Teaching Ethics and/in the World Religions Paradigm


by Matt Sheedy

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

Like many PhD students, adjuncts, and even the occasional tenured professor, I inherited a course some years back, textbook, and all, called Ethics and World Religions. The course was designed to provide students with a general introduction to “world religions” with an emphasis on the ethical systems of Judaism, Jainism, Hinduism, “Indigenous religions,” etc. Over the years, on average, over half of the students have come from my university’s business school, which requires their graduates to obtain one half credit in a course on ethics. These are but a few examples of the practical constraints that religion scholars face in the classroom, especially in first year introductory courses.

After my first semester of teaching this class in an online format, where the texts and on-line lectures cannot be changed due to copyright restrictions, I quickly moved to supplement this material with a number of theoretical essays for the classroom version of the course. In recent years, I’ve set things up so that the textbook, The World’s Religions by William A. Young, is not just a resource, but the primary object of study.

Some essays that I’ve found useful for this task include J.Z Smith’s “Religion, Religions, Religious” and the chapters on “Authority” and “Habitus” from Craig Martin’s A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion. Martin’s text has been particularly helpful in calling attention to how authorizing strategies function in the discourse of the world religions paradigm. For example, his suggestion in the chapter on “Habitus” that we begin our investigations by paying attention to the form (e.g., language-use, diction, performance, etc.) rather than leading with the presumed content (e.g., axioms about Islam, such as the “5 Pillars” or passages from the Qur’an) helps students to see that religious identities can be more productively explained by showing how particular habits, tastes and preferences shape the ways in which theological ideas are embodied and practiced in the everyday world. Many Muslims, for example, might adhere to some version of the “5 Pillars,” though simply stating this as fact (as Young’s textbook does) tells us next to nothing about the ways that it is authorized, modified, selectively privileged or ignored and, most importantly, for what reasons?

Beginning the class with these essays (along with a case study or two) also makes it easier for students to see how the phenomenological approach that is presented in the textbook is trying to square a highly fractured circle by lumping large groups under a particular cluster of shared beliefs and practices, thereby authorizing certain norms and principles over others. It is precisely for this reason, however, that the textbook is useful since it reproduces a variation of a generic liberal approach to comparing religions common in the Euro-West.

Turning to the question of ethics, I get students to read Seyla Benhabib’s essay, “The Generalized and the Concrete Other,” where she demonstrates that while social norms in Western liberal democracies are based upon generalized principles, such as equality and fairness, they tend to tilt in the favor of dominant groups. In her analysis, Benhabib traces representations of women in Western political theory since Thomas Hobbes in order to show how such principles reflect a patriarchal bias. Like Martin, she also recommends that scholars start from particular contexts in their investigations and not some generalized map that claims to represent the whole.

I’ve found this combination of essays (though I always test out new essays each year) in a course on ethics and world religions helps students to see the relationship between general principles and concrete group identities, and helps to make it apparent how the textbook works as a comparative strategyrather than a definitive representation.

Instead of presenting what is “ethical” according to certain insiders’ self-descriptions or, as Young puts it, of aiming “to understand religion from the perspective of religious persons themselves,” (which begs the question, which insiders, and which representations?) my aim is to point out the always existing tension between generalized norms and how they are interpreted by various groups, especially those on the margins who do not fit the “official” mold.

By the course’s end, my hope is that students not only understand something about how religious insiders describe themselves, but that the explanations of those insiders (whether coming from priests, scholars or sworn enemies) are best understood by applying theory in an attempt to explain how they work in the social world. Far from neglecting those sticky questions of evaluation and judgment common to most classes on ethics, this approach also demonstrates some of the main challenges to addressing the problem of ethics in the first place.

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 Juergen 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.

Posted in Matt Sheedy, Pedagogy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Teaching Beyond the World Religions Paradigm?

By Philip L. Tite

western_religious_symbolsCurrently I am teaching an undergraduate course, Introductions to Western Religions. This introductory course (along with its companion course, Introduction to Eastern Religions) is a common one in universities across North America. These are the basic “feeder” courses, or foundation courses, that support the religious studies major. Often they are designed to teach the basic content associated with such religions: historical survey, beliefs system, ethics, social/community structure, and (perhaps most importantly) the major religious texts associated with each tradition.

