In Support of a Speaker’s Practical Interests

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Did you catch the story, the other day, about Republican Presidential candidate, Ben Carson, and a campaign speech he gave in Iowa City? He distinguished between calling Islam a religion and classing it as a “life organizing system.” Continue reading

We’re kicking off RSSA Coffee Breaks


You’ve probably heard by now that RSSA is starting a new monthly event–Coffee Breaks! The first Tuesday of every month, the Department will provide coffee in the lounge (Manly 200) for all to enjoy from 1:30-3:00pm. So come by between classes, have  a cup, and chat with your classmates and professors. A little birdy told me some donuts might even make an appearance…

The first Coffee Break is this coming Tuesday, February 2nd. We hope to see you all there!

Check out the Facebook event for more information.

Dr. Jacobs’s Outstanding Award Winning Work


Congratulations to Dr. Steven Jacobs! His co-edited volume, Modern Genocide: The Definitive Resource and Document Collection has won two major publishing awards. First, it was named a 2015 Outstanding Academic Title by Choice, a national review of academic publications. What makes a book “outstanding?” According to Choice:

The list is quite selective: it contains approximately ten percent of some 7,000 works reviewed in Choice each year. Choice editors base their selections on the reviewer’s evaluation of the work, the editor’s knowledge of the field, and the reviewer’s record.

In awarding Outstanding Academic Titles, the editors apply several criteria to reviewed titles:

  • overall excellence in presentation and scholarship
  • importance relative to other literature in the field
  • distinction as a first treatment of a given subject in book or electronic form
  • originality or uniqueness of treatment
  • value to undergraduate students
  • importance in building undergraduate library collections

The book was also a named to the 2016 list of Outstanding References Sources List by the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA).

“[The list recommends] the most outstanding reference publications published the previous year for small- and medium-sized public and academic libraries. The selected titles are valuable reference resources and are highly recommended for inclusion in any library’s reference collections.”

Congratulations on your OUTSTANDING work, Dr. Jacobs!


Enlightening or Entertaining: Kumaré


By Vincent M. Hills

 Vincent M. Hills is a now graduate of the University of Alabama who majored in History with a minor in Religious Studies. The following was written for REL 360: Popular Culture/Public Humanities

 Kumaré is a very interesting “documentary”, but for many different reasons than most documentaries.  The film did not wow viewers with interesting facts or show picturesque landscapes, it did however show a side of Western culture that is often the brunt of criticism from many people, but never actually investigated. Vikram Gandhi was a typical American kid who begrudged the way his family tried to impose their Hindu beliefs and practices on him. A few years after graduating college, Gandhi decided to see how easy it would be to pretend to be a guru from the Far East, and actually have people listen to him. The documentary details his experience. From the perspective of a religious studies scholar, the film provides a plethora of thought provoking scenes.

When Vikram Gandhi transforms into “Kumaré”, it’s comical, but eventually the act takes on a seriousness no one could have seen coming. Gandhi’s original question of whether fabricated spirituality would incite a placebo effect among the people he interacted with was quickly diminished. It was obvious that people believed he was genuine, not only because he looked the part, but also because he seemed like a very introspective and genuine person. Apart from the other people who claimed they were gurus, many of the people who “fell” for Kumaré’s trick, were all at a point in life where they were seeking some type of help. I don’t believe that this is a mere coincidence. The documentary reinforced my, and potentially many others belief that people are most vulnerable when they are emotionally unstable. The question becomes: do these people generally have areas of their lives in which they find themselves emotionally unstable, and they believe the only way they can feel better is through the power of a higher power? The answer to this question can never be effectively answered, however, it’s something people should take into account. It’s important to remember that sweating the details doesn’t make for good entertainment, the primary purpose of this film.

