Dad Wanted a Boy: Feminism, Transcendence, and Cuarón’s Gravity (film review essay)

by Donovan Schaefer

Warning: Spoilertown, USA, directly ahead.

No American film has been more desperately in need of a feminist retelling than Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Now, with Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013), we have exactly that, a technical, cinematographic, and literary masterpiece that reverses the thematic polarity of the Kubrick original by flipping its astral trajectory: where 2001 draws a line of transcendence from a primitive terrestrial veld to the moon to Jupiter to “Beyond the Infinite,” Gravity starts in space and falls back to earth, offering a feminist counter-transcendence that re-orients the meaning and direction of “prayer.”

Both films have a bare-bones plot structure, using the extreme environment of deep space to swiftly shade in characterizations and dramatic tension.  2001 is made up of four short films, from “The Dawn of Man,” in which violent apes, inspired by the appearance of a mysterious monolith, learn to use tools and weapons, to three scenes of futuristic space travel, culminating in the journey of astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) to a transdimensional room beyond time, where he is transformed by the monolith into some sort of ascendant being.  In Gravity, a crew working on the Hubble telescope is hit by a wave of space debris and their craft destroyed.  The two survivors, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) try to make their way to a nearby space station, but Kowalski is lost in the process.  Stone, who we learn is still recovering from the death of her daughter, has a moment of doubt, but eventually reaches the station and from there makes it to a satellite with an escape pod, from which she returns to earth, crash-landing in a bay and then crawling her way onto a beach in the film’s closing scene.

In his 30th anniversary review essay of 2001, Roger Ebert wrote:

What [Kubrick] had actually done was make a philosophical statement about man’s place in the universe, using images as those before him had used words, music or prayer. And he had made it in a way that invited us to contemplate it–not to experience it vicariously as entertainment, as we might in a good conventional science-fiction film, but to stand outside it as a philosopher might, and think about it.

But you cannot stand outside of Gravity.  Where 2001 offers a series of perfectly centered, painterly landscapes, allowing our detached contemplation of the trajectory of ascension, Gravity pulls you in, snaring you with spinning perspectival shots and a near-absence of stable, balanced tableaux.  As my student Gebhard Keny observed when we studied Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men in a recent class, Cuarón’s signature technique of long, disorienting shots is designed to explode our habits of seeing, disrupting the genre codes that we use to calibrate our expectations about narrative and immersing us in a gripping, unknown set of cinematic parameters.  Gravity takes this, literally, into a third dimension.  It may be the most successful use of 3D projection to date because it exploits the new technology’s ability to pull us into a cinematic world for thematic effect.  The imagery of ropes and tethers metaphorizes the somatic entanglement of the audience in the film itself.

But Gravity’s inversion of 2001 plays out in their respective narrative trajectories, as well.  2001 begins with bodies–the birth of “consciousness” out of pre-human bodies still on the cusp of animality.  But over the course of the film, bodies recede further and further into the background, replaced by high-tech space suits, voiceless, empty space, computers, and then, in the film’s climax, a long sequence of abstract geometric color forms and tinted, lifeless planetscapes.  2001 is about the conversion of the body into an eyeball, a spectator’s body, a transcendent body that watches earth from a distance.  Gravity, by contrast, begins with bodies encased in bulky spacesuits but ends in an overwhelmingly incarnated body rising to her feet on earth.  Near the midpoint of the film, when Stone enters the ISS, we see her body taking on a dancer’s pose, a body on display as a body.  We see the form of the body–limbs, joints, muscles–a human body with its architecture of limits and possibilities, the inverse of 2001’s body progressively divorced from the earth and its own animality.

2001 uses the airless chamber of space to create a parable of inward human resolve and transcendence.  Gravity uses space to reinscribe the particularity and the contingency of human bodies–our frailty, our passions, and our neediness.  2001 is a crypto-existentialist fable about a transcendent self–the spectator of the earth, bathed in light–that emerges when all other connections are severed.  Gravity reveals a self that is itself made up of connections: in Cuarón’s rendering, connections to the earth and to other bodies through planes of vulnerability are what we are.  Where 2001 is about disconnection and the authentic self that emerges through increasing isolation and remoteness from the earth (a fiction useful for white, middle-class men who have never been subject to state violence in the form of incarceration or that uniquely twisted form of torture known as solitary confinement), Gravity is about the invisible network of forces that binds bodies one to another.

