A Geo-Theology of Catholic Parish Maps


by Eoin O’Mahony


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The project to digitize Catholic parishes and boundaries

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

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

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

The spatial politics of mapping parishes

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

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

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

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

Eoin O’Mahony is about to defend his PhD. in the Department of Geography, NUI Maynooth, Ireland. His thesis focuses on the spatialisation of the secular and the religious in Ireland with particular emphasis on the politics of the secular. He maintains a blog at 53degrees.wordpress.com and tweets too much at @ownohmanny.

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Religion Clichés #5: Religious Past


by Tenzan Eaghll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISIS_mosques-blown-upby Tara Baldrick-Morrone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Call for Papers Submission Deadline: February 16, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please send your proposal to eiraarsubmission@gmail.com.

Deadline for submissions is February 16, 2015.


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

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

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

Please send your proposal to eiraarsubmission@gmail.com.

Deadline for submissions is February 16, 2015.

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

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Jian Ghomeshi and Secular Sexualities


by Justin K.H. Tse

The public conversation swirling around Jian Ghomeshi’s termination from the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) is a grand exercise in secular sexualities.

It begins with his Facebook post. Explaining that he was fired because of his private BDSM consensual acts with an ex-girlfriend, he castigates the CBC for both acknowledging that his acts were consensual and then wrongfully pulling the plug on him because he would serve as a poor role model. To quote Ghomeshi at length:

CBC execs confirmed that the information provided showed that there was consent. In fact, they later said to me and my team that there is no question in their minds that there has always been consent. They said they’re not concerned about the legal side. But then they said that this type of sexual behavior was unbecoming of a prominent host on the CBC. They said that I was being dismissed for “the risk of the perception that may come from a story that could come out.” To recap, I am being fired in my prime from the show I love and built and threw myself into for years because of what I do in my private life.

Ghomeshi’s case – his self-defence and the media revelations from at least nine women (three of whom have also come forward to the police) over the last week that his actions were not consensual – highlights precisely the interest over the last decade in religious studies on the emergence of secular sexualities. Drawing from Talal Asad’s Formations of the Secular, the reason that Ghomeshi’s supposedly private acts can be described as ‘secular’ is because they are outside of the governing purview of the secular state. Dividing citizen subjectivities into two halves, the secular state is only interested in the public activities of its citizens – political participation, economic productivity, civic engagement. What happens consensually in the bedroom is outside of the state’s reach, as long as it is consensual, articulated as egalitarian, and does not inhibit civic productivity.

At the end of A Secular Age, Charles Taylor calls the privatization of these consensual sexual acts ‘secular sexualities,’ an arena so ripe for research that Joan Wallach Scott has given us the term ‘sexularism’ to describe the assumption that “secularism encourages the free expression of sexuality and that it thereby ends the oppression of women because it removes transcendence as the foundation for social norms and treats people as autonomous individuals, agents capable of crafting their own destiny.”

That private expression is free until a citizen gets hurt because civic productivity is indeed inhibited. The CBC fired Jian Ghomeshi because, as CBC’s executive producer Heather Conway put it, he showed them videos that showed “for the first time, graphic evidence that Jian had caused physical injury to a woman.” Indeed, just a week ago, feminist religion scholars Janet Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini would argue that the CBC’s act compromises the secularity of the CBC; the CBC itself said in a memo that when Ghomeshi denied that he had assaulted the women without consent, “We continued to believe Jian.” They were trying to do what Jakobsen and Pellegrini prescribe in Love the Sin: they wanted to avoid regulating Ghomeshi’s sexuality, for regulation often reveals that the regulator – in their case the state, in Ghomeshi’s the CBC – is beholden to some notion of religion, usually some form of Protestantism. Granted, we might also hear some Catholics, such as Robert P. George in Making Men Moral, argue that regulating vice produces a moral environment that would encourage the practice of virtue as a public good. But for Jakobsen and Pellegrini, these would reveal all the same that there is some kind of religious establishmentarianism lurking behind the secular face of the modern state.

