About Steven Ramey

Steven Ramey is Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Director of Asian Studies at the University of Alabama. His research focuses on groups who contest dominant understandings of the religions of India, both in India and beyond. His newest project addresses the assumptions in the language of religious labels and the ways those assumptions determine research and valorize particular constructions of religions. Through this project, he wants to consider alternative paradigms for describing these collections of practices and ways those alternative paradigms can influence research and pedagogy.

Who Believes in Conspiracy Theories?

 

Billboard stating "Birds Aren't Real"

As a scholar in religious studies, my interest was piqued when a recent “The Daily” episode from the New York Times discussed community formation in Birds Aren’t Real, a movement / conspiracy theory that claims the government has replaced birds with drones to conduct widespread surveillance. The analysis of people who connect with others through Birds Aren’t Real had similarities to the ways that we discuss religions. Of course, connecting conspiracy theories and religion is not unique to me, as David Robertson highlights various connections in his research on UFOs and other conspiracy theories (listen to Religious Studies Project podcasts “Conspiracy Theories, Public Rhetoric, and Power” and “UFOs, Conspiracy Theories … and Religion?” for more, or read his book UFOs, Conspiracy Theories and the New Age: Millennial Conspiracism).

One potential difference from existing work on conspiracy theories and religion, however, is that Birds Aren’t Real is a parody of conspiracy theories. With the New York Times, the founder Peter McIndoe, who typically presents himself as someone desperately spreading awareness of the conspiracy, broke character to discuss the dynamics of his experiences in the satirical movement. Of course, he also has asserted that the media twists his words and disrespects the movement, returning thus to his role as founder of a conspiracy theory. Continue reading

Something New From the “Nones” with the Pew Research Center’s Online Survey Results

The Nones are causing “trouble” again, with sensationalized headlines about the decline of Christianity. These takes can easily reinforce the anxiety among some about changes in society and activate nostalgia for some mythic 1950’s America (which was certainly not experienced as peaceful or comfortable by many marginalized groups in the 1950s, or even today). Based on survey data that the Pew Research Center released this week, those who represent themselves as unaffiliated with religion have grown to almost 30% of the US population. This increase (compared to almost 20% unaffiliated in Pew’s 2012 Nones” on the Rise report) coincides with a significant drop in those who identify as Protestant (which in the survey context includes any Christian not affiliating with Catholic, Orthodox, or Mormon identities). Continue reading

Good Riddance 2020, But Wait . . .

Happy New Year 20212020 has been a strange and rough year in so many ways, but, speaking as REL’s Graduate Director, our Department still has much to celebrate among our M.A. students and the program’s alums. They did not simply survive the shift to online learning and the challenge of moving to a new city in a pandemic; they have thrived in so many ways.

In May, in the middle of the first wave of the pandemic, we graduated 4 M.A. students, our largest graduating class so far. Among those grads, two went on to Ph.D. programs (Ohio State and Florida State, neither school chosen based on their football teams, btw), and one used her publishing experiences, digital skills, and museum internship to work with Landmarks of Dekalb County, Alabama, cataloging material in their collection and promoting their collection (see their Instagram account). She has discovered fascinating pieces about Fort Payne (the “New England City of the South,” see images below) and the region “lost” in the storage rooms.

Advertisement for Fort Payne, AL in 1890s

Advertisement for Fort Payne, AL in 1890s, courtesy of Landmarks of Dekalb County

Our continuing grad students have been busy, too, with some second year students now applying for Ph.D programs while making progress on various research projects of their own. In August, we welcomed our largest incoming class yet, with 8 new M.A. students, all of whom tackled our required foundation courses on social theory and public humanities—courses that intentionally throw a bit of a curve at students, to get them thinking broadly not just about how to study religion but also about the wider relevance of the skills we can gain in a graduate program. Through all of their activities, they have been engaging and applying social theory in ways that they might not have expected, writing about Lovecraft Country (read Allison’s post), the Nones, rhetoric about “godless China,” healthcare, survey instruments, and much more.

Our M.A. students have been creative and productive, despite the challenging circumstances and everyone’s need for flexibility. In addition to traditional academic labor, writing (read Jacob’s recent post defending Religious Studies), TAing, teaching online courses, and preparing lectures of their own, they have built websites and made podcasts and videos (see a compilation of their work in the Public Humanities course), helped produce the newest issues of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, created animations (currently in production) for our Luce-funded American Examples initiative, and arranged Spring semester internships in publishing, digital technology, and international education. Our students’ work has even moved beyond Tuscaloosa virtually, with one editing videos for the Religion for Breakfast video series, another presenting a paper at the virtual American Academy of Religions, and another moderating a panel at the virtual North American Association for the Study of Religion conference (both virtual conferences in November and December). And look for one of our MA students to present a virtual paper in the Spring, as part of the southeast region’s AAR meeting.

Despite all the challenges of 2020, our students generate enthusiasm and hope, things that we want to tell the world about as we move towards the new year.

Switchboard operators in 1950 Dekalb County Alabama

Switchboard operators in 1950 Dekalb County, Alabama, from the collection of Landmarks of Dekalb County

Images credits

“Happy 2021 new year on blue bokeh background” by wuestenigel is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Fort Payne ad from archives of Landmarks of Dekalb County, AL. Photo courtesy of Caitlyn Bell.

Switchboard operators photo from archives of Landmarks of Dekalb County, AL. Photo courtesy of Caitlyn Bell.

Navigating a Diverse World Critically

Gall Peters Projection map of world

The World Religions course is a fabulous opportunity to teach students to think critically about the various representations of the world’s religious traditions. With the critique of the world religions paradigm and its colonial roots (see Masuzawa’s Invention fo World Religions), as well as problematic assumptions contained in any singular description of world religions (see, for example, my Culture on the Edge post The Harm of World Religions), it is vital to challenge singular narratives and to help our students learn to analyze whatever narrative they hear.

Continue reading

Always Look at Who’s Talking

A textbook chart that unironically presents how "Arabs/Muslims," 'Asians," "Blacks," "Jews," "Hispanics," and "Native Americans" respond to pain. It is titled "Focus on Diversity and Culture: Cultural Differences in Response to Pain"

Textbook chart from Nursing: A Concept Based Approach to Learning, published (then withdrawn) by Pearson

As the AAR presents its newly drafted Religious Literacy Guidelines, Sierra Lawson (BA ’17, MA ’19) and Prof. Steven Ramey return to their research on the implications of classification to raise important questions about the politics and consequences of such a framing.

Religious literacy, which typically refers to knowledge about religions, differences between religions, and diversity within each religion, can reinforce problematic claims about social groups (as evident in the chart reproduced above). Useful knowledge can easily become harmful, especially when it tends towards selective generalizations and ignores the issue of who is doing the talking.

Continue reading

A Purpose Driven Label

"There is a misconception that Buddhism is a religion and that you worship Buddha. Buddhism is a practice like yoga. You can be a Christian and practice Buddhism" quote attributed to Thich Nhat HanhGroups often want to claim that their practices and beliefs constitute a religion. The label religion provides certain benefits, such as a protected legal status, respect in certain contexts, and often prestige. In fact, various groups like Sikhs and Jains want to see their religions included in the discussion of World Religions for the legitimacy that it affords. The image above circulating on social media lately identifies Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen monk, as making the opposite assertion, that Buddhism is not a religion. Continue reading

Generating Pain

Oct 18 2017 tweet with photo of cultural diversity chartA Pearson textbook Nursing: A Context Based Approach to Learning (reportedly published in 2014) has become a point of controversy after an outpouring of outrage over the culturally stereotyped discussion of “Cultural Differences in Response to Pain.” The publisher has apologized, is studying how this chart passed editorial review, and has “removed the material in question from current versions of the book.” Noting how essentialized descriptions in a 2014 textbook only comes to attention now makes one wonder how many people, particularly educators and editors, viewed this chart and thought nothing of it. Though many of us continue to hope that people would be more aware of the problem of stereotypes and generalized assertions, much of what we teach in Religious Studies about critical thinking, categorization, and the problems of essentialization remains vitally important, but sometimes we have to remind ourselves of the dangers of generalizing, too. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

The End is Here and Brings Big Things

relephanttextcitedThe semester is complete, and our seniors have walked across that stage. All semester I have had the privilege of working with the Capstone Senior Seminar, applying questions and ideas from our work to a broad range of topics and presenting them through various social media, from Twitter to Tumblr. Their final Digital Projects are now published, so you should take a look at the range of their creative approaches to expressing the significance of critical questions to many topics, from war to food to Yik Yak. Continue reading

Showing Our Stuff

relephanttextcitedWhat do you get from a degree in Religious Studies? Throughout this semester, our students in the Capstone Senior Seminar have been applying questions that develop in the academic study of religion to a variety of issues, using social media from Twitter to Tumblr to illustrates the issues to a broad audience. Now it is time for posts to our class blog to roll out, starting later today and throughout next week. So, look for those posts at the class blog, and check back over the class’s social media activity on Twitter (@RelephantUA), Continue reading