Tip of the Iceberg

Graph showing the increasing frequency of the phrase "religious expression" since 1800The common English phrasing “religious expression” carries with it a set of assumptions about what scholars of religion study as well as how and why they study it, though the term is today so widespread that I doubt many think much about what it entails. Continue reading

The Uses of Symbolism

Donald Trump holding a bible in front of a boarded-up church

There are certainly those scholars of religion who will study yesterday’s episode — when a large number of peaceful protestors in Lafayette Square, just north of the White House, were dispersed by police and the national guard with tear gas, batons, and flash-bang canisters (otherwise known as stun grenades), about a half hour before a curfew went into effect, so that Donald Trump could walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church, just across the street from the park, to pose with a bible as part of a 17 minute photo-op — as an episode in the misuse of a holy object. Continue reading

On Beginnings: Part 14

This essay (serialized here across 24 separate posts) uses words and numbers to discuss the uses of words and numbers — particularly examining evaluations of university degrees that employ statistical data to substantiate competing claims. Statistical analyses are crudely introduced as the mode du jour of popular logic, but any ratiocinative technique could likely be inserted in this re-fillable space and applied to create and defend categories of meaning with or without quantitative support. Questions posed across the series include: Is the data informing or affirming what we believe? What are the implications of granting this approach broader authority? The author, Melanie Williams, graduated from UA in 2006, with a B.A. in Anthropology and Religious Studies.


“Make it seem inevitable,” Louis Pasteur advised his students preparing to publish their research, in the oft-cited apocryphal chestnut.  When we present statistical data as though the data itself harbored some perfect implicit revelation, we are doing just that.  When the data “misleads” us, we are doing that yet again.  Even the polling data Nate Silver relies on is subject to our vacillations between obstinate fealty and obstinate skepticism.  There are times, of course, when polls really do get it wrong, but it doesn’t seem to affect their credibility until the results clash with our agenda.  Or when elections that don’t turn out like we want can be deemed “flawed.”  We laud the numbers when it suits our purposes, then call compilations of those numbers tainted when they produce outcomes we consider undesirable.  Is the data “bad?”  Did we collect it imperfectly, or imperfectly interpret perfectly true information?  Are we wishy-washy?  Or is this just how we shimmy through life, alternately contesting and consenting in the service of our momentary aims?  Do we hold static views in a mutable world?  If we did, we wouldn’t have to take polls so compulsively – but we’re fickle.  We’re duplicitous.  We strategize.  Even with a constant showing of hands, a constant checking-in, political polls aren’t a reliable indication of an election outcome. Continue reading

On Religion, Words, and Things: A Reply

Brent Nongbri, from whom this response was invited, is a Visiting Associate Professor at Aarhus University. He recently completed a three-year project at Macquarie University (sponsored by the Australian Research Council) that explored the earliest Christian manuscripts from a number of angles, focusing on issues of construction and dating as well as provenance and collection history. The results of the project will appear in his forthcoming book on the archaeology of the earliest Christian manuscripts.

I’m grateful to the curators of “Studying Religion in Culture” for this opportunity to reflect a bit on “words and things,” and I would also like to thank the previous posters in this series for their insightful contributions on this topic and on the problems and prospects of working with the concept of religion.

I’ll start off my own comments, however, on a word other than “religion.” Continue reading

What It Gives With One Hand….

timeenoughI found this over at the Huffington Post this morning — an announcement for a new HarvardX (part of edX) course on religious literacy.

The course is described as follows: 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

They’re Tiny and They Scurry

Picture 3I heard a book review on the local radio station this morning, focusing on the famous US biologist (specializing in the study of ants) E. O. Wilson’s latest views on, among other things, religion.

And a thought occurred to me: nobody would listen to me if I started talking about ants, would they? And if they did pay attention they’d likely hear what I was saying as mere truisms, repetition of common sense — “Look, they’re tiny and oh, how they scurry about…” — claims hardly heard as making a contribution to the science of mymecology. Continue reading

A Serious Perspective


Brittany Brooks is a senior from Midland City, Alabama, who is majoring in Religious Studies and minoring in Anthropology. She has a beautiful, lovable, four pound sister named “Eva the Diva” and enjoys the “awesomeness” that is taught in the Department. This post was originally written for Dr. Sarah Rollens’ course, REL 360: Popular Culture/ Public Humanities.

The Indie film A Serious Man is a work that is fascinating, perplexing, gloomy, and funny all at the same time! It tells the story of Larry Gopnik, a seemingly normal physics professor, and the randomly negative series of events that seem to rock his world; consequently, these unfavorable events leave him asking “Why?” As Larry pursues the meaning of his many misfortunes, he winds up empty-handed, much like many of us baffled viewers. While I did not have an explanation for Larry’s woes, what I did take away from A Serious Man is the idea that perspective, which is often based on one’s beliefs, assumptions, and/or opinions, will heavily influence any meaning any person tries to construct out of anything.

Continue reading