Religion Snapshots: Critical Thinking and an Analysis of Wikipedia


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

Note: the following is in response to a recent article by Sarah Pulliam Bailey on the topic of Wikipedia and representations of religion.

Steven Ramey: “The problem confronting many Wikipedia editors is that religion elicits passion,” writes Sarah Pulliam Bailey in her Huff Post article “Religion On Wikipedia Is A Recipe For Controversy As ‘Edit Wars’ Rage On.” (originally titled, “Wikipedia’s edit wars and the 8 religious pages people can’t stop editing” on Religion News Service) Her argument, however, best illustrates how analysis often reflects the expectations of the author more than something inherent in the topic. While many people (myself included) will argue that the elements that people identify as religious or sacred generate significant passion (perhaps because such labels work to invest particular items with special significance and are thus quite useful to many people, such as the owners of Hobby Lobby or anyone mobilizing people to defend a particular cause), the frequency of edits to Wikipedia articles does not place topics that Bailey identifies as religious in an exceptional position.

The original post outlining the top 100 edited articles on Wikipedia identifies other articles and categories that generate more passion, as measured by number of edits. For example, Bailey notes, “Former President George W. Bush is the most contested entry, but Jesus (No. 5) and the Catholic Church (No. 7) fall closely behind.” Looking only at the top ten, though, we find three popular entertainment oriented articles (List of WWE personnel (No. 2), Michael Jackson (No. 4), and Britney Spears (No. 10) and three political figures (Bush with Obama (No. 8) and Hitler (No. 9), compared to only two of Bailey’s religion topics. The three entertainment figures, furthermore, actually have the lowest overall ranking of these three categories, and musicians appear about twice as often as religions in the entire list. So, does popular entertainment generate more passion than religion? In fact, Mona Chalabi at notes that the WWE has more Top 100 edited articles than “any other single body” (however that is determined). So, does WWE generate more passion than any religious or political institution?

This discussion also illustrates the arbitrary nature of these categorizations. Bailey references global warming (No. 24) and Israel (No. 57) as “countries and topics with religious sensitivities.” Of course, we could also include Pope John Paul II (No. 82) as a political figure, if we wanted to expand the dominance of the political category, or Beyonce (No. 33) as a religious figure based on some recent discussions of Beyism. As with many forms of analysis, people can create a variety of arguments to illustrate what they prefer or already know to be the case. Recognizing this reinforces for me the importance of teaching students to think critically about whatever sources they use, whether Wikipedia, news stories, or academic articles.

Matt Sheedy: Discussing the role of Wikipedia administrators, who have more authority than mere “Wikipedians,” (i.e., those tens of thousands who have signed up as volunteers for the website) Sarah Pullman Bailey frames her discussion around the “edit wars” that take place between them, claiming that the regulation of Wikipedia pages–the 5th most trafficked site on the Internet–is particularly dicey when it comes to the topic of religion. 

While noting that the bulk of Wikipedians self-identify as atheists, Christians, Muslims, Pastafarians and Jews, listed in that order, (are there really more Pastifarians than Jews?) the article centers on the experience of Anthony Willey, a 29 year old physics graduate and self-identified Mormon, who states that his editing is not motivated by personal convictions but by “when people say things that aren’t true.” Instead of inserting his own “opinion,” he relies on “trusted sources,” citing Columbia University historian Richard Bushman as one example.

“Even if I don’t agree with something in his book, for the purposes of editing Wikipedia, it keeps me honest,” Willey said. “It makes it very hard for people to argue with me because when it comes to editing something on Wikipedia, it all comes down to who has the best source. If I’m promoting the view of the best source, I’m always right.”

While there are many problems that could be flagged in this statement, such as the presumption that “opinion” is somehow mitigated when relying on “trusted sources,” one thing that interests me here is the boundary that his statement suggests between editing standards and editing practices. A quick search on Wikipedia’s Editorial Oversight and Control page reveals multiple guidelines for would-be editors, such as the “Wikipedia: Five Pillars” and the “consensus-based ethos.” 

In one sense, this is encouraging since (in theory) revisions are made based on quantifiable standards that can be publically assessed for their value and (in theory) critiqued and improved upon over time. A discussion between Willey and fellow Wikipedian, John Carter, over the distinction between mythology and religion seems to reflect the “consensus-based ethos” at work, while Carter’s musings on the historical Jesus appears to align with guidelines contained in the “Five Pillars” (e.g., “We avoid advocacy and we characterize information and issues rather than debate them.”)

It would no doubt make for an interesting study to compare, say, the methods and demographics used in the construction of old encyclopedias with those of Wikipedia in order to better understand what basis for analyses are used, what “credentials” and cultural prejudices the editors hold and what normative assumptions circulate in regards to notion of “authenticity” and “religion”? On this last point, we can imagine the conditioning effect that the “edit wars,” in particular the policing of “hate speech,” have on the administrators in regards to their own assumptions about “truth” and “acceptability.”

Wikipedia has an ambiguous reputation among professors. On the one hand, it can be useful for a quick point of reference, such as gleaning a few talking points on string theory or getting a biographical sketch on Richard Dawkins. (He wrote The Selfish Gene in 1976; his father was a colonial administration in Kenya, where he was raised till the age of 8, etc.) While students are typically discouraged from using Wikipedia as a primary reference, since, among other reasons, its sources often change and the standards for their verification, selection and framing are hard to determine, it would be naïve to think that they aren’t influenced by it. After all, what comes up in the first few entries when you type “Mormonism” into a search engine? 

Perhaps it would be a productive class assignment (and some covert data collection too!) to get each student to look into one citation on the page for, say, Mormonism, and provide some basic data on the type of source (e.g., newspaper, blog, insiders’ testament, scholarly monograph, etc.), the author’s background and the basic thrust of the argument. Not only would this allow students to get a sense of the variety of sources, ideas and subject-positions involved in popular representations of religion, but it would also provide them with some hands-on collaborative experience in demonstrating how definitions are constructed, contested and modified in the most mundane of places.

Posted in Pedagogy, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, Religion Snapshots, Steven Ramey, Theory and Method, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

(Not) In My Name (Israel)


by Zachary Braiterman

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

A meme going around Jewish left circles has the speaker declare that the State of Israel and/or the war in Gaza and/or the State of Israel and Zionism are “not in my name.” It’s an interesting phrase, one that goes back, at least, ten years ago to protests in the UK against the Iraq War. It speaks to the relation, in this case an oppositional one, between individuals and groups of individuals who seek to organize into a political counter-movement vis-à-vis a political state. As a friend points out on Facebook, in this case it’s meant to assert a difference between Judaism and Israel, or Judaism and current Israeli war-making.

The phrase, however, is subject to a very subtle dialectic. When articulated with sufficient moral affect, the dialectics are such that the speaker has already ceded enormous power of the state to speak in his or her name. To make such a claim, the state must have already caught the speaker.  The speaker has drawn close to the state, enveloped intimately and obsessively into its machinations. Otherwise there’s no basis for the opposition, until such a point that the state spits you out. If the state did not already speak “in my name” I wouldn’t have to say it. “Not in my name” is very different than the “render unto Ceasar” in the New Testament.

As a U.S. citizen, I never thought to think that Israel speaks “in my name.” It can’t really, because I have no formal rights or obligations to that state, and I am in no need of its protection. My link to Israel, the country governed by the state, is affective and potential. And perhaps it’s that very potentiality that sets the teeth on edge for so many of my friends on the America Jewish left. As a Jew, I want the state of Israel to speak in my name the language of justice, mercy, and morality, not the language of power and domination. But it’s the latter language that is the one spoken by all states, despite and in tension with the values they claim to carry and seek to embody.

Herzl was right. Before they constitute a religion, they Jews are an umma. There’s no other way to explain the anger, bitterness, and disgust expressed for the State of Israel the further out on the U.S. Jewish left you go. Like it or not, Judaism and Zionism are too deeply imbricated to make for an easy separation. The more you repeat or flag the phrase, the more actively you deny the connection (as opposed to ignoring it), the more active you make the relation and deepen it, the more dragged you are into its controlling and determining discourse.

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

Posted in Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

2015 International Association for the History of Religions Call for Papers


* This post originally appeared in the North American Association for the Study of Religion’s (NAASR) website.

The deadline for panel proposals for the 2015 IAHR World Congress—to be held in Erfurt, Germany—is 14 September 2014! (The deadline for individual paper proposals further off: 15 December 2014). You can find out more about the IAHR Quinquennial meeting by checking out the IAHR website or the conference website.


Here’s are the details for the call for panels:

We invite contributions from all disciplines of religious studies and related fields of research to allow for broad, interdisciplinary discussion of the Congress topic to register their panels for the XXI World Congress of the IAHR. Panels should address one of the four thematic Congress areas: Religious Communities in Society: Adaption and Transformation – Practices and Discourses: Innovation and Tradition – The Individual: Religiosity, Spiritualities and individualization – Methodology: Representations and Interpretations.

Each panel lasts two hours. Panel papers should be limited to 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the number of panel participants. Panel conveners are asked to approach possible participants from different nations to reflect the scope and internationality of the IAHR Congress.

To propose a panel, please submit a general proposal of the panel as well as individual proposals of all papers included in the panel. Both panel and papers of a proposed panel will be evaluated by the Academic Program Committee to ensure a high academic standard of the Congress program. We therefore ask panel conveners to submit the proposals of all prospective panel participants of a proposed panel as indicated by the submission form. Proposals of panels and of papers should not exceed 150 words.

The deadline for submission of proposals is Sunday, September 14, 2014. All proposals must be submitted electronically via the IAHR 2015 website ( As part of the submission process, you will be asked to indicate the area in which you would like your proposal considered. Your proposal will then be forwarded to the appropriate member of the Academic Program Committee.

You will receive notice concerning the status of your proposal as soon as possible and certainly before March 1, 2015. If your panel or paper has been accepted by the Academic Program Committee, please note that you will have to register as Congress participant before May 15, 2015 to be included in the Congress program.

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A Quasi-Caricatured Taxonomy of Religious Studies Instructors


by Travis Cooper

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

As an advanced graduate student in religious studies, among other departments, I’ve been advised by or have sat under for classes a number of different types of instructors in this hyper-eclectic field. The taxonomy below represents an incomplete, overly-essentialist, and (admittedly) biased listing of said types, followed by brief discussions of each category’s posturing in relation to others:

1. The Historian (not to be confused with subcategory 7.3 below)

2. The Philosophy of Religion Scholar

3. The Textualist (i.e., Biblical Studies, and/or the Study of Ancient Sacred Texts)

4. The Sociologist (of Religion)

5. The Anthropologist (of Religion)

6. The Critical Method and Theory of Religion Scholar

7. The Hybrids

7.1. The Historian-Ethnographer (or Ethnographer-Historian)

7.2. The Social Anthropologist (or Socio-Cultural Anthropologist)

7.3. The History of Religions Scholar

7.4. The Area Specialist

7.5. The Comparative Religious Ethics Scholar

7.6. The Religious Tradition(s) Specialist

7.7. The (Academic) Theologian

1. History. Examines what the category identifies as some form of religion—broadly defined and construed—as its study subject. Think: Historians of Eighteenth-Century Protestantism. Historians of Medieval Catholicism. Historians of Shia Islam. These scholars spend much of their time in dusty libraries digging through archives (or in their cozy, air-conditioned offices perusing digitized collections). They construct high quality, relatively plausible, compelling narratives of factual and teleological value. Historians make rote occurences of past events mean something by placing them, via compelling theoretical and interpretive grids, within broader sequences of happenings. Historians tend to critique categories #4 and 5 for not paying attention to temporal situatedness and conditioned meaning in terms of past trajectories (e.g., regimes or institutions) of power.

2. Philosophy of Religion. Specializes in (the history of) philosophy dealing with religious topics and also dabbles in what sometimes falls under the rubric of “theory of religion.” These scholars find it frustrating that categories #4, 5, 7.1, 7.2 (and perhaps 7.4) liberally employ classic and modern philosophers and/or theorists of religion but do so haphazardly, selectively, and at times incoherently. This category also critiques category #1 for tending to abstain from the overt application of philosophical/theoretical ideas to their historical analyses. Philosophy of religion scholars tend to underscore the idealogically positioned and perspectival understandings of any historical, cultural, and social phenomena, occurrence, or event and thus largely function in an interpretive mode of inquiry.

3. Textual Analysis. Employs a wide and eclectic variety of methods and approaches to the reading, interpretation (i.e., hermeneutics), and analysis of ancient religious texts. Skilled in languages, both ancient and modern, dead and contemporary. Critiques categories #4 and 5 for failing to realize how important a role texts, words, and languages play in the lives of human persons. Does not function as a discrete methodology, school, or category, per se, but draws on aspects diffused throughout the other listed fields.

4. Sociology. Following in the wake of the Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Karl Marx, this category takes the mysterious “social” as its primary line of inquiry, especially as the social pertains to institutions, organizations, and other human groupings. Has an infatuation with numbers, graphs and charts, and predictive variables. Sees category #5—the field closest to it in terms of method and inquiry—as tantamount to glorified journalism. Finds category #1’s methods as speculative in nature and akin to detailed guesswork. Engages categories #2 and 6 consistently and uses theories from these categories to guide methodologies and the interpretation of data derived from said methodologies.

5. Anthropology. Specializes in the study of particular lived aspects of human life (e.g., kinship and/or ritual) and the overlap between domains of religion, culture, and the social. Methods: Primarily ethnographic and field-work based. Believe that category #1 (and #7.3) makes at best obtuse guesses about how once living peoples might have existed, thought, believed, and behaved. Often pat anthropological comrades on the back for doing the “real” academic grunt work, that is, going out into “the field” to collect data from “actual” people in situ. Critiques a number of categories, including #2 and 6, from theorizing too abstractly and for failing to find compelling evidence of their hypothesizing on the ground in “real” time. Challenges category #4 for reifying culture and society through an overemphasis on numeric, quantitative analysis that ultimately misconstrues both how culture as well as social institutions work. Takes category #7.1 to task for doing “ethnography lite.”

6. The Critical Study of Religious Studies. This group of scholars, difficult to pinpoint, tends to hail from category #2 but also engages in a smattering of methodologies common to #1, 3-5, and 7. Takes the methods and strategies of categories #1-7 as its subject matter. In other words, this field describes, analyzes, and critiques the work of scholars who consider religion—in all its descriptive and definitional manifestations—as a productive area of academic inquiry. Work in this category tends to be at least partially historical (read: genealogical) and by definition engages in the study of power, discourse, rhetoric, structure, and function of cultural and social institutions. Often—as this field engages in the study of the study of religion—critical religious studies scholars tend to be hyper-reflexive in that they take interest in the ways that religion scholars load analytically descriptive terms such as “religion” with meaning, and in the quest to understand why and for which reasons such scholars cast religion as such, pay attention to the dynamics of power (and boundary construction and maintenance) within the academy. Critiques category #5 (and perhaps 6) for failing to see that ethnographically derived data on “real” people constitute representations of human meaning as much as, say, the historical study of traditions through texts. Often engages in its own academic purity rituals, however, as the category is constantly on the look-out for scholars (with hidden agendas) hailing from sub-category #7.7.

7. Hybrid Methods.

7.1. The Historian-Ethnographer (or Ethnographer-Historian). Made up of scholars who blend, to varying degrees, methods from categories #1 and 4 (or 5).

7.2. The Social Anthropologist. Scholars who fit somewhat awkwardly between categories #4 and 5.

7.3. The History of Religions Scholar. An older term referring to a specific group of pre-twenty-first-century scholars interested in the academic study of religion (as opposed to theology proper).

7.4. The Area Specialist. Scholars who define their academic identity primarily on the geographic (or national/political) area studied (e.g., Americanists, Sinologists, or experts of Southeast Asian religions).

7.5. Comparative Religious Ethics Scholar. Takes ethics systems, writ broadly, as its primary area of interest and draws methodologically on many of the above categories. Invested in description and analysis of human ethics but finds as enlightening and productive the comparison of both similar and disparate systems and phenomena.

7.6. The Religious Tradition(s) Specialist. Similar to category #7.4, above, traditions specialists define themselves primarily as scholars of a particular religious traditions (e.g., scholars of Buddhism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, or Judaism), sub-traditions (e.g., Pure Land Buddhism, Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, etc.) or even further as sub-traditions clarified regionally or geographically, thus collapsing into category #7.4 (e.g., Pure Land Japanese Buddhism, Pentecostalism in the Global South, or American Judaism).

7.7. The Theologian. Since Abington v. Schempp (1963), these scholars do not exist in public schools funded by taxpayer dollars (or at least do so covertly). Tend to hail from seminaries and/or religiously-affiliated academic institutions. Methods vary and draw on a number of the above categories.

Finally, some questions: How accurate or descriptive are these categories and sub-categories listed above? Have any fields been grossly misrepresented (or omitted altogether)? (Combinations, mixtures, and sub-fields abound, so which would you add to the list? I’ve neglected to include, for instance, an important field in the study of religion—the psychological, cognitive, or neuroscientific study of religion—simply because, in my understanding, such scholars tend to come from departments other than religious studies and this post focuses primarily on scholars in religious studies departments proper. Related to categories #1, 4, and 7.1, I’ve also not included the field of social history as social historians tend to work within history departments.) Given the increasingly interdisciplinary direction the academy is moving in, do sharp distinctions between schools or categories pertain? And how are scholars such as myself—presently training at least partially in religious studies graduate departments—going about identifying themselves and their scholarly identities in light of these categories? What are your thoughts?

Posted in Pedagogy, Religion and Theory, Ruminations, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World, Travis Cooper, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Islamophobia and Antisemitism


by Tenzan Eaghll

In a hundred years from now when historians and scholars of religion look back on the perceptions of Muslims between the later half of the 20th and the first half of the 21st Century I wonder what conclusions they will come to? Will they look at contemporary perceptions of Muslims in the same light that scholars now view the Antisemitism of the late 19th and early 20th Century?

The rise of Islamophobia in public discourse and the intersection between it and Antisemitism has been examined before on the Bulletin and by news agencies (e.g., here and here) and I do not have the space nor the time to rehash these positions here. I raise the issue because of a recent blog post I read by University of Toronto professor Dr. Ivan Kalmar. In his post Kalmar discusses his recent rejection by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) for a study on the connections between Islamophobia and Antisemitism. Apparently, he and several other distinguished scholars were unsuccessful in their application to study the “important parallels as well as differences between these two forms of hatred.”  As Kalmar writes:

Our research was meant to demonstrate that in the imagination of the mainly Christian Western world, they have been intertwined for centuries. We think that important parallels exist – along with major differences – especially between how Muslims are defamed today and how Jews were defamed about a hundred years ago, before antisemitism progressed to the Nazi genocide.

No one is predicting a Holocaust of Muslims, yet there are still moral lessons to be learned. We do not want to subject anyone, Muslim or otherwise, to the hostility and humiliation that Jews suffered, or to ignore the potential that such mistreatment, if unchecked, has to grow to ever more monstrous proportions.

What Kalmar and his colleagues wanted to study was how Islamophobia and Antisemitism are linked in the Western imagination; they sought to trace out these parallels in order to avoid future hostility and humiliation to Muslims. They did not want to sanction the violence committed in the name of Islam by self-proclaimed radicals (whether in Iraq or in Madrid) but show how this violence is used to justify the creation (and subsequent subjection) of a ‘dangerous Muslim Other.’

Sadly, Kalmar and his colleagues were turned down by SSHRC for the exact same reasons they wanted to conduct their study in the first place: religious essentialism. As Kalmar relates, the SSHRC reviewers felt that the comparison between Islamophobia and Antisemitism was unfair because, whereas the idea of an international Jewish conspiracy is delusional, Muslims clearly are engaged in violent acts. As one reviewer writes:

Due to a complete absence of empirical evidence and actual experience of an international Jewish conspiracy, scholars rightly reject antisemitism as delusional. The same cannot be said about contemporary Western perceptions of, and reactions to, radical supremacist movements in the Islamic world that have taken responsibility for many attacks on civilians in Asia, Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East.

Kalmar rightly notes the Islamophobic nature of this comment, and is rightly shocked that SSHRC would base its decision on this kind of judgement. Not only is this reviewer merely reinforcing the correlation between Islam and violence (reducing them to mere synonyms), but universalizing the position of radicals to be representative for Islam as a whole. What is perhaps most alarming about this statement is the underlying assumption that a fear of Muslims is justified because of the violence committed by a minority of radicals. This not only overlooks the fact that, as Kalmar points out, “even the most extreme and despicable of “radical supremacist movements,” such as al-Qaeda, have never called for the whole world to become an Islamic State,” but ignores that even if such views exist they will always remain marginal in Islam. The idea of an international Jewish conspiracy is just as delusional as the idea that Muslims want to rule the world.

The fact that the perception of this reviewer influenced the council is alarming not only because their objections have nothing to do with scholarship but because it exposes how deeply entrenched religious essentialism is in the academy. When a SSHRC reviewer so firmly believes in the world religions paradigm that they draw a direct correlation between a bomb in New York and Islam (as some imagined “world”) we are in serious trouble.

To repeat my initial question:  In a hundred years from now when historians and scholars of religion look back on the perceptions of Muslims between the later half of the 20th and the first half of the 21st Century, I wonder what conclusions they will come to? Will they think of us as wilfully blind to the obvious, or worse, complicit in the essentialization and subjection of whole cultures under a mirage of our own creation? At what point will Islamophobia and Antisemitism be treated with the same scrutiny?

As Dr. Sarah Farris notes in her article for Al Jazeera, “Muslims have thus become, at least in many ways, the new Jews. They have become the scapegoats onto whom Europeans are projecting their anxieties about the future.” What needs to be examined from a scholarly point of view are the psychological, political, and sociological factors, etc. at work. How do otherizing and essentialism function in the West as transhistorical, cross-cultural forces that legitimate violence upon Muslims? Though SSHRC seems to disagree that this topic is worthy of investigation, I think it is precisely the kind of thing that scholarship should be aiming to problematize.

Posted in Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, Tenzan Eaghll, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

North American Association for the Study of Religion: 2014 Annual Meeting, San Diego


Friday, November 21—Monday, November 24


Exectuive Council Meeting

8:30 AM-9:20 AM—Hilton Bayfront-Aqua Boardroom

Author Meets Readers: Elizabeth Pritchard’s Religion in Public: Locke’s Political Theology

9:30 AM-12:00 PM—Hilton Bayfront-303

This panel brings together scholars from different fields to discuss Elizabeth Pritchard’s recent book on John Locke’s political theology and its legacy for how we think about secularization, the public/private divide, religion and power, and liberalism’s configuration of toleration and religious freedom, to name a few themes. The panel will surely draw a wide scholarly audience by considering a series of historical, methodological, political, and theoretical questions: how might Pritchard’s rereading of a foundational archive in secularization theory change our approach to contemporary theoretical debates over secularization? How does Locke’s political theology compare to some of his rough contemporaries (e.g. Hobbes, Spinoza, etc.)? What previously unmarked forms of religiosity does this text make visible? What resources does this text offer for analyzing liberalism’s figuration of religion and the legacy of that figuration both in its Anglo-American context and in its colonial reach? What are some of the legal “lessons” to learn from rethinking Locke? What resources does this text offer for studying religious phenomena? And, finally: in spite of definitive evidence to the contrary, the supposedly Lockean definition of religion as private and apolitical remains persuasive and appealing to religious practitioners and scholars alike; why does this definition persist and how might Pritchard’s work shed light on the social, political, theological, and scholarly stakes of this persistence?

Winnifred Sullivan, Indiana University, Bloomington
Tyler T. Roberts, Grinnell College
Julie Cooper, Tel Aviv University
Robert A. Yelle, University of Munich
Elizabeth A. Pritchard, Bowdoin College 
Craig Martin, St. Thomas Aquinas College


Lecture: Iconographies of Democracy and Representations of Religion

Yvonne Sherwood, University of Kent

1:00 PM-2:20 PM—Hilton Bayfront-303

Lecture: Politics of Knowledge in the Study of Religion

Kocku von Stuckrad, University of Groningen

2:30 PM-3:50 PM—Hilton Bayfront-303

This lecture addresses the myth of scholarly neutrality and explores some of the consequences that accompany the idea of the socially embedded scholar. On the level of theory, the lecture looks at the problematic distinction between emic and etic, offering a vocabulary that acknowledges the direct impact of scholarly theories on religious discourse. On the level of practice, it problematizes the politics of inclusion and exclusion in academic work, focusing on shortcomings in peer-review processes and growing competition in the job market.

Lecture: Revitalizing the Comparative Enterprise: A Building Block Approach to Complex Cultural Concepts

Ann Taves, University of California at Santa Barbara

4:00 PM-5:20 PM—Hilton Bayfront-303

Annual NAASR Reception, co-sponsored with Equinox Publishing

Time and Location TBA


Panel: Strategies of Mythmaking at Christian Tourist Attractions

9:30 AM-11:50 AM—Hilton Bayfront-202B

This panel theorizes four present-day Christian tourist attractions as sites of ongoing social and mythic formation: The Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY, the Ark Encounter in Williamstown, KY, Bible Walk in Mansfield, OH, and the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, FL. Working from Bruce Lincoln’s observation that “myth is ideology in narrative form,” the papers examine various strategies by which Christian tourist attractions enable visitors to interact directly within mythic configurations. This direct interaction functions as a type of pilgrimage, whereby visitors locate themselves within a mythic trajectory that begins with the creation of the world and points toward an eternity with (or, perhaps, without) Christ.

“Mythic Formation at the Holy Land Experience”
Erin Roberts, University of South Carolina
“Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego…and Jesus?: Anachronism as a Constituent Feature of Mythmaking”
Jennifer Eyl, Tufts University 
“Myth, Anachronism, and Fiction: The Creation Museum’s Production of Scientific and Biblical Misplacements”
Steven M. Watkins, Northern Kentucky University
“How to Build an Ark: Intertextuality and Authority Among Creationist Artists”
James S. Bielo, Miami University
“‘It is what it is’: Rhetoric of Legitimation and Authentic Identity Construction on a Christian Zionist Tour of Israel”
Sean Durbin, Macquarie University, Sydney


Business Meeting

12:00 PM-12:50 PM—Hilton Bayfront-202B

All members encouraged to attend

Presidential Panel: The Category of Religion in the Technology of Statecraft: Theorizing Religions as Vestigial States

1:00 PM-3:30 PM—Hilton Bayfront-202B

The panel will explore the theory that religions can be productively and interestingly thought of as vestigial states. Naomi Goldenberg describes ‘religions’ as sets of institutions, ideologies and practices that originate with reference to former sovereignties. The term ‘religion’ gains traction through history and is applied to ‘states’ that have been displaced through war, invasion or colonization. Vestigial states – i.e. ‘religions’ – are both tolerated and encouraged as attenuated and marginalized governments within fully functioning nation states as long as most forms of violence are renounced. Indeed, vestigial states tend to behave as once and future states that, although always restive, nevertheless ground the powers that authorize them by recalling earlier, now mystified forms of male sovereignty from which present (i.e. ‘secular’) states arise.

Naomi Goldenberg, University of Ottawa
William Arnal, University of Regina
Craig Martin, St. Thomas Aquinas College
Kathleen McPhillips, University of Newcastle
Elizabeth Pritchard, Bowdoin College
Winnifred Sullivan, Indiana University
Robert Yelle


Workshop: Introducing Theory in the Classroom

2:45 PM-5:05 PM—Marriott Marquis-Solana

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 ( 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?

Workshop Leaders
Tara Baldrick-Morrone
Rebekka King
Suzanne Owen
Matt Sheedy


Panel: Conceptual Issues in New Testament Scholarship (Co-Sponsored with the Society for Biblical Literature)

9:00 AM-11:00 AM—Hilton Bayfront-314

Inventing Tradition in Thessalonica”
Sarah Rollens, University of Alabama
“Epistemology and the Production of History: “History” as a Discipline and Object in the Study of Early Jesus People”
Ian Brown, University of Toronto
“Gods, Religions, and Divine Exceptionalism: The Case of So-called Idolatry”
Emma Wasserman, Rutgers University
Craig Martin, St. Thomas Aquinas College
Jennifer Eyl, Tufts University
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The Problem of the Mystic East

mystic-eastThe following post originally appeared in a slightly different form on the author’s personal blog, which can be found here.

After having read Robert Orsi’s rather odd essay on “The Problem of the Holy” (in The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies, ed. by Robert Orsi) and chatting about it with a friend, it was suggested to me that a parody might be in order. In his essay, Orsi grants that Rudolph Otto’s concept of “the holy” as something ontologically transcendent from all eternity is no longer sustainable—he thus grants that some of the historicist critiques of Otto were legitimate—but that there is nevertheless something very real about experiences of “the holy” that we as religion scholars must hold on to. I wondered what it might be like to take Orsi’s text and substitute “the mystic East” for “the holy” and see what it might look like. In what follows Orsi’s words are in blue and my additions or substitutions are in gray.

Many (not all) scholars of religion become restive sooner or later with the simple sufficiency of social or ideological explanations of “orientalism.” It is not that these scholars of religion propose foregoing social explanations. It is that they recognize that such accounts fall short of the realness of the mystic East and the rational West in people’s experience. And not just this: social accounts that pretend to be exhaustive distort those experiences and diminish them, precisely as historical and cultural phenomena. Such explanations are empirically insufficient, in other words. These restive scholars have witnessed something in their fieldwork or historical study which they want to name as the East or the West and without which our social account is beside the point.

“The Orient” has the musty smell of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century bourgeois European ethnocentrism about it, as it was implicated in the European ideology of Western superiority that underwrote the colonial project. Yes, but—the Orient still seems to me to name both a reality and an approach to religion that scholars of religion ought to think about. For one thing, people all over the world and in different historical periods have experienced something of either the West or the East, and they know what they mean when they use the terms, even feel compelled to use them, as the only possible words for what they have experienced. The mystic East is apprehended as immediately and undeniably real by those who, for instance, practice meditation. Consequently, the concept of the East requires reconsideration, even rehabilitation.

Edward Said was of course correct to offer the critique of Orientalism in his now famous and widely read work. When I hear something called “Eastern,” I am on the lookout for domination, denial, and exploitation. Sometimes “the Orient” is a term of appropriation and domination. However, to insist that the East is not eternally persisting and homogeneous is not to have said very much about it. To explain it as a function of cultural formation (which it is) does not adequately take into account how the people having the experience of the mystic East described it or how it acted upon them. Contemporary scholars like Said want to stop with the sociological formation of the East, but this is really only the beginning of understanding this human experience. How is “the East” experienced as really real and what does this mean for people’s lives and for the social world?

My work with people who have experienced the mystical East has prevented me from being able simply to dismiss the term, unstable and treacherous as it is in experience and flawed and problematic as a concept. This is my deeper problem with the idea of the mystical East, the place I come to after critical analysis and deconstruction. The East describes something real in culture and history, with real, if ambivalent, effects. I do not mean something free of time and space, at least in its inception. I do however think it becomes free of time and space. It comes to have a life of its own independent of the humans out of whose imaginations, inheritances, and circumstances it emerged.

In conclusion, the mystic East is experienced as “objective.” It is known as objectively real, not as delusion or fantasy. The key category of the East is its realness. The East takes on a life and efficacy of its own, like a ghost with its own aims and intentions.

(Note that the words “believe in” [as in these people "believe in" the mystic East] have not appeared here. This is because the East is met as the really real and this renders otiose such terms that connote ignorance on the part of those who experience the East.)

Posted in Craig Martin, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment