Thoughts Upon Losing My Religion (Major)

Students working on a group assignemt in an Intro class Kathryn D. Blanchard is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Religious Studies at Alma College, where she has taught undergraduates since 2006.

I’ll start by making a long story short: the Religious Studies department at my institution has been shrinking for years, and this year the major was cut. The minor survives, for now (we got off lucky compared to French, German, and Anthropology), mostly because I—the lone faculty member—have tenure, our classes are generally full, and the college has a Presbyterian affiliation.

When other schools cut or threaten to cut religious studies, I pay attention to how folks defend it. Most defenses revolve around a few themes: religious studies prepares people for successful careers; it prepares people for responsible citizenship; and it is central to the liberal arts and the purposes of higher education, so no self-respecting institution should be without it—especially because it is so popular/relevant/cheap. Some of these arguments can be applied to the humanities more broadly, while others carve out a special place for religion. This very thorough recent statement from the American Academy of Religion covers all the bases, as does a fine blog post on this site by a current master’s student. Perhaps my favorite is from Megan Goodwin, who writes so eloquently, “Humanities cutbacks make us dumber, crueler, and less likely to survive as a species.” Continue reading

Hear More About American Examples on the Study Religion Podcast

American Examples LogoDid you know that we are now accepting applications for American Examples 2021? American Examples is our Luce Funded program of workshops for untenured scholars of so-called “religion in America.” You can find out more at the American Examples website. Or, you can just listen to the podcast below where American Examples alumni Travis Cooper and Hannah Scheidt talk about their experiences in the program. Applications are due October 31 so listen and apply!

In

 

Stranger than Fiction: On “Superheroes” and “Essential Workers”

Cartoon featuring medical personnel dressed as superheroes

Martin Lund is senior lecturer in religion at Malmö University in Sweden. He is currently working on a co-authored book about the “supervillain” Magneto and a single-authored book about the “superhero” and theory.

For many of us, the world seems a pretty strange place right now. What we consider “normal” has been upset and we’re having to make adjustments. People are reacting in different ways, some enthusiastically embracing self-quarantine and others grousing that they can’t go about their business as they like. It’s probably pretty safe to say that whatever else, many of us are getting a bit squirrely in our houses and apartments.

For some people, however, there is no choice in the matter: some of us are encouraged to work at home as much as possible – for us in the university this generally means pivoting to online teaching and sharing bad jokes about Zoom, but others are considered “essential workers” (or some variation thereof) and have to keep going to work. “Essential workers” are classified by the Pan-American Health Organization (somewhat circularly) as “the personnel needed to maintain essential services”; “essential services” in turn are “the services and functions that are absolutely necessary, even during a pandemic” and include “executive governance, healthcare, fire and police protection, provision of clean water and basic sanitation, infrastructure and utilities maintenance, and food provision.” Continue reading

“The Personal Faith of Each Individual”

Recently, my friend, Jack Llewellyn, sent me the following email, with some very useful observations on just how widely used the rhetorical of personal faith has been.

With his permission, I copy it below:

Continuing to research Partition, I ran into a quote — speaking as the President of the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on 11 August 1947, in what was really his inaugural address to the new nation, Mohammed Ali Jinnah said (among other things):

“Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State”

On one level, this seems a strange ideal, since the very raison d’etre of Pakistan was that Muslims would suffer as a minority in a Hindu-dominated India. However, it is clear in the context of the speech that Jinnah was thinking of the fate of the Hindu and Sikh minorities in Pakistan and of the Muslim minority that was left in India, even subsequent to the establishment of Pakistan.

Soon after Partition, the governments of Pakistan and India came to accept that there would be an exchange of populations in Punjab, with almost Hindus and Sikhs fleeing to India and almost all Muslims to Pakistan. But the government of Pakistan tried to reassure Hindus elsewhere in the new nation that they were welcome to stay—they were some of the most important and wealthy business people and the economic effect of their departure was dreaded. Also there was no way that Pakistan could have fed and housed, much less rehabilitated, the millions of Muslims in India outside of Punjab, should they all have pulled up stakes and moved to Pakistan. So there is a clear strategic logic in arguing that in the new nation being Hindu or Muslim should be confined to “the personal faith of each individual.”

Continue reading

Real People, on the Ground

Implicit Religion

Dr. David Robertson is Co-Editor of the journal Implicit Religion and co-editor and founding editor of The Religious Studies Project.

If, like me, you use the kind of critical approach that Russell McCutcheon was talking about in his recent post, focusing on processes of designation, then you’ll sooner or later be told by a colleague that you waste time endlessly arguing about definitions. Often this is followed up by the claim that they “don’t do theory.” I’ve even had people exasperatedly tell me that none of what I do matters to real people, on the ground.

Of course, you can’t not do theory – but you can be conscious of it, or not. As Rush said, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” You’ve chosen the implicit folk category, inherited from colonialism and Protestantism – that religion is a special thing, set apart and unique, beliefs about ‘big questions’, of inherent value to people.

(As an aside, it’s interesting how many of those arguing that we can find religion in overlooked places present this as intrinsically a good thing. For those who focus on identifying new forms of spirituality, or religion in new places, the churches may be in decline, but the Nones/SBNRs still have values, beliefs, rituals… We saw the same thing in the early days of the study of religion where Protestant theologians strove to establish a grounding for Christianity outside of the Church and apart from the mythology of the Bible. Their arguments that religion is all about how people themselves relate to the spiritual, it’s just those elitist priests corrupting things, is exactly what most material or lived or implicit religion scholars are arguing.)

There is nothing new about this split in the field between those who see our field as analyzing social processes and those who see it as about being better humans, as Leonardo Ambasciano’s recent book demonstrates most clearly. Although we tend to think of this as a split between Religious Studies and Theology, perhaps, as Russell McCutcheon recently tweeted, this is better framed as a split between those who approach religion as a social science and those using a humanities approach:

But what is certainly true is that the critical/discursive/attributional study of religion needs to better articulate the utility of the approach, in contexts beyond academic debates on method and theory. The fact is that what gets counted as religion in specific contexts is perhaps the most impactful question we can ask as social scientists. Far from being merely discourse-about-discourse in some Ivory Tower, the critical approach shows what the category is actually doing in the real world – both to those whom it constrains, and those for whom it is useful.

The Religious Studies Project has been making resources for the classroom that do this since 2012, and the University of Alabama and The Open University are showing what the post-World Religions department might look like. But we could do more.

Screenshot of the front-page of the Religious Studies Project website.Confession time: when I took over as editor of Implicit Religion with Jack Laughlin, I had no interest in implicit religion as a theoretical framework. Rather, my interest was, and is, in what assumptions are implicit when someone identifies something as religious – be that in the media, the law, healthcare, academia, or whatever. While the excellent journal Method & Theory in the Study of Religion focuses programmatically on this approach, I want Implicit Religion to complement this with articles and themed issues on how these processes play out in the world, especially on the ragged edges of the category.

Implicit ReligionYou know… real people, on the ground. For example, when whether having a Christmas Tree was a civil or religious duty became a serious public issue in Denmark. Or when a judge ruled that nationalism was “religion-like”, so a man kept his job — but other times, allows us to take religion off the table when it would mean that it was implicated in violence or bigotry. Tying state ceremonies to religious institutions makes it harder to challenge either of them. Classifying “mindfulness” as secular means that it can better serve neoliberalism.

And these are just a few examples. I’m sure you can think of any more — and we’re looking for submissions

Note from the Field

The following is a recent post, to the Religion in South Asia list, from Prof. J. E. Llewellyn (reprinted here with his permission).

19 December 2018

Sisters and brothers,

Since I have carped about a JAAR cover photo in the past on this list, I want to commend to your attention the cover photo of the issue that I just received in the mail (86/4 December 2018).

Though I am no art critic, I think is a striking photo. It is divided into two panes by a trishul. The main figure in the right pane is identified in the photo credit as sadhu. The subject of the left pane is a woman who is sitting on the ground and bowing at the sadhu’s feet. The sadhu’s pane is hazy; he is covered in ash, but there is also smoke, doubtless from a fire, but one that is not visible in the photo. The woman’s frame is clear. The woman herself reaches across the barrier between the two panes, with her left hand resting the on sadhu’s left foot. I could go on about the composition of the photo, and the compelling information it conveys. Continue reading

The 6th Annual Day Lecture

If you weren’t able to attend our 6th annual Day Lecture this year,
then you can now find it on Vimeo!

Dr. Teemu Taira, who is a Professor in the Department of the Study of Religions at the University of Helsinki, spoke on “Reading Bond Films Through the Lens of Religion.”

Our thanks to A&S’s etech office for filming the lecture.

#RELHomecoming 2018

This weekend marked REL’s first homecoming bash on the balcony — we sent out invites to all alums for whom we have good mailing addresses and made sure our current majors & minors were in the loop. Our Alumni Liaison committee members were all there, as well as many faculty and staff members.  The result? We’d say that about 50 or 60 students, grads, family, and friends came by before kick-off, for some food, some stories and, yes, some pictures. Continue reading

Adventures in Archives, Classification, and Eldridge Cleaver

Dan Wells is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Religion at Florida State University. He is currently finishing a dissertation entitled, “Better Dead Than Red: A History of the Christian Crusade Aesthetic.”

Growing up I wanted to be Indiana Jones. I wanted to see some adventure. Long before my awareness of the almost innumerable issues that plagued the series, I thought melting Nazi faces off with ancient artifacts while wearing a cool hat and neglecting professional responsibilities in service to the preservation of history (it belongs in a museum!) sounded rather great (can we pause to recognize how terrible it must have been to be Prof. Jones’ graduate assistant?). With those childhood dreams in the rearview (mostly in the rearview, that is), my adventure usually leads me to a dusty library archive where my only hopes to melt Nazi faces comes during my lunch break when I might encounter a Nazi on Twitter. In a recent adventure to the Bancroft Library at UC-Berkeley, I was in search of the “holy grail” archival find that might take my current research project to the next level. Combing through files on former Black Panther Party Minister of Information, Eldridge Cleaver, I stumbled upon an article that caught my eye. While not the “holy grail” I was looking for, the find serves as an example of what one might stumble upon in the archives and more importantly, how acts of classification have real life, tangible consequences. Continue reading

Grad Tales is Back

Back in the 2013-14 school year we started a new series, Grad Tales, aimed to bring REL grads back to campus to meet with current students — likely students in our 100-level courses who major in everything from engineering and business to social work and nursing. Knowing how many students aren’t sure what they’re going to do in their lives, what major to declare, and how a career will or won’t develop after they graduate, our goal was to invite back a variety of grads who have done a variety of things, hoping to convey the message that an undergrad degree opens the doors onto all sorts of different futures. While we know that some of our students are pretty interested in the study of religion itself, we find that even our majors and minors end up doing lots of different things (as our guests at Grad Tales make plain), so we hoped that members of our student association would come too. Always scheduled in the evening, a faculty member sat up front (like Prof. Ramey, above, with Ben Simmons [BA 2009], back in February of 2014; Ben’s the VP of Engineering for Sworkit, a fitness app), interviewed them and then directed traffic once the questions began.

And, sure, we also served cookies and some pretty good punch.

Since inventing this series, which has so far mostly hosted nearby alums, we’ve had 14 grads come back to campus, people who are now working in business, teachers, lawyers, social workers, doctors, researchers, etc. And our 15th — Jennifer Alfano Nelson — is this coming Wednesday night (7 pm, in the Ferg’s Anderson Room). Graduating as an English/Religious Studies double major, she left working a middle school English teacher after 7 years and learned to code, now working in Birmingham as a software developer. So we’re looking forward to what she can tell us about everything from declaring majors to changing careers and hitting the books again long after graduation.

Something new about Grad Tales this year is that our recently formed Alum Liaison Committee has gotten involved — so we’re really happy to report that, from here on out, they’re our hosts, helping us to identify our guests and interview them. So Kim Davis (BA 2003, REL and French), who is a French teacher at Tuscaloosa County High School and who was also our first Grad Tales guest, will be our host Wednesday night. And, working with Prof. Vaia Touna, they’re already planning the Spring event.

And yes, there will be cookies and punch.