Why Do They Touch the Phallus? Or, Diverging Theories of Ritual

One night during my fieldwork among Brazilian migrant communities in Japan, I was invited to a dinner at Daniel’s apartment. He and his girlfriend frequented a local Brazilian evangelical church that I was studying. After the dinner, they started talking about the “strange festival” in Komaki, a city one-hour drive away from where they lived. The festival took place the previous week (on March 15 2014) and they came across its footage online. The Hōnen Festival at Tagata Shrine is best known for its 280 kg (620 pound), 2.5 meter (96 inch)-long wooden phallus, which is carried around on the streets during the celebration. The object is supposedly the embodiment of prosperity, bountiful harvest, and fertility. The youtube video above can give you some idea of what Daniel and Sachi saw.

“Nossa (Wow)! These women flock to the phallus and try real hard to touch it! They think they can get pregnant that way!” They exclaimed in a critical tone. Laughing hard at the whole comicalness of this festival, I responded, “Ah, c’mon, it’s just fun, that’s why most people try to touch it! Do you really think these Japanese women believe in it?”

Yes!” They answered.

Continue reading

And I nominate…


It’s not news that, over the years, I’ve critiqued our main professional organization on various occasions. I’ve been a member for a while now, and it seems to me that having a stake in the profession, and in an association that one’s membership dues helps to fund, means that one is free to offer commentary where one thinks things could (and should) be otherwise.

Maybe we could even go so far as say it’s an engaged member’s duty. Continue reading

The Problem with the Primacy of Primary Sources


By Andie Alexander
Andie Alexander earned her B.A. in Religious Studies and History in 2012. She is completing her M.A. in Religious Studies at CU Boulder. Andie also works as the online Curator for the Culture on the Edge blog.

Over the past few weeks I have heard repeated talk of primary sources vs. secondary sources, privileging the former over the latter in every case. The argument that was made in these instances is premised on highlighting the legitimacy and groundedness of the primary sources, as if they focus on something “real,” (such as religion on the ground, or “real world” examples). These are then juxtaposed with the secondary sources, which are seen as subsequent discourses on primary sources, mostly concerned with meta-discourses — regarded mainly as “thinking about thinking” or “talking about talking” — which are given that secondary ranking because they aren’t talking about something “real” or answering the reader’s question (in fact, often they leave them with more questions than answers, whereas primary sources are all about answers). In some cases, these secondary sources are dismissed with a “So what?” I say “dismissed” not with a negative connotation, but with a sense of such indirect relation to the “real world religion” that the “meta-discourses” are seen as not worth the same time and engagement as their juxtaposed primary sources.

What strikes me as interesting about this distinction between primary and secondary sources is that the use of that very language largely relies on some essentialized notions of religion, as if it exists authentically, apart from subsequent claims about it. Continue reading

“What happens after the deconstruction?”

deconstructionI recently listened to The Religious Studies Project’s latest interview, with Teemu Taira, on the category religion. The way the interview was framed, by Breann Fallon, was “where do we go from here” (as Taira phrases it) — i.e., having understood that the field’s primary organizing concept can itself be examined as an historical artifact, how do we now carry out our work?

It’s a question many have asked.

His answer to the question, as illustrated by his work on, among others, Karhun Kansa (i.e., “the people of the bear,” a contemporary, registered religious community in Finland), concerned scholars studying the motives and effects of groups trying to attain/who have attained this designation, e.g., as he puts it, the ability to perform ceremonies sanctioned by the nation (e.g., marriages), having their groups included in the curricula of religious education in public schools, eligible to receive financial support from the Ministry of Education, and obtain certain social freedoms and recognition.

In short, he proposes becoming a scholar of “religion.”

As Taira puts it, the future of the field may be found in investigating how groups

make use of the category religion, how they promote their own interests…, how we are governed by the category religion…. I [therefore] tend to ask quite simple questions…, such as: Who benefits of being a religion? Or who benefits of denying the religiosity of a group or a practice? I can also ask how are we governed, if I’m trying to look at the level of state or society more broadly… And I think it is quite clear that people achieve something by being a religion, but that happens within the governing structures of society. So, by being a religion, you gain some but at the same time you lose some. When you get some concrete benefits you are usually molded in a way that you have to adjust yourself to the criteria that is used in an institution, in law, or wherever. And that is typical so that you have to represent your group as somehow reminding of Protestant Christianity, but at the same time you are sort of marginalized or domesticated, in a way…, or as some people say you are depoliticized, in a way. So the idea goes that being a religions definitely guarantees some privileges of selected groups but at the same time it distances them from the so-called secular center of society — the political, so-called secular power.

Thus, he makes clear that such a scholar’s aim is not to define religion, debate which religion is right, or then use the term to study people (e.g., their religiosity) but, instead, to examine how groups of people, with specific interests (whether that group is a nation-state’s leadership or a minority group within the nation), use the term in practical settings where something it at stake, defined in whatever manner the group sees fit to use.

The debate, then, is not over whether something is or isn’t a religion (e.g., is Buddhism a philosophy or a religion — a question that once preoccupied so many scholars) but, instead, concerns the effects of using the term in specific settings.

The podcast attracted a response from Paul Hedges, also posted on the site. Given that he describes himself as a scholar of inter-religious studies — defined by him in a video on his faculty website as “the way people of different religions, but also no religion, meet in dynamic encounters in societies and across the world today” — it’s likely fair to assume that he might disagree with Taira (as he does), inasmuch as using the category, rather that studying its use, is essential to his work. While I leave reading his response to you, if interested (along with the rather interesting reply from one reader of the site) what I find interesting is this question he also pursues: “what happens after deconstruction?”

While I would contest that deconstruction names the work under consideration (I’d happily call it historicization, to be honest, or the study of social classification systems), what I find more curious is the assumption that a reality exists in the world that demands naming and attention — thus we can’t be satisfied with studying “religion” but must, at some point, get on with some new way of studying religion in light of, or after, the critique. That people use this word seems not to be contest in this debate, but what is in question is whether we, as scholars, must, sooner or later, adopt the word ourselves, and all that comes with it, so as to then just get on with the business of describing and comparing, and then maybe even interpreting and explaining, the world as envisioned by those who happen to use the word.

To rephrase: yes, there are social realities created by the use of the word in specific institutional and historical settings — no one is questioning that. But do I, as a scholar, grant the existence of that social reality to such an extent that I then go on to develop, say, a theory of religion (not of “religion” mind you), thereby sanctioning and reinforcing some group’s way of constituting their world? Do I write a textbook chronicling, in great detail, the historical development and current shape of this social reality? Do I study how participation in this social reality influences, say, people’s voting habits?

(You’ll notice that hardly any — if any! — theorist of religion, world religions textbook or pollster frames the issue in this manner, i.e., that they’re merely studying the effects of a shared and thus presumed social reality. No, they’re study religion.)

Consider this analogous case: with RSP in mind, I think of David Robertson‘s work on conspiracy theories. Think up a conspiracy theory you know something about, notably one that has significant traction for some people, maybe one that has lasted for some time or one that helps people to orient themselves with regard to other institutions in their life, such as, say, the government — as a scholar, is your job to grant the social reality of this conspiracy theory for these people to such an extent that you carry out all of your research while working within its parameters, so as to, let’s just say, figure out just how the mob killed Jack Kennedy? Or, instead of such descriptive work, might you study just why this particular viewpoint has been so persuasive for some people, thus examining the motivations for assuming it and the benefits for propagating it — recognizing, of course, its social reality for them but never adopting and thereby sanctioning that reality for yourself, as the researcher.

I could name many other examples, of course, where scholars would more than likely never entertain taking others’ social realities so seriously that we thought we should adopt them for ourselves, and then start using them and working within them; instead, in many cases, we recognize that our work ought to be focused on explaining why such a belief or institution exists or is so successfully reproduced.

Yet when it comes to some (or many) people calling part of their experience or world religious, or sacred as opposed to profane, well…

And here the problem becomes evident: many of our colleagues, I would argue, are, to put it frankly, native informants for this particular social classifications system, making it near impossible for them to entertain that there are only religions in the world because many of us say and act like there are. Instead, they are (understandably, of course) deeply invested in a model of the world made possible by assuming that this is religious and that is not — a system of distinction that, just as Taira argues, comes with very practical costs and benefits. And, if he’s correct in his analysis — that these costs and benefits can be of great consequence to the members of groups who aim to be designated in this manner — then we would more than likely predict that anyone from within such societies would not give up assuming the reality of their social world without putting up a fight.

Thus we arrive at the “what do we do now?” question; for having historicized the concept religion many still assume that we need to just get on with figuring out a better way to study that which we formerly knew as religion — they call it something different, sure, but still group together the same old parts. Do so as if a stable reality lurks somewhere in the background of our naming.

It’s a sign of membership within, and replication of, a social reality some of us instead wish to study.

