Profs. Simmons and Altman Talk About the New MA Degree

Have you heard about the Religions Studies Project? It’s a great website and podcast based out of the United Kingdom. This week they are featuring a podcast episode with Profs. Mike Altman and Merinda Simmons all about our new Religion in Culture master’s degree program.

Give it a listen and learn about our new program. We’re still accepting applications!


One Week of Research in an Archive: A Journal

Professors around the department often talk about their “research.” But what exactly is that? It’s something to do with books and articles, right? In hopes of showing how some of us work–or at least how I work–below is a day by day running journal of a five day research trip I took to the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Another Good Book with Prof. Michael Altman


The tenth installment in our A Good Book series is now on vimeo! This episode revisits Prof. Michael Altman as he shares yet another influential book, The Invention of World Religions by Tomoko Masuzawa. Be sure to give it a watch!

Another Good Book with Prof. Altman from UA Religious Studies.

Coffee Break and Lounge Tweets Unite!


Our first RSSA Coffee Break last month was a huge hit, and our next one is fast approaching! Be sure to stop by the lounge in Manly 200 on Tuesday, March 1st from 1:30-3:00pm and enjoy a free cup of coffee, on the house! Mix and mingle with your fellow REL students, and maybe even a professor or two.


We’re also bringing back Live Tweets from the Lounge for this Coffee Break! Dr. Altman will be live-tweeting the event, so find him on Twitter and keep those tweets coming! Don’t forget to tag it #LoungeTweets.

The Long Argument Over Religious Freedom


One of the major themes in my REL 241: American Religious History course this semester has been “religious liberty.” What our class has seen over and over again is that religious freedom isn’t really about religion or freedom. More often, arguments over “religious liberty,” “religious freedom,” or “freedom of conscience” are really arguments about governance, structures, and the individual.

For example, early in the course we read the trial of Anne Hutchinson, a Puritan woman kicked out of the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1637. There was no separation between the church and the government in the colony, so when Hutchinson challenged the theology and authority of the male clergy in the colony her dissenting religious opinion was also political. Ultimately, Hutchinson fell back on the rhetoric of freedom of conscience to defend herself.  “Now if you do condemn me for speaking what in my conscience I know to be truth I must commit myself unto the Lord,” she said before governor John Winthrop ruled that she should be banished from the colony. In order to maintain social order and protect the authority of the church-state, the unruly conscience of Hutchinson has to be expelled.

But that was back in the days of the colonies, right? Then came the whole Revolution and Constitution and Bill of Rights that ensured freedom of religion, right? Well, sure. But the First Amendment is a pretty short text for such a big idea:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

What were the limits of of establishment? What was free exercise?

One of the first major tests of these limits came in 1878 in a Supreme Court case: Reynolds v. United States. The question at hand was whether the federal laws against bigamy should be applied to Mormons whose religious beliefs called them to practice polygamy. The bigger question was, can the government stop someone from practicing an illegal religious practice? If I believe something is my religious obligation, can the government stop me?

The short answer is yes. As the court ruled:

In our opinion, the statute immediately under consideration is within the legislative power of Congress. It is constitutional and valid as prescribing a rule of action for all those residing in the Territories, and in places over which the United States have exclusive control…Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices. Suppose one believed that human sacrifices were a necessary part of religious worship; would it be seriously contended that the civil government under which he lived could not interfere to prevent a sacrifice? Or if a wife religiously believed it was her duty to burn herself upon the funeral pile of her dead husband; would it be beyond the power of the civil government to prevent her carrying her belief into practice?

Notice how the judge here, Chief Justice Waite, separates out religious belief (what Hutchinson called her “conscience”) from religious practice. Religious freedom thus came to mean that you could believe whatever you wanted, you just couldn’t do whatever you wanted. The government held on to the right to govern practices (e.g. no human sacrifices), whether deemed religious or not.

This ruling offers one example of a larger process that happened in American culture from the colonial period to today. “Religion” came to be understood as something internal. Americans imagined an internal place in the person where “religious beliefs” resided.  One has, as people often say, “deeply held” religious beliefs. In this view of religion, it is something one possesses within oneself (the same holds for synonyms like “faith,” “experience,” and  “spirituality”) that then affects actions or identity on the outside. I believe X so I do Y. But, as Reynolds argued, a citizen doesn’t necessarily have to do what they believe. There’s a space there and the government has the power to act within that space between internal belief and external action.

Thus, dissent could be managed. Dissenting beliefs could be kept safely inside the citizen, without necessarily leading to action. As the Reynolds decision claimed, the government can limit, suppress, and discipline action without tampering with internal religious belief.


But, also like in Reynolds, sometimes these internal religious beliefs and their attendant identities themselves become a problem. As our class saw this semester, the limits of religious freedom also meant limits on who could claim religious freedom (who decides what is a “religious belief?”) and who could claim to be American. As the late 19th century cartoon at the top shows, Mormons and Catholics were not granted religious freedom by many in the Protestant American majority. Similarly, in the late 19th and early 20th century, Chinese and South Asian immigrants found themselves excluded from citizenship and immigration because of both racial and religious difference (see the headline from 1913 and the cartoon below from the 1870s). Slaveholders in the antebellum American South did not believe African American slaves had a conscience or the capacity for genuine religious belief and so they often banned them from religious practice or only allowed them to attend white churches where their practice could be surveilled. In 1939 a ship full of Jews were turned away from landing in the United States as they fled Nazi Germany. Whenever those internal religious beliefs are considered dangerous, those holding them must be kept out.

The story of “religious freedom” in the United States, then, is not so much about religion as
it is a story of conflict, power, and exclusion. Religious freedom has always been about the limits of that freedom and the argument and struggle over who gets to claim that freedom and who doesn’t. It’s been a story of who gets included in the nation and doesn’t. At various points in history, Mormons, Catholics, Hindus, Chinese Buddhists, and African American Christians have all been considered too dangerous to be granted inclusion in American religious freedom. “Religious freedom” in America is therefore an argument about who gets to have power and authority (Hutchinson or the clergy, Mormons or the Protestant establishment) and who gets to claim to be “American.”

A quick scan of my Twitter timeline tells me this argument is still with us today.

Again and again, since the founding of the United States, Americans have said:

Religious liberty is guaranteed but…

Whence Mother Earth?


John D. James is a senior at the University of Alabama majoring in Religious Studies and minoring in General Business. This book review was written for Dr. Michael J. Altman’s REL 370: Empire and the Construction of Religion course.

In Mother Earth: An American Story, Sam D. Gill begins to articulate and explain with physical evidence that the term “Mother Earth” is commonly misused and presented to audiences as some common knowledge involving Native American thought and belief. Gill takes an interesting approach when trying to carefully argue that Mother Earth is not an ancient central Native American figure. This book’s message is a radical rethinking of how the figure Mother Earth came to be used and ultimately misused by so many who failed to ask questions concerning Mother Earth’s origin.

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Authenticity and the Nation-State, Or Why Thai Food is a Lot Like ISIS


tumblr_mdls46sPdt1qawtgfo1_1280We love Thai food around here. But how do you know the food on your plate is actually Thai? What makes it Thai? The sign in the restaurant window? The “Thai tea?” What is “authentic Thai food?”

Well, the government of Thailand is sick and tired of your sad excuses for Thai food and they have a plan to ensure you never settle for fake Thai food again. It’s not just a plan, it’s a robot. Continue reading

The Politics of Misconceptions

meditationIn a recent blog post, my colleague, Mike Altman, makes a crucial point; after quoting a site that describes early European scholarship on Buddhism as being based on earlier “misconceptions, he writes: Continue reading

Europeanizing the Buddha and Constructing a World Religion


Have you seen Prof. Altman’s new blog post? Here’s a sampling of what he has to say:

“Europeans and Americans conceived of Buddhism as a world religion not because of ‘misconceptions’ that were corrected by ‘better understandings,’ but because it served their purposes within a growing discourse of ‘world religions’ in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Buddha became European because Europeans imagined him in their own image to serve their own purposes.”

Interest piqued? Read the full post here.


Altman-Rollens Criss-CrossBig things are happening at REL this summer, including some moving. In case you haven’t already heard, Prof. Mike Altman and Prof. Sarah Rollens have criss-crossed (although, thankfully, not in true Hitchcock fashion) offices. Prof. Altman’s office is now on the second floor and Prof. Rollens has moved upstairs to the penthouse with the great view.

In the game of musical offices, you grab the one closest to you when the music stops.