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

What Gets Labeled as Religion

Still not quite sure what scholars study when they say that they study the classification or the category religion itself…? Think that all scholars of religion need a definition of religion to get started with their work?

If so, why not give a listen to episode 21, that was just posted the other day. It’s a short podcast by Malory Nye, author of a widely used intro book in our field, and he elaborates on the simple fact that he’s

“a student of religion who doesn’t study religion…”

“We Could Only Resort to Prayer…”

Hands clasped in prayerThere was an interesting story on the radio the other day — in which a Roman Catholic bishop in the Philippines described how they’re now ringing church bells every evening to raise awareness about the brutality of the ongoing drug war in his country.

Give it a listen (go here if the embed doesn’t work):

What caught my ear, and prompted me to bring this story to the attention of my Theory of Religion seminar the other day, was how praying seemed to be not enough.

… that is why we have resorted to ringing of bells, because we could only resort to prayer.

But if one takes seriously the claims of those people we may study — those who see prayer as efficacious — how is communicating directly with a powerful being who governs the universe not already enough? Why resort to anything else, whether or not it’s ringing church bells?

I don’t ask this question flippantly — not at all. Instead, the bishop’s claim strikes me as a fascinating instance of a folk theory of religion, offered by a religious devotee — someone who seems to know that, for whatever reason, there are limits to the effects this discourse can have.

For, at times, people seem to know that they need to do more than merely pray to a god.

When those times are, and in which situations, is unknown to me; in fact, I wonder how devotees know when to take an unchanged situation as the answer to their prayers, whether they like it or not (concluding, perhaps, that the ways of God are unknown to mere mortals…), and when they must decide that they need to resort to something else — to take matters into their own hands, as it were.

Simply put, when is praying to a god not enough and how does one know it?

Given all the critiques you can now find online of merely saying “you’re in our thoughts and payers” when a disaster occurs — and yes, I’m thinking of debates around this topic that we’ve just seen, here in the US, concerning the hurricane and then terrible flooding in Texas (e.g., see below) — this seems to be a pretty timely question to ask.

Joel Osteen Tweets

So the above interview, undoubtedly given in a life and death situation where a social actor probably feels pretty frustrated that a much desired change has not taken place, raises what I see to be some pretty interesting questions for the student of religion concerning the folk expertise of the people we study: for sometimes and somehow they seem to know that their claims need to be augmented.

“What Do I Talk About At the Job Interview?”

Photo of a job interview

I’ve written a number of blog posts over the years about the skills that students in the academic study of religion acquire. It’s worth thinking about because too many people seem focused only on the content of an undergrad degree, assuming that the thing that you study is the thing that you’ll do.

It’s an effect of the longstanding professionalization of the university, of course (whereby specialties once reserved for separate, two-year colleges or tech schools moved into the university and became degree programs, thereby lending undergrad the feel of job training), with a big dollop of the 2008 financial/housing/job market collapse thrown in for good measure. Add to this declining state support for public universities (whereby a significant portion of the costs of higher ed have been transferred from state coffers to individuals’/families’ bank accounts) and you understandably arrive at a situation where many have trouble understanding doing an undergrad degree in some wide or general topic that might not have many obvious or direct paths to a steady pay check.

But this isn’t just a problem for Religious Studies, for one would be naive to think that all those English majors become English teachers, right? And it’s not like History majors all become historians — whether that means going on to graduate studies to become history professors or getting jobs with historical preservation societies or wherever else an historian might work.

But it’s still worth being an English or History major, right? Continue reading

“Both Sides”

I saw the above pic on a friend’s Facebook wall a few days ago — clearly lampooning President Trump’s recent comments following the violence a week ago at Charlottesville, VA, in which self-described white supremacists marched, protestors organized against them (one of whom, Heather Heyer, was killed when a car, driven by James Alex Fields, rammed into other cars and protestors). For as he said in two different statements, one on Saturday  (the day of Heyer’s death) and the other on Tuesday, both sides bore responsibility for the violence. Continue reading

Understanding Our Present Moment

My colleague tweeted the following the other day:

It was a bit tongue-in-cheek to be sure, but it made a good point, I think, as he elaborated in a few tweets that followed, such as his claim that “religious studies has theorized myth since its foundation & has a set of theoretical tools useful in the case of confederate monuments.” Continue reading