What Gets Labeled as Religion

Still not quite sure what scholars study when they say that they study the classification or the category religion itself…? Think that all scholars of religion need a definition of religion to get started with their work?

If so, why not give a listen to episode 21, that was just posted the other day. It’s a short podcast by Malory Nye, author of a widely used intro book in our field, and he elaborates on the simple fact that he’s

“a student of religion who doesn’t study religion…”

Make It So

Did you catch Titus Hjelm‘s excellent post the other day?

His argument concerned the manner in which otherwise routine claims or actions are represented by specific groups, for specific reasons, as controversial; the apparent controversy of some religions (notably, in his post, Islam — at least to a number of people in so-called Western countries) is thus not an essential trait but one that is acquired in the public marketplace. Continue reading

The Devil’s in the Details

detailsMy early book was cited near the start of Chris Kavanagh‘s recent online essay, as an example of a work in the study of religion that — despite him agreeing that there is “much that is valid in such critiques” — seems to constitute “academic minutiae” that we should put behind us, so we can just get on with our work.

If you’ve not read the piece, you should.

Here’s the closing two paragraphs.

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I’d like to focus on what is being claimed here, in these closing lines, and raise some of the implications that I see to be of importance. For paying attention to the little details is sometimes quite beneficial.

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Skillz

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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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Too Hard, Too Soft, Just Right

courtdecisionI’ve seen some comments on social media about this recent court decision — click the image to read about it. (If you don’t know much about Pastafarianism then go here.) As a scholar of religion interested not so much in studying religion but, rather, in studying those who use the term to accomplish practical social work (by classifying this or that as religion [or not!]), I admit that I can be a little disappointed when I see other scholars of religion chime in about such decisions. For by failing to see the term “religion” as a rhetorical device, as a tool some people use to manage social life by naming,  distinguishing, and then ranking assorted items, scholars often unwittingly enter into debates over what religion really is (or isn’t).

And, in the process, they make themselves data for people like me. Continue reading

“They’re Not All That Evangelical”

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Maybe you saw my post the other day on how the way we define and use the category religion can create the very thing that we then set about to examine — failing to see that it wasn’t a naturally occurring item in the world, and thus in need of study, but was our creation to begin with. The example was the way we define so-called evangelicals, understanding them as doing something that involves “faith” as opposed to “politics” and the quandary that then results when we see them voting in large numbers for Donald Trump in the Republican primaries.

How do we explain this? Continue reading

“And Yet They Thought That We Had an Organic, Genetic Loyalty to the Emperor…”

japaneseinternmentStill wondering about the relevance of a liberal arts degree, in general, or of taking a course in the academic study of religion in particular — where, among other things, we examine the various ways that people define religion, such as essentialism, which posits a necessary and universal inner identity to all things defined as religious…?

Well, if you are, then take a look at the headlines these days and maybe you’ll see some application of the skills you’ve acquired in our classes — such as being able to identify the problems with (and maybe the interests that drive) generalizing to all a trait shared only by some. For George Takei, who was interned as a child in a camp for Japanese-Americans (who, post-Pearl Harbor, were thought by many in the US to be untrustworthy and disloyal), has something to say about the way current political discourse paints others with rather broad brushes…

Click here if the embedded video fails to play.
The title for this post comes form the 1:40 point of the interview.

How Your Phone Defines Religion

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As the Faculty Technology Liaison to the College of Arts and Sciences at UA, I am part of a Mac Administrators forum. I was surprised to notice the exclusion of deities from emoji eligibility while glancing over an update notice. After some investigation, I was surprised to learn about the selection factors of the Unicode Consortium.

emoji criteria

In fact, the Unicode Consortium has produced a very detailed report, “Emoji and Symbol Additions – Religious Symbols and Structures,” for which “The objective has been to have symbols and structures of major belief systems worldwide represented with an emphasis on filling up existing gaps in the encoded symbol repertoire.”

The report is an excellent “common sense inventory” for what ready-to-hand assumptions exist for thinking about the study of religion. For example, the emoji for “place of worship”  is that of a person kneeling in prayer under a roof. What does this representation include or exclude from considerations about religion?place-of-worship

Applying Skills Outside the Classroom

Picture 10In some of our courses faculty in the department focus on the problem of definition in the study of religion — what counts as a religion (more importantly, for whom) and what are the practical implications of distinguishing a this from a that.

They also often talk about the broad relevance of the skills that students acquire in the Humanities.

So I had all this in mind while listening to a story on National Public Radio this morning, on making sense of a Rutgers University sexual assault survey. It struck me that our students could have been of real help if the designers had conferred with them a bit about the implications of definition prior to designing and administering their survey.

For if you’re trying to lessen the number of such assaults, and increase the likelihood that victims will report them, then the parameters of what counts as a sexual assault are something worth thinking about — and that seems to me to be a pretty good example of how the skills taught in our course have practical impact far outside our classrooms.

Listen to the news story here — the issue of definition becomes more apparent toward its end.

Putting the “Religion” in “American Religion”

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Craig Prentiss is a professor of religious studies at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri. He is the author of, Staging Faith: Religion and African American Theater from the Harlem Renaissance to World War II (NYU 2014).

 

On Thursday, June 4, I took a flight from Kansas City, Missouri to Indianapolis to attend the Fourth Biennial Conference on Religion American Culture hosted by the the Center for the Study of Religion & American Culture at IUPUI. Though it was the fourth incarnation of the conference, it was the first time I had attended. Historians and sociologists made up the majority of participants (some of them situated in religious studies departments), mixed in with a few anthropologists, a couple of theologians, and even a political scientist! Sandwiched between two receptions, the conference took place over two days and consisted of eight sessions—attended by all conference participants—lasting an hour and a half each. Three panelists per session were asked to present short narratives on their assigned topics before opening questions and discussion to the audience. The format succeeded in helping to generate spirited and valuable conversation.

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