‘Red, Wild, and Blue!’: Depicting Freedom in “Amazing America with Sarah Palin”


by Brad Stoddard

On April 3rd, the Sportsman Channel will debut a new show called “Amazing America with Sarah Palin.” As the title suggests, the show’s host is none other than former Alaska Governor and Vice Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin.

In the promotional trailer, Palin summarized the show when she said, “this show is gonna highlight that freedom that we get to experience in America” (italics added because Palin emphasizes “freedom” with a fist pump). The trailer includes other patriotic signifiers, such as a sparkling American flag and Palin’s invitation to get “red, wild, and blue.”

I watched this trailer with a critical eye, as history and theory suggest that every society (including every regime of freedom) must by necessity not only draw boundaries, but it must be willing and able to police and punish those who transgress those boundaries. As Émile Durkheim, Michel Foucault, and Stanley Fish have suggested, the denial of freedom is not an unfortunate result of tyrannical government; rather, it is a necessary precondition for a stable collective.

With this in mind, I watched the remainder of the trailer not to engage or condemn Palin in her celebration of American freedom; rather, I wanted to identify the activities that comprise Palin’s notion of freedom itself. In other words, what, for Palin, constitutes freedom? What, according to “Amazing America with Sarah Palin” makes America free?

The 30-second trailer includes several clips of people performing activities such as ziplining, shooting guns, wrestling, and racing cars. In one clip a young man used a duck call, and in another clip a man proudly boasted that he possesses “the man cave of all man caves.” The show also equates American masculinity with freedom when the trailer’s narrator promises that the show will highlight “trail blazers” and other “people who never back down!”

In sum, the trailer glorifies what many would identify as a white-collar, working-class, or “outdoorsy” lifestyle as the ideal standard for freedom itself. The question remains, is Palin’s regime of freedom a universal regime, or does it reflect one person’s or perhaps one group’s notion of freedom?

In order to juxtapose Palin’s regime of freedom with other regimes of freedom, consider a recent study that analyzed 729 constitutions adopted by almost 200 countries from 1946 to 2006. The authors of this study reviewed all 729 constitutions and then itemized the most common “substantive rights” or freedoms. When we reference this study, it becomes evident that Palin’s version of freedom differs from the regimes of freedom constructed by the majority of constitutionally-based governments in the world today.

The majority of the world guarantees most of the freedoms highlighted in the trailer to “Amazing America with Sarah Palin,” even if it doesn’t specifically state them (for example, no constitution specifically guarantees the right to own a man cave or to blow a duck call, but few would disagree that man caves and duck calls are protected by property rights and free speech laws respectively). Like many people the world over, Americans have a right to wrestle and ride down a zipline, but unlike Americans, the majority of the world does not possess a constitutional right to bear arms (only the United States, Guatemala, and Mexico guarantee this right).

Americans, then, have one freedom or right that the global majority does not possess; however, there are several freedoms not found in the United States that are commonly found in the vast majority of the world. For example, over 90% of the world’s constitutions include protections for women’s right, a right that is not included in the U.S. Constitution. Additionally, roughly 80% of the world’s constitutions explicitly guarantee the right to social security, health care, and food, none of which have reached constitutional status in the United States. As this rather preliminary summary suggests, while there are many regimes of freedom, few of them collectively agree on the boundaries of those freedoms.

The point of this post is not to criticize Palin for supporting a naïvely-conceived regime of freedom that pales in comparison to other regimes of freedom; rather, I would like to highlight the contingent and disputed nature of freedom itself. All societies regulate behavior and all societies punish. The question is never “are these people free”? Instead, we need to examine the assumptions and interests of the person or group projecting their regime of freedom as the standard of freedom itself.

If “Amazing America with Sarah Palin” ever addresses the concept of religious freedom, should we not expect the same limitations and restrictions that apply to the show’s broader concept of “freedom”? If the show does highlight religious freedom in America, it should not come as a surprise if similar local interests are also presented as natural and universal.

Brad Stoddard is a doctoral candidate in Florida State University’s Department of Religion. His dissertation explores the intersections of religion, law, and faith-based corrections. He is currently conducting research in Florida’s faith-based prisons, a novel prison program that resides at the boundaries of constitutionally permissible partnerships between religion and state.