These introductory courses are supported by academic presses, especially those which specialize in textbooks. There is a plethora of textbooks out there on the market that continue to compete for that coveted “intro textbook” status. Many of these books are constantly being issued in new editions, forcing students to purchase expensive books with little opportunity of re-sell. From a purely commercial perspective, there is definitely a market for “world religions” in textbook publishing. And likely this is due to the continued market for such courses – courses that may be keeping some departments above water in an era when the humanities have once again come under fire as students and parents react to the Great Recession and the astronomical cost of higher education (especially in the United States).

The entire approach to the study of religion that is exemplified in such world religions courses (whether covering the major world religions or divided into the eastern and western camps) falls under what has been dubbed the “world religions paradigm” (WRP).

In the past few years, the WRP has been challenged by scholars. Suzanne Owen’s (Suzanne Owen, “The World Religions Paradigm: Time for a Change,” Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 10.3 (2011): 253-68) has offered an excellent analysis of the paradigm, pointing out several problems with the WRP and calling on educators in the United Kingdom (and beyond) to discard it: The WRP largely emerges out of European colonialism; it universalizes and thus essentializes a cultural tradition (a sui generis product that transcends the historical); it obscures the distinctly local cultural practices, thereby decontextualizing those cultural practices while authenticating a constructed “core”; it imposes Western (i.e., Judeo-Christian) models of “religion” that have emerged since the Enlightenment as normative for cultures encountered through colonial expansion and thereby creates and defines that very “other” in terms of the “us” (e.g., religion as a private, internal belief system separate from public or mundane matters); it tends to stop at the descriptive level, albeit with a moral agenda of promoting pluralism and tolerance, and thus avoids – indeed resists – reductive explanatory approaches.

Owen has noted the challenge facing scholars who reject the WRP but are required to teach the basic introductory courses. Many end up teaching these content driven courses, following the standard layout of the world religions textbook. A further challenge I have noticed in North American religious studies departments is the implicit presence of the WRP in those very departments where the paradigm has be overtly rejected. I recall one university I taught at where I was told “we’ve rejected that model” (i.e., the WRP), yet then I saw that they organized their major into eastern and western traditions with the standard “intro to” Judaism, Islam, Eastern Religions (an odd conglomerate of traditions!), etc. So while there may be no “Introduction to World Religions” or “Western/Eastern Religion”, the WRP continued to be the subtext (with all the implicit problems that Owen highlights for us) driving the entire degree program. For me the problem was not only the inconsistency of “rejecting” the WRP while embracing it on the larger structural level of the degree program, but more importantly the blindness in even seeing that they were still following this model. I felt that there was a failure to really challenge the WRP.

Since teaching at that university, I have tried to think through possible ways to teach such required courses in a way that would guide students to not only learn content about diverse religious traditions (I do think we can know something about the world around us), but also, and more importantly, to critically discern and analyze the constructed nature of “religion” and in particular the WRP. This summer I have had the opportunity to experiment with such an approach when offered the “Intro to Western Religions” at the University of Washington.

My basic idea is that we shift our focus away from just studying the major traditions from the West (i.e., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and instead look at “Western Religions” as a constructed category that shapes data into commonsense categories. Thus, the very category “Western Religions” (and not just religions of the West) becomes our object of study. My claim is that the intro course can be the site where we deconstruct the very nature of the course we are signed up for. I tend to do this a lot in my teaching; i.e., to take the course title and description and to work with my students to undermine (or to look at the underlying presuppositions of) that very course title. The intro to comparative religion course offers an excellent opportunity to overtly challenge the WRP, not only in scholarship but within the broader, media-driven view of religion that we continually find imposed upon students as the “obvious” construction of reality. By bringing these “Western” religions together in such a course, we can finally look at the underlying power dynamics involved in the construction and internalization of the WRP.

