History, Story, and Multinarratives


by Kate Daley-Bailey

In their latest book, Ancient and Modern Religion and Politics: Negotiating Transitive Spaces and Hybrid Identities, Carolyn M. Jones Medine and John Randolph LeBlanc explore Indian politician and psychologist Ashis Nandy’s rendering of storytelling as a modality which allows us “to rename ourselves and our realities” (39). According to this rendering, story has the potential to contest ‘history’ for it contains ‘history’ “while being open to invention” (39). While the meaning of terms such as narrative (meta and otherwise), history, story, discourse, and myth, are consistently debated in academic circles, the distinction marked here is one where ‘history’ is imagined as a type of dominant super-narrative which subsumes difference, claims to reflect cosmic or ‘natural’ structures, and names itself as the great arbiter of reality and universal truth.

‘Story’ in this estimation, can be read as a discourse that is provincial (reflecting local and individual values), recognized only within a context of one among many, and makes no claims to a decontextualized, universalized meaning. Given this taxonomy, a discourse’s status (as either ‘history’ or ‘story’) is not fixed. Should a ‘story,’ localized and limited, suddenly be heralded as the exclusive arbiter of meaning and take on all the trappings of a universal ‘history’… then the ‘story’ has become a ‘history.’ The reverse is also possible, should a discourse be recognized as merely a provincial ‘story’ masquerading as a ‘history,’ said discourse loses much of its authority and power.

Despite the drawbacks such a demotion would mean for a ‘history’ become ‘story,’ especially with recourse to overt power, its status as ‘story’ opens up a type of subversive power, the power of the underestimated. The selfsame demoted estimation the term ‘story’ has acquired today (at best, local and limited, and a worst, a false or outdated vision of reality) might prove to be its most powerful asset in challenging metanarratives. Branded as if, anything, a mere benign entity which endures in cultures for purely aesthetic or entertainment purposes… a communal or individual ‘story’ (the provincial) has the potential to disrupt ‘histories’ (the so called ‘universal’) which consistently dwarf and marginalize it.

World Religions Textbook as Metanarrative

Medine and LeBlanc note that the ability of ‘stories’ to seat conflicting and contradicting representations side by side without having to reconcile them allows, in the nomenclature of Said, for a ‘contrapuntal’ reading of ‘history’ and of the master narrative, which can undercut and extend the proscribed meanings of afore mentioned histories and master narratives. In this regard, perhaps the undoing or at least the challenge to ‘history’ and master narratives lies not entirely outside their structures but rather somewhere within them. Somewhere in the cracks, folds, and peripheries of the master narratives themselves lies the secret to their undoing, or at least the potential for the divestment of these narratives of their privileged status.

The World Religions textbook provides an excellent case in point. Despite the negative press the World Religions paradigm has received recently, and with good reason, many World Religions textbooks can be instrumental in assisting students to think critically about traditional narratives and the politics of religion, just probably not in a way envisioned by the authors of said textbooks. As noted by Steven Ramey in his article “Critiquing Borders: Teaching About Religions in a Postcolonial World”, these textbooks often present romanticized representations of religions, following traditional scripts dictated by the elite to privilege certain members of the community and ignore others. In a word, these textbooks are unwittingly political. And they offer students an excellent example of the power and limits of a metanarrative, a ‘history.’ If a chapter on the history of Buddhism is read as what Buddhism truly is… then this chapter functions as a ‘history’ of Buddhism. It has taken on the role of dominant super-narrative which subsumes difference, claims to reflect cosmic or ‘natural’ structures, and names itself as the great arbiter of reality and universal truth (for the tradition of Buddhism, that is).

Used uncritically and without conflicting ‘stories,’ this metanarrative acts as just another political tool of indoctrination. However, using the same text as a site for critical discourse alongside various ‘stories’ (think conflicting localized representations of a tradition in the form of video clips, fiction, and more specialized and contextualized examples of Buddhism as practiced all over the world) which destabilize and disrupt the metanarrative of the text, students can learn to critically engage these discourses. The ‘stories,’ the cracks, folds, and peripheries exist partially within the metanarrative (the ‘history) but they are not restricted by its boundaries. These stories have become multi-narratives… hybrid narratives which are not fully outside the context of the metanarrative and not fully inside it either.