It’s a point nicely recognized by a comment that responds to Hedges’s own RSP post:

rspresponseSo what comes after deconstruction? Well, if you had the benefit of floating outside of time and space I guess you’d just know that the opening picture was a camera, and you’d aim to reassemble it after someone having taken it apart — who would be satisfied with all those scattered parts? But if you happened on that very situation without that privileged knowledge, without them all arranged and framed so nicely, there’d be no necessary indication that it all had to go together in a certain way, to produce a specific item. That some people put various elements of society into fixed relationships that result in their ability to identify, say, this ceremony, those artifacts, and that institution as all being religious is evident — but none of us float so free of the world that we know they ought to go together in that manner. So the fact that some people make those links, fight over those links, and move within worlds made possible by those links is, to my way of thinking, the interesting thing.

So there’s no need to answer the opening question. For there is an after only for those who have the privileged knowledge — who just want to get on with using the camera. That they’re so set on taking pictures is the thing that some of us happen to be curious about; so watching the assembling and tracking the use of the device is rather fascinating to some of us.

Another Good Book with Prof. Michael Altman


The tenth installment in our A Good Book series is now on vimeo! This episode revisits Prof. Michael Altman as he shares yet another influential book, The Invention of World Religions by Tomoko Masuzawa. Be sure to give it a watch!

Another Good Book with Prof. Altman from UA Religious Studies.

What if Harry Potter is Sacred?

boywholivedcroppedWhen we label something “sacred,” that designation often changes how we engage it. Discussing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as a sacred text, the podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text illustrates this engagement and the ways readers interpret from their own experiences. Both hosts in this podcast have a particular interest in the category of the sacred. Vanessa Zoltan is a Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, and Casper ter Kuile is studying to minister to those who identify as non-religious.

They explain the social nature of sacrality (think Durkheim), “The text in and of itself is not sacred, but is made so through our rigorous engagement.” Describing their podcast, they hope “to glean what wisdom and meaning we can make from J.K. Rowling’s beloved novels.” That statement contains an intriguing ambivalence, as the verb “glean” generally connotes collecting something that exists while the phrase “we can make from” puts the creation directly in their hands, which reflects the tension between socially constructed sacrality and the common assumption that meaning comes from a text.

Declaring the text to be sacred encourages the slow, careful reading that they present in the podcast, but this respectful attitude also can generate a different acceptance of the narrative. In discussing loneliness in episode 2, they surmise that people who experience a traumatic childhood

can’t envision a future for yourself that is superior than the one you are currently in, but Harry seems to have the sense that there is something better than this.

It struck me that a critical reading of the novel might question Rowling’s narrative as unrealistic, making Harry too hopeful despite his trauma, but treating the text as sacred encourages the readers to accept the story as it is and see characters as exceptional rather than unrealistic. While they claim that they do not see the text as perfect, their discussion suggests that a sacred text is not questioned in the same way that a typical novel often is.

Engaging one chapter of the novel in each episode, they further illustrate how an interpretation of any text, sacred or not, derives more from the reader than the text itself. For each episode they choose a theme such as generosity (episode 3), promise (episode 8), and goals (episode 10), that reflects the issues and values that they bring to the text. Their discussions of these themes, moreover, frequently relate the events in the chapter to their own experiences with childhood birthdays or a life-threatening fall, seeing the theme through their own knowledge and experiences. They also identify allegorical meaning, such as connecting Dudley’s desire for 36 birthday gifts to the symbolism of that number in some groups that identify as Jewish. At this point, it is no longer important what JK Rowling thought when she inserted the number 36 into the passage, as the meaning is a construction of the reader.

Even their closing practice of offering a blessing to a particular character demonstrates the centrality of their own interests. Vanessa in episode 10 offers a blessing to the Fat Lady in the painting, respecting her commitment to protect Gryffindor while acknowledging how women frequently are dismissed because of their body. In other words, the text becomes the vehicle for discussing the interests and concerns of the participants.

While identifying a text as sacred encourages the reader to treat it differently, the meaning that the reader constructs becomes a product of their own interests, experiences, and imagination, as is true with any text. In this element, this podcast is no different from other constructions of meaning and relevance in literature, sacred or otherwise. Whether or not you like Harry Potter or the meanings that Zoltan and ter Kuile generate, the podcast illustrates the significance of labeling something “sacred” and the ways applying that label and constructing meaning both are a product of the reader, not the text itself.

Messing Up at Starbucks, or the Ritual Order of Choice


I’m a regular customer at Starbucks. Several times a week, I walk into one, order a drink, wait for it, say thank you, and walk out. I’m sure many of you do the same thing pretty often, if not every day, without even thinking about it.

But I once failed miserably at this banal procedure. It was my first year in the US and I had just arrived from Japan, so many things were still new to me. But Starbucks was definitely not new. I had spent so many hours there studying as an undergraduate student in Japan that it felt like my habitat, even though I was now in Boston. I walked into one store and everything looked familiar – the menu, employees’ uniform, and interior.

“What would you like, ma’am?” It was my turn to order. “Café misto, please?” I answered (or something of the sort). Then the employee – a nice young woman – said something that I had never heard before: “holetoopercetskimhaffanhafforsoy.”

OK, that’s how it sounded to my unprepared ears, but she was in reality asking me: “whole, 2%, skim, half&half, or soy.” After some back-and-forth, I figured out that she was asking me to choose what kind of milk I wanted them to use to make my drink – a choice I had never been given or heard of in Japan. By this point, the nice young lady who was dealing with me was visibly frustrated. She probably thought I was having a hard time understanding English. Instead, I was having a hard time trying to understand why on earth choosing the kind of milk matters at all. I was having a hard time because they had violated the ritual I thought I knew so well – and in that ritual, milk was a non-question. Anyway, I eventually said what I honestly thought:

“Um, can you just pick one for me? I honestly don’t care what kind of milk it is.”

And the young woman looked at me as if I were an alien. Now it seemed I had violated her ritual as well. In that ritual, I imagine, no matter how little you care about the thing, you still pick something. It’s on you. The choice is on you. I don’t remember what happened next. All I remember is my thought as I walked out of the place: It’s just milk!

But of course it’s not just about milk (although if you think that way, great!). It’s about how many of our daily little rituals are predicated on tacit assumptions about how the world functions, which in turn reflect cultural, ideological, and political orders that shape our lives. In forsaking the small right – and in fact the obligation – to choose (but never outside of the neat options they created and bind us to), I think I violated one of the most cherished ideals in the US, which is the myth of personal choice. By “myth,” I don’t mean a fake story but a shared narrative that becomes so valuable to a group of people that an alternative reality becomes difficult to conceive. You think I’m stretching it too far? Here, listen to Barry Schwartz, professor of social theory and author of The Paradox of Choice“In terms of fetishizing the idea of choice, the U.S. is the absolute pinnacle… We want to be able to choose everything that matters, as well as the things that don’t.”

Have you ever said “um, skim milk, please,” when you actually didn’t care that much about the choice? Well, independent of your internal state (i.e. even if you actually didn’t care), you performed a little ritual there, which in turn reinforced what sociologist Erving Goffman called the “ritual order” – the social hierarchy, structure, and ideology that we constantly and often unconsciously reaffirm by daily interaction rituals.


From consumerism to politics to romance, the idea of choice plays a powerful role in how people navigate the social terrains in this country. You choose the right product/candidate/partner because it/he/she is for you! In reality, most of the products you are interested in may be coming from the same region in China. In reality, no matter how much “freedom of choice” there may be, people tend to marry within their own class/ethnic/racial groups. But the idea and ideal of choice remain an important driving force in US culture, and you can see people exercise it in many rituals, big and small. Think of election day. And think of the type of milk you pick at Starbucks.

You think I’m wrong? Next time you are asked to choose – kinds of dressing, cheese, milk, anything – say, “I actually don’t care. Can you pick one for me?” Trust me, you don’t want to be looked at like you are an alien after a while. And you are being an alien, because you apparently don’t know the ritual.

Home, Sweet Home


By Andie Alexander
Andie Alexander earned her B.A. in Religious Studies and History in 2012. She is completing her M.A. in Religious Studies at CU Boulder. Andie also works as the online Curator for the Culture on the Edge blog.

When I moved to Boulder, CO for graduate school two years ago, I entered the program with a cohort of students from all over the U.S., so — perhaps unsurprisingly — one of the immediate questions everyone asked was, “Where are you from?” Then came the task, of course, of keeping track of who was from where, and so on. Being in a new place and surrounded by new people, our identities were quickly determined for each other by our former city/state. so I was initially labeled as “the girl from Alabama” — by both my cohort and even some professors.

I’d be lying if I said I was never reluctant to identify myself by my home state of Alabama, but this was the first time in my life where that signifier took somewhat of a new shape. I was “the girl from Alabama” now. Where before leaving the state I may have casually enjoyed watching football games, occasionally said “Roll Tide” as a sign of approval, participated in the daily complaining about how hot it was as if it was somehow unusual, etc., it wasn’t something that I ever considered as part of my identity. In retrospect, it was likely because these were so common-place where I lived that to me — to us, I should perhaps say — it wasn’t seen so much as an identity-marker, but rather just part of the everyday. It was uninteresting — mundane, perhaps, in the sense that everyone in the Southeastern US likes, or is at least familiar with, football and saying “Roll Tide” is just part of the vernacular. In fact, it was something I likely tried to distance myself from, in a sense, to assert my individuality amongst a crowd. To me, these things were just part of my day-to-day life. Continue reading