Life After Religious Studies: An Interview with Shelly Nixon



Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of interviews with former scholars of religion who have, for one or another reason, decided to leave the world of academia. In this series we hope to open up a conversation that can be of use to other scholars (of religion and in general) in pointing toward some of the pitfalls and alternative paths to life in the ivory tower, as well as to reflect upon on-going struggles to preserve and improve the humanities and social sciences. For the first interview in this series, follow this link.


Could you discuss your academic training and what ultimately led to your decision to leave the world of academia?

After a year of College I transferred to the University of Waterloo, (2001-2005) in Waterloo, Ontario, for a BA in Religious Studies and Psychology. I followed this with a MA in Religion from Queen’s University, (2005-2006) in Kingston Ontario, and a PhD in Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa (2006-2012).

By the 2nd-3rd year of my PhD, I knew something was wrong. I was unhappy, stressed about my job prospects, and not feeling at all fulfilled by my work. Research had become a burden, and I only finished projects because I had to. When I finally acknowledged that these feelings far exceeded the usual grad school stress, the decision not to become a professor after graduating was an easy one. With hindsight, I can point to two things that contributed to my unhappiness:

  1. When I was deciding what to do after my PhD, I saw a career counsellor and did the meyers-briggs, and scored extremely high on the extrovert scale. I remember the counsellor raising an eyebrow at me and saying “with this type of score, I would have strongly recommended against academics as a career for you.” I realise now that my personality is not designed for the extended solitude of a scholar.
  2. I found the attitude of SOME (not all) professors a little discouraging (my supervisor and committee at U of Ottawa, and at Queen’s were amazing). While talking to an established professor about the dismal job prospects, her attitude was “yeah, well it was hard for me too – deal with it.” I don’t think she, and others with whom I had these conversations, understood how much the market had changed in the past 20-30 years. In these same conversations there was an implied attitude about quitting academia that leaving meant “you couldn’t hack it.” This is quite toxic. While you will never love every single part of your job (trust me on this – I sit on a privacy committee at work), you deserve to not be miserable every day. I could have been a professor; I just knew it wouldn’t make me happy.

Do you have any thoughts on how structural changes may have impacted your decision to leave? Specifically, how do you think on-going cutbacks and a general de-valuation of the humanities (e.g., in many academic institutions and even on the level of society), and especially in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, have contributed to this state of affairs?

The move towards short-term contract positions in academia definitely influenced my decision. Finding a tenure-track job in Toronto is almost impossible and my husband has an excellent job here. It made no sense to leave his stable job to take a contract that might only pay $20,000 a year, and end up unemployed 4 months later. This much schooling left me with a lot of student debt, and I needed a well-paying job to help tackle it. This was definitely a reason I left, but not the only reason.

Personally, I have never felt like the social sciences or the humanities have been devalued.  Most people I talk to and work with acknowledge that the skills a humanities degree teaches you (writing, critical thinking, research, exposure to different ideas) are very important. However, the labour market seems to be reliant on specialised skills. This means an employer asks two questions: “what can you do for my company to either help us make money or fulfil our mandate?” and “will you be an enjoyable person to work with?” The onus is on the applicant to demonstrate that you have the skills and the work ethic to meet those needs. In my case, this meant specifically upgrading some of my skills to match those that are in-demand by employers. I did this by taking courses in statistics and economics, and finding a program to help me get work experience. Then, I had to develop the ability to sell myself and my skills to employers.

Can you speak to how you were able to transfer your skills to a different area outside of academia?

I am fortunate to have a lot of friends who work in sectors such as law, engineering, management, finance, consulting and government. Their degrees gave them experience and knowledge that I lacked. They helped me make a killer resume, identify my transferable skills, and coached me through mock interviews. They also taught me how to read a job description, and frame my resume to demonstrate that I had every skill required for the position.

Another important factor was my extensive volunteer experience. I sat on student councils, research committees and I worked with several community organizations. In these positions I developed skills in negotiation, problem solving, conflict resolution, budgeting, and stakeholder management. On your resume, it’s best if you can frame your skills by showing how you have used them in other circumstances. Volunteering gave me concrete examples and stories to discuss my skills with employers.

What challenges and/or solutions do you see for graduate programs addressing problems with employment that many Masters and PhD students face? Do you see any alternative avenues opening up for scholars trained in the study of religions in particular?

There is already a lot of great discussion on the challenges facing graduate students, so I would rather focus on some solutions.

For institutions:

  1. MBA programs, Law schools, Medical schools and public policy schools all have people dedicated to supporting you through the job search process. They teach you to network, set up recruitment events and push you to get out there, because it is in the best interest of the school to have you graduate and find work. My program wasn’t designed to help people find non-academic jobs, and I was lucky to have an amazing supervisor who supported my decision and acted as a reference for me. Not every graduate student has access to such resources, and this definitely needs to change.
  2. If they don’t already, graduate programs should have very clear statistics available for prospective students on how many graduates get tenure track jobs, how many people end up employed in non-academic jobs and what support systems are available for both groups. This would help students make more informed decisions.

For individual graduate students who are thinking of leaving academia:

  1. Try to take some statistics courses. During my undergrad I took 3 statistics courses, and a 4th year course on running large research studies and designing tests, and supplemented these with a graduate level statistics course at Ryerson University in Toronto. This has been mentioned in every interview I have ever given. Quantifiable performance measures are everywhere in the public and the private sector. You don’t need to be able to perform primary statistical research (though that helps), just be able to read a study and extract information from it. Don’t be intimidated by statistics, if you can figure out Foucault, Bourdieu and Lacan, you can figure out statistics.
  2. Volunteer experience shows that you are a well-rounded person with demonstrable skills. I gained almost all of the “relevant experience” on my resume from volunteering and sitting on committees. Also, we know we aren’t all curmudgeonly scholars (well most of us), but you have to prove to your future employer that you will work well in groups, and volunteering does that.
  3. Network like crazy and learn how to do an informational interview. Every job I’ve found has been through informational interviews. Your marketable skills mean nothing if you can’t get in touch with the employers.
  4. One awesome thing about a PhD in religious studies degree is it makes you stand out from the crowd. Every religion major has heard this phrase “You study religion? That’s really interesting!” People are fascinated by religion, and you can use it opportunity to show how interesting and intelligent you are. In interviews, I would talk about how my degree taught me to look at an issue from every angle. I think my religion degree is what makes me a great at stakeholder management as it helps me build relationships with diverse people.
  5. Religious Studies graduates have a lot to offer the working world. For me, my work on Aboriginal issues in school has resulted in being put on some very exciting files. Companies and organizations need people who speak multiple languages, and who can work with diverse groups to solve complicated problems. Religion majors are great at absorbing vast amounts of information, identifying themes, and creating culturally appropriate programs, because we are trained to view things from multiple perspectives. I truly believe these skills make us invaluable.
Posted in Interviews, Life After Religious Studies, Matt Sheedy, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Israel and Palestine: Tit for Tat?

by Craig Martin

I originally wrote the following post in October 2012. While I think much of the news coverage on Israel and Palestine still ignores the disparities of power between the two, we might be witnessing a change. Note, for instance, a recent story titled “The lopsided death tolls in Israel-Palestinian conflicts,” which appeared in the rather conservative newspaper, The Washington Post:

In the current conflict between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip, both sides have attempted to harm the other. Hundreds of rockets have been fired from Palestinian territory with the aim of harming Israeli civilians, while Israeli military strikes have hit hundreds of targets in the Gaza Strip.

There’s at least one clear asymmetry to the conflict, however. By Friday morning, 100 Palestinians had died as a result of Israeli military action, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, with hundreds more wounded. To date, there have been zero reports of Israeli deaths due to Palestinian rocket fire ….

These are not surprising figures. During 2012′s Operation Pillar of Defense, 167 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli military, according to human rights group B’Tselem, who said that less than half of that number were believed to be taking part in hostilities. The same report said six Israelis had died: Four civilians and two members of the Israeli security forces. In the 2008-2009 Gaza War, the pattern was also evident. According to numbers released by the Israeli Defense Force, 1,166 Palestinians died during that conflict, 709 of which the IDF said were  “Hamas terror operatives.” Thirteen Israelis died, three of whom were non-combatants.

While I find such reporting still the exception rather than the rule, it is possible that public opinion is shifting, such that pointing out this asymmetry is less likely to result in one being branded an anti-Semite.


I recently saw this video, “This Land Is Mine,” which was making the rounds on Facebook (at least among my friends). There’s no doubt that the video is clever and that the choice of music is perfect for the author’s purposes. In addition, I’m somewhat sympathetic to the author’s agenda. However, as a relentless critic I cannot help but point out what I think the video obscures.

Like many accounts of Israel vs. Palestine (and, admittedly, this is not only about modern day Israel and Palestine), the video presents the issue as a “he said, she said” sort of affair. We’re presented with a variety of groups, all with competing claims on a piece of land, each willing to kill in defense of their claims.

Now pause for a moment, and imagine someone saying: “well, when the white colonizers spread across North America in the 18th and 19th centuries, they did some bad things, and the Native Americans did some bad things too. Why can’t we just get past all that?” Such a claim would distort to unintelligibility the differences in power between the whites and natives during the European colonial expansion.

However, people quite regularly frame the current conflict between Israel and Palestine as a sort of tit for tat competition, as if between two equal powers. Framing conflicts with clear disparities of power as if they were conflicts between equals seems, at least to me, as clearly set up—intentionally or not—to advance the interests of the already dominant group.

In addition, such a framing masks the extent to which Western nation-states are contributing to the conflict, to say nothing of the many other influential players in the region. In the present iteration of the back and forth depicted in the video, there are billions of dollars flowing from the United States to one party—a fact that is nowhere made visible in the video.

For these reasons, despite my sympathies with the creator’s agenda, I’m uncomfortable with it, and would be unlikely to use it in class except as data that would have to be unpacked and critiqued.

Posted in Craig Martin, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Religion Snapshots: Reflections on the Hobby Lobby Affair, Part 2


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

Dennis LoRusso: “Can a for-profit religion exercise religion?” This seems to be the question most vexing to critics of the recent SCOTUS decision in favor of Hobby Lobby. On the surface, how one answers this question seems to depend greatly on how one defines “religion.” If religion is a matter of individual conscience, then how can an incorporated for-profit organization exercise its conscience? Yet, if corporations are legal persons, then shouldn’t they, like individuals, be afforded the full protection of the First Amendment, including the free exercise of religion? After all, the law clearly recognizes the existence of organizations that are “religious.”

While I find it particularly encouraging to witness the general public openly discussing the instability of concepts like “religion,” I believe that the controversy more deeply rests on assumptions about a different question: what is personhood? Personhood is everywhere here, from beliefs about the personhood of the unborn and the rights of women to control their persons, to the legal personhood of corporations. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby was a case wholly obsessed with who (or what) counts as a person, and the Supreme Court’s majority opinion reveals the relationship between personhood and particular configurations of power.

The rhetoric of “religious liberty” merely serves as the authorizing discourse for establishing personhood, and therefore the relations of power. It is rather unremarkably to suggest that corporations possess first amendment rights, including the free exercise of religion, if they are considered legal persons under the law. The question, rather, is “who’s religion does a corporation express?” In this case, closely-held corporations exclusively reflect the religious beliefs of its owners (i.e. investors), rather than employees. This is no insignificant claim here. The legitimacy of corporations under US law rests on the legal separation that personhood establishes between investors and the organization. While owners reap the benefits of profitability, their legal liability begins and ends with their financial investment in the firm. Pragmatically, the legal system simply treats the corporation as its own, autonomous entity.

The Court, however, has ruled that the religious beliefs of these owners are inextricably bound to the corporation; the company’s “religion” identifies with that of the majority of stockholders. “Religious belief,” it seems, complicates this legal separation between investor and the corporate “person.” The corporate person becomes (as it perhaps always has been) a tool in the service of the interests of owners. While employees, customers, and suppliers serve as vital constituents of the business, they do not comprise this “personhood” and therefore do not hold the legitimate reigns of power in the eyes of SCOTUS.

Charles McCrary: There are many interesting angles from which to discuss this case, the rulings, and the reactions to it. Most of these have been taken up in various blogs and media outlets, including here at the Bulletin. My reactions to the case were similar to those of Winnifred Sullivan, which she wrote about at The Immanent Frame. (To be clear, this is because my thinking is influenced by her work, not by great minds thinking alike.) So, you should go read that. But, while we’re here, I’ll offer some very brief thoughts on one aspect of the case that I haven’t seen receive as much attention: the language in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) that the government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion…” What work is substantially doing here?

As I read it—and I think this reading is supported by both Justice Alito’s opinion and Justice Ginsberg’s dissent in Hobby Lobby—the word “substantially” leads to a discussion of essentiality. In the Smith case (1990), for which the RFRA was intended as a sort of corrective, members of the Native American Church argued that consuming peyote was an essential part of their religious practice. To disallow peyote use would then, after RFRA, probably “substantially burden” their religious freedom. It would be like, say, disallowing Catholics under age 21 to drink of Eucharist wine. With Hobby Lobby, it might seem like a different case.

But is it? More importantly, how are justices to decide what’s essential to a religious practice and what isn’t? As long as the language of “substantial” in applicable, justices must make claims—as all of us do, however explicitly or implicitly, when deciding what to cover and not cover in a world religions survey course—about what’s really important in a religion.

And why is it that Ruth Bader Ginsburg doesn’t find it compelling that providing certain types of contraception could really be a substantial burden on one’s religious practice, but Samuel Alito finds that totally plausible?

Matt Sheedy: I find myself in agreement with Charlie McCrary’s endorsement of Winnifred Sullivan’s take on the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case. In her piece, Sullivan speaks to liberal commentators in the US in her capacity as a scholar of religion, noting that while she too is troubled by the implications of this case, particularly as it relates to women’s reproductive rights, what distinguishes scholarship from advocacy is the ability to step back and offer a different and more critical lens on the conditions that give rise to such events, including the ways that “Religion” (with a big ‘R’ in her phraseology) and the concomitant notion of “religious freedom” function discursively in the public sphere. As she puts it:

Big “R” Religion is a modern invention, an invention designed to separate good religion from bad religion, orthodoxy from heresy—an invention whose legal and political use has arguably reached the end of its useful life.

Rather than get trapped in this standard “cultural-wars framing,” Sullivan asks liberal opponents of the decision to consider why it seems obvious (and even natural) to many conservatives that Hobby Lobby is in fact engaging in an “exercise of religion” as it is defined under the terms of US law? One answer to this question is that they (and we) still hold a rather simplistic and dated understanding of “religion,” (e.g., see her comments on justice Ginsburg’s remarks) and one that relies, I would add, upon choosing sides in the endless back and forth between various groups as to what constitutes “true” religion.

Notwithstanding Sullivan’s rather sparse (and problematic, to my mind) gloss of what all this means for corporate personhood, a point addressed by Dennis LoRusso (above), Karen de Vries (below) and Carl Stoneham in part one of this feature, her argument stands as a useful example of what can and should distinguish scholarship from mere advocacy: by placing “religious phenomena” in historical and cultural contexts; by asking how they function differently (e.g., within different countries and cultures); and by discerning what kind of work they do for those who use them?

As for the more difficult question that Carl Stoneham raises as to whether or not scholars should also weigh-in positively or negatively on one or the other side (and it’s worth noting that Sullivan does end her piece with some reflections on questions of judgment and evaluation), it would seem that doing so should not be our prime mover, but that we should first look toward raising different, more complex sets of questions than those commonly found in the public domain in order to better conceptualize our field of study and then, perhaps, offer suggestions on how to help move the public conversation in a better (read: more analytically engaged) direction.

Karen de Vries:  My colleagues have offered a number of important and interesting angles on the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, including: consequences of for-profit corporations having recognized religions beliefs; related trends in scholarship on American religion; references to definitions and disputes about religion and personhood; and questions about how we scholars might understand the lay of the discursive terrain and position ourselves in it. I share these questions and concerns as well as the appreciation for Winnifred F. Sullivan’s scholarship regarding religion and law in the United States. 

In addition to these angles, my recurring response to this whole debacle has been: we wouldn’t be in this position where the Supreme Court determines if a closely held corporation holds a sincerely held beliefs that makes self-determination regarding contraception for female employees more difficult if Americans had gone with a single payer option from the get-go. We are, as ever, worshipers of money and the corporations built to produce and reproduce it. Of course, they are all still primarily run by men. Patriarchal authority remains the rule of the day.

Posted in Carl Stoneham, Charles McCrary, Dennis LoRusso, Karen de Vries, Matt Sheedy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, Religion Snapshots, Theory and Method | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gang of Four, Entertainment!: Theory & Religion Series


by Sean McCloud

* This post is part of a new feature with the Bulletin called the Theory & Religion Series, where contributors are asked to discuss a book or essay by a particular theorist that they have found useful in their teaching and research in the study of religion.

“It is when the social world loses its character as a naturalized phenomenon that the question of the natural or conventional character of social facts can be raised.” Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice


When I think of writers who have influenced my thinking as someone who studies religion, Pierre Bourdieu immediately comes to mind. Works such as Pascalian Meditations and others have proven useful for examining how social classifications, hierarchies, and power are reproduced in the social world and how religions play a role in such reproductions. I have also found Bourdieu useful for thinking about what materialist theories of individual and social change might look like. But long before I had ever heard of Bourdieu, and long before I ever imagined going to college (let alone becoming a professor who studies religion) there was Gang of Four’s album, Entertainment!

Gang of Four, Natural’s not in it:

“Natural is not in it

Your relations are of power

We all have good intentions

But all with strings attached”


One of the many ideas at the heart of Bourdieu’s work is that the world in which we reside is filled with hierarchies and valuations that tend to be naturalized, made to appear as commonsense, the way things are. But they aren’t. For Bourdieu, “different class and class fractions are engaged in a specifically symbolic struggle to impose definitions of the social world most in conformity with their interests.” (Bourdieu 1977, “Symbolic Power”) I was primed for this idea by Gang of Four’s song, “Natural’s not in it.”

Gang of Four, Not great men:


But that wasn’t all I heard from Gang of Four that I would later read in elaborated versions in scholarly texts. In “Not Great Men,” they argued that the history books which fronted the “great men move history” theory of social change should be questioned. And in “Contract,” the singer laments that the perfect married life promised in Hollywood movies and newsstand periodicals may not actually exist.

Gang of Four, Contract:

“You dreamed of scenes like you read of in magazines

A new romance, a struggle in the bedroom

Is this really the way it is, or a contract in our mutual interest?”

As a fourteen year-old who lived in a community where I knew very few adults who had university degrees (the exception being teachers), Gang of Four’s Entertainment! was my first introduction to what sometimes gets called “critical theory.” It offered me a hermeneutics of suspicion with a tight beat, driving bass, choppy angular guitar, and chanted repetitive lines. It made the ideas I would later encounter in scholars such as Pierre Bourdieu, Stuart Hall, and others already somewhat familiar. To this day, I still read, write, and research with the ghost of Gang of Four’s Entertainment! playing over my shoulder.

Sean McCloud is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies (and American Studies and Communication Studies Faculty Affiliate) at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He teaches, publishes, and researches in the fields of American religions and religion and culture. His publications include Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, and Journalists, 1955-1993 (2004), Divine Hierarchies: Class in American Religion and Religious Studies (2007), and he is co-editor of Religion and Class in America: Culture, History, and Politics (2009). His next book, American Possessions: Fighting Demons in the Contemporary United States, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press in spring 2015.

Posted in Pedagogy, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Theory & Religion Series, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Religion Snapshots: Reflections on the Hobby Lobby Affair, Part 1


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

Mike Graziano: To my mind, the most interesting development from Hobby Lobby might be the potential consequences stemming from for-profit corporations having legally recognized religious beliefs, and thus being eligible for First Amendment protections.

Two trends in the history of American religion are relevant to the situation in Hobby Lobby. First, recent scholarship has emphasized the role of law and the state in the history of religion in America. Second, there has been an increased focus on secularism. For all the myriad forms this body of work has taken, it has resulted in the assertion that what Americans have traditionally thought of as secular is perhaps better understood as the political maintenance of certain Protestant notions of the public sphere. Sitting at the intersection of this research has been work on how the American legal system has struggled to accommodate such developments in the category of “religion.” Winnifred Sullivan made this point four years ago:

More accurately perhaps, these new cases recognize that “establishment” and “disestablishment” as structuring ideas for organizing religious life are no longer relevant. Religious life is so entirely disaggregated and religious authority so thoroughly shifted to the individual that both establishment and disestablishment are functionally impossible (Sullivan, 2010, p.94).

If, as Sullivan and others suggest, “religion” is increasingly universalized and omnipresent—and that consequently “establishment” and “disestablishment” prove less useful as legal concepts—we would expect to see legal developments to that effect. I think it’s safe to say that we have. Since Sullivan published her essay, a string of cases from Hosanna-Tabor (2012) to Town of Greece (2014) and finally the recent Hobby Lobby (2014) have been decided in such a way as to make clear that there is a radical lack of consensus not only about what benefits legally-recognized religious entities can receive, but also regarding what kind of entities count as religious in the first place. 

For scholars of religion, of course, this isn’t particularly surprising. We’re quite familiar with such debates. Yet I am curious whether we can use the disagreements in Hobby Lobby to better understand the changing relationship between legally-recognized religious and economic bodies in the United States. 

So, in the hope of getting conversation rolling: What assumptions (whether about the nature of “religion,” the malleability of “personhood,” etc.) structure the debates around Hobby Lobby? What do we make, for example, of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s argument in her dissent that “Religious organizations exist to foster the interests of persons subscribing to the same religious faith. Not so of for-profit corporations”? Likewise, how might we respond to Samuel Alito’s statement (in the majority opinion) that “HHS [the US Department of Health and Human Services] would put these merchants to a difficult choice: either give up the right to seek judicial protection of their religious liberty or forgo the benefits, available to their competitors, of operating as corporations”? I think that both Alito and Ginsberg, in the way they draw the borders between economic and religious entities, say a great deal about the contestation over the category of “religion” in American law.

Carl J. Stoneham:

Corporations become self-aware at 9:17 a.m. Eastern time, June 30th

There have been quite a few pixels burned in the past week over the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. While I’m of the opinion that much of the furor is based on a basic misunderstanding of the Court’s decision, what has intrigued me is how the controversy seems to have ignored a surprising point: corporations can be Christian. Sure, for decades we’ve easily spoken of this “Christian business” or that “Jewish organization,” but it’s usually been as a way of referring to the people within, rather than the legal entity itself. As Mike has shown, this SCotUS decision (among others) has changed our understanding in a serious way, and it seems that few have batted an eye.

The hinge of SCotUS’s ruling is the interpretation of “person” (in this case, as used in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)). Since at least Dartmouth College v. Woodward in 1819, the Supreme Court has recognized the notion of “corporate personhood” as a way to both protect the rights of the individuals comprising the corporation and to simplify complex legal matters. Still, there have always been important limits. While corporations can, for example, own property or sue, they do not enjoy such rights as that against self-incrimination (corporations cannot “plead the Fifth”). In practical terms, this means (meant?) that SCotUS (and yes, Mitt Romney too) recognize the concept of “corporate personhood” as a convenient legal fiction that keeps in place the important protections a corporation offers the individual without impinging on said individual’s rights. Where Monday’s decision should raise eyebrows is in how this legal fiction of the cooperation as a “person” continues to move ever-closer to legal non-fiction.

In response to Health and Human Services’ contention that “the companies cannot sue because they are for-profit corporations, and that the owners cannot sue because the regulations apply only to the companies,” Justice Alito, writing for the majority, responded that this “would leave merchants with a difficult choice: give up the right to seek judicial protection of their religious liberty or forgo the benefits of operating as corporations.” Because, he writes, “[n]othing in RFRA suggests a congressional intent to depart from the Dictionary Act [of 1871—an interesting read in its own right—] definition of ‘person,’ which ‘include[s] corporations, … as well as individuals,’” the majority holds that there is “no persuasive explanation for [the] conclusion” that “Conestoga, Hobby Lobby, and Mardel … cannot ‘exercise … religion.’” No. Persuasive. Explanation. (Is it appropriate to include a “O_o” in a blog post?)

Shouldn’t religion scholars fret at least a bit over the fact that the government was apparently unable to make the case that corporations cannot “exercise religion” (an interesting phrase in and of itself)? To support its own decision, the Court cited as precedent Employment Div. v. Smith, 1990, a case where the State of Oregon’s choice to deny unemployment compensation to two Native Americans—who had been fired from their jobs for the sacramental use of peyote—was upheld. It is important to understand what happened here: the Court relied on a case where the right of a state (!) to deny claims of religious exercise by individuals (!) was used to support the notion that a corporation (!) can “exercise religion,” and the government lawyers could not make a persuasive counter-argument.

Because I have to believe that the government lawyers were not so naïve as to go before the Supreme Court having not scoured the work of religious scholars for just such persuasive arguments, I have to wonder if the contribution of Religious Studies to public discourse is such that there are no persuasive arguments against a legal fiction exercising religion?

Mike has offered Winnifred Sullivan’s work as insight into these questions of (dis)establishment, but that seems to me to be more of a commentary on the meta-issue rather than a positive (or negative) stand regarding the point itself. Certainly legal scholars have weighed in on the issue, but what of religion scholars? Is our work of such irrelevance that a decision of such magnitude as Burwell v Hobby Lobby cannot find from within our ranks a “persuasive argument” against the ability of a corporation to “exercise religion?” Or is it perhaps that we ourselves don’t know, and that our constant hand-wringing over “what is religion” has somehow been mirrored by the U.S. legal system? (Or perhaps there’s a simple third option: that none of us disagrees that corporations can do such a thing?) Whatever the answer, it seems to me that the task of understanding and explaining “religion” just got a whole lot more important—and complicated.

Posted in Carl Stoneham, Michael Graziano, Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion Snapshots, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nationalist Myths, National Realities


by Matt Sheedy

While much of the world is aware that today is America’s “birthday,” in commemoration of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, considerably fewer know that “Canada Day” was celebrated this past Tuesday, July 1st, commemorating the British North American Act of 1867, more commonly referred to as the Constitution Act.

Like in the US, “Canada Day” is a national holiday and is marked by celebrations and official government pronouncements, along with a flurry of articles and memes that both reinforce and challenge nationalist mythologies.

For example, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper recently released the results of a national on-line survey of the top 10 Canadian “heroes,” which was commissioned for the lead-up to Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017. It did not go unnoticed that this list was exclusively male, with only one person on non-European origin (environmentalist David Suzuki, no. 6), and was immediately challenged with an alternative list of top 10 Canadian “heroines.” Likewise, the inclusion of John A. MacDonald (no. 8), Canada’s first Prime Minister, was contested by First Nations groups who pointed out the very active role that he played in the forced starvation (which has been called a form of genocide) of Native peoples as the then-British colony looked to expand its territory to the West.

While some figures on the government’s list of heroes are widely respected, such as Terry Fox (no. 2), who ran 5,373 kilometres (3,339 miles) across the country with a prosthetic leg in 1980, to raise money and awareness about cancer, the inclusion of others seems more contingent on who was asked, how the question was framed, and on what prior assumptions exist in the nationalist imaginary as to what constitutes a “hero.” That retired hockey great Wayne Gretzky (no. 9) made the list likely reflects the preferences of an older, hockey-watching demographic, while astronaut Chris Hadfield (no. 5) only became a household name in the spring of 2013, after posting reports from space on social media forums like Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter. Prior to that time, very few had ever heard his name.

These same social media platforms that challenged such “official” pronouncements of cultural heritage (in this case, revealing a patriarchal and Eurocentric bias), also reveal the temporal and constructed nature of representations of national identity. While the debate over “heroes” offers a useful example of the contingency of authority, especially when others are able to contest it, can the same be said for less contentious and more ingrained notions of identity, such as the well-worn trope that Canadians are polite? Is this, too, purely a social construction or is there tangible evidence to support such a claim? Is this nationalist myth grounded in national realities?

Discussing this idea on a Facebook thread on July 1st in response to a satirical article, “How to Tell If a Canadian is Mad At You,” I was reminded of the inoffensive nature of the claim. In this sense, even if it is untrue in some or many cases, being labeled as polite does not tend to provoke a quick and heated rebuke.

What also strikes me about this claim is that it is only (or at least mostly) meaningful when spoken about in relation to the US. Putting aside the tricky question of origins—the so-called “genesis” of this idea—it seems to be a commonly held perception among Americans and Canadians alike. While the claim that all Canadians as individuals are polite is logically absurd, as this would ascribe some sort of intrinsic quality or essence to “Canadian-ness,” the idea of the country itself, as a symbol, must surely have something to do with it? As with all symbolic discourses, markers of nationalist identity usually have some basis in social reality, though perceptions are contingent on such factors as the nature of the comparisons being made, along with competing representations and changing conditions on the ground.

Compared to the US, for example, Canadian foreign policy has been relatively tame on the world stage–a perception that has no doubt been enhanced by such factors as Canada’s reputation as “peacekeepers” since the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis, by its former policy of providing safe haven for Vietnam war resisters and by its abstention from the Iraq war. Until recent years, it was almost a cliché to here about young American travellers, in Europe and elsewhere, sewing Canadian flags to their backpacks in order to avoid unwanted hostility on foreign soil.

It is also true that Canada did not experience a “tea party” moment or a civil war, quietly breaking (most of) its ties to Britain with the 1982 Constitution Act. Perhaps this history partly explains why there is no strong libertarian movement in Canada and no mythos of “rugged individualism,” which finds its strongest expression in American gun culture, a curious (and frightening) phenomenon to many Canadians.

Perhaps the absence an illegal immigration problem and a relatively successful multiculturalism policy have contributed not only to the perception of “politeness” but also a marked absence of hostility to so-called “foreigners,” at least in comparison to the US?

Unlike the discourse on Canadian “heroes,” whose construction was easily contested by the ability of others to point out these contingent and biased representations, the more subtle and ingrained notion of “politeness” seems harder to shake, despite mounting evidence to the contrary that “Canada” ain’t so sweet.

For example, not only did Canada overturn its peacekeeping reputation by engaging in active combat in Afghanistan, but it also limited asylum to war resisters from the conflict in Iraq, recently deporting Kimberly Rivera in September of 2012 after several appeals to stay in the country. Likewise, Canada’s climate change policies have received harsh criticism internationally as it is routinely ranked among the worst in the developed world.

Like all (national) myths, which Roland Barthes defines in Mythologies as “giving historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal,” (142) their appearance seems to have some basis in social reality, while their endurance is contingent on who is controlling their representation and with what or whom they are being compared to.

While shifting social realities appear to be challenging perceptions of Canadian politeness on the international stage, including an unprecedented uprising of First Nations communities, who have always contested this myth, as long as Americans see Canadians as their quieter, gentler other, I’ll wager that the idea is likely to persist.

And if I’m wrong, my apologies.

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

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

From Content to Location (?): Academic Publishing and the Problem of Authority


by Nickolas Roubekas

The medium for evaluating the suitability of a future publication is the peer-review process. This is known to the academic world for decades and all junior or senior scholars go through such a process after submitting a paper to an academic journal for consideration. However, the process is often not regulated by what we all understand peer-review to be, especially when it comes to articles that challenge long-established ideas and/or theories. Ever since I obtained my PhD three years ago, I have been engaged – like so many other young scholars all over the world – in academic writing, testing my theories and ideas by submitting them in the form of articles to various journals, in my case in the field of ancient Greek religion and the reception of ancient theories of religion in the early Christian period. In the process I have received peer-review reports ranging from positive to extremely hostile – nothing surprising here; I imagine there is not even a single scholar who has had only positive or only negative (even hostile) reviews. However, what in many cases has struck me is the reluctance of anonymous reviewers to accept a new theory or approach solely on the basis that it does not conform with what is taken to be an ‘authoritative’ interpretation/theory/approach in the field.

Given the anonymity that governs the principle of a ‘fair’ peer-review, the writer has no knowledge whether the reviewers of her/his article are specialists in the respective field or not. However, one can easily discern if the reviewer is making her/his criticism based on solid and detailed knowledge or on a vague idea that s/he has on the subject. In the first case, one can profit from the review, since comments are informed, bibliographically well-established, and pose questions that can indeed enhance the quality of the paper – or even change it considerably if the author is not well qualified. In the second case, however, the review seems like a defense of other theories, most often based on secondary literature. By that I mean that for scholars like myself, who work on ancient sources, reviewers are often not acquainted with the sources at hand and base their own reviews on other scholars whose work they actually know.

To put this in context: In an article on euhemerism I submitted last year and which was eventually published, one of the two reviewers had objections regarding the absence of non-English literature in the paper, and in particular of the following book: Marek Winiarczyk, Euhemeros von Messene. Leben, Werk, und Nachwirkung (2002). Of course, such a comment is welcome in peer-review reports, since further bibliographical references usually add to a paper. Nevertheless, the most striking part of the comment followed right after:

I confess that I have only become aware of the existence of this book recently, and have not yet seen it, while waiting to receive a copy via Inter-Library-Loan. Nevertheless, I would not publish a line on Euhemerus, his theories, and their history (in particular) without consulting this book.

Given the fact that the report of the anonymous reviewer was negative and suggested the rejection of the article, certain issues are raised regarding how much authority one should acknowledge in his/her sources and how much in secondary literature. In the example above, should a scholar working on euhemerism take Winiarczyk’s analysis as ‘the’ appropriate way of dealing with Euhemerus’s theory or should the focus instead be on the ancient sources themselves? In addition, what is it that makes, in this case, Winiarczyk’s positions and arguments a necessity that prohibits scholars to actually publish “a line on Euhemerus” without consulting this book? This tendency, often found in peer-review reports as I have come to realize in conversations with young and senior colleagues, raises another important issue: that of the freedom to review papers even if our field of expertise is partly or entirely different than the focus of the paper we are asked to review. Is a vague knowledge stemming from secondary sources enough for a reviewer to give a fair report on an article dealing with ancient sources that the reviewer has never actually read?

In his How to Talk About Books you Haven’t Read (2007), Pierre Bayard notes that “we have trouble acknowledging even to ourselves that we haven’t read the books that are deemed essential” (p. xv) but, nevertheless, even if we do not know the content of a book we “may still know its location, or in other words how it is situated in relation to other books” (p. 11). For Bayard we (humans) tend to give higher priority to the location of a book rather than to the book itself. But the location of a book is most of the times dominated by authoritative figures that have shaped the way we (academics) tend to approach and interpret theories, approaches, and other previous interpretations. However, how much authority should one acknowledge on the various interpreters? Bayard cites Paul Valéry’s comment on Proust’s works, a comment of high importance for the modern academic community:

In any case, even if I had never read a line of Proust’s vast work, the mere fact that two people with minds as different as Gide and Léon Daudet were agreed about its importance would have been sufficient to allay any doubts; such unexpected agreement could only occur in the case of a virtual certainty. (p. 18)

One could thus argue that it would be inconceivable for Valéry to see a paper on Proust without Gide’s and/or Léon Daudet’s names in the bibliography; or, even worse, Valéry should deem a paper arguing about the low quality of Proust’s work as worthless since such an argument would contradict Gide and Daudet, even if Valéry himself would have never read a line of Proust’s works.

So, where do we go from here? Is every scholar obliged to ‘not write a line’ on a subject without consulting what academia deems as ‘the’ work of art regarding that subject? And is such an argument valid even if the scholars who maintain this position have never read that authoritative work? Of course, it would be impossible for a scholar arguing against or in favor of, say, Mircea Eliade, without consulting his works. But should that article be deemed worthless if among the bibliography one will not encounter, say, Bryan Rennie’s works on Eliade? That would be the case if the author would present an interpretation already employed by Rennie as the major contribution of the paper; but that presupposes that the reviewer is well-acquainted with both Eliade and Rennie. Is the location of a book/idea/theory enough even if we have no detailed knowledge of its content?

Nickolas Roubekas is a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Biblical and Ancient Studies, University of South Africa, Pretoria. He’s studied in Greece, Denmark, and Scotland, and his PhD thesis was on Euhemerus of Messene and his theory of religion and myth (which was published in Greece by Vanias Publishers in 2011). He mainly works on euhemerism and is interested in ancient theorists of religion and myth and their reception in later periods as well as the religions of the Hellenistic Period and Christian origins. He currently acts as Book reviews editor for the journal Religion & Theology.

Posted in Pedagogy, Religion and Theory, Ruminations, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments