Grad Student Interns with Alabama Heritage Magazine

As part of the MA in Religion in Culture at UA, students attend a monthly colloquium designed to introduce them to community members seeking graduates with strong critical thinking skills. During these meetings, the Department of Religious Studies brings in individuals from within and outside of the University to share their experiences in the job market. Their presentations often focus on the ways that the tools each MA student is cultivating in their humanities courses can be useful outside of traditional academia.

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Real People, on the Ground

Implicit Religion

Dr. David Robertson is Co-Editor of the journal Implicit Religion and co-editor and founding editor of The Religious Studies Project.

If, like me, you use the kind of critical approach that Russell McCutcheon was talking about in his recent post, focusing on processes of designation, then you’ll sooner or later be told by a colleague that you waste time endlessly arguing about definitions. Often this is followed up by the claim that they “don’t do theory.” I’ve even had people exasperatedly tell me that none of what I do matters to real people, on the ground.

Of course, you can’t not do theory – but you can be conscious of it, or not. As Rush said, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” You’ve chosen the implicit folk category, inherited from colonialism and Protestantism – that religion is a special thing, set apart and unique, beliefs about ‘big questions’, of inherent value to people.

(As an aside, it’s interesting how many of those arguing that we can find religion in overlooked places present this as intrinsically a good thing. For those who focus on identifying new forms of spirituality, or religion in new places, the churches may be in decline, but the Nones/SBNRs still have values, beliefs, rituals… We saw the same thing in the early days of the study of religion where Protestant theologians strove to establish a grounding for Christianity outside of the Church and apart from the mythology of the Bible. Their arguments that religion is all about how people themselves relate to the spiritual, it’s just those elitist priests corrupting things, is exactly what most material or lived or implicit religion scholars are arguing.)

There is nothing new about this split in the field between those who see our field as analyzing social processes and those who see it as about being better humans, as Leonardo Ambasciano’s recent book demonstrates most clearly. Although we tend to think of this as a split between Religious Studies and Theology, perhaps, as Russell McCutcheon recently tweeted, this is better framed as a split between those who approach religion as a social science and those using a humanities approach:

But what is certainly true is that the critical/discursive/attributional study of religion needs to better articulate the utility of the approach, in contexts beyond academic debates on method and theory. The fact is that what gets counted as religion in specific contexts is perhaps the most impactful question we can ask as social scientists. Far from being merely discourse-about-discourse in some Ivory Tower, the critical approach shows what the category is actually doing in the real world – both to those whom it constrains, and those for whom it is useful.

The Religious Studies Project has been making resources for the classroom that do this since 2012, and the University of Alabama and The Open University are showing what the post-World Religions department might look like. But we could do more.

Screenshot of the front-page of the Religious Studies Project website.Confession time: when I took over as editor of Implicit Religion with Jack Laughlin, I had no interest in implicit religion as a theoretical framework. Rather, my interest was, and is, in what assumptions are implicit when someone identifies something as religious – be that in the media, the law, healthcare, academia, or whatever. While the excellent journal Method & Theory in the Study of Religion focuses programmatically on this approach, I want Implicit Religion to complement this with articles and themed issues on how these processes play out in the world, especially on the ragged edges of the category.

Implicit ReligionYou know… real people, on the ground. For example, when whether having a Christmas Tree was a civil or religious duty became a serious public issue in Denmark. Or when a judge ruled that nationalism was “religion-like”, so a man kept his job — but other times, allows us to take religion off the table when it would mean that it was implicated in violence or bigotry. Tying state ceremonies to religious institutions makes it harder to challenge either of them. Classifying “mindfulness” as secular means that it can better serve neoliberalism.

And these are just a few examples. I’m sure you can think of any more — and we’re looking for submissions

A Social-Psychological Theory of Religion

So…, just why are people religious?

It’s not a question everyone asks, since many scholars today are more concerned with what it means (often to the participants themselves) to be religious. But there are those in the academy today who, like those who helped to establish the study of religion in the late 19th century, are interested in explaining the historical (even evolutionary) cause of religion or its contemporary function. Often, though, they are found outside Religious Studies, in other academic fields, like sociology or anthropology.

If we define religion as belief in a supernatural being, as many do, and aim to answer questions of cause or function, then here’s an almost hour-long podcast from last summer, posted at NPR’s Hidden Brain, on the work of Azim Shariff, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia.


If the embed doesn’t load, try here.

Learn more at the MOOC (massively open online course) he co-designed.

Making Our Theories Explicit

Nyx (/nɪks/;[1] Greek: Νύξ, Nyks, “Night”;[2] Latin: Nox) is the Greek goddess (or personification) of the night

So opens a Wikipedia article that caught my eye the other day, because of the theory of religion buried in it. For by means of a misleadingly simple parenthetical aside, one that hearkens back to a much earlier approach to understanding religion, the writer tells us a great deal about their thoughts on why people tell tales of the gods. Continue reading

Symposium Recap

Last week, the Department of Religious Studies hosted its annual Undergraduate Research Symposium at Gorgas Library. Students from Religious Studies courses collaborated with advisors on written projects before presenting their work at the event. The unique topics, challenging question-answer portion, and free coffee made for a refreshing Friday morning. Professors, alumni, MA students, and undergraduates used social media to keep up with the event.

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Spotlighting Graduating MA Students

Emma Gibson and Sierra Lawson have spent the last two years developing their skills in research, social theory, and the public and digital humanities among other useful accomplishments. This spring, both students will graduate with a Master’s of Arts in Religion in Culture and plan to put their analytical tools to work as they further their education. Emma will pursue a Master’s of Architecture while Sierra earns a Ph.D. in Religious Studies. Find out what these young women have planned after graduation.

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Spotlighting REL Graduating Seniors

The Department of Religious Studies will have a variety of students graduating in May after earning a Bachelor of Arts as majors in the Department of Religious Studies. Over the last four years, each senior has learned and applied social theory through various research projects, independent studies, and a number of unique REL courses. Taking classes like Religions of the World, Theories of Myth, and Religious Existentialism, students were able to shape a unique study of religion that best fit their personal interests. From Medical School to Museum Studies, the Class of 2019 has diverse plans for the application of their undergraduate studies in the Department. Several of these students are spotlighted below.

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It’s Worth Taking A Closer Look

The 2019 call for papers has just come out from NAASR — the North American Association for the Study of Religion — asking for respondents to invited papers that will each address one of four aspects of the field in which we do our work (a format the meetings have used for the past 5 years); the association also announced its upcoming workshops for grad students, all of which will take place at its November annual meeting in San Diego. As someone who has been involved with NAASR my entire professional life, either as a member, a co-editor of its journal, or, on a couple past occasions, playing a role on its executive — in fact, my first time attending the combined American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature meeting, in San Francisco back in 1992, was also my first time attending a NAASR meeting — I admit that I’m quite proud of the work carried out by the organization and its members. So I find it pretty frustrating when stories get back to me — as they have on many occasions, long ago and very recently — about someone asking a person attending a NAASR session what it’s like.

Or, to be a little more specific, asking them how they can tolerate being around all those guys — you know, the guys who do theory. Continue reading

Whose Evangelicalism is in Ruins?

Inside of Old Sheldon Church ruins

The American Academy of Religion, the national scholarly association for religious studies in America, just sent out its program of plenary addresses for its upcoming annual meeting this November. The abstract for David Gushee’s Presidential Address caught my eye.

There are a number of things to say about this. First of all, I told ya’ll this would happen during the nomination process three years ago. Looking closely at the abstract, the phrase “will perform ‘religion in public’ in a confessional vein” jumps out at me right away. The theme of the annual meeting, chosen by Gushee as president, is “religion in public” and this sentence shows the versatility of that phrase. The phrase “religion in public” usually connotes the area where scholars investigate how things called “religion” show up in the public sphere. Or sometimes, especially within the AAR and it’s mission to “enhance the public understanding of religion,” religion in public means that scholars share their knowledge about things called religion with the public. But this is neither of those. Gushee will be performing religion in public. He will be bringing the thing called religion into the public. But what public? A room full (or maybe not full) of scholars in a massive conference center who paid the exorbitant registration fees of the AAR? That’s not exactly Times Square or a CNN studio.

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