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The Politics of Choice


by Craig Martin

* This post originally appeared on the Culture on the Edge blog.

George Washington’s Sacred Fire—in which Peter A. Lillback argues that “founding father” George Washington was a Christian and not a deist—garnered a great deal of media attention when first published in 2006. On amazon.com the book currently enjoys 165 user reviews, from readers asserting that the book is “awesome” and “indispencible” [sic] to readers asserting that the book is “illegitimate,” “junk,” and “propaganda.” Why does it matter if George Washington was a deist or a Christian? What’s at stake in the application of one of these two labels onto a figure long dead?

From the book’s description and the positive reviews of the book, the answer is readily apparent: for some readers, a Christian George Washington should serve as an ongoing “inspirational” model for United States’ leaders and for a “Christian nation” as a whole. Consider the following reviewer’s claims (spelling and punctuation all original):

George Washington was a man of honor and this book brings that out. We need another President like him.

All these haters because it has conservative points of view? Guess what, our founding fathers were more conservative than all but a handfull of republicans. We’re becoming a “sissy version” of what we once were.

[Washington’s] devout belief in Divine Providence as it relates to the founding of this nation was unshakable. An inspiration to anyone who has even just one patriotic bone in their body.

Makes you want to be involved in taking America back from the lying looting thugs!!

Our contempary congress should take a clue from him.

Good for the kids to read inorder for them to know why America was founded and why we need GOD back in our country.

George Washington, the father of our nation must be in turmoil over what we have done to our nation. His moral character, and dependence on our holy father, Jesus, made him the man he was. We have much to learn and much to do to come within a mile of this mans integrity.

Clearly, for many readers this book serves as a useful moral guide and a return-to-origins narrative. The U.S. has gotten away from its authentic, Christian origins—modeled by Washington—and we must turn away from our corrupt detours and return to Washington’s ideal.

Of course, two (or ten) can play at this game. I often see people who don’t identify as Christian post the following quote to Facebook, sometimes with a picture of George Washington above it:

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

The quotation is not, however, from Washington; it was written by Joel Barlow, approved by the U.S. Senate, and signed by then-president John Adams in 1797. But the quotation seems to serve the same purpose: it proposes an alternate origin to the American nation—this time a non-Christian origin—that presumably is to serve as an ongoing model for American politics or policies.

Interestingly, the question of whether America is Christian and, if so, opposed to Islam, is raised by one of the reviewers of Sacred Fire. One reader writes,

We are not and never were a Muslium nation even though Pres. Obama said “if you actually took the number of Muslim Americans, we’d be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world”.
False statement!!!!
Obama said in Turkey that Americans “do not consider ourselves a Christian nation.”
What is he talking about? The idea that the United States is a ‘Christian nation,’ has always been central to American identity. The majority of Americans (73-76%) identify themselves as Christians.

What we have are two competing visions of America, then: one according to which there is nothing Christian about America and, therefore, nothing intrinsically at odds with Islam; another according to which America is intrinsically Christian and, therefore, there might presumably be something wrong with the number of Muslims in America.

Of course, none of this gets to how the readers in question define “Christianity” or “deism” (or “Islam,” for that matter.” One reader of Sacred Fire suggests that, despite Lillback’s assumption that “Christian” and “deist” are mutually exclusive, this could be a “false dichotomy” and it’s possible that Washington could have used both identifiers simultaneously. Another reviewer suggests that the author of the book deploys an anachronistic portrayal of what counts as “Christian”: “The TESTS of being a real Christian are based on their 21st Century Evangelical definitions of a Christian.” Not only is the definition of “America” at stake here, but so is the definition of “Christianity.” Perhaps Lillback’s next book will be on the so-called historical Jesus, in order settle that question for his readers.

Such return to origins games require a process of selection; even if Washington was “Christian”—whatever that means—it’s nevertheless clear that not everything associated with Washington will continue to serve as a model for modern America. For instance, Washington owned slaves, but I doubt few of the readers who offered five star reviews of the book want to resurrect slavery. So which parts of Washington’s life—or, rather, what we can project backward in time as his “life”—will be selected as our ongoing model? Of course the answer to this question depends on individual readers’ sympathies.

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Critical Research on Religion: An Interview with Warren S. Goldstein, Part 2

home_coverWarren S. Goldstein, Executive Director of the Center for Critical Research on Religion (http://www.criticaltheoryofreligion.org), is a Visiting Fellow of the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University and a Religion Fellow at Boston University’s School of Theology. His Ph.D. is from the New School for Social Research. He is Co-Editor of Critical Research on Religion and Book Series Editor of “Studies in Critical Research on Religion.” While his research aims to develop a critical sociology of religion as a “new paradigm” in the sociology of religion, he is more broadly interested in the development of a critical paradigm in the study of religion as a whole. He is also co-chair of the Sociology of Religion (SOR) group in the American Academy of Religion.

Part 1 of this interview can be found here.

Matt SheedyIn part one of this interview, you draw attention to the second issue of CRR, guest edited by Rhys Williams, focusing on a critical sociology of religion. Here you note that there has been a lack of critical research in the sociology of religion and that one of the aims of CRR is to push this particular sub-field in that direction. With reference to your own work in this area, could you elaborate on what you think some of the problems are within the sociology of religion and how a more critical approach, as you lay it out in question one, can help to remedy this lack?

I came into sociology of religion via my doctoral dissertation at the New School for Social Research which was titled “Messianism and Marxism: Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch’s Dialectical Theories of Secularization.” My thesis advisor was José Casanova. While I ended up publishing several articles out of it, including a synopsis in Critical Sociology, I encountered much resistance to this line of research in mainstream sociology journals. I still recall the comments of one reviewer that Ernst Bloch would be better off left to the mothballs. I found this ironic since many of Ernst Bloch’s works have been translated and published by MIT Press.

I was to discover that not only was the attitude of this reviewer prevalent throughout the subfield, but that it signified something more endemic to it. While Marx, Weber, and Durkheim provide the theoretical and methodological foundations for modern sociology, in sociology of religion it is only Weber and Durkheim. Due to Marx’s atheistic position, most of those in the subfield, who are quite sympathetic to religion, are hostile to Marxism, no less a Marxist sociology of religion. The excuse, which is in part true, is that Marx paid very little attention to religion. Nevertheless, one can only understand the early Marx if one looks at him in relation to the Left Hegelians (Strauss, Bauer, and Feuerbach) whose primary focus was on religion.

But the problem goes beyond this. While Weber and Durkheim provide the foundation for modern sociology of religion, the contemporary theoretical schools in the sociology of religion (functionalism, social constructionism/phenomenology, and rational choice) roughly follow them. What has been lacking in the sociology of religion is a critical approach. Most of the research in the sociology of religion contains implicit assumptions that religion is good for you and few assess its negative consequences. The leading journals in sociology of religion have a primary focus of religion in North America and pay little attention to religion in the rest of the world. Much of this research is quantitative with qualitative research taking second seat. There is very little historical sociology of religion and very little is theoretically guided (unless it employs rational choice).

As stated earlier, my own research started with Benjamin and Bloch’s mixture of Judeo-Christian Messianism and Marxism. I explained the relationship between the two with secularization theory–that Marxism is a secularization of Judeo-Christian Messianism. With the prompting of Casanova, what I discovered was that Benjamin and Bloch’s understanding of the process of secularization was not linear, but rather they had a dialectical understanding of this process. What I subsequently attempted to develop was a dialectical theory of secularization. I did this by examining the works of the old and new paradigms in the sociology of religion as well as that of Weber and Durkheim. Through this research, I have identified several different patterns of secularization. These include a linear pattern, a cyclical pattern, a spiral pattern, a dialectical pattern and a paradoxical one. While secularization does occur in a linear manner over shorter periods of time, in the long run it is a contested process. Part of my understanding of secularization is that internally to religion, it takes the form of religious rationalization. Secularization is never really cyclical since we can never return to where we have started. Rather, it more closely resembles a spiral. This spiral is the result of a dialectic between secular and religious movements and countermovements. The solution to the paradox of sacralization is the understanding that secularization often takes place in a dialectical manner. I have taken this model and used it to examine secularization in Iran and China. I have also broadened this out attempting to develop more generally a critical sociology of religion. I have integrated conflict theory by taking it and applying it to religion. Conflict occurs along all sorts of lines–not only those of class, but race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, and religion. I have reinterpreted Weber and Troeltsch looking at their relationship to the historical materialists and the influence of German critical and dialectical thought upon them.

Part of Religionskritik, is the critique of Marxism itself. If Marxism is indeed a secular religion, by its own internal logic, that of critique, it would call upon us to demythologize it, to preserve its rational kernel by stripping off its mystical shell. To do so, we need to place it and the assumptions it makes in historical context. Today Marxism has become its own worst enemy. It stands in the way over the very progress it seeks to attain. This is because too many embrace it as some type of religion rather than as a social scientific method. We need to learn from both its successes and failures in the past. Today, to transcend capitalism sounds like a utopian project. Socialism is more value rational than capitalism; the question is how it can also be more purposively rational. Likewise, revolutions only occur under particular historical circumstances and the amount of death and destruction that can occur from them should not be idealized. They are not a universal solution to every historical case but at the same time in certain situations, they are the best choice. I think that the only way that we can transcend many of the viscissitudes of capitalism, is first through a critique of Marxism.

The general thread here is that of critique–of using a critical approach. A critical approach always reflects back on itself. This is how it transcends the boundaries of knowledge–by questioning its own assumptions. The critique is applied not only to religion but also to society in general–in order to move both forward.  

MS: What can readers expect in upcoming issues of CRR? What are some of the initiatives (e.g., in publishing, conferences, etc.) and collaborations (e.g., with other organizations) that you are working on and how do you hope to expand them in the future (e.g., through social media, research projects, etc.)?


WG: Our most recent issue (April 2014), which is now available on-line (http://crr.sagepub.com/content/current) is a special issue edited and with an introduction by Roland Boer on “Theology and Treason.” In this issue, we have an editorial titled “Can a religious perspective be critical?”  The articles in the issue are:

1. Shuangli Zhang (Fudan University, China), “Why should one be interested in the theological dimension within the project of modern politics? On the Chinese acceptance of Carl Schmitt’s political theology.”

2. Kenpa Chin (Fu Jen Catholic University, Taiwan) “The dwarf and the puppet: YT Wu’s ‘‘Christian Materialism.’’

3. Mads Karlsen (University of Copenhagen, Denmark), “Materialism, dialectics, and theology in Alain Badiou.”

4. Matthew Chrulew (Curtin University, Australia), “Pastoral counter-conducts: Religious resistance in Foucault’s genealogy of Christianity.”

5. Randall Reed (Appalachian State University, USA) “Emerging treason? Politics and identity in the Emerging Church Movement.”

There are also four book reviews in it. They are:

1. Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, and Saba Mahmood, Is Critique Secular?: Blasphemy, Injury and Free Speech, Reviewed by Matt Sheedy (University of Manitoba, Canada).

2. Jeremy Stolow (ed.), Deus in Machina: Religion, Technology, and the Things in Between, Reviewed by Tom Boylston (London School of Economics and Political Science, UK).

3. Grace Davie, The Sociology of Religion: A Critical Agenda (2nd edn), Reviewed by Lee Kuhnle (York University, Canada).

4. Russell T McCutcheon and Craig Martin, with Leslie Dorrough Smith, Religious Experience: A Reader, Reviewed by Alison Robertson (Open University, UK).

We are almost done with the editing of our content for the August 2014 issue. The articles, which we have formally accepted for it thus far, are:

1. Hanan Ibrahim (Al-Ahliyya Amman University, Jordan) “Intercultural communication in the Qur’an and the politics of interpretation.”

2. Samta P. Padya (Tata Institute of Social Sciences, India) “The Vivekananda Kendra in India: Its Ideological Translations and a Critique of Its Social Service.”

3. Alwyn Lau (Monash University, Malaysia) “Intimating the Unconscious: A Psychoanalytical Refraction of Christian Theo-Political Activism in Malaysia.”

4. Tilahun Bejitual Zellelew (Eberhard Karls Universität, Germany) “Meat abstinence and its positive environmental effect: Examining the fasting etiquettes of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.”

5. Matthew Recla (Boise State University, USA) “Homo Profanus: The Christian Martyr and Religious Violence.”

The book reviews that we have accepted for it thus far are:

1. Elliot Wolfson, A Dream Interpreted Within a Dream: Oneiropoiesis and the Prism of Imagination. Reviewed by Cass Fischer (University of South Florida, USA).

