Religion Clichés #3 and #4


by Tenzan Eaghll

Note: This post is the second in a series that seeks to summarize some of the clichés associated with religion. It is framed as a critique of a 1972 article by Ninian Smart. For the first post and a definition of cliché see here.

#3 True Religion is about Peace and/or Religion is Inherently Violent

Did you know Carpocrates, a 3rd Century Christian Gnostic, suggested that sex orgies could help one attain salvation? That the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints did not allow African Americans to be priests until 1978 (because people with dark skin had formerly rebelled against God)? Or, that one of the female heroines of the Mahabharata, Draupadi, was married to all five brothers from the Pandava clan? Or, how about that, in Exodus 32, Moses orders the slaughter of thousands of Jews for not being sold on monotheism? What do these random facts imply about the nature of religion? Do they show how religion is inherently violent, peaceful, racist, or immoral?

The dual clichés that true religion is about peace and/or religion is inherently violent form a binary of idiocy that are routinely debated in the blogosphere. The positive version of this cliché grew in popularity in the wake of 9/11, when defenders of a “moderate Islam” tried to distinguish their interpretation of the Qur’an from radical groups such as Al Qaeda. By calling Islam a religion of peace these interpreters attempted to differentiate authentic acts of Islam from acts of terror. Former President Bush used this cliché on several occasions and in a recent speech President Obama used a version of it when discussing the group known as “Islamic State” (ISIL), suggesting that the group has nothing to do with Islam. The negative version of this cliché—that all religion is violent—has also grown in popularity over the past decade, particularly among self-identifying atheists. Some of those who hold to the negative version of this cliché, such as Bill Maher or Sam Harris, argue that most religions, and Islam in particular, are violent to the core.

To be clear, to suggest that any religion is either peaceful or violent is to engage in a game of definition that not only reduces history to a series of stereo-types, but assumes that there is a truth about religion. Anytime someone makes an argument that religion is about X (i.e., peace, truth, power, violence, etc.) and then lists a whole host of historical facts to support the association between religion and X, you can be sure that certain aspects of history are being privileged to further a particular agenda. What is important is not what religion is or is not, but how the term is used to carve up and define space.

4. Religion has dimensions

Next up on the chopping block is a cliché started by Ninian Smart. As a phenomenologist of religion with popular works such as Sacred Texts of the World: A Universal Anthology, Smart was one of the leading 20th Century popularizers of the comparative approach to the study of religion. Whether a religion was theistic or non-theistic, monotheistic or polytheistic, he suggested that it could be broken down into its fundamental aspects and studied. What Smart called the dimensions of religion is a classification schema that organizes religion according to its doctrinal, mythical, ethical, experiential, ritual, institutional, and material elements. As Russell McCutcheon notes, Smarts definition organizes religion according to “aspects or family of traits that typified religions.” (Studying Religion, 172)

This definition of religion is a cliché because it doesn’t actually say anything about religion, but merely passes the buck, so to speak, and assumes that religion is produced by a series of traits that are defined as religious. The logic here is tautological because the various dimensions of religion necessarily produce religious experience (i.e. that which causes religion (myth, narrative, doctrine, etc.) is assumed to be the ‘same/common’ as the source.

The underlying assumption of this expression is that by piecing together all the dimensions of the sacred the scholar is able to describe the nature of human experience. What is fundamentally at stake here is an uncritical acceptance of the correspondence theory of meaning. By organizing religions according to textual, sociological, psychological, anthropological, and historical dimensions it is assumed that we attain access to the essence of a culture. Smart thought that these dimensions provided a “psychology of spirituality” because they give us a glimpse of how human experience and institutions give rise to worldviews that organize the deepest aspects of society. However, by framing community according to a relativist logic of worldviews, or enclosed totalities, this definition merely provides an essentialist way of thinking about community and ignores the arbitrary nature of its classification schema.

(Note: I am not suggesting that the dimensions theory of religion needs to be rejected outright but that it needs to be used with a grain of salt. If it is employed as a tentative classification model then it can be a useful pedagogical tool. On the other hand, when it is used to provide a clear and distinct presentation of some religious or cultural essence it is a cliché.)

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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Dominant Ideologies, Neoliberal Jesuses, and the Academic Study of Religion

Cover Shot 1The following is the editorial introduction to the September 2014 issue of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion (the full table of contents having already been posted). We offer this editorial here on the blog in order to give readers an overview of the most recent issue of the Bulletin.