So for my Intro to Western Religions course, we do not use a standard textbook. Rather, we are taking three or four mainstream intro to world religions textbooks that are on the market today and comparing the ways in which the authors construct/present as normative the three so-called “Abrahamic faiths”. The textbooks have become our object of study rather than our guide into our object of study. The idea is that while we are learning “content” (i.e., something about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) we are also looking at the “spin” given to those traditions. We began by setting the stage for our critical analysis by discussing theoretical problems in the study of “Western Religions”: the definitional problem of “religion” (reading J. Z Smith and incorporating Craig Martin’s insights on the “delimitation” underlying definitions of religion); the WRP (reading Owen); the exclusion of certain “fringe religions” or those cultural processes that are often excluded from the category “Western Religions” (New Religious Movements, Native American cultures, hybridization of African cultures within North American contexts, civil religion, etc); and the entire eastern/western division of world religions. This opening module helped establish the analytical lens by which we looked at the various “narrative mappings” of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Certainly we are learning descriptive “facts” about these three religions, but more importantly we are learning how those facts are created and given a spin by each author – and this critical gaze has been applied as well to any lecture I may give (such as an historical overview) or to a documentary (such as a BBC documentary we watched on Andalusian Spain).

So far this has been working in class. It has been fun to identify and compare structural components in the presentation of the “same facts.” For example, Mary Pat Fisher’s Living Religions (I have the 7th edition published in 2007) begins and ends with a focus on 9/11 and the “war on terror” – a framing mechanism that allows her to try to correct misunderstandings of “authentic” Islam in the wake of 9/11:

In fact, ignorance about Islam and perceived targeting of Muslims in general by the US-led ‘war on terrorism’ have exacerbated a dangerous and growing divide between Muslims and non-Muslims in the contemporary world. Therefore it is extremely important to carefully study the origins, teachings, and modern history of this major world religion (376).

Thus, the construction of Islam in this textbook and importance of studying Islam through such a construct is needed in order to correct misunderstandings of Islam within current geo-political crises. This tells us something about the contingency of scholarship (and teaching!), moral undertones driving pedagogy, and the role of the scholar (at least some scholars/teachers) in “saving” a religion as authentic (e.g., in the close of this chapter, Fisher spends a great deal of time arguing that violent acts by Islamic groups such as Al Qaeda are not authentic or correct understandings of Islam, specifically the concept of jihad). In these discursive moves, Fisher makes a normative claim about Islam, its future hopes (via inter-faith dialogue and progressive ideology), and its inherent goodness.

With a very different “spin”, Warren Matthews makes a different normative claim about Islam. In his World Religions (I have the 6th edition published in 2010), Matthews opens with the following statement:

The ensuing account tries to present the facts of history with respect for the Muslim views that Muhammad’s actions, words, and teachings were inspired by his own religious experiences. Nevertheless, other forces interacted with his recitations of the Qur’an and his actions based on them. In the history of this religion, as I have with others, I try to present a sympathetic, understanding account of the religion’s beliefs about its origins and development  (327).

Rather than authenticating this “religion” via geo-political conflicts currently affecting public perceptions of Islam, Matthews exemplifies the very theoretical approach of the phenomenologist of religion, where sympathy with those being studied stands alongside giving interpretative force to the insider’s private experiential truth claims (which also evoke the notion that religion is essentially a private, irreductive experience that the outsider can only approximate in his or her understanding of the insider’s truth claims).

My students were quick to note that these framing mechanisms were not as overt in the chapters on Judaism and Christianity, where the presuppositions underlying the presentations are more tacit. While the overt articulation of the authors’ agendas were convenient for us in our analysis of the construction of “Western/World Religions”, they also helped us discern something about the target audience (or the assumed Christian demographic of the North American classroom). The other two chapters in Matthews in particular began with historical surveys that re-presented biblical narratives as historically reliable (we discussed some possibilities for such presentation for the likely target/assumed audience of the textbook). The assumption that students entering these courses would have a background in Christian tradition also was evident to me when I read the study questions at the end of Matthews’ chapter on Christianity (e.g., “What major social issues should Christianity address in the twenty-first century?”).

We were also able to note normative – or universalizing – assumptions in the discussion of Judaism. For example, Fisher opens the discussion of Jewish beliefs with the following claim: “The central Jewish belief is monotheism” (271). On the surface this does not seem all that problematic. After all, aren’t we talking about the three great monotheistic faiths? Doesn’t the Jewish Shema embody a commitment to monotheism? But then we looked at what is excluded by such a totalizing, universal claim by Fisher. Not only are possible polytheistic and/or henotheistic aspects in the changing understandings of God within the emergence of Judaism omitted from discussion, but we also fail to include the rise of Jewish atheism and secular Zionism in the 20th century. We also fail to consider the ancient ideas of the manifestation of God in, for example, the Shekhinah, the Kavod, or Wisdom/Sophia (and the whole process of divine attributes being personified extensions of the divine).

At the end of the course, we will come full circle to the theoretical problems with the WRP, the colonial and post-colonial power dynamics underlying that paradigm, etc. My hope is that my students will not only learn something about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but will also (more importantly) learn that these traditions are socially constructed, contingently presented and evaluated, and consumed by particular audiences as commodities or products that shape perceptions and social interactions. They are not “things unto themselves” but are built up as “things unto themselves” for particular, underlying agendas to which those constructs serve.

So should we be teaching courses such as “Introduction to Western Religions”? Absolutely. But not in the way that these courses are often taught. I like to see the course as an opportunity to expose my students to the very idea that religious traditions are discursive products; i.e., narrative maps that guide and shape human interactions and social perceptions of reality. Even though an introductory course, I think that we can use such courses (and should use such courses) to encourage critical “looking below the surface” rather than simply stopping at the descriptive level of content to which the student is expected to memorize and re-articulate on an examination. In my own view, that’s what higher education should do, especially within the field of religious studies. Graduates of our programs should not simply have overly expensive pieces of paper declaring that they are culturally sensitive and can ace a trivia game at the local pub (if religious topics ever arose), but rather they should be culture critics. They should be able to discern and analyze the constructed, normative world around them that is often taken for granted. “Religion” – as a discursive object – continues to be one of those very “taken for granted” discursive maps. And our students should not simply be map readers or map makers, but analysts of the purposes, mechanisms, and assumptions in the very production of those maps.

This task does not (or should not) be pushed off to graduate school or even upper level undergraduate courses. This should start at the get-go. My current course is a pedagogical experiment for me. It is an attempt at teaching beyond the world religions paradigm by teaching through the world religions paradigm.

Author Bio: Philip Tite is editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from McGill University (2005) and is currently an affiliate lecturer at the University of Washington and also teaches at Seattle University in Seattle WA, USA. His most recent book is The Apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans: An Epistolarly and Rhetorical Analysis (TENTS, 7; Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2012).

Posted in Pedagogy, Philip L. Tite, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Suzanne Owen, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Sam Harris: You Are My Data


by Matt Sheedy

As a scholar of religions, I find your arguments about religion both frustrating and wrongheaded, which is a sentiment that is shared by most of my colleagues, though often for different reasons. Your recent post, “Why I Don’t Criticize Israel?” is but one example in a litany of arguments where you reify (I know you don’t use this term so I’ve provided a link) the concept “religion” in such a way that it functions like some contagion infecting all those who come into contact with it, unable to escape the grasp of its most virulent strains (read: literal interpretations of scripture).

Having read most of your books along-side the other so-called “New Atheists,” it became apparent to me as early as The End of Faith (2004) that you were the most reactionary among them, endorsing torture and writing the following remarkable lines in Letter to a Christian Nation, (2008) which I was recently humoured to see annotated in my personal copy with the letters, WTF?

If the basic tenets of Christianity are true, then there are some very grim surprises in store for nonbelievers like myself. … So let us be honest with ourselves: in the fullness of time, one side is really going to win this argument, and the other side is really going to lose. (5)

Since this time, to your credit, you have put your money where your mouth is, earning a PhD. in cognitive neuroscience in 2009, which you drew upon in your argument for a scientific morality in The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (2011). More recently, you have doubled-down on this proposition with the release of Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. (2014)

I would imagine that most scholars of religions do not object to your quest to find a scientific basis for morality per se, since theories of mind and cognition are but one of many tools in the collective toolbox of the study of religions. Notwithstanding some of your arguments on topics such as neuroscience and free will, however, you do not provide any sort of theory that we can take seriously. For a brief overview of the kind of work that we do, I’d suggest starting with this concise taxonomy of scholars of religion by Travis Cooper. But I digress.

In “Why I Don’t Criticize Israel?” you raise a variety of points in defense of this question, including qualifying notes that you place in brackets in an attempt to nuance your previous statements on this topic, such as the following:

[Note: Again, I realize that not all Palestinians support Hamas. Nor am I discounting the degree to which the occupation, along with collateral damage suffered in war, has fueled Palestinian rage. But Palestinian terrorism (and Muslim anti-Semitism) is what has made peaceful coexistence thus far impossible.]

It is not my aim to engage you here on your arguments relating to the conflict at hand, but rather to offer my thoughts on how they bear upon the ways that we talk about religion. While the claims that you make about Israelis and Jews, Palestinians and Muslims are selective and limited (as I’m sure you’d acknowledge, after all it is a blog post), they nonetheless constitute claims that can be reflected on and challenged with alternative facts and additional evidence, which can then be re-interpreted, re-evaluated and revised if found to be compelling. As with any conflict, I endorse the ideal of taking up as many critical perspectives as possible in order to better grasp the messy world of politics and I encourage any honest efforts to do so.

When it comes to the question of religion, however, your reasoning comes up against a wall, which muddies your ability to clarify what is at stake in this and many other situations that involve groups that identify as religious (note the displacement of “religion” here, as we are still debating whether it is best understood as a first- or a second-order category). Curiously, you seem to make one exception to your general rule, which is worth quoting in full:

There are something like 15 million Jews on earth at this moment; there are a hundred times as many Muslims. I’ve debated rabbis who, when I have assumed that they believe in a God that can hear our prayers, they stop me mid-sentence and say, “Why would you think that I believe in a God who can hear prayers?” So there are rabbis—conservative rabbis—who believe in a God so elastic as to exclude every concrete claim about Him—and therefore, nearly every concrete demand upon human behavior. And there are millions of Jews, literally millions among the few million who exist, for whom Judaism is very important, and yet they are atheists. They don’t believe in God at all. This is actually a position you can hold in Judaism, but it’s a total non sequitur in Islam or Christianity.

You suggest that those who identify as Jewish are, on the whole, capable of aligning their beliefs in such a way that is compatible with modern, liberal ideas and that “Judaism” permits its members to hold a dual-membership in “atheism.” Putting aside the rather sticky question of Jewish identity and where “its” authority comes from, it is certainly true that there are many more people who identify as Muslim than those who identify as Jewish and that the inflation of such identities can have negative consequences, not least of which is the reliance on certain political theologies as a primary lens for interpreting events in the social world, which sometimes aligns with anti-Semitic sentiments (anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments also abound, I might add, though I’d wager that you’d disagree that holding the second of these positions is problematic). This no doubt plays into the existential insecurity of Israel, which is surrounded by countries where such theologies and sentiments regrettably persist (and again, the reverse persists in many other countries too, including the US and Israel).

While you argue that Jews are able, on the whole, to take a self-critical stance on “God” so that the (scriptural) claims about “Him” don’t have much of an effect upon human behavior, you also suggest that the Hebrew Bible is the worst among equals:

Let me remind you that parts of Hebrew Bible—books like Leviticus and Exodus and Deuteronomy—are the most repellent, the most sickeningly unethical documents to be found in any religion. They’re worse than the Koran. They’re worse than any part of the New Testament. But the truth is, most Jews recognize this and don’t take these texts seriously. It’s simply a fact that most Jews and most Israelis are not guided by scripture—and that’s a very good thing.

Let’s assume for a moment that both of your claims are correct—that parts of the Hebrew Bible are highly unethical and that the majority of those who identify as Jewish are not guided by them. Why might this be the case? What historical, political and socio-cultural reasons might account for such a shift? What variations do we find within distinct sub-cultures within, say, Israeli society or in diaspora communities in different parts of the world that might help to explain these variations in the outward performance of Jewish identities as it relates to scriptural beliefs and practices?

While I know that many of my colleagues in the study of religions, especially those who conduct fieldwork, would object to the claim that similar “atheist” and “secular” beliefs and practices (though there’s some magic in those concepts too, no?) don’t also occur in many communities that identify as, say, Christian or Muslim, that is somewhat beside the point. I wonder though, if “Jews” can adopt such a position despite their “sickeningly unethical documents” then why not “Muslims” too? There appears to be a logical inconsistency here.

What you don’t seem to understand is that “religion” is not a material object like a table or a chair that can be classified in a generic sort of way, nor is it a condition, like the Ebola virus, that can be diagnosed and cured (or not cured) of its symptoms. It is, rather, a discursive concept with multiple variations. Most in my field, in fact, have been talking about it in the plural for some time now (e.g., Judaisms, Christianities, Islams), while others have done a fair bit of leg work identifying its linguistic and cultural roots in the Euro-West (with a healthy dose of Protestant theological influence, I might add) and in showing the ways in which dominant classifications of “religion” have been applied to a wide variety of cultural practices, which, of course, are constantly changing. Frankly, we have a tough time keeping up with it and are not at all clear on how to square the circle.

Because of the political nature of any field of study that reports its findings and engages with the general public, many scholars of religions get sucked into debates on the ideas and representations that go by the name “religion” (myself included), which sometimes distracts us from examining its unstable meaning and compels us to engage directly with its practical uses. What tends to get the most attention and carry the day in the popular public sphere (and this won’t surprise you, Sam) are those loud, dominant voices that claim to offer a definitive representation of this or that (or all) “religion,” for or against as the case may be. As many scholars have pointed out, this field of representations constitutes the discourse about religion, which, as I noted above, varies widely across time and space.

Becoming aware of this discourse, charting its themes and variations, is what some of us (though not all) in the study of religion are trying to do, which we hope will add more theoretical clarity to the field and, perhaps, may even have some positive social effects.

Once you take this bitter pill, Sam, you’ll quickly realize that there is no stable object, across cultures and across centuries, that can be placed into the tidy little box that you call religion, but only groups and individuals who identify what this or that tradition—your Buddhisms, your Hinduisms, your Islams—that we have come to call religions, who take up beliefs and practices in literally countless variations, though often with certain commonalities, to be sure. It is this problem that many of us are trying to get a handle on and until you realize this “fact,” you are my data.

* Photo credit from Wikimedia Commons.

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 Juergen 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.

Posted in Matt Sheedy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

The Magical Religion of Richard Dawkins


by Tenzan Eaghll

Have you heard the good news? The world is not a dark and dreary place of myth but is filled with true magic and wonder! No longer must you live under the weight of sin and myth foretold by generations past, for you can step out of the cave of delusion and see the world for how it really is!

In Richard Dawkins new book, The Magic of Reality, this is the truth he reveals. Each chapter begins with a question, such as ‘what is a rainbow,’ or ‘what is the sun,’ and then discusses various myths from different cultures that try to account for these things. However, the real bulk of each chapter is spent discussing the magical scientific explanation of what a rainbow, the sun, or an earthquake (etc.) actually are. By his use of the word “magic” Dawkins does not mean anything supernatural, and he is not referring to the conjuring magic used by magicians, but the kind of magic you experience when you look into a telescope, glance down a microscope, or learn that consciousness is produced by thousands of firing neurons. What the book discloses is that we do not need myths about imaginary figures who live in the sky to encounter the wonder of reality, because the truth is far more magical than anything foretold in the Bible, or Ancient folktales for that matter.

In The God Delusion Dawkins argues that religion is like a misfiring gene or virus that is uselessly infecting mankind; it developed at some point in our evolution and just keeps replicating itself through cultural memes, regardless of the fact that it does more harm than good. Religion is of no cultural use, he suggests, because it causes fanaticism, bigotry, and ignorance, and does not improve the lot of mankind. What he claims is that religion is inoperative; it doesn’t work to some beneficial evolutionary end but is in fact useless, like the human appendix. As he writes,

The general theory of religion as an accidental by-product – a misfiring of something useful – is the one I wish to advocate. (188)

And again,

The very same peoples who are so savvy about the natural world and how to survive in it simultaneously clutter their minds with beliefs that are palpably false and for which the word ‘useless’ is a generous understatement. (165-166) 

Dawkins argues that we should only keep those things around which work, and we should discard those that don’t work. This is especially true of dangerous things like religion because they only produce social ill. What is so special about his new book, The Magic of Reality, is that Dawkins provides a scientific replacement for the fantastic promises of religion. Dawkins argues that reality itself is magical and that we do not require the supplement of the supernatural. The truths that science gives us are so wondrous that they can replace myth with a magical feeling of awe.

I only have one question: Why the need for magic at all? What is the purpose of this wondrous supplement? Because I must say, it seems rather odd to make an argument to do away with all cultural elements that are useless, and then to claim that the actual truth is far more magical than the discarded myths. What I find interesting, is that Dawkins argues that the inoperative elements of society must be discarded but then also argues, with the same vigour and enthusiasm, for his own type of inoperativity. He seems to suggest, simultaneously, that religion is useless and that the feelings it produces are similar to those revealed by scientific discovery. Indeed, he seems to argue that the feelings reality generates match, nay, surpass, those feelings promised by religious myth.

My question here does not concern Dawkins science, but his magical supplement. What is this experience of wonder that reality generates? Why does he spend so much time attacking religion, only to turn around and appropriate the very sublime awe he condemns?  Why the need for the magical supplement?

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.

Posted in Politics and Religion, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, Tenzan Eaghll, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World | Tagged , , , , , | 20 Comments

The Study of Religion as an Analytical Discipline Workshop: November 21, 2014, San Diego, CA


Comparison and the Analytical Study of Religion

One aspect of Weber’s comparative project that I have found puzzling, however, is the absence of any theorization on his part of the comparative method itself, its historical ontology, its logic, even its purposes…….Wolfgang Schluchter, one of the great Weber scholars of our time and an editor of the Gesamtausgabe, assured me that the fault lay not with me, and at the same time sought to provide the methodological gloss that Weber himself did not: “Indeed, you are looking in vain. There is no essay on the comparative method written by Weber. He practiced it, with the self-imposed qualification that only dilettantes compare (a famous statement in a letter to von Below written in 1914). He practiced it in order to identify the distinctive features of a phenomenon, not to explain it. For explanation, we need nomological knowledge, not only in sociology, but also in historiography.
Sheldon Pollock, “Comparison without Hegemony” (2011, emphasis ours)

In its fourth year, toward better design and deployment of comparative work in studies of religion, the SORAAAD workshop will focus on the act of comparison itself. How has comparison served as a method in the study of religion? How do we design research projects wherein data vary across space, time, or conceptual valence? How do we structure comparative studies in order to identify and mitigate hegemonic assumptions? How do we relate deep studies of small populations to larger populations and discourses? How transferable are the insights and mechanics developed within different settings? Addressing these and related questions, SORAAAD seeks not only to recover subfields from essentialism, but also to foster new inter- and intra-disciplinary development.

The SORAAAD workshop will be of interest to scholars who already enact social science and critical humanities research methodologies; to those interested in research design wherein comparison is a critical component; and to anyone who wants to rethink how comparison itself shapes and frames the study of religion.

The SORAAAD workshop is co-sponsored by:

The SBL’s Redescribing Christian Origins Group and Metacriticism of Biblical Scholarship Consultation; and the AAR’s Critical Theories and Discourses on Religion Group, Cultural History of the Study of Religion Group, and Sociology of Religion Group

The SORAAAD Workshop Speaker and Participant Ethos

Registration is free, thanks to sponsorship by the University of Regina Department of Religion. The participation limit is 70 for Friday, November 21, 2014 12:45 -5:15 p.m. The location, a few minutes walk from the San Diego Convention Center, in the Gas Lamp district will be announced to those registered.

To register: please place “SORAAAD - 2014 – Registration” in the subject line of an email to CTDR.Group@gmail.com.

Complete session information is available via a PDF program and on the SORAAAD website. For those using smart phones, we advise using the PDF.

Introduction:  “SORAAAD Year Four, ‘Comparison and the Analytical Study of Religion.’”       Ipsita Chatterjea

Summary of First Half

In the first half of the workshop, our speakers will explore the deployment of comparison in research operating within broadly accepted understandings of periodization and assumed understandings of space.

Part One: Comparison in the Study of Religion in Mediterranean Late Antiquity.

John Kloppenborg – University of Toronto, Study of Religion                                     “Comparing Christ Groups and Graeco-Roman Associations”

David Frankfurter – Boston University, Department of Religion                                 “Comparison and the Conceptualization of Ancient Religion”

Part Two: Comparison and Reconceptualizing ‘Black Atlantic Religions.’ 

Paul Christopher Johnson – University of Michigan – Department of History and Department of Afroamerican and African Studies

Kathryn Lofton, respondent – Yale University, LGBT Studies, Religious Studies &            American Studies

Workshop Break:

The Workshop break is by design long enough to allow a break and for all participants to talk to one another without a moderator as well as to enable follow up questions for the speakers for the first half of the workshop and pre-presentation questions for the speakers for the second half.

Summary of Second Half

To balance ‘periodization,’ ‘space,’ and (per Paul Johnson) “theoretical geographies” as large-scale frames of comparison, parts three and four of the workshop will address how the study of religion has been organized around certain human activities (e.g. violence and ritual) and examine about how comparison might be integrated into study design of human behaviors.

Part Three: Comparison and the Analysis of Religion and Violence.

Jamel Velji - Haverford College, Department of Religion                                            “(De)limiting the end: comparative dimensions of apocalyptic religion and violence”

Margo Kitts – Hawaii Pacific University, Religious Studies and East-West Classical Studies   “On ritual and violence”

Part Four: Comparison and the Analysis of Religion and Ritual.

Jens Kreinath – Wichita State University, Department of Anthropology

Michael Houseman - École Practique des Hautes Études, Department of Anthropology and Department of African Religions

Posted in Academy, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Problem with Belief

core beliefs

by Sean McCloud

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

“When that sick old mythology claimed you as its prize, you pulled the arrow out yourself but the poison’s still inside.” Mares of Thrace, “… And the Bird Surgeon”

My religion courses are full of belief. By this I mean that, for most students (and many other people, for that matter), “belief” is the primary default concept when it comes to religion. Many of us are socially habituated to assume that religion is first and foremost about belief and—even more—that what one believes is the basis for an individual’s action. And when those actions don’t follow the dictates laid out in institutional dogma and canonical text, some students are ready to make moral judgments. In my American religions course, we look at examples of Protestants who hold to ideas about reincarnation, the existence of ghosts, and that the power of positive thinking can change the physical world through mental will alone. This mixing of practices and ideas from a variety of cultural sources is not unusual, but rather something people do all the time. But it is not unusual for students to scoff, viewing descriptions of such blending as not merely ethnographic observations, but rather as evidence for the inauthenticity of the practitioners’ Protestantism. What could be a scholarly examination of religious practice becomes instead a theological act of calling out heresies and upholding orthodoxy—not about what people think and do, but about what some think people should think and do.

Given this, one of the things I work on in our undergraduate majors theory and methods class, Orientation to the Study of Religion, is to get students to question their assumption that whatever we call “religion” must always be primarily about belief. The initial way I approach this is through discussing definitions of religion. On one of the first days we spend the whole period (nearly three hours with a 15 minute break in the middle) discussing what might be meant by the term “religion.” We look at some abbreviated scholarly definitions of religion, including excerpts by Durkheim, James, Wallace, Albanese, and Geertz. I always include this sentence by Talal Asad as one of the passages to consider: “My argument is that there cannot be a universal definition of religion, not only because its constituent elements and relationships are historically specific, but because that definition is itself the historical product of discursive processes.” After we look at and try some initial unpacking of the definitions, I put the students into small groups and give them a short period of time to come up with their own definition (or non-definition) of religion. I also give them this list of “red flag” words that they are not allowed to use in their definition:

  1. spiritual/spirituality
  2. belief
  3. experience
  4. “the sacred,” “the holy,” or “the transcendent”
  5. faith
  6. mystical

By the end of the class period, my goal is to have students starting to think about what kinds of work defining religion in particular ways does. In the following weeks we look at terms such as “belief” and “spiritual” and ask similar questions. Why, I ask, do many of us prefer “belief” to “practice” in our everyday conversations about religion? By the end of the semester, when we revisit the topic of religion definitions (to see if our conversation has changed), belief is still the default concept to which some return. Like the arrow’s poison in the Mares of Thrace song above, the concept remains embedded. Habits are hard to break, and belief is hard to shake.

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 Theory, Sean McCloud, Sexuality and Gender | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Religion Snapshots: Critical Thinking and an Analysis of Wikipedia


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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