Call for Papers: The Psychology of Religion/The Religion of Psychology, The University of Chicago, March 6, 2015


The Psychology of Religion/The Religion of Psychology

The University of Chicago

Friday March 6, 2015

Both to the discomfort and excitement of psychologists, scholars of religion, and religious practitioners, the overlap between the histories of psychology and religion is rather significant. Like philosophy, psychology was once pegged, in the words of Frank E. Manuel, as the “newest handmaiden of true religion.” However, with the emergence of new experimental methods in the late nineteenth century and of psychoanalysis (an inherently anti-religious discipline, according to its founder) in the early twentieth, psychology attempted to distance itself from religion, though with mixed results. Although psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals today understand their respective disciplines to have grown increasingly scientific and thus less “religious,” the various ways in which psychology and religion were interrelated in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries could be used to tell a different story.

On Friday, March 6th, 2015, the University of Chicago Divinity School and the Martin Marty Center will host The Psychology of Religion/The Religion of Psychology, a conference exploring the relation between two problem children of modernity.  We welcome contributions from scholars in any discipline whose research is concerned with the relationship between religion and psychology, from both an historical and a contemporary perspective.  Possible topics include (but are not limited to):

*            The ways in which the boundaries of and between psychology and religion are erected and blurred;

*            The relation between modern clinical categories like anxiety and depression and their theological counterparts;

*            Religiously-inspired quasi-psychologies, psychologically-inflected quasi-religions, and other spiritual hybrids;

*            Religion and the dynamics of family life;

*            Therapeutic techniques drawn from religious or spiritual practices;

*            The psychology of religion, pastoral psychology, and other fields that integrate psychology and religion;

*            The rise of the psycho-pharmaceutical approach to mental life and its effect on traditional therapeutic and pastoral counseling;

*            Religion and psychology as anchors of disciplinary power.

The conference will be keynoted by a roundtable discussion between:

Tanya Luhrmann

Watkins University Professor in the Anthropology Department at Stanford University, and author of Of Two Minds (2000) and When God Talks Back (2012)

Jonathan Lear

John U. Nef Distinguished Service Professor at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, and author of Freud (2005), Radical Hope (2006), and A Case for Irony (2011)

Jeffrey Kripal

J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Studies at Rice University, and author of Authors of the Impossible (2010), Mutants and Mystics (2011), and Comparing Religions (2013)

Please send 300 word proposals for 20-minute papers to the conference organizer, Benjamin Y. Fong,, by January 5th, 2015. Paper presentations may come from any discipline and address any topic but should seek to offer general conclusions about the relation between psychology and religion (a request to which the keynote panelists have already agreed).  Submissions should also include a separate document with the author’s name, contact information, and institutional affiliation.  Participants will be notified by January 20th.

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SORAAAD BookNotes with the Bulletin: Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, A Ministry of Presence: Chaplaincy, Spiritual Care, and the Law

9780226779751-1Kolby Knight

Perhaps no one has fleshed out the complex interaction between religion and law better, and is more qualified to do so, than Winnifred Sullivan. As former vice president of the North American Association for the Study of Religion and current professor of religious studies and law at the University of Indiana-Bloomington, Sullivan brings a wealth of expertise and methodological range to the topic. In her latest work, A Ministry of Presence, Sullivan analyzes the complicated place of chaplains who work outside of religious institutions and whose ‘presence’ in VA hospitals, police departments, and the military presents legal quandaries about the public role of individuals who serve an explicitly religious purpose.

Sullivan situates her study of chaplaincy in a broader examination of the ways in which legal thinking on religion has evolved and continues to shape religious practice in the public domain. Sullivan is particularly interested in the “ways in which the prevalence of the secular rule of law itself acts a disciplining force on religious life.” (15) The change in the role of the chaplain, according to Sullivan, provides a window into just how much legal thinking on religion has changed over the last fifty years. Whereas chaplains once were justified as a way to accommodate religious pluralism (i.e. to accommodate diverse religious particularities), recent court cases have focused on the function of chaplains in facilitating a spirituality that is increasingly defined as a natural and universal component of human existence. This shift means that chaplains no longer serve primarily on behalf and within their own confessional traditions but rather assume responsibility for fostering a spiritual health now considered integral to the very operation of government.

