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

The Ins and Outs of Archival Research

Prof. Nathan Loewen received funding from the University of Alabama, a while back, to conduct archival research on the Derrida Papers in Irvine, California. So REL MA student, Morgan Frick, posed a few questions to him about what all that archival work entails.

Morgan: What was the project and how did you hope to improve your research with this archival work?

Nathan: In 2016-17, I was really fortunate to be funded by the Research Grants Committee at UA. My position at REL had just begun in 2015, and I was really looking forward to completing work on my research monograph. I can definitely say that my previous project, Beyond the Problem of Evil (Lexington, 2018), came together much more quickly due to this support. I used the funding to visit the Derrida (Jacques) Papers in the Special Collections and Archives at the University of California in Irvine twice: once in the summer of 2016 and again in fall 2017. Continue reading

Navigating a Diverse World Critically

Gall Peters Projection map of world

The World Religions course is a fabulous opportunity to teach students to think critically about the various representations of the world’s religious traditions. With the critique of the world religions paradigm and its colonial roots (see Masuzawa’s Invention fo World Religions), as well as problematic assumptions contained in any singular description of world religions (see, for example, my Culture on the Edge post The Harm of World Religions), it is vital to challenge singular narratives and to help our students learn to analyze whatever narrative they hear.

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Always Look at Who’s Talking

A textbook chart that unironically presents how "Arabs/Muslims," 'Asians," "Blacks," "Jews," "Hispanics," and "Native Americans" respond to pain. It is titled "Focus on Diversity and Culture: Cultural Differences in Response to Pain"

Textbook chart from Nursing: A Concept Based Approach to Learning, published (then withdrawn) by Pearson

As the AAR presents its newly drafted Religious Literacy Guidelines, Sierra Lawson (BA ’17, MA ’19) and Prof. Steven Ramey return to their research on the implications of classification to raise important questions about the politics and consequences of such a framing.

Religious literacy, which typically refers to knowledge about religions, differences between religions, and diversity within each religion, can reinforce problematic claims about social groups (as evident in the chart reproduced above). Useful knowledge can easily become harmful, especially when it tends towards selective generalizations and ignores the issue of who is doing the talking.

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Country Music

WSM radio performance of early country music duet

You a fan of country music? If so, then you may already know about Ken Burns’ new 16 hour documentary, on PBS. (Maybe you’ve seen some of his others…?) But if you’re not a fan you probably should still be watching it, since (at least in the first episode) it provides some wonderful examples of how a scholar who goes digging in the archives, after the little details, can unearth some really interesting things. Continue reading

What’s Screamo? How the Same Term Can Mean Different Things

Tanner (far left) and Kyle (far right) with Nick and Joe of Knuckle Puck. Taken July 1, 2018.

Kyle Ashley is a junior from Highlands Ranch, Colorado. Majoring in Religious Studies, his main interests include loitering in libraries, copious amounts of coffee, and
keeping it emo in 2019.

“Knuckle Puck is awesome, but they can be a little screamo,” my stepbrother Tanner states, responding to my recommendation for which band he should play next.

“Ya… I guess.” I respond. We were fresh off attending the “Last cross-country Warped Tour” (Vans Warped Tour, for those who may not know, is a punk-centric music festival) and had a wealth of bands we wanted to push on others. Knuckle Puck, a band out of Chicago, was amongst our favorites.

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Grad Student Interns with Alabama Heritage Magazine

As part of the MA in Religion in Culture at UA, students attend a monthly colloquium designed to introduce them to community members seeking graduates with strong critical thinking skills. During these meetings, the Department of Religious Studies brings in individuals from within and outside of the University to share their experiences in the job market. Their presentations often focus on the ways that the tools each MA student is cultivating in their humanities courses can be useful outside of traditional academia.

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Argument Analysis: Legion v. American Humanist Association

Monica L. Waller, arguing for respondent in American Legion v. American Humanist Assoc., 2-27-19Jackson Foster is a freshman at UA, majoring in Religious Studies and History and minoring in the Blount Undergraduate Initiative and Randall Research Scholars Program. He is currently studying the intersections between law, politics, and religion in Dr. Altman’s REL130 course. This piece was originally published in High School SCOTUS, a national Supreme Court blog comprised of young students like Jackson.

The Supreme Court heard arguments last month in American Legion v. American Humanist Association, a case involving a 40-foot Peace Cross situated in a Maryland public park. Before (and since) the argument, American Legion has received special attention from the constitutional scholar and layman alike. It has been enveloped in media scrutiny (see Nina Totenberg’s Cross Clash Could Change Rules For Separation Of Church And State); it is one of the first Establishment Clause cases in the Kavanaugh era, and it may spell the end of the Lemon test.

While constitutional considerations carry great weight, they miss the heart of this case. American Legion does not so much implicate the Establishment Clause or the Lemon test as it implicates American civil religion. The questions argued in the case, therefore, can be nicely distilled to one: Is the cross civil or sectarian? 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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Spotlighting Graduating MA Students

Emma Gibson and Sierra Lawson have spent the last two years developing their skills in research, social theory, and the public and digital humanities among other useful accomplishments. This spring, both students will graduate with a Master’s of Arts in Religion in Culture and plan to put their analytical tools to work as they further their education. Emma will pursue a Master’s of Architecture while Sierra earns a Ph.D. in Religious Studies. Find out what these young women have planned after graduation.

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