually create the object of study. I think this might seem more relevant once the students experience this process at work, but I would also like to focus on some other practical ‘real world’ implications as well. Last year I ended the course with a section on new religious movements (neo-paganism, Scientology, Satanism) and ironic and ‘hyper-real’ religions (Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Jediism, Dudeism). I plan to do the same thing again this year. But rather than focusing on how these phenomena fit into the larger underlying theme of religion in modernity, I will focus instead on struggles concerning classification and authenticity. The fact that Scientology is a religion in the United States and a cult in France along with controversy over Satanists’ plans to erect a monument to Satan in Oklahoma will become real-world examples of how different ways of understanding religion determine what is, or isn’t, acceptable/authentic religion.

Of course I have no idea whether this new approach will work and will likely find myself back at the drawing board again this time next year. Fortunately, it is exactly this opportunity to learn from my mistakes (or earlier attempts to put a more positive spin on things) that I love most about teaching.

Ian Alexander Cuthbertson is a PhD. candidate in the Cultural Studies program at Queen’s University.

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Thus Spake Matt Sheedy: Analytic Philosophy, Critical Theory, and the Atheism/Theism Discourse

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by Dan Linford

Note: A version of this article originally appeared on Dan Linford’s blog Libere.

Matt Sheedy recently wrote an article for the Bulletin blog, in which he addresses Kevin Sorbo’s statement that atheists are absurd because they are angry with a god they claim not to believe in. Sorbo claimed that atheists secretly believe in God. Salon.com columnist  Sarah Gray had dismissed Sorbo’s comments as absurd. Sheedy took Gray to task for ignoring the social context of Sorbo’s assertion:

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.

Sheedy’s comments have already “gone off the rails” if he thinks that all analytic (or Anglo-American) philosophy is capable of is recognizing failures to be logically consistent. More charitably, Gray’s comments should be taken as bringing into question whether or not Sorbo has any evidence for his assertion that atheists secretly believe in God (he has no such evidence). Sheedy’s comments can be charitably reinterpreted as the claim that there is more than the arguments at play. The arguments might legitimize particular cultural stances and signal particular allegiances (and systematically delegitimize the stances of those atheists who criticize or question Christian hegemony). Sorbo can use “bad” arguments precisely because the content of the arguments is largely irrelevant. What is far more relevant than the logic or justifications in Sorbo’s arguments are the social processes that the arguments play a role in.

I have to confess that I have a hard time identifying what the ultimate point of Sheedy’s article is supposed to be, but, so far as the article aims to be an argument in opposition to analytic (or Anglo-American) philosophy, much of the article seems to be straightforwardly self-undermining. Sheedy claims that we should go beyond the approach to dialectic encouraged by analytic  philosophy because such an approach is overly reductionistic (it ignores social context). Yet Sheedy’s article presents an overly reductionistic view of analytic philosophy.

In any given discourse, there will be opposing sides arguing for contrary views. In the first-order debate between atheists and theists, there are two sides which each present arguments for or against the existence of God. Kevin Sorbo is certainly not an academically respectable representative of that first-order debate, but it is not difficult to find those who are (Plantinga, Swinburne, van Inwagen, Kierkegaard, Aquinas, etc, for the theists and Rowe, Draper, Russell, Hume, etc, for the atheists).

Sheedy takes issue with the first-order discourse and sees himself as above it or outside it (atheists are “data” for religion studies scholars, the theist/atheist dichotomy is not necessary to maintain, etc). The implication of this is that Sheedy is engaged in a second-order discourse: a discourse about the first-order atheist/theist debate. In that second-order discourse, the assumptions of the first-order discourse can be brought into question (what sort of distinction should be maintained between atheism and theism?), the social context of the actors in the first-order discourse can be examined (what social pressures is Kevin Sorbo and his ilk responding to?), and the first-order discourse can be contextualized into a historical framework (Sheedy’s appeal to Hume and Preus, for example).

Analytic philosophy is perfectly capable of identifying these two kinds of discourse and presenting arguments in the two categories. It is also capable of recognizing that the first-order discourse can be undermined by the second-order discourse: an argument for the conclusion that the e.g. social context of the actors in the first-order debate undermines arguments made in the first-order debate is what analytic philosophers call an “evolutionary debunking” argument. Nonetheless, analytic philosophers routinely do something which might be anathema to critical theorists: engage in first-order debates with the assumption that evolutionary debunking arguments are not crippling.

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After I wrote the above article, Matt and I privately discussed this issue further. I thought that I should add the following as a clarification of my position.

We agree that there is a distinction between the first-order and second-order debates. To reiterate, the first-order debate is on the question of whether or not God exists. The second-order debate concerns the socio-political, and historical positioning of the first-order debate. In Sheedy’s terminology, this is the distinction between “mere criticism” and “critique” (borrowed from Brown’s Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech).

Both the first-order and the second-order debates come in popular and academic flavors. Theists in the popular first order-debate are diverse: they include Kevin Sorbo but also Karen Armstrong and Rowan Williams. Atheists in the popular first-order debate are as diverse: their number includes Richard Dawkins and Alain de Botton. The first-order academic debate is also diverse, including (as theists) Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Soren Kierkegaard and (as atheists) Paul Draper, Michael Martin, and Elliott Sober. The second-order popular debate includes popular-level appropriations of critical theory, popular-level appropriations of cognitive science (especially bad interpretations of Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: religions as “mind viruses”), and even Sorbo’s description of atheists as those who (somehow) hate God. Popular-level second-order discussions can also be addressed by academic higher order discourses, such as Sheedy’s original article.

I suggest that a large part of the disagreement between Sheedy and myself is (a) semantic and (b) methodological. As an example, consider the following passage from Sheedy’s article:

[...] the call for critique [...] means moving beyond the binary logic that we are always forced to confront in the use of every-day language and [...] to take a look at what’s going on behind it, in the margins and in the seams.

From the perspective of someone trained in analytic philosophy, Sheedy’s comment that we should abandon “binary logic” are incoherent. Logic is a prerequisite for reasoning at all. Most analytic philosophers would interpret Sheedy’s comment as a request to abandon reason.

A charitable reading of Sheedy’s comments is that we should not literally abandon logic, but put aside the question of God’s existence and re-focus our attention on the socio-political situation (the academic higher-order debate). In so doing, we do not abandon reason but use reason to evaluate socio-political processes, especially the socio-political reasons one may have to affirm or deny God’s existence: “what’s going on behind” the affirmations and denials.

I’d now like to address the response Sheedy left in the comments section to an earlier draft of this article.

First, some of the misunderstandings.

I should have been more careful when I talked about unpacking Sorbo’s arguments as a pedagogical exercise. To be clear, what I had in mind is that there are two different ways to engage the God’s Not Dead milieu: a) from the cultural studies perspective, which he advocated, and b) to engage Sorbo’s (and his ilk’s) arguments in some sort of logical vacuum disjoint from their cultural context (what he described as an appropriation from Anglo-American philosophy).

Given how poorly constructed Sorbo’s arguments are, and the fact that analytic philosophy journals would not generally accept papers containing or responding to Sorbo’s arguments, there seems to be little reason for an analytic philosopher to engage Sorbo other than as a pedagogical exercise. That is not to say that cultural studies wouldn’t have a tremendous amount to say about Sorbo or God’s Not Dead. Here we agree. I will add that analytic philosophers may use Sorbo as Sheedy has: as an example of a particular kind of popular-level discourse.

Sheedy finished his response with a question: “How can one pose as an atheist and as a scholar at the same time, while claiming to be engaged in critical work?” He expanded on this question, noting that the ‘atheist’ and ‘religious’ labels are unstable because they are socially constructed.

Sheedy and I agree that the historical/sociological literature has made it clear that ‘religion’ is both socially constructed and unstable. I add that the divide between the secular and the religious is problematic for related reasons. I suspect we are both aware of the long history of e.g. imperialistic activity that has gone on under the guise of the modern Western notion of ‘religion.’

Nonetheless, he is mistaken to position atheism in relation to religion, because atheism’s history and present boundaries are wider than those who merely identify themselves in opposition to religion.

I am quite confused as to why he would think that a scholar could not (or should not?) identify themselves as an atheist. Consider, for example, that critical theory has also resulted in the conclusion that gender and sexual orientation is socially constructed. Yet the fact that there are critical theorists who identify with any particular gender identity or sexual orientation is not somehow mysterious. I would suggest that a critical scholar identifying themselves with a religious (or non-religious) identity is no more mysterious. There are plenty of religion studies scholars, such as Peter Berger, who identify with particular Christian denominations yet take the position that religion is a social construct. Scholars who self-identify as “atheists” and who do critical work might be understood similarly to how we understand those who self-identify as “feminists” and do critical work in gender studies.

I will add that a philosopher taking a position in the first-order debate (like myself) should not be any more mysterious than someone engaged with the second-order debate taking a position there. If all it means for a position to be socially constructed is that the position was put together by people, then critical theory (and all the positions therein) were socially constructed. Thus, insofar as social construction undermines the first-order debate, I see little reason why a parallel conclusion should not be reached for the second-order debate.

Dan Linford is an adjunct philosophy professor at Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton, Virginia, and a recent graduate of Virginia Tech. He is currently applying to PhD programs and is interested in the intersection of analytic philosophy of religion and philosophy of science.

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Life After Religious Studies: An Interview with Sam Snyder

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Editor’s Note: This is the third instalment 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 (of religion and in general) 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 and social sciences.

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

After BA and MA degrees in Religious Studies (from Bucknell University and Syracuse, respectively) and a stint in the Peace Corp sandwiched in between the BA and MA, I headed to the University of Florida (UF). I was a doctoral student in the first cohort of students at UF’s Graduate Program on Religion and Nature. This is a unique program that bridges the broad discipline of religious studies with elements of what might normally fall under “environmental studies” – environmental history, environmental ethics, environmental sociology, policy, conservation biology, and more. While a religious studies program at its core, the program also fostered interdisciplinary work outside of the discipline.

My dissertation was less about religion, or religious traditions, in particular, than it was about the role of religious, cultural, experiential values in environmental ethics, policy and conservation practice. I was interested in motivations for conservation behavior, particularly in grassroots efforts to conserve and restore native trout populations. While I rarely talked about religious traditions per se, I found that the theoretical underpinnings of religious studies helped me sort through what I saw in collaborative campaigns and coalitions working to protect coldwater fisheries, especially trout and salmon. In some amalgamation, I as am influenced as much by the writings of Aldo Leopold as I am Russell McCutcheon.

I left academia partly due to lack of opportunity and I moved into my current line of work by the presence of opportunity. I moved to Alaska for my wife’s job, as a professor at University of Alaska Anchorage. When it was clear that an academic position for me was far from likely, I leveraged my experiences and research to move from studying conservation to working in conservation. For the past five years I have worked to coordinate multi-group campaigns to protect crucial salmon ecosystems and the communities, economies, and cultures tied to them.

Notably, I have spent the last 4 years working in the heart of a campaign to protect the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery, Bristol Bay, AK, from a proposal to build North America’s largest open-pit copper and gold mine, which is proposed for Bristol Bay’s headwaters. Recently, however, I have switched from one campaign to another, from one mega-project to another, where I now direct a campaign to prevent the construction of a mega-dam/hydro project on one of the largest rivers of the United States (the Susitna river) – also a critical salmon river system.

2. Do you have any thoughts on how structural changes may have impacted your decision to leave? Specifically, how do you think on-going cutbacks, especially in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, have contributed to this state of affairs?

Oh, I have no doubt that such structural changes impacted the availability of teaching positions and thereby my decision, if you can call it that, to leave. I saw these trends taking place at University of Florida while I was there, so much so I was compelled to organize for the graduate student union. Religious studies and the humanities were constantly on the chopping block.

Attending a unique, niche program like Florida’s Program on Religion and Nature was in many ways a blessing and a curse. The niche nature of the program created a reality where jobs were often more difficult to come by for someone with such a unique research focus like me or others in my cohort. This was especially true in smaller religious studies programs still build around on older, more traditional paradigms of the discipline. I didn’t study religious traditions specifically, but found I moved most fluidly in the theoretical spaces provided by some dimension of the discipline. I was an odd duck for a religious studies program to wrap their head around. I didn’t really fit in religious studies anymore, but I didn’t quite yet fit in environmental studies programs either.

That said the blessing came from also being able to converse broadly in other areas of conservation – ethics, science, and policy. All of that was the direct result of a program and faculty that encouraged that range of research.

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

I think at the top level much of it is intangible; very much relative to the critical thinking skills, analytic ability, and cross cultural/community understanding, etc. that we often associated with the liberal arts and humanities. All of which we abstractly defend when ranting, in classrooms and on Facebook, about the demise of or lack of support for the humanities and liberal arts.

Graduate degrees of any kind force self-motivation, time management, research and organizational skills and all that jazz. Teaching – as a TA, lecturer, and adjunct – enabled communication skills essential for being a good campaign/coalition leader. I always felt most at home in the classroom, teaching, wrestling with ideas with students.

Yet, effective communication is a skill surprisingly lacking in many leaders of the conservation community. Scientist and various experts often struggle to communicate complex issues to diverse audiences. Teaching, with attention to affective communication, certainly should help us find ways to translate and communicate complex ideas in a variety of contexts. Unfortunately, I think that quality is also lacking in many teachers, lecturers, and professors.

I also worked as a union organizer at UF. Three of years of community organizing developed a useful skill set for working in the conservation community, where grassroots organizing is at the heart of all our work.

Finally, as I noted, my graduate program helped me to find ways in which I could move fluidly across disciplines from the humanities to the social sciences, to the natural sciences. That has served me well in a diverse campaign or two where I work as much with Alaska Native communities as I do fisheries ecologists or business owners; elected officials or government agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency.

4. What challenges and/or solutions do you see for graduate programs addressing problems with employment that many Masters and PhD students face? Do you see any alternative avenues opening up for scholars trained in the study of religions in particular?

The challenges seem many, most of which are clearly tied to the available resources allocated to programs in religious studies, as well as environmental studies. You don’t need me to recap the overemphasis and support for programs engaged in “fundable” research, where products are produced and job training is provided. All of this compared to lack of support for programs that teach historical literacy, social ethics, cultural understanding, and most importantly critical thought.

I am not too sure I can articulate a solution. Too often concepts like “interdisciplinary” are bandied about as though they are saviors to academia. I don’t buy that, though. On the one hand, these are buzz concepts, as problematic as sustainability – amorphous, catchy, no real substance. On the other hand, like sustainability, there are too many institutional brick walls, built in, seemingly designed to prevent truly interdisciplinary work. This reality is especially true for graduate students who are even moderately attentive to academic job trends, thereby seeking a degree or a dissertation that fits into categories defined by those trends.

For some odd reason, I seemed less concerned with those trends. Or maybe, I thought that things were evolving for the better as evidenced by a new graduate program on religion and nature. In hindsight, I think the demand for those degrees was oversold, overhyped, or perhaps overestimated.

I also had professors who strongly encouraged going out on a limb, broadening my research base, doing archival research along side fieldwork with fish ecologists, while wrestling with critical theory. That work often took me out of academia and into spaces where I wound up getting a job. I am not sure, though, that many grad programs in religious studies would encourage this of their students. If I am right, I think it’s a shame.

Jobs are fewer and fewer, that doesn’t mean that degrees in this odd field we call religious studies are worth less and less, we just need to be creative about where we focus our attention. I can see opportunities in conservation, policy, journalism, and more.

In the end, though, I kind of feel like I got lucky where I landed. I could still be bartending. In hindsight, the path makes sense in my mind. Explaining it to others is never easy though!

Posted in Guest Contributor, Interviews, Life After Religious Studies, Religion and Society, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

NAASR Workshop Announcement: Introducing Theory in the Classroom, San Diego, Nov. 23, 2014

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Workshop: Introducing Theory in the Classroom

Sunday, November 23, 2:45 PM-5:05 PM—Marriott Marquis-Solana.

This NAASR workshop is in conjunction with the AAR/SBL annual meeting.

This workshop—limited to approximately 15 participants—will focus on practical steps for introducing theory in the classroom. If you are interested in participating, please email the organizer, Tara Baldrick-Morrone (tbaldrickmorrone@fsu.edu). Participants will also be asked to read three essays on theory and the introductory course in preparation for the workshop (essays are TBD).

The organizers will place the participants into groups by question before the workshop. The three questions that we will address are:

1. Who? Which theorists should be included in an introductory course, and which theorists should be excluded? Just as we must be self-conscious with our choices of data, so too must we be with our choices of theory. Simply, “why ‘this’ rather than ‘that’”?

2. What? If “there is nothing that must be taught,” what data should be included in an introductory course? How does one decide what to keep and what to discard? Are there “necessary” data that one must teach when “covering” certain ideas?

3. Where? Where should theory be placed in the structure of a course? At the end after the data have been presented? At the beginning in order to provide a lens through which the data should be considered? Throughout the semester? What are the benefits/drawbacks of each approach?

Participation: the organizers of this workshop encourage graduate students, adjuncts, and full time faculty to participate in order to bring your unique experiences to the table.

Workshop Leaders:

Tara Baldrick-Morrone

Rebekka King

Suzanne Owen

Matt Sheedy

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Guide for the Erudite Student: Asking for a Letter of Reference

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By Kenneth G. MacKendrick

Part of my job as a professional scholar is to write letters of reference for students and graduates. Asking for an academic letter of reference is not an intrusion on my duties nor should it be approached with trepidation or demure. However, there are good and bad requests. A bad request is frustrating, time consuming, and runs the risk of spoiling an opportunity for the best possible letter. A good request makes it easy to write a strong and enthusiastic letter.

Here’s a checklist of things to do in order to make your request a good one.

1. Don’t be shy, start with “Can you write me a good letter of reference?”

2. The most important thing for the referee is the date the letter is due and the required means of its arrival. Every request should stage front and centre the date when the letter needs to arrive and by what means it must arrive: post, courier, email (including requested format).

3. Closely related to the date, all relevant details for the destination: address (including email, FAX, and phone number) and to whom the letter should be addressed and sent. Don’t forget to include a working phone number! International couriers always require a phone number.

4. It is up to the person requesting the letter to ensure that all addresses and phone numbers are correct. Verify everything before your request goes out to a referee.

5. Then and only then should the referee be informed about the position, the job description, details, and employer. Whenever possible send a link to the job posting and a link to the department of the host institution.

This will get a letter to the door but the letter has yet to be written. More is required of the petitioner.

6. How long have I known you and in what capacity? I know it is obvious to you but it is helpful to have everything in once place. Are you a current student, past student, recent graduate? When did you study with me? How many courses have you taken with me and which courses are they? What grade did you get? Did you TA for me? (when, which courses?). Include all of this information because a good letter of reference typically includes this kind of information. Don’t create a situation where I am required to look it up, that takes time and energy and can occasionally create a few surprises that may require clarification (I gave you an “F” in the first year?). A letter writer shouldn’t have to look up information you have access to nor send follow up emails requesting additional information.

7. Send me email copies of your best essays or assignments, published articles or book reviews, conference presentations… at the very least, a writing sample. How about a grant application proposal? Give me something to work with and send me samples of work encapsulating your scholarly contributions. If you have noteworthy essays that I have evaluated, send them along with an abbreviated selection of my comments and remarks. The more information you send, the easier it will be to write the letter.

8. Provide the referee with accurate information about important details you intend on conveying to the evaluation or search committee. If you’re planning on submitting your thesis in November make sure I know this to avoid a needlessly conflicting report (note, a referee may contradict your claim if they think it is unrealistic or overly modest).

9. Include a copy of your CV or relevant portions of your dossier. Make sure your CV is up to date and clear to read and navigate. It might be wise to use an existing template if your host institution has one.

10. What kind of letter are you expecting from me? Is this the primary letter, the specialist or the generalist? Should I focus on your research, teaching, service, or collegiality? (e.g. “My advisor is writing a letter and my external examiner – but we’ve been working and teaching in the same department for several years, could you say something about that?”).

11. Circumstantial: describe the “fitness” of your application to the position and what you’re going to focus on, that way I can support your strengths. You might want to say something about the kind of institution that you are applying to. It is for a major research centre in your field or something more like a full time service teaching position?

12. If you are applying to multiple positions, make sure all the dates and places are well organized.

13. Follow up: And follow up again! Find out if the letter has been sent. Find out when it will be sent. Ask me if I need anything to complete the letter. Check with me before and after the due date to confirm times, dates, and places. And here’s a little tip: if you follow up with new material sent as an attachment, keep the same Subject Heading so the correspondence stays together. When following up with a reminder, change the Subject Heading so the message gets booted to the top of my inbox.

14. Courtesy: ask your referee about reminders – by phone, mail, email?

15. Maybe not so obvious the first time around: letters of reference are confidential correspondence between the referee and the potential employer, appraiser, or search committee. Do not expect a professor to share the letter with you.

16. Check with your referee about all of the above.

Kenneth MacKendrick is an associate professor in the Department of Religion, University of Manitoba. His teaching interests include cognitive theory of religion, contemporary Christianity (fundamentalism and charismatic movements, secularization), evil in world religions, method and theory in the study of religion, and rituals of death and mourning. His current research focuses the supernatural in popular culture. 

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New Special Issue for the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture

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Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture

Volume 8, Number 2 2014

Special Issue: Ecstatic Naturalism and Deep Pantheism

Abstracts

American Religious Empiricism and the Possibility of an Ecstatic Naturalist Process Metaphysics

Demian Wheeler

The most forceful critiques Robert Corrington mounts against Whiteheadianism target several problematic tendencies in the system of Whitehead, Hartshorne, and other leading Whiteheadian theologians rather than raze the entire legacy of process philosophy and theology. Actually, there is an alternate school of process philosophy and theology—the empiricist school—that embraces the broad contours of a processive and relational worldview while making many of the very same criticisms of Whitehead and his more rationalistic followers. But I argue an even bolder thesis: process empiricism shares enough in common with Corrington’s perspective to be ‘emancipatorily reenacted’ as an iteration of ecstatic naturalism, albeit a unique iteration. Collectively, the five American religious empiricists featured in this essay—Henry Nelson Wieman, Bernard Loomer, William Dean, Nancy Frankenberry, and Donald Crosby—open up a conceptual space within the Whiteheadian tradition for developing a kind of ecstatically inflected, ordinally chastened, and unequivocally naturalistic process metaphysics.

Naturalism and the Aesthetic Character of Religion: The Eclipse of the Absolute in the Experience of the Sacred

Martin O. Yalcin

I offer an aesthetic religious metaphysics from the perspective of naturalism as the most effective antidote to abjection within religion. I understand abjection within religious experience as the simultaneous desire to demonize nature and to idolize one’s conception of the sacred. My chief argument is that abjection occurs when the sacred is understood as being absolute. I trace the absolute character of the sacred to a metaphysics that insists on the utter incommensurability of the sacred with respect to nature. In contrast I defend a metaphysics that points to the radical indefiniteness and radical fecundity of nature as the reason why the sacred must be one of innumerable orders of nature. Once the sacred is leveled to the plane of nature, demonization and idolization are virtually foreclosed within religion because the sacred is now related and relative to other orders of nature.

Turbulent Memories: The Uneasy Artifacts of an Aesthetic Religion

Wade A. Mitchell

This article is concerned with addressing the tensions between art and religion. In arguing that this tension stems from the way memory processes work at the heart of both religion and aesthetics, I will draw Robert Corrington’s unique version of religious naturalism together with recent work done by art historian David Freedberg on the neuroscience of response to visual art. When properly framed by philosopher of religion Loyal Rue, these very different perspectives become highly complementary. By forging an interaction between them, I not only attempt to demonstrate how Corrington’s philosophical contextualization and Freedberg’s empathetic aesthetics mutually enhance one another, but I also hope to open up additional lines of inquiry about the role of memory within the problematic of art and religion, particularly for those seeking the interdisciplinary convergences between religion, aesthetics, science, and ethics.

The Man Who Walked Through Signs: Colin Fletcher, Robert S. Corrington, and the ‘Depth Dimension’ of Nature Naturing

Robert W. King

The concept of a depth dimension in nature is developed in Robert S. Corrington’s systematic extension of Peirce’s pragmatic metaphysics. To discern or experience the depth dimension of nature is to recognize the sublime power of nature naturing and of the powerful productivity of nature evidenced in its product, nature natured. The potency of nature naturing is evident, for example, in the geological formations of the Grand Canyon and in The Man Who Walked Through Time (1967), Colin Fletcher’s narration of a two-month solo trek into the depths of the Grand Canyon. In Corrington’s words, ‘A potency is an unconscious momentum within the heart of nature naturing that moves outward into the world of orders by ejecting some kind of orderly sign or system from its hidden depths’. Fletcher’s pilgrimage narrated a growing attunement to these ‘hidden depths’ and serves as an empirical, inductive account articulating the potencies of Ecstatic Naturalism.

Speculative Naturalism: A Bleak Theology In Light of the Tragic

Leon Jon Niemoczynski

Theological perspective upon the relationship between deity and creature may not be as radically open to a full range of possible value as has once been thought. If one is seeking a capacious view of deity, creatures, and nature, I contend that not only should one account for continuity, wholeness, healing, salvation, warmth, benevolence, and joy in one’s religious metaphysics, but also for discontinuity, difference, diremption, rupture, trauma, tragedy, melancholy, coldness, and the more somber tones of the divine life. My exploration of this darker side of religious naturalism, a ‘bleak theology’ or ‘speculative naturalism’, as I am calling it, begins by articulating its opposite in the axiologically positive evaluation of nature and deity found within the mainstream of American religious naturalism. I then offer some speculative theses from the bleak or speculative naturalist perspective and argue why this darker side of religious naturalism ought to be accounted for.

The articles described above are available for download here. Current and past issues of the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture are included in memberships to the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture. The ISSRNC is a community of scholars engaged in critical, interdisciplinary inquiry into the relationships between human beliefs, practices and environments. Scholars interested in these relationships are cordially invited to join the society, attend its conferences, and submit work for possible publication in the journal. For more information see www.religionandnature.com.

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Religion Clichés: #1 and #2

Religion

by Tenzan Eaghll

In 1972 Ninian Smart published an article titled, “Comparative religion clichés: Crushing the clichés about comparative religion and then accentuating the positive value of the New Religious Education.” Smart’s goal was to debunk popular clichés in order to improve the study of religion. He argued that in order to extol the “positive qualities of the new religious education” these clichés had to be wiped out. In my next couple of blog postings I would like to both update Smart’s list of clichés and to challenge his essentialism. My updated list of clichés is not a further attempt to improve “religious education”—a phrase that is itself a cliché—but to expose the tired and fallacious phrases associated with religion.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word cliché has its origins in the 19th Century France, and refers to a “metal stereotype or electrotype block” used in printing. In its common use it means “a stereotyped expression, a hackneyed phrase or opinion,” and signifies that which is unoriginal, stereotyped, and overused. Many popular ideas about religion, in both academic and public discourse, are derived from clichés that should be avoided.

#1. Religion is the sacred

Let’s start with the easiest—a cliché that is the bane of many critical theorists—religion is the sacred. Though this cliché was popularized by scholars such as Mircea Eliade and Rudolf Otto it also has equivalents beyond the academy, such as the popular phrase, “I am spiritual but not religious.” The general assumption that underlies this expression is that behind all the historical context and particularity of the different religions lies a phenomenal encounter with a sacred presence. Introductory textbooks on the study of religion often do not help the matter and perpetuate this cliché unapologetically. For instance, in Theodore M. Ludwig’s The Sacred Paths, Understanding the Religions of the World4th ed., he defines religion as follows:

We designate this focal point of the religions as the sacred, the ground of  ultimate vitality, value, and meaning. The modes of experiencing the sacred, and the responses to this experience, are many and varied; these are the forms and expressions that make up the religious traditions of the world.

Obviously, the problem with this approach is that it describes religion according to some outside source that is believed to be non-political and non-contextual. What makes this expression so problematic is that it assumes a phenomenological space that is prior to discourse. Rather than focus on competing theories of meaning and interests at play in the classification of discourse, it assumes religion to be a signifier for a prior principle of ultimate value. Hence, instead of seeing discourse on the sacred as one among many other rhetorical devices it privileges the sacred as a source of all religious experience. By differing the meaning of religion to some unseen realm or private subjective experience this cliché renders any analysis of religion uncontextualized.

#2. Religion is Bullshit

This cliché has become a popular phrase among certain atheists and internet trolls. In the 16th century you could have been burned at the stake for uttering this phrase but today it is all the rage. Do a search on Google, there are websites, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts called religion is bullshit. Those who use this phrase think that they are being original and rebellious against the status quo but they are just instantiating the ideological distinction between the religious and the secular. The irony of this cliché is that, despite being “anti-religious,” it follows the same logic as cliché #1 because it assumes the atemporal status of religion. Rather than see the word “religion” as a shifting category that names so many forces at play in society it hypostatizes religion as a self-identifiable discourse that persists throughout time. For example, here is a quote from religionisbullshit.net.

Throughout history, religion has been responsible for a large proportion of the suffering in the world – yet religious beliefs are based on ancient myths and legends that should have been discarded centuries ago.

The purpose of this site is to point out the errors in religious texts and highlight the problems caused by religious believers in society today.

What is lost on people who use this cliché is that by classifying a certain discourse as bullshit because of some intrinsic religious content they are perpetuating the very idea that religion is distinct from the secular, and thereby negating the value of their critique. Since this expression hypostasizes the very thing it wishes to challenge it should be avoided.

As Marx argued in “On the Jewish Question,” the way to critique religion is not by granting it an atemporal signifying capacity and then banishing it as erroneous, but by exposing how the very distinction between the religious and the secular is itself an ideological construct. The critique of religion should proceed by destabilizing the idea that anything is intrinsically religious, not by creating a straw man argument. As Craig Martin writes in Capitalizing Religion, “no ideology is intrinsically religious or secular; rather, the identification of an ideology as religious or secular is asserted in order to gerrymander its scope or reach.”

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

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