Everything changes when a citizen gets hurt. During the Toronto police press conference, Inspector Joanna Beaven-Desjardins told journalists that she had ordered a preliminary investigation to begin after Lucy Decoutere, Reva Seth, and others had come forward in the press. Ghomeshi’s sex life crossed from his private life to the public interest when allegations of non-consensual acts began to circulate, for now the bodies of citizens were now under attack. This code of ethics based on the law of consent must also be of interest to scholars of religion, for even the practice of secular sexualities has a “sacred” line of appropriateness that limits what can and cannot be done. The arbiter of this line is the state. The catalyst for the state’s involvement is the public. The theology that is practiced may be secular, but contra George, it is no less moral than the past of vice regulation. Yet contra Jakobsen and Pellegrini, secular sexualities are not marked by the absence of theology. Instead, they ground the theology that the boundaries of private sexual practice and public interest are regulated by the state.

Justin K.H. Tse is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. He works on religion and the public sphere in Asia-Pacific and Asian North American contexts.

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Dead Religions


by Tenzan Eaghll

Did you catch the 2008 interview with J.Z. Smith that was recently making the rounds on Facebook? In it, Smith suggests that the benefit of studying dead ancient religions is that they can’t talk back to you. When you study dead religions, no one can pipe up and say, ‘hey, that is not how I practice my religion!’ As Smith states:

I specialized in religions that are dead, which has the great advantage that nobody talks back. No one says, ‘That’s not what I heard last Sunday!’ Everybody’s dead. And I like that

Now, everyone who studies contemporary cultural movements will no doubt sympathize with this point, as having to constantly be aware of how ‘practitioners’ interpret your writing is always a concern—especially given the Doniger controversy—but Smith’s comment got me thinking about the deeper theoretical implications of our work. What his statement made me wonder was the following: aren’t all religions dead religions?

After all, none of us study the ‘living present’ but only its dead counterpart. As Russell McCutcheon has aptly noted in numerous Culture on the Edge posts, historical rationalization always comes after the fact. We never actually encounter things in their ‘present’ state, but only in a strange, foreign, and unknown past. Sometimes our ‘data’ is from 2000 years ago, and sometimes it is from yesterday, but it is always dead because even events from today are already yesterday. As McCutcheon writes, “After all, we’re all living in someone else’s “good old days” right now.

A similar point is also made by Derrida in “Violence and Metaphysics,” when he argues that the question of historical origins—precisely our “jewgreek” origins—should not be understood as “a chronological, but a pre-logical progression.” That is, all decisions about history, whether ancient or modern, are decisions that are made before we turn to our ‘data.’ We don’t study the chronological progression of history, but the difference that presents itself as history. In this way, every ‘religion’ that we study is dead because by the time it comes under our gaze it belongs to a prior set of decisions, incisions, and cuts.

Or, to go even further back than Derrida, Hegel argues for this exact point in The Philosophy of Right when he famously quipped that “the owl of minerva flies at dusk.” By this, Hegel is implying that philosophy comes to understand history only after it passes away. Philosophy cannot be prescriptive because the view it offers is always one of hindsight:


One more word about giving instruction as to what the world ought to be. Philosophy in any case always comes on the scene too late to give it… When philosophy paints its gloomy picture then a form of life has grown old. It cannot be rejuvenated by the gloomy picture, but only understood. Only when the dusk starts to fall does the owl of Minerva spread its wings and fly.

The basic point: historical rationalization is always post hoc. We never encounter the living thing, but only its dead counterpart. So, whether we study the ancient civilization of Babylon or contemporary Hinduism, we all study dead religions.

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Sociology of Religion Group: AAR Annual Conference, Nov. 21-25, San Diego


Sociology of Religion Group – AAR

November 21-25, 2014 Sessions, San Diego, CA

Statement of Purpose: The Sociology of Religion Group provides a forum for the discussion of empirical and theoretical research on religion and society. “Sociology” is broadly conceived; discussions will include different epistemologies, varying theoretical backgrounds, qualitative and quantitative methodologies, and a wide range of empirical data. By liaising with other program units, we seek to provide a platform for research that empirically and theoretically engages the question of the role of religion or the sacred in societies globally.

SOR is either sponsoring or co-sponsoring six sessions at the San Diego AAR: a workshop on the role of comparison in research and sessions on Secularism and the Non-Religious, the analysis of historical accounts of religious experiences with Joseph Smith as the case study, sociology of religion and the environment, religious identity and political power and French feminisms.

SOR’s Program with abstracts for the Annual Meeting is available for download as a PDF. (recommended for smart phones)


Friday – November 21, 2014

Comparison and the Analytical Study of Religion                 Program PDF

Location disclosed to those registered. To register place “SORAAAD – 2014 – Registration” in the subject line of an email addressed to ctdr.group@gmail.com.

A22-112 – The Shifting Boundaries of the Secular, Spiritual, and Religious

Saturday – 9:00 AM – 11:30 AM

Convention Center-30C

Co-Sponsored by the Secularism and Secularity Group, Sociology of Religion Group, Religion and the Social Sciences Section and Religious Conversions Group.

This panel brings together papers that explore the fluid, antagonistic, and overlapping boundaries of the secular, spiritual, and religious. Each paper considers how various actors draw these boundaries differently by relying on multiple understandings of the religious and the secular and by creating hybrid identities that cut across religious traditions or the secular/religious divide. Together they reveal the wide range of unique configurations of the secular, spiritual, and religious and further nuance our understanding of their co-constitution.

Marc Pugliese, Saint Leo University, Presiding

Emily Sigalow, Brandeis University

Switching, Mixing, and Matching: Towards an Understanding of Multireligiousness in Contemporary America

Elaine Howard Ecklund, Rice University and

Brandon Vaidyanathan, University of Notre Dame

How Scientists in India and the United Kingdom Negotiate Boundaries between Science and Religion

Linda A. Mercadante, Methodist Theological School, Ohio

Qualitative Research on Spiritual but Not Religious “Nones”: Heterogeneous yet Conceptually Converging

Kristen Tobey, University of Pittsburgh

“Not Non-Mormons”: Belonging without Believing in the LDS Church

A23-129 – Joseph Smith’s First Vision: New Methods for the Analysis of Experience-Related Texts

Sunday – 9:00 AM – 11:30 AM

Convention Center-5A

Co-Sponsored by the Mormon Studies Group and Sociology of Religion Group

J. Spencer Fluhman, Brigham Young University, Presiding


Ann Taves, University of California, Santa Barbara

Steven C. Harper, LDS Church History Library, Salt Lake City, UT

Kathleen Flake, University of Virginia, respondent

Gustavo Benavides, Villanova University respondent.

In a fresh approach to the founding story of Mormonism, two scholars (one LDS and one not) who are currently writing on early Mormonism will present the results of their collaborative analysis of each of the known sources of Joseph Smith’s first vision, including newly discovered sources, using a method that teases apart events (what ostensibly happened) and explanations (the subject’s understanding of why it happened). When aligned chronologically by event and explanation, the method provides a more rigorous basis for examining the historical development of the narrative over time, including changes in structure and content, in the context of social interactions and the role of experience narratives in the emergence of new social movements. Using this highly debated event as a case study, the presenters will demonstrate the way in which a clear distinction between the subject’s explanation of events and scholarly meta-explanations allows scholars to work toward agreement on the former and more carefully account for their differences with respect to the latter. Two respondents will then address both the case study and the broader implications of the method for the field of religious studies.

A23-275 – To Green or Not to Green, and Everything in Between: Assessing Trends, Patterns and Gaps in Scholarship on Religion and the Environment

Sunday – 3:00 PM – 4:30 PM

Convention Center-4

Sociology of Religion Group

This session assesses scholarship related to a key shift that has occurred over the past 40+ years, the so-called “greening of religions.” Briefly stated, the greening of religions refers to religions’ gradual incorporation of environmental concerns into their theologies, rituals and (in some cases) ministries. Sparked by the publication of Lynn White Jr.’s influential article “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis,” in 1967, a growing body of scholarship in religious studies and beyond has sought to capture the relationship between religions and environmental concern. As the scholarship on the greening of religion matures, it is appropriate to examine and assess its findings, identifying patterns and gaps, strengths and weaknesses, and assessing implications for the sociological study of religion, broadly speaking. The papers in this session aim to map out and critique trends in the scholarship religion and the environment.

Lucas Johnston, Wake Forest University, Presiding

Bron Taylor, University of Florida, Responding

Robin Veldman, University of Florida

Toward A Broader Conceptualization of Religions’ Engagement with the Environmental Crisis

Evan Berry, American University

Do Not Throw Your Pearls Before Swine: What is Valuable In Religion in Ecology?

Bernard Zaleha, University of California Santa Cruz

Was Lynn White Right?: Exploring the Contemporary Anti-Environmentalist

Gretel Van Wieren, Michigan State University

The Greening of Religion Movement: An Overview of the Literature with Special Emphasis on Social Scientific Studies (and the Lack Thereof)

A24-137 – Religious Identity and Political Power

Monday – 9:00 AM – 11:30 AM

Convention Center-32A

Co-Sponsored by the Sociology of Religion Group and Critical Research on Religion

Sociology of Religion Group Business Meeting, 11:20 am

With each paper pivoting on the relationship between religious identity, its status, and its relationship to the political power the participants in this panel present five different cases that span the globe – from Scandinavia to India to Australia. The first three are qualitative and address the problems of Hindu and Muslim religious minorities in Northern European societies: inter-religious mourning rituals in response to the terrorist attack by a right-wing extremist in Norway in July 2011; Hindu and Roman Catholic Tamil youth in rural Norway; and the question of apostasy among Muslims in secular Sweden. The last two papers are more theoretical and address powerful religious/political alliances: the Hindu nationalist astheticization of politics among tribal communities in India; and the relationship of conservative evangelical Christians to Neoliberal government policy in Australia.

Rebekka King, Middle Tennessee State University, Presiding

Warren Goldstein, Harvard University, Respondent

Hildegunn Valen Kleive, Høgskulen i Volda

Young Tamils and Spirituality in Norway

Ida Marie Høeg, Centre for Church Research

The Terror Attacks on Norway – 22 July 2011: Interreligious Funerals as Response to Terror

Daniel Enstedt, University of Gothenburg

Understanding Islam, Apostasy, and Disaffiliation in Present-day Sweden

Marion Maddox, Macquarie University

Neoliberal Dominance and “Resurgent Religion”: Coincidence, Elective Affinity, or Causation?

Pinky Hota, Smith College

Indigeneity, Piety, and Belonging: The Aesthetic Politics of Hindu Nationalism

Business Meeting

Ipsita Chatterjea, Vanderbilt University

Warren Goldstein, Harvard University

A24-209 – Feminism and Subjectivity in the Study of Religion

Monday – 1:00 PM – 3:30 PM

Convention Center-9

Co-Sponsored by the Sociology of Religion Group, Critical Theories and Discourses on Religion Group and Cultural History of the Study of Religion Group, or STAR (Social Theory and Religion Cluster)

STAR Business Meeting, 3:20 pm

Morny Joy, University of Calgary, Respondent

2014 marks the thirty- and forty-year anniversaries of key works in French social theory, including Julia Kristeva’s Revolution in Poetic Language (40th anniversary) and Luce Irigaray’s Speculum of the Other Woman (40th ) and An Ethics of Sexual Difference (30th ). In honor of their legacies, the panelists in this session explore related questions of feminism and subjectivity in the study of religion. With reference not only to Irigaray and Kristeva, but also to Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Saba Mahmood, they treat critical turns in affect theory and speech act theory, the ethics of alterity, and the discursive formation of subjectivity as a crucial category in the study of religion.

Abigail Kluchin, Ursinus College

An Alternative Lineage for Affect Theory: Returning to Irigaray’s Speculum de l’Autre Femme and Kristeva’s Revolution du Langage Poétique

Wesley Barker, Mercer University

Signifying Flesh: The Ambiguity of Desire and the Possibility of Alterity in Irigaray’s Ethics of Sexual Difference

Samantha Langsdale, University of London

Framing Historical Women’s Agency: A Critical Reading of Speech Act Theories

Constance Furey, Indiana University

Hermeneutics of Intersubjectivity: Foucault, Butler, and Limit Experiences

Business Meeting:

William E. Arnal, University of Regina

Ipsita Chatterjea, Vanderbilt University

Randall Styers, University of North Carolina

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