Charlie Hebdo, “Free Speech,” and Critique


by Matt Sheedy

It should go without saying that the massacre of journalists and police officers in Paris this past Wednesday is abhorrent, that the perpetrators should be brought to justice, and that measures should be taken to reduce the likelihood of such a thing happening again. It should also go without saying (though it rarely does) that responses such as these are part of complex social realities that include competing interests and ideals, and are thus, by themselves, little more than empty platitudes. As with any trauma that gains widespread attention and rises to the level of a “flash-point event,” the discourse that follows in its wake is never just about the incident at hand, but an open wound that tends to reanimate old arguments while creating new facts on the ground that will reconfigure this terrain, in both predicable and unpredictable ways.

In France, for example, there have already been a number of attacks on mosques, while there is speculation that this incident will help to bolster the far-right Front National, led be Marine Le Pen, with likely implications for immigration policy and a surge of xenophobic nationalism, which is on the rise in many part of Europe, as seen with recent rallies by PEGIDA in Germany. Less obvious are the ways in which dominant narratives coming out of the Euro-West will play out, how they will condition certain responses over others, and provoke reactions from many sides.

In what follows, I will briefly explore the use of freedom of expression/speech as a primary filter through which this incident has been interpreted, followed by some thoughts on the prohibition against depicting the Prophet Muhammad among many who identify as Muslim.

I wrote a short piece on Charlie Hebdo in September 2012, in light of the (now late) editor Stephane Charbonnier’s decision to publish a number of incendiary cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. In this post, I was particularly interested in Charbonnier’s defence of his decision as a matter of “freedom of expression” and his observation that it is only Muslims’ who react violently to the publication of offensive images, noting how the Catholic Church responded to Charlie Hebdo’s provocations by filing law suits. The implication, in case it needs to be underlined, is that there is something distinct about “Islam” that brings about violent reactions and that it is incompatible (or at least at odds) with the values of Western civilization.


In the wake of this most recent tragedy, the idea of freedom of expression has taken on much deeper contours, as seen with the popular meme “Je Suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) in cities all over Europe, and the outpouring of cartoons from satirists around the world (as seen with the image to the right). While meaning is never singular and will always be subject to contestation, the overarching sentiment in these popular images seems to be a blend of sympathy with the victims coupled with an identification of their values as “our own,” meaning those in Euro-Western democracies. As some have pointed out, Charlie Hebdo’s depictions of the Prophet Muhammad are not only offensive to many Muslims as mere images, but also play on racist stereotypes that could be considered hate speech and would likely gain wider condemnation if they featured blacks or Jews.

Here I would suggest that part of the reason that such racialized images go unrecognized by many, including self-professed liberals, has to do with the widespread association of “religion” with “belief” and the concomitant reduction of causation in this case to the matters of blasphemy or offence, which, in turn, prompts the reaction to defend freedom of speech and expression. This is the very stuff that ideology and grand narratives about cultural identity are made of.

Consider, for example, popular comments by heads of state, variously referring to this act as “barbaric,” “terrorist,” and an affront to “democratic values,” typified by US Senator Ted Cruz’s statement that, “This most recent attack is an attack on us all.” Here condemnation takes the form of an affirmation of “our” values over “theirs” and functions less as a description of any precise cultural identity or set of values and more as a binary trope that works to simplify causation—from the common liberal doxa that points the finger at “madmen,” “extremists,” and “lone-wolves,” to the more reactionary tendency to blame “Islam” or even “religion” writ large, as was the case with Salman Rushdie. Even the satirical Onion, known for its sharp political commentary, followed this standard logic with the headline, “It Sadly Unclear Whether This Article Will Put Lives At Risk.”

These and numerous other examples highlight an important distinction between criticism and critique made by Wendy Brown in her introduction to the book Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech, (2013) where she draws on the example of Marx’s theory of religion in order to illustrate the difference:

Mere criticism marks religion as false; critique connects religious illusions, and the need for them, to the specific reality generating and necessitating religious consciousness. (11)

While Brown goes on to critique Marx’s theory of religion, her point is show that “criticism” (thusly defined) reflects a reactionary response that tends to argue the opposite of some idea in typical binary fashion, as though that is all that is at stake, versus “critique” as a commitment to theoretical analysis of the larger field of play. As obvious as this may sound, I would claim that this distinction marks a key difference between the role of the pundit versus the task of the scholar (and critical journalist), whose goal it should be to problematize conventional wisdom and point toward the various ways that such regimes of logic narrow conceptual possibilities, marginalize certain groups, and uphold identities that effectively mask the hegemony of their own ideologies.

Juan Cole offers an interesting example of such a critique, arguing that the attack on Charlie Hebdo was not in response to the defamation of a religious icon per se, but a provocation to promote a pogrom against Muslims in France and thus increase the ranks of recruitment for al-Qaeda. He continues:

Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, then led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, deployed this sort of polarization strategy successfully in Iraq, constantly attacking Shiites and their holy symbols, and provoking the ethnic cleansing of a million Sunnis from Baghdad. The polarization proceeded, with the help of various incarnations of Daesh (Arabic for ISIL or ISIS, which descends from al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia). And in the end, the brutal and genocidal strategy worked, such that Daesh was able to encompass all of Sunni Arab Iraq, which had suffered so many Shiite reprisals that they sought the umbrella of the very group that had deliberately and systematically provoked the Shiites.

Although Cole’s argument requires much more empirical verification and makes the problematic claim to know the attackers intentions, his analysis approaches the domain of what good critical theory should do—that is, move beyond the expressed intentions and beliefs of the assailants as an explanation for what caused this event toward an analysis of the material conditions (historical, political, socio-cultural, etc.) that produce such things in the first place.

As this story unfolds, one further line of inquiry that is in much need of critical examination circles around depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, as discussed in the aforementioned text Is Critique Secular?, featuring contributions from Wendy Brown, Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, and Judith Butler in response to the 2005 publication of the Danish Cartoons.

For example, Asad argues “that we see blasphemy in these cases [the Danish cartoons] not as a discursive device for suppressing free speech but as an indicator for the shape that free speech takes at different times and in different places, reflecting, as it does so, different structures of power and subjectivity.” (29) Asad notes how the World Union of Muslim Scholars classified the Danish Cartoons affair using the term isa’ah and not tajdif, indicating insult, harm, and offence,” (32) thus implying that the issue or offense was not so much one of “blasphemy,” in the Christian sense of enforcing correct “belief,” but more of “a solemn social relationship having been openly repudiated (e.g., ‘being unfaithful’).” (37)

Saba Mahmood, for her part, draws on the work of Webb Keane in his book Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter (2007), in order to show how Protestant semiotic ideology, (66) centers around certain conceptions of “belief” as a marker of legitimate public debate. Mahmood argues that the issue for many traditional Muslims with the Danish Cartoons was not so much one of following commandments, but of embodying certain virtues, where mimetic practices involve “a relation of similitude” (70) with the Prophet Muhammad, and where the pious are encouraged to “emulate how he dressed; what he ate; how he spoke to his friends and adversaries; how he slept, walked, and so on.” (69)

Whereas Asad’s point is to question Western liberal notions of freedom and autonomy by showing how events such as these are interpreted by Muslim authorities in ways that are both particular to Islamic cultures and different from common Western stereotypes, Mahmood draws attention to how “cultural and ethical sensibilities” (83) are variously understood and negotiated amongst (some) traditional Muslims living in the Euro-West, with the intention of opening up the conversation toward certain insiders’ points of view.

In the near-decade since the Danish Cartoons affair there seems to be little movement in the direction of broadening public discussion on the various positionalities of Muslim identities, and instead a doubling-down on well-worn tropes about “Western civilization” that promises much of the same.

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New Publishing Schedule for the Bulletin!

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As we enter a new year, there will be new changes for the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. The editors are pleased to announce that the Bulletin will have a new publishing schedule as of 2015. Rather than the February/April/September/November schedule that we’ve had, the Bulletin will now be published in March, June, September, and December. This new, more balanced schedule should allow quicker publication of articles going through revision, closer use of the Bulletin’s blog to engage articles – and especially panels of articles – appearing in the Bulletin, and a smoother production process. So look for the next issue of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion this March!

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Teaching Theory in the Introductory Classroom


This is part of an ongoing series of posts in a collaborative effort between the Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy and the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blogs. On November 23, 2014, approximately 20 scholars of religion, from grad students to more seasoned professors, participated in a NAASR workshop in San Diego, CA on the question of how to introduce theory in an introductory religious studies class. Participants were divided into three groups addressing: 1) who/which theorists to include; 2) what data should be included, and; 3) where should theory come into play (e.g., at the start, middle, or end?). What follows are reflections from two of the participants. For previous posts, see here and here.

Matthew King: I don’t think a method and theory 101 course should claim to help students think more deeply about religion. By design, as we all know, such a course de-naturalizes the category of religion and turns instead to working with its histories, its locations, and power-laden functions. Our 101 course about method and theory in religious studies actually deals with histories of colonial encounter, imperialism, and the like. Those same moments of encounter, those same moments that birthed new lexicons of human difference amongst Western Europeans are the very moments that birthed our own academic inquiries into the topic (like history and anthropology). So, 101 classrooms, 101 students and the university itself are implicated already in the power-laden histories of thinking (or ‘knowing’) human difference; of which ‘religion’ is just one organizing concept alongside ‘culture’. What remains is a category unbound and a group of students already implicated.

I think that the method and theory 101 course should actually proceed from this point. Our students must be encouraged to consider the implications of typologies of difference and be encouraged to speak back …. It’s useful to go through the process using religion as an example. To that end, I prefer students read a group of founding figures (usually Taylor & Frazer, Weber, Durkheim, Freud, James, Marx & Engels, Mauss) and then more contemporary critics (the feminist critique, the ecological critique, the post-colonial critique, etc.). Student reading and lectures thus focus on so many ‘conversations’ (open to student rejoinders) rather than a ‘canon’ (closed to such rejoinders).

For those reasons, for the sake of garnering some excitement (and not stepping back from some strategic hyperbole) I usually suggest at the start of my 101 courses that the study of religion is not a discipline but a critical field of inquiry. Thinking about how we think about religion (and human difference more broadly) is political, as others on this list know well. I prefer my lower division students to leave my courses seeing theory as the way they organize their own thinking about such difference. To that end, our workshop conversations on scaffolding, and on limiting the field of theory we introduce in the interest of depth, has been immensely helpful.

One question remains for me after our dialogue (one which could bring us all into conversation once again?): How to keep any continuity between method and theory 101 and the other sorts of introductory courses we teach. How do we avoid leaving critical reflections on method and theory in a silo? In other words, how can we even evoke those same driving questions when we turn next semester (with some of the same students) to an Introduction to Buddhism, and struggle to do anything other than reify one other blueprint of religious difference?

Lauren Horn Griffin: In addition to being more thoughtful about the choices I make in critiquing various theories, one idea that emerged for me during our workshop concerns course (and even department) structure. Group One discussed a few textbooks, pointing out the benefits and drawbacks of each. The workshop-wide discussion continued to critique the theorists themselves as well as the presentations of those theorists in the textbooks. Of course, in a class like this whose entire driving question is “what is religion?” there is going to be a breakdown between primary and secondary sources, as each text becomes our “data.” But I began to wonder, is there a constructive element here, or is our work in a course like this necessarily and solely deconstructive?

Like many of us, I structured my theory and methods class around problematizing the definition of religion, starting with the question “what is religion?” and continuing throughout the course to help students expose these categories as artificially constructed. As we encounter and disrupt various theories, students see that any definition is socially constructed, restrictive, and possibly harmful. Also, considering explicitly the “methods” side of the course, I promoted the idea that we would use religion as an angle of vision from which to explore the types of questions asked by disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. So the course could also give students a taste of those disciplines as well as an introduction to the ways in which people have thought about and approached religion. This helps students see that certain approaches, questions, and sources make certain answers possible, thus creating their own objects of study. Since the group was pretty unanimous in deciding that it doesn’t matter what theorist or method we include as long as we are constantly disrupting them and exposing the ways in which they construct the category, perhaps the main takeaway here is to be more aware about which scholars we are choosing as “disrupters” and how we/they choose to disrupt. I realized in new ways after our discussion that our choices are powerful, and I need to be more purposeful with those choices and more explicit in my defense of those choices.

But as I thought about the discussions during our workshop, I also kept returning to the question of course structure. Do we continue to cover various theories and methods and then expose the problems created by them, or should we structure our classes completely differently? Are we in danger of reinforcing the ideas we are trying to disrupt by keeping this structure and using their vocabulary? Should a “theory and methods” course even be offered as a stand-alone course, since all courses necessarily involve both theory and content? Furthermore, should we be restructuring our course offerings and departments so that our job is not always to disrupt and critique the structure of our own courses and departments, or is this as it should be?

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Radical Interpretations of the Bible – Paper Titles


by Robert Myles

* See author’s blog here.

This full day academic seminar will take place in Sheffield on the 8th of January 2015 (precise venue still tbc by my co-conspirators James & Michael). The seminar covers a range of radical interpretations of the Bible. Papers will utilize the most revolutionary and scientifically progressive methods in the discipline of biblical studies, like critical theory, Marxist exegesis, anarchist exegesis, radical reception theory and other ideological and political readings. Please let me know if you are planning to attend (either comment below or email me so we have an idea of numbers. The official Twitter hashtag for the seminar is #RIOTBIBLE. Twitter handles of presenters are included below.

Opiate of Christ; or, John’s Gospel and the Spectre of Class
Robert Myles (@robertjmyles)

Russell Brand’s Radical Bible
James Crossley (@jgcrossley)

Holy Mothers of God
Marika Rose (@marikarose)

The Antiwork Politics of Jesus
Michael Sanford (@mj_sandford)

From the Augustan New Year to the “Common Era”: Reflections on Time, Coloniality, and 1 Peter 
Wei-Hsien Wan (@widermargins)

Reflections of Ezekiel’s Texts of Terror: Developing an Anarchist Method of Reading Prophetic Literature
Mark McHenry (@markemchenry)

“Compel them to come in” (Luke 14:23): The Radical Jesus and Deaf Liberation
John Lyons & Mike Gulliver (@mikegulliver)

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Theory & Religion Series: Bruce Lincoln’s Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars


by Adam Miller

* This post is part of 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.

When invited to contribute to the Theory & Religion Series for the Bulletin, two works at once came to mind: Discourse and the Construction of Society and Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars, both by Bruce Lincoln (with whom I’ve recently had the pleasure of taking a course on classical theory). I’ve decided to write on the latter because it made a greater impact by virtue of when I read it. If my memory serves me, I had just completed my first year at the University of Missouri, which began and concluded (respectively) with a course and comprehensive examination in method and theory. Needless to say, I was bewildered. I wasn’t sure whether I liked what I had gotten myself into. Hell, I wasn’t even sure I knew what that even was. I was lost. I happened to pick up Gods and Demons after taking a break from reading, and something clicked. I found my niche.

Gods and Demons is fabulous from start to finish, but the essay I would like to focus on here is “How to Read a Religious Text” (5-15), wherein Lincoln uses four excerpts from the Chandogya Upaniṣad in order to illustrate/advance a critical method grounded in social theory. At the risk of being long-winded, I’d like first to summarize the four analyses he provides, then return to matters of method/theory.

Attending first to issues of maintenance, Lincoln revisits his previous work[1] on the sixth chapter of the Chandogya, a text associated with the lineage of priests responsible for the transmission of the Sāma Veda. Therein, the authors of the text homologize various sets of categories (Brilliance, Water, and Food; Speech, Breath, and Mind; Red, White, and Black) with one another, and in turn with the three varṇas (Priests, Warriors, and Commoners). In so doing, the boundary between the cosmological/metaphysical and the social collapses, thereby causing the contingent social arrangement in which these homologies were formulated to seem like a fact of nature. “When arguments of this sort are advanced, accepted, and invested with sacred status,” he concludes, “the stabilizing effects are enormous” (6).

Shifting his attention from maintenance of macrosocial order to modification of mesosocial order, he contrasts the “normative order” (7) of priests with the order put forth by the authors of the Chandogya. The former follows the typical ranking of the three Vedas: the Hotṛ priest is associated with the Ṛg Veda, the Udgātṛ with the Sāma, and the Adhvaryu with the Yajur. But the order advanced in Chandogya 1.3.6-7 differs significantly. Via an analysis of the word ‘udgītha’ (the name of an important chant in Vedic sacrifices that also happens to be the property/responsibility of the Udgātṛ priests) in conjunction with some strategic homologizing of the kind mentioned above, the authors promote both the Sāma and Yajur Vedas, relegating the Ṛg to last place. And by extension, of course, the priests associated with these texts go along for the ride. “[T]he ordinarily paramount Hotṛ priest,” Lincoln writes in lively style, “was positively pushed…into the material realm of earth, dirt, and shit.”

Lincoln then focuses on the microsocial, taking Chandogya Upaniṣad 1.10-11 as his example. This excerpt tells of a poor man named Uṣati Cākrāyaṇa who managed to weasel his way into a sacrifice that had already begun, convince the patron of the sacrifice that some of his priests were doing it wrong (even though according to the hegemonic tradition they were doing just fine), and win for himself a decent paycheck. But this series of events, Lincoln notes, was made possible by the fact that Uṣati had some food leftover from begging the day before. This point may seem trivial. But it’s not. Without having some food to contribute to the sacrifice, he presumably would not have been able to get within earshot of the patron. Further still, food is significant on the level of cosmological discourse. Because it is a gross material, Food is typically the lowest of three categories (under Speech and Breath, both of which are subtle), and is often associated with the lowest varṇa or priestly class. (It also includes the earth, dirt, and shit mentioned above.) Though not challenging this hierarchy, this section of the Chandogya shows how “[f]ood is convertible to money…via several mediations [e.g., what Lincoln calls “pretentious chatter … convey(ing) the semblance of wisdom to gullible priests and patrons”]” (12, emphasis in original), the latter of which occupies the position of highest privilege for the poor Uṣati.

Finally, Lincoln brings Chandogya Upaniṣad 1.12 to the table. In this passage, a man by the name of Baka Dālbhya (or Glāva Maitreya)—whom “the mythic genealogy of the Udgītha chant [presents] as the paradigmatic model for all subsequent Udgātṛs…an unimpeachable source” (13)—is said to have witnessed a host of dogs chanting their own version of the Udgītha. In their version of the chant, the dogs valorize Food over all else. After expressing uncertainty about the “origins, genre, or intent” (13) of the passage, Lincoln characterizes it as “striking” (13) because in its revalorization of homologized metaphysical categories it presents,

[A]n economy of consumption and pleasure, where priestly speech—and not food—is simply a means to an end … [where] the ultimate beneficiaries and ruling stratum are those whom other systems judge to be ‘animals’: those for whom material existence and bodily pleasure are not degraded and degrading, but the goal and supreme joy of existence (14).

Bookending and punctuating these explorations, Lincoln makes some recommendations regarding how historians of religion ought to go about their business. And underlying these pointers—themselves clear echoes of his well-known “Theses on Method”—is an interest in the advancement of social theory.

Observing that all texts are the products of situated human labor, Lincoln advises they be approached skeptically and critically—especially those texts he classifies as religious texts, which are distinct in that they claim for themselves “more-than-human origin, status, and authority” (5). (This conceptualization of what makes a given text religious is an extension of his definition of religion in terms of discourse, practice, community, and institution.[2]) Given this assumption, he proposes that historians of religion attend closely to the structure and logic of the texts under analysis[3]—that is, identify the categories operative therein, the hierarchical relations between the terms, how the terms are homologized with one another (forming binary or ternary sets, typically), and the reasons the texts provide for privileging one set of categories over others. And, further, highlight any subtle revalorizations within a text as it relates to a larger body of “culturally relevant comparative materials” (9). Next, he suggests that historians “[e]stablish any connections” between the world of the text and the social world in light of the text’s authorship and the material conditions surrounding its “authorship, circulation, and reception” (9).

Taking all of this together, religious texts become a fruitful data set for the investigation of the ways in which human interests “are advanced, defended, [and] negotiated” (9). Put differently—and to use some vocabulary which I almost certainly picked up from Russell McCutcheon and Craig Martin, whose respective bodies of work have come to be just as influential to my thinking as Lincoln’s—religious texts are for Lincoln (as I read him, at least) one kind of tool among others by which human beings not only construct, preserve, and modify boundaries and hierarchical relationships between/among social groups from the macro level all the way down to the micro level, but make said contingent social arrangements appear natural.

In my MA thesis, I brought (an admittedly less sophisticated understanding of) these ideas to bear on a past-life story from a previously untranslated and understudied Mahāyāna sūtra, and I intend to continue employing them in my dissertation (whatever the specifics of that project turn out to be). Additionally, my goal as an online instructor has been to get my students thinking about what people often call “religion” in social terms, and to employ the hermeneutics of suspicion when thinking about those discourses/texts, practices, communities, and institutions that people typically call “religious.”

Compelling as I find Lincoln’s work to be, however, and as useful as it is for guiding my instruction—and as Lincoln himself has noted in print and in class—there is no such thing as a purely disinterested theory of religion, and there is always room for improvement with regard to method. So, although I fancy myself a Lincolnian of sorts, I do not like to think of myself as a blind loyalist. His work has provided a solid foundation for me, and I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for any cracks as I build upward.


[1] Bruce Lincoln, “The Tyranny of Taxonomy,” Discourse and the Construction of Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 131-141.

[2] This definition has appeared in Lincoln’s Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003) and in the epilogue of Sarah Iles Johnston’s edited volume Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 2004), the latter of which was reprinted as “Ancient and Post-Ancient Religions,” in Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars: Critical Explorations in the History of Religions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

[3] The guidelines reproduced in “Reading a Religious Text” and summarized here were initially presented in Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

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Theory & Religion Series: Ann Taves’ Religious Experience Reconsidered in the study of atheism


by Thomas J. Coleman III

* This post is part of 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.

Finally at age 27 in the fall of 2012, I had decided what I wanted to do in life, or at least where I wanted to start the “doing”. The psychology of religion and cognitive science of religion (and currently theory in cognitive science in general) was what struck my interests. Admittedly, and to digress, I currently see the former two as more similar than distinct from one another. The first book I read was Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane (1959) at the direction of my professor, and now frequent collaborator, Christopher F. Silver. With my interests in studying atheism(s), I began plotting out (naively so) how I would go about my research looking at “secular hierophanies”. Thankfully, that book is not the topic of this blog post – I have since realized the error of my ways – and Silver more or less recommend the book, I only later discovered, in hopes of providing me with some back ground about where much of the study and research on religion had since evolved from. Unhappy with my reading of Eliade for many reasons, the one that stands out as pertinent to the current topic was his insistence that “secular experience”, which he characterized as mundane and rather disenchanted, could never compare to “religious experience”, which was of course inherently sacred, special and enchanted – off limits to nonbelievers. Enter Ann Taves’ Religious Experience Reconsidered (2009), the antidote to the Eliadeian tradition and the second book I read.

There is no such thing as religious experience, only experiences deemed religious. This is a methodological mantra that no researcher should forget, and scholars in all fields are in debt to Ann Taves for elucidating this point. Religious Experience Reconsidered, has much to offer anyone studying or researching religion, and has proved formative in my own initial studies and research into understanding meaningful experiences in atheists (Coleman, Silver & Holcombe, 2013; Coleman & Arrowood, 2015; Coleman, Silver & Hood, in press). Although the impetus for writing her book was to provide a way for scholars and researchers to work across disciplines, studying “religion” from multiple viewpoints, it has also opened up new avenues of research into what she characterizes as “special things”. Special things, loosely summarized, are a subset of some things that might commonly fall into the category of religion, while others might not. In this framework it is up to the scholar or the individual to do the deeming of what is or is not religious and/or special.

While Taves did not necessarily set out to provide a framework for the study of atheism, her ascriptive approach allows for just that. Human experience falls along a continuum regardless of the labels used to characterize experience, and Taves mobilizes Kopytoff’s notion of “singularization” to just this effect. The question I pose, and that Taves’ framework allows us to both pose and answer, is this: Does the atheist have anything comparable to “religious experience” that might be of interest to researchers of religion and nonbelief? There is both wide qualitative and quantitative variation in the psychological makeup of atheists, and perhaps there is secular experience that might even be realized as more awe inspiring and wondrous than some experiences commonly thought to be “religious”. While I answer the first question in the affirmative, it is one that is certainly open to further empirical investigation under her ascriptive model. The second question, however, awaits much more theorization and research before speculation could commence; nonetheless the idea is there.

Do atheists feel awe, wonder, moments of ineffable moving experience – perhaps even mystical experience (Hood, 2013)? Of course, but importantly (pace scholars of “implicit religion”), nothing previously mentioned necessitates the label of religion – either explicitly or implicitly – be used to characterize the experience either by the researcher or the individual. Taves framework doesn’t privilege religion a priori, and doesn’t eschew an individual for framing an experience religiously either. Moreover, it allows us to explore how experiences, objects, and even words, transition from something “mundane” to something “special” to something “religious”.

Taves approach to religion is both humanistic and cognitive. It has much to offer the cognitive science of religion (CSR) as well as the humanities in avoiding setting up any theoretical postulate as something purely or inherently religious. For example, some researchers in the CSR express that there is no “religion module” or “religious system” to be found in the brain, this is a welcome and correct notion in line with Taves framework. “Religion” is a natural phenomenon just like atheism. However, a strong deviation from her methodology, I argue, typically follows these statements when researchers posit, for example, that a “normal” Theory of Mind combined with a hypothesized “normal” Agency Detection Device leads effortlessly and automatically to a belief in supernatural agency. While this may or may not ultimately be correct, these same researchers then seem to conflate the systems with their content (god beliefs). Thus while they admit on the front end that there is no religious system, they end up sneaking one in through the back door by aligning what should be an agnostic cognitive system(s) devoid of ontological commitment to any notion of the Transcendent, with the very object they seek to explain. To them, then, these systems are religious systems, ultimately. This is curious brand of naturalism indeed!

Importantly, Taves framework does not conflate a cognitive system or pathway with small portions of its operational content. Her methodology allows us to find out how, why, and for what reasons some individuals are beholden to using a religious label or worldview in their lives, as well as studying how, why, and for what reasons various researchers understand some cognitions to be “religious cognition”, even if the person does not believe in God or label themselves as religious. If “religion” is a cognitive universal, then this ends up being about as interesting at the end of the day as discovering that everyone who is alive is breathing, it is simply a truism bearing little meaningful content with which to study the distinctions that make research valuable. What becomes interesting then, to reiterate, is the higher order construction of how an individual and or groups take lower level cognitions – the term “religion” seems rather inappropriate to use at this lower level of analysis – and understand them religiously, secularly, or as something “special”.

While Taves’ book has garnered both praise and critique, as any book worthy of reading inevitably does, it marks not the beginning of an era symbolizing a change in the study of religion and special things, but offers promising answers to that era itself. Importantly, it allows us to view all experiences as equally potentially meaningful and value laden, at least initially, and study processes of meaning making at individual and group levels while investigating the ever changing science behind these processes as well. Taves’ Religious Experience Reconsidered occupies a unique place on my bookshelf. It has a well-worn cover, tattered pages full of highlights and notes which is set apart from the other books as something special.



Coleman, T. J. III, Silver, C. F. & Holcombe, J. (2013). Focusing on horizontal        transcendence: much more than a “non-belief”. Essays In The Philosophy Of        Humanism, 21 (2), pp. 1-18.

Coleman, T. J. III, & Arrowood, R. B. (2015). Only We Can Save Ourselves: An atheists    ‘salvation’. In H. Bacon, W. Dossett & S. Knowles, Alternative Salvations: Engaging the   Sacred and the Secular. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Coleman, T. J. III, Silver, C. F., & Hood, R. W. Jr. (in press). “ … if the universe is             beautiful, we’re part of that beauty.” – a “neither religious nor spiritual” biography    as horizontal transcendence. In H. Streib & R. Hood (Eds.), The semantics and       psychology of spirituality. Dordrecht: Springer.

Eliade, M. (1959). The sacred and the profane. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

Hood, R. (2013). Theory and Methods in the Psychological Study of Mysticism. International Journal For The Psychology Of Religion, 23(4), 294-306.             doi:10.1080/10508619.2013.795803

Taves, A. (2009). Religious experience reconsidered. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton        University Press.

Thomas J. Coleman III is a graduate student in the Research Psychology Masters program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) studying the psychology and cognitive science of religion. He is the Director of the Ralph W. Hood Jr. Psychology of Religion Laboratory at UTC, and an Assistant Editor for The Religious Studies Project and the journal Secularism & Nonreligion. His email is

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Call For Papers: Religion, Science and the Future



Religion, Science and the Future

A Conference Sponsored by the

The International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture,

Celebrating its 10th Anniversary

14 – 17 January 2016

The University of Florida

Gainesville Florida

Mark your calendars and join us!

Since its founding in 2006 the ISSRNC has promoted critical enquiry into the complex relationships between human beings, the religious dimensions of their cultures, and the environments they inhabit. In 2007, it began to publish its affiliated, quarterly, peer-reviewed Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture.

As an interdisciplinary society, the ISSRNC is interested in all aspects of the relations between religion, nature and culture. Our conferences and journal are, therefore, replete with contributions grounded in a wide range of the arts, humanities, and sciences. Panels and paper proposals may address any aspect of the religion/nature/culture nexus, and focus on any time frame, space, or place.

Since the main conference theme is “Religion, Science and the Future”, we especially encourage proposals that, whatever else they illuminate, reflect as well on Religion, Science, and the Future. Conference subthemes include: Evolution, Religion and Science; Religion, Violence, and Neuroscience; Religion and Science on Health and Well Being; Religion, Science, and Indigenous Knowledge Systems; Consciousness, Mysticism, & Meditative Practice; The Greening of Religion; Religion and Nature in the Arts; and Ethology, Botany, and Sentience.

Further details can be found in the more detailed Call for Proposals & Papers.

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