By Philip L. Tite


Over the past month, my students and I have worked through a good portion of the Guide to the Study of Religion (Braun and McCutcheon 2000). This is an amazing collection of essays that both reflect upon a wide range of trends in the field of religious studies and mark out a theoretically and critically mature path for future scholarship. A running theme throughout the collection is a distinction between theories that focus on substantive approaches to religion (i.e., what religion is) and more discursive approaches to religion (i.e., what religion does). This theme is prominent, for instance, in William Arnal’s excellent overview of definitional approaches as well as in Russell McCutcheon’s engagement with the category “myth.” Often substantial approaches tend to focus on internal sui generis characteristics, thereby essentializing the object of study—and thus render it an object for study—so that a normative, universal reconstruction emerges under such labels as religion, myth, gender, ethnicity. Such normative products are often dissociated from not only cultural institutions (within which the object functions) but also—perhaps more so—the social and political circumstances of intellectual inquiry (within which the object functions for scholarship). More often than not, many of us who work within the academic world are unable to see the contemporary ideological influences at work within our guild—or in our own scholarship. And while concern over content certainly has its place within religious studies scholarship, it is always helpful to enter into reflexive modes of theorization so that we can discern such ideological uses of the very content that we create during our ordinary, scholarly activities.

This issue of the Bulletin offers a panel of papers on a specific arena of research in which such ideological influences are vividly at play in research. James Crossley’s Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism (2012) is a provocative history of scholarship on historical Jesus research (HJR). Building on his previous book, Jesus in an Age of Terror (2008), Crossley explores the dominant ideological, political, and economic trends at play within modern (largely Euro-American) HJR. Rather than exploring shifting methods for explicating the historical Jesus, Crossley’s history situates HJR within the context of neoliberalism. This is a work that is undoubtedly one of the most theoretically sophisticated works in HJR. Rather than offering scholars more tools to reconstruct the historical Jesus, he offers a mirror for HJR scholars, thereby demonstrating that HJR (and religious studies scholarship more generally) is just as historically, culturally, politically, and even economically situated as our supposed object(s) of study.

We are delighted to include in this panel three responses to Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism. Each response offers a distinct perspective for the conversation that Crossley launches. Justin Tse’s expertise in geography of religion adds to the theoretical spectrum of the conversation, while Ian Henderson offers a discerning viewpoint both as a teacher and a HJR scholar. Finally, Roland Boer deepens the conversation with a debate over critical theory. Crossley’s reply to these papers continues the conversation, thereby challenging his respondents and readers to keep pushing along these necessary lines of critical inquiry.

This issue also includes two articles outside the Crossley panel. Gregory Fewster reassesses the discourse of “authorship” in biblical debates over Pauline pseudepigraphy, while Erica Martin’s contribution to our Tips for Teaching section challenges us to rethink how we, as teachers, can effectively engage both introverted and extroverted students. Closing off this issue, we have a set of Field Notes – specifically, the IAHR’s call for papers and the November programs for NAASR and SORAAAD. As always, we welcome news and announcements for both Field Notes and the Bulletin’s blog.


Braun, Willi, and Russell T. McCutcheon. 2000. Guide to the Study of Religion. London: Cassell.

Crossley, James G. 2008. Jesus in an Age of Terror: Scholarly Projects for a New American Century. Sheffield: Equinox

_____. 2012. Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: Quests, Scholarship and Ideology. Sheffield: Equinox.

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Now Published – Bulletin for the Study of Religion 43.3 (September 2014)

Cover Shot 1The September issue of the Bulletin has been published and is available. Below is the table of contents of this issue, which includes a panel of papers on James Crossley’s Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism (Equinox, 2012). This panel includes articles by Justin Tse, Ian Henderson, and Roland Boer with a response by James Crossley.

This issue of the Bulletin also includes papers by Gregory Fewster on Pauline pseudepigraphy and theories of authorship and, for our Tips for Teaching section, Erica Martin addressing teaching strategies for introverted and extroverted students.

As always, we welcome submissions for future issues – including responses to published articles – from established scholars and graduate students engaged in the study of religion (regardless of discipline) for either publication in the Bulletin or for here on the Bulletin‘s Blog. Our guidelines for the journal are available online.

Table of Contents

Bulletin for the Study of Religion Volume 43, Issue 3 (September 2014)


“Dominant Ideologies, Neoliberal Jesuses, and the Academic Study of Religion” (p. 2) – Philip L. Tite [Editorial introduction]

“Placing Neoliberal Jesuses: Doing Public Geography with the Historical Jesus” (pp. 3-9) – Justin K. H. Tse (University of Washington)

“A ‘Very’ Self-Conscious Jesus: Trying to Take Responsibility” (pp. 9-16) – Ian H. Henderson (McGill University)

“Locating the ‘Liberal’ in Neoliberal: A Response to James Crossley” (pp. 16-20) – Roland Boer (Renmin University of China / University of Newcastle)

“Agency, Structure, Change, Power … and Jesus: A Response to Ian Henderson, Justin Tse, and Roland Boer” (pp. 20-29) – James Crossley (University of Sheffield)


“‘Can I Have Your Autograph?’: On Thinking about Pauline Authorship and Pseudepigraphy” (pp. 30-39) – Gregory P. Fewster (University of Toronto)

“Tips for Teaching: The Brain Game – Teaching Strategies for Introverted vs. Extroverted Students” (pp. 39-46) – Erica L. Martin (Seattle University)

“Field Notes” (pp. 46-51)

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Residual Assumptions



by Steven Ramey

Note: This post originally appeared on the Culture on the Edge blog.

In a recent email discussion among scholars about general issues of representations and Wendy Doniger’s controversial book (about which I have written on Culture on the Edge and Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog), P. Pratap Kumar, a colleague in South Africa, framed the issue through a clear, though contrived, contrast between the scholar and the devotee. He wrote,

Someone who is raised as a Hindu grows up listening to religious songs at Satsangs and even through Bollywood religious songs (there are plenty of Bollywood religious songs that Hindus listen to with utmost devotion) and never would have known that their Hindu texts contain many erotic statements and not just the singular term Linga. But on the other hand, scholars especially from the outside Hindu tradition (be they western or eastern) begin with Sanskrit language and then reading the highly specialised texts where they find statements that devout Hindus would have never heard of. From scholar’s reading, there are indeed very detailed erotic references in many Hindu texts. .  

 We as scholars have to talk about these things because these matters are there in the texts from the Rig Veda to the epics in plenty of places. It is hard to fault a western scholar or any non-Hindu scholar for pointing these out and translating them for what they are.

What particularly caught my eye in this generalized contrast is the assumptions informing each side. The scholar’s training (as Pratap constructs here) forefronts the texts, assuming that whatever is in the text is a part of Hinduism. While many scholars are not focused on texts and translations today, the suggestion that something in the Vedas, puranas, or epics is fair game for representations of Hinduism is common. This earlier assumption retains a continuing influence. For the devotee (again in Pratap’s construction), if it is not in their experience of texts and practices, it is not Hindu.

It is easy to see the devotee’s construction as being narrow, limited to their own experience rather than the broader diversity that people identify with Hinduism. Yet, the scholar’s position, while perhaps appearing more expansive, simply reflects a different narrowing of the boundaries. Assuming that something in the text is automatically representative maintains a residual aspect of the European construction of religion, often termed Orientalism now, that the text is the basis for a religion. It actually sounds like the colonizers trying to be certain that they are not being fooled by those who are explaining cultural elements to them. “Where does it say that in the text?” they might ask.

Doniger’s interest in extending her readers’ conception of Hinduism and preserving it from homogenizing limiting forces appears expansive but retains its own limiting assumptions. What often appears to be obvious is obvious because the assumptions that determine the observation or description have been effectively naturalized as the way things are, not a specific choice in a particular moment. Of course, that naturalization is not universal, as others in other situations make different “obvious” choices that produce different boundaries and descriptions.

Thanks to Pratap Kumar for permission to quote from the private listserv. Photo of shivlingam with offerings by Steven Ramey.

* This post also appeared on the Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy blog.

Steven Ramey is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Director of Asian Studies at the University of Alabama. His book Hindu Sufi or Sikh(Palgrave, 2008) focuses on communities who identify as Sindhi Hindus and the ways they contest dominant understandings of identities, both in India and beyond. His newest project addresses the assumptions in the language of religious labels and the ways those assumptions determine research and valorize particular constructions of religions. He blogs for The Huffington Post and the Bulletin for the Study of Religion and serves as the Series Editor of Culture on the Edge: Studies in Identity Formation, a book series with Equinox Publishers.