2. James E. Fleming and Linda C. McClain, Ordered Liberty: Rights, Responsibilities, and Virtues. Reviewed by M. Christian Green (Emory University, USA).

For this issue, we are also currently editing a very lengthy book review by well known biblical scholar Richard Horsley (University of Massachusetts, Boston, USA) on the book made controversial by Fox News written by Reza Aslan titled Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

We have approved a proposal submitted to us which is titled “A Conversation with Culture on the Edge: The State of the Critical Study of Religion.” Participants in it will include: Russell T. McCutcheon (University of Alabama), Craig Martin (St. Thomas Aquinas College, USA), Monica R. Miller (Lehigh University, USA), Steven Ramey (University of Alabama), K. Merinda Simmons (University of Alabama, USA), Leslie Dorrough Smith (Avila University, USA), and Vaia Touna (University of Alberta, Canada).

We also approved a proposal for a special issue titled “Is the Post-Colonial Post-Secular?” edited by Vincent Lloyd (Syracuse University) and Ludger Viefhues-Bailey (Le Moyne College). This is scheduled to appear in April 2015 3(1). The articles proposed for this issue are:

1. Eric Bugyis (University of Notre Dame, USA) “The Postcolonial as the Self-Colonization of Religion: On the Ratzinger-Habermas Debate.”

2. Pamela Klassen (University of Toronto, Canada) “Fantasies of Sovereignty: Maps and Myths on the Northwest Coast.”

3.  Sadia Saeed (Yale University, USA) “Negotiating Colonial Secularity: Desecularization and Postcolonial State Formation in Pakistan.”

4. Brannon Ingram, (Northwestern University, USA) “Public Islam in Post-Apartheid South Africa: Muslim Radio and Postsecular Religious Rights.”

5. Matthew Engelke, (London School of Economics) “Africa and Immanence.”

6. Ludger Viefhues-Bailey (Le Moyne College, UK) “Setting Aside the Immanent Frame.”

We are also tentatively planning to co-sponsor sessions with the American Academy of Religion Sociology of Religion and Comparative Approaches to Religion and Violence Groups at their November 2014 meetings in San Diego, California. We will probably also host a reception there. We are also tentatively planning to co-sponsor a session with the Critical Religion Association at the University of Sterling in the UK at the British Sociological Association Sociology of Religion Study Group in 2015.

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Call for Panels “Dynamics of Religion: Past and Present” – XXI IAHR World Congress 2015 in Erfurt

IAHR 2015 Congress

The International Association for the History of Religions invites contributions from all disciplines of religious studies and related fields of research to allow for broad, interdisciplinary discussion of the Congress topic to register their panels for the XXI World Congress of the IAHR.

Panels should address one of the four thematic Congress areas: (1) Religious communities in society: Adaptation and transformation; (2) Practices and discourses: Innovation and tradition; (3) The individual: Religiosity, spiritualities and individualization; and (4) Methodology: Representations and interpretations.

Each panel lasts two hours. Panel papers should be limited to 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the number of panel participants. Panel conveners are asked to approach possible participants from different nations to reflect the scope and internationality of the IAHR Congress.

To propose a panel, please submit a general proposal of the panel as well as individual proposals of all papers included in the panel. Both panel and papers of a proposed panel will be evaluated by the Academic Program Committee to ensure a high academic standard of the Congress program. We therefore ask panel conveners to submit the proposals of all prospective panel participants of a proposed panel as indicated by the submission form. Proposals of panels and of papers should not exceed 150 words.

The deadline for submission of proposals is Sunday, September 14, 2014. All proposals must be submitted electronically via the IAHR 2015 website. This site will be available for submissions from Sunday, September 1, 2013 through Sunday, September 14, 2014. As part of the submission process, you will be asked to indicate the area in which you would like your proposal considered. Your proposal will then be forwarded to the appropriate member of the Academic Program Committee.

You will receive notice concerning the status of your proposal as soon as possible and certainly before March 1, 2015. If your panel or paper has been accepted by the Academic Program Committee, please note that you will have to register as a Congress participant before May 15, 2015 to be included in the Congress program.

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Beyond Binaries: Syncretism, Hybridity, and other Frustrating Descriptors, Part 1


by Doug Valentine

In their introduction to Religion on the Edge: De-Centering and Re-Centering the Sociology of Religion (2012) Courtney Bender et al. describe the religious landscape as a space in which:

[r]eligious bodies, objects, and ideas leave from and travel to specific national contexts  … through transnational networks, organizations, and movements. Some circulate within the context of traveling faiths that move to spread the word, while others do so within the context of migrant religions that circulate as people move and are moved, voluntarily or otherwise. (4)

The interaction between these migrations and extant behaviors we call ‘religious’ has been of central concern to my graduate research career. Returning from the 13th Annual Florida State Graduate Symposium on Religion, I spent much of my car ride (15 grueling hours) wrestling with various terminology at the disposal of religious studies scholars to describe these meetings, having just presented a paper on Días de Muertos, Empire, and Identity with respondent Sylvester Johnson of Northwestern University. Among his varied and helpful comments, Dr. Johnson restated a problem I’ve recently found myself trying to address, both in my work and in the classroom: how to talk about the confluence of religion without implying zones of purity.

Turning to the classroom, a few of my lectures are dedicated to the ways religion geographically ebbs and flows, using trade, travel, colonization, and missionization as starting points. We discuss seemingly “minor” adaptations, which students don’t question (recent “ashes to go” services throughout the United States were particularly helpful). However, when confronted with a mythic narrative, ritual practice, or important physical agents easily indicative of blending, things get tricky. For example, during a lecture on Santa Muerte, a skeletal folk-Catholic saint popular among working-class Mexicans, many of my students unknowingly engaged in syncretic analysis: indigenous iconography meets the Catholic saint and creates Saint Death (voilà!). This inevitably leads students to ask “doesn’t this mean they’re just making it up?” As a young instructor, green behind the ears at a Methodist-affiliated university, I’ve danced in and around this question with varying degrees of success. Lecturing, it seems, is like stand-up comedy. You try things out, see what works, keep the good, and adapt or discard the bad. At times I’ve felt like the novice comedian unprepared for the tough crowd, or (to borrow another simile) like a pitcher who wants his one bad pitch back.

A recent approach involves a syncretism flowchart, of sorts, through which I address the problematic baggage associated with the type of analysis described above. Namely, viewing religious behavior as syncretic (using a simple ‘circle A meets circle B and becomes circle C’) assumes the purity of circles A and B and the bastardization of C. In the case of Santa Muerte, students focus critical analysis on the folk saint only, rather than those disparate forces that shaped her construction. I then give the students a passage from Reneto Rosaldo’s forward in Néstor García Canclini’s Hybrid Cultures (2005), in which he compares the biological usage of hybridity (for his purposes, identical to the common usage of syncretism) as “a space betwixt and between two zones of purity … that distinguishes two discrete species and the hybrid pseudo-species that results from their combination” to his proposition that hybridity should be understood as “the ongoing condition of all human cultures, which contains no zones of purity because they undergo continuous processes of transculturation.” (xv) The most helpful way to discuss this process, according to Rosaldo, is “hybridity all the way down.” I then draw a hybridity flowchart, containing as many circles as I can fit on the dry-erase board. This exercise has been successful, more or less, for its intended purposes. Of course, this is a 100-level introductory course, not a graduate symposium.

Following a brief introduction to hybridity and Rosaldo, which I used as a way to introduce the subject of Días de Muertos and identity, Dr. Johnson rightly pointed out some terms do not necessarily do as much as we wish them to do. He cited Manuel Vásquez and Marie Friedmann Marquardt’s excellent Globalizing the Sacred: Religion across the Americas (2003), from which I took some cues regarding the helpfulness of the term, and noted hybridity still functions within a framework of binaries, related terms in categorical opposition (good/bad, light/dark, male/female, and so on). Dr. Johnson articulated a growing concern, both in my research and introductory lectures. Do not all discussions of confluence, blending, etc., imply purity, whether in the case of circles A and B or at the imagined source of my innumerable circles on the dry-erase board? Can this be remedied? French philosopher Jacques Derrida called binary a “violent hierarchy,” through which one force assumes superiority to its opposite. In this case, Santa Muerte holds an inferior position to the supposed “purity” of European Catholicism and indigenous cults of the dead. The question I would like to pose (and hope to address in a second installment) is this: how can scholars discuss confluence divorced from the implication of binary, and therefore, hierarchy between purity and amalgam, when even something as innocuous as a circle on a dry-erase board implies an inside and an outside and a top-down directional hierarchy?

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. He currently teaches part-time at Central Methodist University in Fayette, MO and at the Missouri Scholars Academy at the University of Missouri. His academic interests include cultural theory, immigrant religious expression and identity, and religion and globalization.

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Post-Atheism and Deconstruction: Postsecular Atheisms, Part 2


by Donovan Schaefer

Gary Gutting: So the distinction that saves you from contradiction is this: Beliefs contain faith in the sense that, in the world, beliefs are where we find faith concretely expressed; but any given faith can be expressed by quite different beliefs in quite different historical contexts. In this sense, the faith is not contained by the beliefs. That makes sense.

Presumably, then, deconstructive theology is the effort to isolate this “common core” of faith that’s found in different historical periods — or maybe even the differing beliefs of different contemporary churches.

John Caputo: No!

Philosopher of religion John Caputo was recently interviewed for the New York Times’s “The Stone” blog, in a series dedicated to drawing out philosophical perspectives on atheism. The interview focused on Caputo’s interpretation of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, and especially Derrida’s approach to religion. (This post focuses on the implications of Caputo’s interview for post-atheism; for reflections on its significance for the study of religion, see these “Religion Snapshots” posts.)

Where the interviewer, Gary Gutting, prompted Caputo to recognize deconstruction as an atheist philosophy, Caputo countered that it could not be clearly located within the categories of theist, atheist, or agnostic. For Caputo, deconstruction, by virtue of being suspicious of categorical distinctions, refuses the easy overconfidence of the theist/atheist/agnostic divide. Caputo pointed out that Derrida’s own self-description always held atheism at a distance, whether in his line “I quite rightly pass for an atheist” in Circumfession to his assertion elsewhere that it would be “ridiculous” to term him an atheist. (This is similar to the position maintained by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.) For Derrida, the term “atheism” represented too much confidence in our ability to rationally organize ourselves and our relationship with the world.

I want to draw out three features of this conversation in their implications for charting post-atheism. First, there is a focus, in Caputo’s interview, on affects and passions, rather than on propositionally organized belief. This is why Caputo returns so often to the vocabulary of faith as passion. He suggests that we reframe religion as “an underlying form of life, not the beliefs inside our head but the desires inside our heart, an underlying faith, a desire beyond desire, a hope against hope, something which these inherited beliefs contain without being able to contain.” Post-atheism can build on this reframing of religion as passion by rethinking disbelief, too, along the same lines. But a more fully developed post-atheism will need a stronger, better-developed account of this. Are disbelief and belief the same passion in different masks, or are they also being driven by different passions?

Second, there is a suspicion toward the claim that belief is paramount in religion. Even where belief seems to be elevated, deconstruction, by veering away from language as the template for experience, suggests that there is “something deeper” to the inherited religious traditions than belief. Deconstruction looks at the confessing body, the body saying “I believe…” and maps out the forces overlapping with that moment of speech: the affects, the histories, and the frames of identity. As Michael Norton has suggested, ” it’s often more fruitful to take belief (especially in the form of creedal confession) as a special instance of practice.” (This goes along with New Materialist approaches that insist on taking cognition and language as material forces, rather than a disembodied, ethereal nonsubstance.) The vital corollary for post-atheism, influenced by deconstruction, is to ask: what contaminates the linguistic moment when a nonbeliever confesses? What other forces run behind and through assertions beginning, “I don’t believe…”?

Finally, the discrepancy between Caputo and Gutting’s starting-points on the nature of religion–is it best understood as belief, or something else?–plays into a larger debate between analytic (Anglo-American) and poststructural (postmodern or Continental) philosophy. Where analytic philosophy continues to operate under the assumptions that language can be developed into an extremely precise tool and that the primary output of philosophy is linguistic precision, deconstruction thematizes and hovers around the limitations of language. As it stands, the analytic perspective, that wants to flatten all religions to a checklist of propositional beliefs, is dominant in the American context.  Post-atheism must advance, in part, by rolling back this superficial, common sense understanding of the substance of religion.

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