Problems in the Big Tent

Photo of old curcus tent with two peaksOn social media yesterday a variety of people posted a link to a recent First Things blog post by a theology professor at Nortre Dame who made the argument that religions other than Christianity do not have theologies.

For although “[n]on-Christian piety is real and profound,” or so she claims, she defines the term theology in such a way, taking into account it’s so-called pre-modern usage, as to exclude anyone but Christians from having it. She writes:

Non-Christian piety is touching, because it does innocently and naively touch on the reality of God. The piety of pagans is like the love of virginal girls, who have yet to kiss the Bridegroom and yet fervently desire Him.

Her conclusion? Continue reading

#Day2018

Photo of Elijah Siegler

We’re very pleased to announce that Dr. Elijah Siegler, of the College of Charleston, will be our 2017-18 Day Lecturer.

The date for the event is still to be set, but we anticipate it being early in the Spring 2018 semester and we’re looking forward to Dr. Siegler being on campus for a couple days, visiting classes and meeting with students and faculty.

In his public lecture, Dr, Siegler will be speaking on what a scholar of religion might have to say about the films of the Coen brothers. His title: Myth, Meaning and Morality in the Films of the Coen Brothers.

Know their work?

For more on the Day Lecture, visit it’s page on the Department website.

This event is free and open to the public.

Digital Religious Studies

Photo of old computer punch cards

If you’ve followed our Department then you might know about our new MA, which started this Fall. While it’s focused on helping students develop their social theory skills, it also has a focus on the digital skills that have become increasingly relevant in scholarship — whether to communicate with wider audiences, via a variety of online projects (what might be called the public humanities), or to enhance the traditional research that we do.

That’s why every incoming group of grad students takes two required Fall classes, one on social theory and the other on digital tools. Continue reading

Components of What?

Picture of cards nad poker chipsOne of our grad students has pointed out a problem with a recent article that we read in our Department’s monthly journal group; Sarah wrote:

Although titled “Durkheim with Data,” it seemed as though the creators of this project have not critically considered or defined the very categories they have opted to work within…

I think this is a pretty keen insight, for when I first read the article I was struck by a passage on p. 323, coming after a long quotation concerning the difficulties of defining “society” and “culture”: Continue reading

The REL Journal Group: Durkheim and Data Edition

The following exchange between Prof. Mike Altman and Sarah Griswold, a student in our MA program, reflects on the recent meeting of the journal reading group, part of our Religion in Culture MA.

Mike Altman: Sarah, for our first journal reading group you chose the article “Durkheim with Data: The Databse of Religious History” from a recent issue of JAAR. What’s the gist of the article and why did you think we should read it in our group of MA students and faculty?

Sarah Griswold: The article is basically an introduction (and justification) for the Database of Religious History. This database is meant to serve two purposes: to be a database for “religious groups” in the premodern world and to provide evidence for a theory of religious evolution. In effect, the database tries to play both fields of holding and providing both quantitative and qualitative data. The article mostly reads as an attempt to draw more scholars in in order to add data to the database.

As far as why I thought we should read it, there were a few reasons. First, as someone with a background in both the humanities and math, I think understanding how and why qualitative data is quantified is really important to understanding and critiquing the purpose and use of databases like this one. Second, as the humanities (and particularly religious studies) moves more and more towards digital projects, we need to be aware of what’s out there so we can emulate what is done well and improve on what is lacking. Finally, the article also offers us insight into the theoretical workings of the project itself. Although titled “Durkheim with Data,” it seemed as though the creators of this project have not critically considered or defined the very categories they have opted to work within, making the move from qualitative to quantitative data suspect. That, I think, can be quite telling of the ultimate success or failure of a project of this size.

MA: As a student in this new MA program that has an emphasis on digital and public humanities what can you learn from this article and what can we as a program learn?

SG: Personally, this article reinforced the importance of thinking through the categories you use when quantifying data. It can be easy to point to something you “know” is religion and label it as such without thinking about why you’ve decided on that label in the first place. It’s also interesting to think about the collaboration across disciplines that these projects require. It would be impossible for one or two scholars to gain all the skills needed to make these things even work. It turns out that group projects exist in real life too and not just in school.

As a program, I think the biggest take away is to pay attention to the developments of these projects. Because the DRH has a capacity to refine their methods, I don’t think they should be entirely dismissed as uncritical. There are positive and negative take aways from critically examining any digital project. Learning more about digital projects and examining their goals and functions can and will tell us a lot about how to move forward in our own individual and collaborative projects.

Looking Over and Overlooking

Malory Nye’s tweet, the other day, got me thinking… So I replied:

Picture of three tweets that start to make the point of this blog post

For a while, now, I’ve had this feeling: as happens with any new and successfully reproduced social developments (or what advocates just call advances), newcomers to the group tend to normalize them. Which is a wonderful luxury, if you think about it — in fact, it’s likely among the things the earlier generation worked toward: the right of subsequent members to take things for granted that their elders could not.

“Of course we ought to have a course on theories of religion” someone might now say in our field, or, “Sure, naming something as ‘religious’ is worthwhile studying.” Why? Coz “#classificationmatters” they my tweet in reply. But the risk of normalizing such gains is that we fail to see them as the accomplishments of historical actors, in prior situations where this was not the case. Continue reading

Keyword

Book cover the the Keywords volume

A new book appeared in the Department the other day (it’s the second edition). Well, not new — the first edition came out in 2007 and this edition came out in 2014. So, having not seen it before, maybe I should just say that it’s new to me. Continue reading

Grist for the Millstone

I recall a conference, quite some years ago, where, as part of a panel discussion, I was once called “a vulgar Smithian”; it was a criticism that responded to my interest in the category “religion” itself, thus linking me to Jonathan Z.’s often-cited (and, these days, often-criticized) claim from the opening to his 1982 essay collection, Imagining Religion:

… while there is a staggering amount of data, phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religion — there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no existence apart from the academy.

Continue reading

Two Roads Diverged…

Reslan Aslan, on the CNN show, Believer, speaking with a Hindu asceticI’m on a panel, at a national conference this November, assessing the contributions of the late Huston Smith, so I’m re-reading some things that I’ve not read in a long time — such as his 1958 book, The Religions of Man (which, in one or another edition, has been in print ever since it was first published).

Book cover of Huston Smith's 1958 book, The Relgiions of Man Continue reading