Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group Program: AAR Annual Conference, San Diego, 2014


AAR Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group

November 21-25, 2014, San Diego, CA – AAR

The CTDR Group offers an interdisciplinary and international forum for analytical scholars of religion to engage the intersection of critical theory and methodology with a focus on concrete ethnographic and historical case studies. Critical theory draws on methods employed in the fields of sociology, anthropology, history, literary criticism, and political theory in order to bring into scrutiny all kinds of discourses on religion, spanning from academic to nonacademic and from religious to nonreligious.

CTDR is sponsoring or co-sponsoring six sessions at the San Diego AAR with a workshop on the role of comparison in research on religion and panels on violence and alterity, Foucault, The Frankfurt School, French Feminisms and a re-examination of key terms in the study of religion.

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


Friday, November 21, 2014    

Comparison and the Analytical Study of Religion     Program PDF

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

A22-222    Religion and Constructions of Violent Alterity

Saturday – 1:00 PM-3:30 PM

Hilton Bayfront-Indigo B

Co-Sponsored by the Comparative Approaches to Religion and Violence Group

Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group

This panel explores the ways that religious discourse may promote the conceptualization of alterity and, in some instances, how that discourse may be a catalyst for violence. Papers rely on methods such as textual analysis, ethnography, and statistics, and draw examples from Biblical, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu traditions.

Jamel Velji, Haverford College, Presiding

Margo Kitts, Hawaii Pacific University, Responding

Chipamong Chowdhury, University of Toronto

Genocidal Violence, Conflict, and Communalism: Anti-Buddhist Violence in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (Bangladesh) 

Nathan French, Miami University

An American Takfīr? Jihādī-Salafism, the US Drone Campaign, and the Implications of a Comparative Negotiation of Permissible Violence

Ipsita Chatterjea, Vanderbilt University

Durkheim’s Dual Stream Violence Hypothesis and Communal Violence

Sean McCloud, University of North Carolina, Charlotte

Fighting Demons in the United States: Third Wave Spiritual Warfare and the Construction of the Non-Evangelical Other

Brian Doak, George Fox University

Monster Violence in the Book of Job as Moral Disorientation and Reorientation

A22-302    Applying Foucault

Saturday – 4:00 PM-6:00 PM

Convention Center-5A

Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group, Business Meeting 5:50

Thirty years after his death, what is Foucault’s lasting impact on the study of social order and power? How does Foucault’s work inform analyses of the intersections of religion and the social, political, and cultural? And how might we (continue to) think differently? The papers in this session take up key Foucauldian texts, themes, and theories in conversation with specific empirical data and case studies. Topics include: confession rituals, genetic science, and memorials at Newtown, CT.

Kati Curts, Yale University, Presiding

Ann M. Burlein, Hofstra University, Responding

Daniel Moseson, Syracuse University

Foucault, Science, and Power after Thirty Years

Benjamin Fong, University of Chicago

To Judge and To Be Judged: Michel Foucault on Confession

M. Gail Hamner, Syracuse University

Foucault, Kant, and the Affective Reception of Dramatic Discourse

Business Meeting:

William E. Arnal, University of Regina

David Walker, University of California, Santa Barbara

A23-219    The Frankfurt School: Foundations and Fixations

Sunday – 1:00 PM-2:30 PM

Convention Center-28C

Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group

In a session that re-examines the foundations of critical theory and explores it’s contemporary uses, one paper looks at the ways in which Weberian theory was used – selectively – by members of the Frankfurt School; while another looks at the ways in which Habermasian theory uses the Frankfurt School: again, selectively. The two other papers explore relations between Adorno and Benjamin, and between Benjamin and Agamben.

Katja Rakow, Heidelberg University, Presiding

Devin Singh, Yale University, Responding

Joel Harrison, Northwestern University

Routinization, Rationalization, Renunciation: Weber’s Account of Christian Asceticism and its Relation to the History of Critical Theory

Agata Bielik-Robson, University of Nottingham

“Pulling the Brake”: Benjamin, Agamben, and the Anti-Progressive Messianism

Bryan Wagoner, Davis & Elkins College

The “Imaginary Witness”: Adorno’s Inverse Theology

Matt Sheedy, University of Manitoba

Discourses on “Postsecularism” in the Web of the Religion/Secular Binary

A24-209 Feminism and Subjectivity in the Study of Religion

Monday – 1:00 PM-3:30 PM                                      

Convention Center-9

Co-sponsored by Sociology of Religion Group,

Critical Theories and Discourses on Religion Group and

Cultural History of the Study of Religion Group,

or STAR (the Social Theory and Religion Cluster).

STAR Business Meeting, 3:20 pm

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

Morny Joy, University of Calgary, Respondent

Abigail Kluchin, Ursinus College

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

Wesley Barker, Mercer University

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

Samantha Langsdale, University of London

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

Constance Furey, Indiana University

Hermeneutics of Intersubjectivity: Foucault, Butler, and Limit Experiences

Business Meeting:

William E. Arnal, University of Regina;

Randall Styers, University of North Carolina;

Ipsita Chatterjea, Vanderbilt University

A25-120    Key Concepts in the Study of Religion

Tuesday – 9:00 AM-11:30 AM

Convention Center-22

The panelists in this session explore the discursive formation of key concepts in the study of religion, as well as the historiographic legacy of genealogical methods themselves. Under consideration are: human ‘agency’; ancient ‘magic’; American ‘secularism’ and ‘humanism’; and Beninese ‘religion.’ Not content merely to condemn these categories on account of labored or confused applications, the authors here explore also the possibilities of disciplined reclamation.

