“People imagine and people believe: and it is that belief, that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen”

I remarked over on Twitter the other day that there’s a curious correspondence between two shows that are now streaming online. For both “Happy” and “American Gods” are about non-obvious beings who exist solely because people believe in them — cease believing in them, whether a child’s imaginary friend or a god, and they are no more.

While the former is about a fallen police detective who discovers he not only has a daughter who has been kidnapped but that she has an imaginary friend — a flying blue unicorn — who has come to find him to help her out, the latter is about a man named Shadow Moon, newly released from prison, who is drawn into the middle of an impending battle between the old gods (e.g., Mr. Wednesday, Mr. Ibis, and Bilquis, etc.) and the new gods (e.g., Mr. World, Technical Boy, and Media, etc.). And in both cases the existence of the immortals hinges on the beliefs of the mortals. After all, when the child grows up, Happy fades away… Continue reading

A Social Redescription of Belief

The statement “I believe in…” is sensible only when there are others who do not; it is an agonistic affirmation…. Thus a statement of belief is a convention appropriate to a specific situation, sanctioned by a history and a community. As Wittgenstein notes, “the expression of belief … is just a sentence; — and the sentence has sense only as a member of a system of language; as one expression in a calculus.

Donald Lopez, “Belief” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies (1998: 33-34)

Should we follow Lopez, then statements of belief are no longer understood as signs of private and prior dispositions but, instead, as evidence of a public dispute over ways of acting and organizing in the world; this suggests that people don’t have beliefs in isolation from one another — meaning that we are not just taught them, as some might conclude, but far more than this: that our different practices prompt us to engage in this talk, as a way of registering our resistance to some while signaling our affinity for others. If so, then rather than studying beliefs, scholars should instead examine situated belief claims, seeing them as the residue not of internal states but of ongoing social contests.

Note from the Field: A Comment

In his comment on the recent JAAR cover, Jack Llewellyn made reference to the caption (pictured above) that appears on the inside table of contents, in the current issue, which describes the photo in question.

I admit that I had not paid attention to any of this until I read his comment. And so what then caught my attention in that caption was the manner in which the seemingly descriptive voice can be far from merely descriptive. 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

It May Be Simpler Than You Think

I saw the above tweet yesterday, which prompted me to mull over why we generally think that the role of religion is such a complicated thing to study. It occurred to me that it is complicated (i) if you fail to recognize that there’s been trained scholars of religion out there for well over 100 years who have lots to say on these matters but also (ii) if we buy local accounts of it being some ethereal thing that mysteriously informs the practical aspects of people’s lives.

But if we instead assume it’s no less practical than any other sphere — and, what’s more, if we assume that privileging some features of life by calling them religious is also mundane and highly practical — well, we’d likely approach these topics rather differently.

So a series of tweets resulted. Continue reading

A Strategic Political Tool

townhallDid you watch the town hall meeting the other night, the second of this season’s Presidential debates?

Because scholars of religion are trained in the study of how rhetorics of privacy are used by social actors, I think we might have more to say about what’s going on than we at first realize. Continue reading

They Were Right to Boo

tedcruz

Did you see Ted Cruz’s speech last night at the Republican National Convention? Maybe you heard about this morning — if you’re following the US Presidential race, that is.

He had a prime spot and ended his speech with a few words that caused him to get resoundingly booed. Continue reading

Agency, Structure, and the Myth of the Immaculate Perception

Picture 7

National Public Radio on the weekend played a story (an interview with Neal Gabler, the author of an Atlantic article on the same topic) about how hard many in the US have it economically. Continue reading

Making (And Then Trying to Solve) Our Own Puzzles

trump

Have you seen the media trying to explain why so-called evangelical Christians are supporting Donald Trump so much in the Republican primaries? For he’s hardly a model for the sort of family values they’re thought to find important — so why back him?

It’s a puzzle. Continue reading