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…”

Stereotyping Gender: I’m 100% Masculine

Screen Shot 2016-07-29 at 4.24.18 PMBy Andie Alexander
Andie Alexander earned her B.A. in Religious Studies and History in 2012. She is completing her M.A. in Religious Studies at CU Boulder. Andie also works as the online Curator for the Culture on the Edge blog.

Some weeks back, I saw several of my friends posting their results of this Gender Role Test on Facebook. I usually tend to keep scrolling, but after seeing several of these results, I just couldn’t resist what I knew would make for a fun blog post. The test itself is 36 questions to which you answer in varying degrees of agreement or disagreement. The test description reads:

Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 7.32.54 PMWhile I’m not familiar with Bem’s work, I do find it somewhat telling that despite the acknowledgement of stereotyping, this test proceeds to do just that. As I went through the questions, it became quite clear to me that I was going to be labeled as “masculine” — not because these traits are inherently masculine, but rather because that is what we have come to take for granted as a masculine traits (e.g., assertive, dominant, ambitious, to name but a few listed in the test) — as opposed to “feminine” (e.g., polite, mild, soothing). Of course, it is worth noting that there are only two gender identifications with which one can identify. And while one can easily push back and say that these traits are gender fluid, etc., etc., what I find most compelling is the way in which these quiz questions reify gender norms broadly speaking. I suspect most people might nod and agree with their results, unless of course, they get something as drastically “different” as mine.  Continue reading

Marketing and the Academic Study of Religion

kharaWhat connects red lipstick, racecars, and health care? The study of religion, of course! (Well, sort of.) Khara Cole, a 2013 graduate with a double major in Religious Studies and Public Relations, has found the skills that she developed in Religious Studies particularly important, as she designs products and their implementation for a health insurance company. She returned to campus last week to talk about her experiences working in the corporate world. The tasks of writing persuasive business proposals and accessible marketing texts clearly draw on her skills that she developed in our classes that emphasized various writing assignments. Solving problems, looking at both the little details and the broader picture as well as the ways different people might respond to the issues, employs the analytical and critical thinking skills that she, like many of our majors, considers a highlight of their work in Religious Studies.

In terms of lipstick and race cars, Khara provided this concrete example of the value of her religious studies major. When Khara began working on her current team implementing new products for her company, she noticed two previous marketing posters, one with a tube of red lipstick dominating the poster and the other with a racecar. Thinking of her first course in the department (Women and Religion with Prof. Simmons), she recognized the gender stereotypes implicit within these posters geared to different audiences and began developing more effective marketing efforts that avoided such gendered stereotypes that would alienate portions of the target audiences. Her story illustrates clearly the relevance of the questions that we often ask in our classes about the ways dominant symbols develop and the groups that those symbols exclude. Looking at those posters with a critical gaze enabled her to consider the ways a range of people might view them rather than accepting the symbolism of dominant stereotypes. In her experience, her skills in critical analysis, therefore, facilitate better marketing and communication strategies. As other graduates have told us, a major in Religious Studies helps students develop skills that provide vital contributions to a range of careers, including business and marketing.

Why Good Looks Matter

dalai lama

Veikko Anttonen is Professor Emeritus of Comparative Religion at the University of Turku, Finland. He was elected Vice-President of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR) for the period 2015-2020 at the conference in Erfurt last August.
He was the Professor and Chair of Comparative Religion at the University of Turku between 1997-2015.

The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, stated in an interview that a successor to his post can be a woman if she is good looking, otherwise she would not be of much use. The statement is overtly sexist, and as expected, has met severe criticism. But what else the interview statement implies! The Tibetan institution of finding “a reincarnated” Dalai Lama, the supreme religious leader representing continuous genealogy of Buddhas, is a religio-cultural construct. It is obvious that there are specific culture-dependent criteria which become operative as integral elements in official Tibetan Buddhist theology in the search for a “right” successor. From the point of view of the study of religion, we do not only need to understand how a politically correct choice is being made, but also to theorize the overall religio-cultural construct called reincarnation. According to my category-theoretical approach to the issue of sacrality, there are specific criteria, such as perception of an anomaly and category-boundary that become operative in classifying and attributing sacredness as property of a thing and an appropriate member in the class of “sacred things”.

Over the history, things have acquired their sacred status in diverse ways in different cultures and category systems. The Dalai Lama’s remark was not a slip of the tongue, but a comment indicative of sacred-making characteristics among Tibetan Buddhist monks. Qua scholars of religion, we need to ask what cultural, ethnic-territorial, socio-economic and person-specific characteristics are implied in setting apart an appropriate candidate for the post of Dalai Lama. Since good looks seem to matter in the case of a female candidate, it needs to be explained how culture- and theology-dependent notions of sacrality are appropriated in order to meet requirements regarding the expectations of a candidate’s political role, his/her media and public appeal, etc. I am not hereby implying any kind of sui generis theories of the sacred á la Eliade, but a methodological strategy that can be operationalized in order to explain the institution of finding a new, reincarnated religio-political leader for Buddhist monks after the passing of Dalai Lama.

The statement by the Dalai Lama is therefore revealing since it clearly expresses that there is a system of classification according to which certain traits of personality and appearance are perceived as elemental in the re-embodiment of a dead monk.


“I Smell the Vapors of Hell on You…”

Picture 7There’s a new joint British-US TV series airing over here, “Outlander,” in which a WWII English nurse finds herself mysteriously taken backward in time, from the mid-1940s to the fiercely independent Scottish highlands two hundred years earlier. (That the independence vote takes place today in Scotland makes this series airing now kind of curious.)

From the point of view of the academic study of religion, the relationship between the science of the lead character and, at least in episode three, the religion of the locals, is predictably antagonistic — in fact, we could go so far as to call the latter mere superstition, at least from the viewpoint of our modern, empirically-based nurse. That these old tropes are still so useful in fiction is, I’d suggest, the curious thing. Continue reading

“Firm Religious Beliefs”

Picture 6Did you catch the story, the other day, of the Canadian University in which religious identity and gender-inclusion ran straight into each other and the former seems to have prevailed? As reported in the newspaper, The Toronto Star, the story opens:

A York University student who refused to do group work with women for religious reasons has sparked a human rights tug-of-war between a professor and campus administration.

While the professor wanted to deny the student’s request, a university dean ordered him to comply. Continue reading

Crisis? What Crisis?

t1larg.women.workplaceAn interesting article appeared online at the New York Times‘ site back in June (thanks to a friend for sharing a link to it today), making the following argument:

Picture 2Might the so-called crisis in the humanities be a function of increasing opportunities for women across technical, business, and scientific professions once closed to them, thereby disproportionately forcing female students of the past decades into the so-called more cultured fields thought to be housed in the humanities? A limited option no longer enforced?

I certainly know that my own older sisters, born immediately after WWII, seemed only to have three options (or some overloaded combination of): housewife, nurse, or teacher. That’s hardly the world we live in now.

See what you think of the article.

Women’s Places

gideonsThe Gideons are on campus today, like every Fall, handing out copies of the New Testament. While I leave it to others to debate the place of such an activity on a US public university campus, I thought I’d relate a conversation I had with a gentleman just outside my parking deck this morning.

Me: Are there female members of the Gideons?
Him: Yes, there’s a women’s auxiliary.
Me: I ask because I’ve never seen women handing out New Testaments on campus.
Him: Oh, they visit places, like nursing homes and hospitals…
Me: I see; women’s places.
Him: … and motels, and hotels…
Me: Odd division of labor in the 21st century, don’t you think?