NAASR Notes: Robert N. McCauley

why-religion-is-natural-and-science-is-not

by Robert N. McCauley

NAASR Notes is a new feature with the Bulletin where we invite members of the North American Association for the Study of Religion to describe books they are reading and/or research and writing projects that will be of interests to scholars in the field. For previous posts in this series, follow the link

Philosophical Naturalism and the Cognitive Science of Religion

The most conspicuous confluence so far of the two major programs of research that I have pursued has been my 2011 book, Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not. That book offers a comparison of the cognitive foundations of religion and science. It exemplifies my naturalistic orientation in philosophy and my interests in the cognitive sciences as critical resources for studying both religion and science.

Naturalism in philosophy demands that philosophers and humanists, more generally, exhibit a healthy respect for the methods and findings of the empirical sciences, especially when their proposals address the same domains those sciences do. The collective accomplishments of communities of scientific experts over the long run are unsurpassed in producing fruitful accounts for explaining, predicting, controlling, and understanding the world. Those scientific communities foster theoretical competition, discover empirical evidence, and constantly monitor the credibility of that evidence by demanding that theories pass more exacting empirical tests that employ more sophisticated and penetrating experimental techniques and analyses of results. The number of domains where humanists must heed scientific developments has only increased as modern science has progressed. So, at the outset of the twenty-first century, those who pronounce about matters of mind or language (or, I would add, religious or scientific thought and conduct) without regard to the cognitive sciences do so at their peril.

A crucial qualification: although naturalists hold that the sciences will constrain and refine the categories from which we should expect to fashion our most compelling pictures of human mentality and endeavor, we never create those pictures by simply doing more science. The sciences are typically mute about their implicit norms and associated practices. If naturalism is to include a robust rendering of the scientific enterprise itself, then those norms and practices are legitimate targets of humanists’ analysis and criticism. Naturalism is not scientism. Its goal is not to put philosophy or the humanities out of business. History and philosophy, especially, make vital contributions to accounts of what qualifies as religion and science.

It does not follow, however, that the categories and assumptions those disciplines deploy, especially concerning the character of our mental lives, are definitive or even privileged. The cognitive sciences have spawned an extensive collection of investigative techniques and yielded far deeper and richer pictures of human behavior and of the structure and operations of the human mind than available heretofore. Their impact has been transformational in linguistics and economics, and they hold comparable potential for studies of politics, of society and culture generally, and of religion. My long-standing interest in the promise of the cognitive sciences for the study of religion has also been to redress imbalances in that field that favor the idiosyncratic over the recurrent, the idiographic over the systematic, and the interpretive over the explanatory. This is not to dismiss the idiosyncratic, the idiographic, or the interpretive, but only to suggest that they are not the whole story.

I am currently pursuing two book projects, which contribute to this program of research, exploring, in the first, prominent philosophical issues occasioned by a cognitive science of religion (CSR) and, in the second, the potential of theories and findings of CSR to illuminate the relations between culturally widespread forms of religious expression, conduct, and understanding and features of various mental disorders.

The first book, which is near completion, assembles both previously published articles (some written with E. Thomas Lawson) and new papers exploring the implications of CSR for questions of both theory and method in the study of religion. Without exception these papers argue against exclusivist positions in the study of religious thought and behavior. They contend not only that religious studies should include CSR in its tool-kit but that CSR offers valuable resources for handling long standing conundrums in the field, including the tension between the bewildering variability of religious materials and the epistemic aspirations of most of its practitioners. Since all approaches are theoretical, the consistent emphasis in CSR on explicitly formulating specific theories is an unqualified virtue. Moreover, CSR exemplifies explanatory pluralism. It spans multiple analytical levels in science, generating and integrating insights from the biological, psychological, and social sciences — from cognitive neuroscience and comparative and evolutionary psychology at the biological level, to cognitive and cultural anthropology at the socio-cultural level, and everything in between. The resulting pictures promise fruitful integration with related proposals advanced at adjoining analytical levels, both above and below, as well as with evolutionary proposals about brain, mind, and culture. After 25 years CSR has generated a multitude of productive theories and replicated findings, concerning such matters as theological incorrectness, promiscuous teleology, the memorability of minimally counterintuitive representations, presumptions about dead agents’ minds, the cognitive impact of charisma, the consequences of dysphoric and publically performed ritual on social cooperation, and more.

I am writing a second book, Gods in Disorder, with George Graham, which examines and compares the cognitive foundations of religion and of various mental disorders. This project is supported by a grant from The John Templeton Foundation. The book will particularly attend to the presence (and character) or the absence of religious expressions in such disorders. We defend ecumenical naturalism (EN). EN, like CSR, holds that naturalistic accounts of thought and conduct are no less appropriate in the study of culturally widespread forms of religiosity than they are in the study of mental disorders. Many of the predilections of mind that the cognitive by-product theory in CSR stresses, especially the systems concerned with hazard precautions and mentalizing (“theory of mind”), are intimately involved in characterizing the patterns and symptoms associated with prominent mental disorders. In short, EN maintains that these mental disorders and conventional religiosity have some of the same cognitive foundations. Diverse practices, which religions variously incorporate, engage and manipulate these psychological systems in ways that yield thought and conduct that are quite similar to many of the prominent symptoms associated with mental disorders. How the resulting beliefs and behaviors are interpreted (whether they are even deemed problematic) and how they are managed depends considerably on the conceptual resources and the social support their cultural circumstances supply to the individuals involved.

Robert McCauley is a professor of philosophy, psychology, religion, and anthropology who is a pioneer in the cognitive science of religion. In his view, our minds are better suited to religious belief than to scientific inquiry because the explanations that religion provides make intuitive sense to us and engage our natural cognitive systems, while science involves abstract thinking and forms of reflection that require a lot of mental work. He is currently examining the relationship between the cognitive and cultural foundations of religion and science. He writes a blog for Psychology Today entitled Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is NotA Naturalist Examines the Cognitive and Cultural Foundations of Religion, Science, and More.

Posted in NAASR Notes, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Theses on Professionalization Series: Shannon Trosper Schorey

cute-animals-9

by Shannon Trosper Schorey

In this new feature with the Bulletin, we have asked 21 early career scholars to weigh in on Russell McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, first published in 2007. In his 21 theses, McCutcheon offers advice to young scholars entering (or soon to enter) the job market, addressing the all-to-important (but often overlooked) question of professionalization. Each of the contributors in this series has been asked to comment on a single thesis, addressing its contemporary relevance, and how it relates to their own experience moving forward in the academic world. For previous posts in this series, see here

Thesis 3. Pursuing a Ph.D. purely for the “love of learning” is one among many legitimate reasons for graduate studies. Pursuing such studies for both intellectual stimulation and eventual employment requires candidates to be as intentional as possible about opportunities to increase their competitiveness on the job market.

Many who pursue a Ph.D. do so because they genuinely love their field of inquiry. Their passion and curiosity for their chosen subject is often offered as the explanatory device by which they endure years of long research and teaching hours, an extended period of meager pay and low (or no) benefits, family planning complicated by a variety of professional taboos and lack of resources, and the stress of an ultra competitive and unpredictable job market. As the adjuncting crisis seemingly looms larger than ever, more grads are accepting contingent positions to make ends meet as they struggle to land a tenure track position.

I read Thesis #3 to be a call away from this standard narrative of the relationship between graduate studies and the job market. While “love of learning” is a popular and widely accepted reason to pursue graduate studies, this phrasing often delimits our imagination of what “success” looks like after the Ph.D. With no guarantee for the higher education equivalent of the “American dream,” Thesis # 3 asks grads to be more reflective and self-directed in both their training and imagination of what may constitute the “job market.” While this may mean adopting a wide variety of strategies as one completes their training, I offer three reflections here:

Firstly, graduate departments would be well served by offering platforms (whether in the form of lectures, open table discussions, job fairs, conferences, etc.) for graduate students to engage a wider variety of career options and training for jobs outside of the academy. Most immediately this might mean paying attention to job opportunities that emphasize research, writing, and teaching skills more broadly. Some junior scholars have successfully made the transition from the academy to freelance journalism where their academic training has made them stand out as thinkers and writers capable of nuanced and provocative stories while also giving them a chance to reach audiences much wider than that of the average article or academic press monograph. While this is just one example of a non-academic career path, it does highlight that many of the things that graduate students find most compelling about the academy (e.g. “love of learning”) can be successfully found outside of the academy too.

Secondly, for grads to “be as intentional as possible about opportunities” they should weigh carefully the marketability of their chosen research areas with the very real political mechanisms by which the academy reproduces itself. The job market reflects contemporary trends of intellectual inquiry as much as it annually re-affirms the deep patterns of the field’s self-identification. Key terms serving at the heart of the field – ritual, text, world religions, etc. – are the most marketable because they are the most easily recognizable. Such terms are able to retain their social capital despite the important work deconstructing these categories precisely because they immediately orient one’s research into a wider pattern of comparative data and allow the “importance” of one’s research to be readily recognizable to university administration and students. It is a shorthand that attempts to collapse intellectual inquiry into niches that can be worked to identify what sort of scholar a department should hire. But over-reliance on keywords stresses the content of a person’s research – Hinduism, early Christianity, religion and science – over other sorts of criteria, thereby privileging certain and pervasive implicit assumptions about what kinds of content seem to essentially matter in the study of religion.

In practice this sort of shorthand makes sense, but grads must be willing to think critically about their own positionality and participation in the construction of our field’s peripheries and centers. I offer as an example the study of new religious movements – a subfield that, not long ago, was reserved for “playful” intellectual inquiry post-tenure. The implication was that these movements were neither serious nor important subjects of research, despite any potential methodological or theoretical framing. When, as an M.A. student, I announced that this was one of my chosen research areas I was strongly encouraged to work on classical texts or more readily identifiably “important” subjects instead so that I might land a position in a doctoral program and then a job. I am happy with my own decision to ignore this advice – a decision fueled by the important conversations about the canon of Religious Studies and its attendant colonial, political, and historical consequences (King, Masuzawa, McCutcheon, Styers, etc.). Yet at the same time I recognize that as a scholar I also have a duty to make my research relatable and part of a broader conversation that moves our field and re-makes it.

This leads me to my final reflection: “intentionality” here should be as much about the ways in which grads are able to translate their own professional identities as researchers, thinkers, and teachers as it should be about what kinds of opportunities and skill sets grads establish as they keep an eye on the job market(s). Grads should work closely with trusted advisors – both junior and senior – about how best to negotiate their interests with the contemporary job market. Grads should also recognize the enormous skill set that accompanies the completion of a Ph.D. What seems to be missing is not translatable skills but training and attention to how best wield that skill set in non-academic positions (this seems to me to also be part of our field’s struggle to identify what we offer undergraduate students as well). Unfortunately for many grads the work of finding alternative career paths is placed on them alone.

Shannon Trosper Schorey is a doctoral student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She studies the historical and cultural contexts in which information technologies and discourses of religion and religious rights have co-developed in the United States.

Posted in Pedagogy, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method, Theses on Professionalization, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Better get to know the International Society for the Study of Religion Nature and Culture, Part Two

sistine-evolution-twitter

We want to thank the ISSRNC and its officers and members for taking the time to share their perspectives on ISSRNC’s history and prospects as an organization, the thinking underlying the design of, “Religion, Science and the Future” the ISSRNC 10th Anniversary Conference (CFP PDF) and the state and future of the study of religion and the environment.

For part one of this interview, see here.

Ipsita Chatterjea: Looking back, inasmuch as proposal submissions and the panels are some indication of the state of the study of religion and environment, what have you noticed as methodological and thematic trends?

Luke Johnston: Methodologically, I see an increasing emphasis on ethnographic data collection, and as in the academy more generally, a turn toward studying religious cultural production in specific geographical or cultural contexts. Thematically, perhaps predictably, attention has focused on increasingly global problems, especially climate disruption, but also biodiversity loss, and environmental justice and rights claims. These are issues where we find not just religion, but also economics, politics, and indigenous rights entangled. From an ethical standpoint, these increasingly global problems present a challenging landscape. These are just some of the areas in which the field has expanded in the past decade.

Bron Taylor: Additionally, we’re seeing increasing interest in survey and other forms of empirical research to test hypotheses, many of which have been advanced by ethnographers and historians. This trend illustrates the synergies between different methodological approaches.

IC: Could you talk to us about books or articles that have appeared in the last few years that the ISSRNC Executive committee and the ISSRNC board of directors and advisors recommend, or publications that embody ISSRNC’s editorial line, including those that either the ISSRNC or prior ISSRNC conferences have had some hand in producing?

Evan Berry: I will not refuse the opportunity to promote my forthcoming book, Devoted to Nature: The Religious Roots of American Environmentalism, due out from the University of California Press this July. This book theorizes the ways religious tradition has influenced the environmental movement in the U.S. and critically engages the vestiges of Christian theology that endure in contemporary environmental discourse.

BT: I hesitate to mention any because I would easily fail to mention equally important sources, including from society leaders and journal collaborators. But members of the society have full backward access to the nearly ten years of journal issues, which when combined with the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, provide leads to the wealth of scholarly literature that has been unfolding. It really depends on one’s interests. A new resource for discovering relevant research and cutting-edge scholars is Academia.edu. I would encourage people interested in this field to follow society members; this is a good way to get networked those who share your interests.

IC: How do you all see the study of religion and the environment shaping up over the next few years, what is its future?

Sarah Pike: Given the growth of environmental humanities and critical animal studies in recent years and increasing attention in the news media around global environmental issues such as climate change, the study of religion and nature will increasingly have an important role to play. As mainstream religious traditions, including the Catholic Church under Pope Francis, turn towards environmental issues and new religious and social movements grounded in spiritual commitments, such as radical environmentalism and contemporary Paganism, continue to express commitments to the Earth as sacred, our organization will be on the forefront of understanding these developments and communicating them to a broader audience.

LJ: I hope that both Religion and Nature scholarship and religious studies in general grow into more problem-based disciplines which attend to the wicked socio-ecological problems in particular locales. This would, I think, reflect a broader turn in the past two score years toward lived religion, where everyday behaviors related to environmental impacts are visible, and in which they can be addressed in systemic ways.

BT: I am working on a major, cross-cultural, social-scientific study that I have been calling “The Greening of Religion Hypothesis,” the goal of which is to understand whether and to what extent religions are or might be mobilized broadly to promote biodiversity conservation and social equity. I welcome enquiries from any scholar interested in participating in such research.

IC: With regard to the ISSRNC and your respective assessments of the field, could you each talk about scholars who have forthcoming work you think we (as scholars of religion and specialists) should be looking at?

Bernie ZalehaHelen Kopnina, and Eleanor Shoreman-Ouimet are producing a new edited volume entitled Routledge Handbook of Environmental Anthropology. Among the topics covered will be the quasi-religious academic field of political ecology as a form of extreme religious humanism that devalues the non-human world. Publication is expected in 2016.

David Haberman: This is a difficult question. I don’t think I can answer it since so many people are doing interesting work these days. I can only say that I hope that the book I am currently working on, Loving Stones, fits into the category of promising forthcoming publications. I have been working on human conceptions of and interaction with the nonhuman world for some time with my publications, River of Love in an Age of Pollution (California 2006) and People Trees (Oxford 2013). Although a fair amount of work exists on human interaction with ecosystems, such as sacred groves, and with nonhuman animals, my work explores human interaction with particular natural entities such as specific rivers and individual trees. My current work pushes cultural boundaries even farther by looking at human conceptions of and interaction with individual stones (and mountains). I set this all in the context of the history of dominant strategies for interpreting something like rock worship, which for the most part have been rooted in the idea of idolatry.

IC: Can you tell us about the ISSRNC’s The Journal of Religion, Nature and Culture? And with regard to the common ground of the study of religion globally, what other journals (regardless of language) across the subfields that feed the study of religion and the environment do you find scholars citing most consistently, or wish you would see engaged more often?

BZ: The journals that I rely on and that occasionally include research on the religion/environment nexus are the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and Sociology of Religion. I also pay attention to Implicit Religion, as much religion/environment research looks at phenomena that are implicitly religious, even if they are outside of vernacular understandings of what constitutes religion.

BT: Janet Joyce, the encyclopedia’s commissioning editor, started her own publishing house as the encyclopedia neared publication. Janet came on board quickly with the vision for the JSSRNC, for which planning began in 2005. The JSSRNC’s Editorial Board has mirrored the Society’s editorial stance, to quote from the submission guidelines, “The genre of the article should not assume, either explicitly or implicitly, that readers share the author’s religious or philosophical presuppositions.” Scholars new to the field would do well to join the society and then go to the journal’s archives and see for themselves the incredible diversity there. I also have been particularly drawn to Anthropology journals (especially Environmental Anthropology) Environmental Psychology, Environmental History, and the sociology journals mentioned by my colleague Bernie Zaleha.

(N.B. Janet Joyce of Equinox Publishing hosts this Blog).

IC: For yourselves and the work you are seeing produced, what fields outside of religion do you find have the most resonance for producing innovative interdisciplinary work on religion?

EB: There is great work being done by contemporary anthropologists that articulates the complex cultural strategies by which poor and vulnerable communities are proactively developing new ways of combatting climate change, the exploitation of natural resources, and rapidly changing environmental conditions. Anthropologists like Anna Tsing, Ben Orlove, and Julie Cruikshank are leading figures in such efforts.

BT: the more interdisciplinary one becomes the more one recognizes that scholars from a host of disciplines – both science and humanities rooted – who are exploring the intersection of religion and nature in interesting ways. Here again is an area I am reluctant to single out disciplines or figures for fear of giving an impression that the field is narrower than it is.

IC: Globally a number of interdisciplinary university centers address the environment, among these which ones have engaged religion particularly well, or are poised to do so?

DH: As this is a relatively new field of study, there are really no full-blown programs – and yet emerging centers in the United States would include: The Department of Religious Studies at the University of Florida (site of the upcoming conference) offers both an M.A. and Ph.D. in Religion and Nature, which investigates the way religion shapes environmental attitudes and practices in cultures worldwide. Yale University: The Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Yale Divinity School offer a joint Masters degree program in Religion and Ecology. The Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University has been training doctoral students in the area of religion and ecology in its graduate program in Ethics, Philosophy, and Politics. Drew University has been training graduate students in Ecological Studies in its Graduate Division of Religion.

SP: Members of our society, including Bron Taylor, have held fellowships at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich, Germany and Rachel Carson Center Director Christof Mauch, presented at our 2012 conference in Malibu, California. The growing field of environmental humanities means new programs and institutes are emerging, and the study of religion and the environment need to be championed in these contexts. For instance, the Environmental Humanities Laboratory at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm is doing interesting and important work, although religion has not yet been prominently featured there. Environmental Humanities sites like the EHL offer promising opportunities for religion and nature scholars.

IC: How does the ISSRNC see the task of shaping both how other fields work with scholarship on religion and the environment and the public understanding of religion and the environment?

