Simulation Theory: How is ‘Religion’ Part of It?

computer simulation of a residential street

Tyler Dettmar developed this post from a presentation originally created for Prof. Lauren Horn Griffin’s REL 245, American Religious History. Special thanks for editorial assistance from REL’s graduate student Jacob Barrett.

In recent years, something called simulation theory has begun appearing more frequently in public discourse. Public figures such as Elon Musk have called attention to this ideology, spreading quickly over social media. With the latest movie in The Matrix franchise coming out a few weeks ago, conversation about simulation theory has redoubled. Why don’t we typically study something as popular as sim theory in courses on religion in America?

First, what is simulation theory? Essentially, simulation theory is the idea that we are living in a computer simulation, and that every aspect of our reality is artificial. In fact, according to this ideology, not everyone is even “real”; only the “programmers” are really real and can change reality. Continue reading

Sneaker Culture: An Item-Based Religious Movement?

sneaker con graffiti

Drew Whinery, from Tuscaloosa, AL, is a senior majoring in Music, with a minor in Criminal Justice. The following post developed from a presentation originally created for an REL class with Prof. Lauren Horn Griffin.

As a college student, I tend to stay up with trends. One that has been popular for years is known as “Sneaker Culture.” The idea behind Sneaker Culture is that certain shoes, or sneakers, are released in a limited supply and many people seek them to up their fashion game or add to their collection. Continue reading

Internships and Unexpected Relevance of REL Skills

Sonya Harwood-Johnson

Sonya Harwood-Johnson, originally from Grimes, Iowa, received her B.S. in Anthropology and Religious Studies, with a minor in Environmental Studies, from Iowa State University in 2020. She began work last month as a full-time International Programming Assistant at UA’s International Student and Scholars Services office; she will complete her M.A. in the study of religion at UA, as a part-time student, later in 2022.

When deciding which university I wanted to apply to for my Master’s degree, Alabama’s Religion in Culture program really stuck out to me. Coming from a background in Cultural Anthropology, I always had a difficult time whenever I felt like religion was being studied apart from the people who participate in it. I had no idea which direction I wanted to go with a Master’s in Religion, but UA seemed like the right place to guide me. It was exactly this “Religion in Culture” concept, with the guidance and prompting from UA’s faculty, that led me to internships that really helped me apply the skills I was learning that could be utilized outside of traditional academia. Continue reading

Things You Didn’t Think You’d Learn in Grad School: Coding

Students working in REL 503

Erica Bennett, now in her second and final year of the REL MA, is from Louisiana and earned her undergraduate degree from Millsaps College. Working with Prof. Touna as her supervisor, she is also a T.A. this semester for Prof. Simmons’s REL 100 and Prof. Altman’s research assistant on the American Examples grant. She is interested in studying new religious movements.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that our society revolves around, and cannot function without, technology. From Netflix party hangouts and social media to collaborative online work spaces and daily Zoom meetings, technology seems to have become even more integrated into our daily lives. While people use the internet, websites, apps, and other technologies every day, most do not know how the internet works, that it is physical resource, or that anyone can learn to code or program. One reason I decided to enroll in the Religion in Culture MA program at the University of Alabama was the emphasis on helping students grow their digital humanities skills. Before my first class at UA, I expected to learn skills that would be helpful for digital projects like making podcasts, videos, and websites to distribute my research to a wider public. I did learn those skills (thank you REL 502!) and I get to practice them on a regular basis. What I did not expect to learn, and surprisingly really enjoy, was how to code and program to assist in my research efforts and better understand the digital world we live in. Continue reading

Can We Analyze Trumpism as a Millenarian Movement?

Trump giving his speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention

Elizabeth Tagg is a graduating senior in the Department of Religious Studies,
writing a thesis on apocalyptic rhetoric in the age of Trump.

Donald Trump built his reputation as a political outsider who could “drain the swamp,” fix a broken system, and make America great again. Indeed, in his 2016 RNC speech, he declared that “[he] alone could fix it.” Many believed him, and many still do. For example, when the pandemic and instructions to quarantine were in full swing, Trump started to frame the coronavirus pandemic as a “great and powerful plague” which had come to destroy the world, but America would rise from this “death and destruction” to become “greater than ever before.” One particular response on Facebook read “God chose you, Mr. President… you are working unto God, not unto men.” The confluence of spiking death tolls and a plague of biblical proportion created a moment of disillusionment where zealotry, and even millenarian thinking, could thrive. Millenarian movements are based on critiques of power culminating in social protests against oppressive systems. In New Heaven New Earth, Professor Kenelm Burridge analyzes millenarian movements, highlighting the ways in which the millenarian critiques initiate a “redemptive process” in which the old moral order is cast off to make way for a new society. At the heart of the millenarian movement is the prophet, whose divine revelations almost always refer to a prosperity and prestige that define the new conditions of being, the new social order.

Could Trumpism be analyzed as a millenarian movement? Can this help us predict the future of Trump’s base, post-Trump? Burridge simplifies the millenarian pattern into three phases which help us to better understand millenarian movements and their application to Trump: feelings of disenfranchisement, battle with oppressors, and triumph of the new order.

Continue reading

Equivalent Categories and Where to Find Them

Meme from the TV show The Office, in which two different things are portrayed as sthe same

 Jeremee Nute is a graduating M.A. student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. He is originally from Missouri, where he earned his B.A. in Mathematics and Philosophy from Missouri Western State University.

Scholars who research cultures outside of Europe and North America often try to find categories that correspond to “religion,” such as those who study Ancient China. For example, one analog that is sometimes proposed by these scholars is Zōngjiào (宗教), said to be the Mandarin term for religion. One such scholar who looks for such homologs to religion is Robert Ford Campany, a Professor of Asian studies at Vanderbilt University, who specializes in Medieval China. In his article, “On the Very Idea of Religions (In the Modern West and in Early Medieval China)”, he argues that, while the western category of religion can be analytically helpful to those studying non-western cultures, scholars just need to “pay close attention to two cultural and temporal sets off linguistic usages and their metaphorical implications and juxtapose these results” (290). This juxtaposition, he argues, allows a scholar to better understand the “contours and limitations” of the discourses in both cultural and temporal sets.

Thus, for Campany, scholars can study other people’s religions (such as his work on early medieval China) by looking for the following analogous sites in their cultures: founder or paragon synecdoche, “path” or “way,” “law” or “regulations,” and/or “the teaching of x,” etc. Continue reading

“The Cult of Cults”: Pop Culture Representations of a Minority Religious Group

HBOMax promotional image for its Heavens Gate documentary

Allison Isidore is a second-year M.A. student
in the Department of Religious Studies.

On December 8, I submitted my last paper for the semester, wrapping up what has been, for many, a stressful period. Having just seen the trailer for the new HBOMAX docuseries “Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults,” I  wondered how the religious group was represented and decided to take a look.

Continue reading

The Relevance of Religious Studies is Not that We Study Religion

Students working together in the Religious Studies classroom

Jacob Barrett is a first year M.A. student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. From Colorado Springs, he earned his B.A. from Nebraska Wesleyan University in Philosophy & Religion and Biology. In the Spring he will present his research at the southeast regional meeting of the American Academy of Religion.

Junior year of my undergraduate degree, I was asked by the chair of the Religious Studies department to represent the major at an event where first year students would more-or-less speed date with different departments to start deciding what they wanted to major in. I was paired with the new Religion professor and together we set out to convince first year students to begin thinking about why participating in our department (whether that be majoring, minoring, or just taking several classes) was advantageous to them. I started with the typical “The faculty are so supportive and amazing” and “The major is pretty flexible so if you are a double major it is really easy to fit in” and “The classes are really fun and they also cover a lot of the requirements in the curriculum, so you can kill two birds with one stone by taking a course.” When the professor started his part, he said something so simple yet so important: “We teach you how to think, how to write, how to talk about things in ways that other departments don’t.”

With universities proposing cuts to Religious Studies departments becoming more and more of a regular occurrence, there is the feeling that we (those who consider ourselves members of “the field”) must defend the importance and relevance of what we do and what we offer. Religious Studies departments are often not producing majors or bringing in money in the same numbers as larger departments, so they become an easy target when universities need to find ways to save money. How, then, do we convince a university to keep our departments? Continue reading

What is the Country’s Reality?

Logo from the TV show Lovecraft Country

Allison Isidore is a second-year M.A. student
in the Department of Religious Studies.

Have you seen the new HBO show “Lovecraft Country”? In the series premiere, set in 1950s America, we follow Atticus Freeman (played by Jonathan Majors), Letitia “Leti” Lewis (Jurnee Smollett), and George Freeman (Courtney B. Vance) as they travel to “Ardham,” Massachusetts, in hopes of finding Atticus’s father, Montrose Freeman (Michael K. Williams). He went missing while searching for the family’s history.

The trio drives through town after town as George works on a new guide for Black Americans to travel safely through Jim Crow America. Throughout the episode, the characters interact with monsters, both human and not, that are out to kill the three travelers. Their human enemies are White cops and mobs trying to run the main characters out of town or kill them, which their pursuers enjoy. “Lovecraft Country” therefore asks the question: “Who is the real monster in America?” Is it the creatures, or is it the White racists? However, the show also asks its viewers what is the reality in which they live, what American reality do we individually live in? Continue reading

Our MA Students Have Been Busy

Front page of Erica Bennett's website

Our first year MA students have been busy creating their own websites for their required REL 502 course this semester with Prof. Loewen. So we thought you might like to see what they’re interested in, let alone what they’ve created — here’s just a few: Continue reading