“Violence is Never the Answer”

Screen shot of CNN broadcast in the wake of nation-wide protests following George Floyd's death at the hands of police.

If you were watching CNN midday today then you might have heard LZ Granderson‘s interview, commenting on several days of nation-wide protests in the US that have resulted from yet another African American man dying at the hands of the police — this time a man named George Floyd, in Minneapolis. What Granderson said caught my ear, for it’s just the sort of thing that I’d hope that the students trained in our Department would not just understand but be able to use in understanding the moment in which we now find ourselves. Continue reading

Stranger than Fiction: On “Superheroes” and “Essential Workers”

Cartoon featuring medical personnel dressed as superheroes

Martin Lund is senior lecturer in religion at Malmö University in Sweden. He is currently working on a co-authored book about the “supervillain” Magneto and a single-authored book about the “superhero” and theory.

For many of us, the world seems a pretty strange place right now. What we consider “normal” has been upset and we’re having to make adjustments. People are reacting in different ways, some enthusiastically embracing self-quarantine and others grousing that they can’t go about their business as they like. It’s probably pretty safe to say that whatever else, many of us are getting a bit squirrely in our houses and apartments.

For some people, however, there is no choice in the matter: some of us are encouraged to work at home as much as possible – for us in the university this generally means pivoting to online teaching and sharing bad jokes about Zoom, but others are considered “essential workers” (or some variation thereof) and have to keep going to work. “Essential workers” are classified by the Pan-American Health Organization (somewhat circularly) as “the personnel needed to maintain essential services”; “essential services” in turn are “the services and functions that are absolutely necessary, even during a pandemic” and include “executive governance, healthcare, fire and police protection, provision of clean water and basic sanitation, infrastructure and utilities maintenance, and food provision.” Continue reading

“The Personal Faith of Each Individual”

Recently, my friend, Jack Llewellyn, sent me the following email, with some very useful observations on just how widely used the rhetorical of personal faith has been.

With his permission, I copy it below:

Continuing to research Partition, I ran into a quote — speaking as the President of the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on 11 August 1947, in what was really his inaugural address to the new nation, Mohammed Ali Jinnah said (among other things):

“Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State”

On one level, this seems a strange ideal, since the very raison d’etre of Pakistan was that Muslims would suffer as a minority in a Hindu-dominated India. However, it is clear in the context of the speech that Jinnah was thinking of the fate of the Hindu and Sikh minorities in Pakistan and of the Muslim minority that was left in India, even subsequent to the establishment of Pakistan.

Soon after Partition, the governments of Pakistan and India came to accept that there would be an exchange of populations in Punjab, with almost Hindus and Sikhs fleeing to India and almost all Muslims to Pakistan. But the government of Pakistan tried to reassure Hindus elsewhere in the new nation that they were welcome to stay—they were some of the most important and wealthy business people and the economic effect of their departure was dreaded. Also there was no way that Pakistan could have fed and housed, much less rehabilitated, the millions of Muslims in India outside of Punjab, should they all have pulled up stakes and moved to Pakistan. So there is a clear strategic logic in arguing that in the new nation being Hindu or Muslim should be confined to “the personal faith of each individual.”

Continue reading

A Social Redescription of Belief

The statement “I believe in…” is sensible only when there are others who do not; it is an agonistic affirmation…. Thus a statement of belief is a convention appropriate to a specific situation, sanctioned by a history and a community. As Wittgenstein notes, “the expression of belief … is just a sentence; — and the sentence has sense only as a member of a system of language; as one expression in a calculus.

Donald Lopez, “Belief” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies (1998: 33-34)

Should we follow Lopez, then statements of belief are no longer understood as signs of private and prior dispositions but, instead, as evidence of a public dispute over ways of acting and organizing in the world; this suggests that people don’t have beliefs in isolation from one another — meaning that we are not just taught them, as some might conclude, but far more than this: that our different practices prompt us to engage in this talk, as a way of registering our resistance to some while signaling our affinity for others. If so, then rather than studying beliefs, scholars should instead examine situated belief claims, seeing them as the residue not of internal states but of ongoing social contests.

“A confidential informant is not a spy…”

The title of this post is a quotation from US Senator Lindsey Graham, during a recent radio interview — find more details here, in a recent Washington Post report, along with a transcript of that portion of his interview. It concerns the President characterizing someone who is now much in the news as being a “spy” planted in his campaign by the FBI. That others understand this person as an informant — someone who, of their own volition, apparently decided authorities needed to know something he himself knew — is one among many current examples in US politics where it ought to be profoundly obvious that, yes, classification matters. Continue reading

Faculty Reading Group: Transitions

On page 117, in the essay entitled “Historicism, History, and the Figurative Imagination,” we read the following:

But if my hypothesis is correct, there can be no such thing as a non-relativistic representation of historical reality, inasmuch as every account of the past is mediated by the language-mode in which the historian casts his original description of the historical field prior to any analysis, explanation, or interpretation he may offer of it.

We read this classic Hayden White piece (originally published in History and Theory, Vol. 14/4 Beiheft 14: Essays on Historicism [1975]: 48-67) in a faculty reading group in our Department last Friday, that met for the first time, during lunch. I’ve not read the essay for years; yes, I first went looking for what I’d previously underlined in my copy of the book but the above sentence jumped out at me for the first time (to be honest, it was only when a colleague quoted it during our discussion, which made me flip through some pages looking for it). For, as I later elaborated, in agreement with another colleague who detected some curious ambiguity in White’s essay, this sentence nicely captures his place as a transitional figure.

For at least with some of us who have been influenced by his work, reading that sentence now seems to be just a little unsatisfactory since it reads as oddly conservative, and thus not nearly as radical as it likely read forty years ago. Continue reading

A Strategic Political Tool

townhallDid you watch the town hall meeting the other night, the second of this season’s Presidential debates?

Because scholars of religion are trained in the study of how rhetorics of privacy are used by social actors, I think we might have more to say about what’s going on than we at first realize. Continue reading

“But as a businessman, there are things you do for business…”

Picture 5If you’re interested in how people use rhetoric or how they divide and classify social space in order to make a more persuasive image of the world that’s conducive to their interests, then give a listen to this interview that aired yesterday morning. (Or click here if the player doesn’t load properly.) Continue reading