DH: The ISSRNC is an academic society that promotes the idea that religion plays a crucial role in shaping attitudes and behavior toward the environment. Members of the society examine global religious worldviews and practices to better understand and critically assess their followers’ relationships with the nonhuman world, whether those be detrimental or beneficial. Hopefully the collective work of the society has the effect of encouraging scientists and policy makers working on environmental issues to take the role of religion more seriously in their considerations regarding challenges and solutions.

IC: We want to the thank you for letting us get to know the ISSRNC, all of you, and learn about the ISSRNC’s “Religion, Science and the Future.” Is there anything else we should know?

LJ: Our conferences are fun! There are always excursions outside the conference venue that explore local nature/culture interfaces, and there’s always lots of time built into the schedule for networking and generally having a good time.

BT: Coming up on our 10th anniversary, by hosting and co-hosting conferences around the world, a publishing program involving an encyclopedia and journal (publishing quarterly since 2007) – the Society has dramatically advanced the critical inquiry into the complex relationships between human beings and what people construe as “religion”, “nature”, and “culture.” There is, however, much left to investigate and explore, which is why we continue to cordially invite others to join us.

N.B. Beyond ReligionandNature.com, you can find the ISSRNC on Facebook, Twitter, and Academia.edu.

Also, the interviewer submitted these questions to the ISSRNC just before becoming the ISSRNC’s Communications Director, having previously worked with the group on religionandnature.com in 2007 and 2009.

Posted in Interviews, Ipsita Chatterjea, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Better get to know the International Society for the Study of Religion Nature and Culture, Part One

sistine-evolution-twitter

Better get to know the International Society for the Study of Religion Nature and Culture!

We want to thank the ISSRNC and its officers and members for taking the time to share their perspectives on ISSRNC’s history and prospects as an organization, the thinking underlying the design of, “Religion, Science and the Future” the ISSRNC 10th Anniversary Conference (CFP PDF), and the state and future of the study of religion and the environment.

Ipsita Chatterjea: What is the ISSRNC’s origin tale?

Bron Taylor: The ISSRNC emerged from conversations I had with several scholar-friends in the mid 1990s during which we expressed a desire for extended, interdisciplinary discussion of and collaboration on the religion/nature nexus, which we had found difficult at large, annual conferences. These conversations planted a seed that morphed into the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, a project that brought together a critical mass of scholars.

I wanted to explode the conversation by making attention to “religion and nature” draw on the widest possible variety of disciplines and methodologies, while focusing on the wild diversity of religion and nature-related perceptions and practices (both chronologically and geographically), including social phenomena that might not, at first glance and without some theoretical unpacking, be considered to be religious phenomena. Jeff Kaplan suggested that, with his experience editing encyclopedias and my background in religion and nature scholarship, we orchestrate the project that became the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. By the time of its publication in 2005, the encyclopedia had exploded – to twice its originally envisioned size – to 1.5 million words and 1000 entries penned by 520 contributors.

As we completed the encyclopedia, we began working toward the creation of a new journal and scholarly society many of those involved in the encyclopedia felt that investigations into “the natural dimension of religion,” to borrow a phrase from Catherine Albanese in Nature Religion in America, should continue. While developing the encyclopedia, I had been working closely with anthropologist Kristina Tiedje on the society idea. With Kristina as co-convener, in 2005, we issued a wide-open invitation to interested scholars to attend an initial planning meeting, indicating that we would cover on-site expenses for whoever could manage to attend. Meanwhile, Laura Hobgood and I studied bylaws from a variety of academic societies and crafted drafts of them for consideration at the meeting.

Twenty scholars attended the meeting held in Cocoa Beach, Florida in August 2005; A list of attendees and further details are available. The meeting assumed a mythic reputation because Tropical Storm Ophelia, which briefly also became a Hurricane, hovered 80 miles off-shore, making nature powerfully felt. Through a sometimes-intense discussion we worked on bylaws and refined our mission statement. The most difficult issue, which was eventually amicably resolved, had to do with whether the Society should be a scholar-activist organization or one that would eschew taking eco/political positions. The decision was made that the society would eschew taking political stands in order to welcome scholars with all points of view on religion and nature related issues. This decision has not precluded society members as individuals, in society meetings and publications, from advancing provocative arguments and perspectives.

IC: Who are you people?!

Sarah Pike : We are an interdisciplinary and international scholarly organization composed of scholars from all stages of their careers. Our Board of Directors includes scholars from the United States, Europe, Africa and South America in disciplines including anthropology, philosophy, religious studies, and biology and our conferences have included participants from most disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Our officers are Mark Peterson (University of Wisconsin – Central College), President-Elect; Evan Berry (American University); Kristina Tiedje (University of Lyon, Mayo Clinic Graduate School), Treasurer. Our current Board of Advisors includes members nearing retirement as well as doctoral students and we particularly value and are excited about the contributions of scholars in early stages of their academic careers.

IC: What does the ISSRNC do and how does ISSRNC do it?

BT: Out of the discussions at our initial planning meeting in 2005, we came up with the statement: “The mission of the Society is to promote critical, interdisciplinary inquiry into the relationships among human beings and their diverse cultures, environments, and religious beliefs and practices.” This is what we put into practice through the scholarship we support.

Luke Johnston: The ISSRNC is the only international membership organization focused on the nexus of religion, nature, and culture. We have conferences (on average about every 18 months), and produce an affiliated Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture. In addition, we are an affiliate of, and have co-sponsored conferences and events with other organizations, such as the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR), and the African Association for the Study of Religion (AASR).

All of the efforts that go into producing conferences, co-sponsored panels at conferences, and the production of our affiliated journal are volunteer positions. If this is your area of concern or expertise, we invite you to contribute! We are always searching for scholars with broad interests, genuine enthusiasm, and a sense of intellectual adventure.

IC: How has the ISSRNC and the study of religion and the environment changed since the groups’s founding in 2005?

Evan Berry: Over the past decade, the study of religion and environment has opened up in exciting new ways to include inquiries that reach beyond established scholarship on ecotheology and implicit religiosity. Emerging research on religious responses to climate change and on culturally particular forms of environmental activism are perhaps the most important examples of this shift.

BT: One of the biggest changes is that a global community of scholars has had a distinctive series of conferences to work on various aspects of religion and the environment, and this has energized publications in the subfield addressing everything from sustainability to popular culture. Soon after our inaugural conference, Kristina Tiedje orchestrated our second conference “Re-enchantment of Nature Across Disciplines: Critical Intersections of Science, Ethics, and Metaphysics”, which was held in 2008, co-sponsored by CIGA UNAM and held in Morelia, Mexico. Kocku von Stuckrad, who was the Society’s second President, organized the third conference at the University of Amsterdam, “Religion Nature and Progress” in 2009, and played a key role in the 2010 conference held in Perth, Australia, “Living on the Edge.” There were additional meetings in Rome (the Vatican Museum), Malibu, and most recently Cape Town. All of these gatherings had their own distinctive character and demonstrated the Society’s international commitment and outreach.

IC: Could you talk about international representation within the ISSRNC membership and this summer’s panels at the 2015 IAHR Congress? Are you seeing more women participating than in years past? Are these valences of diversity and others reflected in the subjects and methodologies taken up in the presentations in August?

SP: The ISSRNC is an affiliated association in the IAHR, which means that this year we send a delegate to IAHR’s International Congress. We are also co-sponsoring a panel session with the international research group, “Reassembling Democracy: Ritual as a Cultural Resource,” which is based in Oslo, Norway and includes scholars from Norway, Germany, South Africa, France, Ghana, Canada, the U.K, and the U.S. ISSRNC Board member David Haberman and I will participate in the panel, “When Rocks and Plants are Persons: Ritual Innovation and a Reassessment of ‘Animism.” We will use our specific case studies on Sami festival-goers, Hindu pilgrims, Canadian farmers, and American radical environmentalists to analyze and test recent re-assessments of animism and the ontological turn in the social sciences.

Women have taken a prominent role since the founding of the ISSRNC and two of the four ISSRNC presidents have been women. The society is committed to working towards a gender balance on our Board, among our officers, and at our conferences, as well as increasing ethnic and geographic diversity among our membership.

BT: Beyond being an expressed goal of the encyclopedia, international diversity is a critical component of how the ISSRNC works and the editorial line of the JSSRNC. We committed to becoming as international as possible – our name expressed our strong intention in this regard. Our subsequent history attests to significant success – even though we aspire to become even more robustly international in the coming years.

My impression is that most, if not all of the society-interested scholars from Europe, such as Kocku von Stuckrad, felt very strongly that the Society should not take normative positions lest this erode its credibility and yield a less diverse society. With others from North America, I agreed with this position because, as I argued at Cocoa Beach and my subsequent introduction to the society’s journal, in any scholarly society it is important to create venues for taboo free enquiry, to ensure that all voices, including contrarian ones, are welcome. But as might be expected in a more religious culture, some of the American scholars were reluctant to let go of their hope that the society might promote positive environmental and social change by taking concrete political stands on pressing issues related to religion and the environment. Through our discussion most agreed that there were plenty of venues where religiously motivated scholar-environmentalists could and would express themselves and promote their political views and goals.

IC: For each of you personally, what have been your favorite ISSRNC sessions, or session moments, or most memorable (famous, infamous or formative) moments?

Whitney Bauman : Some of the most memorable moments have involved hearing from leading thinkers such as Donald Worster, Carolyn Merchant, and Marc Bekoff reflect on the theme of “religion and ecology” from within their own disciplines. In addition, the locations of the conference have meant that each one has a bit of a different audience and feeling. The conferences do a good job of privileging the terroir of a given place.

BT: I agree with Whitney that our keynote speakers have been top tier and a part of their value has been to expose scholars from their own specific disciplines to some of the luminaries who take other approaches to religion/nature phenomena. The inaugural conference had an especially memorably roundtable in this regard, with many of the reflections published in the initial issues of the society’s journal. These included Steven Kellert, Stewart Guthrie, Roger Gottlieb, and Sarah McFarland Taylor.

IC: In 2016, the ISSRNC will observe its 10th anniversary and stage “Religion, Science and the Future.” What prompted this theme and the topics taken up in the underlying CFP?

WB: With “climate change” underway, imagining what types of worlds we might help co-create becomes a task of utmost importance. We will need renovations in our understandings of our place within the rest of the natural world, and technological advances that help us to bring about different ways of relating to one another and the rest of the natural world in order to both mitigate and adapt to effects of a changing planet. This conference will hopefully help us to think together and add to the possibilities for becoming with the rest of the planetary community.

Posted in Interviews, Ipsita Chatterjea, Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How Far Does This Love Take Us?

love wins

by Sher Afgan Tareen

The recent 5-4 ruling in Obergefell vs. Hodges raised Justice Anthony Kennedy to a venerable stature amongst those who vigorously celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision. In arguing why same sex marriage ought to be a constitutional right, Justice Kennedy joined Plato, Socrates, and Diotima by sharing his reflections on love. He extolled marriage as a “union” more profound than any other form of social assembling, an embodiment of “the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, devotion, sacrifice, and family.” He suggested that perhaps this love may “endure even past death.” He assigned marriage to a set of “freedoms” that one may actualize through this bond such as “expression, intimacy, and spirituality.” Lastly, he affixed certain qualities such as “dignity” and “autonomy” upon the married couple who, according to him, make such “profound choices.”

Were these reflections on marriage and love necessary? Or would it have been enough for Kennedy to reiterate my aunt’s analysis: it’s all about receiving tax exemptions! Based on the positive circulation of his defense on facebook statuses, Kennedy deserves a pat on his back. Yet his defense underscores the obstinance of a logic of happiness that relies on the normativity of heterosexual marriage and the indeterminate boundary separating religion from politics through which secular power ironically secures itself. In what follows, I deconstruct Kennedy’s love argument. My response comes in two parts: one deals with the affect of sexuality and the second with the problem of American secularism.

Kennedy developed his reflections on marriage and love as he sought to assuage the anxieties of his fellow conservative judges that same sex marriage would offend and disrespect heterosexual marriage. Despite acknowledging their concerns, Kennedy promised that same sex couples do not disrespect heterosexual marriage. To the contrary, “their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves.” To assume so would be to “misunderstand these men and women.”

Kennedy’s apologia highlights the way in which the debate over same sex marriage was framed around the politics of feelings. Same sex marriage announces a broadening of the horizons of imagining who can and cannot marry but same sex marriage must make this announcement without insulting the feelings of heterosexuality, its precedence. Celebrating same sex marriage words must not translate into rejecting the preeminence of heterosexual marriage; happiness must not turn into mockery. Same sex marriage in other words must not muster the affective force to cause and create disrespect.

The subject who may feel disrespected here is not a person but rather a form of social assembling, the heterosexual couple, that nonetheless somehow feels and thus fulfills the requirement of personhood. By promising his mates that same sex marriage will not disrespect heterosexual marriage, Kennedy suggests that non-heterosexual deviance does not err against the feelings of heterosexual marriage. Yet if one were to delve into queer and feminist politics, the rebellion against heterosexual nuclear family centers on resisting and rejecting the heterosexual logic of happiness. As Sarah Ahmed so convincingly argues in The Promise of Happiness, we ought to be wary of spreading happiness because some people may not experience happiness at sites that promise to give happiness. One such site is the heterosexual marriage. Marriage is called the happiest day in one’s life. Yet that feeling of happiness is structured by the gendered enactment of marriage as a ritual. The happiness of heterosexual marriage first of all secures the bride as a happy bride and therefore does not consider the ways in which her heterosexual marriage limits her mobility and thus causes her unhappiness. In addition, it also bars the intimate spaces where gay and lesbian relations occur from competing abreast with the heterosexual marriage as sites of happiness. The mere invisibility of otherwise happy spaces where gay and lesbian partners enact their love for each other in other words attaches happiness to the heterosexual marriage. Following Ahmed’s critique of how happiness maintains the naturalness of certain forms of social formations, I ask the following: Should we respect the feelings of the heterosexual marriage especially when heterosexual marriage has historically been that against which non-heterosexual deviance has been criminalized? Isn’t Justice Kennedy telling all of us to be happy and not insult one another when what radical politics may demand is precisely such an insult? Could framing same sex marriage as respectful of heterosexual marriage erase the troubling effects of heterosexuality as the normative form of assembling? Doesn’t rendering same sex marriage as NOT a trouble maker secures heterosexuality as untroubled?

The second part of my criticism deals with the question of secularism. Quite often, the United States Supreme Court becomes the site where debates over the nature of American secularity transpires. These debates revolve around assessing the line that separates religion from politics. Liberals rue the decline in progress by bemoaning how a Supreme Court led by Republican appointees fulfills the wishes of religious conservatives. Most noticeably, last year the Hobby Lobby case caused immense discomfort to liberals who, despite a well archived history of how Corporate personhood developed in America, were stunned that the Supreme Court allowed corporations led by religious leaders to adhere to their religious principles and not be forced to pay for insurance coverage of contraception.

Conservatives create the caricature of liberal activist judges who revise the Constitution as they please without giving a damn about the overarching religious principles that ground American democracy and secularity. For instance the attorney General of Texas, Ken Paxton, recently compared the same-sex marriage ruling to Row V. Wade and then proceeded to affirm that changes in law (he means coerced and unprincipled) can neither change “the simple truth” that marriage is between a man and a woman nor can it “change our collective resolve that all Americans should be able to exercise their faith in their daily lives.”

These two distinct anxieties share a consensus that the defense of American secularism requires an incessant policing of the boundaries separating religion from politics. If that policing unravels, the freedom granted by American secularity will be imperiled: from the freedom of the women to use contraception to the freedom of Jane and Joe to exercise their faith. Neither of these anxieties question the idea that religion is a source of good but both maintain a separation between the private domain of religion and the public domain of politics to protect the freedoms offered by American secularism. In his book Questioning Secularism: Islam, Sovereignty, and the Rule of Law in Modern Egypt, Hussein Agrama argues that Egypt is a deeply secular country not because it keeps religion out of politics but rather because it consistently draws and redraws the boundary between religion and politics. Agrama suggests that in order to measure secular power (the power of the sovereign modern nation state to manage its diverse population), we ought to pay attention to the paradox of how secular power mobilizes itself by never truly settling the question of where one ought to draw the line between religion and power. Secular power in other words is a power that undermines secularism’s normative claim (that religion is outside of politics) and ironically works precisely by making religion an object of politics.

Agrama’s theoretical contributions are quite helpful in thinking about conceptualizing Obergefell vs. Hodges as a secular ruling. Obergefell vs. Hodges fails to offset previous legal rulings that empowered the state to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman and thus politicized religion to deem same sex marriage illegal. It also politicizes religion to legalize same sex marriage. And that’s precisely why I read it as a secular ruling.

Mr. Kennedy’s love argument includes a list of claims such as “marriage embodies a love that may endure past death” and that marital union makes “two people something greater than once they were,” which can not be proven by citing legal precedents. His statements resonate deeply with Christian theological reflections on marriage. The notion of love enduring death even seems to harken the Mormon notion of a celestial marriage. Whether Kennedy was cognizant of these Christian undercurrents to his arguments is a question I can not answer. Yet he does offer a compelling recipe for defending same sex marriage through a deeply Christian, heterosexual imaginary. The love celebrated today must respect the love which hated it yesterday.

Sher Afgan Tareen is a PhD candidate in American Religious History at Florida State University. He specializes in Islam in America. His research interests include the politics of religious pluralism and freedom, theories of space and place, and the religious history of out-of-status migrants to America.

Posted in Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Sexuality and Gender, Theory and Method | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Better get to know Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy

11539594_10155918114055727_4649150740125353436_n

Ipsita Chatterjea: Brad, Craig, thank you for taking the time to talk to the Bulletin for the Study of Religion Blog about your group and its work! Practicum observed its 1 year anniversary on April 26 2014. What is Practicum’s origin tale?

Practicum

Brad Stoddard: The idea for Practicum grew out of my experience at Florida State University, where I’m about to complete my doctorate. Most graduate students at FSU have to teach, and some of us swapped strategies for introducing critical theory into our intro courses. I noticed that similar conversations took place at various conferences, so I thought it might be a good idea to create a space for scholars to discuss various strategies, techniques, and ideas. I floated the idea by Craig, who asked several people if they were interested in contributing to the project. There seemed to be sufficient interest, so Craig and I launched the blog as co-editors.

IC: Who are you people?!

Practicum

BS: I’m Brad Stoddard, a fifth-year doctoral candidate at Florida State University, where I’m completing my dissertation on Florida’s faith-based correctional program. This fall, I’ll join the faculty at McDaniel College in Maryland.

Craig Martin: Hahaha, Brad’s initials are BS! I never noticed that. I’m Craig Martin; I’m an assistant professor of religious studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College, which is in New York (not far from Manhattan). Since I am one of only two professors in religious studies here, I teach a lot of courses, from an introductory courses on “Religion and Society,” “Religions of the West,” and “Religions of the East,” to more upper level courses on religion and gender, religion and capitalism, religion and politics, etc.

In addition, I currently serve as the Executive Secretary/Treasurer of the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR), and I once edited the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. I think I’m probably most known though for my latest two books: A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (Routledge 2012) and Capitalizing Religion: Ideology and the Opiate of the Bourgeoisie (Bloomsbury 2014).

Our editorial board includes the following four scholars.

IC: So, What does Practicum do and how does Practicum do it?

Practicum

BS: Our goal is simple: we want to create a space where scholars at all stages in their careers can explore and suggest practical strategies to help introduce their students to critical theory. The underlying assumption is that critical theory should play an important role in the undergraduate classroom, including the introductory course, which for the vast majority of students is the only Religious Studies course they’ll take. We’ll literally have one semester to influence the students’ understanding of “religion,” so we should approach the classroom as a tradesperson approaches a trade. Specifically, we should look for new and innovative tools to help us “reach” our students.

To facilitate this, the editors at Practicum solicit original content and we look for relevant material on other blogs. We also have two ongoing “series.” The first is the syllabus project. Since every course makes a larger argument, we ask a scholar to share her syllabus and to discuss her main argument and course objectives, paying particular attention to the theoretical framework that underlies the entire course. Our second ongoing series is our interview with the author series, where we identify interesting and important books and then ask the author to answer a few questions that will explore the book’s theoretical framework and its pedagogical value.

IC: “Practicum” “Critical Theory” “Religion” and “Pedagogy” how do you see these words (and three of them are highly contested words within the field) and the range of issues they evoke for the bloggers and readers of Practicum?

Practicum

CM: What we hope these terms signal likely centers on two of the terms: “critical theory” and “pedagogy.” First, I think critical theory, at bottom, is about critique in the Kantian sense (with a little bit of Marx thrown in): what are the conditions that make something possible? Under what conditions is “Jesus” constructed and then taken for granted as an authority figure in particular communities? What material conditions make it possible for “spirituality” to be more popular than so-called “organized religion,” and–perhaps more importantly–in what discursive context do those terms even signify in the first place? How do the conditions of imperialism and colonialism make discourses on “world religions” both possible and appealing? In this way, critical theory is about exposing or unmasking the typically invisible discursive and power laden conditions that make our social worlds possible. In addition, this form of critique has to be applied to the term “religion” as well–so its place in our title is not a marker of the substance of our blog but merely a discursive site at which we apply criticism.

Second, since it’s not easy to show students what is usually invisible to them, it requires us to be pedagogically sophisticated and reflexive–particularly so we don’t end up dismantling one essentialism only to replace it by another. We have to be continually vigilant as teachers. We hope this blog encourages reflection that lends itself to this constant vigilance.

IC: What changes or shifts would Practicum like to see enacted in classrooms where the analysis of religious phenomenon is the focus of the room?

Practicum

BS: I have two main goals. First, as scholars interested in the academic study of religion, I would like to see more instructors treat religion as a thoroughly human phenomenon. Second, and related to this, we should provide our students with theoretical tools to help them identify the various interests (material, ideological, political, economic, etc.) that underlie our approaches to the supernatural. Regarding this latter point, I often recall Russell McCutcheon’s important question: “Most simply put, are we studying nouns or verbs?” The answer to this seemingly simply question frames and informs our studies.

IC: Practicum was involved with NAASR’s Pedagogy Workshop in San Diego? How did that develop? How did it all turn out?

Practicum

BS: Tara Baldrick-Morrone and Matt Sheedy deserve 100% of the credit for the NAASR section on religion and pedagogy. They organized the panel, circulated the common readings, and administered the entire session. A month or so before the session, I approached Matt and asked him if we could parlay it into some blog posts for both Practicum and the Bulletin for the Study of Religion’s blog. Both he and Tara supported the plan, so we discussed it at the session. Then after the session, we created a Facebook group for session participants to discuss the session and to float ideas for the blogs. Here again, Matt deserves most of the credit, as he did the vast majority of the work.

Overall, though, I was very happy with the conversation that followed! The session started a longer conversation that continued in multiple venues over the next several months. The ideas we explored in the session segued into erudite blogs that hopefully benefitted scholars throughout the country and beyond.

IC: Could you tell us about the recent Webinar and whether another is on plan any time soon?

Practicum

BS: We created the webinar to serve several goals. First, given the scarcity of critical theory in the academic study of religion, we wanted to create a forum where we can introduce students to the types of issues we’re interested in. Second, some students were already familiar with critical theory, so we wanted to provide them a place where they can continue to explore critical theory. Third, every participant is working on a senior or honors thesis, so we wanted to provide additional theoretical tools to help the students in their studies. Finally, since most of these students will soon become graduate students, we wanted to give them an opportunity to meet, interact with, and network with other like-minded young scholars.

To this end, ten undergraduates participated in the program, which consisted of roughly four hours of instruction and discussion spread over two Fridays. We don’t currently have plans for another webinar, but that could change. We’re still kicking around a few ideas.

IC: Are there journals that display a more mindful consciousness about teaching religion or critical theory as an aspect of reporting research findings?

Practicum

CM: the only journal I know of that addresses teaching is Teaching Theology and Religion. There is sometimes some excellent stuff in there, but unfortunately–at least from my perspective–the material in that journal is often articulated in an uncritical and undertheorized theoretical apparatus. Sometimes it’s a view of ethics or social justice that naturalizes particular moral discourses, and sometimes it’s a liberal ecumenism that reinforces a Protestant ideology or a world religions discourse–which go unanalyzed and therefore uncontested.

IC: What journals do you think instructors should point to to help undergraduates or entry level graduate students make the transition into scholarship or study design, inasmuch as these journals are consistently good in their deployments of theory and research on religion?

Practicum

BS: Teaching Theology and Religion occasionally has good articles, but Method and Theory in the Study of Religion and the Bulletin for the Study of Religion are the best journals in the academic study of religion. At the risk of sounding self-indulgent, I think my conversation with Bruce Lincoln (for the Religious Studies Project) has more pedagogical value than any single article I can think of. In forty or so minutes, Lincoln introduces the student to critical theory and he provides practical examples of applied theory. I know of several instructors who are assigning that podcast as a course assignment.

CM: I think Method and Theory in the Study of Religion is the best journal in our field. some of it might be inaccessible to students, but much of it would be highly instructive regarding ongoing debates or methodological issues. Case in point: Bruce Lincoln’s “Theses on Method” was published in MTSR; that would be a fantastic conversation starter in a religious studies classroom, even if the instructor didn’t agree with Lincoln.

IC: Are there scholars you find yourselves turning to who have particular books that embody critical theory based research and represent either really good introductions to such work, or are good models for students who need to transition into developing writing projects and research papers? Is any of that work forthcoming?

Practicum

CM: Haha, well, since you asked: I think my A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion does a good job of introducing students to a critical approach to the subject matter.

I’ve had some success using Aaron Hughes’ Abrahamic Religions in one of my courses; in that book Hughes brilliantly interrogates the idea of “Abrahamic religions” (a successor to “Judeo-Christian religions” and “religions of the book”), revealing its history and showing that the phrase is grossly normative. I use this in my “Religions of the West” course in order to help dismantle the course’s very title.

In my “Religions of the East” course I’ve similarly had success using Veronique Altglas’ new book, From Yoga to Kabbalah. Altglas looks closely at how contemporary practitioners of “Eastern religions” typically employ romantic, orientalist notions of the “Mystic East” at the same time that they transform the traditions they appropriate by articulating them onto modern discourses on “individuality.” In addition, she looks at how some contemporary scholars do precisely the same thing. Thus it provides me with a platform for encouraging students who signed up for the course out of a romantic interest in the “Mystic East” to reflect on their own uncritical assumptions, as well as how even scholars might be directed by naive stereotypes of “individuality” and “religion.”

Although I haven’t used it yet, I’m anxious to try out Leslie Dorrough Smith’s Righteous Rhetoric in class; it’s a fantastically clear and accessible critique of how rhetoricians appeal to people’s fears of chaos in order to elicit support for their social agendas. What’s especially great about this book is that Smith applies her critique not just to the evangelical Christians she studies but also the scholars who write on evangelicals, who use precisely the same rhetorical device. Thus the book is a model for the type of analytical reflexivity to which we think critical theory should aspire.

IC: On behalf of the Bulletin, thank you for letting us get to know Practicum. Is there anything else we should know?

Practicum

BS: We’re always looking for content, so don’t hesitate to submit something if you think it’s relevant.

Posted in Craig Martin, Ipsita Chatterjea, Pedagogy, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Theses on Professionalization Series: Tenzan Eaghll

cute-animals-9

by Tenzan Eaghll

In this new feature with the Bulletin, we have asked 21 early career scholars to weigh in on Russell McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, first published in 2007. In his 21 theses, McCutcheon offers advice to young scholars entering (or soon to enter) the job market, addressing the all-to-important (but often overlooked) question of professionalization. Each of the contributors in this series has been asked to comment on a single thesis, addressing its contemporary relevance, and how it relates to their own experience moving forward in the academic world. For previous posts in this series, see here

Thesis #2: A Ph.D. is awarded not only as a mark of intellectual competence and disciplined method but also as a professional credential that signals one’s eligibility for employment as a researcher and teacher within academia. Although these two aspects of the degree can complement one another, they can just as easily conflict, as in when one’s research expertise fails to overlap with ever changing employment needs.

I am entering the sixth (and final) year of my doctorate at the University of Toronto, so I am right at the cusp of encountering the gap between my area of expertise and the demands of the job market, and I am worried. It is not that I am unprepared, I mean, I have been studying religion for 12 years and feel confident in the subject matter. It is just that the gap between my area of expertise and many of the classes I will be expected to teach is so big as to make the latter seem like a foreign territory. Moreover, given the current job market, this foreign territory may be a place I am exiled to for a very long time. With the shrinking pool of tenure-track jobs and the rise in the amount of poorly paid adjunct positions, I have to prepare myself for the possibility of getting stuck in the adjunct loop.

Early on in my studies I had assumed that by developing intellectual competence in one particular area of religious studies I would be preparing to teach both my topic of expertise and more general introductory classes in the field, but I am coming to believe that this is incorrect. Part of the reason for this is because my area of expertise is philosophy of religion/method and theory, which doesn’t see a lot of job postings, but also because PhD grads are not trained to be experts in any of the “bread and butter” classes on which religious studies departments depend. Most entry level positions require teaching a whole slew of introductory classes I have only basic knowledge in: Introduction to World Religions, Nature of World Religions, Introduction to Christianity, Religion and Violence, Religion and Film, etc. Although I have served as a Teaching Assistant and Course Instructor in some of these classes, I have never been tested to prove my competency in any of these particular subjects. In order to attain my PhD I have only passed comprehensive exams that tested my knowledge within the fields of study related to my dissertation topic. Never once was I tested in my knowledge of “Hinduism,” “Buddhism,” the “religious experience of mystics,” or even the “history of Christianity,” yet those are the topics I will be expected to teach with sublime proficiency (lest I be fired for poor student reviews!).

Of course, I am not suggesting that there should be exams for these general subjects in all PhD programs but am simply trying to underline the fact that the particular reasons for which a PhD is awarded doesn’t necessarily overlap with the demands of the job market. Moreover, I am trying to point out that the gap between intellectual competence and employment opportunities is not just a result of changing employment needs but a systemic problem in religious studies.

Religious Studies is not a discipline with a rigidly defined phenomenon of investigation, and this makes the leap from graduate research to the job market all that more difficult. In Critics Not Caretakers McCutcheon writes that the introductory religious studies classroom is,

[T]he site of some of the most unsophisticated scholarship we collectively produce. It is the place where we often fail to live up to our responsibility of educating critical thinkers and future scholars and, instead, where we often act as trustees concerned for the general well-being of religion. (66)

Perhaps part of the reason these introductory classes are so “unsophisticated” is that they are dumped upon lecturers who have expertise in a very specific area of research, and very little experience teaching general subjects. How are PhD grads fresh out the gate expected to reinvent the wheel when they have neither the experience nor the departmental weight needed to refashion out-dated course models?

Traditionally, it has been expected that new lecturers will spend several years teaching these introductory subjects in order to prove their acumen, and then after a certain period of time they will be given more advanced classes that reflect their area of expertise and their research. However, given the current job market this latter opportunity may never arise for some aspiring academics, and many, including myself, may get stuck at the introductory level teaching “bread and butter” classes for a department that is looking for neither “sophisticated” nor “original” input into traditional courses.

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.

Posted in Politics and Religion, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method, Theses on Professionalization, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment