Attention Budding Religious Studies Scholars


    Fragonard, A Young Scholar (Wallace Collection)

“Thoughts are the precious seeds of which our universities should be the botanical gardens.  Beware when God lets loose a thinker on the world—either Carlyle or Emerson said that—for all things then have to rearrange themselves.  But the thinkers in their youth are almost always very lonely creatures.  ‘Alone the great sun rises and alone spring the great streams.’  The university most worthy of rational admiration is that one in which your lonely thinker can feel himself least lonely, most positively furthered, and most richly fed.”

–William James, “The True Harvard” (1903)

Before loosing you on an unsuspecting world, the Religious Studies Department wishes to cultivate your thoughts in the manner James extolls.  With hopes of furthering your ideas most positively, richly feeding your research, and providing stimulating intellectual companionship, we invite you to participate in the Department’s 4th Annual Religious Studies Undergraduate Research Symposium.

Please consider reworking a paper you have written for a course and presenting it before assembled friends, family, and faculty (on Wednesday morning March 29).  You will work under the supervision of your professor and receive additional comment from Prof. Bagger.  When you present your research alongside your peers, the audience will have the opportunity to ask you questions about your ideas.  In the past students have found the entire process tremendously rewarding, and the event has become a highlight of the Department’s academic year.  Speak to your professor should you wish to participate.

The University provides a similar opportunity on March 30.  The Undergraduate Research & Creative Activity Conference brings together students from throughout the University to showcase their research.  To participate in the URCA, students must submit an abstract of their research online during the first seventeen days of February.  To assist you in that process, the University will schedule abstract-writing workshops in advance of the February deadline.

If honing your ideas and scholarly skills (as well as representing the Department of Religious Studies before the University community) does not provide sufficient incentive—as James would well recognize it might not: “Experience has proved that great as the love of truth may be among men, it can be made still greater by adventitious rewards” (“The PhD Octopus,” 1903)—the University has seen fit to supply cash prizes.  For more information, see Prof. Bagger or visit URCA.UA.EDU.  You may, of course, participate in both the Department Symposium and the University Conference.

The Problem with the Primacy of Primary Sources


By 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.

Over the past few weeks I have heard repeated talk of primary sources vs. secondary sources, privileging the former over the latter in every case. The argument that was made in these instances is premised on highlighting the legitimacy and groundedness of the primary sources, as if they focus on something “real,” (such as religion on the ground, or “real world” examples). These are then juxtaposed with the secondary sources, which are seen as subsequent discourses on primary sources, mostly concerned with meta-discourses — regarded mainly as “thinking about thinking” or “talking about talking” — which are given that secondary ranking because they aren’t talking about something “real” or answering the reader’s question (in fact, often they leave them with more questions than answers, whereas primary sources are all about answers). In some cases, these secondary sources are dismissed with a “So what?” I say “dismissed” not with a negative connotation, but with a sense of such indirect relation to the “real world religion” that the “meta-discourses” are seen as not worth the same time and engagement as their juxtaposed primary sources.

What strikes me as interesting about this distinction between primary and secondary sources is that the use of that very language largely relies on some essentialized notions of religion, as if it exists authentically, apart from subsequent claims about it. Continue reading

The #GradTales Audience: Reflections From Current Students


As you may be familiar one of our events here in REL is the Grad Tales Event: Here and Back Again. The department invites a former REL major to talk about their experience before and after graduation, in hopes that they can help current students think not only about their place in the university but also how to make the best out of it; to think creatively about the courses they take in the humanities in general, and how to put that knowledge in good use after their graduation. In our last Grad Tales event we invited a recent graduate, Alexis Poston, to the task and Prof.Touna asked the students of her REL100 class to attend the event and write a brief paragraph with their thoughts regarding the talk. What follows are some of those students’ reflections.

“This evening, students and professors alike gathered to hear the remarkable story of a young lady’s academic tale…. From hearing Lexis story, I was able to see just what a student in the Religious studies field was able to gain, first hand. I am now much more interested in furthering my exploration in religious studies because I see that it helps shape you into a well rounded, well educated student. Being able to understand different cultures, and religions can help you with your communication skills, understanding people as well as social behaviors. With my current major being criminal justice, I think that adding a religious studies minor could be beneficial to my future as an employee.”

“One thing I learned by attending the Grad’s Tales event is that religious studies can give you a skill in critical thinking and analysis. I’m not saying that other classes or other majors on campus are not going to teach us that, but in religious studies you have to brainstorm not only about how you think about one subject, but also how other people may think about the same subject.”


“During the conversation the graduate student talked about her successes at UofA. This opened my eyes to many opportunities here at Alabama. I realized that if you set your mind to your goals they are possible to achieve. She had some very good insight on many different religion classes that sounded very interesting. Maybe I will pursue my minor in Religion here at Alabama. I learned a lot at the grad talk about how religious studies can help you in your everyday life and with your future work. She said that majoring in religious studies has made her a more well rounded person and able to communicate with other people on different levels. I enjoyed meeting other professors from the department, and the way the speaker talked about them made me want to take more classes in religious studies. We will see what the future holds for me. Maybe one day I will be the graduate at the “Grad’s Tales” event.”

“The presentation given in the Anderson Room of the Ferg was very insightful to how religious studies assists you in studying in the different majors here at UA. The Grad student speaking triple majored and triple minored in fields including criminal justice and Hebrew studies. Her passion for Religious Studies was evident when she talked about her past reading books on it, as well as taking the skills the courses [in religious studies] has taught her and applying it to criminology…I even learned that some Religious Studies majors even go on to Law School and Med School, which I never would have thought you could do. Overall, the presentation was insightful as to how Religious Studies assists in other fields.”

“She also mentioned how unlike any other program at the University, the professors in religious studies are supportive like a family, and that is how she made it through her 24 credit semesters and multiple majors. Her advice and experiences were really inspiring to me because she worked so hard to get where she is at now, and is using her education to succeed in life”

“Lexi is a great and smart woman. She tripled majored in REL, Criminal Justice, and International Studies. She was very kind to answer each of the audience’s questions. For me, I am an international student from China, Religious studies is very hard and I was worried whether I could do well. But now after going to the event I feel more confident. Because I trust myself and I will study hard and do a wonderful job in REL just like Ms. Lexi.”

“I hope one day to read some things that the speaker publishes. Also, I found the conversation between professors to be very thought provoking and interesting. I would be very interested in hearing any of them speak on the topics discussed during the event.”

“I was very interested in the responses the speaker had for the question I asked, regarding the relation between religious studies and the field of math and science in general. One response was that in international settings, where an engineer may find himself employed, understanding the delicate social and cultural customs of different religious groups helps one’s ability to communicate.”

Stay tuned for an announcement about our next Grad Tales event later this semester!

On the Value of the Humanities and Religious Studies

Henking Pic.fw

Susan Henking is President of Shimer College, an unconventional great books college in Chicago, Illinois. She got there by going to college as a first generation college goer, majoring in Religion and in Sociology at Duke University and then pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in Religion and Psychological Studies. While there, she fell in love with undergraduate liberal education. Her scholarly work includes co-editing two books, Que(e)rying Religion (1997) and Mourning Religion (2008) as well as many articles and chapters in the fields of religion and the social sciences, and LGBTQ matters as they intersect with religious studies.  Susan was founding editor of the Teaching Religious Studies series of the American Academy of Religion and served on the AAR Board for 9 years. She taught religious studies, women’s studies and related matters for several decades and lives in Chicago and Geneva NY with her partner, Betty Bayer.  

Some time ago, I was in a beautiful office high up above the streets of Chicago, looking out over Lake Michigan with a man who once led one of the most powerful energy companies in the world. He was, I discovered, a history major in college – and no, he who was not “born” to the silver spoon.

Clearly, a humanities major could be highly successful.  Indeed, in his view, that humanities major – that history major – was something he used every day and not just since retirement. Continue reading

Any Questions?

dwightSeveral REL classes this semester off by asking their students to pose one question about religion or its study that they’d like answered.

As you might guess, our faculty got quite an array of questions — from some that were focused on the possible links between violence and religion to queries about the origins and function of religion, and even some specific questions about why some women cover their faces in Islam, the place of cows in Hinduism, whether atheism is a religion, and the origins of Shinto in Japan.

Prof. Loewen even made us a word cloud for the questions.

Picture 6So if you had just one question about religion in general, any religion in particular, or even about how to study religion in a public university, then what would it be? Pose it in the comments and we’ll try to answer it.

Thanks, Religious Studies

Culture on the Edge Blog Photo

By Lexi Poston

Lexi Poston graduated from UA in 2015 with a triple major in International Studies, Religious Studies, and Criminal Justice and a triple minor in Italian, Judaic Studies, and the Blount Minor. She is currently a graduate student in UA’s Criminal Justice Department where her research interests include prejudice, hate groups, hate crimes, human trafficking, genocide, and how perpetrators of such crimes are prosecuted.

“Are you going to seminary?”

At one point during undergrad, religious studies majors have probably been asked this infamous question by an inquiring relative: I know I was. My family could never really understand how religious studies would correlate with my other degrees in international studies and criminal justice. Compounding this problem, I was also minoring in Judaic Studies which included several classes on prejudice, interfaith relations, and genocide (which sparked my current research interests). While it may not have seemed relevant to outsiders as an undergraduate, there are many skills that I acquired during my time in the Department of Religious Studies that I now use in my Criminal Justice graduate program. The abilities you gain from a humanities degree are therefore invaluable despite the fact that they are often overlooked by relatives expecting young college graduates to focus on “practical” job competencies.

Critical thinking is defined as the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment, a skill that many lack. In Criminal Justice, students now have to take the information they have learned during and after our Introduction to Criminal Justice class to further our knowledge; we then evaluate and apply it to real world situations in order to provide swift and fair justice. It is not uncommon for emotions to run high in the criminal justice system, particularly with shocking and emotionally trying cases. Many become so wrapped up in the case they form biased opinions regarding a crime, making it difficult to approach it from the objective angle required of us, as unbiased opinions are something that criminologists and other persons involved in the criminal justice system just cannot do without. We have to look at the broader picture and the nitty gritty details and try and find just how they fit together, much like a puzzle. In this way, the critical thinking skills gained in programs like religious studies are crucial in effectively doing our jobs.

I have been told that I have a gift with writing and I’ve earned many writing awards between elementary school and high school. I also feel confident enough in my writing because of the writing skills that I had from my high school’s International Baccalaureate program. However, as a college student, I learned pretty quickly that there were many areas of writing that I still needed to improve. I was surprised to discover that writing involves more than regurgitating information found in sources. Religious Studies (partnered with Alabama’s Blount Program) taught me how to critically evaluate sources, formulate an argument, and then make that argument through analysis. The ability to form a coherent and logical argument in my writing is something that I have used quite often with criminal justice, something I’ve seen my peers struggle with greatly. In fact, many have decided to not write a thesis because they believe that it will be some daunting task; however, the prospect of a thesis does not trouble me, no matter how close it is looming.

With the end of my first semester of graduate school, I have only thing to say: Thanks Religious Studies!

Revolutionary Love?

revolutionaryloveA colleague at another school sent me the email that recently went out to all program unit chairs for the American Academy of Religion (AAR), our field’s largest professional association. Because the president sets a theme for the upcoming year’s annual meeting, our incoming president has written the following text to explain her choice of theme for 2016 — one that all program units are then invited to focus on, to whatever extent, in their own calls for papers. Continue reading

The Tremendous Irony of it All

vpelectionLast week there was some chatter online about the nominations put forward for the leadership of our field’s main professional association. (Question: why does the nominating committee exercise a monopoly on determining the organization’s leadership?) Apart from a variety of posts on Facebook and Twitter, the blogs I saw were those by Mike Altman, Aaron Hughes, Finbarr Curtis, and Elesha Coffman.

They’re all well worth reading.

The issue, for some, seems to be that the VP nominees are both Christian theologians of a particular stripe (maybe also their gender and race are relevant to some — just what criteria does this nominating committee even use?), leaving little difference between them and thus making a bit of a mockery out of the thought of choosing one over the other.

Sure, Coke and Pepsi are different in some regards, but…

Continue reading