Dead Religions

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by Tenzan Eaghll

Did you catch the 2008 interview with J.Z. Smith that was recently making the rounds on Facebook? In it, Smith suggests that the benefit of studying dead ancient religions is that they can’t talk back to you. When you study dead religions, no one can pipe up and say, ‘hey, that is not how I practice my religion!’ As Smith states:

I specialized in religions that are dead, which has the great advantage that nobody talks back. No one says, ‘That’s not what I heard last Sunday!’ Everybody’s dead. And I like that

Now, everyone who studies contemporary cultural movements will no doubt sympathize with this point, as having to constantly be aware of how ‘practitioners’ interpret your writing is always a concern—especially given the Doniger controversy—but Smith’s comment got me thinking about the deeper theoretical implications of our work. What his statement made me wonder was the following: aren’t all religions dead religions?

After all, none of us study the ‘living present’ but only its dead counterpart. As Russell McCutcheon has aptly noted in numerous Culture on the Edge posts, historical rationalization always comes after the fact. We never actually encounter things in their ‘present’ state, but only in a strange, foreign, and unknown past. Sometimes our ‘data’ is from 2000 years ago, and sometimes it is from yesterday, but it is always dead because even events from today are already yesterday. As McCutcheon writes, “After all, we’re all living in someone else’s “good old days” right now.

A similar point is also made by Derrida in “Violence and Metaphysics,” when he argues that the question of historical origins—precisely our “jewgreek” origins—should not be understood as “a chronological, but a pre-logical progression.” That is, all decisions about history, whether ancient or modern, are decisions that are made before we turn to our ‘data.’ We don’t study the chronological progression of history, but the difference that presents itself as history. In this way, every ‘religion’ that we study is dead because by the time it comes under our gaze it belongs to a prior set of decisions, incisions, and cuts.

Or, to go even further back than Derrida, Hegel argues for this exact point in The Philosophy of Right when he famously quipped that “the owl of minerva flies at dusk.” By this, Hegel is implying that philosophy comes to understand history only after it passes away. Philosophy cannot be prescriptive because the view it offers is always one of hindsight:

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One more word about giving instruction as to what the world ought to be. Philosophy in any case always comes on the scene too late to give it… When philosophy paints its gloomy picture then a form of life has grown old. It cannot be rejuvenated by the gloomy picture, but only understood. Only when the dusk starts to fall does the owl of Minerva spread its wings and fly.

The basic point: historical rationalization is always post hoc. We never encounter the living thing, but only its dead counterpart. So, whether we study the ancient civilization of Babylon or contemporary Hinduism, we all study dead religions.

Posted in Politics and Religion, Religion and Theory, Tenzan Eaghll, Theory and Method, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Sociology of Religion Group: AAR Annual Conference, Nov. 21-25, San Diego

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Sociology of Religion Group – AAR

November 21-25, 2014 Sessions, San Diego, CA

Statement of Purpose: The Sociology of Religion Group provides a forum for the discussion of empirical and theoretical research on religion and society. “Sociology” is broadly conceived; discussions will include different epistemologies, varying theoretical backgrounds, qualitative and quantitative methodologies, and a wide range of empirical data. By liaising with other program units, we seek to provide a platform for research that empirically and theoretically engages the question of the role of religion or the sacred in societies globally.

SOR is either sponsoring or co-sponsoring six sessions at the San Diego AAR: a workshop on the role of comparison in research and sessions on Secularism and the Non-Religious, the analysis of historical accounts of religious experiences with Joseph Smith as the case study, sociology of religion and the environment, religious identity and political power and French feminisms.

SOR’s Program with abstracts for the Annual Meeting is available for download as a PDF. (recommended for smart phones)

SORAAAD

Friday – November 21, 2014

Comparison and the Analytical Study of Religion                 Program PDF

Location disclosed to those registered. To register place “SORAAAD – 2014 – Registration” in the subject line of an email addressed to ctdr.group@gmail.com.

A22-112 – The Shifting Boundaries of the Secular, Spiritual, and Religious

Saturday – 9:00 AM – 11:30 AM

Convention Center-30C

Co-Sponsored by the Secularism and Secularity Group, Sociology of Religion Group, Religion and the Social Sciences Section and Religious Conversions Group.

This panel brings together papers that explore the fluid, antagonistic, and overlapping boundaries of the secular, spiritual, and religious. Each paper considers how various actors draw these boundaries differently by relying on multiple understandings of the religious and the secular and by creating hybrid identities that cut across religious traditions or the secular/religious divide. Together they reveal the wide range of unique configurations of the secular, spiritual, and religious and further nuance our understanding of their co-constitution.

Marc Pugliese, Saint Leo University, Presiding

Emily Sigalow, Brandeis University

Switching, Mixing, and Matching: Towards an Understanding of Multireligiousness in Contemporary America

Elaine Howard Ecklund, Rice University and

Brandon Vaidyanathan, University of Notre Dame

How Scientists in India and the United Kingdom Negotiate Boundaries between Science and Religion

Linda A. Mercadante, Methodist Theological School, Ohio

Qualitative Research on Spiritual but Not Religious “Nones”: Heterogeneous yet Conceptually Converging

Kristen Tobey, University of Pittsburgh

“Not Non-Mormons”: Belonging without Believing in the LDS Church

A23-129 – Joseph Smith’s First Vision: New Methods for the Analysis of Experience-Related Texts

Sunday – 9:00 AM – 11:30 AM

Convention Center-5A

Co-Sponsored by the Mormon Studies Group and Sociology of Religion Group

J. Spencer Fluhman, Brigham Young University, Presiding

Panelists:

Ann Taves, University of California, Santa Barbara

Steven C. Harper, LDS Church History Library, Salt Lake City, UT

Kathleen Flake, University of Virginia, respondent

Gustavo Benavides, Villanova University respondent.

In a fresh approach to the founding story of Mormonism, two scholars (one LDS and one not) who are currently writing on early Mormonism will present the results of their collaborative analysis of each of the known sources of Joseph Smith’s first vision, including newly discovered sources, using a method that teases apart events (what ostensibly happened) and explanations (the subject’s understanding of why it happened). When aligned chronologically by event and explanation, the method provides a more rigorous basis for examining the historical development of the narrative over time, including changes in structure and content, in the context of social interactions and the role of experience narratives in the emergence of new social movements. Using this highly debated event as a case study, the presenters will demonstrate the way in which a clear distinction between the subject’s explanation of events and scholarly meta-explanations allows scholars to work toward agreement on the former and more carefully account for their differences with respect to the latter. Two respondents will then address both the case study and the broader implications of the method for the field of religious studies.

A23-275 – To Green or Not to Green, and Everything in Between: Assessing Trends, Patterns and Gaps in Scholarship on Religion and the Environment

Sunday – 3:00 PM – 4:30 PM

Convention Center-4

Sociology of Religion Group

This session assesses scholarship related to a key shift that has occurred over the past 40+ years, the so-called “greening of religions.” Briefly stated, the greening of religions refers to religions’ gradual incorporation of environmental concerns into their theologies, rituals and (in some cases) ministries. Sparked by the publication of Lynn White Jr.’s influential article “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis,” in 1967, a growing body of scholarship in religious studies and beyond has sought to capture the relationship between religions and environmental concern. As the scholarship on the greening of religion matures, it is appropriate to examine and assess its findings, identifying patterns and gaps, strengths and weaknesses, and assessing implications for the sociological study of religion, broadly speaking. The papers in this session aim to map out and critique trends in the scholarship religion and the environment.

Lucas Johnston, Wake Forest University, Presiding

Bron Taylor, University of Florida, Responding

Robin Veldman, University of Florida

Toward A Broader Conceptualization of Religions’ Engagement with the Environmental Crisis

Evan Berry, American University

Do Not Throw Your Pearls Before Swine: What is Valuable In Religion in Ecology?

Bernard Zaleha, University of California Santa Cruz

Was Lynn White Right?: Exploring the Contemporary Anti-Environmentalist

Gretel Van Wieren, Michigan State University

The Greening of Religion Movement: An Overview of the Literature with Special Emphasis on Social Scientific Studies (and the Lack Thereof)

A24-137 – Religious Identity and Political Power

Monday – 9:00 AM – 11:30 AM

Convention Center-32A

Co-Sponsored by the Sociology of Religion Group and Critical Research on Religion

Sociology of Religion Group Business Meeting, 11:20 am

With each paper pivoting on the relationship between religious identity, its status, and its relationship to the political power the participants in this panel present five different cases that span the globe – from Scandinavia to India to Australia. The first three are qualitative and address the problems of Hindu and Muslim religious minorities in Northern European societies: inter-religious mourning rituals in response to the terrorist attack by a right-wing extremist in Norway in July 2011; Hindu and Roman Catholic Tamil youth in rural Norway; and the question of apostasy among Muslims in secular Sweden. The last two papers are more theoretical and address powerful religious/political alliances: the Hindu nationalist astheticization of politics among tribal communities in India; and the relationship of conservative evangelical Christians to Neoliberal government policy in Australia.

Rebekka King, Middle Tennessee State University, Presiding

Warren Goldstein, Harvard University, Respondent

Hildegunn Valen Kleive, Høgskulen i Volda

Young Tamils and Spirituality in Norway

Ida Marie Høeg, Centre for Church Research

The Terror Attacks on Norway – 22 July 2011: Interreligious Funerals as Response to Terror

Daniel Enstedt, University of Gothenburg

Understanding Islam, Apostasy, and Disaffiliation in Present-day Sweden

Marion Maddox, Macquarie University

Neoliberal Dominance and “Resurgent Religion”: Coincidence, Elective Affinity, or Causation?

Pinky Hota, Smith College

Indigeneity, Piety, and Belonging: The Aesthetic Politics of Hindu Nationalism

Business Meeting

Ipsita Chatterjea, Vanderbilt University

Warren Goldstein, Harvard University

A24-209 – Feminism and Subjectivity in the Study of Religion

Monday – 1:00 PM – 3:30 PM

Convention Center-9

Co-Sponsored by the Sociology of Religion Group, Critical Theories and Discourses on Religion Group and Cultural History of the Study of Religion Group, or STAR (Social Theory and Religion Cluster)

STAR Business Meeting, 3:20 pm

Morny Joy, University of Calgary, Respondent

2014 marks the thirty- and forty-year anniversaries of key works in French social theory, including Julia Kristeva’s Revolution in Poetic Language (40th anniversary) and Luce Irigaray’s Speculum of the Other Woman (40th ) and An Ethics of Sexual Difference (30th ). In honor of their legacies, the panelists in this session explore related questions of feminism and subjectivity in the study of religion. With reference not only to Irigaray and Kristeva, but also to Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Saba Mahmood, they treat critical turns in affect theory and speech act theory, the ethics of alterity, and the discursive formation of subjectivity as a crucial category in the study of religion.

Abigail Kluchin, Ursinus College

An Alternative Lineage for Affect Theory: Returning to Irigaray’s Speculum de l’Autre Femme and Kristeva’s Revolution du Langage Poétique

Wesley Barker, Mercer University

Signifying Flesh: The Ambiguity of Desire and the Possibility of Alterity in Irigaray’s Ethics of Sexual Difference

Samantha Langsdale, University of London

Framing Historical Women’s Agency: A Critical Reading of Speech Act Theories

Constance Furey, Indiana University

Hermeneutics of Intersubjectivity: Foucault, Butler, and Limit Experiences

Business Meeting:

William E. Arnal, University of Regina

Ipsita Chatterjea, Vanderbilt University

Randall Styers, University of North Carolina

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Imagined Communities: Theory & Religion Series

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by Kate Daley-Bailey

* This post is part of the Theory & Religion Series, where contributors are asked to discuss a book or essay by a particular theorist that they have found useful in their teaching and research in the study of religion.

Perhaps one of the most instructive texts I have utilized for teaching a religious studies course is, oddly enough, not about ‘religion’. If fact upon picking up the booklist for the course (Religion and Media), I am quite sure a few of my students had reservations about this text’s inclusion. The text was Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. My initial reading of that text was quite fortuitous… I stumbled upon it and read it as a kind of ancillary text to the ‘religion’ books I was reading. Then the opportunity to teach a more theory based course arrived and I thought it would provide an excellent test case for the course. (I did begin to doubt my choice but luckily my choice was reaffirmed by an esteemed colleague who nudged me forward, you know who you are.)

While not about ‘religion’ proper, Anderson’s text provides readers with a historical and theoretical exploration of an equally nebulas topic… ‘nation-ness’ which he describes as “the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time” (3). Try to unthink the concept of nation as you look at a map. Try to think of the world in pre-nation times and steam will burst forth from your proverbial ears. Why? Because the concept of ‘nation’ is not so much a subject one studies, but rather a mode or method through which one studies the world.

So much like the concept of ‘religion’, researching the concept of the ‘nation’ according to Anderson, comes replete with three paradoxes:

(1)   “The objective modernity of nations to a historian’s eye vs. their subjective antiquity in the eyes of nationalists.

(2)   The formal universality of nationality as socio-political concept–in the modern world everyone can, should, will ‘have’ a nationality, as he or she ‘has’ a gender–vs. the irremediable particularity of its concrete manifestations, such that, by definition, ‘Greek’ nationality is sui generis.

(3)   The political power of nationalisms vs. their philosophical poverty and even incoherence.” (5)

Can any scholar of religion look at these paradoxes and not see them reflected in their own inquiries or at least in the field at large? Do these paradoxes not span the spectrum of views we cover when we talk about ‘religion’?

While it took some of my students till midpoint to recognize what I was doing… covertly teaching them about the complexities of studying religion in the guise of teaching them about the complexities of studying nationalism… most of them picked up on the context clues fairly early on in the semester. The way I figure it, sometimes, the best way to get students to think about something differently is to pointedly and deliberately require them to think about something different.

Posted in Kate Daley-Bailey, Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Theory & Religion Series, Theory and Method | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Theologies of Word and State: Some Reflections on the Ottawa Shooting

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by Justin K.H. Tse and Matt Sheedy

Justin TseThe shooting in Ottawa on 22 October 2014 has uncovered the remarkable way that the Canadian state remains theologically constituted. In some ways, this is a relatively uncontroversial argument. The White House press conference immediately following the attacks made a link between the Canadian support for military action against the Islamic State and the deaths of both Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent on October 20 in Quebec and Cpl. Nathan Cirillo of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on the October 22. When one says that Ottawa shootings have a religious dimension, the gut response is that my argument will be about Muslims in Canada and the potential for radicalization.

However, I am less interested in the link to the Islamic State and more interested in the ways that the putatively secular, multicultural Canadian state is doing theology in this moment. The chatter in the public sphere has mostly revolved around Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s invocation of the War Measures Act in 1970, especially because the alleged shooter was Québecois. The last time in recent memory that this sort of panic happened in Ottawa, it was because the Front du libération du Québec (FLQ) kidnapped the British Trade Commissioner, James Cross, and the Quebec Labour Minister, Pierre Laporte. Trudeau’s response at the time was to meet ideology with ideology. If the FLQ adopted a Marxist ideology to denounce the embeddedness of the Canadian political economy with elite American power and to call for a new Quebecois political sovereignty, Trudeau criminalized them and argued that they represented “the emergence of a parallel power which defies the elected power in the country” that “must be stopped.” Both the FLQ and Trudeau articulated their political positions in secular ideological terms.

The responses from the official party leaders have revealed that these state ideologies have always been theological. Prime Minister Stephen Harper framed the National War Memorial where the shooting occurred as ‘a sacred place that pays tribute to those who gave their lives so that we can live in a free, democratic and safe society’ and also sent his ‘thoughts and prayers’ with Patrice Vincent. New Democratic Party Leader Tom Mulcair cast the “thoughts and prayers of everyone here in our nation’s capital” with Cirillo’s family as an act of Canadian solidarity in a society marked by ideological difference. In addition to mentioning the War Memorial as “one of our nation’s most sacred monuments,” Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau also reached out to the Muslim community to say that “acts such as these committed in the name of Islam are an aberration of your faith,” calling for “mutual respect and admiration…to prevent the influence of distorted ideological propaganda posing as religion.” While the debates among these party leaders has been fierce in the past, they demonstrated that they represent three strands of the same Canadian state theology: bound by our solidarity in times of war, the coming together of Canadians of all political and ideological stripes is a sacralized bond.

What the Ottawa shootings have done, then, is to suggest a way forward in the study of Canadian religion. While Jamie Scott’s The Religions of Canadians posits an intriguing suggestion that there is an overarching Canadian religion, he organizes the book by looking at the individual religious traditions at work in Canada. But the aftermath of the shooting makes one wonder whether the schematic to use for Canadian religious studies might follow ideological lines. After all, one might ask: who is left out of those sacralized Canadian bonds? That Trudeau felt that he had to reach out to the Muslim community suggests that Muslims in Canada have been framed as a perpetual other. Despite the repeal of the War Measures Act by the Emergencies Act of 1982, the invocation of the memory of the War Measures Act in 1970 should remind Canadians of the internment of Ukrainian Canadians in the First World War and of Japanese Canadians in the Second. That it has been revealed that the shooter had a criminal record in Quebec and British Columbia and was a drug addict should remind us of the class differences that engender new ideologies and political theologies. In other words, perhaps Canadian religion is not simply about the mosaic of cultural traditions that make up the tapestry of multiculturalism. Perhaps it is about the competing, yet mutually constitutive, ideologies that seek to define Canadian political theology.

Matt Sheedy: While yesterday’s shooting in Ottawa was not the first incident of aggression directed against representatives of the state in Canadian history, it was unique for a variety of reasons, mostly notably in its connection with “home grown terrorism,” “ISIS,” and “Islam,” marking the second such attack of this kind in so many days that resulted in the death of a uniformed officer.

For those who have not been following the story, here are a few, select bullet points:

*          On October 20, 2014, Martin Couture-Rouleau, 25, ran over two men outside of Montreal, one of whom, uniformed Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, 53, was killed, while Couture-Rouleau was later shot dead by police after a high speed car chase.

*          On October 22, 2014, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, 32, shot a uniformed officer, Nathan Cirillo, 24, in front of the National War Memorial on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, (Canada’s equivalent to the White House) who later died in hospital. He then stormed parliament and was shot in a hail of gunfire, which was caught on camera by a reporter and played repeatedly in a loop throughout the day.

*          Both attackers were young men who were being monitored by authorities; Couture-Rouleau had his passport taken along with 89 others on a watch-list of radicalized youth who the government had flagged as “high-risk travellers” for fear that they would commit crimes abroad; Zehaf-Bibeau was trying to obtain a passport with apparent intentions to travel to Libya.

*          Both young men were recent converts to Islam and were reported to have followed radical groups on-line, including ISIS spokesperson Muhammad Al-Adnani.

*          Many members of parliament, including the Prime Minister and leaders of opposition parties were in session very close to where the shooting took place and were barricaded behind doors for upwards of 9 hours during the chaos. There have been reports that during this time members of parliament broke as many as 15 flags poles and fashioned them into spears while the Prime Minister hid in a closest.

An event such as this brings forth waves of emotion and heightened rhetoric, which is always conditioned in subtle and not-so-subtle ways by prior events and filtered through familiar narratives that attempt to explain what, precisely, has just occurred and why.

While displays of nationalism and calls for retribution are to be expected in moments of crisis, the social effects of such discourse are always complex and hard to predict, not least because of the uncertainty surrounding possible future attacks, which, in turn, lead to calls for increased security, surveillance, and even the curtailment of civil liberties. In short, it is the stuff that fear, mistrust, and heightened rhetoric is made of.

In an interview with Giovana Boradorri a few months after 9/11, Jacques Derrida reflected on the events of that day and their immediate aftermath, which bears repeating in light of the shooting on Parliament Hill:

It is our duty to recall that the shock waves produced by such murders are never purely natural and spontaneous. They depend on a complex machinery involving history, politics, the media, and so on. (92)

For Derrida, what was most important to think about in the chaotic aftermath of such an event was how its traumatic effects were produced through what he called a “repetition compulsion” of images and ideas—“terrorism,” “9/11,” “radical Islam”—which mediate not only our understanding of what is at stake and thus narrow the terms of debate, but also contain and repress other possibilities or “iterations” by virtue of their symbolic power to give a name to what has taken place.

I believe always in the necessity of being attentive first of all to this phenomenon of language, naming, and dating, to this repetition compulsion (at once rhetorical, magical, and poetic). … Not in order to isolate ourselves in language, as people in too much of a rush would like us to believe, but on the contrary, in order to try to understand what is going on precisely beyond language … (87)

For those like myself who are interested in thinking about such events as a scholar of religion, one important dimension that will require close attention is how “Islam”–as a generalized concept and as a symbol that is drawn upon to describe peoples’ identities and as a cause or motivation for violent retribution–is re-produced through this “repetition compulsion” of old and new symbols coming together in different chains of signification.

While there has been much praise from US media at how well the “Canadian” press (referring to CBC news anchor Peter Mansbridge) covered the chaos that unfolded in Ottawa, as well as praise for Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau’s response at a press conference following these events, this is not only an incomplete picture of mainstream responses, but also one that tends to obscure the ideologies at work in these (admittedly) more measured replies.

More sensational rhetoric can be found in “home-grown” media such as Sun TV, which rejected narratives about the confirmed mental illness of these men as “political correctness” in favor of a discourse that places “Islam” at the root cause of their motivation. For example, among several programs featured over the last few days on Sun TV include an interview with Jihad Watch’s Robert Spenser and Dutch politician Geert Wilders, both of whom are well-known for their inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric.

As I argued in post from earlier this week:

One challenge for scholars of religion … is to avoid the temptation to play into the logic of this framework, which sets up a dichotomy between “good” and “bad” Muslims … and describes complex identities through the prism of better and worse expressions of “Islamic belief,” and focus instead on the ways in which “Islam” is taken up and re-produced differently in the material world and in contexts of human interaction.

The current discourse in Canada is very much guided by this binary logic and thus needs to be carefully thought through and analyzed, including the ways that “Islam” functions as a counter-narrative or reply to tepid discourses about multiculturalism, toleration, and “true Islam,” which, as Justin Tse points out above, are conditioned (among other things) by state theologies and the interests that guide them. The seeming inability to link causation to things like Canada’s participation in foreign wars over the last 13 years that have been narrated, to varying degrees, as a “clash of civilizations,” suggests that “Islam” will continue to function as a primary causal factor for some (e.g., “they hate us for our values and freedoms”), and an alibi for others (e.g., these are not true Muslims) rather than as an important and indeterminate variable that must be treated with the nuance it deserves.

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Juggling It All: Tips on Research and Writing, Part 3

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* This is part three of a feature with the Bulletin on tips for research and writing. Part one can be found here and part two here.

Emma Wasserman: I’m sure organization works for a lot of people in a lot of different ways, but these efforts can also encourage delusions of grandeur and accomplishment that can stall and distract. I tend to imagine myself making guerrilla style assaults on the material. These almost always fail, but eventually–after at least a couple of years of trying–I actually win some ground.

Joseph Laycock: My first semester of college a professor told us to log how many hours we actually spent on schoolwork. He added that if we were spending less time on being a college student than we would on a part-time job, then we weren’t serious about college and should drop out. That semester I started using tally-marks on a calendar to log how many hours I worked each day. I still do it. I try to reach quotas of hours for every month. The tally-marks change my overall attitude toward work. Often people *think* they are working really hard but are actually only getting in an hour or two of actual work. Then when I work eight hours a day or more on writing, I feel *good* because I’m catching up on my quota.

I also incorporate something from Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I organize everything I have to do on a grid that has four squares on it—urgent, important, busy-work, and pleasure. The goal is to acknowledge what’s just busy-work and to make time for things that are important. Around 2005, I actually made a grid on my wall with masking tape. I represent all of my projects with other pieces of masking tape that migrate around the grid. This has really helped me stay motivated and to delegate time wisely. The downside is that my office looks like the office of a lunatic. I also have a poster with a UFO that says “I Want to Believe” and press clippings about exorcisms on the walls—so that’s not helping.

Lastly (and this is a little embarrassing)—I’ve been using this website that represents banal tasks as a fantasy role-playing game (see link). So when I grade papers my virtual avatar gains XP and gold. Conversely, if I neglect tasks I’ve set out to do the tasks actually hurt my character and eventually kill him. It’s surprisingly good for motivation.

Suzanne Owen: Writing the PhD was very different. I took three months off my part-time job to write it up. As I shared a house with seven others, I posted a grid to show how many words I wrote each day. Near the end of each day, if I hadn’t written anything, I’d fear the disapproval of my housemates and forced myself to write.

Randi Warne: Admin at school (I head a unit, so there’s a fair bit of that); grading at the dining room table; writing at the dining room table; research anywhere; books to be underlined, before bed light reading; lectures written mostly at the dining room table. School: students, students, students and teaching. Note: there is no one in my home when I am working, except my husband or my cat, preferably both sleeping.

I spend a requisite amount of time fussing and fretting and thinking and avoiding, and then I book off obligations (or rearrange them) because “I’m writing.” My house is a mess, people can’t talk to me, and I barely change into day clothes. Then when it’s over, I let it sit for a day, and then edit. One exception: my doctoral dissertation. I had a six day a week writing schedule, all marked out on a calendar (still have the schedule in my papers, in fact). I wrote my diss. in 3 1/2 months, my thesis supervisor suggested changes to two sentences, and it passed “as it stands” through the Centre for Religious Studies at U of Toronto. Surreal, that whole experience.

I figured out pretty early that I couldn’t be an academic and have children, nor would I be able to continue to be married to my first husband, who would not consider moving from the urban centre in which we lived. When folks complain about baby boomers who “took all the jobs,” and had an easy life, I want to ask “Which profession?”

Merinda Simmons: For me, it’s largely been a matter of coming to terms with the way my brain works and not trying to force structure where it doesn’t fit. Like ‪Kenneth (see part one) said, I’m most productive when everything’s a bit of a mess. And like Kat (see below), I try to make projects and work chores lead into others. I’ve always got a few pots simmering at various temperatures, to paraphrase a colleague’s description years back of what we do, and I find that far more useful than tackling one big task at a time in a linear/organized way. That said, two ideas I’ve *tried* to incorporate (not very successfully, but I like the concepts all the same) are: 1) scheduling a writing “meeting” with myself for an hour a day that I take as seriously as any other meeting (i.e., no phone-checking, emails, etc)–any writing beyond that, then, is gravy. 2) having a day slated for each project (since I work on several simultaneously) … Mondays are the day I do a bit on this article, Tuesdays are for that essay, Wednesdays are for this proposal, and so on…

Kat Daley-Bailey: These are all excellent strategies… I racked my brain thinking of some practice that has been useful to me when writing/ researching. I think the best advice I ever got was to try to use my mental energy effectively. If I decided to read a book for a course, I might do a book review on it… or use it as part of research for a conference paper or post. I always try to make what I am doing overlap so that I am not putting energy into disparate things, if you will.

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The Meaning of Islam and the Politics of Multicultural Identity, Part 1

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by Matt Sheedy

The term firestorm would not be overstating the media reaction to the recent debate between Ben Affleck, Sam Harris, and Bill Maher on Maher’s HBO program, Real Time.

In part one of this series of posts, I will attempt to deconstruct the logic that was at work in this debate, including Maher’s statement about Islam on his program from the week before, followed by a taxonomy of the responses it has provoked in part two in an effort to categorize these re-presentations, and to determine the ideological boundaries in which this discourse resides.

While both Maher and Harris have been criticizing Islam for many years now, the recent uproar was initially sparked by Maher’s comments on the September 26th episode of Real Time when he stated:

If vast numbers of Muslims across the world believe, and they do, that humans’ deserve to die for merely holding a different idea or a drawing a cartoon or writing a book or eloping with the wrong person, not only does the Muslim world have something in common with ISIS, it has too much in common with ISIS.

At least four common tropes are at work in this narrative:

1)    Being Muslim is contingent upon adhering to a particular set of beliefs;

2)    Some of these “Muslim” beliefs promote violence;

3)    A majority of Muslims support these violent beliefs, even if they’re unwilling to carry them out themselves; and, by implication;

4)    It is therefore Muslims and “Islam” that bear the brunt of responsibility for on-going violence and intolerance in Middle East (as well as for spreading such ideas in the Euro-Western world).

The following week’s episode, featuring Ben Affleck and Sam Harris, along with guests Michael Steele and Nicolas Kristof, echoed these tropes in variety of ways. For example, Maher began the discussion by stating that, “Liberals need to stand up for liberal principles,” such as freedom of speech and belief, freedom to leave a religion, equality for women, and equality for minorities, including homosexuals, and claimed that most liberals hold a double-standard when it comes to critiquing the “Muslim world.” This opened up the conversation to a variety of points and counter-points, which I’ve summarized in point-form below.

  • Liberalism has been unable to combat theocracy (Harris)
  • The charge of Islamophobia conflates criticism of the “doctrine of Islam” with bigotry toward Muslims (Harris)
  • “Islam at this moment is the mother-load of bad ideas” (Harris)
  • This position is racist (Affleck)
  • No it isn’t. It is not (Muslim) people we are condemning, but their ideas (Harris)
  • “And people who believe in those ideas” (Maher)
  • A basic liberal principle is tolerance (Kristof)
  • “But not for intolerance!” (Maher)
  • There are many Muslim’s who aren’t fanatics or jihadis, such as Malala Yousafzai (Kristof)
  • You (Maher and Harris) focus on a few bad things and generalize to the “whole religion” (Affleck)
  • Jihadists are motivated by killing apostates and represent the center of Islam; Islamists believe this too, but they work within the system; conservative Muslims are illiberal (Harris)
  • 78% of British Muslims think that the Danish cartoonists should have been prosecuted (Harris)
  • 90% of Egyptians say that death is the appropriate response to leaving the religion (Maher)
  • The real divide is between fundamentalists and moderates in each faith (Kristof)
  • Moderate Muslim voices that speak out are rarely heard (Steele)
  • “There are 100s of millions of nominal Muslims who don’t take the faith seriously” and they should be propped-up as reformers of the faith (Harris)
  • Muslims are not a minority, it’s the second biggest religion in the world (Affleck)
  • Criticism should be levelled at individual actions, not the religion as a whole (Affleck)

One of the most interesting and overlooked aspects of this debate is that it takes place within a conceptual framework of (neo-) liberal ideology, where conflicts involving multicultural identity are framed around a select set of principles, which are drawn upon as the primary tool for interpreting and evaluating generalized “others” who are alleged to undermine these principles in some way. As is common in such cases, the “other” is narrowly classified by certain essential qualities, such as shared beliefs, which are represented in terms of their compatibility (or lack thereof) with liberal principles.

In this way, the debate was crippled from the start since it assumes that vast groups of people can be effectively described and encapsulated by their alleged “Muslim-ness,” which is never defined, but rather circulates around a symbolic economy of ideas and images that have been produced, for the most part, within the Euro-Western imagination.

For this reason, I would argue that most public discourses about Islam within the Euro-West tend to function not as debates about the varieties of Muslim identities—as confessional traditions, as complex theological positions produced within cultures, and as imbricated within various socio-political constellations that are constantly shaped and re-shape by internal and external forces—but rather as sign-symbols that are filled with a few, select tropes about “Islam” and “Islamic beliefs” that are made to stand-in for the whole. Some of these tropes include, as Nabil Echchaibi points out in a recent post, “Islamic terrorism, veiling and women’s rights, [and] sharia law versus democracy.”

One challenge for scholars of religion, then, is to avoid the temptation to play into the logic of this framework, which sets up a dichotomy between “good” and “bad” Muslims (see Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim 2005) and describes complex identities through the prism of better and worse expressions of “Islamic belief,” and focus instead on the ways in which “Islam” is taken up and re-produced differently in the material world and in contexts of human interaction. While this type of scholarly work is likely too complex to be represented in public discourse, it may have the effect of encouraging such debates to move away from talk of some essentialized “Islam” toward a discussion of how inherited beliefs and practices are never stable, but always re-produced in the environments in which they reside.

Matt Sheedy is a PhD. candidate in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, ritual, myth, and social formations. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere. He is also conducting research on myths, rituals and symbols in the Occupy movement and discourses on ‘Nativeness’ and ‘Native Spirituality’ in the Aboriginal-led Idle No More movement.

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Ten Observations about Teaching and Academia

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by Tommy Carrico

* This post originally appear on the Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy blog.

Sometimes, an instructor is afforded a great amount of leeway when designing a course – reading schedules, assignments, course descriptions, and policies are all left up to her.  Other times, the syllabus comes pre-prepared with all of these policies, procedures, and reading lists: the instructor’s task is to teach a course that someone else has designed. In the former situation, the instructor is able to structure the readings, assignments, and flow of the course according to her research interests, style of argumentation, and the learning goals of the course. In the latter, while it may seem that the instructor is not afforded these opportunities, I have found that teaching a pre-prepared syllabus provides a unique opportunity to examine academic discourse more generally. Rather than viewing this type of teaching assignment as unduly restrictive, I would recommend using the construction of a body of knowledge as a theoretical grounding point to tie various elements of the course together.  This is, in many ways, an approach that scholars are (or should be) quite familiar with:

1. The instructor/scholar is presented with a unified body of material;

2. This unified body of material may have been divided into sub-sections based on any number of categorizations (thematic, chronological, etc.), necessitating that the instructor

3. Identify some kind of unifying principle, thesis, or logic to this body of material and its subdivisions,

4. Assess the strengths and weaknesses of this body’s unity,

5. Draw attention to the processes by which this material and its subdivisions are presented as related and unified,

6. Make an argument based on this body of material, introducing “outside” material as necessary, in order to

7. Challenge the presuppositions of the material itself as well as its unification, in order to

8. Come to a clearer conception of the production of bodies of knowledge as well as their internal strains/contradictions, in order to

9. Render elements of these bodies (in fact, the bodies themselves) contingent and, therefore, challengeable, in order to

10. Begin the project of re-structuring, expanding, or pruning particular commonplace categories or bodies of material presented as unified.

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