The REL Journal Group: Health or Perceived Health Benefits

The following exchange between Prof. Russell McCutcheon and Sierra Lawson, a graduate student in our MA program, reflects on the recent meeting of REL’s monthly journal reading group, part of our Religion in Culture MA.

Russell: Sierra, in your undergrad here at UA you did a double major in Anthropology and Religious Studies, and I know that you have an interest in medical anthropology. So presumably that helped direct your choice of this article for our journal group (written by our UA colleague, Jason DeCaro, a faculty member here in the Department of Anthropology) and one of their recent doctoral grads, Becky Read-Wahidi)? Continue reading

Problems in the Big Tent

Photo of old curcus tent with two peaksOn social media yesterday a variety of people posted a link to a recent First Things blog post by a theology professor at Nortre Dame who made the argument that religions other than Christianity do not have theologies.

For although “[n]on-Christian piety is real and profound,” or so she claims, she defines the term theology in such a way, taking into account it’s so-called pre-modern usage, as to exclude anyone but Christians from having it. She writes:

Non-Christian piety is touching, because it does innocently and naively touch on the reality of God. The piety of pagans is like the love of virginal girls, who have yet to kiss the Bridegroom and yet fervently desire Him.

Her conclusion? Continue reading

The REL Journal Group: Durkheim and Data Edition

The following exchange between Prof. Mike Altman and Sarah Griswold, a student in our MA program, reflects on the recent meeting of the journal reading group, part of our Religion in Culture MA.

Mike Altman: Sarah, for our first journal reading group you chose the article “Durkheim with Data: The Databse of Religious History” from a recent issue of JAAR. What’s the gist of the article and why did you think we should read it in our group of MA students and faculty?

Sarah Griswold: The article is basically an introduction (and justification) for the Database of Religious History. This database is meant to serve two purposes: to be a database for “religious groups” in the premodern world and to provide evidence for a theory of religious evolution. In effect, the database tries to play both fields of holding and providing both quantitative and qualitative data. The article mostly reads as an attempt to draw more scholars in in order to add data to the database.

As far as why I thought we should read it, there were a few reasons. First, as someone with a background in both the humanities and math, I think understanding how and why qualitative data is quantified is really important to understanding and critiquing the purpose and use of databases like this one. Second, as the humanities (and particularly religious studies) moves more and more towards digital projects, we need to be aware of what’s out there so we can emulate what is done well and improve on what is lacking. Finally, the article also offers us insight into the theoretical workings of the project itself. Although titled “Durkheim with Data,” it seemed as though the creators of this project have not critically considered or defined the very categories they have opted to work within, making the move from qualitative to quantitative data suspect. That, I think, can be quite telling of the ultimate success or failure of a project of this size.

MA: As a student in this new MA program that has an emphasis on digital and public humanities what can you learn from this article and what can we as a program learn?

SG: Personally, this article reinforced the importance of thinking through the categories you use when quantifying data. It can be easy to point to something you “know” is religion and label it as such without thinking about why you’ve decided on that label in the first place. It’s also interesting to think about the collaboration across disciplines that these projects require. It would be impossible for one or two scholars to gain all the skills needed to make these things even work. It turns out that group projects exist in real life too and not just in school.

As a program, I think the biggest take away is to pay attention to the developments of these projects. Because the DRH has a capacity to refine their methods, I don’t think they should be entirely dismissed as uncritical. There are positive and negative take aways from critically examining any digital project. Learning more about digital projects and examining their goals and functions can and will tell us a lot about how to move forward in our own individual and collaborative projects.

Attention Budding Religious Studies Scholars

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    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. Continue reading

The Problem with the Primacy of Primary Sources

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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

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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. Continue reading

On the Value of the Humanities and Religious Studies

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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.