How Far Does This Love Take Us?

love wins

by Sher Afgan Tareen

The recent 5-4 ruling in Obergefell vs. Hodges raised Justice Anthony Kennedy to a venerable stature amongst those who vigorously celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision. In arguing why same sex marriage ought to be a constitutional right, Justice Kennedy joined Plato, Socrates, and Diotima by sharing his reflections on love. He extolled marriage as a “union” more profound than any other form of social assembling, an embodiment of “the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, devotion, sacrifice, and family.” He suggested that perhaps this love may “endure even past death.” He assigned marriage to a set of “freedoms” that one may actualize through this bond such as “expression, intimacy, and spirituality.” Lastly, he affixed certain qualities such as “dignity” and “autonomy” upon the married couple who, according to him, make such “profound choices.”

Were these reflections on marriage and love necessary? Or would it have been enough for Kennedy to reiterate my aunt’s analysis: it’s all about receiving tax exemptions! Based on the positive circulation of his defense on facebook statuses, Kennedy deserves a pat on his back. Yet his defense underscores the obstinance of a logic of happiness that relies on the normativity of heterosexual marriage and the indeterminate boundary separating religion from politics through which secular power ironically secures itself. In what follows, I deconstruct Kennedy’s love argument. My response comes in two parts: one deals with the affect of sexuality and the second with the problem of American secularism.

Kennedy developed his reflections on marriage and love as he sought to assuage the anxieties of his fellow conservative judges that same sex marriage would offend and disrespect heterosexual marriage. Despite acknowledging their concerns, Kennedy promised that same sex couples do not disrespect heterosexual marriage. To the contrary, “their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves.” To assume so would be to “misunderstand these men and women.”

Kennedy’s apologia highlights the way in which the debate over same sex marriage was framed around the politics of feelings. Same sex marriage announces a broadening of the horizons of imagining who can and cannot marry but same sex marriage must make this announcement without insulting the feelings of heterosexuality, its precedence. Celebrating same sex marriage words must not translate into rejecting the preeminence of heterosexual marriage; happiness must not turn into mockery. Same sex marriage in other words must not muster the affective force to cause and create disrespect.

The subject who may feel disrespected here is not a person but rather a form of social assembling, the heterosexual couple, that nonetheless somehow feels and thus fulfills the requirement of personhood. By promising his mates that same sex marriage will not disrespect heterosexual marriage, Kennedy suggests that non-heterosexual deviance does not err against the feelings of heterosexual marriage. Yet if one were to delve into queer and feminist politics, the rebellion against heterosexual nuclear family centers on resisting and rejecting the heterosexual logic of happiness. As Sarah Ahmed so convincingly argues in The Promise of Happiness, we ought to be wary of spreading happiness because some people may not experience happiness at sites that promise to give happiness. One such site is the heterosexual marriage. Marriage is called the happiest day in one’s life. Yet that feeling of happiness is structured by the gendered enactment of marriage as a ritual. The happiness of heterosexual marriage first of all secures the bride as a happy bride and therefore does not consider the ways in which her heterosexual marriage limits her mobility and thus causes her unhappiness. In addition, it also bars the intimate spaces where gay and lesbian relations occur from competing abreast with the heterosexual marriage as sites of happiness. The mere invisibility of otherwise happy spaces where gay and lesbian partners enact their love for each other in other words attaches happiness to the heterosexual marriage. Following Ahmed’s critique of how happiness maintains the naturalness of certain forms of social formations, I ask the following: Should we respect the feelings of the heterosexual marriage especially when heterosexual marriage has historically been that against which non-heterosexual deviance has been criminalized? Isn’t Justice Kennedy telling all of us to be happy and not insult one another when what radical politics may demand is precisely such an insult? Could framing same sex marriage as respectful of heterosexual marriage erase the troubling effects of heterosexuality as the normative form of assembling? Doesn’t rendering same sex marriage as NOT a trouble maker secures heterosexuality as untroubled?

The second part of my criticism deals with the question of secularism. Quite often, the United States Supreme Court becomes the site where debates over the nature of American secularity transpires. These debates revolve around assessing the line that separates religion from politics. Liberals rue the decline in progress by bemoaning how a Supreme Court led by Republican appointees fulfills the wishes of religious conservatives. Most noticeably, last year the Hobby Lobby case caused immense discomfort to liberals who, despite a well archived history of how Corporate personhood developed in America, were stunned that the Supreme Court allowed corporations led by religious leaders to adhere to their religious principles and not be forced to pay for insurance coverage of contraception.

Conservatives create the caricature of liberal activist judges who revise the Constitution as they please without giving a damn about the overarching religious principles that ground American democracy and secularity. For instance the attorney General of Texas, Ken Paxton, recently compared the same-sex marriage ruling to Row V. Wade and then proceeded to affirm that changes in law (he means coerced and unprincipled) can neither change “the simple truth” that marriage is between a man and a woman nor can it “change our collective resolve that all Americans should be able to exercise their faith in their daily lives.”

These two distinct anxieties share a consensus that the defense of American secularism requires an incessant policing of the boundaries separating religion from politics. If that policing unravels, the freedom granted by American secularity will be imperiled: from the freedom of the women to use contraception to the freedom of Jane and Joe to exercise their faith. Neither of these anxieties question the idea that religion is a source of good but both maintain a separation between the private domain of religion and the public domain of politics to protect the freedoms offered by American secularism. In his book Questioning Secularism: Islam, Sovereignty, and the Rule of Law in Modern Egypt, Hussein Agrama argues that Egypt is a deeply secular country not because it keeps religion out of politics but rather because it consistently draws and redraws the boundary between religion and politics. Agrama suggests that in order to measure secular power (the power of the sovereign modern nation state to manage its diverse population), we ought to pay attention to the paradox of how secular power mobilizes itself by never truly settling the question of where one ought to draw the line between religion and power. Secular power in other words is a power that undermines secularism’s normative claim (that religion is outside of politics) and ironically works precisely by making religion an object of politics.

Agrama’s theoretical contributions are quite helpful in thinking about conceptualizing Obergefell vs. Hodges as a secular ruling. Obergefell vs. Hodges fails to offset previous legal rulings that empowered the state to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman and thus politicized religion to deem same sex marriage illegal. It also politicizes religion to legalize same sex marriage. And that’s precisely why I read it as a secular ruling.

Mr. Kennedy’s love argument includes a list of claims such as “marriage embodies a love that may endure past death” and that marital union makes “two people something greater than once they were,” which can not be proven by citing legal precedents. His statements resonate deeply with Christian theological reflections on marriage. The notion of love enduring death even seems to harken the Mormon notion of a celestial marriage. Whether Kennedy was cognizant of these Christian undercurrents to his arguments is a question I can not answer. Yet he does offer a compelling recipe for defending same sex marriage through a deeply Christian, heterosexual imaginary. The love celebrated today must respect the love which hated it yesterday.

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.

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

Better get to know Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy


Ipsita Chatterjea: Brad, Craig, thank you for taking the time to talk to the Bulletin for the Study of Religion Blog about your group and its work! Practicum observed its 1 year anniversary on April 26 2014. What is Practicum’s origin tale?


Brad Stoddard: The idea for Practicum grew out of my experience at Florida State University, where I’m about to complete my doctorate. Most graduate students at FSU have to teach, and some of us swapped strategies for introducing critical theory into our intro courses. I noticed that similar conversations took place at various conferences, so I thought it might be a good idea to create a space for scholars to discuss various strategies, techniques, and ideas. I floated the idea by Craig, who asked several people if they were interested in contributing to the project. There seemed to be sufficient interest, so Craig and I launched the blog as co-editors.

IC: Who are you people?!


BS: I’m Brad Stoddard, a fifth-year doctoral candidate at Florida State University, where I’m completing my dissertation on Florida’s faith-based correctional program. This fall, I’ll join the faculty at McDaniel College in Maryland.

Craig Martin: Hahaha, Brad’s initials are BS! I never noticed that. I’m Craig Martin; I’m an assistant professor of religious studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College, which is in New York (not far from Manhattan). Since I am one of only two professors in religious studies here, I teach a lot of courses, from an introductory courses on “Religion and Society,” “Religions of the West,” and “Religions of the East,” to more upper level courses on religion and gender, religion and capitalism, religion and politics, etc.

In addition, I currently serve as the Executive Secretary/Treasurer of the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR), and I once edited the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. I think I’m probably most known though for my latest two books: A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (Routledge 2012) and Capitalizing Religion: Ideology and the Opiate of the Bourgeoisie (Bloomsbury 2014).

Our editorial board includes the following four scholars.

IC: So, What does Practicum do and how does Practicum do it?


BS: Our goal is simple: we want to create a space where scholars at all stages in their careers can explore and suggest practical strategies to help introduce their students to critical theory. The underlying assumption is that critical theory should play an important role in the undergraduate classroom, including the introductory course, which for the vast majority of students is the only Religious Studies course they’ll take. We’ll literally have one semester to influence the students’ understanding of “religion,” so we should approach the classroom as a tradesperson approaches a trade. Specifically, we should look for new and innovative tools to help us “reach” our students.

To facilitate this, the editors at Practicum solicit original content and we look for relevant material on other blogs. We also have two ongoing “series.” The first is the syllabus project. Since every course makes a larger argument, we ask a scholar to share her syllabus and to discuss her main argument and course objectives, paying particular attention to the theoretical framework that underlies the entire course. Our second ongoing series is our interview with the author series, where we identify interesting and important books and then ask the author to answer a few questions that will explore the book’s theoretical framework and its pedagogical value.

IC: “Practicum” “Critical Theory” “Religion” and “Pedagogy” how do you see these words (and three of them are highly contested words within the field) and the range of issues they evoke for the bloggers and readers of Practicum?


CM: What we hope these terms signal likely centers on two of the terms: “critical theory” and “pedagogy.” First, I think critical theory, at bottom, is about critique in the Kantian sense (with a little bit of Marx thrown in): what are the conditions that make something possible? Under what conditions is “Jesus” constructed and then taken for granted as an authority figure in particular communities? What material conditions make it possible for “spirituality” to be more popular than so-called “organized religion,” and–perhaps more importantly–in what discursive context do those terms even signify in the first place? How do the conditions of imperialism and colonialism make discourses on “world religions” both possible and appealing? In this way, critical theory is about exposing or unmasking the typically invisible discursive and power laden conditions that make our social worlds possible. In addition, this form of critique has to be applied to the term “religion” as well–so its place in our title is not a marker of the substance of our blog but merely a discursive site at which we apply criticism.