A Bit of Both but Fully Neither

These ‘stories’ (communal and individual) touch the master narrative (in Nandy’s context this is the West) to some extent and yet they remain outside said narrative (and are thereby not subject to the rules of the hegemonic metanarrative). These ‘stories’ liminal nature and their capacity to represent conflicting vantage points without ceding to the desire to be subsumed into a universal whole (a ‘history’ or metanarrative) grant them a certain freedom, the freedom of acknowledging multiplicity, the freedom from the constant need to reify status and authority, freedoms not often afforded to master narratives. So, oddly, our tendency to valorize ‘history’ or metanarratives and to dismiss the power of ‘story’ opens up a theoretical space for multinarratives to covertly work at the edge of culture to potentially subvert or at least complexify, for better or worse, the metanarratives in play. That is, until they become metanarratives in their own right.

Katherine Daley-Bailey received her A.B. (2001) and M.A. (2004) degrees in Religion from the University of Georgia. She is currently teaching part-time at the University of Georgia. Daley-Bailey’s primary research interests are Religion, Literature, and the Arts, Theory and Methods, and Religion in Popular Culture. A regular contributor to the online magazine, Religion Nerd, she is currently working on her own column for the magazine, ‘The Sacred and the Strange,” which highlights the sometimes paradoxical nature of religious matters. In 2007, Kate co-authored a chapter titled ”Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying: Freedom in Confined Spaces” with Dr. Carolyn Jones Medine, a professor at the University of Georgia.

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

The Phenomenon of Bull$*#% University Jobs



Editor’s note: Picking up on a recent and intriguing trend featured in the Guardian newspaper in the UK, where, as their editors put it, “academics can tell it like it is,” we at the Bulletin thought it would be interesting to provide space for scholars who’d like to give their honest and critical take on the state of academic life as they see it.

There is good reason why the Guardian has a series on anonymous (disgruntled) academics. There is a lot of complaining about the state of universities. Increasingly, universities are modelled on the private sector as senior academics, or those with such aspirations, do their best to be ruthless business people, or act out something like David Graeber’s description of ‘bullshit jobs’. Despite academics routinely proclaiming their hatred of levels of administration and monitoring, administration grows and grows to make sure as much of working life as possible is monitored and every box ticked, irrespective of relevance for day-to-day working. It is far from clear that this has any benefits for students but it continues despite the best efforts of academics. The administrative increase has no doubt contributed to the job (potentially) taking over every day and almost every evening of the week.

The business model also means that leadership and consultation is understood as agreeing with those above you and implementing whatever changes they want. Disagreeing with those above still elicits the morally dubious cliché: resistant to change. To really rub noses in it, there are the annual stories of the most senior academics getting huge salaries and pay increases, accompanied by the argument used to justify paying bankers top salaries: we won’t get the top leaders if we don’t pay them top money! It’s not difficult to understand why there is resentment, especially when some university staff are not even on a living wage. Would it really impoverish the most senior managment if they got, for instance, 300k instead of 400k? Would they actually starve? Would it be a great sacrifice for them to get a pay decrease and drop to a presumably comfortable 150k? Or 50k, which is still well above the national average? The money saved could be put to good use (e.g. contribute to giving certain staff a living wage) in a way that’s more effective than a circular email explaining how all staff are valued.

But the very well-paid position of the most senior academics reflects – perhaps dimly – the position of the standard academic, certainly the more senior standard ones (also well-paid), but their apprentices too. Academics are still part of a system of privilege, academia is tied to state and private power and the results of scholarship largely reflect such interests. And if you went into higher education thinking it was all about imparting your great wisdom to multitudes thirsting for your knowledge, then you really weren’t paying attention.

So what is to be done? There are still victories to be won, no matter how small. Here are some modest suggestions:

  • Avoid management courses as much as possible. They are designed to turn you to the dark side and turning to the dark side will not really accomplish much. Certainly it will make you more money and give you ‘prestige’, as well as make you work more and more hours on administration and pedantry leadership and strategy, give you more stress, teach you to use managementspeak effortlessly, and do the dirty work of those above you by cutting courses and/or staff ‘task you’ with implementing ‘tough decisions’. Always ask for firm evidence if people tell you that becoming a manager is a ‘sacrifice’ worth making or ‘getting your hands dirty’ for the common good. A friend of mine once climbed quite high in the management hierarchy with noble ambitions for developing the humanities before realising that, after years of trying, the one accomplishment they got through was a minor change in student assessment criteria.
  • If you want to progress into management and make more money and prestige, ask yourself why you didn’t or don’t retrain or switch jobs to become a lawyer, business leader or management consultant.
  • You might be very clever, you might think you are an aristocrat-scholar who should be left alone to weave your intellectual magic, people might adore you for your book on divine warrior myths in the Ancient Near East, but you are not above doing boring jobs, even if you think you are and act as if you are. Virtually all committee meetings and administrative jobs are boring and many are pointless but some might help others (e.g. applications for postgraduate funding, tutorials, teaching timetables) and, as things stand, someone has to do these tasks, including you.
  • In fact, if you are an academic on a significant salary, why not job share? You’re rich enough and you can create a job for someone who hasn’t got one. If you really want to write that magnum opus and do less administration, a job share will presumably go some way to providing the answer. Or are you in it for the money, status and prestige?
  • Enjoy those parts of the job that can be enjoyable (e.g. teaching, research leave, seminars) which are probably reflective of the reasons you got into the subject – enjoyment and curiosity. Teaching is typically given up to become ‘more senior’. But you might find that teaching is more fun than attending power breakfasts. You might also find that you help students more by teaching.
  • Try to work collectively. The standard model is to concentrate bits of power in a given manager who will, theoretically, ‘inspire and lead’. Sometimes this person will be a disaster. Often the given person will get their way. But it is more difficult for someone on a power trip in the face of collectively agreed ideas, if only because people then have to be honest and admit that such bureaucracies are not democratic at all. But some victories are possible.
  • If you want to collaborate with colleagues in different subjects, collaborate with colleagues in different subjects. Maybe set up a research seminar or a conference or joint teaching, or just arrange to meet and chat through some ideas. There’s still plenty of autonomy in the job and the university will happily take credit. Writing up a five year strategic plan for more interdisciplinary research with extensive discussions in leading meetings probably won’t make much more difference in terms of research and ideas for all the prestige it may bring you.
  • In fact, there is still enough autonomy in the job to do some interesting things which you can do in place of some of the more boring things. Research ‘impact’ can indeed be a serious problem but it can be used for something worthwhile. Engagement with groups outside universities is now encouraged. There are people interested in research and ideas who may never have had the chance to interact with them to the extent you do. You might – should? – have more fun than a two hour meeting which will probably be no different without you and your witty insights designed to impress the chair or endless loud comments will not be missed that much.
  • The chances are that you will face a bureaucratic wall if you want to do something such as develop a module that crosses disciplines or want to introduce something that might allow more freedom in learning. In that case, why not collaborate with students more? They can get past bureaucratic walls far easier, if only because universities are terrified of students now because they pay huge fees.

No doubt there are plenty of other possibilities. Alternatively you could become a manager or pseudo-business person who is fulfilled by talking tough at meetings, attending as many management committees as possible, and writing an extensive document on Maximising Productivity and Synergies through Interdigitating Targets and Metrics, a document which, at best, has a vague correspondence to reality and which will be binned within two years and replaced with an equally pointless document.

Posted in Editorial, Pedagogy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Create Your Own Religion (Out of Someone Else’s): A Class Exercise


by Jospeh Laycock

This semester I had the pleasure of conducting a grand experiment with my students that I have wanted to do for several years. My class ran a simulation in which we created eleven imaginary religious traditions and allowed them to develop from a founder, into a church, and finally into sectarian movements. Pedagogically, the simulation followed the same principle as Sid Meier’s “Civilization” franchise of computer games, which teaches patterns in world history by letting the player create a history that never happened. My simulation was intended to help students develop a sociological imagination and think critically about the history of religions. I am sharing the results of my grand experiment here so that others can consider developing similar exercises, further refining and improving the process.

I first began thinking about simulations for religious studies when I was a teaching fellow at Boston University. Stephen Prothero was known for an exercise in his Introduction to Religion course in which teams of students were assigned to create new religions. (In his book God is Not One, Prothero credits his colleague David Eckel with inventing this exercise). The students would then present their religions to the class to create a spiritual marketplace in which they vied for converts. In one version of this simulation, students could “convert” to one of the religions. In another version, students were given “money” in the form of monopoly money or similar currency that they could distribute to various churches however they liked. At the end of the simulation, teams could boast over whose religion claimed the most converts or money. The exercise has since spread to other campuses where it has been adapted to courses on the sociology of religion. In one iteration of this exercise, students received a grade based on how many of their classmates converted to their religion!

There are several advantages to this exercise. The most obvious is that it gets students to be excited about class and causes them to become invested in the subject. It also forces students to think about what might constitute a “religion” in ways they haven’t thought of before. But I also felt this simulation had room for improvement. In the real world, most religions are not created by or marketed to college students. Other teaching fellows informed me that many of the religions their students created were rather silly and gimmicky. They usually emphasized a lack of restrictive rules and a healthy respect for individuality. Damnation and sacrifice were apparently pretty rare––and the marketplace created by their classmates incentivized students not to include such details. But in the real world we know that hellfire can be a selling point for religions. So can strict rules about sexual propriety, authoritarian leaders, theology that mixes money with the sacred, and all the other elements of religion that college students often find distasteful. We also know that most religions are not created in the way that companies create new products. There are patterns to how and why new religious movements form and I wanted to create a simulation that reflected this.

This semester I was assigned to teach a course called “Prophets, Founders, and Saints.” In keeping with tradition, I centered the course around classic texts like The Interior Castle and The Life Milarepa. But I also wanted students to have a strong theoretical foundation for thinking about how new religious movements often form around extraordinary people, and how the subjective experiences of prophets and mystics are often molded by and filtered through a community with its own needs and desires. I also wanted students to think about how the ideals of prophets and saints are continually re-imagined and come to mean different things in different historical moments. Instead of a “great man” approach to the history of religions, I wanted students to cultivate a sociological imagination. Thus I began Prophets, Founders, and Saints with my experimental simulation.

The Simulation

My grand experiment unfolded in three parts. First, each student created an imaginary founder with a religious vision. Second, students took the founder of one of their classmates and wrote a fictional history of how a tiny, deviant movement developed into a mainstream church. Third, students took the church of one of their classmates and wrote the fictional history of a sectarian movement that sought to return the church to the original vision of its founder. Each phase was supplemented by readings introducing students to a theoretical tool-kit for religious studies.

For the first phase, students read selections from William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience and Anthony Wallace’s essay on “Revitalization Movements.” Armed with James’s psychological profiles of mystics and prophets, and Wallace’s insights into the historical and cultural conditions in which new religious movements arise, the students set about creating an imaginary prophet. In this phase, students were required to 1) describe the founder, 2) describe the founder’s “origin story” (how and why they found a religious vocation), 3) describe their early followers, and 4) describe “sacrifice and stigma” mandated by the prophet in keeping with his or her religious vision.

The fourth requirement was framed as follows:

Your founder must require something from his/her followers that most people would be reluctant to do. Examples could include a requirement to: give away material possessions, associate with disreputable people (i.e. prostitutes and tax collectors), aggressively promote the religion in socially deviant ways, follow unusual dietary requirements or consumer habits, wear unusual clothing, pray multiple times a day (possibly while prostrating in or some other physical posture), or enter marriages with multiple wives/husbands. These requirements should not be random but should somehow fit into the larger vision of your founder. In other words, they may seem silly from the outside but should not seem silly from the inside.

This requirement is based on the economist Laurence R. Iannaccone’s article “Sacrifice and Stigma: Reducing Free Riding in Cults, Communes, and other Collectives” in which he argues that deviant and stigmatizing practices help new religious movements to thrive by weeding out potential members who are unwilling to show full commitment to the movement. Students were not taught to accept Iannaccone’s theory uncritically. But requiring sacrifice and stigma made the entire simulation more interesting. These could not be purely “feel good” religions calculated to win over college students. They now had an other-worldly vision that was not fully compatible with the surrounding culture. Significantly, several students created founders who (for various religious reasons) forbade the use of smart phones and social media.

For the second phase, students we discussed Max Weber and the routinization of charisma. Sudents were also exposed to the theory of the sect-church process as described by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark. Finke and Stark argue that new religious communities begin with an other worldly vision that sets them at odds with society at large. The movement becomes a “church” when this vision is relaxed and the community is no longer in a state of tension with society. This relaxation inevitably causes some members of the community to feel that their values have been compromised. Discontent church members seeking to reclaim the vision of the founder form sectarian movements that are once again at odds with society. The process then begins anew. In exposing students to this theory, I was careful to explain that “church” and “sect” are simply heuristic categories that Finke and Stark are imposing onto various groups in order to set up a comparison for analysis.

Armed with this new theory, students took the founder created by a classmate and expanded this early movement into a church. In this phase, students had to 1) give their movement a name, 2) invent an organizational structure, 3) create a system for justifying a religious perspective on modern problems (interpreting sacred texts, convening a council, etc.), and 4) find a way to relax the requirements of sacrifice and stigma set down by the founder. If possible, this compromise had to be done in a way that could be justified using the logic of the religion.

Students traded projects again in the third phase. Students took a church invented by one of their classmates and wrote a fictional history of a sectarian movement that sought to return the religion to the original vision of the founder. In this phase, students had to include 1) a new founder with a fictional history and origin story, 2) a name for the sect to distinguish it from the church, 3) at least one objection to one of the church’s practices or social views, 4) a reversal of the compromises made by the church. The sectarian movement should try to return to the standards of the founder and may even demand a stricter lifestyle than that of the movement’s original followers. Students received a separate grade for each phase. Grading was generous and based largely on the effort demonstrated and whether the submission conformed to the requirements.


After each phase, students would share out their ideas with the rest of the class. Several students expressed that they enjoyed being creative and had fun doing the assignment. However, there was also a certain amount of anxiety about building on someone else’s creative work as well as seeing one’s own creative work being modified by another. Occasionally, students would try to apologize to the person who had come before them or ask questions about the founder’s intent. I discouraged this line of questioning and pointed out that modern religious people are not able to ask their founder directly what they meant.

For me, the most interesting part of this simulation was seeing how many of the changes my students made in the simulation conformed to larger patterns in the history of religion. One student created a sectarian movement that predicted an imminent apocalypse. The group purchased property in Montana where they built a bunker to await the catastrophe. I asked the student if she was familiar with the Church Universal and Triumphant or the Montana Freemen. She answered that she had never heard of these groups but simply felt that if she were going to form an apocalyptic sect, Montana seemed like the logical place to build a bunker and wait for the end. I also noticed several religious movements that began with female prophets but ended with male leaders vying for organizational control. This is a pattern that Catherine Wessinger and others have noticed. Discussing these connections between the simulation and actual patterns in the history of religion led to some stimulating seminars. Students seemed more invested in analyzing these patterns because they had, in a sense, created some of the data.

Problems and Improvements

I made notes throughout the simulation about what I will change if I ever do this again. One student set out to make a racist and misogynistic founder that appeared to be a pastiche of the Westboro Baptist Church and other unpopular movements. In some ways, I thought this made the simulation more interesting. Many of my students come in with the assumption that religion and morality are synonymous and that distasteful or offensive worldviews cannot really be “religion.” But I was also reluctant to pass this prophet off to another student. For this reason, I decided not to reassign the projects randomly. I made sure to hand off the toxic prophet to a student whom I felt would not experience undo distress from analyzing an offensive worldview.

I briefly thought about forbidding “hateful” prophets and religions in the future, but I think that religious studies should prepare students to analyze the motivations of controversial and even dangerous religions. As extreme as he was, the toxic prophet added something important to our analysis. However, I think I will make it clear to students in the future that they can refuse to work with a classmate’s project if they feel uncomfortable doing so.

There was also a significant logistical problem involving execution. I initially tried to use a wiki site for the course, but this became confusing as not all of the students were familiar with editing wiki sites. We eventually settled for a class forum where students would post their extensions to the imaginary histories we were creating.

Another problem was that students did not always follow my formula strictly. The story-telling process seemed to take over so that students sometimes failed to articulate how their writing met the four requirements. This became a problem when their work was handed off to other students. For example, several students did not create any sort of “sacrifice and stigma” in phase 1. This meant that their classmates had nothing to work with in phase 2. I think the way to solve this problem in the future is to spread the project over a longer period of time, so that I can grade students’ initial work and ask them to make necessary changes before their project is uploaded to the forums.

Readers of the blog are welcome to adapt and experiment with this simulation however they like or to create their own. Creative pedagogy is an inherently messy process that can never be fully controlled. But it also has more impact on students and a greater potential to change the way they think than more traditional classroom activities. Readers who are especially interested in how games and imagination shape the way we think may enjoy my new book Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says About Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds.

Posted in Joseph Laycock, Pedagogy, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Unmasking Liberal Ideology


by Matt Sheedy

A recent controversy has erupted in Canada over the case Zunera Ishaq of Mississauga, Ontario, (a suburb of Toronto) who sought to challenge a prohibition against wearing a niqab during her oath of allegiance in a swearing in ceremony for Canadian citizenship. While the Federal Court deemed it “unlawful” for the government to mandate such a provision, citing immigration laws that permit judges to accommodate for religious needs, the reigning Conservative Party of Stephen Harper has vowed to challenge this ruling, with the prime minister himself publically weighing in on the debate:

“It is not how we do things here” … “I believe, and I think most Canadians believe, that it is offensive that someone would hide their identity at the very moment where they are committing to join the Canadian family.”

Harper went on to talk about the need for “openness” and “transparency,” which has drawn widespread criticism from mainstream commentators spanning the political spectrum, from conservative to liberal, as an unnecessary prohibition that chaffs against the principles of liberal democracy, most notably the right of religious freedom. As one popular conservative commentator, Margaret Wente, concluded in a recent piece:

I despise niqabs. I really, really do. But I despise attacks on people’s freedom even more. There’s a difference between a woman in a veil and a jihadi sawing off a head. We need to remember that.

While this particular narrative reiterates a certain discourse on civility and barbarity, and thus positions the niqab as inimical to Western values, it validates its use as falling within the bounds of religious freedom and thereby grants it the status of a tolerable practice.

Interestingly, Wente acknowledges some of the Conservative Party’s political interests behind this move, locating it within a broader spectrum that includes the rise of ISIS, the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the “lone-wolf” attack on the Canadian Parliament building in October of 2014 by an alleged Muslim radical, and the spate of beheadings at the hands of the “Islamic State.” To this also we could add the Quebec Charter of Values affair, which previously sought to ban the wearing of all “religious symbols” for public employees (see my piece here), and the recently proposed anti-terrorism legislation, Bill C-51. Although Wente does not contextualize these broader issues, she does argue that the prime minister is playing into a politics of fear by singling out the niqab for special attention, a move that other commentators have called racist.

Wente also notes, however, that according to “internal polls” 8 out of 10 Canadians support the ban on niqabs during citizenship oaths, thus revealing a discrepancy, it would seem, between public opinion and what appears to be a contrary sentiment of the majority of journalists and academics around the country, as well as from all other major political parties with the exception of the separatist Parti Québécois. Moreover, it has been widely observed that this move by the Harper government to challenge the Federal Court is an attempt to create a wedge-issue during an election year, which has resulted in a surge of support in the province of Quebec, whose consistently left-of-center electorate appears to have warmed to the Conservatives in light of this issue.

Here it is worth considering how the emphasis on Muslim women’s bodies has functioned as an easy target for waging proxy battles on larger ideological issues, including the assertion of “Western” values during a time when such things are perceived to be under threat.

Religions scholar Jennifer Selby has argued that anti-niqab rationales “delineate regulatory mainstream values on gender and secularism” and, in the case of Quebec in particular, “the covered female body evokes vestiges of oppressive Catholic patriarchal religiosity.” In this sense, it can be argued that the proposed ban on niqabs plays particularly well in Quebec because of the province’s fraught history with the Catholic Church, along with its self-identity as a “distinct society,” which, as Selby also notes, “has often been positioned as espousing a third path between Canadian multiculturalism and the French Jacoben model.”

Far from being merely a question of offence, openness and transparency, religious freedom, or equality between women and men, these contests over the wearing of the niqab offer one example of how liberal states attempt to distinguish their authority, as a set of universal legal principles, from the realm of “culture,” which is deemed to be particular—either worthy of the state’s protection or considered beyond the pale. As Wendy Brown writes:

Maintaining a distinction and presumed separation between politics and culture within liberalism is crucial to sustaining the fiction of the autonomous individual and the fiction of its imagined opposite—the radically de-individuated, culturally or religiously bound creature of a fundamentalist order. … Non-liberal polities are depicted as “ruled” by culture or religion; liberalism is depicted as ruled by law, with culture dispensed to another domain—a depoliticized or voluntary one. In this way, individual autonomy is counterposed to rule by culture, and subjects are seen to gain their autonomy not through culture but against it. (Regulating Aversion, 171)

Posted in Matt Sheedy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, Theory and Method | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

World Religions, American Religions, the Object of Study, and an Ode to Bruce Lincoln


by Charles McCrary

This post originally appeared, in a slightly different version, at the group blog Religion in American History.

This year I’ve been teaching “world religions” for the first time. I knew I would be required to do it at some point, and I dreaded it. My position was familiar and wholly unoriginal: Religion doesn’t exist; it has no essence. The word wouldn’t even make sense to any of our non-Western and/or pre-modern subjects. It is a recent invention, a product of what has been largely an imperialist, colonialist, racist project. Less insidious but just as dissuasive, many world religions textbooks are $120 assemblages of Wikipedia articles couched in thinly veiled liberal Protestant theology. At any rate, the discourse of “world religions” is something we can and should study—and, as Mike Graziano recently pointed out, we can study it in the context of American history. But it’s not something we engage in.

Nevertheless, we have classes called “world religions.” Some institutions still call theirs something like “religion in the human experience.” So, how can we teach these classes in ideologically and methodologically responsible ways? Should we teach only a history of World Religions discourse itself—a meta-history? This is a viable option. Equipped with histories like Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions and David Chidester’s Empire of Religion, intellectual frameworks from Wendy Brown and Russell McCutcheon, and maybe a few methodological tools from Foucault or Marx, students can use their textbook as a primary source, historicizing it and interrogating its normative assumptions. This would make for a good class. But I fear I have neither the patience nor the aptitude to accept total failure that this task would require, as I address a room full of students who are not well prepared for critical thinking and quite hesitant to give it a try. (Also, I know that “millennials” are supposedly marked by their ironic self-awareness, but that mood is characteristically absent from large portions of the demographic. My students resoundingly hate anything “meta.”) So what can we do?

Last semester I sat in on a seminar co-taught by Nicole Kelley and Matt Day designed to answer this very question. Is there any responsible and defensible way to talk about “religion” that identifies it, even if hesitantly and provisionally, as a thing in the world? If anyone can do it—and help us do it—it’s Bruce Lincoln. I read Lincoln’s Discourse and the Construction of Society in my first few weeks of grad school, and it remains one of the most influential books for my work. What I failed until recently to understand, though, was that Lincoln provides us with a framework for using “religious” as an analytic term (an undertaking of which I was once pretty churlishly dismissive.)

This semester my world religions class began with a close reading of Lincoln’s “Theses on Method,” and we cribbed from it—supplemented by selections from Discourse and Authority—our definition of religion: “that discourse whose defining characteristic is its desire to speak of things eternal and transcendent with an authority equally transcendent and eternal.” We also find a definition of our job: “History, in the sharpest possible contrast, is that discourse which speaks of things temporal and terrestrial in a human and fallible voice, while staking its claim to authority on rigorous critical practice.” Their first assignment was to rewrite this thesis in their own words. The course has thus transpired, like many of Lincoln’s books, as a series of historical studies of people utilizing religious discourse, with close attention to what is at stake in their use of that discourse.

Aside: Last weekend, we had the pleasure of welcoming Bruce Lincoln to Florida State as the keynote speaker for our annual Graduate Student Symposium, directed by Andy McKee. Because I was nervous and have nothing interesting to say, I didn’t meet Dr. Lincoln, but I’ll remember his visit for a long time. His keynote address, “A Seventeenth-Century Werewolf and the Drama of Religious Resistance,” was an excellent example of the way a close textual reading in context can produce microhistories that demonstrate broader societal trends. He illustrated how “religious resistance” is a particular strategy of the dominated wherein they use the authoritative logic and vocabulary of the dominators, but modify its orientation or moral implications. I could say more about this, but I understand it was recorded and should be available soon. You should watch/listen to it. At a roundtable discussion also featuring Matt Day and Cara Burnidge, Lincoln spoke with an openness and even vulnerability that I have never seen from someone of his stature. It was an amazing display of conceptual precision, methodological integrity, and yet generosity. I’ll stop the ode here, since reverence “is a religious, not a scholarly virtue.”

While these issues have been most apparent for me when teaching world religions, I’ve started to consider their relevance for my own research, too. The problem of world religions extends to “American religions” as well, as Mike Altman argued on the Religion in American History blog last year. While I’m sympathetic to Mike’s point of view (and I did try to offer a solution based on the constitution of publics, but I suppose I ended up taking step one, as outlined here), perhaps Lincoln can help us salvage the project of talking about American religions, not just American “religions.” Of course, we all should be very aware of how the term itself is manufactured, employed, and policed, but if we use Lincoln’s framework, perhaps we can identify discourse and discursive communities that we would deem “religious” in defensible scholarly acts of classification. Surely, ideological persuasion by appeals to transcendent authority has been a common feature of American history. And certainly we can historicize these moves by identifying the various sorts of capital at stake. I think this could be a satisfying theoretical delineation of my field—its “object of study,” religion in American history. I suspect it could help others as well, including those working in the modern West.

Posted in Charles McCrary, Pedagogy, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Call for papers: Special Issue of Secularism & Nonreligion: Intersectionality and Power


Call for papers: Special Issue of Secularism & Nonreligion: Intersectionality and Power
Guest Editors: Penny Edgell, Evan Stewart, and Jacqui Frost, University of Minnesota

The past 30 years has seen a renewed interest in scholarship on secularism and non-religion, fostered by a variety of factors, including: the decline of religiosity and the visibility of “new atheist” groups and spokespersons in the United States and Europe, critiques of Western bias in scholarly secularization accounts, and growing awareness of the complexity and variety of non-religious identities, experiences, and movements across social contexts. This work shows the non-religious exist in sizable numbers when considered as a group, but has also done a remarkable job of highlighting the diversity and contextual embeddedness of the beliefs and practices of nonreligious individuals, the variety of secular organizations, and perceptions of the nonreligious.

​We see a pressing need for a more robust consideration of intersectionality: how do secular identities intersect with other identities? How are secular identities, organizations, and discourses embedded within relations of power?  For example, current scholarship focuses on the “gender gap” in religious involvement; an intersectional approach might consider how norms of religiosity are differentially enforced across genders, or what dimensions of masculinity allow for different expressions of secularity. For a special issue of Secularism & Nonreligion, we invite research articles and analytic book reviews concerned with the intersectionality of secularity with other social locations and structures of power in society. This could include a wide range of topics including discussions about stratification along lines of race, gender, or class, analyses of institutional dynamics that determine when secular perspectives are privileged and when they are marginalized, or accounts of how individuals and groups navigate secularism and nonreligion in relation to the rest of their social lives or organizational practices. Though our editorial perspective is predominantly informed by sociology, we invite contributions from a wide range of social science subfields and methodological approaches.

All manuscripts (7-10k words), research notes (2.5-6.5k words), and analytic book reviews (2,000 words) will undergo the double blind peer review process. General formatting and author guidelines can be found here:


The deadline for submission is August 15th, 2015. Please submit manuscripts in a Microsoft Word document or PDF file to Penny Edgell (edgell@umn.edu).

Posted in Call for papers, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Reluctance to Put the Religious Label”


by Russell McCutcheon

Note: This post originally appeared on the Studying Religion in Culture blog at the University of Alabama.

Did you hear about the White House summit this past week? It was in the news a fair bit and was on “countering violent extremism” — not just those attributed to Muslims but, because such adjectives as Islamic or Jihadist are often glued pretty tightly, at least in some North American and European media and politics, to the words violence or terrorism, that angle on the event has received a lot of attention.

You might find this story, broadcast today at “On The Media,” to be a useful overview of some of the issues circling around the summit. (The link between classification and politics is pretty evident in the story.)

While the main and longstanding debate is over the extent to which so-called extremists do or do not represent all Muslims (i.e., whether so-called Jihadists are legitimately Muslim or not), very few are discussing why we tend to presume a specifically religious causality to such actions and thus why we gravitate toward understanding these events, for example, as Muslim, whether characterized as an extreme or mainline form. To rephrase, while social actors draw upon a host of conventions familiar to them and use them to represent themselves, their actions, motivations, and goals, what might be gained by not confusing the rhetoric with the causes?

For, as the following story on so-called “homegrown terrorism” (also posted at “On the Media”) makes clear, when violent social actors here say (as detailed in the following story) that they are “a priest in the fight against anti-god people,” the vast majority of people hearing the story do not conclude that the perpetrator’s references to discrete elements of, in this case, Christian theology — regardless where such claims may be placed along the admittedly wide theological spectrum — ought to be understood as the actual causes of the person’s actions. No, there’s a good chance that we’ll instead see such claims as secondary (regardless how sincerely they may have been made by the person in question — for the issue is no longer about their sincerity…), and, denying to this person the right to set the terms by which their actions will be understood by us, we’ll quickly opt look for our own explanation in such other domains as their psychological health, emotional stability, economic status, degree of social alienation, etc.

My point?

Studying when we do and do not understand religious identification or religious beliefs as an autonomous and thus a causal force in people’s lives — as opposed to seeing them as a convenient interpretive framework that some social actors use to represent and thereby understand their own actions — may shed some light on how we make sense of those actions ourselves and how we deal with them. For if we come to see that self-interpretations of actions are not necessarily the same as explanations for their causes then perhaps we will realize that conflating these two will never help us to develop an effective strategy to address actions that we feel endanger the worlds in which we live.

Posted in Politics and Religion, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, Theory and Method, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment