Public Service Announcement

The day I meet postmodernists whose relativism does not disappear the minute they start talking about salaries and workloads is the day I will take relativism seriously.

That’s a quotation I saw posted on social media yesterday, from Steve Bruce‘s new book Researching Religion: Why We Need Social Science.

My comment on the site?

I find positions one disagrees with are easiest critiqued when one parodies them.

Fending off parodies of postmodernism’s influence in our field is a full-time job these days, whether they come from the theologians looking for evidence of God’s truth, the humanists in search of Meaning and the Enduring Human Spirit (the uppercase is intended), or, yes, the social scientists who equally need religion to be some real, tangible thing but in order to explain it in some fashion. But despite the obvious differences among these three broad approaches, I see representatives of each routinely drawing upon the same parodies of critical or postmodern stances.

So, as a public service, let me comment here that to take a self-interested and apparently absolutist stand concerning a salary or a workload RELATIVE TO one’s practical and changeable interests is not some sort contradictory “Aha!” moment that exposes the weakness at the heart of a social constructionist or so-called relativist approach. Instead, it is actually a pretty good argument for why we should take such an approach, as Bruce phrases it, seriously.

Social actors, after all, aren’t the most consistent players and I see no reason why scholars are somehow different from the rest of their peers. So an approach that they adopt in the study of others which they apparently suspend when advancing their own interests strikes me as a good example of how social life actually works, providing a pretty compelling case for why we ought to be doing anything but dismissing that approach in our study of human behavior and organization.

Religious Studies in the Time of Trumpism

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When I heard Donald Trump’s speech on Monday I realized that Trump’s rhetoric presents the scholar of religion with a crossroads. Scholars of religion have to make a decision about how to engage Trumpism.

Continue reading

“He Thinks He’s Got it So Good…”

Picture 21In 2001, in a collection of essays, I included a chapter on teaching courses on theories of myth and ritual, describing there how I sometimes use pop music (songs that, with each year, get more and more dated) to make a point. Continue reading

Studying the Shifting Tides

Picture 2There’s an interesting study to be written on the shifting tides, over the past fifteen years, in the representation of Islam in North America.

Case in point: take the above article, posted just days ago. It deviates in significant ways from the rhetoric that was mobilized immediately after the 9-11 attacks, in which the legitimacy of the attackers’ religion was quickly called into question, thereby creating a zone of peaceful and tolerant Muslims who were seen as safe and who were thus differentiated from those who were quickly turned into enemies and thus targets. Continue reading

A Word from the Balcony

Picture 9A yesterday a colleague posted a blog with three hypotheses on the topic of studying a thing called American Religious History — concerning how it may very well be a nationalist project, from start to finish (no matter how it is done), and that it is a discourse that may have historical continuities with (and practical effects akin to) the world religious discourse that so many in our field now claim to critique.

His point, as I read him, was not how to do it better but why we do it in the first place. Continue reading

Owed to Murphy

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John Parrish graduated from the Department of Religious Studies in 2004. He went on to pursue graduate study in Christian Origins at the University of Alberta, the University of Toronto, and Brown University, while maintaining his interests in 19th & 20th C religious thought. In the following, John reflects on the role played in his own undergraduate education by the late Dr. Tim Murphy, pictured above as he looked when he arrived in the Department in the Fall of 2002.

What to say? What can I say? Many people speak about their mentors in this way: he taught me everything I know about such-and-such-a subject. In Tim’s case that would be a lie. He did not teach me everything I know about the subjects he taught. Not even close. Tim did something better: he taught me how to read those subjects that interest me, and that, in my view, is a far better gift. He showed me, first, that to read is a verb—an active process by which you make the text your own. That is interpretation, and he always said that interpretation is the main way that we, as human beings, deal with the world around us. Of course, Tim also taught me the basics: the main authors in the subject of 19th and 20th century Religious Thought. He taught me who they were. He contextualized them—even encouraged me to read some of them. But I never had his skill at grasping and elucidating the philosophical points behind them. For that, his lectures were indispensable. Continue reading