Second, since it’s not easy to show students what is usually invisible to them, it requires us to be pedagogically sophisticated and reflexive–particularly so we don’t end up dismantling one essentialism only to replace it by another. We have to be continually vigilant as teachers. We hope this blog encourages reflection that lends itself to this constant vigilance.

IC: What changes or shifts would Practicum like to see enacted in classrooms where the analysis of religious phenomenon is the focus of the room?


BS: I have two main goals. First, as scholars interested in the academic study of religion, I would like to see more instructors treat religion as a thoroughly human phenomenon. Second, and related to this, we should provide our students with theoretical tools to help them identify the various interests (material, ideological, political, economic, etc.) that underlie our approaches to the supernatural. Regarding this latter point, I often recall Russell McCutcheon’s important question: “Most simply put, are we studying nouns or verbs?” The answer to this seemingly simply question frames and informs our studies.

IC: Practicum was involved with NAASR’s Pedagogy Workshop in San Diego? How did that develop? How did it all turn out?


BS: Tara Baldrick-Morrone and Matt Sheedy deserve 100% of the credit for the NAASR section on religion and pedagogy. They organized the panel, circulated the common readings, and administered the entire session. A month or so before the session, I approached Matt and asked him if we could parlay it into some blog posts for both Practicum and the Bulletin for the Study of Religion’s blog. Both he and Tara supported the plan, so we discussed it at the session. Then after the session, we created a Facebook group for session participants to discuss the session and to float ideas for the blogs. Here again, Matt deserves most of the credit, as he did the vast majority of the work.

Overall, though, I was very happy with the conversation that followed! The session started a longer conversation that continued in multiple venues over the next several months. The ideas we explored in the session segued into erudite blogs that hopefully benefitted scholars throughout the country and beyond.

IC: Could you tell us about the recent Webinar and whether another is on plan any time soon?


BS: We created the webinar to serve several goals. First, given the scarcity of critical theory in the academic study of religion, we wanted to create a forum where we can introduce students to the types of issues we’re interested in. Second, some students were already familiar with critical theory, so we wanted to provide them a place where they can continue to explore critical theory. Third, every participant is working on a senior or honors thesis, so we wanted to provide additional theoretical tools to help the students in their studies. Finally, since most of these students will soon become graduate students, we wanted to give them an opportunity to meet, interact with, and network with other like-minded young scholars.

To this end, ten undergraduates participated in the program, which consisted of roughly four hours of instruction and discussion spread over two Fridays. We don’t currently have plans for another webinar, but that could change. We’re still kicking around a few ideas.

IC: Are there journals that display a more mindful consciousness about teaching religion or critical theory as an aspect of reporting research findings?


CM: the only journal I know of that addresses teaching is Teaching Theology and Religion. There is sometimes some excellent stuff in there, but unfortunately–at least from my perspective–the material in that journal is often articulated in an uncritical and undertheorized theoretical apparatus. Sometimes it’s a view of ethics or social justice that naturalizes particular moral discourses, and sometimes it’s a liberal ecumenism that reinforces a Protestant ideology or a world religions discourse–which go unanalyzed and therefore uncontested.

IC: What journals do you think instructors should point to to help undergraduates or entry level graduate students make the transition into scholarship or study design, inasmuch as these journals are consistently good in their deployments of theory and research on religion?


BS: Teaching Theology and Religion occasionally has good articles, but Method and Theory in the Study of Religion and the Bulletin for the Study of Religion are the best journals in the academic study of religion. At the risk of sounding self-indulgent, I think my conversation with Bruce Lincoln (for the Religious Studies Project) has more pedagogical value than any single article I can think of. In forty or so minutes, Lincoln introduces the student to critical theory and he provides practical examples of applied theory. I know of several instructors who are assigning that podcast as a course assignment.

CM: I think Method and Theory in the Study of Religion is the best journal in our field. some of it might be inaccessible to students, but much of it would be highly instructive regarding ongoing debates or methodological issues. Case in point: Bruce Lincoln’s “Theses on Method” was published in MTSR; that would be a fantastic conversation starter in a religious studies classroom, even if the instructor didn’t agree with Lincoln.

IC: Are there scholars you find yourselves turning to who have particular books that embody critical theory based research and represent either really good introductions to such work, or are good models for students who need to transition into developing writing projects and research papers? Is any of that work forthcoming?


CM: Haha, well, since you asked: I think my A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion does a good job of introducing students to a critical approach to the subject matter.

I’ve had some success using Aaron Hughes’ Abrahamic Religions in one of my courses; in that book Hughes brilliantly interrogates the idea of “Abrahamic religions” (a successor to “Judeo-Christian religions” and “religions of the book”), revealing its history and showing that the phrase is grossly normative. I use this in my “Religions of the West” course in order to help dismantle the course’s very title.

In my “Religions of the East” course I’ve similarly had success using Veronique Altglas’ new book, From Yoga to Kabbalah. Altglas looks closely at how contemporary practitioners of “Eastern religions” typically employ romantic, orientalist notions of the “Mystic East” at the same time that they transform the traditions they appropriate by articulating them onto modern discourses on “individuality.” In addition, she looks at how some contemporary scholars do precisely the same thing. Thus it provides me with a platform for encouraging students who signed up for the course out of a romantic interest in the “Mystic East” to reflect on their own uncritical assumptions, as well as how even scholars might be directed by naive stereotypes of “individuality” and “religion.”