Sullivan’s work revolves around and is animated by the concept of “spiritual governance.” Sullivan relies on Foucault’s notion of governmentality to explore the disciplinary role of chaplains in instilling and promoting a spirituality that recent court decisions have defined as conducive to and compatible with the goals of secular government. The Supreme Court has moved from regulating religion on the grounds of church/state separation toward what Sullivan sees as a ‘horizontal’ and ‘bottom-up’ regulatory formation in which the chaplain now operates.  In the most recent Supreme Court case considering the legality of government endorsed chaplaincy, Nicholson v. Freedom From Religion Foundation (2008), the court rejected the FFRF’s claim that the funding of VA hospital chaplains constitutes an endorsement of religion by arguing that chaplains serve in a clinical capacity that produces secular results. Framing the role of chaplains around their clinical responsibilities rather than their ‘sacramental’ presence, the Supreme Court relied on a clear distinction between religion and spirituality. (39) The decision focused on the chaplain’s role as efficacious to the patient’s spiritual health, avoiding altogether the FFRF’s argument that protecting and promoting ‘spirituality’ constitutes a religious establishment. While the FFRF considered the employing of VA chaplains a means of sacralizing healthcare, the courts justified chaplaincy by secularizing its function and effects. (39) In light of the court’s decision, Sullivan raises a sarcastic but important question that highlights the implications of tying chaplaincy to utilitarian health outcomes: “One might ask if it would not be a rational extension of such a position to charge atheists higher insurance rates.” (43)

Nicholson is but one example of a broader trend Sullivan sees in the chaplain’s development as a facilitator of spirituality across ‘religious’ identities. (32) Alongside tracing out the legal history, Sullivan looks at documents within particular institutional contexts (e.g., VA spiritual assessment guidelines, US military spiritual fitness tests), as well as ethnographic data compiled by her and others, to investigate how the chaplain’s role is understood today at the level of the institution and the individual chaplain. The army’s concern with soldiers’ spiritual fitness, for example, reveals how spirituality has increasingly been conceived in terms of its utilitarian value. The chaplain aids the military in developing spiritual fitness among soldiers while also acting as a kind of religious expert in informing soldiers on the religious particularities of their enemy. (an emphasis which has been accentuated by the “War on Terror”) Military chaplains occupy an especially complicated position, wrestling with the ambiguities of war and their contribution to it. In this sense, Sullivan is sympathetic to the personal dilemmas faced by military and other chaplains. At times, she even commends chaplains’ “ministry of presence” for resisting the modern obsession with utility, even while having to negotiate their presence under modernity’s concern with the endgame. (176-85)

Sullivan is both sympathetic to the work of chaplains and critical of how the Supreme Court has defended their role as neutral and universal. Sullivan is especially critical of what she calls the dominant ‘legal anthropology’ of the day — that is, how the court has begun to articulate and defend an essential spirituality. This has been challenged by groups like Freedom From Religion Foundation as well as Christian and Muslim chaplains who do not want to work under the prescribed spirituality of the courts. (159-60) Despite these challenges, the non-coercive, nonsectarian role of chaplaincy continues to be defended. Sullivan creatively argues that the language of ‘spirituality’, though it operates a lot like the language of Protestant ‘nonsectarianism’, has allowed the Supreme Court to open up a qualified place for religion in the public sphere even as a few judges have decried the anti-Catholic legacy of nonsectarianism. Importantly, Sullivan examines the court’s insistence on neutrality in relation to the necessary credentialing component of the chaplain’s qualification. Her careful rendering of this tension between the court’s universal language of spirituality and the chaplain’s necessary and credentialed ‘religious’ particularity positions chaplaincy as a focal point in the working out of what Sullivan calls the “new jurisprudence” on religion. (140)

The Ministry of Presence is an important contribution to ongoing scholarly discussions in religious studies, American history, politics, and legal studies. The reader is indebted to the depth and nuance of Sullivan’s legal knowledge as well as her willingness to engage recent historiographical and theoretical trends in the study of religion in the United States. In contrast to John Lardas Modern’s recent work on spirituality as a site of negotiation between religion and the rationalism of modern science, Sullivan shifts our attention to how the language of spirituality in the legal setting has conditioned religious life in the United States at least as much as “genealogy of spiritual experimentation in the US.” (32) The language of spirituality, according to Sullivan, has not only made a place for chaplains but has enabled and produced a variety of spiritual practices that the courts have increasingly defined as a natural aspect of human life. Sullivan’s most recent work provides a compelling window into the world of the chaplain and the laws that shape it. But more importantly, Sullivan has contributed much to our understanding of the many ways religion continues to influence ‘secular’ legal trajectories, and vice versa.

Kolby Knight is a second year Ph.D. student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He studies nineteenth-century American religious history, with particular interest in how ideas about Catholicism and Catholics themselves have influenced religious and legal discourses in the United States.

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Poppies, Poems, and Soldiers Bodies

ad_142067697by Matt Sheedy

November 11th marks Remembrance Day in several commonwealth nations such as Canada, the UK, and South Africa, and, much like Veterans Day in the US, is commemorated with ceremonies to honor soldiers past and present, especially those who were killed in battle.

The most notable symbol of Remembrance Day is the red poppy, which is typically pinned to one’s lapel and worn in the weeks leading up to the event, especially in Canada and the UK. This year there is a massive art installation of close to 900,000 poppies surrounding the Tower of London in commemoration of the 100th year anniversary of the First World War (as pictured above), while in Canada poppy sales broke all records, due in part to the recent murder of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, who was shot by a “lone wolf” gunman as he was standing guard at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, on October 22.

The use of the poppy as a symbol for Remembrance Day is linked to a 1915 poem by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae entitled “In Flanders Fields,” based on his experience in the battle of Ypres in the Flanders region of Belgium. It begins as follows:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row,
/That mark our place; and in the sky
/The larks, still bravely singing, fly
/Scarce heard amid the guns below.

Among other things, these lines have been memorialized on the ten-dollar bill, and are the closest thing to a “sacred” text in the collective Canadian imagination. Despite this status, however, the closing lines of the poem are rarely heard these days in official ceremonies, though they were ubiquitous during the First World War as a tool of propaganda, especially in the federal elections of 1917 in the heat of the Conscription Crisis. They read:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
/To you from failing hands we throw/The torch; be yours to hold it high.
/If ye break faith with us who die
/We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
/In Flanders fields.

As historian Ian McKay observes, these militaristic sentiments gave way to a more circumspect reading in Canada by the war’s end, as the horrors of trench warfare and the massive death toll—“the war to end all wars”—were revealed and a social narrative of “never again” began to take hold. The use of the poem today, with the poppy as its’ symbolic emblem, has been re-inscribed in ever new chains of signification, and is commonly linked with the “support our troops” slogan, popularized during the war in Vietnam and reproduced during the so-called “war on terror.”

One thing that remains consistent throughout this nearly 100-year historical narrative is the sacralization of soldiers’ bodies as the focal point of public attention, where the real personal sacrifices of those killed or wounded in battle are attached to concepts such freedom and democracy, including pro-war sentiments like those mentioned above that urge us to continue the battle lest they die in vein, to anti-war sentiments, such as the white poppy campaign, or the startling number of veteran suicides in the wake of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

One thing that interests me about this narrative is how it resembles many public discourses about religion, where simplified representations of complex historical and contemporary phenomena are filled with meaning that reflect the ideas and interests of those who take them up in the present, which then become charged by reference to some imagined sacred past. Pierre Bourdieu offers a useful way to think about this problem in his book Language and Symbolic Power when talking about the use of political and religious language:

Specialized discourses can derive their efficacy from the hidden correspondence between the structure of the social space within which they are produced—the political field, the religious field, the artistic field, the philosophical field, etc.—and the structure of the field of social classes within which the recipients are situated and in relation to which they interpret the message. (41)

In this sense, the discourse surrounding Remembrance Day has at its core the idea of sacrifice that is reflected differently depending on the structure or make-up of the field in which it is represented. For those in the military or with families and friends touched by war, for example, it tends to mean something very different than for those who don’t have such a personal connection. Here the rhetoric about soldiers’ bodies serves as a powerful device for creating “affective publics” that must use these sacralised bodies as the primary site of discourse in support or opposition to the wars in question, past or present. What is often minimized or excluded from these debates are the complex histories, motivations, and interests that guide the decisions to go to war in the first place, to say nothing of how such ventures may or may not be linked to ideas like democracy and freedom.

It would seem that a similar dynamic is at play when we talk about religion in the public sphere, where a select set of simplified ideas and symbols are made to stand-in for complex historical and contemporary phenomena, thus reducing countless identities to the most dominant representations that are available in a given time and place. This can be seen with public discourses about Islam, for example, as I argue in a recent post, quoting Nabil Echchaibi, with common tropes such as “Islamic terrorism, veiling and women’s rights, [and] sharia law versus democracy” often standing-in for the whole.

Here I would suggest that one important task for scholars of religion is to identify the different social fields and “affective publics” in which talk about religions are taken up and interact so as to better understand the ways that dominant public representations of religion influence (and in some cases shape) the very terms of the debate.

Matt Sheedy is a PhD. candidate in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, ritual, myth, and social formations. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere. He is also conducting research on myths, rituals and symbols in the Occupy movement and discourses on ‘Nativeness’ and ‘Native Spirituality’ in the Aboriginal-led Idle No More movement.

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A Geo-Theology of Catholic Parish Maps


by Eoin O’Mahony


While people in Catholic parishes in Ireland appear keenly aware of parish boundaries, these understandings are more often oral than cartographic. And while there is no digital map of all Catholic parishes in Ireland, the institutional Catholic Church insists that no square kilometer can exist outside of a parish. In this post, I want to outline some of the technical challenges of digitizing such boundaries. But making these maps is not only a question of drawing lines but about people’s understanding of their locality. I want to talk about how verifying maps with local agents often complicates something which may have at first sight seemed simple.

The map is not the territory: no direct access to reality

Maps are not images of the world but representations of apparent naturalness; they are arbitrary mechanisms of control. In Brian Harley’s (1992)* terms:

…all maps, like all other historically constructed images, do not provide a transparent window on the world. Rather they are signs that present “a deceptive appearance of naturalness and transparence concealing an opaque, distorting, arbitrary mechanism of representation, a process of ideological mystification (Mitchell 1986, 8).

Maps are central to a reading of a landscape that needs to be made knowable. Historically this has linked map-making with military conquest. Maps have also played a central role in violent conflict over land and resources, a relationship still evident in the mapping organizations of both Britain and Ireland. I think of maps as part of a larger circulation and production of specific forms of knowledge; a form of stadial thinking which creates a unified territory and which bounds politics to place making. Stadial thinking is where the entire world can be classified into groups, as if all that we see is all that there is. For Charles Withers (2007) maps and their development have been about stadial thinking.

In his work on domopolitics, William Walters (2004) traces the development of diagrams as something at work across different institutions although not necessarily the results of specific plans by any one of these institutions. These diagrams provide a way to define who we are, who governs us and in what ways are we governed. Competing diagrams can co-exist in the one territory although they compete for resources, both political and financial, and for definitions of how public space is defined. Parishes then are the diagrams for the Catholic Church’s establishment of practices and identities. Parishes are the places that create and recreate a politics of belonging within a faith community. It is the place, not always thought of territorially, where the Church is crystallized. The parish is the territorialization of these politics of belonging, which Daniel Trudeau (2010) defines as:

The discourses and practices that establish and maintain discursive and material boundaries that correspond to the imagined geographies of a polity and to the spaces that normatively embody the polity. (422)

For Trudeau and many others, belonging is inherently spatial and defines an exclusion about what is acceptable and unacceptable. Catholic parishes have not always been theorized as political units or even as public space. I am drawing attention to the concealments, the distortions and the ideological mystification that is needed to digitise Catholic parishes. Far from being a technical exercise, making parish and diocesan maps for the institutional Catholic Church means asking more fundamental questions about particular forms of practice, discourses of power and relationships between places.

The project to digitize Catholic parishes and boundaries

Based on work conducted by professor William Smyth in the 1980s and professor Paddy Duffy in the diocese of Clogher in the 1990s, I have been coordinating a project to digital maps of the parishes and dioceses of Ireland. The process of making digital parish maps consists of tracing points and lines using existing maps and then these are rectified to commonly used coordinates of the geographic features of Ireland. Maps of Ireland’s 26 Catholic dioceses had of course been drawn before as had maps of the 1,360 Catholic parishes covering the entire territory of the island. I sponsored a studentship which began in the summer of 2008. The project depended on the availability and accuracy of source maps and in 2008, there were not that many sources. The technical and logistical challenges were apparent from the start but beyond this, the idea that these shapes being derived were containers of experience came to the forefront for me. The gap between representation and an unknowable reality became larger and not smaller (Harley, 1989: 2). That each part of the island was territorialized by a diocese and into each of these was nested a parish was something that provided me with a source of research questions, just as the project went into abeyance. Between late 2008 and 2010 I struggled to get traction at work for the boundaries that had been created.

An opportunity to reactivate the parish mapping project arose again in 2011 when the cartographer from University College Cork’s geography department was put in touch with me. He had been able to source a paper parish boundary map derived from the project coordinated by Willie Smyth in the 1980s. We met with several other parties and set about planning a project to digitize the boundaries of the scanned paper map using the townland boundaries as the guide. Basically, the boundaries of the 61,104 townlands can be dissolved and incorporated into the larger and scanned units then defined as the Catholic parishes. If maps are territorial units of control and attempts to capture the landscape within them, why did the dioceses not place more emphasis on knowing where the boundaries began and ended? The painstaking and time consuming process of the dissolution of the townland boundaries into Catholic parishes was undertaken during 2011 and 2012. I now spend some of my work-week looking for opportunities to make the parish maps relevant to the work of the dioceses.

The boundaries are sometimes old roads, rivers, and mountain ranges. Like many spatial units, the fewer people that have historically inhabited an area, the larger and less defined it tends to be. So in sparsely populated areas, parish boundaries are straighter; in densely populated areas they tend toward complexity. They do not conform to lines on maps created by housing estates or by recent roads because the boundaries date from about the middle of the nineteenth century. Underlying this work is a limited historical memory why these units are shaped in the way that they are. Why, for example, do some parishes exist as islands in the middle of other dioceses? Why does a parish line turn sharply here and accommodate this field and not the one adjacent to it?

The spatial politics of mapping parishes

Boundaries of parishes are ways to concretize the spatial politics of place making and of belonging. They are the outcomes of discourses as much as they are ways to run a ruler over a landscape. These boundaries are principally the concern of biopolitical control. The project has involved a re-territorialization of the Catholic parish, a spatial unit largely unknown and certainly not popularly defined. Catholics in parishes continue to work without knowledge of where precisely their boundary lies. In some sense, the drawing of a parish boundary and it becoming better known is unnecessary for a parish to exist as the parish is the people within that faith community. It is made up of their practices and their actions in particular spaces, not always bound by a knowledge that implies ‘this far and no further’. Rhetorically, the parish is used to describe a community of interest rather than a defined territory.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the parish of the Travelling People, which is self-described as a parish that “stretches across the length and breath of the Dublin diocese, from Balbriggan to Arklow and over to Athy.” It is effectively an agency of pastoral care across the territory of the diocese and is a parish consisting of a community across that diocese. Its interests are not confined to the diocese however with a broad concern for the lives of a nomadic people who routinely travel between Britain and Ireland. Experiences of racism and relationships with the settled community are central to its work in a way that parishes in other parts of Ireland are not. The spatial politics of this parish of the Travelling People is connected with the experiences of the community of which it is composed.

One final question remains for me: if each part of the island is covered by a parish, where is there left to evangelize, a central part of being a Christian according to Church teaching? Bringing the word of God to those who have yet to hear it seems redundant in a spatial politics within which every kilometer is within a parish. I am proposing here that the 19th century development of an imperial Church, one in which all of the island of Ireland is colonized by a stadial understanding of territory, has meant that the Catholic Church in Ireland lost an important part of its mission. The parish as a spatial unit provided the basis for a diagram of biopolitical control that gave a basis to practice that was detached from its mission. With each parish abutting another, there was nowhere for the Catholic parish to go but to turn in on its own maintenance as a source of its own power.

* A celebration of the life and work of J.B. Harley, 1932-1991: contributions from his friends at a meeting held on 17th March 1992 at the Royal Geographical Society. London: Royal Geographical Society.

Eoin O’Mahony is about to defend his PhD. in the Department of Geography, NUI Maynooth, Ireland. His thesis focuses on the spatialisation of the secular and the religious in Ireland with particular emphasis on the politics of the secular. He maintains a blog at and tweets too much at @ownohmanny.

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Religion Clichés #5: Religious Past


by Tenzan Eaghll

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

Two theses: 1) Religion is a creation of the “present,” not the past. The conditions for the possibility of being “religious” are a product of “our” modern globalized and institutionalized world; 2) It is because of our contemporary technical world that it is even possible to view our past as religious, and the idea that our religious past or religious origins are the cause of our modern experience is created by these technical circumstances.

These two theses are needed to counter the Janus-faced cliché which asserts that our religious past is the cause (or solution) to many of the world’s problems. From politicians who are hell bent on the never ceasing drive for “secular” freedom to self-proclaimed religious radicals who search brutally for a revival of an imagined kingdom, the past is repeatedly colonized in the name of an unseen justice. Full of sound and fury and signifying everything, the past is the space that both free-market capitalists and self-identifying religious adherents use to create the ideologies of the present.

It is because of this cliché that modern discourse is stuck between a false binary: it either asserts that we are shrouded in a superstitious religious logic that needs to be eradicated, or it suggests that reason has given us a valueless world and we need to return to our religious roots. Critics of religion, for instance, claim that our religious past is merely an outdated cultural practice that needs to be rejected in favor of science or humanism. The claim here is often positivistic in nature, and portrays religion as an ancient way of knowing that needs to be surpassed by more refined forms of reason. Defenders of religion, on the contrary, appeal to our religious past to critique contemporary political culture. Sometimes these claims are purely territorial, as when a group of people appeal to a particular “sacred text” to justify land rights, and sometimes they are more revolutionary, as when a complete overhaul of contemporary society is prophesized in the name of a transcendent power, but in either case what is at work is what J.Z. Smith calls “an exercise of imagination” (Imagining Religion). The false binary of contemporary discourse is fueled by the mistaken assumption that history, not taxonomy, is what fuels the battles of the present.

For instance, consider the rise of groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS. These groups present themselves as an authentic incarnation of Islamic past but the opposite is clearly the case. As many theorists and essayists have noted, the political, cultural, and technological goals of extremists are a product of the Western globalized world. The rise of “religious extremism” is a reflection of, not a reaction against, the fiber-optic world of the 21st Century. As John Gray writes,

No cliché is more stupefying than that which describes Al-Qaeda as a throwback to medieval times. It is a by-product of globalisation. Its most distinctive feature – projecting a privatised form of organised violence worldwide – was impossible in the past. Equally, the belief that a new world can be hastened by spectacular acts of destruction is nowhere found in medieval times. Al-Qaida’s closest precursors are the revolutionary anarchists of late nineteenth-century Europe (Al-Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern).

Only in the modern world is it possible to declare a global religious war against the evils of capitalism. As Slavoj Zizek notes, the battle between Western liberalism and Islamic extremism is not a war between ancient religious Jihad and the modern MacWorld, but MacWorld versus MacJihad (Welcome to the Desert of the Real).

What lies at the core of the idea that our religious past informs the present is the mistaken assumption that history is a singular, linear, and chronological progression of events. This assumption is built on the idea that history is out there, waiting to be discovered, and that it is independent of the material, intellectual, and technical conditions that render viewing history possible in the first place. The conditions for the possibility of being religious are excribed by the very writing of history, not its actual reality. As Jean-Luc Nancy notes, “to be present in history and to history (to make judgments, decisions, choices in terms of a future) is never to be present to oneself as historic. It is to be “spaced”—or to be written—by the spacing of time itself, by the spacing that opens the possibility of history and of community” (Birth to Presence). Or, to summarize Bernard Stiegler’s argument in Technics and Time, the meaning of our shared history is inseparable from the technē that facilitates such questioning—”the human” is a technical creation. The tools and ideas we have available to extract, shape, and organize the world around us are the formative element in the construction of history, not the chronological progression of past events, which are never singular anyway.

All this, of course, is simply to affirm that religion has never been anything but a reflection of the “present.” The question of religion cannot be abstracted from the technical world in which we dwell. It is the modern globalized world and all the institutional components it supports (this blog included) that make viewing religion possible at all. Modern technology and taxonomy is what presents the patency of religious discourse, not the religious past, no matter how objectively this past may be romanticized.

Tenzan Eaghll is Ph.D candidate in the department of religious studies at the University of Toronto. His dissertation analyzes Jean-Luc Nancy’s work on the Deconstruction of Christianity.

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Imagining the Past as Present: The Islamic State and the Rhetoric of Authenticity

ISIS_mosques-blown-upby Tara Baldrick-Morrone

A few months ago, when I was preparing to write a blog detailing how early Christian groups used monuments to their martyrs as a way to imagine themselves as part of a Roman narrative, a New York Times op-ed caught my attention. In “Why Our Monuments Matter,” Nikos Konstandaras (a journalist from Greece) expresses his dismay at the destruction of several “ancient monuments and shrines” that the Islamic State perpetrated throughout the summer. One such example, although he does not mention it specifically, is the explosion at a site near Mosul that was known as the tomb of the prophet Jonah, a monument that was considered important to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Commenting on the general state of affairs in Syria and Iraq, Konstandaras writes,

Mesopotamia, a cradle of world civilization…is ravaged today by psychopaths with armored trucks, swords, and genocidal zeal. Living in an eternal present rooted in an imagined past, the militants are obsessed with destroying all that is unlike them.

Konstandaras is concerned for the monuments that they have destroyed not solely for their status as “treasures of the past,” but more so for their value in the present, as they are “our guide and our shield.” It is the very loss of these “treasures” that will make us “no better than ignorant armies riding pickup trucks through the endless dust” — in other words, we will be “no better” than the Islamic State.

A few different but not unrelated issues came to mind after reading this. One of the things that strikes me about this op-ed is Konstandaras’ obvious dismissal of the Islamic State as “psychopaths” whose brutality “defies not only modern civilization but also Islam itself.” The Islamic State represents “the mass delusion of people who have no frame of reference other than their self-justifying self-righteousness.” Such denigrating language, in addition to their “defiance” of Islam, is no doubt meant to discredit them and to render their ideology as an incorrect or misguided representation of “real” Islam.

Another statement that highlights this point is the way in which the militants are described as clinging to an “imagined past.” Here, I do not take him to be saying what scholars of religion like Jonathan Z. Smith mean when they talk about how groups (mainly scholars) “imagine” religion, or how Elizabeth Castelli describes early Christian communities “imagining” themselves as part of a cosmic struggle during times of persecution. Instead, Konstandaras’ use of “imagined” here seems to imply that this past purported by the Islamic State is made up of nothing but fantasy and falsehood. In contrast to this fabricated past, though, the monuments that they have destroyed are, in Konstandaras’ mind, bearers of the actual past, the one that is authentic. In thinking about this idea of what monuments signify, I was reminded of what the scholar James E. Young says in his writing about the relationship between monuments and memory: “Monuments create and reinforce [a] particular memory of the past.” For Konstandaras, then, these monuments that he sees as preserving the past (such as the tomb of Jonah, for example) can be understood as preserving only one kind, one particular imagining, of a past.

Indeed, the language used by Konstandaras of “imagined” points back to his description of the Islamic State as defying “Islam itself.” Although the issue of authenticity is implicit throughout the op-ed, he engages in a similar kind of delimiting that Aaron Hughes identifies as taking place in academic circles in the beginning of his book Theorizing Islam. He writes that “the academic study of Islam has migrated toward the more regnant ecumenical and phenomenological discourses within religious studies that are primarily interested in adjudicating truth, authenticity, experience, and meaning.” (2) Because it has cultivated these discourses instead of the kinds of critical discourses written about by scholars of religion such as Bruce Lincoln, the “study of Islam has become more…insular and apologetic.” (2) One example that Hughes uses to prove his point is the letter released by the AAR’s Section for the Study of Islam in the wake of September 11, 2001, which contained the following statements:

[As] scholars of religious traditions, we observe that religious symbols are used for political motives all over the world in Hindu, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions. However, we must critically distinguish between politically motivated deployment of religious symbols and the highest ideals that these traditions embody. Just as most would regard bombers of abortion clinics to be outside the pale of Christianity, so the actions of these terrorists should not be accepted as representing Islam in any way. (qtd in Hughes, 4-5)

It should come as no surprise, then, that at the end of September 2014, over 120 scholars (and other advocates for the “correct” understanding of Islam) released a letter that addressed the Islamic State in much the same language. This most recent letter, which is written in Arabic (how’s that for authority!) and is addressed to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi (the leader of the Islamic State), contains a lengthy point-by-point refutation of the group’s ideology. One of the signatories, Nihad Awad (the executive director of the Center for American-Islamic Relations), explains in an article from the Religion New Service that the letter uses “heavy classical religious texts and classical religious scholars that ISIS has used to mobilize young people to join its forces.” And although the letter avoids the kind of name-calling that Konstandaras’ op-ed resorts to, it equally attempts to discredit the group by referring to them as “the self-declared ‘Islamic State’” — scare quotes and all.