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Ho Chi Minh and the Politics of Memory


by Michael Graziano

In the course of preparing a new project on the Vietnam War, I stumbled upon a series of news articles covering Vietnamese President Sang’s visit to the United States last month. After meeting with President Obama at the White House, the two leaders held a press conference to recap their discussion. In one of the countless minor controversies that seem to comprise daily life in Washington, D.C., some of President Obama’s political opponents were critical of his closing remarks in which he said the following:

At the conclusion of the meeting, President Sang shared with me a copy of a letter sent by Ho Chi Minh to Harry Truman.  And we discussed the fact that Ho Chi Minh was actually inspired by the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and the words of Thomas Jefferson.  Ho Chi Minh talks about his interest in cooperation with the United States.  And President Sang indicated that even if it’s 67 years later, it’s good that we’re still making progress. 

The reaction by some on the American right was swift. In an article entitled “Uh Ho,” Fox News reported on the incident: “It may come as some unwelcome news to the families of the nearly 60,000 Americans who died in the Vietnam War that the whole thing was just a misunderstanding.” The debate was lively on Twitter, with (prominent?) conservative Allen West chiming in:

Ho Chi Minh was inspired by Jefferson: POTUS gaffe or insult? Regardless he owes Vietnam vets & families an apology.

Uh Ho: Obama Says Vietnamese Dictator Inspired by Founding Fathers.

West’s post is representative of those who were outraged that Obama would compare Ho Chi Minh to the Founding Fathers (even if it was only Jefferson).

While I found the general revulsion to Ho Chi Minh unsurprising, I was struck by how many people were insulted by the notion that Ho could even be inspired by Jefferson. Fox’s Chris Stirewalt wrote that, “In Obama’s credulous citing of the Constitution as an inspiration, there is particular historical dissonance. One of the great murders of the 20th century could not have been truly inspired by the most significant advancement of the rights of the individual in human history.”

Historical dissonance, mind you. The latest kerfuffle presents a reminder of the ways in which specific readings of texts authorize particular historical narratives. Teleological arguments regarding the course of American history aside (fish, barrel, etc.), this case is a good example of how the American founders’ words are taken to have very specific (and limited) meanings by some of their readers. I’m reminded of Bruce Lincoln’s “How to Read a Religious Text” (2006), in which Lincoln argues that one of the primary markers of a religious text is that “characteristically, they connect themselves—either explicitly or in some indirect fashion—to a sphere and a knowledge of transcendent or metaphysical nature, which they purportedly mediate to mortal beings through processes like revelation, inspiration, and unbroken primordial tradition” (127). Considering the strategic choices made when classifying the Founders as (a)/religious are nothing new (cue the late Robert Bellah), but this story serves as a good reminder of the way in which people writing about the Founders often engage in rhetorical practices quite familiar to scholars in the academic study of religion.

This approach also renders the story useful in the classroom, since it provides a contemporary example of the tricky business of policing categorical distinctions. In this case, Ho is a “dictator,” and dictators and the Declaration of Independence don’t mix. Faded from view, of course, is Ho’s unanswered letter to President Truman requesting aid in ending French colonial rule as is President Eisenhower’s decision to suspend the elections in which Ho planned to run for office.


People read texts differently. News stories like this one can be a useful way to not only remind students that texts lack intrinsic meaning but that our attention is best spent on investigating the act of assigning meaning. In this particular story, Jefferson’s words mean something to those who were outraged, and that something can be determined neatly and precisely. Furthermore, the text of the Declaration of Independence not only means something specific but, if interpreted correctly, can inspire only a limited set of actions in keeping with that meaning. So though Ho Chi Minh certainly read Jefferson, the argument goes, he must not have understood Jefferson since Ho did things which are un-American (apparently unlike things which Jefferson did and are apparently quintessentially American–such as, say, slavery). Thus Obama linking Jefferson to Ho Chi Minh is particularly troubling, since it suggests either that President Obama (a) does not understand Jefferson or, worse, (b) he understands Jefferson but wishes to salvage Ho Chi Minh’s historical record by rinsing it liberally with the image of the Founders.

Option (b) fits within the interpretive logic of many who see President Obama as essentially un-American (and therefore socialist/ communist/ fascist/ Islamo-fascist). Thus we have the artwork of flickr user “Templar1307” depicting Obama in the place of Lenin, facetiously used in coverage of the event by Mother Jones. Cue Lincoln: “Those whose consciousness has been shaped by such a vision are conditioned to see, accept, ponder, and admire the same “cosmic” order in all its (putative) instantiations…Moreover, they experience that order as one more confirmation of the pattern they have learned to identify with the nature of the cosmos, for all that it is the product of their own discourse and practice.” (139, my emphasis).

Michael Graziano is a Ph.D. candidate in the American Religious History program at Florida State University. His research interests include the relationship between religion and law in American history as well as the role of religion in the American military. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @grazmike.

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Reflections on RELS 161: Contemporary Problems in Religion and Culture


by Ian Alexander Cuthbertson

Note: This post originally appeared on the Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy blog.

Last year I redesigned a first-year religious studies course at Queen’s University in Kingston Ontario. The course is one of two full-year intro courses offered at the School of Religion, the other being a typical introduction to world religions course. In past years, the course had been split between two instructors and tended to be taught as a religion ‘and’ course where each instructor developed content in line with her own interests (religion and sex, religion and the environment, religion and science). Given the opportunity to teach the entire course myself, I developed a new syllabus with the goal of giving first year students a broad introduction not to ‘religion’ per se but rather to the academic study of religion. The theme for the course became ‘religion in modernity’ and topics included secularization, religious fundamentalism, new atheism, and new religious movements. Owing to my own interest in critical theory, I attempted to integrate a critical perspective into the course readings using Malory Nye’s excellent introductory text Religion: The Basics along with excerpts from J.Z. Smith, Talal Asad, Russell McCutcheon, and others.

Entering the classroom last September I naively hoped that my students would become as excited about critical theory as I am. They didn’t. And although the course wasn’t a complete flop, it did not live up to my expectations. For the most part, the students hated the theoretical components that I included. Or perhaps they simply couldn’t understand why I seemed so interested in pointing out what religion isn’t – that it isn’t just beliefs or churches – that ‘it’ isn’t really an ‘it’ at all and is instead made up of countless acts of classification performed by self-interested actors. What came across instead was that different people see religion differently. Yes, the students seemed to say. We get it. But we want to learn about religion, not what people say about religion.

This summer I had some time to reflect on the challenges of including critical theory in a first-year intro course and went back to the drawing board. First, I identified some of the major challenges I had faced and then developed some strategies for addressing these. In what follows I briefly outline these challenges and strategies.


1. Preconceptions (lack thereof): I had originally decided to focus almost exclusively on Christianity in the first half of the course – not only because Christian categories have so deeply influenced the academic study of religion, but also because I assumed my students, who had been for the most part raised in a society dominated by Christianity, would be familiar (at least in general terms) with that religion. They weren’t. In fact, most students came to the class with very little base knowledge of religion. Of course some students were themselves religious and had insights into their own particular traditions and denominations. Still, most seemed only dimly aware that there were different kinds of Christianity in the world, let alone religions in which god(s) are largely peripheral figures. It became difficult, therefore, to criticize dominant conceptualizations of religion (the world religions paradigm, say) when students had never taken a world religions course to begin with.

2. Relevance (lack thereof): Precisely because the students had very little basic knowledge of religion, it became difficult to show why they should care about any of the critical theory that I kept talking about. I was clearly very excited about critical theory, and that helped. But the relevance of critical theoretical approaches was lost when I would introduce a dominant way of understanding religion (as sui generis, say) and then proceed to critique that view. For one thing, I typically had hard time showing the students that one approach was, in fact, dominant. But my explanations (that this view renders religion apolitical, say) also failed to stick either because each view (religion as sui generis and ‘religion’ as culturally determined) seemed just as plausible as its opposite or perhaps because students couldn’t see why this actually mattered outside of the classroom. The satisfaction that comes with questioning a taken-for-granted way of understanding something was lost because any given way of approaching religion was never taken-for-granted – it was always a brand new idea presented by me.

3. Trust. A final challenge is that the students trusted me. When I designed the course I included primary source readings thinking the students would not want to trust my interpretations and would instead prefer to read the original sources themselves. But for the most part, students preferred to have me (or secondary sources) tell them what early twentieth century Protestant fundamentalists thought or what contemporary new atheists are all about. The problem was that this basic trust also made it difficult for the students to understand that I was presenting various opposing views that were not necessarily my own and that none of them were ‘right.’ Students seemed to have a hard time understanding that any particular view depends upon an historical context and is contradicted by a host of other, equally plausible and well-argued opinions. Rather than view a given theoretical approach as being better or worse for some particular issue or problem, students simply accepted each in turn.

Obviously I had a lot of re-drawing to do. Here’s what I’ve come up with.


1. Making the Taken For Granted: My goal this year is to encourage the students to take certain things for granted – at least at the outset. To do this, I will depend largely on the trust issue outlined above. This year, rather than providing a wide variety of opposing ways of understanding and approaching religion at the start of the course, I will consistently take a single approach. I plan to stick with the overall ‘religion’ in modernity theme and to keep secularization, religious fundamentalism, and new atheism as topics. But rather than question the ways fundamentalists, new atheists, and (some) scholars describe religion in terms of belief, I will present this view uncritically. The fate of religion in the modern world, I will argue, is really all about the struggle between religious and secular/scientific beliefs. Rather than presume, as I did last year, that students will come to class with a host of preconceptions about religion, I will work to create these views in my students.

2. Breaking the Spell: The title of the first lecture of the spring term will be: “Everything We Learned Last Term Is Wrong.” In the first few lectures of the second term I will give concrete examples of the preconceptions under which I (we) operated in the first term. Religion, I will reveal, is not only about belief; it is also about practices. In other words, I will wait until students have developed opinions about what religion is before working to critique and expand these views. Only in the second term will we do readings on ritual and habitus – readings that I had originally included in the first weeks of the course. Our exploration of ritual and habitus will not, of course, be limited to ‘religious’ ways of being and doing in the world, which will (hopefully) lead the students to wonder why certain kinds of ritual are deemed religious while others are not.

3. The Other Jay-Z: Having shown students (and not merely told them) that there are vastly different ways of studying religion, I will be better able to introduce them to Jonathan Z. Smith, Russell McCutcheon, and other critical theorists. At this point the students should be better equipped to see not only that there are different ways to study religion but that these approaches trace the contours of the very thing they seek to analyze and describe. The students will have had the experience of operating under a set of preconceptions (religion is about what people believe) and will have seen how this view led us to be interested in certain kinds of phenomena (fundamentalism, new atheism). They will also have had the experience of criticizing this view and replacing it with a different one (religion is about what people do) and will have seen how this new perspective caused us to turn our gaze to other kinds of phenomena (rituals, clothing, meals). They will have experienced, first hand, that there is no data for religion and that religion is, instead, “created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization” (Smith, 1982). In other words, the students will experience first hand that the kinds of things that counted as religion in the first term depended upon the approaches we opted to take.

4. So What? I mentioned above that I found it difficult to explain why the students should care that different ways of studying religion actually create the object of study. I think this might seem more relevant once the students experience this process at work, but I would also like to focus on some other practical ‘real world’ implications as well. Last year I ended the course with a section on new religious movements (neo-paganism, Scientology, Satanism) and ironic and ‘hyper-real’ religions (Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Jediism, Dudeism). I plan to do the same thing again this year. But rather than focusing on how these phenomena fit into the larger underlying theme of religion in modernity, I will focus instead on struggles concerning classification and authenticity. The fact that Scientology is a religion in the United States and a cult in France along with controversy over Satanists’ plans to erect a monument to Satan in Oklahoma will become real-world examples of how different ways of understanding religion determine what is, or isn’t, acceptable/authentic religion.

Of course I have no idea whether this new approach will work and will likely find myself back at the drawing board again this time next year. Fortunately, it is exactly this opportunity to learn from my mistakes (or earlier attempts to put a more positive spin on things) that I love most about teaching.

Ian Alexander Cuthbertson is a PhD. candidate in the Cultural Studies program at Queen’s University.

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Thus Spake Matt Sheedy: Analytic Philosophy, Critical Theory, and the Atheism/Theism Discourse


by Dan Linford

Note: A version of this article originally appeared on Dan Linford’s blog Libere.

Matt Sheedy recently wrote an article for the Bulletin blog, in which he addresses Kevin Sorbo’s statement that atheists are absurd because they are angry with a god they claim not to believe in. Sorbo claimed that atheists secretly believe in God. columnist  Sarah Gray had dismissed Sorbo’s comments as absurd. Sheedy took Gray to task for ignoring the social context of Sorbo’s assertion:

The pithy length of Gray’s reply, clocking in at 240 words, highlights the ease with which she feels that she can dismiss Sorbo’s arguments, relying mostly on his own words to point out the absurdity of this position. While she no doubt has a point that his statement is “logically” absurd, her method, commonly associated with the analytic tradition in “Anglo-American” philosophy, is to respond from the elevated plain of rational thought, where every problem, every contradiction, can be resolved by simply pointing out where logic has gone off the rails.

Sheedy’s comments have already “gone off the rails” if he thinks that all analytic (or Anglo-American) philosophy is capable of is recognizing failures to be logically consistent. More charitably, Gray’s comments should be taken as bringing into question whether or not Sorbo has any evidence for his assertion that atheists secretly believe in God (he has no such evidence). Sheedy’s comments can be charitably reinterpreted as the claim that there is more than the arguments at play. The arguments might legitimize particular cultural stances and signal particular allegiances (and systematically delegitimize the stances of those atheists who criticize or question Christian hegemony). Sorbo can use “bad” arguments precisely because the content of the arguments is largely irrelevant. What is far more relevant than the logic or justifications in Sorbo’s arguments are the social processes that the arguments play a role in.

I have to confess that I have a hard time identifying what the ultimate point of Sheedy’s article is supposed to be, but, so far as the article aims to be an argument in opposition to analytic (or Anglo-American) philosophy, much of the article seems to be straightforwardly self-undermining. Sheedy claims that we should go beyond the approach to dialectic encouraged by analytic  philosophy because such an approach is overly reductionistic (it ignores social context). Yet Sheedy’s article presents an overly reductionistic view of analytic philosophy.

In any given discourse, there will be opposing sides arguing for contrary views. In the first-order debate between atheists and theists, there are two sides which each present arguments for or against the existence of God. Kevin Sorbo is certainly not an academically respectable representative of that first-order debate, but it is not difficult to find those who are (Plantinga, Swinburne, van Inwagen, Kierkegaard, Aquinas, etc, for the theists and Rowe, Draper, Russell, Hume, etc, for the atheists).

Sheedy takes issue with the first-order discourse and sees himself as above it or outside it (atheists are “data” for religion studies scholars, the theist/atheist dichotomy is not necessary to maintain, etc). The implication of this is that Sheedy is engaged in a second-order discourse: a discourse about the first-order atheist/theist debate. In that second-order discourse, the assumptions of the first-order discourse can be brought into question (what sort of distinction should be maintained between atheism and theism?), the social context of the actors in the first-order discourse can be examined (what social pressures is Kevin Sorbo and his ilk responding to?), and the first-order discourse can be contextualized into a historical framework (Sheedy’s appeal to Hume and Preus, for example).

Analytic philosophy is perfectly capable of identifying these two kinds of discourse and presenting arguments in the two categories. It is also capable of recognizing that the first-order discourse can be undermined by the second-order discourse: an argument for the conclusion that the e.g. social context of the actors in the first-order debate undermines arguments made in the first-order debate is what analytic philosophers call an “evolutionary debunking” argument. Nonetheless, analytic philosophers routinely do something which might be anathema to critical theorists: engage in first-order debates with the assumption that evolutionary debunking arguments are not crippling.


After I wrote the above article, Matt and I privately discussed this issue further. I thought that I should add the following as a clarification of my position.

We agree that there is a distinction between the first-order and second-order debates. To reiterate, the first-order debate is on the question of whether or not God exists. The second-order debate concerns the socio-political, and historical positioning of the first-order debate. In Sheedy’s terminology, this is the distinction between “mere criticism” and “critique” (borrowed from Brown’s Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech).

Both the first-order and the second-order debates come in popular and academic flavors. Theists in the popular first order-debate are diverse: they include Kevin Sorbo but also Karen Armstrong and Rowan Williams. Atheists in the popular first-order debate are as diverse: their number includes Richard Dawkins and Alain de Botton. The first-order academic debate is also diverse, including (as theists) Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Soren Kierkegaard and (as atheists) Paul Draper, Michael Martin, and Elliott Sober. The second-order popular debate includes popular-level appropriations of critical theory, popular-level appropriations of cognitive science (especially bad interpretations of Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: religions as “mind viruses”), and even Sorbo’s description of atheists as those who (somehow) hate God. Popular-level second-order discussions can also be addressed by academic higher order discourses, such as Sheedy’s original article.

I suggest that a large part of the disagreement between Sheedy and myself is (a) semantic and (b) methodological. As an example, consider the following passage from Sheedy’s article:

[...] the call for critique [...] means moving beyond the binary logic that we are always forced to confront in the use of every-day language and [...] to take a look at what’s going on behind it, in the margins and in the seams.

From the perspective of someone trained in analytic philosophy, Sheedy’s comment that we should abandon “binary logic” are incoherent. Logic is a prerequisite for reasoning at all. Most analytic philosophers would interpret Sheedy’s comment as a request to abandon reason.

A charitable reading of Sheedy’s comments is that we should not literally abandon logic, but put aside the question of God’s existence and re-focus our attention on the socio-political situation (the academic higher-order debate). In so doing, we do not abandon reason but use reason to evaluate socio-political processes, especially the socio-political reasons one may have to affirm or deny God’s existence: “what’s going on behind” the affirmations and denials.

I’d now like to address the response Sheedy left in the comments section to an earlier draft of this article.

First, some of the misunderstandings.

I should have been more careful when I talked about unpacking Sorbo’s arguments as a pedagogical exercise. To be clear, what I had in mind is that there are two different ways to engage the God’s Not Dead milieu: a) from the cultural studies perspective, which he advocated, and b) to engage Sorbo’s (and his ilk’s) arguments in some sort of logical vacuum disjoint from their cultural context (what he described as an appropriation from Anglo-American philosophy).

Given how poorly constructed Sorbo’s arguments are, and the fact that analytic philosophy journals would not generally accept papers containing or responding to Sorbo’s arguments, there seems to be little reason for an analytic philosopher to engage Sorbo other than as a pedagogical exercise. That is not to say that cultural studies wouldn’t have a tremendous amount to say about Sorbo or God’s Not Dead. Here we agree. I will add that analytic philosophers may use Sorbo as Sheedy has: as an example of a particular kind of popular-level discourse.

Sheedy finished his response with a question: “How can one pose as an atheist and as a scholar at the same time, while claiming to be engaged in critical work?” He expanded on this question, noting that the ‘atheist’ and ‘religious’ labels are unstable because they are socially constructed.

Sheedy and I agree that the historical/sociological literature has made it clear that ‘religion’ is both socially constructed and unstable. I add that the divide between the secular and the religious is problematic for related reasons. I suspect we are both aware of the long history of e.g. imperialistic activity that has gone on under the guise of the modern Western notion of ‘religion.’

Nonetheless, he is mistaken to position atheism in relation to religion, because atheism’s history and present boundaries are wider than those who merely identify themselves in opposition to religion.

I am quite confused as to why he would think that a scholar could not (or should not?) identify themselves as an atheist. Consider, for example, that critical theory has also resulted in the conclusion that gender and sexual orientation is socially constructed. Yet the fact that there are critical theorists who identify with any particular gender identity or sexual orientation is not somehow mysterious. I would suggest that a critical scholar identifying themselves with a religious (or non-religious) identity is no more mysterious. There are plenty of religion studies scholars, such as Peter Berger, who identify with particular Christian denominations yet take the position that religion is a social construct. Scholars who self-identify as “atheists” and who do critical work might be understood similarly to how we understand those who self-identify as “feminists” and do critical work in gender studies.

I will add that a philosopher taking a position in the first-order debate (like myself) should not be any more mysterious than someone engaged with the second-order debate taking a position there. If all it means for a position to be socially constructed is that the position was put together by people, then critical theory (and all the positions therein) were socially constructed. Thus, insofar as social construction undermines the first-order debate, I see little reason why a parallel conclusion should not be reached for the second-order debate.

Dan Linford is an adjunct philosophy professor at Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton, Virginia, and a recent graduate of Virginia Tech. He is currently applying to PhD programs and is interested in the intersection of analytic philosophy of religion and philosophy of science.

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