The 6th Annual Day Lecture

The Department of Religious Studies hosted its 6th annual Day Lecture. The series (established, by his family, in the memory of REL grad Zachary Day) focuses on religion and popular culture, attracting students from across campus.
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20 Conference Dos and Don’ts

With the our field’s main annual conference just days away, we thought we’d offer a public service announcement to those who may be new to navigating the heady intellectual environment of a scholarly meeting.

So here goes…

1. Don’t wander into the book display unprepared; instead, psych yourself up for the over-stimulating audio-visual onslaught that is a convention center ballroom filled with thousands and thousands of books — many of which are on either Jesus or the Apostle Paul — and nearly as many tweed-coated scholars fighting over them or talking to each other in the middle of the aisle. #obstaclecourse Continue reading

Studying Religion in Culture in Denver–AAR, SBL, and NAASR 2018!

Annual Meetings of the SBL AAR Denver 2018

If Manly Hall is a little quieter in Mid-November, trust that the faculty are keeping busy. Many in our Department will be headed to the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion (AAR, the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), and the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR).

And as you can see, the Department will be well represented on the program.

Prof. Nathan Loewen continues to serve on the executive committee of the International Development and Religion program unit. This group supports interdisciplinary scholarship that informs and critiques the role of religion in humanitarian interests in the global South. He also co-organizes the “Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion Seminar.”

Prof. Emily Crews is presenting a response paper on gender and sexuality during a NAASR session.

Prof. Russell T. McCutcheon is chairing a NAASR panel on Jonathan Z. Smith’s contributions to the field. And for the AAR’s Cultural History of the Study of Religion program unit, he will be chairing and responding to a panel discussing religious philanthropy and the endowment of academic chairs.

Prof. Richard Newton is leading a workshop on Teaching and Trauma for the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion and presenting his recent paper on race and religion for NAASR. He will also be discussing the public humanities, politics and pedagogy, and teaching theory and method in the study of religion on various panels.

The scholarly working group Culture on the Edge will bring together Prof. McCuthceon, Prof. Newton, Prof. Vaia Touna, and Prof. Ramey and others to discuss future projects and celebrate the recent publications of Strategic Acts of Identity: Toward a Dynamic Theory of People and Place (ed. Prof Touna, Equinox 2019).

Strategic Acts in the Study of Identity: Toward a Dynamic Theory of People and Place, edited by Vaia Touna

The faculty will also be connecting with colleagues from other institutions. We look forward to seeing many of our not-so-local readers. And you can keep up with the action via social medi

Michael Scott twirling

Is this “Rising” or even Equal?

Ana Schuber is a graduate student in our Religion in Culture MA program. This post was originally published on our Religious Studies & Social Theory: Foundations course blog.

So, here in the middle, actually right up on the final run toward the mid-term 2018 elections, it was amazing to see a political advertisement that turned the standard dialogue about women running for office on its head. Paid for by the Serve America PAC, a democratic effort, this ad features eight first time congressional female candidates running across the United States for elected office. You should watch it here:

I have a long and varied path from my early identification as a feminist in the 1960s to the present Pussy Hat wearing throng of women with political ambition or political desire. This ad was new.

Seeing the ad for the first time on Facebook, my old feminist heart leapt at the visual of these women, all having served America either through military service (Marines, Navy or Air Force) or governmental service (CIA). They spoke of their service in combat, as leaders, in high-powered jobs and their desire to continue to serve their country through political service.

First impressions being what they are and quite frankly after forty years of the old dialogue about the “little ladies” running for office, I was blown away and amazed at this political advertisement. I smiled and re-posted it to several feminist friends and colleagues and planned to show the ad to my undergraduate students in triumph of a new wave of possible women candidates who could win with such a message.

But then, the scholar in me woke up and shoved aside the feminist and I started wondering what I would say to my students. The language of this ad was different than any other “woman’s” political ad that I had ever seen. They were using the language that is usually associated with male power. They were talking about flying combat planes, leading men and women into battle, leading men and women on a huge ship, working in a male-dominated investigation unit. The linguistic images were those of men. Hold on a minute.  Feminists have been fighting the image of nature versus nurture for hundreds of years and endless reams of scholarship attempting to level the playing field for both men and women.  Scholars like Sherry B Ortner (see her article “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture”) associate women’s lack of social or cultural power to the fact that women are considered closer to nature due to their ability to give birth and nurture children. Men are typically identified with the power associated with the protection of weaker women and children through aggression and battle. This political ad was using what many would consider male language. Rather than considering women equal to men, was this not a usurpation of “male” language just to get females elected?

As women have been afforded secondary status historically, this ad leaves us with an incredible predicament because women are not unilaterally one thing across the globe and when it comes to the concept of power there are even more complexities. It seems that we have finally begun to un-separate the “duties” of men and women in culture and un-tangle the gendered language used to understand what power is acceptable within culture. More importantly, what does it say if these women win in the mid-term election of 2018? Do women have to usurp the heretofore language of male “power” in order to win? What does this say about a woman who occupies a “traditional” woman’s job in culture such as school teacher, non-profit worker or librarian? Is female “power” now only afforded to those women who have “made it” in traditional male jobs such as combat or the CIA? That seems to be the message of this political ad.

When all these ideas came rushing into my head, I was suddenly mad. Minutes before, I was ready to run out and vote and champion this moment and minutes later I was grumpy and back to my typical “HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE?” mood. In the long run, what happens if women win using what is considered male language, and what are the consequences?

I, Robot… I, Ethical

On my morning drive into work, I heard a news report on autonomous and intelligent road vehicles, or self-driving automobiles. The story explained that as these vehicles are optimized for road safety, designers must determine programming imperatives such as whether a vehicle should prioritize the safety of the human “driver” or a pedestrian in a roadway.

If that scenario was not unsettling enough, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers is developing a certification of ethics for approved vehicles. But determining the credentialed curriculum has proven tricky because of cultural bias.

As one IEEE representative explained, the radar system in some prototypes has been calibrated to detect darting squirrels, but testing in Australia helped researcher realize that they had not accounted for the hopping of kangaroos. All ethical politics are local politics it seems.

A less quaint shorthand of meaning-making was the admission by IEEE credential architect, John Havens.

All ethics questions, often times, especially in western media, is coming from a Greek background of ethics whereas when we have the entire other side of the planet and the Global South has things called Confucian ethics and Ubuntu ethics. And it is a reframing of the paradigm of how we come to these questions … And so it is when you ask those questions that much more, this is where the words “safety” or “trust” can really be elevated to more global levels and that is what IEEE is about with consensus building globally. That is to say, “We don’t know. We don’t know yet, but we have to ask.”

The lede here reminded me of the 2004 film, I, Robot, in which the robotic infrastructure of the future turns against humanity, and a prejudice, anti-robot police officer (played by Will Smith) must save the day.

But truth be told, I’m less worried about the politics of a CPU than I am of the way some certain ethical interpreters and interpretations will be taken as representative of whole peoples in the service of the global good. One does not have to turn to science fiction to think about how some people will become casualties in that process. That’s just history.

5 Questions with Teemu Taira

With the annual Day Lecture at the end of October, we posed a few questions to our upcoming guest, Prof. Teemu Taira (pictured above at Malham Cove, Yorkshire Dales, England).

Q: Can you tell us a little about your background: what did you first go to university to study and how did you come across the academic study of religion? Was it always clear that a future career in the university was ahead for you?

A: I did not even think of any other options than going to the university, although I had no close relatives or friends who had studied at the university. The tricky thing was to decide what to study. In Finland students are selected on the basis of exams and you have to read 1 or 2 books, so I browsed the exam books from different disciplines. I considered philosophy, history of ideas, and anthropology, but I ended up studying religion. When people ask why study of religion, I usually tell them three narratives. Continue reading

Announcing the 2019 American Examples Participants

Earlier this fall we announced a new working group for early career scholars of religion in America, American Examples. Thanks to funding from REL and the College of Arts and Sciences we will be hosting 6 participants on campus for a workshop that will produce an anthology of new papers taking a new approach to the study of religion in America.

We are happy and excited to announce the participants in the inaugural year of the working group:

For more information about the participants,
check out the American Examples website.

 

Conscientious Objection, the War in Vietnam, and Jonathan Z. Smith

Richard Hecht, longtime faculty member at UC Santa Barbara, and onetime chair of their Department of Religious Studies, offers a reminiscence of the late Jonathan Z. Smith. Hecht is pictured above, introducing Smith’s 2003 Ninian Smart Memorial Lecture.

I met Jonathan and Elaine Smith shortly after they arrived in Santa Barbara in 1966 in one of the first courses he taught in the department. The war in Vietnam was heating up and President Johnson was guardedly increasing the number of American military personnel in the combat zone. The Selective Service or the Draft had not gone to its lottery system and used a system of classifications in the process of meeting the monthly national goals. A young man 18 years or older could be eligible for the draft and be 1-A; could be physically disqualified (my roommate took off the tip of his right index figure, his trigger finger, by sticking it under his lawn mower) and be 4-F; could be a full time student and be 2-S, as long as you maintained what your college or university considered a full course of study and were not in academic trouble; 1-D if a member of the military reserve like the National Guard or were a member of the ROTC; 3-A if military service would constitute a severe hardship to dependents, and several other categories, including for ministers and theological students. College and universities were required immediately to inform “your” draft board if there was any change in your student status. Continue reading

Scholars Around a Campfire: Understanding Strategic Acts of Identification

Culture on the Edge, a group of scholars studying acts of identity formation and centered here at the University of Alabama, has a new book forthcoming in its series, Studies of Identity Formation. This book, Strategic Acts in the Study of Identity: Toward a Dynamic Theory of People and Place, edited by our own Prof. Vaia Touna, is set for publication in January 2019. Continue reading

#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