The larger question being asked by the documentary is does it matter that the perceived “truth” in Kumaré is actually a lie, if the elicited response mirrors those who supposedly follow “real” faiths or spiritual guides? Gandhi certainly thinks it doesn’t. Throughout the film, Kumaré speaks to his followers about finding their “inner guru”. They don’t need to look to other people, but rather, simply look inside themselves. His contention is that no guru/prophet is more real than another; some of them just believe their own lie. The question then becomes why do people, well educated, often thoughtful people, get sucked into groups not only like Kumaré’s, but also to more mainstream religions on one hand, and potentially dangerous “cults” on the other? These gurus are essentially selling their religion or philosophy. In the same way a used car salesman enamors a customer; many gurus say the right things in order to establish trust.  This is only an inherently bad thing if the person following the “act” ends up being hurt by any number of the tactics employed by the guru to gain his/her following.

Arguably the most interesting part of the documentary comes when Gandhi begins to realize how much he is being affected by his own transformation. Initially, he struggles to reveal his true identity to his followers. There seems to be lies within truth and truth within lies. Was he so invested that he actually began to believe the lie? Or was he simply overwhelmed by experiencing his initial hypothesis? Regardless of the real answers to those questions, this experiment opened the door for further investigation into this particular religious phenomenon. In the end, Kumaré poses more questions than answers, but this does not take away from its exceedingly interesting premise.

A final consideration viewers of the film should take into account when watching the film is why certain aspects of Gandhi’s experiment were shown and others not. That isn’t to say that there were any political ramifications in place, however, it’s important to remember that the film was definitely arranged in order to maximize its entertainment value. Overall, Vikram Gandhi shined a light on a subject that is a sensitive area for many people, and to his credit, he did so in the least invasive and most effective way he saw possible, and it’s reasonable to expect future research will be geared toward similar experiments.

I’m Not That Superstitious

Superstitious Blog Post

By Ian Alexander Cuthbertson

Ian is a Cultural Studies PhD Candidate at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. His PhD thesis explores discourse surrounding lucky and protective objects in Montréal, Québec.


The label ‘superstitious’ is not a neutral designation. Calling a belief or practice superstitious usually implies that belief or practice is irrational, deluded, or at the very least silly. There is also a sense that human progress has depended upon humankind overcoming its superstitions and delusions, replacing magical explanations with rational ones, and consigning belief in the efficacy of good luck charms to the dustbin of history. Yet as the psychologist Stuart A Vyse has argued, superstitions persist even in our technologically advanced world. Although we might grin or roll our eyes at the notion that a rabbit’s foot, four-leaf clover, or lucky coin might have real effects in the world, many of us still possess lucky objects – including President Obama.

In his yearly YouTube interview, the president spoke with the prolific YouTube creator Ingrid Nilsen. Nilsen asked the president to bring in a personal item and to speak about what it means to him. Instead, president Obama brought several items: a rosary given to him by Pope Francis, a little Buddha figure given to him by a Buddhist monk, a lucky poker chip given to him by a biker, a statuette of the Hindu god Hanuman, and a Coptic cross from Ethiopia. According to Obama, these objects are just a few examples of the many “lucky charms or keepsakes” that people have given him over the years – lucky charms that the president now habitually keeps in his pocket.

Russell McCutcheon has already commented on how the president keeping non-Christian religious objects has caused some to question his Christian credentials. But while there is much to be said about claims concerning authentic (or in this case inauthentic) religious practices, I am more interested in the ways Obama explains and justifies carrying these kinds of objects on his person.

Obama’s rationale for carrying around lucky objects in his pockets is interesting to me because it highlights some of the findings of my PhD research on lucky and protective objects in Montréal, Québec. What I’ve found is that while many people possess and use lucky and protective objects in their daily lives, they (like Obama) seem to employ a number of strategies to rationalize and explain their apparently superstitious beliefs and practices.

I first noticed this trend in the online survey I conducted. While many of my respondents reported possessing lucky and protective objects, a large number of these also added additional explanations or disclaimers in the comments section at the end of the survey. Some respondents assured me that of course they did not take any of this seriously. Other respondents explained that their objects were not powerful in themselves but instead instilled confidence in them during difficult situations. Still others explained that these objects were simply mementos of important people in their lives. So how does Obama explain his lucky objects?

Like many of my research participants, Obama explains that these objects are not really about luck at all but instead remind him either of particular values (the rosary from Pope Francis makes him think about “peace and promoting understanding and ethical behaviour.” for instance), or else of particular people he has “met along the way.” But Obama also offers a psychological explanation of the objects’ efficacy when he remarks, “If I feel tired or I feel discouraged sometimes I can kinda reach into my pocket and I say yeah, that’s something I can overcome.” The idea that lucky objects work via human psychology rather than through actual magic is also popular among academics. Bronislaw Malinowski, for instance, has argued that Trobriand islanders use magic to manage particularly dangerous situations such as offshore fishing.

But if lucky objects really only remind their owners of important memories or help instill confidence in stressful situations, why call them lucky at all? Or to put it somewhat differently, given these sophisticated and rational explanations, are lucky objects really superstitious?

My research indicates that (at least some) people really do believe that lucky objects bring good luck via supra rational means. The problem is that they tend to be very reluctant to admit this. Over the last year I have conducted several in-depth semi-structured interviews with Montrealers in order to further explore this issue. Several of my respondents have commented on the apparent social stigma associated with possessing good luck charms. As one interview participant puts it, “I do find that you have to be careful who you talk about this stuff with because some people will be like oh my god, you’re crazy, what are you talking about?” As another explains, “lucky objects are “considered old-fashioned and not scientific and something old people will do but it’s dying out and if you do that you’re duped.” Or to return to president Obama, he is careful to note, “I’m not that superstitious so it’s, you know, its not like I think necessarily I have to have them on me at all times.”

Of course it’s very possible that president Obama doesn’t think he has to carry lucky objects on him at all times. But I find it interesting that he nevertheless feels the need to reiterate this in the interview. In fact, while some may be concerned that the president sometimes carries Hindu and Buddhist religious symbols in his pockets, Obama seems more concerned with being labeled superstitious. He isn’t alone in this.

Also, I should note that the photo at the beginning of this post is of a few of the lucky objects I own. But don’t worry – I’m not that superstitious either.

Classroom to Conference: REL Majors Presenting Their Research


REL is very happy to announce that two of our students have been accepted to present their research at the Southeastern regional meeting of the American Academy of Religion in March.



Jared Powell will be presenting a paper titled “And the Beat Goes On: Imaginings and Retellings of Han Shan by Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac.” The conference paper began as a project in Dr. Ramey‘s REL 419: Tales From Asia course. In the paper, he analyzes the ways in which Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac–two Beat Generation writers–translate and retell the poetry and life of Tang Dynasty Chinese poet Han Shan. He argues that in their works, Snyder and Kerouac create an imagining of Han Shan as an ascetic Buddhist ideal that champions typical Beat emphases of playfulness, spirituality, and counterculturalism

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Sarah Griswold’s conference paper is also Asia related. Titled, “There is a Well at Cawnpore: The Politics of Commemoration in Colonial India,” her paper analyzes a memorial at a well in the Indian town of Cawnpore. The well stood as a memorial of the Siege of Cawnpore during the 1857 revolt under British colonial rule. The conference paper began as a project in Dr. Altman‘s special topics REL 483: Religion in Colonial India course (that will soon be a regular course offering in the department).

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You can find the full conference program here. You might even notice a few other REL names on the schedule.

Do you have a paper from a course that you’re proud of? Are you interested in sharing your work beyond just your professor? REL offers many opportunities to share your undergraduate research, such as this blog, the REL Honors Research Symposium, the UA Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity Conference, and the regional AAR meeting. Talk to your professor about how you can present the great research you are doing in your courses!


Elmer Gantry: The Trap of Hypocrisy and Greed


By Ashley Daugherty

Ashley Daugherty is a senior majoring in Anthropology and Spanish. She is looking to work in Applied Business Anthropology. The following was written for REL 360: Popular Culture/Public Humanities

Elmer Gantry is a film that exposes hypocrisy and greed among religious leaders who seek to exploit gullible citizens looking for something in which to believe.  This abridged version of Sinclair Lewis’s novel of the same name focuses on Elmer Gantry, a con man expelled from seminary school, and Sister Sharon Falconer, a character loosely based on evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.  Religion is an aspect of culture that permeates all societies, and much of history is defined by religions in power at the time.  Gaining and keeping followers is the key to the success of any religion, and religious leaders must recognize this and figuratively, though sometimes literally, sell the religion.  Modern, yet extreme examples of this include ISIS, a violent terrorist organization that is somehow able to recruit privileged teens from Western countries, and the Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ, which used liberal ideology to attract minorities and young people.  More mundane examples include the star power of Scientology and Christian rock concerts.  Since religions are often sold with a spin to attract the most people or a certain group of people, it is important that potential followers examine the reasoning and intentions of religious leaders.  Elmer Gantry sets out to do just that in the world of evangelical revivalists, and an examination of the complicated relationship between the congregations and the religious leaders of the film may help illuminate the popularity of many religious movements, even those that appear to be a farce from the outside.

Elmer Gantry and Sister Sharon Falconer, the two main religious leaders of the film, are portrayed as morally dubious though Gantry has a small redemption and Falconer clearly truly believes in her cause.  Gantry’s beliefs are left ambiguous, as are his motives for evangelizing.  Gantry is portrayed as a smooth talking but frustrated salesman, struggling to make a living.  He wears fine clothes, yet he rides the railways like a vagabond.  His dissatisfaction with his life, as well as his drinking, lying, and philandering give the audience a portrait of an unsavory man.  The inspiration for Falconer, Aimee Semple McPherson, on the other hand, was thought of as a celebrity, and many felt her intentions were dubious.  There are glimmers of this in Sister Sharon Falconer, like when she admits that she knows Gantry is lying but allows him to continue preaching because she believes it is for the greater good.  In another scene, Falconer exhibits pride and materialism when she admits that she always wanted her own church with a giant glowing cross.  Still, Falconer dies for her beliefs and is shown to fervently believe in God; she clearly wants to save people.

With the characterization and strong personalities of these two characters, it is easy to assume a one-sided relationship between Gantry and Falconer and their congregants, but this is not the case.  As with any service, the revivals in Elmer Gantry would not be put on if the pastors and congregations of these areas did not have a demand for them.  In the film, Gantry happens upon one of Falconer’s revivals being held in a country town.  The tents are filled with people clamoring to see Sister Sharon Falconer.  During the service one man begins speaking in tongues.  In another service a couple comes forward to ask that Falconer cure the husband’s deafness.  The film leaves the realities of these mystical happenings up to interpretation, and so gives the congregants active, if small, roles in the narrative.  Falconer gives of herself throughout the film to help her congregants, often going outside her comfort zone to preach to angry crowds and secure the donations she sees as a necessary evil for the continuance of her sermons.  When Gantry is framed as a philanderer, both Falconer and Gantry endure the wrath of an angry public in Zenith, but are quickly restored to their pedestals upon a retraction.  It is clear that the revivals rely on the approval and demand of the public and that the revivals certainly could not survive without the support of a large number of congregants; however, there are several points in the film in which it appears the congregants are being taken advantage of by town and religious leaders.  In a scene where Gantry and Falconer are hoping to get funding to set up their revival in the city of Zenith, lack of attendance is straightforwardly given as the reason for seeking out the revival.  Lewis’s famed businessman character, George Babbitt, and pastors in the community discuss the merits of holding a revival in Zenith.  Despite their reservations about the dignity of revival-style preaching, many of the pastors agree that it would be best for their congregations to get excited about Christianity again in hopes that this would subsequently bolster attendance.  The merit of this argument is undermined because it is given by Babbitt, not out of caring for the citizens of Zenith, but rather because he stands to gain the most financially from the revival.  Additionally, this positive representation of the necessity of revivals to faltering churches is soured by the probability that Falconer’s revivals take advantage of the lower class.  Before Falconer and Gantry set up their revival in Zenith, a large city which is described as a place where Falconer and Gantry can become famous, Falconer’s revivals were held in the country and in small towns.  Many of the people attending the revivals would then be working-class individuals.  One of the first scenes with Sister Sharon Falconer involves her asking for donations from these people.  The attendants give her their money, she leaves after a short period of time, and then the attendants are no better off and short on money.  One attendant of the revivals even describes himself as only being a good Christian when a revival is in town, and then going back to his old ways once it is gone.  There is a definite give and take between Gantry and Falconer and the congregants in Elmer Gantry.  The public has the power to end the careers of Falconer and Gantry; however, Gantry and Falconer sell the revivals, and eventually Falconer’s church, in a way that pleases the public. By so doing they give themselves an advantage over the general public.

Elmer Gantry is a nuanced look at the world of evangelists and revivals.  The portrayal of revivals as a necessary service with a precarious balance between helping and hurting both the revival’s leaders and attendants is masterful.  Though it makes its position on for-profit religious functions clear from the very beginning of the film, it attempts its critique in a fair manner.  Elmer Gantry shows the necessity and sincerity involved in these functions, as well as the dangers of falling into the trap of hypocrisy and greed, through its highly humanized leads, Elmer Gantry and Sister Sharon Falconer.

Any Questions?

dwightSeveral REL classes this semester off by asking their students to pose one question about religion or its study that they’d like answered.

As you might guess, our faculty got quite an array of questions — from some that were focused on the possible links between violence and religion to queries about the origins and function of religion, and even some specific questions about why some women cover their faces in Islam, the place of cows in Hinduism, whether atheism is a religion, and the origins of Shinto in Japan.

Prof. Loewen even made us a word cloud for the questions.

Picture 6So if you had just one question about religion in general, any religion in particular, or even about how to study religion in a public university, then what would it be? Pose it in the comments and we’ll try to answer it.

Elmer Gantry and A Little About Race


By Sarah Griswold

Sarah Griswold is a senior double majoring in Mathematics and Religious Studies. She spends her “free time” analyzing her favorite shows on Netflix, which of course winds up ruining them.  The following was written for REL 360: Popular Culture/Public Humanities.

“Elmer Gantry was drunk,” begins Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 novel. That’s how the movie Elmer Gantry begins too. The story is of Elmer Gantry who loves women and whiskey more than just about anything else. A fast-talking salesman, Gantry has an incredibly charismatic personality that convinces people to give him money for anything from helping out a nun to selling vacuum cleaners. After being drawn to Sister Sharon Falconer’s travelling revival tent, he finds himself immediately attracted to her and finds a way to convince her to allow him to join her in the show. The story goes on to follow Gantry and Falconer as the travel around the country selling their religion to any and everyone who will listen.

Watching the film, you are immersed in two and a half hours of 1960s humor and absurdity beyond the absurdity of the story itself. The protagonist Gantry is quite the character. Fast-talking and clearly extroverted, Gantry seems to be able to weasel his way into just about anything he wants. However, one of the many questions we are left with at the end of the film is whether Gantry ever actually knows what he wants. He seems to change throughout the film to become more genuine in his actions. While definitely interesting and meriting further discussion, I’d like to turn my focus to something else entirely. What I truly found fascinating about the film was the race politics. During the 1960s, overt racism was widespread and generally considered to be normal. While the film didn’t contain plot lines that were overtly racist, there were two particular images that stood out to me as indicative of the way the film’s director and producers imagined the world.

The first image that stood out to me was this scene in which Gantry wanders into a black church. During the scene, the congregation sings a gospel hymn when Gantry comes in. As they begin to realize that an outsider – a white man – is among them, they stop singing one by one and turn to stare. As the music dies, Gantry picks up where they left off and continues the hymn. The congregation slowly begins to join back in and Gantry begins to solo with the congregation acting as back up singers. The scene ends with the end of the hymn and a young girl who is still staring at Gantry. The solo serves the purpose of highlighting Gantry’s comprehensive familiarity with various types of hymns and church settings. But I cannot help but to think that the choice to include the solo carries an undertone of stereotypical 1960s racism. The young girl’s continued suspicion of Gantry coupled with the setting reflects an attitude (likely from the director and/or producers) of essential difference between black and white. To reinforce my suspicions, a comparable image appears towards the end of the film.

The other image that stood out to me was during the scene toward the end of the film when Sister Sharon’s church is burning down. Outside of the church is a large cross that is adorned with light bulbs. While brief, there is a shot of that cross going up in flames. In context and like the scene in the black church, it makes perfect sense for this cross to burn with the rest of the church. However, considering the context of the 1960s and the oppressive presence of the Ku Klux Klan at the time, it is near impossible to separate the image from association with the KKK. The image of a burning cross was (and arguably remains) a threat in and of itself. So while the image put into context makes perfect sense and the image carries no further explanation in the film, it is not devoid of the meaning associated in this particular way. Between this shot and the scene from the beginning of the film, Elmer Gantry carries undertones indicative of 1960s racism.

The film lacks any African Americans beyond the scene discussed earlier. This further highlights the racist undertones of the 1960s. Of course, these are only a couple of tiny pieces of the two and a half hour-long film, which as far as I could tell said nothing more about race. Instead, the film in its entirety produces an interesting exploration of revivalism and outrageous personalities, while providing intriguing entertainment. So one could read into these two particular aspects of the film as I have done, or one could choose to ignore them entirely and enjoy the film. Or just dissect a different part entirely.

When is it Spirituality and When is it Religion?

Kumare movie poster

By Jeremy Connor

Jeremy Connor is a music performance graduate from the University of Alabama. He is currently working full time in marketing and finance at West Alabama Wholesale in Newport, Alabama. The following was written for REL 360: Popular Culture/Public Humanities.

The idea behind the movie, Kumare, is a simple, but interesting one. An American man with Indian heritage, named Vikhram, decides to conduct an experiment. He wonders if he can convince people that he is a ‘real guru’ by speaking in an Indian accent, dressing in Eastern clothes, and saying many profound-sounding nonsense phrases. In short, it worked. People followed him and bonded with him over made-up nonsense. After watching the film, two questions that have perplexed me for a while once again popped into my head: What defines a practice as a religion versus just being spiritual, and why is spirituality important to people?

Many non-church going people my age have a phrase that I’ve heard so many times over my life, and I am always confused as to what exactly it means. “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual”, is the credo of these people and there seems to be a trend in their demographic. In my experience, it tends to be those that had a religious upbringing and have since began questioning their faith. What do these people need from so called “spirituality” that they don’t feel they need from religion anymore?

The people in Vikhram’s experiment that were so swayed and influenced by Kumare all had problems that they needed to solve. Kumare acted as a therapist who could listen and give back kind words, though they may have been broken and nonsensical. It wasn’t what he was saying that mattered, but more that they were able to talk to someone about what was bothering them. This was all solidified and made more important through the use of ritual. Similarly to how his words were not important, the content of the ritual was not important, only that there was a ritual that they could follow and get into the right mindset to do some introspective thinking.

So, is this considered religion? In the movie, they didn’t ever state to the followers that any of the teachings that Kumare gave were from any holy tradition. There was no worship, no creation story, nothing that people usually identify as important parts of religion. But it had many of the other important aspects of religion: the community, the therapeutic settings, and the ritual that made these people feel very strongly connected to it.

In my opinion, the main difference between religion and spirituality is the amount of organization and the level of reliance on supernatural explanations. Religions tend to rely more on explanations that are supernatural in nature, putting their faith in a god or gods and praying, while spirituality may contain something like that, it isn’t necessary to fit under the broad category of being “spiritual”. Religion also is usually much more organized with different institutions that have leaders and hierarchies, rather than just existing as a perspective in someone’s mind.

After seeing the people in Kumare get fooled so easily, I have come to the conclusion that the true importance of religion and spirituality in this day and age is to provide people with a way to bond with others in a close way, a way to feel like they can talk to someone (preferably with authority), in detail about their life problems, and rituals that they believe help to do something in their lives, whether they make any effect or not.