David Walker, University of California, Santa Barbara, Presiding

Jason C. Bivins, North Carolina State University, Responding

Shaily Patel, University of North Carolina

Many Marvels: Variations of Magical Discourse in Early Christian Traditions

Joseph Blankholm, Columbia University

The Interwoven Genealogies of Secularism and Humanism

Sonia Hazard, Duke University

The Construction of Agency as a Category in the Study of Religion

Elana Jefferson, Emory University

“Religion” and the Politics of Materiality: Confronting Immaterial Religion through Reflections on Vodoun Materialist Orientations


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Holiday Films and Discursive Celebrations: Exchange, Confluence, and The Book of Life

Book of Life Image

by Doug Valentine

Perhaps it’s the fact that I am a new dad (two weeks on the job), but I’ve paid far more attention to advertisements for children’s movies this fall. One film in particular has peaked my interest. The 20th Century Fox synopsis for the new film, The Book of Life, reads as follows:

From producer Guillermo del Toro and director Jorge Gutierrez comes an animated comedy with a unique visual style. The Book of Life is the journey of Manolo, a young man who is torn between fulfilling the expectations of his family and following his heart. Before choosing which path to follow, he embarks on an incredible adventure that spans three fantastical worlds where he must face his greatest fears.

The film features to supernatural antagonists, La Muerte and Xibalba, two gods whose wagers effect the life of the protagonist, Manolo. Through the course of the film, Manolo is transformed into a catrina-esque skeletal figure, at which point he must journey through lands of the living and dead to reunite with his lost love. The film draws its inspiration from Mexican tradition, including Dias de Muertos and indigenous myth (the god Xibalba is a reference to the Mayan land of the dead).

The addition of a Days of the Dead-themed children’s movie for mainstream audiences is worthy of academic consideration. The film’s producer, Guillermo del Toro has expressed his excitement at the opportunity to showcase the unique imagery of Mexican culture to a new crowd, saying the film is “not just folklore memory. It’s punk, scat, rock ‘n roll modernity. It’s a colorful and playful celebration of the life of all those who came before us.” Despite this clear influence, an overwhelming majority of television advertisements for the film make no mention of the Days of the Dead (though admittedly, longer trailers available online do). Rather, the film has been billed as a “Halloween adventure” for which audiences should “grab their costumes.” The goal of my post is not to prescriptively claim 20th Century Fox should or shouldn’t bill The Book of Life as a Halloween or Days of the Dead movie, but to illustrate one more in a long history of exchanges between these two events.

Anthropologist Stanley Brandes has written extensively about Days of the Dead in Mexico and the United States (see Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead: the Day of the Dead in Mexico and Beyond, 2007). As he notes, the northern border states of Mexico were no strangers to Halloween as early as the 1940s. However, the mass importation of Halloween merchandise following the 1994 implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), coupled with a significant increase of U.S. citizens, both workers and tourists, led to the presence of the American holiday in the previously untapped regions of central and southern Mexico. This far more recent incursion, along with the rise in Mexican national identification with the Days of the Dead in northern states, has led to the mixed reception among various segments of the population toward carved pumpkins, trick-or-treaters, and costumed witches and devils on the streets of Oaxaca, Michoacán, and elsewhere.

Following a revival of Dias de Muertos symbolism during the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 70s (see Regina M. Marchi’s Day of the Dead in the USA: the Migration and Transformation of a Cultural Phenomenon, 2009 for more on Dias de Muertos and social movements), elementary and secondary schools around the country began to include Days of the Dead lessons in their curricula. NAFTA eased this process, making children’s literature on the Days of the Dead in Mexico and the United States far more readily available. Despite the light-hearted intention, these activities in public schools were not met with a warm reception by some parents. Often, issue was raised with the religious implications of the activities. Concerned parents tended to overemphasize (or only emphasize) folk aspects and what they perceived to be elements of pre-Columbian cults of the dead, rejecting the notion that these practices conformed to perceived universal Christian celebrations. In response, schools around the country have tried to strip the lessons and activities of any religious meaning and symbolism, emphasizing rather the cultural dimensions of the holiday (this discursive categorization is interesting in its own right, but cannot be addressed here). These moves, in turn, have sparked outrage among certain segments of practicing communities, who feel Days of the Dead celebrations deprived of their religious significance are perversions without a purpose.

Echoed by David J. Skal (Death Makes a Holiday: a Cultural History of Halloween, 2002), the implementation of NAFTA increased the amount of goods traveling across the U.S.-Mexican border in both directions. At the same time American shoppers were introduced to colorful wall art of dancing skeletons and intricately carved emaciated figurines, residents of Mexico were likewise finding Halloween items in their local shops for the first time. Additionally, an increase in television programming from the United States further inundated Mexicans with images of apple bobbing and werewolves on October 31st. Despite this potential conflict, Brandes points out, “[F]or most Mexicans…there is one major holiday at the end of October and beginning of November. It [does not] occur to [them] to distinguish between Halloween and Day of the Dead [sic] traditions (Brandes 124).” Days of the Dead rituals and Halloween symbolism and activities have now come to represent one celebration to a majority of Mexicans, though those who see the presence of Halloween as a detriment to Mexican national identity are quite vocal, claiming the preservaiton of the Days of the Dead is only possible through the rejection of americanismos (Americanisms), including Halloween, viewed quite emphatically as a form of American cultural imperialism.

The last half-century has seen an increased exchange in Days of the Dead and Halloween symbolism on both sides of the border, resulting in periods of representational contestation and appropriation. It will be interesting to see how The Book of Life contributes this discourse. 20th Century Fox, perhaps anticipating similar parental anxiety toward the film, has downplayed the influence of Days of the Dead and instead invited audiences to an innocuous “Halloween adventure,” reminiscent of the devaluation of overtly “religious” signifiers in elementary and secondary education classroom activities across the country. Recent developments in international film markets makes it equally possible The Book of Life will have as great an effect in other parts of the globe as the importation of literature and decoration throughout the United States following NAFTA. The Book of Life will be released nationwide this Friday. Though my son is a bit too young to make the trip, I will follow reaction to the film with great interest.

Doug Valentine earned a BS in Religious Studies and Psychology from Bradley University in Peoria, IL and an MA in Religious Studies from the University of Missouri in Columbia, MO, where he is currently pursuing his PhD in Sociology. His academic interests include cultural theory, contemporary death and remembrance rituals, transnational religion, and identity.

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Juggling It All: Tips on Research and Writing, Part 2










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

Helen Mo: Being a very lateral/intuitive thinker, I’ve found that sketching thought-webs on coloured lined paper is great for getting around the fundamentally linear and sterile technology of word processing software. In the preliminary stages of writing, the physical act of doodling draws my ideas out into visual/spatial form. I then refine the ideas while typing them up in a Word document under colour-coded subheadings. Once they’re solidified into sentences and paragraphs I can tweak, drag around, and reorder them. Lord knows what I would have done in the age of typewriters. As for organization, I keep a meticulously organized system of folders on Google Drive, and have dedicated online documents (accessible by smartphone app) for spur-of-the-moment ideas or reading recommendations.

Karen de Vries: For writing, I love having a large whiteboard (actually I have 3) that I use to diagram or mindmap my ideas at the beginning of each writing session. Then when I come back to it the next day, I have a visual diagram of where I was and what I was thinking the day before. Sometimes it stays the same, but often I rework it. Also, write every day. Even if it’s for a small chunk of time. Writing is thinking. For keeping track of notes, articles, and keywords I use a somewhat ad-hoc filing system. Articles are all filed (digitally and paper) alphabetically by last name. Then I also have keyword files (again, digital and paper because I use both media) where I put the notes for whichever keywords or themes my current research project revolves around. When I write, I pull the most relevant files and notes into my writing realm.

Adam Miller: This may be a bit simplistic (and it may very well be something most people already do), but it is a habit I developed as an undergraduate and it has paid off so far. I always provide full bibliographic citations as I’m writing. More specifically, I provide full bibliographic citations each and every time I cite a source–even if I’ve already cited it above, even if I’m citing the same source a few times in a row.

For whatever reason, having my citations in order (and, when the writing gods aren’t being kind to me, getting them in order) helps me in a big-picture kind of way. It may not help the writing process, but it helps minimize stress caused by things that can easily be avoided. 

Also… to minimize the stacks of books Kenneth and Craig mention (in part one), and also to help me put together thoughts, I sometimes find myself typing up notes that I’ve taken. That way I can later organize them in either a single word document or several by topic, how I plan to use the information, or whatever.

Tara Baldrick Morrone: One thing that I always do (or try to anyway) is to print any electronic articles because I find that I can read them more carefully and retain more information like that than if I read them on the computer. Recently, while studying for my first comprehensive exam, I started using different colored highlighters or post-it notes (for library books) for different pieces of information (historical data, the scholar’s argument, particular themes, etc.) in books or printouts. That way, when I go back to look through the readings, I could quickly pick out whatever topic I was looking for by looking for that particular colour.

Jeffrey WheatleyTo echo what Craig Martin said, I think spatial distinctions can be crucial, at least for some of us. Light reading in bed. Discussion prep, peer review, heavy reading at library. Administrative stuff, social media, CFPs, emails, etc. at coffee shops (or just in the morning as I drink coffee). Heavy research and writing in apartment office. The transition between these spaces (walking, commuting) serve as a nice break and an opportunity to shift gears.

Karen Zoppa: It’s very interesting that no one has mentioned housework, shopping, transportation, child care – in and out of the home – as if these necessities are not part of any life, including academic life – or are we all still living the ideal cloistered life? Not to mention caring for elderly and less able family, trying to maintain friendships, and even – gasp – “fun” ! Just sayin’ . . . That “said,” I have always banked my time preciously – because if I don’t have to clean it, cook for it, feed it, comfort it, or entertain it, I better actually engage with it for the few precious hours of solitude. Good rule – never take work home – work at your campus space – even on weekends. You tend to get a lot done.

Even if the focus is on “paid” work, it is still performed in the context of domestic necessities and I am bemused that this is not addressed in a discussion about “organizational strategies.” The elephant squats in our midst.

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Two Exorcisms: The Narrative Functions of Consecrated Space


by Joseph Laycock

Last week, two reports of exorcism made the news. In Oklahoma City, Archbishop Paul S. Coakley exorcized the Civic Center Music Hall to reverse the effects of a recent black mass. Meanwhile in Liberia, self-styled bishop Edward Adjei announced his plan to banish the Ebola virus by exorcising the old presidential palace. These two cases––which involve exorcising spaces rather than people––offer an insight into the logic of exorcism, and more broadly into the use of space and ritual to impose order onto the cosmos.

While exorcism is normally framed as a traditional and even archaic practice, the public exorcisms of bishops Coakley and Adjei demonstrate how the practice is often improvisational and a response to unprecedented situations. In both cases new threats to the social order (Satanists publically mocking Catholicism with impunity and Ebola, respectively) are framed as demonic forces. This move ascribes complex and widely diffused problems with a physical presence that is both local and accessible. By identifying these forces and then ritually banishing them, the exorcist offers to restore the polity to its state before the crisis occurred. In this sense, exorcism can function almost like a “reset” button in response to the vicissitudes of history. The ritual imposes meaning onto space and then, by extension, seeks to impose meaning onto time. If “all history is local,” as some historians have claimed, then these exorcisms change history by altering the stories that religious communities tell themselves.

The Oklahoma exorcism was a direct response to the claims of “The Dakhma of Angra Mainyu Syndicate” that their ritual held in the civic center would invite a literal demonic presence and “banish the Holy Spirit” from a Satanic worshipper. In a statement, Coakley announced that he took the Satanists’s claims about the efficacy of their black mass seriously. At one point he threatened a lawsuit over speculation that the Satanists had stolen a consecrated host. Despite great objections from Archbishop Coakley’s office and demonstrations by an estimated 1600 lay Catholics, the Satanists were still allowed to hold their ceremony. The failed campaign to block the black mass was a political defeat even as it energized conservative Catholics.


The archdiocese expressed that they had received concerned e-mails from lay Catholics asking whether the civic center was now spiritually safe to enter. By exorcizing the civic center, Coakley not only reversed any supernatural effects caused by the black mass, he also symbolically delegitimized the Satanists. What the archdiocese could not accomplish through the courts and political pressure, it did with ritual. For those who accept the exorcism’s efficacy, Oklahoma City was not a place where Satanists enjoyed the same Constitutional protections as Christians, but a place where spiritual evil rallied and was defeated.

The Liberian exorcism involves a more complex demonology. For Edward Adjei, any incurable disease is the result of demonic influence. The true cause of Ebola, he argues, lies in the former mansion of Charles Taylor––who was accused of both warcrimes and witchcraft during Liberia’s civil wars. The burned out hulk of Taylor’s mansion has allegedly become a stronghold for demons that spread Ebola. Also demonstrating the improvisational nature of exorcism, Adjei announced that he would douse the mansion in a pink soda called Vimto, which many Liberian churches use as an affordable alternative to communion wine. By using Vimto to consecrate the mansion, Adjei claims the site will be “dominated by the blood of Jesus.”

Exorcism is used to heal disease in the Gospels. What is significant about Adjei’s ritual is that he is not proposing to exorcise Liberians infected with Ebola, but rather to consecrate a space that is tied to Liberia’s history. His demonology neatly folds the two horrors of Liberia’s civil wars and Ebola into a single and manageable demonic threat. By consecrating Taylor’s mansion, he offers not only to reverse the spread of Ebola but to correct something in Liberia’s past.

The two exorcisms discussed here follow the same logic as many contemporary forms of deliverance ministry. C. Peter Wagner introduced “prayer mapping” in which Christians engaged in spiritual warfare research and identify spaces where “territorial spirits” reside. Once these demonic strongholds are identified, they can be exorcised and their influence over the community broken. In some cases, prayer mappers have concluded that a land is cursed due to ancient Pagan rituals. In 2007 deliverance ministers in Olney, Texas, ritually destroyed two matrimonial vases of unspecified “Native American” design that allegedly displayed images of Baal and Leviathan, in order to release residents from a curse affecting their town. Like the exorcisms of Coakley and Adjei, prayer mapping uses ritual to impose order onto space, polities, and time simultaneously.

In his book on exorcism, the former Jesuit author Malachi Martin wrote that there is a “puzzle of spirit and place” that cannot be explained but must be accepted as a fact of exorcism. The exorcisms in Oklahoma City and Liberia provide an insight into this puzzle. Foucault noted that, “Space is fundamental in any exercise of power.” This is especially true of sacred space. In his essay “The Wobbling Pivot,” J.Z. Smith observed that sacred space—created through ritual––serves to demarcate where the profane ends and the sacred begins. The exorcisms examined here suggest that sacralizing space allows religious communities to impose further order onto the cosmos. George Orwell famously wrote, “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” At least for the exorcist, we might say that: “He who controls the space controls the past.” While the effort appears to be to control demons, the demons are merely a means to an end.

Joseph Laycock is n assistant professor of religious studies at Texas State University. His forthcoming books include The Seer of Bayside: Veronica Lueken and the Struggle for Catholicism (Oxford University Press, 2014) and Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic Over Role-Playing Games Says About Religion, Play, and Imagined Worlds (University of California Press, 2015).

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Juggling It All: Tips on Research and Writing, Part 1

buried in books

Craig Martin: I find myself to be a creature of habit when it comes to the spaces in which I do work: I write on my couch at home, read on the back porch, grade papers in the dining room, write lectures in my office, etc. Usually, once I’m in that space I habitually turn toward the task at hand. Unfortunately, this can also be debilitating, e.g., when one needs to work in another space. I can’t write worth a damn unless I’m on my living room couch; that’s a problem when I need to write but I’m not at home.


Ryan FicsI have found color coding to be a beneficial tool for organization. For example, I designate particular colors for certain ideas and tasks when taking notes. Each color not only acts as a reminder, or a kind of memory trace that you can follow through your own notes (for example, making notes in green pen which correlate to a section in a book you have underlined in green), but also I find it is helpful for maintaining a codification system. Sticking to a color code system so that I do not mix what was written in green with what was written in red, blue, or black, helps me navigate through my own notes quickly when needed. On days when I find it hard to write, I find this system to be effective because while reading if I come across something important, it forces me to get a certain color of pen and begin taking notes which can lead to a short blurb, or section where I hash out a sketch of a rough idea. I’ve also found that if performed digitally, keeping colors in line with what they are used for in terms of different interests and ideas (especially in PDF) allows for a certain kind of repetition to take place. You can have several versions of the same document, with different color code schemes that represent different research projects/ideas. I have found that color coding documents on my computer can help unfold connections between texts and my own writing that I would not normally make, in a variety of ways. Happy studies and organizing!

Donovan Schaefer: Getting to a point where I was regularly in the habit of writing everything down and also had an efficient “filing system” for organizing those notes was key for me. An idea that seems blazingly obvious to you while you’re sitting on a train or washing dishes or lying awake at 2 AM may be totally gone 6 hours later. And the memory of something you’re reading today that you suddenly realize could be foundational to your next project may be faded by the time you turn your attention to that work. Capturing the little points of contact I map out during the day and then collecting them in centralized locations–I have one big file internally divided by various upcoming projects that I add a few lines to every other day–not only helped me work more efficiently, it highlighted for me how writing is always a sedimentation of different strands of thought and research spanning my academic and non-academic lives.

Travis Cooper: Since a large portion of my research is “digitally ethnographic,” as it concerns blog posts, news articles, church facebook pages and discussion forums, online book reviews, etc., the simple webpage bookmarking function, via Internet Explorer, works wonders. One can title bookmarks appropriately and then manage and organize them using topical folders and search options. For broader research, though, I’m finding new software programs such as NVivo productive. One can store any and all information in the program–websites, book and article bibliographic information, article PDFs, and so on–and then highlight and code information on said artifacts through a complex and interconnected node system. NVivo is expensive but quite impressive in its information organization skills and cataloguing abilities. It also keeps all of one’s information for multiple, ongoing projects, all in one place.

Kenneth MacKendrick: Most of us are under the impression that we can’t get anything done unless we have gigantic blocks of time, at least a good four hours or so just to get things started. This is an illusion. With some foresight and a bit of planning, you can get a lot done in 15 minutes. Putting yourself on a timer to respond to emails or write lectures or structure a short piece of writing can save a lot of time. This isn’t a useful strategy, in fact it’s a pain in the head most of the time: I make all my notes for writing in the margins of the books or articles I’m thinking of using for a given project… which means that I when I go to write I essentially need to surround myself in stacks of books.

Sarah Rollens: Someone once told me that she couldn’t start writing until she’d done all of her research. For me personally, I have no idea what “being done” with my research looks like, so I’ve tried to cultivate the habit of writing—even if it’s just a paragraph or something short—as I read, even if I’m not sure how it will fit into a larger project. It’s easier for me to edit or excise later on, but far more difficult to generate thoughts based on things I’ve read months ago. Also I’ve found that the most useful way to go about my research is to learn to recognize my own habits. Some days I write a lot; some days I write nothing. On the days where I write very little, I try to shift my attention elsewhere: translating tasks, bibliographical entries, catching up on reading some articles, etc. When I was working on my dissertation, I had a few spells where I tried to achieve 1000 words per day. That was reasonably successful since my writing style is to over-generate content and then edit for quality.

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God and the State: How Bombing IS(IS/IL) Gets Justified (Biblically)

Prime Minister David Cameron Makes His Speech At The Conservative Party Annual Conference

by James Crossley

* This post originally appeared on the author’s blog, Harnessing Chaos: History, Politics and Critical Biblical Studies.

An old anarchist critique of the state and its institutions is that its power depends on the idea of God or a higher authority. This was a criticism I hadn’t previously taken too seriously when looking at contemporary politics but there are certainly instances where this critique rings true, or at least can be modified. No contemporary politician can invoke God too much but grounding political views in a vague, and not overtly supernatural, understanding of ‘the Bible’, ‘religion’, or ‘Christianity’ has been carried out by Prime Ministers and leading mainstream politicians over the past 40 years. Indeed, Thatcher has been the most consistently explicit figure in recent English politics. She was convinced that the Bible and Christianity were at the heart of specifically Anglicised capitalism (along with, she argued, a specifically Anglicised view of democracy, human freedom, charity, individualism etc.) which has set the West apart from Communism and Soviet Russia (along with, she argued, tyranny, oppression, excessive state support, collectivism etc.). There are a number of parochial and localised reasons for politicians using the Bible (e.g. to risk getting a good press, not to annoy Christian voters unnecessarily, to keep certain pressure groups happy etc.) but there is no serious ‘Christian vote’ in the UK yet it is a constant feature of Prime Ministers such as Thatcher, Blair, Brown, and Cameron to have their core political beliefs somehow grounded in the Bible. And a reason for this is that it gives their views an authority and justification that they might otherwise lack.

Let’s take David Cameron’s recent speeches (one transcript is here) concerning IS(IL):

For clarification, in what follows I am obviously not arguing what is, or is not, ‘true religion’, ‘true Christianity’, ‘true Islam’ or the like but, rather, what I am trying to explain are some of the assumptions underlying such essentialist language in political discourse and what these assumptions are masking and obscuring.

Cameron’s speeches contain all the usual clichés about what religion and Islam really ‘is’ or ‘are’:

They are killing and slaughtering thousands of people—Christians, Muslims, minorities across Iraq and Syria. They boast of their brutality. They claim to do this in the name of Islam. That is nonsense. Islam is a religion of peace. They are not Muslims, they are monsters.

It is fairly obvious what Islam must not be for Cameron (and virtually every major politician in the UK). So if IS is not True Religion or True Islam then what is it? It is a ‘fanatical organisation’, a ‘warped ideology’. For Cameron, the emergence of IS also represents a battle between Islam (‘on the one hand’) and ‘extremists who want to abuse Islam’ (‘on the other’). In fact, Cameron argues that it is ‘vital’ that ‘we make this distinction between religion [Islam] and political ideology’ [‘Islamist extremism…often funded by fanatics…who pervert the Islamic faith…’]’. Fairly obvious too is what True Islam should be for Cameron: ‘Islam is a religion observed peacefully and devoutly by over a billion people. It is a source of spiritual guidance which daily inspires millions to countless acts of kindness’. In fact, this binary of violent and brutal versus peaceful and being kind is important for Cameron (and virtually every major politician in the UK) when it comes to how they categorise religion and the state. This is confirmed by what Cameron thinks ‘we’ are: ‘We are peaceful people. We do not seek out confrontation’; ‘Britain is an open, tolerant and free nation’; ‘adhering to British values is not an option or a choice, it is a duty for those who live in these islands’.

But what happens when a British national behaves how they ought not? Cameron presents this as a shock, as much a deviation from True Britishness as it is from True Religion:

People across this country would’ve been sickened by the fact that there could have been a British citizen—a British citizen—would could have carried out this unspeakable act. It is the very opposite of everything our country stands for.

But already Cameron’s construction is starting to get complicated. ‘We’ too are prepared to use violence but do so when provoked and in a ‘calm, deliberate way but with an iron determination’. Here the subtle invocation of Christianity (assumed to be about ‘peace’) becomes important. Cameron mentions the persecution of ‘minorities, including Christians’ and brings in an allusion to the Good Samaritan (rather than to Dionne Warwick):

…but we cannot ignore this threat to our security…there is no option of keeping our heads down…we cannot just walk on by if we are to keep this country safe…we have to confront this menace…we will do so in a calm, deliberate way but with an iron determination.

Underlying this is a long political tradition of the Bible being assumed to be part of ‘our’ tolerant, democratic heritage. Cameron uses Christianity and the Bible to his bolster his assumptions about who has the legitimate monopoly on violence. Little wonder that Obama played the game of flat contradiction in claiming that Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a State, with assumptions including that which is deemed to embrace True Religion and those which are deemed to be non-rogue states being the ones that may use violence:

The driving narrative is of further importance when the opposition is categorised in metaphysical or fantastical terms. For Cameron, IS are not Muslims ‘they are monsters’ and IS are ‘an organisation which is the embodiment of evil’.

There is going to be a sympathetic audience for this rhetoric, particularly given the beheadings which are brutally horrific just to comprehend. But this simplistic notion of the world of True Religion versus Evil has another function: it covers over the complexity of the situation. There are all sorts of reasons which would help us understand the rise of IS (‘evil’, incidentally, is not one of them), such as (among many) the decline of secular nationalism in the Middle East and North Africa, the rise of slums and population growth, the role of oil in economic growth and crashes, a range specific issues (e.g. ideological, material) relating to Saudi Arabia, and, of course, the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath (which, tellingly for someone invoking ‘evil’ and a ‘warped version of Islam’ as an explanation, is denied as a ‘source’ or ‘root cause’ for the rise of IS by Cameron). Moreover, George Monbiot has recently pointed out that if we followed the logic of the rhetoric of morality in foreign policy, we might find ‘ourselves’ bombing quite a lot of people, including ‘our’ allies:

Let’s bomb the Muslim world – all of it – to save the lives of its people. Surely this is the only consistent moral course? Why stop at Islamic State (Isis), when the Syrian government has murdered and tortured so many? This, after all, was last year’s moral imperative. What’s changed? How about blasting the Shia militias in Iraq? One of them selected 40 people from the streets of Baghdad in June and murdered them for being Sunnis. Another massacred 68 people at a mosque in August. They now talk openly of “cleansing” and “erasure” once Isis has been defeated…What humanitarian principle instructs you to stop there? In Gaza this year, 2,100 Palestinians were massacred: including people taking shelter in schools and hospitals. Surely these atrocities demand an air war against Israel? And what’s the moral basis for refusing to liquidate Iran? Mohsen Amir-Aslani was hanged there last week for making “innovations in the religion” (suggesting that the story of Jonah in the Qur’an was symbolic rather than literal). Surely that should inspire humanitarian action from above? Pakistan is crying out for friendly bombs: an elderly British man, Mohammed Asghar, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, is, like other blasphemers, awaiting execution there after claiming to be a holy prophet… Is there not an urgent duty to blow up Saudi Arabia? It has beheaded 59 people so far this year, for offences that include adultery, sorcery and witchcraft. It has long presented a far greater threat to the west than Isis now poses

So why really choose IS here and now and not others? Why not explain why IS came to be in a way other than just ‘evil’ or a ‘warped ideology’? Whatever the reasons, the implicit authority for such simplifications, and ultimately for carrying out violence, is grounded in, and justified by, a given politician’s construction of, and assumptions about, the Bible, religion and Christianity. A higher authority, it seems, is still needed in political discourse.

PS: If you want to witness competitions based on similar assumptions about whether IS is or is not Islamic, or just a nice piece of data for the critical study of religion, try this debate from Fox:

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Religion Snapshots: Aslan on Islam


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 topics relating to definitions, classification, and method and theory in the study of religion more generally.

Editor’s note: This snapshots feature is based on a recent interview on CNN with Reza Aslan on the topic of Islam and violence. The interview opens with the following statement: “Defenders of Islam insist it is a peaceful religion. Others disagree and point to the primitive treatment in Muslim countries of women and other minorities.” Aslan is introduced as a scholar of religions, professor at UC Riverside and the author of Zealot. The interviewers’ lead with a clip from Real Time’s Bill Maher equating Islam with violence, citing examples of circumcision for women and not respecting gay rights, and a caption is displayed throughout much of the interview reading: Does Islam promote violence? The following are four commentaries on Aslan’s reply.


Carl J. Stoneham: Aslan needs to check his figures on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and the idea of ‘100%’ gender equality in Indonesia (and it wouldn’t hurt him to look up the actual definition of ‘bigotry,’ either). He’s made some good points, but obscured them with hyperbole, half-truths, and outright false statements.

In his zeal to highlight the fact that Indonesia, the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, treats women far better than Saudi Arabia does, Aslan quantifies equality by stressing that women in Indonesia are “absolutely, 100% equal to men.” Setting aside my main concern that this whitewashes important issues concerning women’s equality in Indonesia, I’m bothered that a self-identified religion scholar is trotting out what are demonstrably false claims (e.g. the World Bank rates Indonesia at 91 out of 144 countries for women’s equality). Why not just state “Indonesia is way ahead of Saudi Arabia when it comes to treating women as equals?” This would maintain the comparison without stumbling over a fiction. What did he hope to gain from using this sort of hyperbole to defend a comparative truth? Still, it is Aslan’s point about FGM that strikes me as more troubling.

In response to Bill Maher’s comment that FGM is “a Muslim country problem,” Aslan responded, “that’s actually empirically factually incorrect. It’s a Central African problem.” (Note: “Central Africa” is the wrong region. He should have referred to the Sahel, as in a “Sahelian problem”). As support, he offered Eritrea and Ethiopia as Christian examples, stating that (in reference to Somalia) “nowhere else in the Muslim, Muslim-majority states is female genital mutilation an issue.” But this simply isn’t true. One, Somalia is far from the only Muslim-majority country in Africa where FGM is practiced. Two, if one maps FGM in Africa to the religious majority in each country, it is clear that it is primarily Muslim-majority countries that do practice FGM. While this does not mean that FGM is an inherently “Islamic” practice, it could mean that Islam, writ large, offers a frame to justify such cultural practices. All four of the primary Sunni schools of jurisprudence look on female circumcision (known to the West as FGM) as *at least* neutral (mubah), with the Shafi’i school going so far as to declare it obligatory (see link at the end). The reasons for this are mostly rooted in a certain respect for local tradition that comes with Islam (which is a good thing in other cases), but it does not change the fact that it is stated as an *obligation* incumbent upon Muslims in at least one of the four major schools of jurisprudence, with the others considering it either recommended or permissible. Granted, there is always more complexity to be had here, but if we’re painting with a broad brush, as Aslan is, his supporting argument does not pass muster. Perhaps he has gotten caught up in his own brand of polemical apologetics?

In his zeal to undermine (rightly) the use of “Muslim country” in popular media, Aslan offers half-truths and outright falsehoods as support for his position. Are we OK with a sort of “I got the big picture right, even if all the supporting facts are wrong?” As a public scholar who, quite literally, banks on his academic bona fides, is Aslan getting away with something a grad student could not? What’s more, has he pre-emptively discredited his excellent point about “Muslim countries” because his supporting arguments are either hyperbolic or outright false? For viewers skeptical of his position on “Muslim countries,” would a little bit of Googling undermine his thesis? Judging by the comments section, Aslan won this debate hands down, but surely his is an example of something we as scholars should avoid doing when presenting complex ideas, especially in popular fora.

*For a quick Internet link on the Shafi’I school of jurisprudence and female circumcision, see here:

Dennis LoRusso: I find several things interesting here. First, Aslan and the interviews almost seem to be speaking different languages. When Aslan interrogates the assumptions in statements like “Muslim countries,” his interlocutors respond with questions that simply reproduce these same problematic categories. In general, I have not been overly sympathetic to Aslan as a public scholar in the past (especially towards his tendency to protect certain versions of religious traditions as more legitimate than others), but I do think, at least in this instance, he draws attention to the political and contingent quality of concepts like “religion.”

However, even though he acknowledges religion as an unstable classifier, Aslan inadequately addresses the problem. By preferring to characterize female genital mutilation as a “central African” problem rather than a “Muslim” problem, he fails to explain why “Central Africa” serves as a more sufficient frame. Do our geographical maps somehow capture the territory better than our religious ones? Both strategies prove reductionistic because they feign objectivity, where in fact, none can exist.

It is through these kinds of moves that we can see Aslan’s apologetics at work. A “religion,” as he says, can never be the cause of either peace nor violence, but his audience should uncritically accept that cultures, nations, politics, or societies (all constructs of an order similar to religion) are the “real” agents, who only use religion as their veneer to account for their modes of action.

A more intellectually responsible way for Aslan to address these issues with a public that lacks the scholar’s theoretical (sometimes haughty) background would be to not only combat the reductionist rhetoric of “religious violence,” but also to point out why all such claims are not helpful. In drawing attention to how discourse, identity, and action are tied to historical change, the public scholar illuminates our collective complicity in these acts of human suffering.

Matt Sheedy: Despite problems that I have with Aslan’s narratives about religion in general and Islam in particular, I do appreciate his willingness to not soft-peddle his position and call out “stupidity” (he politely goes there) where he sees it. I think this speaks to Dennis’s point about “speaking different languages,” where the short term interests and “sound bite” nature of prime time often requires a radical break with the standard narrative (e.g., the common assumption that “religion” or “Islam” is a causal force, and the follow-up move of distinguishing good/correct versions from bad/incorrect deviations) in order to re-establish the discussion on more fruitful ground. Being generous to Aslan, we might grant that his generalizations that Carl points out may be conditioned by the medium (e.g., using hyperbole to make a point), though this seems to go against the more nuanced analysis and careful attention to language that he’s calling for in this interview. I also find his assertion that it’s “people” who are violent and not “Islam” to be problematic. He follows this up with the caveat that it “depends on their politics, their social world, the way that they see their communities, the way that they see themselves.” Earlier in the interview he had mentioned that Islam is neither violent nor peaceful, which is the correct rhetorical move, though his attempt to change the narrative by pluralizing Islam and adding the politics of nation-states into the mix remains trapped in an similar framework, where the criteria for “bad religion” is now Islam + authoritarian regime. A better move, it seems to me, would be to discuss the identities of distinct groups that identify as Muslim thereby showing how multiple theological world views get caught up in shifting historical conflicts and tied to various political, cultural, and ethnic constellations, etc. In this sense “Islam” is always a variable (and one without a stable meaning!) that can never be determined in advance.

Zeba Crook: I thought the interview was fantastic. I loved that he can spar with the talking heads without losing his cool, that he can be so aggressive (“Did you hear what you just said?!”) while smiling in a friendly way. I think what is most important about his interview is his point that Islam is not anything (peaceful or hateful). Islam is what people do with it, it is not any one thing. That the CNN commentator had so much trouble following him (evidenced by her continual return to “But isn’t it the case that Islam…”) shows how important it is to make that point, and I thought he made it well. His other main take-away point is that one cannot take Saudi Arabia and Iran as representative of a global religion with over a billion members. Indonesia and Turkey are not like Saudi Arabia and Iran. You can’t generalize about a global religion based on two extreme examples. This gets to the problem of totalizing and reifying religion: Islam is mean to women, or Islam is peaceful. The point he made again and again is that “Islam is nothing” and it was both made well and worth making.

Posted in Carl Stoneham, Dennis LoRusso, Matt Sheedy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, Religion Snapshots, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment