Who Believes in Conspiracy Theories?

 

Billboard stating "Birds Aren't Real"

As a scholar in religious studies, my interest was piqued when a recent “The Daily” episode from the New York Times discussed community formation in Birds Aren’t Real, a movement / conspiracy theory that claims the government has replaced birds with drones to conduct widespread surveillance. The analysis of people who connect with others through Birds Aren’t Real had similarities to the ways that we discuss religions. Of course, connecting conspiracy theories and religion is not unique to me, as David Robertson highlights various connections in his research on UFOs and other conspiracy theories (listen to Religious Studies Project podcasts “Conspiracy Theories, Public Rhetoric, and Power” and “UFOs, Conspiracy Theories … and Religion?” for more, or read his book UFOs, Conspiracy Theories and the New Age: Millennial Conspiracism).

One potential difference from existing work on conspiracy theories and religion, however, is that Birds Aren’t Real is a parody of conspiracy theories. With the New York Times, the founder Peter McIndoe, who typically presents himself as someone desperately spreading awareness of the conspiracy, broke character to discuss the dynamics of his experiences in the satirical movement. Of course, he also has asserted that the media twists his words and disrespects the movement, returning thus to his role as founder of a conspiracy theory. Continue reading

Power and Perfect Pictures

This post is part of a series that originated out of a photo essay assignment in Dr. Simmons’s Interim “Religion and Pop Culture” course that asked students to apply discussion themes to everyday objects or experiences.

When I was younger and more naive, I thought the future would have flying cars, cured diseases, and immortal people. Today popular culture more often utilizes trends of a dystopian future, such as the ones in The Hunger Games and Divergent. In these stories, there is great injustice and suffering, and the hero of the story must rise against the system. These plotlines occur where good ideas and intentions cross with futuristic technology and end up with unintended consequences. The shift in view of the future from a place we all want to live to a place only the damned are left to endure reflects the situations of the storytellers. Asking in a post for The Week why TV is “awash in afterlives, hells, and purgatories,” Lili Loofbourow states, “I’m trying not to read too much into this historical moment, but it’s hard to avoid speculating about the ways in which this proliferation of TV shows about people embracing the irrational reflects the national mood.” I think this shift in fiction, as Loofbourow implies, goes hand in hand with people’s everyday lives. Stories about the future are really stories about the present—about the people telling them.

Continue reading

Everybody Loves a Throwback!

A rugby game where the offense is passing the ball backwards.

Summer is here, and it’s time for a little rest, relaxation, and #RELResearch. And while we won’t be posting too much new content here on the blog, be on the look out each Tuesday and Thursday for some blasts from the past. We’ll be featuring some of your favorite throwback posts on social media, so be sure to follow us on Facebook (@RELatUA), Twitter (@StudyReligion), and Instagram (@StudyReligion).

 

Dr. Richard Newton is Coming to Tuscaloosa

The Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama is extremely pleased to announce that Dr. Richard Newton will be joining our faculty to begin the 2018-19 academic year.

Richard is currently Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, and received his Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate University in 2009.

His research explores how people create “scriptures” and their links to identity formation and the maintenance of cultural boundaries. His current project uses Alex Haley’s Roots as an example of these dynamics — processes that have critical implications for the study of race and religion in the United States.

“A strong commitment to excellent teaching, thought-provoking research, and public-facing scholarship have long made Alabama the program to watch in the field. I’m excited to contribute to the study of religion in culture from Manly Hall,” Newton commented.

Richard will contribute a wide variety of courses to the Department — classes that exemplify the application of social theory to sites from across the study of religion — and his entrepreneurial work using digital/social media, in both his scholarship and teaching, will enhance our own emphasis on these areas, at both the B.A. and M.A. levels.

Grist for the Millstone

I recall a conference, quite some years ago, where, as part of a panel discussion, I was once called “a vulgar Smithian”; it was a criticism that responded to my interest in the category “religion” itself, thus linking me to Jonathan Z.’s often-cited (and, these days, often-criticized) claim from the opening to his 1982 essay collection, Imagining Religion:

… while there is a staggering amount of data, phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religion — there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no existence apart from the academy.

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

Whose Loss is it Anyway?

Rebekka King is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Middle Tennessee State University. Her research focuses on the negotiation of boundaries within North American Christianity. She teaches course on Method and Theory, Anthropology of Religion, and Contemporary Christianity.

2016 was the year of the loser. The more you lost, the better you were, especially if you shared it on Facebook.

“I have all of David Bowie’s albums in vinyl. I’m going to post a picture of my collection.”

“I have friends in the UK. Brexit is everything that is wrong with the world. We won’t make the same mistake in America!”

“Leonard Cohen is dead and everyone is posting ‘Hallelujah’ but I’m going to post ‘Democracy.’ See what I did there? I’m not only expressing my grief, I’m also making a political statement.”

“I can’t believe I have to spend Thanksgiving with my Republican uncle, I’m going to ask my friends if we can do Friendsgiving instead.”

Continue reading

Another Annus Horribilis

As the year comes to a close, and while we await the usual roll call of those famous people who died during the past year, I find it curious how 2016 seems to stand out for so many as being a particularly bad year — hence the #Dear2016 hastag. Continue reading

The End is Here and Brings Big Things

relephanttextcitedThe semester is complete, and our seniors have walked across that stage. All semester I have had the privilege of working with the Capstone Senior Seminar, applying questions and ideas from our work to a broad range of topics and presenting them through various social media, from Twitter to Tumblr. Their final Digital Projects are now published, so you should take a look at the range of their creative approaches to expressing the significance of critical questions to many topics, from war to food to Yik Yak. Continue reading