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

The Implications of Designations

A lot of people in our field now advocate approaches that find religion either in unexpected or overlooked places. What once might have been called the implicit religion movement, at least as once associated with the work of the late Ed Bailey, has now been joined by the more-or-less related lived religion, material religion, religion on the ground, as well as the embodied religion approaches, all of which aim to identify religion in places where scholars, who have long been preoccupied with reading texts (and thereby studying what some of our literate predecessors left behind), have not found it before, often due to some sort of scholarly bias. Continue reading

Symposium Recap

Last week, the Department of Religious Studies hosted its annual Undergraduate Research Symposium at Gorgas Library. Students from Religious Studies courses collaborated with advisors on written projects before presenting their work at the event. The unique topics, challenging question-answer portion, and free coffee made for a refreshing Friday morning. Professors, alumni, MA students, and undergraduates used social media to keep up with the event.

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A Return to the Nacirema

Ryland Hunstad, a student in Prof. Simmons’s REL 100 this past semester, is a sophomore from Denver, Colorado majoring in finance & management information systems, with interests in politics, philosophy, & religion.

In the following post he offers some further reflections on a group of people who were originally studied, in the mid-1950s, by the anthropologist, Horace Miner.

Since the last expedition to the land of the Nacirema, anthropologists have had several more opportunities to visit these people and observe their customs and social practices, in an attempt to decode the seemingly cryptic meaning behind their traditions and religious practices as it relates to their society. Those outsiders studying the Nacirema, by learning the language and acquainting themselves in general with the members of the Nacirema tribe, have begun to understand these customs in more depth, especially as they relate to the class system present among the Nacirema. Our hope in this piece is to relay their findings so that these social practices may be studied and analyzed in greater detail. Continue reading

A Visit to Montgomery Museums

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL commemorates all documented cases of lynching in America. Each metal pillar is engraved with the victims’ names and the county where the crime took place.

Several weeks ago, along with Prof. Ramey, Caity Bell, Savanah Finver, and Keely McMurray (all first-year MA students in the study of religion) took the two hour drive to Montgomery, AL, to explore a variety of historical representations in museums and memorials. They began their tour at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice before visiting the Legacy Museum and finishing at the Alabama State Archives Museum. Continue reading

The Book Event – As Told in Pictures

Last Thursday, the Religious Studies Department hosted its second annual book event at Ernest & Hadley Booksellers in downtown Tuscaloosa. The refreshments and cozy ambiance created the perfect atmosphere for any book lover to mingle and browse the store. Professors, students, and even Tuscaloosa locals joined us to discuss Prof. Ramey‘s and Prof. Loewen‘s recently published books.

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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

The World Cup and a Grandmother’s Blessing

Sierra Lawson is an M.A. student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama; you can visit her website here.

The World Cup has been a heavily anticipated sporting event for many countries since the 1930s, representing one of those phenomenon that invite communities to abandon divisive tension in favor of coming together to cheer on the team representing their country. From Mexico to Iran and Morocco, and now even to the United States (whose team failed to qualify for this year’s tournament), families come together, huddled intimately around their television sets while someone else peers up at a large screen in a pub, surrounded only by the dull buzz of strangers also watching, each with a fermented drink of choice.

One sporting fan happened to catch my attention this season, a grandmother in a Mexican household who stood in front of her television before the Germany v. Mexico game kicked off and blessed every member of Mexico’s male soccer team as the camera focused in on each of their faces during the national anthem. She even made sure to bless the goalie twice, you know, just to be absolutely sure! The video, a screenshot of which is featured above, was widely circulated on social media the other day, with many proclaiming that there is nothing more precious or pure than a grandma’s blessing.

I have to wonder, would a scholar of Latin American religion classify this video as an example of “religious devotion” or treat it as a silly anomaly to be excluded from the archive? In my experience, traditionally Catholic devotees often get overrepresented in scholarship while individuals who demonstrate devotion in nontraditional ways, such as this grandmother blessing players on her television, are left out of the record because their actions are not really religious. Yet, I’m not sure where we are demarcating really religious behavior from not really religious behavior, because such scholars hardly ever reveal what they mean by ‘religion’ and, thus, a reader is unable to imagine a spectrum of what qualifies as religious.

It seems that many scholars are quick to ignore devotional behavior that does not fit within their definition of religion, without ever realizing that they do not even have one, which means that examples such as this grandmother become marginalized, inspiring only a chuckle in most viewers, without any explanation as to why.

“A confidential informant is not a spy…”

The title of this post is a quotation from US Senator Lindsey Graham, during a recent radio interview — find more details here, in a recent Washington Post report, along with a transcript of that portion of his interview. It concerns the President characterizing someone who is now much in the news as being a “spy” planted in his campaign by the FBI. That others understand this person as an informant — someone who, of their own volition, apparently decided authorities needed to know something he himself knew — is one among many current examples in US politics where it ought to be profoundly obvious that, yes, classification matters. Continue reading

On the Worlds We Conceive Within Ourselves…

Sierra Lawson is an M.A. student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama; you can visit her website here.

I recently saw an advertisement that featured two lungs, one healthy and another almost unrecognizable as a human organ. This reminded me of a similar comparison at a summer camp I once attended where they showed us a cow’s lung that had supposedly been exposed to a great deal of smoke. While both demonstrations had different end goals, the former to combat second hand smoke and the latter to scare young children into never considering a smoke, they required similar ontological assumptions from their audiences. Chiefly, the assumption that seeing how our actions outside our corpus have effects on inner organs, but also the subsequent assumption that seeing these consequences will galvanize us into healthier habits or, at the very least, aversion to particular substances. Continue reading