Teaching Theory in the Introductory Classroom, Part 4


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, here and here.

by Dan Moseson

“What is it you want people to stop taking for granted?” I don’t remember who said this at NAASR’s San Diego gathering on theory in the classroom, but it’s the standout line in my notes, and the point that gives me the best angle for reflecting on my theoretical choices in preparing my Introduction to the Study of Religion class next fall. Although we appeared to reach an agreement on the importance of going straight for the category of religion and for the power-effects of authorizing particular forms as “religious,” I want to take another direction in the fall of 2015.

In my particular location, the direct critique of the category doesn’t seem to play well, and I wonder if it will be more effective to take “religion” apart from a more oblique angle? Beginning the semester with “religion” as a piece of (relatively) solid ground for students to work from, I hope to short-circuit some related intuitions and perhaps, at the end, try to say something about the category itself.

In retrospect – and this amounts to a post-hoc rationalization on my part – the intuitions I want to shake up are that: (1) “religion” is reducible to a single psychological function, or doesn’t encompass the full range of intelligent, interested human behavior; (2) “religions” (and other social groups) are defined by centralized, empowered beliefs and rituals, and; (3) “religion” is separable from the “secular” and the “modern.” To that end, I’m pairing Freud’s Future of An Illusion, Durkheim’s Elementary Forms, and Weber’s Protestant Ethic with ethnographic studies that complement and complicate their central claims. At a faculty mentor’s suggestion, I‘m also having students investigate further layers of complexity by going out to report on local religious groups, using Michel de Certeau’s writings on practice as a theoretical framework. We will follow Freud with Brian Malley and Tanya Luhrmann’s cognitive ethnographies of evangelical Christians. Ann Grodzins Gold and Gloria Raheja’s study of sexual politics in rural Rajasthan will help complicate Elementary Forms’ top-down, center-out picture of ritually constructed communities. After some selections from Weber, we will turn to Joanne Punzo Waghorne’s studies of religion in urban South Asian spaces, and Courtney Bender’s ethnography of “metaphysical” spirituality subsisting across medical, scientific, artistic, therapeutic, commercial and traditional “religious” sites in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Given my recent experience of opening my fall course with J.Z. Smith’s critique of the category, I may decide to end my next class with it instead. In hindsight, the essay “Religion, Religions, Religious” seems a bit heavy for the first or second week, even in an upper-division course like the one I taught this semester. I am continuously enlightened (and entertained) by Smith’s work, but it’s still difficult reading for me, and I have a B.A., an M.A., and an MPhil in religious studies. This is not to criticize Smith, or the intrepid students who stuck out my first solo teaching venture with me. It is only to argue that his essays are professional-grade tools that even aspiring professionals sometimes struggle to use with precision. Assigning his denser work to undergraduates right out of the gate feels almost unfair. If I do include the critique of the category, it will be in the last week or two instead of the first, and it will definitely begin with the preface to Imagining Religion. This concise piece was received better in the fall, at least, though I don’t think its central point really sunk in (again, this certainly is not my students’ fault). I wager that it will stick a lot better once we’ve spent twelve or thirteen weeks shaking up the category from other angles.

Ian Cuthbertson told the group about broaching the critique of the category in the middle of his year-long course. I’m in agreement with Ian that this move works as a particular kind of dramatic gesture, and it’s a gesture I would enjoy closing on. What does everyone else think? Will it be easier to trouble “religion” after we’ve studied how “it” is conscious and unconscious, a conduit for power and for resistance, modern, non modern, anti-capitalist and flamboyantly capitalist all at once? Will the dissonance between “religion is almost anything” and “religion really isn’t a thing” make the last gesture more poignant and memorable, or will it just make it confusing?

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Reza Aslan’s Theory of Religion and Politics


by Simon Frankel Pratt

* This post original appeared on the author’s blog.

As talking heads in the media once again make problematic, ultra-general claims about Islam’s supposed essential bellicosity, or attribute to Islamic texts and practice the power to make adherents violent, we might be tempted to respond with Reza Aslan’s counter-arguments. Aslan is a willing pundit, unafraid and unreserved in responding to vacuous, literalist, and historically ignorant readings of Islam or claims about Muslims. There are few others willing to play this role, and it is an important one, given how much bigoted bullshit on the subject shows up from various commentators, ranging from Fox News commentators to ‘New Atheist’ authors such as Sam Harris.

I wish, though, that it wasn’t Aslan performing this role. I am not the only one to take issue with Aslan, and I suggest reading the views of actual scholars of religion on his views and work, as I am not a specialist in this area.

One reason for this is my concern for Aslan’s apparent credential inflation. Aslan routinely identifies as as scholar of religion, despite his academic post being in creative writing and not having, from what I have been able to ascertain, a single refereed publication. Indeed, he has from what I can tell only one scholarly publication, in a non-refereed journal that does not accept unsolicited submissions (i.e., it’s highly unusual and not part of mainstream academic conversations). While he has written numerous books on subjects ranging from the historical Christ to political Islam, all of these books are in popular presses, rather than academic ones. Aslan’s PhD is in sociology, and his dissertation research was apparently on the study of Islamist social movements, which does much to explain his perspective but which does not necessarily situate him in the sociology or anthropology of religion.

I have great respect for those who manage to do a doctorate in sociology, but if they do not publish in scholarly journals or present at scholarly conferences, then they are not scholars. They have retreated from scholarly conversations and from the academic spaces in which scholarly research is produced and discussed. Though I respect the role of informed and educated popular authors writing books on relevant subjects, I also have an interest, as an actual scholar (albeit of most junior level), in policing the boundaries of the term, and of keeping it distinct from popular commentaries.

Much more important, though, is my discomfort with Aslan’s substantive views. After all, you don’t have to be a scholar of religion to make valid and helpful points about it. Aslan appears to have taken an approach from social movement theory and inflated it into a general theory of religion in politics. Again, this is unsurprising given his educational background, but it also is methodologically unsound and misrepresents what this approach is actually good for, as exemplified in scholarship on Islamism produced by people like Carrie Wickham or Asef Bayat.

Aslan’s theory of religion and politics is that people ‘bring their values to their religion‘. This is a very succinct and illustrative quote. His approach is to view religion as a language through which political claims can be articulated, and a concrete institutional space (places of worship, community centres, schools, etc.) where social movements can organise. This is fine for examining particular facets of social movement activism during periods of contentious politics, and should be a vital part of any discussion of Islamism.

It must not, however, be the end of the story when we talk about radicalisation and the role of specific religious narratives in fueling violence. The other side of the coin here is that religions are potent sources of value-generation (cf. William James) and socialisation in society. Religious spaces are where people learn their values, and theological traditions determine the boundaries or horizons of intellectual and interpretive possibility. By taking political claims-making into the realm of particular knowledge-traditions, you privilege some views over others.

In other words, we cannot treat religion as some kind of cultural epiphenomenon, reflecting non-theological cultural processes that determine the form and expression of values and beliefs. Theology is part of those processes. It is not the only part, and those processes are dynamic and complex, showing the bankruptcy of most literalist readings of religious texts or of simplistic, unidirectional causal arguments that go from textual interpretation to cultural practice. But Aslan does not seem interested in discussing that complexity, and prefers to offer a simplistic causal theory of his own, in just the opposite direction. This may be a tonic for one kind of anti-Muslim bigotry, but it does not help anyone understand Islamism better.

In addition to advancing a view of religion and politics that no sociologist or anthropologist of religion would find remotely adequate,* Aslan also seems to misrepresent the social and cultural conditions of Muslim majority countries. In this widely shared clip of him engaging with Bill Maher—whose views I find even less palatable than Aslan’s, by a long shot—Aslan suggests that countries such as Indonesia, which have de jure equality between men and women, may be held up as examples of actual gender equality in Islam. He also states that female genital mutilation is a ‘Central African problem’, which is empirically false (as discussed in this previously shared link). Either Aslan is knowingly playing fast and loose with the facts, or he just doesn’t know the facts.

With all due respect to the rarity with which scholars are willing to do what Aslan does, and the man’s many well-reviewed popular books, I see him as a charlatan, at least when it comes to his self-presentation in his media commentaries. He claims the mantle of scholarship without producing scholarship, and claims to be a scholar of religions while advancing theoretically problematic views not held by sociologists of religion (despite his background being in sociology). His defence to (possibly bigoted) attacks upon Muslims is to respond with false or dissembling claims, and while I am sympathetic to the epistemic limits of sound-bite territory, he doesn’t offer follow-up clarifications either.

There are a few other commentators on Islamism whom I would suggest going to instead of Aslan, too. Maajid Nawaz is one good example, and Shiraz Maher is another (though Nawaz has a more prominent media presence).

*Based on my admittedly limited knowledge, confined to a few books and articles in these fields and a habit of attending their conference panels when I have spare moments, as I find they are home to some innovative and sophisticated social theorising.

* Photo credit to the HBO official website.

Simon Frankel Pratt is a PhD candidate in political science (international relations) at the University of Toronto, and his research focuses on norms, practices of state violence, and the War on Terror. His interest in the sociology of religion stems from a broader interest in social theory, methodology, and the study of armed conflict.

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Religion as a cognitively natural universal: “religion” and “science” aren’t that interesting


by Thomas J. Coleman III

Millions of people in the world today, just as they have in the past, typically believe in something that is, or can be, considered supernatural. From an emic perspective, gods, ghosts, devils, demons and alluring forest nymphs usually have some form of real ontological existence. Understood in the scientific naturalistic framework of the cognitive science of religion (CSR), we find that these supernatural entities, heuristically termed “religion”, actually have quite “natural” explanations. The naturalness of religion thesis in CSR, briefly summarized, supports the claim that religion, at a minimum, is a by-product of the normally function human mind, or has been adaptive at the group level (Xygalatas, 2014). This framework allows researchers to formulate meaningful and progressive research questions using its methodology to view religion at the level of psychological processes (an abstraction, however nonetheless useful). To this point it has been rather successful and its future continues to look promising. Although some aspects of religion can clearly be explained cognitively in the form of answers to specific empirical questions, that these explanations should actually tell us something specifically meaningful about any non-operationalized definition of religion is problematic. Particular instances of “religion” exist, either picked out as such by a researcher, or identified as such by an individual of the researcher’s interest (Taves, 2009). There is no such thing as “religion in general” (Belzen, 2010).

Moving on, it appears that religion might only be interesting at the level of whatever its particular “explicit form” or cultural expression takes, as opposed to the cognitive mechanisms operating implicitly that might underlie it. Such mechanisms underlie any phenomena in our mental life, from baking cakes to playing the clarinet, and not just “religion”. These mechanisms (two common examples: hyper agency detection device [HADD] and theory of mind [ToM]) are certainly utilized in the domain of playing sports too. For example, a football player is going to have to detect a moving ball (HADD) and try to anticipate the possible thoughts and actions of his teammates (ToM), if they are going to be any good that is. Does having “normal” ToM and HADD capabilities make me an “implicit football player” or “universal athlete”? Unlikely. Moreover, what separates religious cognition from sports cognition? Perhaps, it is the interesting content, and not the cognitive processes, that would help elucidate such a matter (Beit-Hallahmi, 2015).

Bulbulia (2005, p 72) suggests that, “[f]rom the vantage point of cognitive architecture, it appears that there is only one human religion with minor but strategically important variation in its conventional expressions.” At the specific level of cognition, this “one human religion” claim is broadly supported in the texts, and certainly the titles of popular books looking at religion from a cognitivist perspective, ranging from McCauley’s (2011) Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not, to Bering’s (2012) The Belief Instinct, and especially Barrett’s (2012) Born Believers. The “one human religion” claim (properly referred to as the naturalness of religion thesis), certainly makes for interesting book titles and attention grabbing popular science articles. However, in modifying Bulbulia’s claim, couldn’t we say that, from the vantage point of cognitive architecture, it appears that there is only one human sport with minor but strategically important variation in its conventional expressions? Yes we could, but this doesn’t trivialize Bulbulia’s claim, it actually puts it into further perspective by demonstrating that this is largely true of most phenomena that one might wish to insert in place of “religion” in that statement. Nonetheless, the first claim would be a much less interesting statement than the second. Understanding our “universal sport” would not tell us anything too meaningful, I suggest, about professional shuffleboard players in Florida, and understanding a universal “religion” doesn’t tell us anything about a specific “religion”, or “religious” peoples. Once we are talking about the specifics, we are no longer talking about an alleged universal.

Naturalism presupposes that whatever you seek to explain will be done so naturalistically. The object (religion) CSR wishes to explain in mental-like, cognitive terms, is contaminated with the very mental systems themselves – the capacity to have a mental life is a prerequisite for even talking about “religion” or “belief”. That we should find an explanation for any phenomena in naturalistic terms or at the cognitive level should hardly be an interesting idea; this is just what naturalism does. However, it is the contrast between the CSR’s object of investigation, between something thought to refer to the supernatural (religion) from the vantage point of the natural (scientific epistemology), which makes its operationalization of “religion” interesting. From a cognitive standpoint, is the notion that “religion” is a human universal really all that meaningful – does it have adequate explanatory “cash value” to be considered interesting?

Imagine if we used what we know about the function of the heart (to pump blood) to examine and analyze the properties of lying to your boss about overtime pay (a complex social situation supported by multiple cognitive variables). While we could surely find a correlation between a person’s heartbeat and lying, and indeed we usually do, it would be odd to explain this specific social situation (lying) using only what the beating of the heart can tell us about it. Indeed, we might first reach the uninteresting conclusion that heart beat should relate to – map onto – what we want to know about lying. To be able to tell a lie in the first place presupposes the notion of having blood pumping through your veins. Thus while the universal capacity to pump blood through your veins, and the variations in one’s heartbeat underlie the phenomena of lying, these things by themselves, and without much waxing interpretation, can tell us nothing of much interest about the overall situation of lying.

When researchers in the CSR talk about religion as a cognitive universal, we should remember what an uninteresting claim this really is. We should remember that part of the reason for it being termed “natural” and “universal” (problems with these terms aside) is largely a demand of the methodology, framework, and research assumptions of CSR itself. Importantly, this in no way invalidates the CSR endeavor anymore than calling blood a “natural” and “universal” fluid invalidates medical research. These are simply useful abstractions, background assumptions – “normal science” to borrow Kuhn’s (1962/2012) term – in which the research moves forward with. Importantly these frameworks can be changed (McCauley, 2004). Thus, there is no “universal religion”, at least not in any particularly meaningful sense, anymore than there is a “universal sport”. That religion can be understood as stemming from the human mind is rather benign when we realize that every mental or social phenomenon is at some level derived from the same place. In this sense, scientific explanations of the supernatural at the cognitive level aren’t as interesting as they may first appear, however useful they may be to both scientists and ideologies, “scientific explanations are always partial” (McCauley, 2004, p. 200, emphasis in the original). Perhaps the most interesting explanations aren’t “scientific”?



Barrett, J. (2012). Born believers. New York: Free Press.

Beit-Hallahmi, B. (2015). Psychological perspectives on religion and religiosity. Sussex:    Routledge.

Belzen, J. (2010). Towards cultural psychology of religion. Dordrecht: Springer.

Bering, J. (2012). The belief instinct. New York: W.W. Norton.

Bulbulia, J. (2005). Are There Any Religions? An Evolutionary Exploration. Method &        Theory In The Study Of Religion, 17(2), 71-100. doi:10.1163/1570068054305619

Kuhn, T. (2012). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: The University of             Chicago Press.

McCauley, R. (2004). Is Religion a Rube Goldberg Device? Or Oh, What a Difference a     Theory Makes. In T. Light & B. Wilson, Religion as a Human Capacity: A     Festschrift in Honor of E. Thomas Lawson. (pp. 45-64). Leiden: Brill.

McCauley, R. (2011). Why religion is natural and science is not. New York: Oxford           University Press.

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

Xygalatas, D. (2014) Cognitive Science of Religion, in: D.A. Leeming  (ed.)  Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion, 2nd ed., Springer: London, UK.

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 Thomas-J-Coleman@mocs.utc.edu.

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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 r.myles@auckland.ac.nz) 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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