Practical Teaching Tips #47

Cover of the IRS tax code for churhces

Looking for a quick example of the problem of elevating folk terms to work as if they’re cross-culturally comparative categories?

Then look no further than the US’s tax code — in particular the guide for filings by churches and religious organizations Continue reading

“Both Sides”

I saw the above pic on a friend’s Facebook wall a few days ago — clearly lampooning President Trump’s recent comments following the violence a week ago at Charlottesville, VA, in which self-described white supremacists marched, protestors organized against them (one of whom, Heather Heyer, was killed when a car, driven by James Alex Fields, rammed into other cars and protestors). For as he said in two different statements, one on Saturday  (the day of Heyer’s death) and the other on Tuesday, both sides bore responsibility for the violence. Continue reading

Understanding Our Present Moment

My colleague tweeted the following the other day:

It was a bit tongue-in-cheek to be sure, but it made a good point, I think, as he elaborated in a few tweets that followed, such as his claim that “religious studies has theorized myth since its foundation & has a set of theoretical tools useful in the case of confederate monuments.” Continue reading

Making the Strange Familiar

Have you seen The Carbonaro Effect? It’s a TV show where an undercover magician does tricks in settings where people don’t expect to see magic performed, and we get to watch their reaction.

Maybe he’s working at a cash register in a grocery store and finds a live chick in the dozen eggs you’re buying or maybe he’s someone you meet in the break room at work who pulls an incredible amount of food from his little lunch bag, along with cut flowers and a vase — either way, the star of the show is the person with whom he interacts and how they try to make sense of what they’ve just witnessed. Continue reading

Skillz

empty-classroom

For sometime I’ve been concerned that the American Academy of Religion would venture into the waters of learning outcomes and assessment. But now one of its committees is  working on this and its the topic of a leadership workshop, offered by the Academic Religions committee, at the upcoming annual meeting.

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Constructing Judaism and Claiming Christianity: Modern Jewish Philosophy in an Age of Theory

Creator: Doré, Gustave, 1832-1883., French.; Date: 1856.; Material: wood engraving on wove paper; Measurements: sheet: 55 x 38.9 cm. ; image: 39 x 30.2 cm.; Repository: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. Dept. of Prints, Drawings and Photographs.; Williamstown, Mass.; 1977.55B.; http://www.clarkart.edu

Creator: Doré, Gustave, 1832-1883., French.; Date: 1856.; Material: wood engraving on wove paper; Measurements: sheet: 55 x 38.9 cm. ; image: 39 x 30.2 cm.; Repository: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. Dept. of Prints, Drawings and Photographs.; Williamstown, Mass.; 1977.55B.; http://www.clarkart.edu

Robert Erlewine is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Illinois Wesleyan University where he teaches courses related to philosophy of religion and Judaism. He is the author of two monographs, Monotheism and Tolerance: Recovering a Religion of Reason (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010) and Judaism and the West: From Hermann Cohen to Joseph Soloveitchik (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016).

In recent years, in the academic study of religion there have been rather public disputes about the nature of religious studies. Russell McCutcheon and William Arnal note an important sea-change that seems to have taken place in the field over the last few decades, that there has been a “widespread turn from practicing [religious studies] as if it was a branch of the history of ideas toward studying what is now known as ‘religion on the ground’ or ‘material religion.’” This shift “estranges former close relationships with our cousins in philosophy and, instead, forges affinities with our new friends, the social anthropologists and culture studies.” What does this change in religious studies mean for more philosophically oriented sub-disciplines — other than shrinking job prospects for young scholars? Can recent developments in theories and methods enable a rethinking of subfields in religious studies that remain close to philosophy departments?

Rethinkings that can generate energy and foster vitality? Continue reading

Democracy is Risky

Picture 9A couple years ago I gave a talk at Lehigh University (a lecture that became chapter 8 in a book I published not long after). The topic was on my frustration with how scholars of religion — because they define their object of study as a universally present and deeply meaningful human impulse — often assume their research is always relevant. As evidence I drew on a recent national conference where scholars of religion were encouraged to think about how their work on this or that ritual or text could contribute to solving the problem of climate change. I could just as easily have cited the program for that very annual conference (something I wrote on long ago, actually), and how the “religion and…” rubric was infinitely variable (e.g., Religion and Literature, Religion and Film, Religion and Science, Religion and Politics, Religion and Food, etc., etc.); we often presume our object of study always to be relevant because we think that it somehow points outside of, and thus before and beyond, the happenstance of history. So it is assumed to play a role in anything that happens.

The problem, though, is that we also claim to be historians, e.g., historians of religion — but, defining religion in this way, makes us historians who study the transcendental. And that’s very unhistorial if you ask me. Continue reading

Spinning Comparisons

MalheurNWRHeadquartersEvents at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, where a group of armed adults seized a building, have generated lots of analysis (and comments on the analysis, including my colleague’s discussion of operative theories of religion). One common mode of analysis has been comparison, particularly comparisons of the media and law enforcement responses there to prior events at Waco, Occupy Wall Street, or Ferguson, among others. Within these comparisons, though, both self-identified conservatives and liberals have used the same events to promote their own positions. For example, some have highlighted how Tamir Rice was shot because his toy gun was seen as a threat but heavily armed adults occupying a federal building have not been treated as a direct threat. In contrast, a conservative website has contrasted a peaceful picture of the protestors in Oregon to images of people looting and damaging property in Ferguson and Baltimore, noting how some who label the protesters in Oregon as “terrorists” described those in Ferguson and Baltimore as simply “demonstrators”.

This range of comparisons illustrates quite well the nature of comparison generally. Each person creating a comparison must ignore a whole series of similarities and differences in order to highlight the particular similarity and difference that supports the desired conclusion. For example, many of those active in Ferguson and Baltimore were peaceful protestors, in the face of police in fully militarized gear, but the conservative website only emphasized those who damaged property, apparently unable to distinguish between people of color. Similarly, the comparison of the responses of law enforcement in Ferguson and Malheur National Wildlife Refuge must overlook the very different contexts (urban/rural) and the different dynamics in the events. In many ways, none of these comparisons are particularly sound, as each event has its unique components in terms of contexts, law enforcement agencies involved, sequence of events, and localized dynamics.

Suggesting that these comparisons are faulty does not justify the official responses. Too often police have used force unnecessarily, often against people of color. Recognizing that dynamic, though, does not change how these simplistic comparisons illustrate confirmation bias, in which people view events, and draw comparisons, based on their preexisting positions, thus interpreting them as confirming what they already knew to be true. With any comparison, it is easy to come to a whole range of conclusions, depending on how you construct the comparison. Just as political statements need to be critiqued for how they spin events to promote their own agenda, comparisons need a similar level of analysis to identify the ways those making the comparison have spun details to fit their own position.

 

Photo credit: “MalheurNWRHeadquarters” by Cacophony. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

One of These Things Is Not Like the Other

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Khara Cole graduated from The University of Alabama in 2013 with a double major in Religious Studies and Public Relations. She currently lives in Chattanooga, TN working as an Associate Product Manager in Marketing/New Product Strategy for BlueCross BlueShield of TN.

If you’ve been on social media at all recently, you might have come across the image pictured above originally posted by a far right conservative group that’s been shared countless times across Facebook and other social media sites. When I first came across this terrible comparison, my critical thinking senses immediately kicked in and I thought why in the world would anyone ever compare these two figures, and what are they trying to say? Not only is this image devastatingly offensive to several communities, it was blatantly obvious that there were major political and totally uneducated implications behind this comparison as well, and I wanted to think it through.

Continue reading