The Problem of the Mystic East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Blackfish: The Misbehavior of Compassion (Embodied Ethics, Part 2)


by Donovan Schaefer

An introduction to the embodied ethics series can be found at this link.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite‘s documentary Blackfish casts a light on the plight of captive killer whales in North American marine parks. The spine of the film is a series of interviews with former trainers, whale hunters, and scientists. One of the most stirring features of the interviews is the intense emotion expressed by individuals who have interacted with orca. In an early sequence in the film, a sailor named John Crowe recounts being part of a team that captured some of the original whales taken for SeaWorld. He describes how, as a young “sea cowboy,” he found himself suddenly overwhelmed by a wave of emotion as he was culling the orca young at the end of a successful capture expedition in Puget Sound.

We’re there, trying to get the young orca into the stretcher, and the whole famn damily is out here, 25 yards away, maybe, in a big line and they’re… communicating back and forth. Well… you understand then what you’re doing, you know? I lost it. I mean… I just started crying. I didn’t stop working, but I… you know, I just couldn’t handle it. Just like kidnapping a little kid away from their mother. Everybody’s watching. What can you do? It’s the worst thing I can think of, you know? I can’t think of anything worse than that.

The vocalizations of the whales triggered, in Crowe, an entirely unexpected emotional response. In the interview, he displays not only pain, but what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls “the blazons of shame” through his body—bowing his head and averting or covering his face. As Cowperthwaite suggests in an interview,He actually laid his hands on the animals in these captures, and four decades later, he’s struggling to come to terms with it.”

Crowe’s breakdown exposes two problems latent within contemporary conversations about ethics—especially in our ethical relationships and lapses with other animals. First, there is an ambient sense that nonhuman bodies are phenomenologically, emotionally, or psychologically empty and uncomplicated—bags of flesh that do nothing but “survive and reproduce,” as Richard Dawkins has said. (Unweaving the Rainbow, 211) There is an echo here of what might be called a behaviorist sensibility: for behaviorist psychologists of the early and mid-twentieth century, the only possible data for understanding animal (and human) experience were behavioral outputs rather than interior psychological states. As contemporary philosopher Lisa Guenther writes in her book on solitary confinement, “[f]or a behaviorist psychologist, it makes no sense to take the perspective of the experimental subject into account.” (Guenther, 102) This is partly why, for instance, animals (or humans) placed in small, confined spaces are not recognized as experiencing profound suffering. Because their behavioral output is neutral (sitting still), there is no need to presume that they are experiencing pain or distress—or anything at all.

But as Crowe’s testimony suggests, the orca are put through profound grief and fear through the process of separation. Like us, they live in richly textured experiential worlds that are profoundly damaged by disruptions in their relationships with other bodies. His testimony points out the urgency of abandoning the anthropocentric, behaviorist approach that sees animals as unfeeling stimulus-response machines. We must open the possibility that ethical responsivity on the part of non-human animals emerges out of affectively saturated inner worlds.

Second, bodies, on the behaviorist hypothesis, are essentially plastic—susceptible to radical and total reconfiguration through training. Complex forms of behavior such as caregiving are presumed to be superficial responses that are produced by regimes of conditioning. There is a parallel, here, with the social constructionist approach in the humanities, which sometimes understands all human thoughts, behaviors, and values in terms of a set of “trained” coordinates. On the social constructionist model, our ethical responses are tantamount to “doing what we are told.”

But in the mid-20th century, behaviorism was put under pressure as animals in experimental contexts were documented reverting from trained behaviors to instinctive ones, as described in Keller and Marian Breland’s seminal 1961 article, “The Misbehavior of Organisms.” (cf. Jaak Panksepp, Affective Neuroscience, Ch. 1) This turning point marked the beginning of an incomplete and ongoing shift, in Anglo-American science, back to Darwinian perspectives that view animals as having complex emotional lives—including, as more recent work has confirmed, rich capacities for ethical interaction. For animals and humans, ethics need not be viewed as simply a trained or conditioned response. There may be elements in our bodies that offer themselves as the raw material of ethical relationships.

This is why Crowe’s account is so heartbreaking and so startling: he describes stumbling over a compassionate response that he wasn’t expecting—something he didn’t know he had in him. In an age when animals were viewed as living clockwork, he nonetheless found himself responding with grief and pain to animal suffering—and still finding himself affected 40 years later. His ethical response was not trained, nor was it intelligible to him on the surface. His “identity” as a macho, ex-military, maritime adventurer didn’t leave room for responding to animal bodies. Instead, a buried set of embodied values misbehaved. A set of ethical coordinates emerged from his body that were neither socially constructed nor trained—or at least not in a way that was intelligible to him as a knowing subject.

Seeing ethics as only and originarily trained, conditioned, or constructed, then, makes two mistakes at once: on the one hand, it obscures the ways animal bodies experience deep emotional responses to other bodies—often recognizable as ethical responses—produced outside the regimes of language. Furthermore, it blurs our understanding of our own bodies—and especially the ethical prerogatives that emerge within our bodies and are coassembled, reconfigured, and buried by cultural parameters—sometimes successfully, but always with the lingering threat of rebellion.

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Life After Religious Studies: An Interview with Shelly Nixon



Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of interviews with former scholars of religion who have, for one or another reason, decided to leave the world of academia. In this series we hope to open up a conversation that can be of use to other scholars (of religion and in general) in pointing toward some of the pitfalls and alternative paths to life in the ivory tower, as well as to reflect upon on-going struggles to preserve and improve the humanities and social sciences. For the first interview in this series, follow this link.


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

After a year of College I transferred to the University of Waterloo, (2001-2005) in Waterloo, Ontario, for a BA in Religious Studies and Psychology. I followed this with a MA in Religion from Queen’s University, (2005-2006) in Kingston Ontario, and a PhD in Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa (2006-2012).

By the 2nd-3rd year of my PhD, I knew something was wrong. I was unhappy, stressed about my job prospects, and not feeling at all fulfilled by my work. Research had become a burden, and I only finished projects because I had to. When I finally acknowledged that these feelings far exceeded the usual grad school stress, the decision not to become a professor after graduating was an easy one. With hindsight, I can point to two things that contributed to my unhappiness:

  1. When I was deciding what to do after my PhD, I saw a career counsellor and did the meyers-briggs, and scored extremely high on the extrovert scale. I remember the counsellor raising an eyebrow at me and saying “with this type of score, I would have strongly recommended against academics as a career for you.” I realise now that my personality is not designed for the extended solitude of a scholar.
  2. I found the attitude of SOME (not all) professors a little discouraging (my supervisor and committee at U of Ottawa, and at Queen’s were amazing). While talking to an established professor about the dismal job prospects, her attitude was “yeah, well it was hard for me too – deal with it.” I don’t think she, and others with whom I had these conversations, understood how much the market had changed in the past 20-30 years. In these same conversations there was an implied attitude about quitting academia that leaving meant “you couldn’t hack it.” This is quite toxic. While you will never love every single part of your job (trust me on this – I sit on a privacy committee at work), you deserve to not be miserable every day. I could have been a professor; I just knew it wouldn’t make me happy.

Do you have any thoughts on how structural changes may have impacted your decision to leave? Specifically, how do you think on-going cutbacks and a general de-valuation of the humanities (e.g., in many academic institutions and even on the level of society), and especially in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, have contributed to this state of affairs?

The move towards short-term contract positions in academia definitely influenced my decision. Finding a tenure-track job in Toronto is almost impossible and my husband has an excellent job here. It made no sense to leave his stable job to take a contract that might only pay $20,000 a year, and end up unemployed 4 months later. This much schooling left me with a lot of student debt, and I needed a well-paying job to help tackle it. This was definitely a reason I left, but not the only reason.

Personally, I have never felt like the social sciences or the humanities have been devalued.  Most people I talk to and work with acknowledge that the skills a humanities degree teaches you (writing, critical thinking, research, exposure to different ideas) are very important. However, the labour market seems to be reliant on specialised skills. This means an employer asks two questions: “what can you do for my company to either help us make money or fulfil our mandate?” and “will you be an enjoyable person to work with?” The onus is on the applicant to demonstrate that you have the skills and the work ethic to meet those needs. In my case, this meant specifically upgrading some of my skills to match those that are in-demand by employers. I did this by taking courses in statistics and economics, and finding a program to help me get work experience. Then, I had to develop the ability to sell myself and my skills to employers.

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

I am fortunate to have a lot of friends who work in sectors such as law, engineering, management, finance, consulting and government. Their degrees gave them experience and knowledge that I lacked. They helped me make a killer resume, identify my transferable skills, and coached me through mock interviews. They also taught me how to read a job description, and frame my resume to demonstrate that I had every skill required for the position.

Another important factor was my extensive volunteer experience. I sat on student councils, research committees and I worked with several community organizations. In these positions I developed skills in negotiation, problem solving, conflict resolution, budgeting, and stakeholder management. On your resume, it’s best if you can frame your skills by showing how you have used them in other circumstances. Volunteering gave me concrete examples and stories to discuss my skills with employers.

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

There is already a lot of great discussion on the challenges facing graduate students, so I would rather focus on some solutions.

For institutions:

  1. MBA programs, Law schools, Medical schools and public policy schools all have people dedicated to supporting you through the job search process. They teach you to network, set up recruitment events and push you to get out there, because it is in the best interest of the school to have you graduate and find work. My program wasn’t designed to help people find non-academic jobs, and I was lucky to have an amazing supervisor who supported my decision and acted as a reference for me. Not every graduate student has access to such resources, and this definitely needs to change.
  2. If they don’t already, graduate programs should have very clear statistics available for prospective students on how many graduates get tenure track jobs, how many people end up employed in non-academic jobs and what support systems are available for both groups. This would help students make more informed decisions.

For individual graduate students who are thinking of leaving academia:

  1. Try to take some statistics courses. During my undergrad I took 3 statistics courses, and a 4th year course on running large research studies and designing tests, and supplemented these with a graduate level statistics course at Ryerson University in Toronto. This has been mentioned in every interview I have ever given. Quantifiable performance measures are everywhere in the public and the private sector. You don’t need to be able to perform primary statistical research (though that helps), just be able to read a study and extract information from it. Don’t be intimidated by statistics, if you can figure out Foucault, Bourdieu and Lacan, you can figure out statistics.
  2. Volunteer experience shows that you are a well-rounded person with demonstrable skills. I gained almost all of the “relevant experience” on my resume from volunteering and sitting on committees. Also, we know we aren’t all curmudgeonly scholars (well most of us), but you have to prove to your future employer that you will work well in groups, and volunteering does that.
  3. Network like crazy and learn how to do an informational interview. Every job I’ve found has been through informational interviews. Your marketable skills mean nothing if you can’t get in touch with the employers.
  4. One awesome thing about a PhD in religious studies degree is it makes you stand out from the crowd. Every religion major has heard this phrase “You study religion? That’s really interesting!” People are fascinated by religion, and you can use it opportunity to show how interesting and intelligent you are. In interviews, I would talk about how my degree taught me to look at an issue from every angle. I think my religion degree is what makes me a great at stakeholder management as it helps me build relationships with diverse people.
  5. Religious Studies graduates have a lot to offer the working world. For me, my work on Aboriginal issues in school has resulted in being put on some very exciting files. Companies and organizations need people who speak multiple languages, and who can work with diverse groups to solve complicated problems. Religion majors are great at absorbing vast amounts of information, identifying themes, and creating culturally appropriate programs, because we are trained to view things from multiple perspectives. I truly believe these skills make us invaluable.
Posted in Interviews, Life After Religious Studies, Matt Sheedy, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Israel and Palestine: Tit for Tat?

by Craig Martin

I originally wrote the following post in October 2012. While I think much of the news coverage on Israel and Palestine still ignores the disparities of power between the two, we might be witnessing a change. Note, for instance, a recent story titled “The lopsided death tolls in Israel-Palestinian conflicts,” which appeared in the rather conservative newspaper, The Washington Post:

In the current conflict between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip, both sides have attempted to harm the other. Hundreds of rockets have been fired from Palestinian territory with the aim of harming Israeli civilians, while Israeli military strikes have hit hundreds of targets in the Gaza Strip.

There’s at least one clear asymmetry to the conflict, however. By Friday morning, 100 Palestinians had died as a result of Israeli military action, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, with hundreds more wounded. To date, there have been zero reports of Israeli deaths due to Palestinian rocket fire ….

These are not surprising figures. During 2012′s Operation Pillar of Defense, 167 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli military, according to human rights group B’Tselem, who said that less than half of that number were believed to be taking part in hostilities. The same report said six Israelis had died: Four civilians and two members of the Israeli security forces. In the 2008-2009 Gaza War, the pattern was also evident. According to numbers released by the Israeli Defense Force, 1,166 Palestinians died during that conflict, 709 of which the IDF said were  “Hamas terror operatives.” Thirteen Israelis died, three of whom were non-combatants.

While I find such reporting still the exception rather than the rule, it is possible that public opinion is shifting, such that pointing out this asymmetry is less likely to result in one being branded an anti-Semite.


I recently saw this video, “This Land Is Mine,” which was making the rounds on Facebook (at least among my friends). There’s no doubt that the video is clever and that the choice of music is perfect for the author’s purposes. In addition, I’m somewhat sympathetic to the author’s agenda. However, as a relentless critic I cannot help but point out what I think the video obscures.

Like many accounts of Israel vs. Palestine (and, admittedly, this is not only about modern day Israel and Palestine), the video presents the issue as a “he said, she said” sort of affair. We’re presented with a variety of groups, all with competing claims on a piece of land, each willing to kill in defense of their claims.

Now pause for a moment, and imagine someone saying: “well, when the white colonizers spread across North America in the 18th and 19th centuries, they did some bad things, and the Native Americans did some bad things too. Why can’t we just get past all that?” Such a claim would distort to unintelligibility the differences in power between the whites and natives during the European colonial expansion.

However, people quite regularly frame the current conflict between Israel and Palestine as a sort of tit for tat competition, as if between two equal powers. Framing conflicts with clear disparities of power as if they were conflicts between equals seems, at least to me, as clearly set up—intentionally or not—to advance the interests of the already dominant group.

In addition, such a framing masks the extent to which Western nation-states are contributing to the conflict, to say nothing of the many other influential players in the region. In the present iteration of the back and forth depicted in the video, there are billions of dollars flowing from the United States to one party—a fact that is nowhere made visible in the video.

For these reasons, despite my sympathies with the creator’s agenda, I’m uncomfortable with it, and would be unlikely to use it in class except as data that would have to be unpacked and critiqued.

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Religion Snapshots: Reflections on the Hobby Lobby Affair, Part 2


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

Dennis LoRusso: “Can a for-profit religion exercise religion?” This seems to be the question most vexing to critics of the recent SCOTUS decision in favor of Hobby Lobby. On the surface, how one answers this question seems to depend greatly on how one defines “religion.” If religion is a matter of individual conscience, then how can an incorporated for-profit organization exercise its conscience? Yet, if corporations are legal persons, then shouldn’t they, like individuals, be afforded the full protection of the First Amendment, including the free exercise of religion? After all, the law clearly recognizes the existence of organizations that are “religious.”

While I find it particularly encouraging to witness the general public openly discussing the instability of concepts like “religion,” I believe that the controversy more deeply rests on assumptions about a different question: what is personhood? Personhood is everywhere here, from beliefs about the personhood of the unborn and the rights of women to control their persons, to the legal personhood of corporations. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby was a case wholly obsessed with who (or what) counts as a person, and the Supreme Court’s majority opinion reveals the relationship between personhood and particular configurations of power.

The rhetoric of “religious liberty” merely serves as the authorizing discourse for establishing personhood, and therefore the relations of power. It is rather unremarkably to suggest that corporations possess first amendment rights, including the free exercise of religion, if they are considered legal persons under the law. The question, rather, is “who’s religion does a corporation express?” In this case, closely-held corporations exclusively reflect the religious beliefs of its owners (i.e. investors), rather than employees. This is no insignificant claim here. The legitimacy of corporations under US law rests on the legal separation that personhood establishes between investors and the organization. While owners reap the benefits of profitability, their legal liability begins and ends with their financial investment in the firm. Pragmatically, the legal system simply treats the corporation as its own, autonomous entity.

The Court, however, has ruled that the religious beliefs of these owners are inextricably bound to the corporation; the company’s “religion” identifies with that of the majority of stockholders. “Religious belief,” it seems, complicates this legal separation between investor and the corporate “person.” The corporate person becomes (as it perhaps always has been) a tool in the service of the interests of owners. While employees, customers, and suppliers serve as vital constituents of the business, they do not comprise this “personhood” and therefore do not hold the legitimate reigns of power in the eyes of SCOTUS.

Charles McCrary: There are many interesting angles from which to discuss this case, the rulings, and the reactions to it. Most of these have been taken up in various blogs and media outlets, including here at the Bulletin. My reactions to the case were similar to those of Winnifred Sullivan, which she wrote about at The Immanent Frame. (To be clear, this is because my thinking is influenced by her work, not by great minds thinking alike.) So, you should go read that. But, while we’re here, I’ll offer some very brief thoughts on one aspect of the case that I haven’t seen receive as much attention: the language in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) that the government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion…” What work is substantially doing here?

As I read it—and I think this reading is supported by both Justice Alito’s opinion and Justice Ginsberg’s dissent in Hobby Lobby—the word “substantially” leads to a discussion of essentiality. In the Smith case (1990), for which the RFRA was intended as a sort of corrective, members of the Native American Church argued that consuming peyote was an essential part of their religious practice. To disallow peyote use would then, after RFRA, probably “substantially burden” their religious freedom. It would be like, say, disallowing Catholics under age 21 to drink of Eucharist wine. With Hobby Lobby, it might seem like a different case.

But is it? More importantly, how are justices to decide what’s essential to a religious practice and what isn’t? As long as the language of “substantial” in applicable, justices must make claims—as all of us do, however explicitly or implicitly, when deciding what to cover and not cover in a world religions survey course—about what’s really important in a religion.

And why is it that Ruth Bader Ginsburg doesn’t find it compelling that providing certain types of contraception could really be a substantial burden on one’s religious practice, but Samuel Alito finds that totally plausible?

Matt Sheedy: I find myself in agreement with Charlie McCrary’s endorsement of Winnifred Sullivan’s take on the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case. In her piece, Sullivan speaks to liberal commentators in the US in her capacity as a scholar of religion, noting that while she too is troubled by the implications of this case, particularly as it relates to women’s reproductive rights, what distinguishes scholarship from advocacy is the ability to step back and offer a different and more critical lens on the conditions that give rise to such events, including the ways that “Religion” (with a big ‘R’ in her phraseology) and the concomitant notion of “religious freedom” function discursively in the public sphere. As she puts it:

Big “R” Religion is a modern invention, an invention designed to separate good religion from bad religion, orthodoxy from heresy—an invention whose legal and political use has arguably reached the end of its useful life.

Rather than get trapped in this standard “cultural-wars framing,” Sullivan asks liberal opponents of the decision to consider why it seems obvious (and even natural) to many conservatives that Hobby Lobby is in fact engaging in an “exercise of religion” as it is defined under the terms of US law? One answer to this question is that they (and we) still hold a rather simplistic and dated understanding of “religion,” (e.g., see her comments on justice Ginsburg’s remarks) and one that relies, I would add, upon choosing sides in the endless back and forth between various groups as to what constitutes “true” religion.

Notwithstanding Sullivan’s rather sparse (and problematic, to my mind) gloss of what all this means for corporate personhood, a point addressed by Dennis LoRusso (above), Karen de Vries (below) and Carl Stoneham in part one of this feature, her argument stands as a useful example of what can and should distinguish scholarship from mere advocacy: by placing “religious phenomena” in historical and cultural contexts; by asking how they function differently (e.g., within different countries and cultures); and by discerning what kind of work they do for those who use them?

As for the more difficult question that Carl Stoneham raises as to whether or not scholars should also weigh-in positively or negatively on one or the other side (and it’s worth noting that Sullivan does end her piece with some reflections on questions of judgment and evaluation), it would seem that doing so should not be our prime mover, but that we should first look toward raising different, more complex sets of questions than those commonly found in the public domain in order to better conceptualize our field of study and then, perhaps, offer suggestions on how to help move the public conversation in a better (read: more analytically engaged) direction.

Karen de Vries:  My colleagues have offered a number of important and interesting angles on the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, including: consequences of for-profit corporations having recognized religions beliefs; related trends in scholarship on American religion; references to definitions and disputes about religion and personhood; and questions about how we scholars might understand the lay of the discursive terrain and position ourselves in it. I share these questions and concerns as well as the appreciation for Winnifred F. Sullivan’s scholarship regarding religion and law in the United States. 

In addition to these angles, my recurring response to this whole debacle has been: we wouldn’t be in this position where the Supreme Court determines if a closely held corporation holds a sincerely held beliefs that makes self-determination regarding contraception for female employees more difficult if Americans had gone with a single payer option from the get-go. We are, as ever, worshipers of money and the corporations built to produce and reproduce it. Of course, they are all still primarily run by men. Patriarchal authority remains the rule of the day.

Posted in Carl Stoneham, Charles McCrary, Dennis LoRusso, Karen de Vries, Matt Sheedy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, Religion Snapshots, Theory and Method | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gang of Four, Entertainment!: Theory & Religion Series


by Sean McCloud

* This post is part of a new feature with the Bulletin called 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.

“It is when the social world loses its character as a naturalized phenomenon that the question of the natural or conventional character of social facts can be raised.” Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice


When I think of writers who have influenced my thinking as someone who studies religion, Pierre Bourdieu immediately comes to mind. Works such as Pascalian Meditations and others have proven useful for examining how social classifications, hierarchies, and power are reproduced in the social world and how religions play a role in such reproductions. I have also found Bourdieu useful for thinking about what materialist theories of individual and social change might look like. But long before I had ever heard of Bourdieu, and long before I ever imagined going to college (let alone becoming a professor who studies religion) there was Gang of Four’s album, Entertainment!

Gang of Four, Natural’s not in it:

“Natural is not in it

Your relations are of power

We all have good intentions

But all with strings attached”


One of the many ideas at the heart of Bourdieu’s work is that the world in which we reside is filled with hierarchies and valuations that tend to be naturalized, made to appear as commonsense, the way things are. But they aren’t. For Bourdieu, “different class and class fractions are engaged in a specifically symbolic struggle to impose definitions of the social world most in conformity with their interests.” (Bourdieu 1977, “Symbolic Power”) I was primed for this idea by Gang of Four’s song, “Natural’s not in it.”

Gang of Four, Not great men:


But that wasn’t all I heard from Gang of Four that I would later read in elaborated versions in scholarly texts. In “Not Great Men,” they argued that the history books which fronted the “great men move history” theory of social change should be questioned. And in “Contract,” the singer laments that the perfect married life promised in Hollywood movies and newsstand periodicals may not actually exist.

Gang of Four, Contract:

“You dreamed of scenes like you read of in magazines

A new romance, a struggle in the bedroom

Is this really the way it is, or a contract in our mutual interest?”

As a fourteen year-old who lived in a community where I knew very few adults who had university degrees (the exception being teachers), Gang of Four’s Entertainment! was my first introduction to what sometimes gets called “critical theory.” It offered me a hermeneutics of suspicion with a tight beat, driving bass, choppy angular guitar, and chanted repetitive lines. It made the ideas I would later encounter in scholars such as Pierre Bourdieu, Stuart Hall, and others already somewhat familiar. To this day, I still read, write, and research with the ghost of Gang of Four’s Entertainment! playing over my shoulder.

Sean McCloud is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies (and American Studies and Communication Studies Faculty Affiliate) at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He teaches, publishes, and researches in the fields of American religions and religion and culture. His publications include Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, and Journalists, 1955-1993 (2004), Divine Hierarchies: Class in American Religion and Religious Studies (2007), and he is co-editor of Religion and Class in America: Culture, History, and Politics (2009). His next book, American Possessions: Fighting Demons in the Contemporary United States, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press in spring 2015.

Posted in Pedagogy, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Theory & Religion Series, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Religion Snapshots: Reflections on the Hobby Lobby Affair, Part 1


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

Mike Graziano: To my mind, the most interesting development from Hobby Lobby might be the potential consequences stemming from for-profit corporations having legally recognized religious beliefs, and thus being eligible for First Amendment protections.

Two trends in the history of American religion are relevant to the situation in Hobby Lobby. First, recent scholarship has emphasized the role of law and the state in the history of religion in America. Second, there has been an increased focus on secularism. For all the myriad forms this body of work has taken, it has resulted in the assertion that what Americans have traditionally thought of as secular is perhaps better understood as the political maintenance of certain Protestant notions of the public sphere. Sitting at the intersection of this research has been work on how the American legal system has struggled to accommodate such developments in the category of “religion.” Winnifred Sullivan made this point four years ago:

More accurately perhaps, these new cases recognize that “establishment” and “disestablishment” as structuring ideas for organizing religious life are no longer relevant. Religious life is so entirely disaggregated and religious authority so thoroughly shifted to the individual that both establishment and disestablishment are functionally impossible (Sullivan, 2010, p.94).

If, as Sullivan and others suggest, “religion” is increasingly universalized and omnipresent—and that consequently “establishment” and “disestablishment” prove less useful as legal concepts—we would expect to see legal developments to that effect. I think it’s safe to say that we have. Since Sullivan published her essay, a string of cases from Hosanna-Tabor (2012) to Town of Greece (2014) and finally the recent Hobby Lobby (2014) have been decided in such a way as to make clear that there is a radical lack of consensus not only about what benefits legally-recognized religious entities can receive, but also regarding what kind of entities count as religious in the first place. 

For scholars of religion, of course, this isn’t particularly surprising. We’re quite familiar with such debates. Yet I am curious whether we can use the disagreements in Hobby Lobby to better understand the changing relationship between legally-recognized religious and economic bodies in the United States. 

So, in the hope of getting conversation rolling: What assumptions (whether about the nature of “religion,” the malleability of “personhood,” etc.) structure the debates around Hobby Lobby? What do we make, for example, of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s argument in her dissent that “Religious organizations exist to foster the interests of persons subscribing to the same religious faith. Not so of for-profit corporations”? Likewise, how might we respond to Samuel Alito’s statement (in the majority opinion) that “HHS [the US Department of Health and Human Services] would put these merchants to a difficult choice: either give up the right to seek judicial protection of their religious liberty or forgo the benefits, available to their competitors, of operating as corporations”? I think that both Alito and Ginsberg, in the way they draw the borders between economic and religious entities, say a great deal about the contestation over the category of “religion” in American law.

Carl J. Stoneham:

Corporations become self-aware at 9:17 a.m. Eastern time, June 30th

There have been quite a few pixels burned in the past week over the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. While I’m of the opinion that much of the furor is based on a basic misunderstanding of the Court’s decision, what has intrigued me is how the controversy seems to have ignored a surprising point: corporations can be Christian. Sure, for decades we’ve easily spoken of this “Christian business” or that “Jewish organization,” but it’s usually been as a way of referring to the people within, rather than the legal entity itself. As Mike has shown, this SCotUS decision (among others) has changed our understanding in a serious way, and it seems that few have batted an eye.

The hinge of SCotUS’s ruling is the interpretation of “person” (in this case, as used in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)). Since at least Dartmouth College v. Woodward in 1819, the Supreme Court has recognized the notion of “corporate personhood” as a way to both protect the rights of the individuals comprising the corporation and to simplify complex legal matters. Still, there have always been important limits. While corporations can, for example, own property or sue, they do not enjoy such rights as that against self-incrimination (corporations cannot “plead the Fifth”). In practical terms, this means (meant?) that SCotUS (and yes, Mitt Romney too) recognize the concept of “corporate personhood” as a convenient legal fiction that keeps in place the important protections a corporation offers the individual without impinging on said individual’s rights. Where Monday’s decision should raise eyebrows is in how this legal fiction of the cooperation as a “person” continues to move ever-closer to legal non-fiction.

In response to Health and Human Services’ contention that “the companies cannot sue because they are for-profit corporations, and that the owners cannot sue because the regulations apply only to the companies,” Justice Alito, writing for the majority, responded that this “would leave merchants with a difficult choice: give up the right to seek judicial protection of their religious liberty or forgo the benefits of operating as corporations.” Because, he writes, “[n]othing in RFRA suggests a congressional intent to depart from the Dictionary Act [of 1871—an interesting read in its own right—] definition of ‘person,’ which ‘include[s] corporations, … as well as individuals,’” the majority holds that there is “no persuasive explanation for [the] conclusion” that “Conestoga, Hobby Lobby, and Mardel … cannot ‘exercise … religion.’” No. Persuasive. Explanation. (Is it appropriate to include a “O_o” in a blog post?)

Shouldn’t religion scholars fret at least a bit over the fact that the government was apparently unable to make the case that corporations cannot “exercise religion” (an interesting phrase in and of itself)? To support its own decision, the Court cited as precedent Employment Div. v. Smith, 1990, a case where the State of Oregon’s choice to deny unemployment compensation to two Native Americans—who had been fired from their jobs for the sacramental use of peyote—was upheld. It is important to understand what happened here: the Court relied on a case where the right of a state (!) to deny claims of religious exercise by individuals (!) was used to support the notion that a corporation (!) can “exercise religion,” and the government lawyers could not make a persuasive counter-argument.

Because I have to believe that the government lawyers were not so naïve as to go before the Supreme Court having not scoured the work of religious scholars for just such persuasive arguments, I have to wonder if the contribution of Religious Studies to public discourse is such that there are no persuasive arguments against a legal fiction exercising religion?

Mike has offered Winnifred Sullivan’s work as insight into these questions of (dis)establishment, but that seems to me to be more of a commentary on the meta-issue rather than a positive (or negative) stand regarding the point itself. Certainly legal scholars have weighed in on the issue, but what of religion scholars? Is our work of such irrelevance that a decision of such magnitude as Burwell v Hobby Lobby cannot find from within our ranks a “persuasive argument” against the ability of a corporation to “exercise religion?” Or is it perhaps that we ourselves don’t know, and that our constant hand-wringing over “what is religion” has somehow been mirrored by the U.S. legal system? (Or perhaps there’s a simple third option: that none of us disagrees that corporations can do such a thing?) Whatever the answer, it seems to me that the task of understanding and explaining “religion” just got a whole lot more important—and complicated.

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