With all of this said, such rhetorical strategies, not to mention the very real (political, social, economic, etc.) concerns at stake, are most certainly not unique to the academic study of Islam. And although these types of claims to authenticity can be found in other fields, they should not, in the words of Bruce Lincoln, “be confused with scholarship.”

Tara Baldrick-Morrone is a doctoral student at Florida State University. Her research interests include rhetoric about the body and disease in late antiquity, ancient medicine, and issues of method and theory in the academic study of religion by way of critical pedagogy.

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Call for Papers: 2015 Eastern International Regional Meeting of the AAR, Montreal, May 1-2, 2015


2015 Eastern International Regional Meeting of the AAR
McGill University
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
May 1–2, 2015

Call for Papers Submission Deadline: February 16, 2015

The Eastern International Region of the AAR invites you to submit proposals for papers and panels to be presented at the 2015 Regional Meeting. Alongside the regular panels, the conference will include a series of special sessions on the theme of Desire and Devotion.

Proposals are welcome in all areas within the study of religion, including:
  • Anthropology
  • Art history and criticism
  • Comparative religions
  • Ethics
  • Gender
  • History
  • Literature
  • Method and theory
  • Music history and criticism
  • Philosophy
  • Psychology
  • Politics
  • Sociology
  • Textual studies

In particular, the program committee is interested in proposals related to our special theme of Desire and Devotion. These could include submissions on:

  • Devotional Texts, Songs, Images, Practices
  • Cultural Repertoires of Devotion and Desire
  • Construction and Regulation of Eros, Sex and Gender
  • “Sacred” and “Secular” Art
  • “Sacred” and “Secular” Music
  • Languages of Mystical Experience
  • The Psychology of Desire and Devotion
  • “Religious” Experience/Language and “the Romantic”
  • “Romantic” Experience/Language and “the Religious”
  • and others

Each proposal should contain the following in a single e-mail attachment in MS Word format:

  • One-page abstract (300 words maximum) describing the nature of the paper or panel.
  • Current CV(s) for the participant(s).
  • Cover page that includes the submitter’s full name, title, institution, phone number, fax number, e-mail, and mailing address.
  • For panel proposals, identify the primary contact person.

Scholars from any region may apply to participate. Only those proposals received by the deadline will be considered for inclusion in the program. Presentations are limited to twenty minutes, with ten minutes allowed for questions. If you require technological support for your presentation/panel (such as an Internet connection or audio and projection equipment), you must request it with your proposal.

 As a general rule, the Region discourages panels comprised of scholars from a single institution. Exceptions to this rule would include a presentation from a research team or a panel based on other types of collaborative research.

Please send your proposal to

Deadline for submissions is February 16, 2015.


Graduate and undergraduate students in the Eastern International Region are invited to enter the student paper competition. Please note that to be eligible for submission, the student must attend a university in the Eastern International Region. The committee will give preference to work that is new at this conference. Up to two $200 awards are reserved for winning papers. The award(s) will be formally presented at the business meeting on Saturday, May 2, 2015.

To enter the competition, please attach a short note confirming that you wish to enter your paper into the contest along with your initial proposal by the February 16, 2015 deadline. NOTE: A final draft of the paper must be submitted to the EIR Regional Coordinator, Verna Ehret ( by April 1, 2015. To be eligible for this award the student must read the entire paper at the meeting, which means the paper and presentation must conform to the twenty-minute time limit (roughly 2,500 words).

The Region welcomes submissions from undergraduates in the field of religious studies. Each proposal should contain the following in a single e-mail attachment in Word format:
  • One-page abstract (300 words maximum) describing the nature of the paper or panel.
  •  Letter from a faculty member who has supervised the student’s work. 
  • Cover page that includes the student’s full name, institution, phone number, e-mail, and mailing address. For panel proposals, identify the contact person.

Please send your proposal to

Deadline for submissions is February 16, 2015.

Note: All presenters at the 2015 regional conference with the exception of undergraduates must have active membership in the AAR or SBL. All participants must register for the conference.

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