Although I haven’t used it yet, I’m anxious to try out Leslie Dorrough Smith’s Righteous Rhetoric in class; it’s a fantastically clear and accessible critique of how rhetoricians appeal to people’s fears of chaos in order to elicit support for their social agendas. What’s especially great about this book is that Smith applies her critique not just to the evangelical Christians she studies but also the scholars who write on evangelicals, who use precisely the same rhetorical device. Thus the book is a model for the type of analytical reflexivity to which we think critical theory should aspire.

IC: On behalf of the Bulletin, thank you for letting us get to know Practicum. Is there anything else we should know?


BS: We’re always looking for content, so don’t hesitate to submit something if you think it’s relevant.

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

Theses on Professionalization Series: Tenzan Eaghll


In this new feature with the Bulletin, we have asked 21 early career scholars to weigh in on Russell McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, first published in 2007. In his 21 theses, McCutcheon offers advice to young scholars entering (or soon to enter) the job market, addressing the all-to-important (but often overlooked) question of professionalization. Each of the contributors in this series has been asked to comment on a single theses, addressing its contemporary relevance, and how it relates to their own experience moving forward in the academic world. For previous posts in this series, see here

Thesis #2: A Ph.D. is awarded not only as a mark of intellectual competence and disciplined method but also as a professional credential that signals one’s eligibility for employment as a researcher and teacher within academia. Although these two aspects of the degree can complement one another, they can just as easily conflict, as in when one’s research expertise fails to overlap with ever changing employment needs.

I am entering the sixth (and final) year of my doctorate at the University of Toronto, so I am right at the cusp of encountering the gap between my area of expertise and the demands of the job market, and I am worried. It is not that I am unprepared, I mean, I have been studying religion for 12 years and feel confident in the subject matter. It is just that the gap between my area of expertise and many of the classes I will be expected to teach is so big as to make the latter seem like a foreign territory. Moreover, given the current job market, this foreign territory may be a place I am exiled to for a very long time. With the shrinking pool of tenure-track jobs and the rise in the amount of poorly paid adjunct positions, I have to prepare myself for the possibility of getting stuck in the adjunct loop.

Early on in my studies I had assumed that by developing intellectual competence in one particular area of religious studies I would be preparing to teach both my topic of expertise and more general introductory classes in the field, but I am coming to believe that this is incorrect. Part of the reason for this is because my area of expertise is philosophy of religion/method and theory, which doesn’t see a lot of job postings, but also because PhD grads are not trained to be experts in any of the “bread and butter” classes on which religious studies departments depend. Most entry level positions require teaching a whole slew of introductory classes I have only basic knowledge in: Introduction to World Religions, Nature of World Religions, Introduction to Christianity, Religion and Violence, Religion and Film, etc. Although I have served as a Teaching Assistant and Course Instructor in some of these classes, I have never been tested to prove my competency in any of these particular subjects. In order to attain my PhD I have only passed comprehensive exams that tested my knowledge within the fields of study related to my dissertation topic. Never once was I tested in my knowledge of “Hinduism,” “Buddhism,” the “religious experience of mystics,” or even the “history of Christianity,” yet those are the topics I will be expected to teach with sublime proficiency (lest I be fired for poor student reviews!).

Of course, I am not suggesting that there should be exams for these general subjects in all PhD programs but am simply trying to underline the fact that the particular reasons for which a PhD is awarded doesn’t necessarily overlap with the demands of the job market. Moreover, I am trying to point out that the gap between intellectual competence and employment opportunities is not just a result of changing employment needs but a systemic problem in religious studies.

Religious Studies is not a discipline with a rigidly defined phenomenon of investigation, and this makes the leap from graduate research to the job market all that more difficult. In Critics Not Caretakers McCutcheon writes that the introductory religious studies classroom is,

[T]he site of some of the most unsophisticated scholarship we collectively produce. It is the place where we often fail to live up to our responsibility of educating critical thinkers and future scholars and, instead, where we often act as trustees concerned for the general well-being of religion. (66)

Perhaps part of the reason these introductory classes are so “unsophisticated” is that they are dumped upon lecturers who have expertise in a very specific area of research, and very little experience teaching general subjects. How are PhD grads fresh out the gate expected to reinvent the wheel when they have neither the experience nor the departmental weight needed to refashion out-dated course models?

Traditionally, it has been expected that new lecturers will spend several years teaching these introductory subjects in order to prove their acumen, and then after a certain period of time they will be given more advanced classes that reflect their area of expertise and their research. However, given the current job market this latter opportunity may never arise for some aspiring academics, and many, including myself, may get stuck at the introductory level teaching “bread and butter” classes for a department that is looking for neither “sophisticated” nor “original” input into traditional courses.

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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Making Sense—and Nonsense—of ‘Religious Terrorism’


by Simon Frankel Pratt

One does not have to engage all that deeply with popular and academic conversations on terrorism before religion shows up. These days, and especially in the media, such conversations mainly consider one religion in particular, but this hasn’t always been so. A few decades ago, before Islamist militancy became such a preoccupation—of commentators and of militants—the sectarian dimensions of the conflict in Northern Ireland might have been held up as a case study in ‘religious terrorism’. Several more decades before that, Jewish nationalist violence in Mandatory Palestine may have served. But for all the attention that it has received, the relationship between religion and terrorism is often stated in the most confused of ways. It bears clarifying, and that it what I hope to do here.

One of the more problematic attempts to study that relationship is also quite oft-cited and well-known. Mark Juergensmeyer’s book Terror in the Mind of God [1] investigates the supposed phenomenon of ‘religious terrorism’, defined as ‘public acts of violence …for which religion has provided the motivation, the justification, the organization, and the world view’ (7). Surveying a range of terrorist acts, groups, persons, and causes, in admirable empirical detail, Juergensmeyer comes to a strange conclusion: ‘In examining recent acts of religious terrorism…I have come to see these acts as forms of public performance rather than aspects of political strategy’ (xi). Yet this statement makes little sense for two reasons, one conceptual and the other empirical.

To propose this dichotomy between symbolic, performative action on the one hand and strategic action on the other is to misunderstand what terrorism is all about. To define it in the most general of senses, terrorism is the dramatic use of violence in order to influence the political behaviour of an audience. Terrorism is all about performances and symbolism; the individual people killed or maimed by terrorists are targeted in order to produce a reaction in onlookers, who are moved—to fear, to hate, or even to inspiration—by the display. If an act of violence is not a public performance, then it is not an act of terrorism.

Moreover, most cases of ‘religious terrorism’ Juergensmeyer examines show, as a matter of well-established record, a clear strategic character. The IRA is the subject of countless strategic analyses while Hamas’s pragmatic orientation has been the subject of both journalistic and academic commentary, to mention two such examples. [2] In fact, both such groups are also, for all their religious convictions (which, in the case of the IRA, were never that strong), mainly interested in national liberation. That religious divides track with—or are constructed into—salient political ones is an important feature of these cases, but doesn’t imply that primacy of the former over the latter. In other words, the groups or persons that we might treat as exemplars of ‘religious terrorism’ are no less strategic than their secular counter-parts, and their actions are no more symbolic.

Where does this leave us? One option is to simply dissolve the problem. This is the approach taken by William Cavanaugh in The Myth of Religious Violence. [3] Cavanaugh offers a critique of Juergensmeyer somewhat similar to my own, but goes so far as to suggest that the problem with the category ‘religious terrorism’ in fact lies in the very notion of religion itself. Cavanaugh, building off of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, denies that religion even exists outside of the peculiar Western context in which distinct religious and secular institutional spheres emerged. Cavanaugh (and Smith) offer a strong case in defence of this view, but what if we still want to keep ‘religion’ as a category that transcends ‘the West’ and its historical configurations?

It is a simple fact that our discourses around terrorism make reference to religious dimensions. Rather than rubbish them wholesale, I prefer to draw upon sociological theories of religion and culture to try to come up with a useful approach. There are two questions I want to address here: does ‘religious terrorism’ really exist, and if not, what really is the relationship between these two things? I think answering them will provide some clarity.

In answer to the first, ‘religious terrorism’ probably does not exist, at least not as something distinct from ‘secular terrorism’. As I mentioned, explicitly religious organisations such as Hamas make use of terrorism in the pursuit of secular or at least ‘worldly’ ends. Even al-Qa’ida uses terrorism for these prosaic reasons, seeking the withdrawal of Western powers from Muslim communities and the overthrow of inadequately pious native leaders. Nor is it clear to me that Marxist-Leninist terrorists such as the Red Army Faction were any less ‘religious’ than al-Qa’ida is: both are doctrinaire organisations seeking widespread, permanent social transformation through the use of symbolic violence. Both are guided by constellations of ‘uniquely motivating’ values and metaphysical assumptions, complete with eschatologies. The fact that some terrorists defer to divine authority and prophesy, as opposed to, say, what they take to be the scientifically demonstrable laws of history, does not mean that the former engage in different form of terrorism than the latter.

But, as I have said, I still think it worthwhile to pay attention to ‘religion’ in some cases. Again, as a fact of discourse, we refer to as ‘religious’ some terrorism-using organisations on the basis of their explicit and clearly important engagement with certain theological traditions. Arguments presented in terms of scripture may play a role in ‘de-radicalisation’, while disagreements within groups may hinge over interpretations of texts or the authority of certain persons to offer such interpretation. Temples and their associated schools, as concrete institutional spaces, may be sites for recruitment, radicalisation, or contention of views that orient terrorist violence or legitimise its use. Theological discourses privilege certain kinds of claims over others; to invoke Gadamer, they have a horizon of interpretive possibility, and this will shape the outcome of contention and socialisation processes occurring in and through certain institutional fields. In other words, the sorts of things we tend to call ‘religious’, ordinarily, are much more important for understanding some terrorist groups than others. Religious terrorism may not exist as such, but the category of ‘religion’ remains a helpful one for studying terrorism in context.

This leaves us with a clearer way to look at the relationship between religion and terrorism. On the one hand, we cannot distinguish some particular variety of terrorism as distinctly ‘religious’. On the other hand, we can recognise that religious dimensions, as sets of texts, discourses, and social spaces, are implicated in some cases of terrorism more than in others. Terrorism, as a political strategy, requires recruits, resources, a guiding ideology, a message, and a place where all these things can come together. Once upon a time, we might have looked at the fringes of leftist student movements to see how this might occur; now we look at the Taliban or ISIS.

[1] Juergensmeyer, Mark. 2003. Terror in the Mind of God: The global rise of religious violence. University of California Press.

[2] See, by way of respective examples, Neumann, Peter. 2005. “The Bullet and the Ballot Box: The Case of the IRA.” Journal of Strategic Studies 28(6): 941–975; Mishal, Shaul and Avraham Sela. 2006. The Palestinian Hamas: Vision, Violence and Coexistence. New York: Columbia University Press.

[3] Cavanaugh, William T. 2009. The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular ideology and the roots of modern conflict. Oxford University Press.

Simon Frankel Pratt is a PhD candidate in political science (international relations) at the University of Toronto, and his research focuses on norms, practices of state violence, and the War on Terror. His interest in the sociology of religion stems from a broader interest in social theory, methodology, and the study of armed conflict.

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Profile Me: The Confederate Flag, Shame, and White Male Terror


by Donovan Schaefer

Editor’s note: This post initially came out in response to the mass shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in 2012. We are reposting it in the light of recent discussions about white terrorism, racism, and the symbols of racism—such as the Confederate flag.

From the author: I wrote this 3 years ago after a white supremacist shot six Sikhs to death at a gurdwara in Wisconsin. For conservative pundits, instances like this one and the massacre in Charleston are isolated incidents that can be reduced to individual pathology or choice. They start from the assumption that individuals are monads, disconnected from the world around them, who occasionally lapse into unimaginable, inscrutable acts of evil that can be neither anticipated nor prevented. They refuse to see how their own complicity in the production of climates of hate and defiance picks up these broken human beings, hands them an illusory sense of purpose and dignity, puts guns in their hands, and then sends them to bring death and pain to others and themselves. There is nothing mysterious or even “crazy” about it: it is in almost every aspect political. We need to talk, then, not only about gun control and ending anti-black racism, but about how an un-self-reflective whiteness, in its refusal to take responsibility for its history of savagery, creates unstable dynamics that explode into devastating violence. The Confederate battle flag is one of the many symbols of this un-self-reflexivity.


In spring of 2011, Asra Nomani suggested that ethnic profiling of Muslim Americans was a legal and moral imperative given her community’s failure to adequately police itself.  A year later, she stepped forward and called for expanded surveillance inside her own community. In the same spirit of enlightened self-critique, let me make a similar call: it is time for racial profiling of white men.

This call is half flippant–a sardonic parody of the kneejerk self-righteousness of Islamophobic discourse–and half serious critique of the disturbed crossing point between whiteness and masculinity in the US. White men, such as myself, have proven ourselves to be one of the most dangerous groups in the country. We are the most likely demographic to be responsible for killing sprees, leading dangerous cults, or plotting acts of violent treason–what we might call White Male Terror. At the same time, white men show a sneering disregard for other groups that are not us, insisting on lax gun laws that lead to spillover violence in Latin America, rejecting the “redistribution of wealth” after generations of benefiting from a rigged economic system, and jealously preserving the legal institution of male privilege by obstructing a constitutional amendment that would make women equal in the eyes of the law. White men have proven themselves unwilling to integrate into American society–even after 500 years of residency. White men cultivate insular subcultures, breeding grounds for the white male’s predominant currency: a sense of invincibility. And it is when this armor of invulnerability is winched apart–as it always will be–that WMT seeps out into the open.

The situation would be much less urgent if more white men were speaking out against WMT. You never hear white men coming forward on the news to denounce WMT, therefore we can only conclude that most white men silently agree with it. The time for coddling this group beneath the shield of political correctness has passed. White maleness is not, as the bleeding hearts plead, a neutral “identity”: it is a rigid political ideology that fixates on violence and displays of power.

It is sometimes suggested that white men have become a threat to themselves and others because we sense our grasp on the reins of power at the heart of the American engine slipping away. I think the real mechanism is deeper and more gripping. White men in America are embroiled in an apparatus of shame: the shame of the legacy of slavery and genocide on which the country is built, the shame of squandered, selfish privilege, the shame of our failed experiments in economics, our disregard for ecology, our blithering, triumphalist global politics, which have left behind a broken world of economic and social destruction.

Men such as Loughner, Holmes, and Page are not trying to accumulate durable political power. They are trying to enact fantasies of fearsomeness, to reinscribe dignity on their bodies, to dissolve their sense of their own worthlessness. The consummate symbol of WMT is the Confederate flag, embroidered on Wade Page’s guitar strap, flown or stuck on pick-up truck bumpers from South Carolina to upstate New York to western Canada–always by white men–the expression of vicious defiance in the desperate attempt to rebuild one’s dignity, what Kathleen Stewart might call “self-help racism.” (Ordinary Affects, p. 58)

White male shame becomes white male terror when white men feel naked. It is the bullheaded response to shame–the bluff, the doubling down, the gruff refusal to acknowledge our implication in the tragic history of this continent since colonization and to take responsibility for it–that makes white men dangerous.

Posted in Donovan Schaefer, Politics and Religion, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trinkets from the Vatican Gift Shop

10373507_10154310462235727_3624570289212884_nby Matt Sheedy

On a recent trip to Florence and Rome (my first visit to both cities), I had the opportunity to take in some of the more popular sites, such as the Pitti Palace and the Roman Forum, along with several museums and basilicas that are as plentiful in those parts of Italy as Walmart and waffle houses are in the U.S. Both cities were flooded with tourists, which made popular attractions like Michelangelo’s David a challenge to see without advanced booking and marked virtually every experience as one that was shared with camera-totting strangers, often while being herded through an enclosed space by stern security guards, as was the case at the Sistine Chapel:

Silence, silencio, no photos.

The sheer abundance of it all—from people to works of art to the rich and flavourful cuisine—was overwhelming at times, offset by more tangible realities on the ground, such as Nigerian merchants of black market leather purses and the many Indian migrants who traded in sunglasses, scarfs and colorful tennis ball sized toys that would be tossed down on a wooden plank, splatter and re-form in a matter of seconds … pick up and repeat. In Rome, unlike in Florence, they even made a noise—”whaaaah”—that could be heard at uneven intervals on popular streets throughout the city.


These mundane fixtures of the social landscape were perhaps among the most commonly shared experiences of the (mainly) American, Canadian, Chinese, German, and Indian tourists, many of whom, I imagine, were vying for something more “ancient,” “authentic” or even “sacred” than that which could be found in their own backyards.

Mundane experiences of this kind are what Robert H. Sharf describes as things that one “participate[s] in” or “live[s] through,” which he considers unproblematic in the descriptive sense, since the referents are easily found in the social or public world … “whaaah.” (“Experience” in Religious Experience: A Reader, 141)

When it comes to those things that are said to evoke an “authentic” or even “sacred” experience, such as gazing upon the frescos of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel or walking through the ruins of the Roman Forum, the language often shifts from the descriptive (e.g., “those dudes selling toys”) to the ineffable (e.g., “I’m at a loss for words”). In this latter sense, something like Sharf’s second notion of experience may come into play, which he describes “as a subjective ‘mental event’ or ‘inner process’ that eludes public scrutiny.” (141)

Without denying the strong affects that viewing great works of art or walking through places like St. Peter’s Square can evoke in the eyes of a beholder (e.g., aesthetic beauty, historical importance, personal significance, etc.), Sharf’s take away point about experience is to challenge the idea that it is somehow an autonomous or private affair. As he suggests:

Such judgments are inevitably predicated on prior ideological commitments shaped by one’s vocation… one’s socioeconomic background… one’s political agenda, one’s sectarian affiliation, one’s education, and so forth. (144)

I couldn’t help but think of Sharf’s distinctions (after the fact, that is, while on the plane ride home) after feeling underwhelmed in places like the Sistine Chapel, while finding meaning in unexpected and even “mundane” spaces.

One such experience came at the Borghese Villa in Rome (admittedly not an everyday space), which is home to many works of art from the ancient past, the Renaissance and the contemporary period of Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1579-1633), nephew of Pope Paul V (1552-1621), who was an obsessive collector and patron to the likes of Bernini, Caravaggio, and Paul Rubens. Scipione apparently had a penchant for ancient sculpture, which was part and parcel of his desire to re-ignite a new golden age, where a connection to pre-Christian history was, for him, a commodity of the highest value.


While gazing upon Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, which was one of several highlighted pieces in the Borghese Villa, I was struck by his attention to detail, especially the life-like quality of the laurel leaves, though it was only after hearing about the plaque or cartouche at the sculpture’s base that it became significant to me. As the story goes, the presence and celebration of a Pagan myth in the villa of a Cardinal was somewhat of a scandal and was later justified by the addition of a moral couplet in Latin by Cardinal Mafeo Barberini (later Pope Urban VIII), which reads:

Those who love to purse fleeting forms of pleasure, in the end find only leaves and bitter berries in their hands.

Much like Sharf’s observation quoted above, in this instance my own ideological commitments, sectarian affiliation, (e.g., as a former Catholic in my youth) and education as a scholar of religions all contributed to making this little tidbit of information memorable and significant to me.

Throughout the duration of my 11-day visit to Florence and Rome, which was occasioned by a wedding where I served as the best man, and included a day-trip to Siena, San Gimignano and Pisa, my mother asked me why I seemed to be just as interested in the street merchants and kitschy souvenirs as I was to “see” those sites (to “do” being the more commonly used verb, as in “I did San Gimignano”) that Italy was famous for?


My answer, which I withheld from her at the time and promised to provide in the form of this blog post, is fairly straight forward. Those (mostly) Nigerian and Indian migrants (all men), selling purses, scarfs, and novelty toys, along with the many recurring souvenirs (with some variations)—from staples like Romulus and Remus nursed by a wolf and pictures of the Coliseum, to figurines of Pinocchio and David, model Vespas and Ferraris, and bobble-heads of Don Corleone and Pope Francis—are all, though to varying degrees, fleeting products of this time and place and say more about what we value (or what we perceive others will value) as those ancient ruins, re-modeled, re-branded and re-purposed over hundreds, and in some cases thousands of years. Being witness to this unique configuration of people in certain roles and objects elevated to a temporary place of significance was as interesting and, dare I say, “sacred” to me as anything else since it represented an experience of a moment in history that would soon pass and never be quite the same again.

Even the various Vatican gift shops, made legit by the presence of an officially sanctioned mailbox, were populated with these “mundane” trinkets, nestled alongside an abundance of newly made coins, plaques and photographs of the recently sanctified Pope’s John XXIII and John Paul II, often photo-bombed by Pope Francis. Pope Benedict, by contrast, was as rare in the souvenir trade as a woman in the Vatican hierarchy, which says more, perhaps, about this time and place than all the frescos in Rome.


Given my own background, tastes and preferences, it was these seemingly “mundane” or “profane” things that were of greater interest to me than any so-called “sacred” or revered object that I came across in all of Italy. (the Boboli Gardens in Florence notwithstanding) While I suspect that I am among a minority in this regard and imagine that such objects would appear less significant if they were found in my own backyard, my quasi-sacralization of these trinkets is hardly an autonomous or private affair, as Sharf points out, but conditioned by unconventional, though no less meaningful, interests that allowed them to stand out as significant for me.

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

Posted in Politics and Religion, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Scholarship on the Road, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Theses on Professionalization Series: Matthew W. Dougherty


In this new feature with the Bulletin, we have asked 21 early career scholars to weigh in on Russell McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, first published in 2007. In his 21 theses, McCutcheon offers advice to young scholars entering (or soon to enter) the job market, addressing the all-to-important (but often overlooked) question of professionalization. Each of the contributors in this series has been asked to comment on a single theses, addressing its contemporary relevance and how it relates to their own experience moving forward in the academic world.

Matthew W. Dougherty

Theses 1. Academia is unlike other professions in that the pre-professional period of training–which includes coursework, dissertation research and writing, and teaching assistantships–is not akin to an apprenticeship. Accordingly, there is no direct linkage between the accumulation of credentials and admission to the profession, no necessary relationship between feeling oneself to be qualified and the ability to obtain full time employment as a university professor.

The value of McCutcheon’s first thesis lies in its canny assessment of the gap between the expectations of the market and the listed requirements of the Ph.D program. Reflecting on it as a current doctoral candidate, my main reaction is twofold. First, most doctoral students I’ve encountered already seem to be aware of the realities addressed in this thesis, even if they are not aware of what, precisely, are the “extra” things they need to do beyond the program requirements. Second, because of disparities in the amount of time and prior preparation graduate students have it is critical for their mentors to reflect on this thesis and think about how they can help their students learn the many skills necessary to survive in academia that are not conveyed by the credentials accumulated in graduate school.

Most doctoral students I know started graduate school already knowing that they couldn’t count on finding jobs in higher education, let alone tenure-track ones, simply by ticking off the boxes on their program’s list of requirements. My peers and I are already dogged by the feeling that there is always something we could, and probably should, be doing to better our chances on the job market: cultivating an online presence, talking to potential collaborators at conferences, publishing additional articles, or finding mentors to help with our self-identified weaknesses. At the root of all this activity is the belief that, ultimately, doctoral students are responsible for our own education and professionalization. Whether a new Ph.D gets a job or not is, if you listen to most doctoral students I know, a function of that student’s success or failure at professionalizing above and beyond what the program requires.

Approaching graduate school this way holds both promise and peril. It encourages thinking intentionally about one’s doctoral training, which can have personal as well as professional benefits. If graduate school is to be more than simply an exercise in getting a job, if there is joy and fulfillment to be found in scholarship and research, then one of the most vital goals of graduate education has to be for students to become intentional about their own learning and thinking. Academia holds out the promise, even if it is often illusory for the increasing number of contingent faculty, of a career spent researching whatever one finds most interesting. When doctoral students take charge learning to direct our careers and research while there are still mentors readily accessible to help, we are preparing ourselves for such a life far better than when we concentrate on simply accumulating credentials.

But expecting graduate students to discern what they must do to professionalize and to take steps in their own time to fill those needs has its dangers. It ignores the fact that not all graduate students have equal amounts of time “free” after teaching, coursework, and research to work on professionalization. For example, those with family responsibilities such as young children or aging parents—a group that includes disproportionate numbers of women and people of color— have significantly less extra time available to strategically professionalize themselves after hours and on the weekends than those without. Neither do all graduate students, even as separate Master’s degrees become more commonplace in our field, arrive in doctoral programs having had equal amounts of exposure to academic culture and knowing equally well where to direct their energies. Knowing what conferences are most relevant, which books to read, how to write a book review, or how to craft an academic CV are all necessary skills for success in our field. Some doctoral students will have acquired many of these skills during their undergraduate years, but others will not. Often, this is a result of class divisions: colleges and universities that don’t expect many of their graduates to go into academia will be much less likely to offer opportunities to learn skills relevant to that field.

With that reality in mind, graduate students can be expected to take responsibility for directing their own education, but they cannot be expected to learn to do so without help. This is where McCutcheon’s thesis has the most value from my perspective: in reminding mentors of graduate students of the realities of getting a doctorate in today’s market and helping them to be clear—to themselves and to their students— about what it will take to succeed. Sending, even by omission, the message that accumulation of credentials is enough does the most harm to those students with the least additional time or prior knowledge of academia.

Fortunately, although, again, most doctoral students I’ve met are remarkably self-directed, not all professionalization has to happen in students’ “spare time” or entirely under their own steam. I have taken graduate seminars that required students to create syllabuses or write book reviews— assignments which teach research and argumentation while having a more direct relationship to daily life in academia than does the traditional seminar paper. New student orientation in my program includes discussions of the job market and advice on assembling a teaching portfolio. Many of the professors I’ve served as a Teaching Assistant have taken the time to observe me teaching and to discuss strategies for improvement with me. These were all concrete decisions that the professors in my program made to help their students keep sight of the longer-term goal of professional development rather than focus only on the short-term challenges of coursework and teaching. My hope is that reflection on McCutcheon’s thesis will encourage mentors of graduate students to make choices that foster the growth of specific professional skills without assuming that work on professionalization must happen in addition to, or even in competition with, the normal demands of a graduate program.

Matthew W. Dougherty is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He studies race and religion in North America from 1500-1860, focusing on missions, whiteness and Native American Christianities.

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