2001 tells a story of the world of men spilling out into the solar system, where women are stewardesses or secretaries in jumpsuits (save for a few supernumerary female scientists who blend in with the furniture), telescoping out to the solar system, its old hierarchies intact.  It tells a story of the first flourish of technology born in violence, and the arc of human technology out of animality and into space.  It is a fantasy of unlimited amibition, a transcendent self–explicitly coded as male–that learns to break out of the world of women, animals, and bodies.  Lisa Guenther writes that under the conditions of solitary confinement–like the alien dwelling where Bowman spends his life–bodies “become unhinged,” “the articulated joints of our embodied, interrelational subjectivity are broken apart.” (Guenther: 2013, xii) But this devastation of the subject in the circumstances of solitary confinement is not the theme of 2001.  Instead, Bowman has a transcendent encounter with the obelisk of human intelligence, before being reborn as an observer orbiting the earth.

As in Cuarón’s two previous self-created works, Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) and Children of Men (2006), the trajectory of Gravity is about the passing away of the world of men.  In YTMT, two callow teenage boys are brought face to face with the vulnerabilities at the heart of their masculinity and their sexuality by a dying woman.  In CoM, a police state world of male soldiers, apathetic wanderers, and ruthless revolutionaries is brought to its knees by an infant girl.  In Gravity (without throwing over the important contributions of the secondary male character, Kowalski, who serves as a sort of flattened-out wisdom figure for Stone) the maternal axis of a mother and daughter becomes the heart of the film’s thematic and narrative climax.  Unlike Bowman, who has no family and no connection to the earth, Stone is drawn back by the force of her attachments to memory, to her daughter, and to life.

Ryan Stone’s explanation of her first name–“My dad wanted a boy”–perfectly captures Cuarón’s intervention in the space horror genre: instead of a male body that is free to drift into space, he spins the genre 180 degrees by giving us a female body that is driven by her attachments to return to earth.  This is Cuarón’s politics (less sharp-edged in Gravity than in his earlier works, but still present if we view it through an auteurial prism): he wants to resurrect a second-wave feminist question, to prompt us to seriously ask ourselves what kind of world male bodies have built.  Roger Ebert wrote of 2001 that it proves “[w]e became men when we learned to think… we are not flesh but intelligence.”  Cuarón wants to know what happens when the human race becomes “women” instead of “men,” flesh instead of “intelligence,” animal instead of transcendent.

This transformation is captured in the efficient trajectory the script follows in developing Stone’s sense of religion.  Towards the end of the film, Stone mentions that she never prayed because no-one taught her how.  This monologue frames the final line of the film–“Thank you”–as a prayer.  But this is not a prayer to a transcendent God, a prayer to power or a prayer from the powerful.  It is a prayer facing down, a prayer to the waterlogged loam on the beach.  It is not a prayer declaimed in confidence or glory, but a prayer ringed by uncertainty, kneeling in the mud.  It is what John D. Caputo would call a “wounded prayer,” a prayer without certainty or assurance.

If 2001 is fixated on the overcoming of death, Gravity is concerned with what feminist philosopher Grace Jantzen in her classic Becoming Divine, following Hannah Arendt, labels natality. “If an obsession with death,” she writes, “orients philosophers to a preoccupation with other worlds, by contrast taking birth as the center of our imaginary will direct our attention to this world, to our connection, through the maternal continuum, with all others who have been born.” (Jantzen: 1999, 150) Rather than a floater, a soaring, gleaming obelisk, a transcendent male superman who uses space as the horizon of his escape from the earth, Gravity is about a stone, a body that returns to earth, to contingency, and to memory, and says thanks.

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Interpellation in The Splendid Vision


by Adam Miller

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

The French marxist Louis Althusser theorized interpellation as “the process by which ideology addresses the individual.” Or, put differently, interpellation is the way a dominant ideology constructs the human subject in its terms. This theory has been criticized for “minimiz[ing] the possibility of individual agency and control in the process,” and perhaps rightly so. But I am not sure this is what Althusser was trying to get at. On the basis of admittedly very limited reading of his work, it seems to me he was trying to think about how ideology works, not how people negotiate identities within an ideological system. In any event, I found a particularly wonderful example of interpellation in Richard S. Cohen’s translation of The Splendid Vision (I won’t provide the Sanskrit title…it’s way, way too long).

His translation reads:

If somebody has not planted any roots of virtue, or has not seen a tathagata, or has not received a prophecy of future buddhahood, then he will fail to hear this dharma discourse. Likewise, he will fail to respect, worship, learn, copy, have copied, or place his faith in it. He will also fail to honor, respect, or worship dharma preachers. Wherever this dharma discourse goes…it will play the role of the tathagata.

Later the text goes on to enjoin anyone who hears the sūtra to “[p]rovide the dharma preacher…with whatever he needs for complete happiness.”

This text calls out anyone listening as a buddhist subject. And though the idea of buddhist subjectivity is quite complicated in philosophical circles, it seems to me that part of what it means to be a buddhist in the world is to make sure the dharma-preachers are comfortable. Indeed, the text promises that a person who reveres the sūtra and the expounder of the sūtra will amass more merit than the Buddha did through his extreme acts of giving in his former lives. Further still, anyone who hears this sūtra is already on the way to becoming a buddha.

Sounds like a pretty good deal, right? Oh wait…you don’t have a choice.

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Offerings for the Loch Ness Monster—a Sign of Buddhism’s Arrival in the West

Loch-ness-monster_1466828cBy Joseph P. Laycock and Natasha L. Mikles

* This post now appears in expanded form in the Bulletin for the Study of Religion journal.

While discussing construction of the upcoming Karma Kagyu Tibetan Buddhist practice center near Loch Ness, Lama Gelongma Zangmo of Scotland has suggested that the Loch Ness Monster can be regarded as a naga—a serpent-like creature from Hindu and Buddhist mythology, which is said to live in underwater cities and is commonly associated with kingship and wealth.  Zangmo has herself made offerings to the alleged monster in order to show respect and bring prosperity.  Formerly a Tibetan Buddhist nun of the Kagyu lineage, Zangmo became the first person in Britain to be promoted to the rank of Lama.  The media, which continues to be fascinated with reports of Nessie, has focused primarily on the implications of Zangmo’s offering for theories of cryptozoology—are there precursors of the Loch Ness monster in Asian mythology? Could the Loch Ness monster be a spirit being, rather than a flesh and blood monster?  But Zangmo’s offerings have far more significance to Buddhism.  Making Buddhist offerings to a creature from Scottish folklore marks an important moment in the arrival of Buddhism to the West: While Western intellectuals have historically favored Buddhist philosophy over ritual praxis and Buddhist theories of mind over cosmology, Zangmo’s offerings demonstrate how Westerners are finding new uses for Buddhist cosmology as a lens through which to frame their own experience of the world.

Zangmo first began cultivating her relationship with local nagas at the Sangye Ling monastery on the River Esk—about four hours south of Loch Ness—where a cone shaped structure by the river has been used to leave offerings.  Zangmo has announced that the practice will continue at the new Buddhist center opening near the shores of the Loch this fall.  Traditionally, offerings are made to nagas in exchange for prosperity.  A famous story relates how the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna dove through the water to enter the kingdom of the nagas and reclaim the Prajnaparamitra sutra, which the naga kings had protected since the time of the Buddha. For Zangmo, however, making offerings to Nessie seems tied more to a performative environmentalism than the acquisition of lost treasures: she claims that honoring Nessie as a sentient personification of the Scottish landscape helps to cultivate respect and appreciation for the land, which in turn promotes wellbeing.

Zangmo’s Loch Ness offerings also mark the environment in other, more profound, ways.  Much of Tibetan Buddhist history and folklore has been concerned with genii loci.  According to legend, the Tantric master Padmasambhava arrived in Tibet in the eighth century and tamed its numerous demons and spirits.  Many were converted to become “Dharma protectors” who employ their supernatural powers for the good of the Dharma.  The Tibetan land itself is understood to be an enormous supine demoness held in place by strategically located monasteries.  Other Buddhist countries have generally accepted Indian cosmology and mythological creatures as part of their adoption of the religion. However, Buddhism’s rich tradition of gods and spirits has struggled to make the journey to the West. Many religious cultures have local, geographical features such as pilgrimage sites are features that cannot be transported directly to new soil—with the possible exception of  Chinese stories of flying mountains. But Buddhism in particular has been divorced from much of its cosmology when adopted by Westerners.  In what Jan Nattier has called “import” or “elite” Buddhism, Western intellectuals have historically embraced Buddhism as a “philosophical” tradition that is superior to Christianity because it is not reliant on belief in supernatural entities.

Zangmo’s strategy of adapting localized practices from Tibetan Buddhism to a Scottish context, therefore, signals a number of shifts in Buddhism’s move West: namely, it demonstrates that Western Buddhists are no longer as keen to abandon traditional doctrines and practices concerning gods, spirits, and the supernatural. Furthermore, Zangmo’s practice demonstrates Tibetan Buddhism’s capacity to structure and order a Western cosmology. As demonstrated by Stephen Prothero in The White Buddhist and David McMahan in The Making of Buddhist Modernism, during Buddhism’s initial adoption by western practitioners, the “totalizing” power of Buddhist thought was frequently relegated to the larger “totalizing” discourse of Protestantism. Zangmo’s actions reassert the totalizing potential of Buddhist thought and show that any phenomena, including hypothetical lake monsters, can be located within a Buddhist worldview and incorporated into Buddhist practice.  Finally, by using a traditional Tibetan Buddhist framework to “Buddha-ify” Nessie, Lama Zangmo is perhaps developing her authority and charisma within the larger Tibetan Buddhist community: Zangmo’s position as a Caucasian woman who has achieved the rank of lama is virtually unprecedented in Tibetan tradition. The adaptation of a local Tibetan practice works to situate her as an authentic participant within the sphere of Tibetan culture.  In fact, by taming a local naga she is acting somewhat like a modern-day Padmasambhava.

While Westerners often imagine Tibet as an exotic land of magic and mystery, modern Westerners have enchanted their own landscape with stories of monsters and demons. Monsters and missionaries have always gone together.  Nessie fans claim that before the original 1933 sighting of the monster, Nessie appears in a seventh-century hagiography of the Irish abbot and missionary Saint Columba.  In that story, Columba impressed a group of Picts by making the sign of the cross to rebuke a man-eating “water beast.”  The juxtaposition of cryptozoology and Buddhism holds fascinating possibilities for the future—Is the Mothman really a garuda? Will stupas be built to contain marauding Bigfoots like the famed demoness of the Tibetan soil?  Will a modern-day Buddhist saint persuade the chupacabra to become a Dharma-protector?  Zangmo’s practice suggests that not only can these creatures gain new meaning within the Buddhist framework, but that the creatures themselves can be a resource in bringing local practices to new soil.

About the Authors

Joseph Laycock is an assistant professor of religion at Texas State University.  His forthcoming book is entitled The Seer of Bayside: Veronica Lueken and the Struggle for Catholicism (Oxford University Press).

Natasha L. Mikles is a doctoral student at the University of Virginia. Her research centers on the hell episodes of the Gesar epic, as well as Tibetan literature and bibliography more generally.

Posted in Joseph Laycock, Natasha Mikles, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion in the News, South Asian Studies, Theory in the Real World | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why Paris Matters but Peshawar Does not: Moderate Muslims and the Invention of Disaster


by Sher Afgan Tareen

On December 16th, nine members of the Pakistan Tehreek-e- Taliban killed one hundred and thirty-two students attending Army Public School at Peshawar, wiping out the entire 9th grade except one boy who overslept and fortuitously skipped school. Nearly a month later, two French Muslim brothers of Algerian descent killed 5 cartoonists, an economist, two police officers and a few others at the Paris headquarters of a satirical magazine called Charlie Hebdo. Why has Charlie Hebdo turned into an event, a disaster that demands attention, while Army Public School has only drawn disgust and anger from predominantly Pakistanis? The answer I suggest lies not so much in the act of murder itself that the two stories share in common but rather in the ways in which the murder in Paris, unlike the murder in Peshawar, secured a story of secularism under the siege of terror. What is this story? Who are its protagonists? How does the story explain why Paris matters but Peshawar does not?

Let’s reflect on the framing of the Newsweek column titled “After Charlie Hebdo, moderate Islam must speak out.” The title reduces an ongoing discursive tradition thousands of years old to a straightforward human subject asked to defend Charlie Hebdo, a magazine that has similarly undergone a human-like metamorphosis by the catchphrase ‘Je suis Charlie’. Embedded in this rhetoric of transforming Islam and a magazine into two subjects, one expressing contrition to the harm suffered by the other, is a form of dramaturgy that allows for the possibility to imagine the incidence in Paris as a disaster. The fulcrum of this drama is a peculiar anxiety about Islam’s compatibility with secularism attached with a plea to moderate vanguards of Islam to save Islam from itself. If the ‘moderate Muslims’ do not speak up and remain a “silent majority of the religious Muslims”, the “goons in black” will win their war against French secularism. All of a sudden, “women in headscarves in Paris and Marseille and London will report that they are being shoved in grocery stores, or spat upon on the streets or given the fisheye on the Metro or tube.” The longer the moderates remain silent, the greater the chance that extremists will render “France’s tolerance” intolerable for all Muslims.

A curious irony afflicts the way in which the Newsweek column portrays the leading actors of this drama. The mundane everyday existence of the two Algerian brothers who carried out the attack is rendered bizarre and otherworldly by the descriptor ‘goons in black’. On the other hand, “moderate Muslims”, an imagined category that somehow binds all Muslims on the basis that they do not “pick up Kalashnikov for Allah”, are made a tangible, concrete population as the silent majority of Muslims. Both the ‘real’ moderate who is actually a fictitious category and a fictitious goon who is actually a real person inhabit a secular space where Muslim/Islam is haunted and possessed by a spirit of terror. The drama suggests that when the two Algerian brothers killed those journalists they concomitantly threatened to beguile the French Muslim community, entrancing the women for instance to start imagining they are getting shoved around in grocery stores. If the moderates remain silent, they will fail to excommunicate this spirit residing in the bodies of these women that seeks to disenchant them from the secular spaces they inhabit in France.

By rendering the two Algerian brothers as ghosts that will continue to haunt Muslims from cherishing French secular society unless moderates condemn their acts, the drama obfuscates the ways in which the ‘goons in black’ are not spirits falling off the sky but a product of that society. Cherif grew up in an orphanage in the western city of Rennes. He trained as a fitness coach. He then lived with his brother in Paris, working as a pizza delivery guy. His neighbor described him as a calm person who would help old and disabled person. Yet he and his brother also killed. Constituting the Algerian brothers as terrorists juxtaposed against moderate Muslims effectively dissociates them from the rest of Muslim migrants in France. Such a classification leads one to assume that the two brothers merely used Islam as a rhetoric to snatch Muslims from the comforting nestle of French secularism. By reducing their violent act to a recycled narrative of angry erroneous Islam at war with secular pluralism, we fail to question the extent to which they in fact embody the failure of French secularism and its promise of inclusion and equality.

From banning the headscarf in public schools to dismissing the anger against depictions of Prophet Mohammad, this failure rests on a secular conception of religious symbols and imagery as merely representations of something else. In her article “Religious Reason and Secular Affect”, Saba Mahmood astutely points out that the bewildering curiosity shared by both liberals and conservatives as to why Muslims get so darn angry at the image of the Prophet fails to recognize that for many Muslims the Prophet is not just a historical figure, such that one may easily separate the person from the image, but a life that one strives to simulate and cohabit. This anger did not suddenly erupt on one disastrous day at Charlie Hebdo. It existed before; it will linger hereafter. By remaining silent, moderate Muslims may not assuage this anger. However, by being called upon to end their silence, the Newsweek column invents ‘Charlie Hebdo’ as a disaster in which an anger that like a forest fire inflames unannounced must be urgently counteracted by a solemn defense of freedom of speech.

In his book The Culture of Calamity: Disaster and the Making of Modern America, Kevin Rozario attends to how disasters become disasters through specific kinds of mediation. Disaster does not represent the incidence itself but rather emerges through narratives about the incidence and the meanings derived from it. Disasters then exist by ways in which happenings turn into events and a series of affective sensations overcome an otherwise dull observer. Following Rozario, I argue that Paris matters more than Peshawar because although Peshawar lost far more lives, invoking moderates affixed the incidence in Paris with a discourse of disaster. Meanwhile, the carnage at Army Public School embodies the trauma endured by people living in the liminal spaces of Pak-Afghanistan borderland, a disaster that did not unveil itself in a sudden act of terror but coalesced over the past three decades through specific international and domestic policies, corporate and governmental interventions that created and manipulated terror. Moderates do not actually exist. But one hundred and thirty-two students who should be attending school today but instead rest in graves do. They did.

Sher Afgan Tareen is a PhD candidate in American Religious History at Florida State University. He specializes in Islam in America. His research interests include the politics of religious pluralism and freedom, theories of space and place, and the religious history of out-of-status migrants to America.

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Conference on Religion and Culture: Syracuse University, March 28, 2015, Syracuse, NY


Second Undergraduate Conference on Religion and Culture 

Syracuse University | March 28, 2015 | Syracuse, NY

The Department of Religion at Syracuse University will host its second annual “Undergraduate Conference on Religion and Culture” on Saturday, March 28, 2015. The goals of the conference are to recognize and encourage outstanding undergraduate work, and to provide undergraduate students with an opportunity to contribute to a broader academic conversation.

At this event on the Syracuse University campus, students will have the opportunity in 20 minutes to present their research and papers on panels with on-site feedback by faculty and graduate student responders, as well by students from other colleges and universities. Special sessions will engage undergraduates with tips on applying to graduate school and reflect the experiences of graduate students. And they will have the opportunity to meet and connect with other critical-thinking students of religion in the Central New York region.

We invite faculty to encourage their undergraduate students to apply. We welcome undergraduate student term papers, selections from honors and senior theses, creative projects, and works in progress. Papers should address an academic topic in religious studies, theology, philosophy of religion, or religion and culture. Travel stipends are available.

To apply, students should email an abstract of no more than 350 words to:

by Sunday, February 15th.

Include your name,

email address, school affiliation,

and the name of your faculty sponsor.

Students must ask a faculty sponsor to send us a brief, informal statement with your name, the sponsor’s recommendation of your paper presentation, and your relationship to the sponsor (current or former student, advisee, etc.). Faculty sponsor statements are also due by Sunday, February 15th and may be emailed to:

Have fun and be creative! We hope to see you here on March 28th. For information about the application, travel stipend, dates, or questions generally, email:

For updates on the conference, see

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Call for Papers: An Interdisciplinary Conference at UC, Santa Barbara, April 30-May 2, 2015


The UCSB Department of Religious Studies, with support from the Cordano Endowment in Catholic Studies, will host a conference on

Freedom of (and from) Religion: 

Debates Over the Accommodation of Religion in the Public Sphere 

April 30, 2015 to Saturday May 2, 2015

An Interdisciplinary Conference at the University of California, Santa Barbara

Accommodation of religion in the public sphere has often been a source of contention in the American context. Historically the Supreme Court of the United States has made clear that the separation of church and state must be preserved at almost all cost. However, this position has been increasingly challenged over the last thirty years. Since the Equal Access Act was legislated in 1984 –which guaranteed public school student groups, whether religious or secular, equal access to meeting spaces and school publications — the practice of public accommodation has burgeoned. And the very legislation that Christian groups lobbied for in order to insure that high school students could hold after-school Bible study groups on public school property was subsequently also used to insure the right to form gay student alliances and to form campus groups that focused on any religion or on secularism. In a similar vein, laws guaranteeing religious freedom have been used to demand accommodations of religious objections to, and exemptions from, valid public policy (e.g., the Affordable Care Act). These and many other examples suggest that accommodation has become a new front in the culture wars and implicate important questions about freedom from religion as well as the freedom to act on the basis of religious beliefs.

Keynote Speaker is Winnifred Sullivan, Professor and Chair, Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University-Bloomington, and Affiliated Professor of Law, Maurer School of Law.

We invite papers that engage with the theme of public accommodation of religion, particularly as it comes into conflict with the values of equality and/or nondiscrimination. The conference will explore this topic from various disciplinary standpoints, such as history, law, political science, religious studies, sociology, ethics, public policy, or others. Possible topics may include, but are not limited to:

 the projected effects of the Hobby Lobby decision for RFRA laws at federal and state levels

 how religious freedom is represented through various types of media, including social media

 how a variety of religions and denominations have been understood in legal cases

 critical perspectives on concepts of religious freedom, freedom of conscience and accommodation

 ramifications for health care, public safety, the workplace and other issues we’re facing today

 the various ways in which law intersects with religion and health care

We welcome proposals from established scholars, graduate students, and independent researchers.

Please send an abstract of 300 words to by March 6. Please attach your abstract to your email in a Word or pdf format, and include your full name, home institution, and stage of your career (predoctoral, postdoctoral, early career, etc.).

Notifications will be mailed by March 16.

Limited financial assistance may be available based on need.

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Now That’s Islamophobia (Charlie Hebdo, Religion & Satire)


by Zachery Braiterman

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

Clearly uncomfortable with the comics run by Charlie Hebdo depicting the Prophet, ALZ approached me at synagogue yesterday and asked me what I thought about them. He asked it in such a direct way that I stumbled for an answer. I recovered my balance this way. I confessed that my first impression was not to care for the Charlie Hebdo comics per se. In general, I don’t think it’s a good or even decent thing to tweak the religious sensibilities of other people. It’s why I haven’t seen and I’m not going to see the Book of Mormon, and why I don’t like Bill Maher’s anti-religious satire. But in batting it around with ALZ, I realized that it’s impossible to come to a universal judgment about this kind of thing. I’m not going to pretend to speak from a universal point of view. I’m a professor, a professor of religious studies, which means, in this case, that it’s not my “job” or “profession” to engage in satire. By profession, I mean in the widest and the old fashioned sense “a calling.” I’m not a satirist.

Talking with ALZ, I recalled the recent comic strip by Eli Valley, in which the persona of the strip expressed his own terror about cartooning Mohammed. I thought, it’s the cartoonist’s calling, it’s the satirist’s calling, to do this, to reflect satirically, to reflect satirically upon the world around him or her. In our globalized world, that world and that satire are going to include Islam, especially now as large parts of the Middle East disintegrate into a violent spasm, especially now in Europe with its significant Arab and Muslim populations, and especially now as we begin to trace the blowback back and forth between Europe and Syria/Iraq. Satire is supposed to cut to the core, and at the core of Islam, there’s the Prophet. The satirist has no choice but to take this on, especially now when the honor of the Prophet has taken on such force by such a large segment of his followers. A satirist has to make a decision: either address the Prophet head-on or hang up your pen and ignore what’s going on in the world.

It is the duty of a satirist to satirize. It’s not nice, but I don’t see how the liberal western democracy, which most of us in the west purport to cherish, could have worked without satire, especially satire of religion. Voltaire and Nietzsche come immediately to mind, as well as a long history of satirical magazines in France and Great Britain (to which one could add satiric literature coming out of the Jewish Haskalah, or Enlightenment), the criticism of religion, one’s own religion, and the religion of other people. As Leo Strauss noted with signal disapproval, this goes back to Spinoza and the critique of religion in the Theological Political Treatise. That Strauss did not himself cherish liberal democracy says more against Strauss than the argument he advanced in his book on Spinoza. There’s just no way around it.

As a university professor it’s not my job to do satire. But as a professor of modern religion, it might be part of my job to write about satire, especially if one’s own particular interest lies in aesthetics, art and religion. That’s why I was going to include a Charlie Hebdo comic here at the top of this post, at the risk of offending any Muslim readers. But then I decided not to, only confirming that, if satire is indeed a central component to the formation of western secularism, then we’re looking at serious collisions ahead, if not a “clash of civilizations” per se. It’s a vicious circle. Violent action to defend the honor of the Prophet draws only more critical attention the Prophet. Regarding satire and its impact on modern politics and modern religion I am not at liberty to divulge because a graduate student under my direction is writing about this in her dissertation. Once the thesis is submitted I’ll have more to say. But what I will say for now is that I don’t think that most of the cartoons were actually viscous. A vicious satire would be one that makes fun of dead people, like you see in so many cartoons “satirizing” the Holocaust. For most of them, the intent at Charlie Hebdo was to demean, not Mohammed himself, but the very fanatics whose stupid and brutal violence sullies the Prophet and the vision of Islam.

Yes, I understand the issue is not satire, but has to do with representing the Prophet tout court. The prohibition against depicting him is part of a ban on idolatry. But non-representation is not immune to the exact thing it condemns. The Prophet has been turned into an idol by the very people so hot to defend his honor. My own decision today not to post a Charlie Hebdo Mohammed carries with it some shame and a little anger. It’s not because I don’t want to offend anyone’s religious sensibility. Rather, like Eli Valley I’m a little scared to death. So instead, I’m posting as the banner photo to this post the picture of the aftermath at the Charlie Hebdo attack. It feels safer to post this picture even if it’s a bloody sacrilege that does more to damage Islam than any depiction of Mohammed. Now that’s Islamophobia, Islamophobia at work.

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