Study Religion: The Podcast Episode 2 “Turkey Ritual”

In this episode we think about the ways we categorize things as religion. The show begins with the ritual life of turkeys and what that tells us about the category “religion.” Then a few REL majors show us how the category “sacrifice” is all around us. Finally, host Michael Altman talks with Dr. Megan Goodwin (@mpgphd) about the new CNN show Believer and how religious studies can find a broader public audience.


Show notes:

Turkey ritual

Hubert and Mauss on sacrifice

Kathryn McClymond on sacrifice

Edward B. Tylor and William Robertson Smith on sacrifice

Believer on CNN


Profs. Altman and Goodwin’s twitter conversation about Believer

Megan Goodwin’s excellent new article

“The Craziest Thing I’ve Ever Seen”

Over on social media the other day, I came across the following tweet, posted at NPR’s site.

My comment, used above as this post’s opening pic, wasn’t completely sarcastic. Continue reading

Pagan Rites in Space

Yes, cosmonauts apparently all pee on the back right tire of the bus that carries them to the launch pad, before they take off.

At least the guys do; but the ladies are said to bring a vial of urine to pour on the tire.

It’s a ritual. Continue reading

Readying the Ground for Us

I’ve got some plants in my office that William Doty gave me back in 2001.

Peace lilies.

I was thinking about that yesterday, during a memorial service for William (who passed away on January 2, 2017, at the age of 77), at which people said some kind words and told a few stories — some of which were about his passion for cooking and, yes, gardening.

When I moved into my new office, here in historic Manly Hall (once belonging to the late-Leon Weinberger), just a few doors down from the office William occupied for many years, he gave me some plants to spruce up the place. Continue reading

New Media (and) Ritual

Travis Cooper is a PhD candidate in anthropology and religious studies at Indiana University. His research interests include method and theory in the study of religion, discourse analysis, social media, critical ethnography, digital anthropologyand social theory. He’s currently dissertating on the boundary maintenance strategies of emerging evangelical communities after the New Media turn.

I recently read and re-read Connor Wood’s post, “Social Media is Toxic. Religious Studies Tells Us Why,” and found my initially troubled impressions confirmed. Wood’s account of social media, by my reading, is fourfold. According to Wood, (1) The Internet is largely free of filters, barriers, or standards for etiquette. The second argument gives rise to the first: (2) The Internet is absent rituals. Wood suggests that (3) unfiltered, toxic communications online are leading toward societal chaos. Lastly, the blogger uses the discussion of the Internet’s ritual lack to (4) argue for the necessity of the interdisciplinary field of religious studies.

I’d like to commend the author for plugging for both of my own disciplines of training—anthropology and religious studies—as well as for contributing a short and provocative think piece that makes some bold claims and ultimately fueling productive conversations on the study of new media. Although I emphatically endorse Wood’s fourth point, that social science-informed religious studies has the tools to theorize such changes, theses one through three are less than compelling. What follows is a bit of rationale on why the claims are problematic. Continue reading

Why Do They Touch the Phallus? Or, Diverging Theories of Ritual

One night during my fieldwork among Brazilian migrant communities in Japan, I was invited to a dinner at Daniel’s apartment. He and his girlfriend frequented a local Brazilian evangelical church that I was studying. After the dinner, they started talking about the “strange festival” in Komaki, a city one-hour drive away from where they lived. The festival took place the previous week (on March 15 2014) and they came across its footage online. The Hōnen Festival at Tagata Shrine is best known for its 280 kg (620 pound), 2.5 meter (96 inch)-long wooden phallus, which is carried around on the streets during the celebration. The object is supposedly the embodiment of prosperity, bountiful harvest, and fertility. The youtube video above can give you some idea of what Daniel and Sachi saw.

“Nossa (Wow)! These women flock to the phallus and try real hard to touch it! They think they can get pregnant that way!” They exclaimed in a critical tone. Laughing hard at the whole comicalness of this festival, I responded, “Ah, c’mon, it’s just fun, that’s why most people try to touch it! Do you really think these Japanese women believe in it?”

Yes!” They answered.

Continue reading

Messing Up at Starbucks, or the Ritual Order of Choice


I’m a regular customer at Starbucks. Several times a week, I walk into one, order a drink, wait for it, say thank you, and walk out. I’m sure many of you do the same thing pretty often, if not every day, without even thinking about it.

But I once failed miserably at this banal procedure. It was my first year in the US and I had just arrived from Japan, so many things were still new to me. But Starbucks was definitely not new. I had spent so many hours there studying as an undergraduate student in Japan that it felt like my habitat, even though I was now in Boston. I walked into one store and everything looked familiar – the menu, employees’ uniform, and interior.

“What would you like, ma’am?” It was my turn to order. “Café misto, please?” I answered (or something of the sort). Then the employee – a nice young woman – said something that I had never heard before: “holetoopercetskimhaffanhafforsoy.”

OK, that’s how it sounded to my unprepared ears, but she was in reality asking me: “whole, 2%, skim, half&half, or soy.” After some back-and-forth, I figured out that she was asking me to choose what kind of milk I wanted them to use to make my drink – a choice I had never been given or heard of in Japan. By this point, the nice young lady who was dealing with me was visibly frustrated. She probably thought I was having a hard time understanding English. Instead, I was having a hard time trying to understand why on earth choosing the kind of milk matters at all. I was having a hard time because they had violated the ritual I thought I knew so well – and in that ritual, milk was a non-question. Anyway, I eventually said what I honestly thought:

“Um, can you just pick one for me? I honestly don’t care what kind of milk it is.”

And the young woman looked at me as if I were an alien. Now it seemed I had violated her ritual as well. In that ritual, I imagine, no matter how little you care about the thing, you still pick something. It’s on you. The choice is on you. I don’t remember what happened next. All I remember is my thought as I walked out of the place: It’s just milk!

But of course it’s not just about milk (although if you think that way, great!). It’s about how many of our daily little rituals are predicated on tacit assumptions about how the world functions, which in turn reflect cultural, ideological, and political orders that shape our lives. In forsaking the small right – and in fact the obligation – to choose (but never outside of the neat options they created and bind us to), I think I violated one of the most cherished ideals in the US, which is the myth of personal choice. By “myth,” I don’t mean a fake story but a shared narrative that becomes so valuable to a group of people that an alternative reality becomes difficult to conceive. You think I’m stretching it too far? Here, listen to Barry Schwartz, professor of social theory and author of The Paradox of Choice“In terms of fetishizing the idea of choice, the U.S. is the absolute pinnacle… We want to be able to choose everything that matters, as well as the things that don’t.”

Have you ever said “um, skim milk, please,” when you actually didn’t care that much about the choice? Well, independent of your internal state (i.e. even if you actually didn’t care), you performed a little ritual there, which in turn reinforced what sociologist Erving Goffman called the “ritual order” – the social hierarchy, structure, and ideology that we constantly and often unconsciously reaffirm by daily interaction rituals.


From consumerism to politics to romance, the idea of choice plays a powerful role in how people navigate the social terrains in this country. You choose the right product/candidate/partner because it/he/she is for you! In reality, most of the products you are interested in may be coming from the same region in China. In reality, no matter how much “freedom of choice” there may be, people tend to marry within their own class/ethnic/racial groups. But the idea and ideal of choice remain an important driving force in US culture, and you can see people exercise it in many rituals, big and small. Think of election day. And think of the type of milk you pick at Starbucks.

You think I’m wrong? Next time you are asked to choose – kinds of dressing, cheese, milk, anything – say, “I actually don’t care. Can you pick one for me?” Trust me, you don’t want to be looked at like you are an alien after a while. And you are being an alien, because you apparently don’t know the ritual.

Making Identity by Expelling the Other in Their Midst

Picture 4

A Facebook friend just posted the above — while it’s a good idea (think about it: those so-called walks of shame [or walks of resistance and triumph?] that protestors are forced to do at his rallies…, they serve a purpose, no?), I think he’s already done enough analysis to explain it.

And if you don’t know what he’s talking about, then here’s something that took place at a rally in Kentucky from just a couple days ago.