Critics or Caretakers? It’s All in the Mapping

By Philip L. Tite

I recently watched a podcast produced by the Religious Studies Project on the topic of whether a scholar should be a critic or a caretaker of religious traditions. The roundtable was comprised of several notable UK scholars (Grace Davie, Steven Sutcliffe, Eileen Barker, Linda Woodhead, Timothy Fitzgerald, Lois Lee, Joylon Mitchell, and Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi), each offering a different perspective on what has become an ongoing debate in the field especially since Russell McCutcheon’s 1997 article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion on the role of the public intellectual as well as his book, Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2001).

What struck me as I listened to this podcast was the way the participants defined and used the key terms (“critic” and “caretaker”). They were given freedom to explore the terms as they wished, which gave a series of different and at times contending understandings of the terms being used. In his response, Russell McCutcheon noted this discontinuity with his own use of these terms in his scholarship. In an academic discussion on Facebook, an important question was raised by Randi Warne (Mount Saint Vincent University), specifically she rightly raised a question about the authoritative voice taken in claiming in scholarly discourse to declare what should be a normative use of language in scholarly debates. For myself, I had assumed that the respondents were working with or in response to McCutcheon’s work, but I think that the point raised about a progressive subtext in scholarship in an important one to raise.

There is certainly an irony in the scholarly rhetoric raised in theoretical (as well as theological or confessional) circles in the study of religion, especially perhaps among those scholars (including myself) who challenge the place of normative discourse in academic scholarship. Such a normative – “this is how we should be scholars” – certainly is present in such debates, while evoking a subtext of progressivism in scholarship. There is certainly a progressive rhetoric at work in McCutcheon’s work (as well as the work of others). I recognize this tendency, even if I agree with the direction we are encouraged to follow. Indeed, I’ve noticed this as a subtext in a lot of method and theory discussions. What is the correct way to be a scholar? Who takes on the moral authority to make that very call? Does taking on such moral authority result in the realignment (perhaps misalignment) of the various players invoked within the debate, re-situating them within new and perhaps alien narrative maps? And finally does this claim to normative discourse result in a prescriptive approach by theorists, thereby rendering them, in their own way, “caretakers” (though of a discipline rather than a religious tradition) by advocating the ideal of being “culture critics”? Such narrative maps, as we learn from the social psychology camp of Rom Harré and Luk van Langenhove’s “positioning theory” (Positioning Theory: Moral Contexts of Intentional Action [Oxford: Blackwell, 1999]), intersect the discursive positioning of interlocutors by those claiming moral authority to do so. These narratives shape and direct, while giving a “commonsense” solidity to those very discursive moves. Of course, as positioning theorists have noted such discursive positioning can be contested, thereby evoking new, contending narrative maps within an ongoing communicative interaction.

That observation on the progressive ideology underlying much of what I read in religious studies scholarship, has been a quandary for me for several years now, especially as I generally see myself agreeing with the theoretical camp that advocates being “culture critics” rather than “caretakers” of religious traditions. Of course, this type of progressivism or advocacy for the normative within the discipline is neither limited to just method and theory circles nor to theologians. We all do it. Indeed, it seems to be a necessary fiction for us as scholars to be scholars, to continue doing scholarly work, to justify our very existence if not to our funding bodies then certainly to ourselves and our colleagues. We are taught early on to be “progressive” in our scholarship. When a student sits down to write a thesis (regardless of the degree level, but especially with a doctoral thesis) we are told that our work must make “a significant contribution to knowledge”. We need to “advance” a discussion, make an “important contribution” to whatever field or subfield we are in. We need to “fill a gap” in scholarship or “correct” errors in past scholarship or to “advance” a “better understanding/explanation” of something. In other words, we are to make progress in knowledge making. And perhaps we do. We certainly think that we do. I know that I like to think that my scholarship adds something to the field that wasn’t there before, something that is better than what preceded it. And perhaps that is the real point – it’s “real”, it’s “normative”, it’s “progress” because we think it is.

The topic of progress is central to our discipline’s identity and sense of worth, including our internal conflicts over what should and should not constitute scholarship. Although I will continue – perhaps I have no choice but to continue – to produce scholarship that tries to advance a discussion or add something better to my area of study, I also take a step back once in a while and realize that what we do as scholars (and as teachers) is really just a game. An important game for sure, but certainly a game of contending claims to normative status. I realize that in 50 years or less, future scholars will look back on our time and evaluate our scholarship as contextualized, myopic, and in need of correction. Future academics in need of producing doctoral theses, attaining tenure (or whatever passes for tenure then), and building an intellectual legacy, will likely engage in another, continuing round of progressive and normative rhetoric. I think it is inevitable.

Inevitable perhaps, but not necessarily a bad thing – if I may evoke an “ought” to complement my premonition of a future “is”. Every game needs rules, goals, etc – i.e., every game needs a set of boundaries (as fictional or contrived as they may be) in order for the game to be played effectively (and indeed to determine if the game is being played effectively). Academic disciplines are no different (and not just religious studies, but also anthropology, sociology, literature studies, history, classics, and the various so-called hard sciences). The field of religious studies, I think, should be engaged in debating normative positions for defining the field, even if those normative positions include being non-normative when relating to our data. We define what it means to “be academic” what it means to be “fringe” or “transgressive” within a field. We determine if we are being misrepresented (e.g., in the media), if an “applied” dimension to our field has slipped into apologetics or caretaking. And we contend those narrative maps, we challenge those claiming moral authority to define those maps, and we then do the same thing by presenting other maps. There are multiple “we’s” in such discursive contestation, and it is such multiplicity that is either the vitality of our discipline or the most dangerous threat to an already unstable field of study. It’s all in the mapping.

Author Bio: Philip Tite is co-editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from McGill University (2005) and is currently an affiliate lecturer at the University of Washington in Seattle WA, USA. His most recent book is The Apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans: An Epistolarly and Rhetorical Analysis (TENTS, 7; Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2012).

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Not All Atheists


by Matt Sheedy

In the wake of this past Tuesday’s tragic murders of Yusor Mohammad, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Deah Shaddy Barakat, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, much has been made of Craig Steven Hicks’ (the accused) motivation, particularly his alleged atheism and the Muslim identities of his victims. It has been noted, for example, that he was a member of the Facebook groups “Atheists for Equality” and “United Atheists of America,” while a widely circulated quote from one of his social media posts reads: “When it comes to insults, your religion started this, not me. If your religion kept its big mouth shut, so would I…”

One thing that appears unique in the aftermath of this attack is the attempt by some, mostly on social media, to reverse the familiar narrative that compels Muslims to condemn all violence committed by other Muslims by urging the same from those who identify as atheists. In this post, I will suggest a few reasons why this type of comparison isn’t likely to stick and why, more importantly, it helps to show how such generalizations are problematic to begin with.

In a New Republic article by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, entitled, “The Chapel Hill Murders Should Be a Wake-Up Call for Atheists,” she suggests that some level of blame for these murders should be directed at the “New Atheist movement,” which is described as a “contemporary phenomenon of aggressive disbelief coupled with a persistent persecution narrative.” She concludes her piece with the following admonition:

Perhaps this will be a moment of reflection for the New Atheist movement and its adherents. If nothing else, the takeaway should be that no form of reasoning, however obvious to a particular cohort, has a monopoly on righteousness. And no ideology, supernatural or not, has a monopoly on evil.

Throughout her piece, Stoker Bruenig makes a series of evidentiary claims about Hicks’ atheism, noting, for example, that he was an admirer of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason. She also makes a distinction between “pure atheism” and “New Atheism,” and claims that the latter fails to define “reason” and is “blind to its similarities to the religions it derides.” She continues:

Because it is more critical of religion than introspective about its own moral commitments, it assumes there is broad agreement about what constitutes decency, common sense, and reason.

Stoker Bruenig further notes, citing a 2013 Pew survey, that American atheists are disproportionately young, white, college educated, and male and tend to adopt a “rational approach to complicated socio-political problems.” While not directly conflating this data set with New Atheism, it is suggested that the latter’s antipathy toward Islam, along with its “thoroughgoing persecution narrative” has contributed to a toxic environment of anti-religious sentiment in general and Islamophobia in particular.

A few of Stoker Bruenig’s points strike me as accurate, at least when it comes to the writings and public statements of the figures like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, (whom she also mentions) including their tendency to essentialize religion to “particular texts, creeds, and dogmas,” their lack of critical introspection, and their consistent and disproportionate anti-Islamic rhetoric. Although the demographic data on American atheists as largely young, white, college educated, and male strikes me as an interesting and important variable to consider in terms of how ideology aligns with such things as race, gender/sex, and social class, it remains problematic, to say that least, to exclude the many other atheist identities that don’t map onto this statistical grid. Moreover, to suggest that the writings and charismatic appeal of a few leading figures in a loosely defined “movement” are somehow determinative of the beliefs and practices of all who may fall under the broad category “atheist” is nothing short of absurd. I suspect that many would agree with my supposition here, though the reasons for this, I wager, are hardly self-evident. Here a comparison with representations of Islam and Muslims is instructive.

Unlike “Islam,” there is currently no nation-state or significant militant political movement that is strongly identified as “atheist.” This was not always so, as many will recall the “red scare” during the Cold War, where the “foreign” Sino-Soviet threat contributed to a backlash in the US for those who identified as atheist, which was at the time homologous with communism, (or “godless communism”) much like “Islam” elides with the appellation “terrorist” today. Whereas an atheist’s national allegiance was once called into question, especially in the wake of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg affair (c. 1953)–not unlike John F. Kennedy during his 1960 presidential bid in light of his Catholicism, or Keith Ellison when he was elected as the first Muslim congress person in 2007–today such perceived external threats have lost their rhetorical force altogether.

A further point to bear in mind was made by religions scholar Jacques Berlinerblau, who was quoted in the Washington Post as follows:

Jacques Berlinerblau, a Georgetown University sociologist and atheist who writes on secularism, said he was appalled by the Chapel Hill attacks and that they remind him of those against Jews in Paris recently — “the picking out of someone based on their physical attributes, their clothes, their religious markers and murdering them.”

To be sure, the social production of identities has very real consequences for social relations, particularly for those on the margins, such as Jews and Muslims in the West, who constitute the first and second most targeted groups for hate crimes in the US. Moreover, I would suggest that the public narratives of popular figures of any group formation constitute important sites of affinity for those who consider themselves adherents and estrangement for those who do not, especially in times of social unrest where the tendency to look for an easy scapegoat abounds.

Stoker Bruenig also observers in her piece that atheists and Muslims are among the most maligned “religious cohorts” according to a 2014 Pew Survey, while Hindus and Buddhists enjoy a comparatively warmer reception on account of their having the “least political presence in the United States.” While the observation of “political presence” is a useful one to consider, I would claim that this tells us more about the dynamics of marked and unmarked public identities than it describes perceptions about religious beliefs.

To the extent that American atheists are largely young, white, college educated, and male, (and this appears to be the dominant public perception, in any case, despite what more rigorous data may tell us) their atheism goes largely unmarked outside of explicit public confrontations thereby rendering it largely invisible as “Other” in many social contexts.

Muslim identities, by contrast, are almost always marked as “Other” within the Euro-West, based on such variables as ethnicity, name, (sometimes) accent, custom (e.g., food practices), and so forth, along with certain public forms of piety, such as veiling practices or the wearing of a beard by devout men. As Mayanthi Fernado writes in her book The Republic Unsettled (2014) on Muslim identities in France:

The term Muslims has come to identify, pejoratively, a population of North and West African descent, whose members a few decades earlier were referred to either as immigrants and foreigners, or with terms that marked their ethnicity or national origin. The recent invocation in mainstream public and political discourse of the signifier Muslim signals, then, less the increasing religiosity of this population than a fusion of racial, religious, and cultural bases for alterity. (17-18)

By contrast, even when atheist identities are marked in public, they are (today) largely safe from the charge of any (real or perceived) international alliances that could be considered threatening (including homegrown radicalism) and, moreover, tend to reflect not only privileged gender and racial norms, (as opposed to immigrant or “foreign” identities) but also align with commonly accepted conceptions of self, autonomy, authority, secularism, citizenship, and so forth. Popular atheism, then, may be maligned when it seeks to challenge dominant religious norms in public, but is usually able to hide in plain site by virtue of its various unmarked characteristics.

For these (and many other) reasons, I would suggest that we will not see any mass public condemnation of atheists in the aftermath of this tragedy, nor anything like it in the near future. One thing that the discourse about this attack may help to shed light on, however, is the false equation of “religion” with belief as the primary marker of public identity, suggesting that many other variables (e.g., ethnicity/race, social class, gender, habitus, etc.) are equally if not more important in shaping the way we imagine religious identities to be.

Posted in Matt Sheedy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, Theory and Method, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Ritual Studies Group Call for Papers: The AAR and SBL Meeting Atlanta, Georgia November 21-24

Atlanta Skylines of and from Atlantic Station

Ritual Studies Group Call for Papers

Deadline: Monday, March 2 2015, 5:00 PM EST, through:

Statement of Purpose:

This Group provides a unique venue for the interdisciplinary exploration of ritual — broadly understood to include rites, ceremonies, religious and secular performances, and other ritual processes — in their many and varied contexts, and from a range of theoretical and methodological perspectives.

Call for Papers:

The Ritual Studies Group encourages submissions from scholars whose research focus on the study of ritual, and from scholars keen to develop theoretical sophistication in the study of ritual. This year, we particularly invite papers on:

  • Ethical Questions in the Study of Ritual: We are particularly interested in papers or panel proposals which examine the particular ethical and normative issues in the study of ritual and ritual traditions. We are also open to papers taking on broader questions of the relationship between ritual and ethics.
  • Ritual, Body, Movement, and Space: We are interested in papers that look at various embodied practices, such as walking and dancing within ritual contexts and, more broadly, papers examining the sensual dimension of ritual. In this context, we are also interested in papers providing new or innovative ways of examining possession or trance.  
  • Ritual and Social Change: We are interested in research examining the role of ritual in social change or the contributions ritual studies can make to understanding social change. We are particularly interested in papers attending to ritual and climate change.

In addition, we are interested in the following topics for potential joint sessions with other program groups:

  • Ritual and Film: Building from 2014 presentations on ritual and film we are interested in proposals on film in the study of ritual, especially with regard to the use of film in fieldwork or ethnographic filmmaking, for a potential joint session with the Anthropology of Religion Group.
  • Ritual, Sex, and Gender: We are interested in proposals that look at the relationship between ritual, sex, sexuality, and gender for a potential co-sponsorship with the Men, Masculinities, and Religions Group.
  • Ritual and Esotericism: We are interested in proposals that might contribute to a joint panel with the Western Esotericism Group that focus on the ways in which esoteric discourses often oscillate between normativity and transgression when they become embodied in rituals. Any other aspect of the relationship between western esotericism and ritual studies will also be considered.

In addition to the listed topics, the Ritual Studies Group is also open to reviewing any proposals that might contribute positively to the academic study of ritual. We are interested in both individual paper proposals and proposals for full panels. Panel proposals should include full proposals for individual papers. Please note, because we are exploring alternative formats for our sessions, contributors may be asked to submit their papers in advance of the meeting to be available to attendees, and to present a short summary instead of a full paper at the meeting. 



Proposer names are visible to chairs and steering committee members at all times


We had some dispute on this process within the committee, and switched from initial anonymous review to a visible review.

Based on broader program committee desires we will be using an open process.



Grant H. Potts,

Jens Kreinath,

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Policing Religion


by Tenzan Eaghll

Now that a month has passed since the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, it is useful to step back and consider the general treatment of religion and Islam in the media. Whenever one of these horrendous acts occurs there is an automatic reaction by journalists and philosophers that re-instantiates, rather than questions, the various strategies at play, and this is what I want to problematize. Succinctly, the claim I want to develop is as follows: all the coverage of Hebdo has been concerned with policing religion, not engaging it as a cultural and social discourse. Policing is a term I borrow from Jacques Rancière, who uses it to describe how bodies, groups, ideas, and images are assembled and distributed within culture.[1] Policing does not imply the physical presence of police officers, or even the machine apparatus of the State, but the way in which power is organized, classified, and legitimated within and beyond these very institutions; it is what governs the appearance of “things” in the first place. Hence, when I say that all the discourse and actions surrounding this horrible event have been about policing religion, not problematizing it as a cultural and social discourse, I mean that from the start religion has not even been at issue, but merely used as a smokescreen to justify who gets to define religion.

From the first moment when the bullets rang out to some of the latest articles written on the subject, the issue at hand has been who has the right to speak about religion, what they have a right to say about it, when they have a right to do so, where such conversations are permissible, and why speaking about it is right, or wrong, in the first place. However, almost no one has stopped to consider how the whole discussion already presupposes a particular arrangement and definition of who and what counts as a valid expression of religion in the first place. To use a favored expression of Rancière, no one has stopped to consider the “distribution of the sensible” [le partage du sensible].

One journalistic example of this error can be found in the January 15 edition of MacLean’s magazine, which was provocatively titled “How the Muslim World is Failing.” In an article in this edition by Scott Gilmore, he contrasts the “tribal savagery” of terrorists to the “scientific progress” of the West, and laments the “relative decline” of the Islamic nations from the glory days of the Middle Ages when they contributed to science, mathematics, and philosophy. Although Gilmore admits that drawing this historical comparison is a bit of a cliché, he nonetheless suggests that Islamic nations need to find ways to overcome their internal divisions and contribute to the positive advance of knowledge that marks modern nations.[2] Independent of whether or not this is a valid claim, what I would simply point out is that Gilmore is unreflexive about the organization, classification, and legitimization of value that structures his analysis, and presupposes the positivistic nature of progress and a liberal definition of religion, without any misgivings.

Surely, Hebdo should be condemned, but is the proper response to be found in portraying the tragedy as a conflict between the old vs. the new, or barbarity vs. progress? Ultimately, what he suggests is that religion is a private belief that is meant to serve the betterment of the state, and the extent to which it doesn’t live up to this role is the degree to which it is “failing.” Does this approach offer any critical reflection on the issue at hand, or does it just instantiate the very binaries Gilmore presupposes at the outset of his analysis?

A philosophical example of this error is found in one of my favorite contemporary thinkers, Slavoj Žižek. Though Žižek is always quite careful to point out that “religious conflicts” reflect the larger failings of the political and economic structure of society, and not any innate religious qualities, he largely just throws the entire Hebdo tragedy under the bus by psychologizing the terrorists as weak-minded religious adherents who lack the steely resolve of authentic revolutionaries. Lumping “Islamic radicals” together with “apathetic liberals,” he suggests that both are examples of Nietzsche’s “last man,” as they both embrace a nihilistic stance in relation to the modern world. Whereas the radicals pursue a heavenly justice through sublime acts of violent destruction, liberals engage capitalist inequality with complete resignation. What is needed, Žižek suggests, is a turn to the radical left to curtail this nihilistic binary altogether. His claim is that anyone who wants to critique Islamic radicals must also be willing to critique the unrestrained domination of capitalism.[3] Though I generally agree with Žižek’s critique of capitalist malaise, what I find lacking in his analysis of Hebdo is any consideration of how the various forces at play are using religion to justify their own political visions (an error, I might add, which he repeats). In my opinion, it does not contribute to our understanding of these tragedies to justify them in relation to some higher end, no matter how politically noble. Rather, what we need to pay attention to is how the very order that presents itself as religious already presupposes a set of roles, actions, truths, and texts that are appropriated to police what counts as a just presentation of the sensible.

Following Aaron Hughes remarks in the introduction to Situating Islam, I would suggest that what is needed is for us to think and write like “infidels,” not just in relation to Islam, but the broader cultural hypostatization of religion in the West.[4] The only way to challenge Bernard Lewis’ old trope that tragedies such as Hebdo result from a “clash of civilizations” that goes back hundreds of years, is to question how our ways of discussing these events completely obscure the real issues at hand. The demarcation of religion as distinct from the secular, and of Islam as an entity distinct from the West, is merely a means of policing religion, rather than discussing its function as a political and cultural tool in our modern globalized world. Attempting to use Hebdo to help us realize some higher historical goal—whether positivistic or communistic—misses a golden opportunity to consider how cultural categories are employed as a prophylactic against the very difference they claim to represent. When Islamic radicals are contrasted to the wonders of modern science, what is being attained other than an endorsement of all modern Western institutions? Moreover, when they are lumped together with liberal nihilists how does this help us appreciate the complexity of the political forces at play, from Baghdad to Paris?

[1] Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy (1998)



[4] Aaron Hughes, Situating Islam (2007); See also Crone and Crook, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World (1997).

Posted in Reflections on Islamic Studies, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Tenzan Eaghll, Theory and Method | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Call for Papers: Redescribing Early Christianity, The SBL Annual Meeting Atlanta, Georgia, November 21-24

Atlanta Skylines of and from Atlantic Station

Call for Papers: Redescribing Early Christianity. The SBL Annual Meeting Atlanta, Georgia,  November 21-24

Deadline:  Thursday, March 5, 2014, 5:00 PM EST, through

Call for Papers:

The Redescribing Early Christianity unit is organizing two sessions that address issues associated with the concept of time. One session will focus on the ways that early Christians used time—construed broadly—as a strategy of mythmaking. Potential topics include studies related to anachronism, chronology, and genealogy. A second session will attend to the ways that scholars have dealt with the concept of time as found in the ancient sources, asking what has been at stake in the study of time and considering how a redescription of the data would move the field forward. We seek papers that address and redescribe any aspect of the concept of time as it relates to the study of early Christianity. Abstracts that utilize social, cognitive, or evolutionary theories, as well as papers that incorporate theoretical and/or methodological work from other fields of study, are particularly welcome. Please note that both sessions will be conducted in seminar-style format, meaning that papers will be pre-circulated in late October or early November and then discussed in greater detail in Atlanta.

Questions or requests to be on the mailing list for pre-circulated papers may be sent to William Arnal ( or Erin Roberts (


To propose a paper to Redescribing Early Christian Origins:

If you are a SBL member, login on to submit a proposal for this session.  

For all other persons wanting to propose a paper, please communicate directly with the program unit chairs. Chairs have the responsibility to make waiver requests, and their email addresses are available above. SBL provides membership and meeting registration waivers only for scholars who are outside the disciplines covered by the SBL program, specifically most aspects of archaeological, biblical, religious, and theological studies.

Program Unit Chairs

William E. Arnal

Erin Roberts

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The Neuroscience of How Religiosity Reduces Anxiety


by Matthew Facciani

Popular authors such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have accrued notoriety by discussing the negative effects of religious belief. Such polemical figures and their followers often focus on the truth-value of religion while speculating its impact on societies and individuals. Certain developments in cognitive science offer an interesting challenge to these popular positions—in how they define “religion” and what it entails for the social and psychological effects that are said to follow.

It is first important to establish how cognitive scientists approach studying religion before explaining how religious beliefs may impact the brain. To avoid dealing with the complexity and variability of religion, cognitive scientists focus on the psychological effects of certain beliefs. Specifically, cognitive scientists are interested in measuring religiosity. Religiosity can be defined as the adherence to one’s ideological position. High religiosity involves a rigid adherence to one’s ideology. Importantly, religiosity doesn’t have to pertain to religious beliefs as it can apply to any ideology. Cognitive scientists often use religious beliefs to study religiosity because they can provide meaning and a framework for understanding one’s environment.

According to certain schools of thought within cognitive science, positive psychological effects of religiosity include lifting the mood of elderly cancer patients (Fering et al, 1997) increasing the propensity to help others (Saroglou et al, 2005), and reducing anxiety (Kay et al., 2008; Park, 2005). This reduction of anxiety seems particularly powerful when religious people have strong conviction in their beliefs as it creates a framework for understanding their environment (Pargament, 2002). The advent of neuroimaging techniques has allowed neuroscientists to study how religiosity impacts the brain as well. The neuroscience of religious belief is still a very new field, but there has already been substantial evidence in explaining how religiosity reduces anxiety on a neural level.

Creswell and colleagues (2006) have theorized that affirming one’s personal values during stress can make them less physiologically reactive to anxiety. Farias and colleagues (2013) found that secular people’s belief in science increases in the face of stress and existential anxiety. Strong conviction in one’s belief system can provide meaning and a framework for understanding the environment which reduces anxiety from uncertainty (McGregor, Nash, & Prentice, 2010). There is also evidence that anxiety can affect performance on cognitive tasks which require the processing of errors (Eysenck et al., 2007). Thus, cognitive neuroscience studies could investigate if religiosity buffers the anxiety caused by uncertainty.

The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is a part of the brain associated with error detection and the experience of anxiety. Brain activity in the ACC has been shown to be associated with error detection with greater activity following an error in cognitive tasks (Yeung et al, 2004). An example of this task would be the classic Stroop task (Stroop, 1935). The Stroop task has participants name the text color of a word that is printed in a color not represented by the word they have to read (e.g., reading the word “blue” printed in red ink instead of blue ink). Error detection would occur whenever the participant accidently says the wrong color while trying to name the text color.

Essentially, errors on these cognitive tasks activate a basic “uh oh” response in the brain. Individuals who are more anxious tend to also have higher ACC activity during the “uh oh” response when detecting they made an error (Hajcak, 2003). Thus, if religiosity does reduce anxiety we should see less ACC activity during an error detection task associated with anxiety.

Inzlicht and his colleagues (2009) conducted a study where they measured the neural processes of anxiety in both religious believers and non-believers. They had both groups complete a cognitive task which is known to activate processes involved with error detection (and the corresponding “uh oh” response). An electroencephalograph (EEG) measured brain activity while the believers and non-believers completed the cognitive task. The researchers found that religious believers had less activity in the ACC during errors on the task. This effect was found despite controlling for personality factors and cognitive ability! These findings suggest that high levels of religiosity might buffer the anxiety caused by uncertainty.

This finding has since been replicated in other studies using similar experimental paradigms (Inzlicht, Tullet, & Good 2011). In one such study, the researchers had two groups of participants who strongly believed in a theistic God. In one group, participants wrote what their religion means and explains in their lives before completing the cognitive task while the other group did not. Like the 2009 study, Inzlicht and colleagues (2010) had participants complete an error detection task associated with anxiety while they had their brain activity measured. The group which reflected on God before the experiment had less ACC activity during errors than the group that did not reflect on God. However, this effect was only seen in religious believers because it likely affirmed their religiosity. In a religion specific study, Good and colleagues (2014) demonstrated that Mormons experienced less anxiety (reduced ACC activity) when thinking about alcohol after they were primed to think about God’s forgiveness. Again, affirming one’s convictions to a particular ideology appears to be the crux of reducing anxiety.

These neuroscience studies suggest that what we believe does appear to have a top-down effect on how our brain processes information. Scholarship in religious studies and related fields can help parse apart these beliefs and neuroscience allows us to study their effects on the brain. It’s important to operationalize belief as best we can before conducting behavioral research on religiosity. Psychological research has previously supported the role that religious belief can play in helping to reduce anxiety (Kay et al, 2008; Park, 2005) and now we can observe this effect on a neural level (Inzlicht, Tullet, & Good 2011). High religiosity seems to provide a strong anxiety of uncertainty buffer by providing a framework for understanding one’s environment. Parsing apart the specific components of religiosity which create this uncertainty buffer can be addressed with future research.

Do only religious believers with strong convictions in their belief achieve a buffer against anxiety? Could this effect be seen in people who have a rigid adherence to a secular ideology? How do social and emotional variables interact with this effect? Stay tuned, imminent psychological research (and hopefully my dissertation) should help answer these questions.



Creswell, J. D., Welch, W. T., Taylor, S. E., Sherman, D. K., Gruenewald, T. L., & Mann, T. (2005). Affirmation of personal values buffers neuroendocrine and psychological stress responses. Psychological Science, 16(11), 846-851.

Eysenck, M. W., Derakshan, N., Santos, R., & Calvo, M. G. (2007). Anxiety and cognitive performance: attentional control theory. Emotion, 7(2), 336.

Farias, M., Newheiser, A. K., Kahane, G., & de Toledo, Z. (2013). Scientific faith: belief in science increases in the face of stress and existential anxiety. Journal of experimental social psychology, 49(6), 1210-1213.

Fehring, R. J., Miller, J. F., & Shaw, C. (1997, May). Spiritual well-being, religiosity, hope, depression, and other mood states in elderly people coping with cancer. In Oncology Nursing Forum (Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 663-671).

Good, M., Inzlicht, M., & Larson, M. J. (2014). God will forgive: reflecting on God’s love decreases neurophysiological responses to errors. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, nsu096.

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Matthew Facciani is a Ph.D. candidate in cognitive neuroscience at The University of South Carolina. He is passionate about science communication and is an activist for gender equality. Learn more at, and follow him at @MatthewFacciani.

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Religion Snapshots: Michael Walzer, Islam, and the Left


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

Editor’s note: Contributors in this post were asked to provide their thoughts on a recent article by political theorist Michael Walzer called “Islamism and Left,” where he weighs-in on questions of critique in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

Simon Frankel Pratt: Michael Walzer is as thoughtful a political theorist as they come. These were the words spoken to me by one professor of mine, himself a theorist of considerable accomplishment, and he was right. But those looking for Walzer’s brand of careful and reflective communitarianism in this essay will be disappointed. ‘Islamism and the Left’ is not a piece of political theory but a polemic, from one leftist to his comrades. In it, Walzer reminds the generalised left—chidingly, but aptly—that religious militancy is not at all progressive. He argues that the enemy of our enemy is not always our friend; just because Islamist movements oppose imperialism does not mean they support other leftist goals. Walzer wants those on the left to direct their critical attentions towards Islamism as readily as they do capitalism, and not to let their concerns about anti-Muslim bigotry stop them from critiquing Islam as they would any other set of dogmas.

I am supportive of his objective: namely, to intervene in a tendency among certain leftist segments to cram the world into a familiar narrative of class struggle and colonial domination. However problematically they are represented in public conversations in the West, the actual aspirations of Islamist movements are typically about as retrograde as they come. Islamism is partly an outcome of class conflicts and the legacy of (ongoing) colonial and imperial geopolitics, but it is much more besides, and Islamist solutions to social problems do not often resemble leftist ones. When activists ignore these truths, exemplified by Judith Butler’s quoted declaration that Hamas and Hizbullah are progressive members of the ‘global left’, they appear intellectually and ethically compromised, willing to forgive atrocities by resorting to epistemological and moral relativism, and to join with the most repugnant of allies.

That said, I find Walzer’s essay a bit light on substance. He makes much about the possibility of criticising Islam, but Islam is a thin signifier. Walzer himself notes the plurality of interpretation amongst Muslims, where many committed adherents seek and find liberal interpretations of Islamic texts. Yet he nevertheless treats Islam as though it were a coherent set of (contended) dogmas, rather than collection of religious traditions linked by a shared textual repository and by often-distant history. He suggests that leftists should engage in Islamic theology of their own by ‘insisting’ on liberal readings of texts over those of Qutb and Maududi, as if the latter were part of some conservative monolith rather than themselves engaged in different theological conversations in different social contexts. Moreover, Walzer does not give Islamism adequate historical attention: Islamists have supplanted genuine leftists in a number of struggles, most notably Palestinian nationalist ones, and may enjoy support from the left simply because they’re the ones left holding the torch.

I appreciate Walzer’s essay more for what it signals, coming from such an eminent figure, and less for what it says. It’s not a bad essay, but by reifying Islam and failing to explore Islamism more fully, I don’t feel it quite lives up to its potential. That said, I suspect I am not the target audience.

Carl J. Stoneham: Simon’s observation that this article isn’t an example of Walzer’s “careful and reflective” work is spot on, but I’m not sure we need such a work in this particular context (not that this is what Simon has advocated). There is a certain disconnect when those who vehemently argue, e.g., for a robust defense of women’s rights then robustly defend a group whose ideology that would seek to curtail those rights, to the point of referring to religious conservatives as ‘Left.’ I find that Walzer’s polemic does a certain justice to that cognitive dissonance, even if a more sustained critique will certainly have to move beyond such an incredulous tone.

I share Walzer’s bafflement over “the Left’s” apparently uncritical support for Islamist movements. I find a certain incoherence arises when one understands that Islamism speaks not just to the “ national power” of the West, but also the very moral “power” that grounds its understanding of the rights of, for example, sexual minorities in secularism rather than religion. Islamism, writ large, is not about reforming political power, but of replacing it with religious power—a tune to which “the West” has already danced and found wanting. Furthermore, insofar as Walzer highlights Judith Butler’s support for Hamas and Hizbullah, we can’t simply fall back on the convenient caveat that we’re “not talking about support for the violent Islamists.” In fact, in this case, we do mean that.

It is odd to see some (many) on the Left take such a comfortable position alongside religious ideologies that sound much like the very ones we have worked so hard to renounce “at home.” Why is the Left is so rabidly anti-Christian(ist) when it appears to give Islam(ism) something of a pass? Wouldn’t it be ironic if this was the Left’s version of the “romanticized” Other that Edward Saïd helped us understand as so problematic? Or perhaps it’s simply an (equally ironic) example of George W. Bush’s “soft bigotry of low expectations”—Islamists don’t know better, so we shouldn’t expect as much. Either way, I cannot help but marvel at how, in one breath, Leftists will decry the encroachment of religion in the public square in the US and then, in the next, express solidarity with an Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), a cornerstone of which is the rule of religion in the public square.

Where I think Walzer goes wrong, however, is to chalk these strange bedfellows up to “Islamophobia.” Setting aside my own reservations concerning the word, I don’t see that it’s a “fear” of Islam that drives this, shall we say, respect. Instead, I might coin the term “Imperialophobia”—the fear that of denouncing (too clearly) post-colonial movements on Western moral grounds. After all, would it not be the death knell of a many a Leftist to be found on the side of the Empire and not the resistance, moral implications be damned? Certainly those mentioned in Walzer’s essay are beneficiaries of “the Empire’s” gifts of wealth, education, protection of human rights, etc. (Michel Foucault must have realized this). Perhaps this “Imperialophobia” leads to a sort of over-zealousness in the defense of indigenous resistance as a way of displaying one’s “street cred?” Whatever the case, we can at least thank Walzer for his effort to “speak truth to [Leftist] power” on this point.

Matt Sheedy: Although I am sympathetic to Walzer’s general concern with exploring the connection between the use of violence and what we might term “political Islam,” I disagree with his premises and conclusions, which I will suggest follow from problematic definitions of religion, secularism, and the “left.”

Walzer claims that many on the left have struggled to understand the “revival of religion,” especially when it comes to the Enlightenment goal of combatting the potential tyranny of “faith.” He makes the further claim that this “revived religion” should not be understood as an opiate, pace Marx, but rather as a stimulant, which finds its most virulent forms today in the Islamic world, while arguing that many on the left have been unwilling to recognize this fact for fear of being called Islamophobic.

While he affirms that Muslims in Europe and the US constitute a “harassed minority,” outside of such contexts the fear of being called Islamophobic prevents more pointed critique of “Islamist zealots” and often leads to cultural relativism, which fails to acknowledge the universal values of “individual liberty, democracy, gender equality, and religious pluralism.”

The first problem that I’d like to flag here is Walzer’s conception of religion, which he likens to a “stimulant,” suggesting that it functions as a primary causal force or tangible object that does things in the world. For this reason, he can claim that “Islamist zealots can best be understood as today’s crusaders.” While admitting that this is a “rough analogy” and that there are many variations among different militant Islamic groups, his comparison is problematic for at least two reasons: first, it assumes a uniform definition of religion in all times and places, as though we can make a one-to-one comparison with the self-understanding of those in the distant past. Second, it implies a civilizational discourse of Euro-Western social evolution and “Islamic” stagnation.

Walzer also speaks of the need to “defend the secular state in this ‘post-secular’ age.” Despite the lack of agreement on the definition and theoretical value of this concept, (e.g., see James Beckford’s essay) it would appear that he is using it in two ways. First, as an empirical tool in order to indicate a “revival of religion,” (i.e., secularization has not come to pass) and, second, in a normative sense as proof that this social fact requires a strong secularist response. Such conceptual certainties appear to inform his idea of the cause of contemporary ills, and his diagnosis of the need to firmly commit to one side. From this it follows that “individual liberty, democracy, gender equality, and religious pluralism” trumps the critique of Western imperialism, which he likens to “anti-American” sentiment.

While it is not my aim to make a prescriptive argument in favor one or another variant of leftist ideology here, I would suggest that the critique of Western imperialism holds a lot more analytic value when thinking about “religion” than Walzer’s emphasis on “Islamist zealotry” and anti-Enlightenment beliefs. Whereas Walzer interprets the first order claims of various self-identified Islamist groups as the primary reason or motivation behind their militancy and/or extremism, the critique of imperialism and its legacies, at its best, looks to understand the historical and material conditions that produce such groups in the first place.

One theoretical question, then, would be to ask why “political Islam” has become viable in certain places, for what reasons—historical, political, socio-cultural—in the face of other ideological formations (e.g., secular Arab nationalism) and how it reflects the material conditions of the complex spaces in which it emerges (including social media), whose inheritance of past and present ideas (religious or otherwise) are shaped by the influence of those internal and external forces that create the very conditions of im/possibility.

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