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The ‘secular’, the ‘religious’, and the ‘refugee’ in Germany

Ever since the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015, the ‘refugee’ in Germany has been constructed in a variety of ways that are implicated in specific co-constitutive notions of the ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ that exert symbolic power by naturalizing certain notions of the religious and thereby the secular while excluding others and feeding back into the subject formation (or subjectivation) of people classified as ‘refugees’. In this process certain positions are produced as hegemonic while others are classified as not acceptable (e.g., “radical”, “not European” or “anti-humanist”). This in turn feeds into the on-going institutionalization of Islam in Germany. In this podcast, Chris speaks with Carmen Becker on this important topic, drawing upon her critically engaged ongoing fieldwork among Syrian forced migrants in the city of Hannover and an analysis of political measures, research designs and media productions that are part of the apparatus producing the ‘refugee’.

This interview was recorded at the European Association for the Study of Religions’ 2018 conference on Multiple Religious Identities in Bern, Switzerland. It also make specific reference to the documentary series “Marhaba – Ankommen in Deutschland” – particularly the episode “Liebe und Sex”.

 

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


The ‘secular’, the ‘religious’ and the ‘refugee’ in Germany

Podcast with Carmen Becker (22 October 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Becker_-__The_Secular,_The_Religious,_and_The_Refugee_in_Germany_1.1

 

Christopher Cotter (CC): We are recording this interview on what I believe is the International Day of the Refugee. And I’m joined in Bern, at the European Association for the Study of Religions Conference, by Carmen Becker. And we are going to be talking about the role of religion and secularity in the construction of the category of the refugee, and the sort-of mutual co-constructing natures of those discourses, with particular reference to Germany. Carmen is based at the Leibnitz University at Hannover. And she’s done a lot of work on various historical constructions of Salafism. And we’re going to be talking about her current project today. So first off – welcome to the Religious Studies Project, Carmen!

Carmen Becker (CB): Thank you.

CC: So I’ve just seen your presentation on the panel, there. This is 7o’clock in the evening which is quite late a conference, particularly when we had . . .

CB: The Network dance the day before! (Laughs).

CC: Exactly! They did not plan this well! But I’ve just seen your paper and it was excellent. And I’m hoping what we can do is have a sort of conversational version of that paper. So, first of all, if you can set the scene? Because people might be listening to this five years from now, ten years from now – who knows? So, what’s happening? There’s that phrase the “refugee crisis”, the “migrant crisis” and things like that. Can you maybe just set the scene? In fact you started your paper with a couple of anecdotes . . .

CB: That’s true, yes. We’re all aware of the term “refugee crisis”. Since the summer of 2015, roughly, was when the high amounts of asylum seekers came to Germany and Austria – Europe in general. We still remember the scenes from television and so on of huge masses of people at the border between Hungary and Germany, trying to get into Germany. So there is a sort of imaginary behind it all. In 2015, I was still living in the Netherlands and, there, not so many people from Syria and Afghanistan and Iraq came to the Netherlands. Most of them went to Germany and to Sweden, actually. And when I travelled from the Netherlands to Hannover – this anecdote of the train stain station, famously – I was welcomed at Hannover train station by a Syrian man with a red rose, and a board saying “Thank you”. And I really couldn’t make sense of it. So I started talking to him and he explained that he wanted to thank the German people, as he put it, for welcoming the refugees in and for letting them cross the border from Hungary to Germany. And they really appreciated it and that was why they gave the rose. And I thought that was really intriguing, in a way. And then later, after I had moved to Hanover, a few weeks later, I saw that there was a Wikipedia entry dedicated to the European Refugee crisis. The title of the entry was European Refugee Crisis. And Wikipedia for me is sort of an instance that, when something gets an entry there it’s established fact. It’s a truth, right? This is a reference point. It’s also interesting, then, to see how the truth is established on the editorial pages. But that’s another thing. And this entry: European refugee crisis, which later turned into a European Migrant Crisis – you could also look why they used refugee in the beginning and migrant later on, but that’s another story again – has been translated into 60 different languages, which is a lot I think. There are also substantial entries, not just a few words on it. But there are full texts on there. So something that actually . . . This is an image, the refugee crisis, that has travelled widely then, in several languages – also Arabic, Persian, Turkish and so on.

CC: And so you use the term, “discursive event”.

CB: Yes. Because, I mean, how does something become recognised as an event, right? It has to be termed; images have to be established; it has to be understood as something disruptive, something out of the ordinary, something that is breaking into normality. And if we would have looked at the development before the so-called refugee crisis, it wouldn’t have been so surprising. The camps in the region in Lebanon and Jordan they were just running out of money – camps provided by the United Nations Food Programme. They were issuing calls for donations. They were saying “If we don’t get donations, we have to cut the amount we can give to those in our camps half. And the full amount is what they need to survive.” So if you cut this in half, this is a crisis, in the sense that it’s existential. (5:00) And this was known already by the end of 2014, beginning of 2015. And what do people do if they cannot survive? They move on. They run out of money, they don’t get anything, so they look elsewhere. So that was expectable. But it still came as a surprise, as a wave, right? So it’s interesting see how people perceive things and what they do not perceive – also in the media. In between the World Food Programme from the United Nations was calling for donations. But there was no connection, no further thinking about it. Also from the politicians – at least, done in public.

CC: So we’re going to get to the religion thing, of course, because we’re on the Religious Studies Project. But you’re going to try really hard here, because you’re not going to have your diagrams!

CB: Dammit! (Laughs).

CC: But you’ve got some theories for us to set the scene. So Foucault . . .

CB: Yes. So I like Foucault a lot when you think about how truth is established, in general. And I think in Religious Studies it’s not surprising when someone uses discourse theory, to theorise something. What is not so common is to use the “dispositive” as a concept. It’s something you find in Foucault’s later work, right. And it’s something he has never really fleshed out – like many things he hasn’t fleshed out! (Laughs). And this is something that is now really discussed amongst journals of sociologists. I mean the dispositive as a concept: how do you do research with it? So, just in parallel, just like the discourse term was taken from Foucault and then fleshed out into different varying programmes of research, and research styles, and so forth the same is happening now and has been happening for roughly ten years in Germany, with reference to the dispositive. Yes. What is the dispositive?

CC: (Laughs).

CB: I always use the French language to make it clear. I was talking about three connotations of the dispositive – or three semantic fields that the dispositive brings us to. For example: first of all there’s the dispositive as a sort of mechanism or sort of apparatus – that also reminds us of Gramsci, for example – that means that different elements in the system are put together and they function together. They link together so that they function as a machine, as an apparatus, as a mechanism – an alarm system I use as an example. You put different technical devices, manual knowledge about how to switch it on and off. So all different elements are put together then they are linked to each other so that the whole system can function. This is the baseline of what a dispositive is. And in, for example, in the French language they use the term “dispositif d’alarme” for alarm system. So you have the word dispositive.

CC: Is it the system itself, or is it the connections that make the system?

CB: It is the connections that make the system. And this is typical for Foucault, right? Also in discourse, it’s not that much the content of the discourse but the rules that establish the discourse. And that’s the same idea here. So how come these elements are ordered together to form the dispositive? What links them logically or illogically? So that’s very important to look at the net that is established, between these elements. But of course we have to somehow identify these elements first, in order to see how they are connected and what functions they have in the dispositive. And then the second understanding: the dispositive is thought of as a strategic intervention. So it’s a production that strategically intervenes into society, and responds to an emergency case. And this, I think, fits really nicely when you think of the refugee crisis, right? It’s a crisis – we have to intervene. And also Germans were mobilised to volunteer, to donate. The State was busy building shelters, coming up with new administrative regulations, even now it’s still going on. So there is a sort of pressing need to act, right? We have to do something. And again, this sort of strategic intervention is something that we can also see again in French language when I talk about the “dispositifs de lutter contre le chomage”. So, all the means and the measures taken in order to fight unemployment for example. This was the dispositive event in the French language. And then on the third level – and this is similar to a discourse – that the dispositive establishes the current truth, the valid truth at the moment in time, right. Of course this can change, but at the point we are living it defines the truth just like discourse do. (10:00) What can we say about a refugee? What is a refugee? Who is a refugee? How do you talk about refugees? How are they? What do we project into them? This is established also in the dispositive. Which is quite similar to discourse research – right? – to flesh out how the objects . . . how discourses objectivate.

CC: Excellent. And so, I know we’re going to get to a wonderful example and I’m going to try and bring in some multi-media in.

CB: Oh yes! (Laughs).

CC: So there’s a reason that you’ve chosen that as your example. So how are we utilising this notion of the dispositive in your research?

CB: That’s a big question, when you’re doing research. I’m also an ethnographer so I like to look at the micro-level, the local level. But as a trained political scientist I’m also looking at power, right? So I want to connect these levels. And then the question is, how does power work on a micro-level actually? And I mean, you could look at discourse. I would say what most of us do in discursive studies in religion, we look at the meso and macro-level of how religion is established as an object and so forth. But we don’t look so much down on a local level, how it trickles down, how it shapes behaviour and practices, how people incorporate it in their lives. And this is where it becomes effective, actually. So what I look at is not so much at the . . . what Foucault usually did. He looked at how science or expert talk established knowledge.

CC: Law and that kind of thing.

CB: But I look at the intermediate level. I use the term from Jurgen Lingen, a scholar of literature. I use the term inter-discourse. These are discourses that try to break down expert discourses into everyday life. For example, talk shows. They get an expert to talk about things that somehow keep society busy, they are pressing social questions, and they try to solve them to propose solutions and to make it intelligible for people in everyday life. And this is the example I uses in the presentation today. There’s one show that was produced by a German TV news outlet. And by the end of 2015 had started and the production went on until the beginning of 2016. The programme is called Marhaba Ankommen in Deutschland which means basically, “Hello, welcome to Germany”. And it’s a programme with roughly 18 episodes. And each episode has about 5 minutes. And the aim of the show is to explain Germany to the refugees, basically.

CC: Let’s hear a little bit from that show:

[Music followed by Arabic language]

CC: So what’s going on here?

CB: Well, he’s basically saying, in Arabic, that personal freedom is very important in Germany. They have personal choices and among this is that you can choose whatever sexual orientation you would like and that everybody has to respect it. It portrays this as how things are done in Germany, basically.

CC: Fantastic. So . . . and this is fairly typical of the programme?

CB: This is very typical, yes. One part always establishes what he thinks is typical of Germany and what he thinks refugees – so-called refugees – need to know, because they don’t know them yet. He insinuates, “I tell you now, because you probably don’t know, but you need to know that when you come here.” So that means: those coming from Syria, from Afghanistan, they don’t know anything about choice, freedom and so forth, because their societies are oppressed. This is the insinuation. And then there are some episodes, some sections in the episodes where he talks with the expert. Why they are experts we don’t know. But he talks with them on a deeper . . . . Sometimes they are psychologists. There was also a lawyer in one episode. And some episodes we don’t get to know what their occupation is. We just get to know the name. So it’s interesting. He doesn’t feel a need to explain why he’s talking to this specific person over this specific topic. (15:00)

CC: Excellent. So what we have here is sort of a national discourse, in some way, on the refugee being channelled through this individual, this television programme. And directly speaking to people who are coming in.

CB: Yes. He’s addressing them directly – also, linguistically. He’s saying [in Arabic,] “You”: “You will have to this, and this, and then everything will work fine.” Right? And the load, or the burden is put on the refugees because they now know how they have to behave. “So please behave like this and then we don’t have any problem!” It’s a crash course in, I don’t know, in integration.

CC: Yes. I mean, God forbid that the host society would have to change as well!

CB: Well, the interesting thing is that it tells us a lot about how we imagine ourselves as Germans, right? When he talks about “the Germans” there is no ambiguity. There’s no contradiction. It’s all clear, basically. It’s easy to decipher, right? “We support sexual freedom, do this and this.” But this is really not the case. This is a discourse we are having about ourselves. We imagine ourselves.

CC: I’m just going to interrupt your flow a little bit to . . . Do we know, are refugees actually watching these? Have you found that out in your fieldwork? Have people encountered them? And how are they encountering them?

CB: Well, if you look at YouTube you’ll see that refugees comment in Arabic on the show. I haven’t analysed those yet, but I have found them. And it’s interesting material, I think, looking at the comments. And also during my fieldwork. I did fieldwork in a church where a group of six refugees had asked for asylum. It’s called “church asylum” in Germany – sanctuary. They were under threat of deportation to Bulgaria. So they had passed . . . while fleeing Syria they had passed through Bulgaria and got registered there with their fingerprints. And, arriving in Germany, they were not eligible for applying for asylum here because they had been registered in the EU, in Bulgaria, elsewhere. So they would have been sent back. So, their last chance to stay in Germany was to go into a church asking for church asylum. Because then, the police officers don’t enforce the deportation. They don’t go into the premises of the church. It’s like a tolerated agreement between the church and the state, basically. It’s not a law. It’s not written in law somewhere. It’s an agreement. It’s also the Church then that takes over the asylum procedure. They provide lawyers to the refugees. They interact with the State authorities. So that’s the construct of it. So, in the neighbourhood where I lived in Hannover, I heard that there were six refugees in a Protestant church there who had asked for church asylum. They had been granted church asylum and I thought, “Oh that’s a good opportunity to go there!” Because I also studied Arabic in Syria, so I know Syrian Arabic. And I know Syria quite well from all my travels there. So I also felt it would be good to be there. So I became also sort-of an intermediary between the volunteers of the church in the neighbourhood – a volunteer group formed in order to support them – and the Syrians who were in the church at the time. They were not allowed to leave the premises. As soon as you step out of the premises and you are caught by a police officer, you are gone. The church cannot protect you anymore. The power of the church ends there.

CC: Yes, that’s really like going into a national embassy in that.

CB: Yes.

CC: So you, I’m sure, are going to have some examples that you weren’t able to give in your presentation from your ethnographic work. You also, then . . . you’ve been taking this discourse that’s being propounded particularly in . . .

CB: Oh yes, the programme, yes.

CC: And you set up, what was it called? “Chains of equivalence”?

CB: I encountered the programme, I got to know the programme while I was volunteering in church asylum – this was the story behind it. Because one of the men who were also volunteering in the church asylum, he was a retired German teacher and he taught German to the refugees, and he used the programme for his classes. And I know a few refugees who know it at least, and who have looked at it. And it was also given the Grimme-Preis which is like a prestigious German TV award, which just shows the standing of it. At least from the German side.

CC: Yes!

CB: Well, what I’ve done with the 18 episodes, I watched them several times, and I tried to see how they construct what you’ve been hinting at, chains of equivalence. (20:00) This is a term I got from Laclau. It means that you look, basically, how are different categories labels put on an equal footing, linked, with reference to a third category. So how was . . . You look for how A and B are equivalent, in reference to C.

CC: OK.

CB: And this is what I did with the episodes. And what became quite clear, right from the start, is that there are two main categories that are the reference categories for everything that’s constructed. There’s the German society and then there’s the society of the refugees. And since this is mainly about Germany, the German society plays the main role in the episode. And the refugee societies – they’re assumed to be Arabic, because they’re addressed to Arabic speakers. And they’re assumed to be Muslim. So this is what we get to know about this. There are some more markers where they explicitly characterise societies as sexually oppressed, violent. There are a few that the host, Constantin Schreiber, mentions a few times: violence against children and women in these societies and “this is not tolerated in Germany and is sanctioned by law”. Something the refugees need to know in case they want to engage in that! (Laughs).

CC: Yes.

CB: So this is what we get to know about refugees – the societies of the refuges. And then he uses all different terms and concepts in order to flesh out what German society is all about. And the main terms that really keep reoccurring on the German side is “secular”, and the “German constitution” – a kind of constitutional patriotism that’s going on there: a foundation of the German constitution that’s there and makes sure that we are secular, and democratic and so on. And then on the other side, the refugees’ society is contrasted to it. So we have the secularity here, we are secular here, they are Muslim- there is Islam. And this is explicitly done in statements and so on. So “secular/ Islam” is one contrast. And then you have the “constitution” and “Sharia” – although they’re really different concepts, totally different categories that cannot really compare, but he does it! So the viewer gets the impression that the Sharia is just a positive law put into law books, that you can look at and then you know what it is all about. But it’s not.

CC: Exactly.

CB: So then, in the rest, you can see how he fleshes out what secular is. And there it gets interesting, because most of us think it maybe comes up as something like, it’s a separation of state and religion or state institutions and religious institutions. He mentions this only once without going further into it. What he mentions all the time when he talks about secular democratic society is rights and freedom, individual rights and freedom. And there are two rights that he mentions in particular which is freedom of religion, and sexual rights. And this is I find very intriguing, that the secular is then boiled down to two freedom and rights discourses, but in particular a freedom of religion and sexual rights. This is how he constructs these equivalences, all geared toward “This is the German society”.

CC: Excellent. And so this is all very esoteric in the sense that we’re talking about what’s being said in programme. But how does this, how is it playing out on the ground as it were, in your experiences with your research participants?

CB: And this is really what interests me, right? How does the truth, which is established at the discursive level, then play out in everyday life? And interact? And how it’s shaped? Well I’m starting to sift through my data and I’ve seen a few things that come up on a regular basis. One thing is that the discourse of secular Germany is there to ensure that we have the freedom of choice, that we have a choice and that we can fulfil our desires, which I find really interesting . . . that there’s a task: that the aim of secularism is to do that. I see this in certain instances, for example. One example I used during my presentation was interaction between me and a woman from the volunteer group, I call her Anna (25:00). And she was thinking about engaging romantically with a Syrian – who was not part of the group in the church asylum, but she knew him from elsewhere. But she was taking me as an expert on Islam and wanted to know, and had questions about it. Because she said that this friend of hers said that if he ever wanted to have a girlfriend or to marry, this woman should be covered, wear a headscarf, just a normal headscarf. And at the beginning I didn’t understand the problem she had, because I thought, “OK, fine, so he’s saying this to you, you’re not in any relationship with him, so that should be fine.” But she really wanted him to step back from this – not to make this choice, right? She wanted to ensure that he would make a different, a better choice. And so she was asking me about anything from religious tradition that she could use to convince him that this is not “good” Islam that he is doing there. Anything she could use strategically, basically. Because she didn’t want to accept his choice. So, I mean, there is a discourse of choice. But some things are taken out of . . . There are somethings that you cannot choose, that are taken out of the range of options that you have, like covering. And this occurred really often. There were a lot of discussions about covering and headscarves and so on. For example, there were often discussions, people were discussing with one of the women . . . . There was one woman only in the group of the six Syrians who were asking for asylum in the church. She had never worn a headscarf in her life, neither in Syria nor in Germany. For her it was not a big deal, nothing special. But people kept asking her, “Why are you not wearing a headscarf here? For sure, it must be because you are in Germany right now, and you have the choice? Where as in Syria you didn’t have the choice.” And she just tried to make sure, against all the odds, “No I didn’t wear a headscarf in Syria either.” But people didn’t really want to believe this. And there was a man from the volunteer group – this was also one instance of engaging her in conversation on her headscarf and he was supportive of her choice, “Yes it’s a good choice you are making not wearing the headscarf, because how could you otherwise be phrased as participating in society and being yourself, if you were wearing a headscarf? How can you be a valid participant in society when you wear a headscarf and cover up? So, again, this is not a part of the secular choice, technically.

CC: Well, secularity allows “good” religion space . . .

CB: Yes. It’s never differentiated, but this is the idea behind it, right? So there is also the idea that the secular encompasses religion. And this is what people also phrase, right? “That we have here religion – it’s part of our makeup. It’s not a problem, because we still have the choice. Religion doesn’t have to interfere with it.”

CC: As long as it doesn’t interfere with liberal secular principals.

CB: As long as it doesn’t interfere with the sexual rights or the freedom to choose your faith or your lifestyle, or whatever. And what we see then, if you look at how it’s contrasted with Islam, it’s not that the secular and religious contrast, but that the secular and religion on one side is contrasted with Islam on the other side. So Islam is not yet in the realm of the secular and the religious. And this I find very intriguing. Maybe that’s particular to Germany. I’m not sure. I would have to look at other societies, how it’s spelt out there. But I find it very interesting that the religious is part of the make-up, obviously, of German secular society. It’s accepted. Islam, not yet. This is why Islam has to reform to change, which means giving way to all the choices. Making sure you can make the sexual choices you want to make, all the lifestyle choices and so on. But you must never take a choice that might be considered Islamic or Muslim. That’s the interesting thing, right? Being Muslim, in a stereotypical sense, is not part of the choice, right? Not there.

CC: Exactly, yes. Because when one makes a Protestant choice one doesn’t – we don’t talk about that.

CB: It’s also interesting, the episodes of the TV programme, when they symbolise religion visually, it’s not Protestantism. It’s totally neutered. It never talks about Protestantism, neither discursively nor when he’s talking, it isn’t mentioned visually. It’s not depicted visually. He talks about Catholicism, Judaism and Islam and that’s also what is portrayed visually. (30:00) Protestantism is not there. It’s the default position, right? It’s neutered.

CC: Harmless.

CB: Harmless, yes.

CC: OK. And I should just say we’ve had to have the windows open because it’s so warm in here, so I hope the Listeners are enjoying the slight birdsong that’s making its way in.

CB: (Laughs).

CC: Just to get towards wrapping up here. That’s been some excellent examples from your ethnographic work, and also tying it into the broader national discourse through the vehicle of this TV programme. But, I guess, if I were to force you to come up with some conclusions about the religious and the secular and the construction of refugees in Germany, where would you go?

CB: Yes. Well first of all, I have to mention I didn’t look for any notions of the secular and the religious at the beginning when I was doing research. It just came up to me, because people were using this terminology, right? From media polemical terms, basically, people identified . . . . So for me they’re not the critical categories I use. What I’ve seen – and this is an argument I’m putting up – is that in this dispositive of the refugee we have the notions of the secular and the religious that are constructed there, and are implemented into everyday life. But they’re normative of course, right? They’re not neutral. And they’re also inserted into interaction. And this is where it comes to shaping subjectivities, right? Because for example the Syrians at Church, they were constantly being confronted with a secular idea of being an individual – a secular conceptualisation of subjectivity. And they were more or less subtly asked to adapt to it, to internalise it. And I think this is very interesting when you look in terms of power effect. This is how power is inserted into life, into micro-politics, basically. Power is not something abstract that somehow defines discourses and is established in discourses, but it also trickles down into everyday life.

CC: Yes. The norms of conduct and the things that are censured. And all those unspoken rules, which actually, this programme is ending up speaking the unspoken rules in many ways.

CB: Yes. They’re fleshing it out for you so you can just take an easy lesson with you and know what you have to do. So this is where I’ve seen my fieldwork so far – this was my focus so far: how, through interactions with the Syrians, and the volunteers, and the specific setting, specific secular subjectivities are inserted into their Muslim subjectivities. They have to be Muslim in a secular-specific way – a secular-Protestant-specific way – in order to become part of German society, in order to be here. And what further interests me in my fieldwork – and this is what I will be doing in the coming months – is to see how the other side handles this. Basically, they are presented with subject positions. And they have to somehow deal with them, negotiate them. Either they try to resist consciously or just adapt a bit, internalise a bit, usually it’s much more ambiguous and not so clearly seen. But it’s interesting to see what they do with it. What I noticed in my fieldwork is that these six who I was seeing quite a lot – and I’m still in contact and see them around, like at bases – they’re insecure about how to behave, basically. Because they’re totally decentred right now. All these demands are put on to them and they don’t see what the difference is between them and what is demanded of them. They don’t seem to be properly adapted. And for them it’s very difficult to wrap their head around. Some of the men even ask me, “Carmen, when I’m working on the street, am I allowed to look women in the face? Is that indecent?” Especially after the events in Cologne, with the assaults on the women in New Year’s Eve. And the entire discourse that came out of the debate afterwards. They said, “If I see women, had I better cross the street to not be offensive?” So for some it’s really difficult – who are conscious of the sort- of, yes, antagonisms going on there – how to deal with it in their daily lives; how to behave properly; not to be seen as an outsider or as a predator, for example. (35:00)

CC: Exactly.

CB: So they have to find new scripts, basically, for how to behave properly. And this can be done by negotiating but also on a more subconscious level, I think. So I’m trying to get at this whole level of micro-politics.

CC: That’s fantastic. Well, we are out of time, so we are going to have to stop it there. But it’s excellent to hear of such rigorous empirical work being done with this sort of critical discourse/ analytical power angle. A lot of times empirical work . . .

CB: It lacks that.

CC: . . . lacks that, so it’s really good to hear. So thank you very much, Carmen Becker.

CB: Well, thank you for having me!


Citation Info: Becker, Carmen and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “’The ‘Secular’, the ‘Religious’ and the ‘Refugee’ in Germany”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 22 October 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 30 July 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-secular-the-religious-and-the-refugee-in-germany/

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Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: The Co-Dependency of Religion and the Secular

In our fifth editors’ pick, Marek Sullivan writes “Few questions are as meta-reflexive as the question ‘Is secularism a world religion?’ It’s now established that secularism and religion are co-constitutive terms: the history of the category ‘religion’ is inseparable from the history of secularisation. But what happens when secularism is rethought as a mode or sub-category of one of its core progenies, ‘world religion’? Donovan Schaefer brings his background in critical theory and material religions to bear on this mind-bending question, leading us through the history of the secularisation thesis, the idea of ‘world religions’, the Protestant genealogy of secularism, and the urgency of parsing the academic study of secularism into historically and culturally differentiated variants. Despite the broad sweep of the interview, I was left wanting more!”

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Continuing the ‘series’ is our new features co-editor, Marek Sullivan.

Few questions are as meta-reflexive as the question ‘Is secularism a world religion?’ It’s now established that secularism and religion are co-constitutive terms: the history of the category ‘religion’ is inseparable from the history of secularisation. But what happens when secularism is rethought as a mode or sub-category of one of its core progenies, ‘world religion’? Donovan Schaefer brings his background in critical theory and material religions to bear on this mind-bending question, leading us through the history of the secularisation thesis, the idea of ‘world religions’, the Protestant genealogy of secularism, and the urgency of parsing the academic study of secularism into historically and culturally differentiated variants. Despite the broad sweep of the interview, I was left wanting more!

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Pulp Fiction memorabilia, astronaut ice cream and more.

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: Critiquing the Axial Age

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Kicking off the ‘series’ is co-editor-in-chief, Chris Cotter.

It only took me a few seconds to decide to flag up Breann Fallon‘s interview with Jack Tsonis on “The “Axial Age”: Problematising Religious History in a Post-Colonial Setting.” Not only did I enjoy the very ‘meta’ nature of this interview – with two long-standing Cusackian RSP team members producing content independent of David and myself – but I also delight to this day in remembering Jack’s fiery and animated presentation on the same topic at IAHR 2015 in Erfurt. I don’t think I have ever seen a scholar ‘go off on one’ quite like he did… and it was brilliant. Would that more scholars were so passionate about their area of study, and so willing to pierce through the established (boring) norms of conference presentations.

In this important interview, Tsonis demonstrates how the term ‘Axial Age’ shares much in common with the notion of ‘World Religions’ in that both – to quote the subtitle to Tomoko Masuzawa‘s seminal work – preserve ‘European universalism […] in the language of pluralism’. Tsonis forcefully argues that many left-wing scholars fail to see the racist ideology encoded in the term, and that critical scholars have a duty to not only cast the terms ‘Axial Age’ and ‘World Religions’ on the scrapheap of history, but starve them of oxygen. This is a difficult argument for some to hear, but one I heartily encourage listeners to engage with and put into practice.

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, incense, lava lamps, and more.

 

Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Cliches

“Religions are belief systems”, “Religions are intrinsically violent”, “Religion is Bullshit”… these are just some of the pervasive cliches that we might hear from time to time in the English-speaking world about our central topic of discussion on the RSP, ‘religion’. In this podcast, Chris is joined by Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin, the editors of the recently published Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Cliches (Bloomsbury, 2017) to discuss these cliches, the ideological work that they do, how scholars could and should approach them, the construction of the book, and more.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for making this recording possible. The other cliches addressed in the book and/or covered in the podcast include:

* “Religion Makes People Moral”
* “Religion Concerns the Transcendent”
* “Religion is a Private Matter”
* “Religions are Mutually Exclusive”
* “I’m Spiritual but Not Religious”
* “Learning about Religion Leads to Tolerance”
* “Everyone has a Faith”

You can find a full list of contributors, and more about the book, on the publisher’s website: HERE.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Wu-Wear, previously enjoyed golf balls, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Clichés

Podcast with Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin (30 April 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Stoddard and Martin – Stereotyping Religion 1.1

Chris Cotter (CC): “Religions are belief systems.” “Religions are intrinsically violent.” “Religion is bullshit.” These are just some of the pervasive clichés that we might hear from time to time, in the English-speaking world, about our central topic of discussion on the RSP: religion. Joining me today to talk about a new book that’s coming out called Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin, neither of whom should be strangers to the Religious Studies Project. But, just to introduce them, Brad is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. He completed his dissertation at Florida State University and is currently revising his manuscript on Florida’s faith-based correctional institutions. He teaches American Religious History and the History of Christianity. And he’s primarily interested in religion and the law, religion in American prisons, and theory and method in the Study of Religion. And he’s currently serving as the president of our beneficent sponsors, the North American Association for the Study of Religion. And Craig Martin is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at St Thomas Aquinas College. And his research and teaching focuses on theoretical questions in the academic Study of Religion, typically related to discourse, ideology and power. And some of his books include, Masking Hegemony: A Genealogy of Liberalism, Religion and the Private Sphere; Capitalising Religion: Ideology and the Opiate of the Bourgeoisie; and A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion. And he is currently the editor of a book series with Bloomsbury, titled Critiquing Religion: Discourse, Culture and Power, in which this book, Stereotyping Religion, appears. So, Brad and Craig – welcome back to the Religious Studies Project!

Brad Stoddard (BS): Thank you.

Craig Martin (CM): Thanks so much.

CC: And I should say that we are conversing via the wonders of Skype. So maybe – just to set the scene here for me – if you want to tell me, how did this book come to be? Why did it come to be? What’s the point here?

CM: Brad, can I field that one to begin with?

BS: I think you should!

CM: (Laughs.) So, the initial idea for this book project came to me when I was working on my dissertation at Syracuse University. I was thinking about all the stereotypes about religion that my students came into the class with, and that I found frustrating to know how to deal with – and not just students, but also friends and family members who would repeat these clichés. And it was like, I couldn’t think of an obvious scholarly source to point them to, to say, “OK. In a nutshell, here’s why scholars try to avoid this cliché.” So, through conversations with my friends Donovan Schaefer and Jeremy Vecchi  . . . Schaefer’s now at – I’m going to get this wrong. He’s either at Penn State, or the University of Pennsylvania – I can’t remember which.

CC: (Laughs).

CM: But, I reached out to Donovan Schaefer and Jeremy Vecchi and I said, “You know, I think we could write this book really quickly and easily, because we already know what we want to say about each of these stereotypes.” And we produced three chapters, and I graduated and moved away, and the thing just kind-of languished and was never picked up and continued. So a couple of years ago I was like, “You know, that really was a good idea for a book. There should be something on clichés and stereotypes.” So I reached out to Brad and said, “Hey, are you interested in helping me edit this?” And he jumped on board, and then we ran with it.

CC: Wonderful. And it’s really great when that sort of thing happens, when you get to revisit an idea that you had – and no one else has stolen it! Yes.

CM: (Laughs). Yes. Well in ten years of it sitting, nobody else stole the idea. And I think that the stereotypes we chose are so pervasive that we didn’t have any difficulty getting people to sign up for the project. People were immediately, “Oh yes! That’s a great idea. Can I address this one?” Or, “Can I address that one?” So, yes we were pleased with how quickly it came together, and how great our submitting authors were.

CC: On that note . . . . So, you say you found it quite easy to come up with the list of clichés: did you present a ready-made list and then try and find contributors? Or did contributors come to you with clichés they particularly wanted to write about? And were there ones that you had wanted to include, that you couldn’t?

BS: As I recall, Craig and I . . . when Craig approached me with the project we sat down, you know, over the phone or email and went back and forth to create a list of about ten clichés that we agreed on. And then we started looking for people to write about the individual clichés. And in conversations with the individual authors at least one or maybe two of the clichés changed, because the author would say, “Well that’s good – can I approach it from this angle” And of course, when it made sense, we gave the individual authors the freedom to run with the cliché. But the bulk of it, I think, came from a few conversations where Craig and I just identified: these are the main clichés we see in society and politics. These are the main clichés we encounter in class. And so we had this list of clichés – and it just changed a little bit, but for the most part we ran with our list.

CC: Fantastic. I’ll ask you in a moment to take me through a few of them. But, in the introduction you set out the context for the book, but also the context in which the clichés are operating. So you talk about liberal political theory, idealised Protestantism, secularisation theory and so on. Maybe you could – just for the listeners – lay out the context that we’re talking about, in which these stereotypes are operating?

CM: I think a lot of that stuff in the intro was from me. Because when we were finishing edits to the various chapters, and I was reading through them and thinking about, you know – would my students be able to follow these or not? Because we wanted this to be accessible at an undergraduate level. I realised a common theme that went throughout a majority of the chapters were those three things that you mentioned: liberal political discourse that says religion is a private matter, the discourses on secularism and the discourses on New Atheism. These didn’t pop up in every single chapter, but in a majority of ones. So I was like, you know: we should give some background to the consistent themes that were going to pop up as the reader moves through the book.

CC: Yes.

CM: So that’s why I used those in particular: because I thought that they would help the readers understand the chapters.

BS: The only thing that I would add to that – I think you also mention in that section anti-Catholic propaganda, or anti-Catholic Protestant propaganda, about religion being a private matter. Or some of the other clichés: that they have a Protestant bias built into them. And, of course, the colonial context. Those are two other factors that we saw as common themes in the history of the general clichés.

CM: Yes, for sure. Exactly.

CC: Fantastic. So, I’m wary of asking you pull out favourites or anything, because we’ll not have time to get through every cliché. But perhaps you could take us through one or two of them, and just show us some of the analysis in action?

BS: Do you have any ones you want to pull out, Craig?

CM: I’ll wait till after you go.

CC: (Laughs). I like that.

BS: I have a soft spot for Steven Ramey’s piece. Steven Ramey writes about religions being mutually exclusive. And I think Steven’s was the first . . . . The reason I have a soft spot for it: I think it was the first one that came back to us; he was the first to submit it, that is. And I read it and I thought, “This is exactly how I want this book to look.” So, Steven Ramey addresses the cliché that religions are mutually exclusive. And so he introduces the chapter with I think the opening sentence, “What is your religion? Check one box.” And this is something that all undergraduates have seen in some version, right? What is your religion? They get it here. They have the option to check that box when they apply for admission. So I know they’ve at least seen it once, but probably many times before. So he introduces the cliché. In the introduction he talks about how this is not . . . this cliché that religions are mutually exclusive is not just academic navel-gazing, but that there are real political and legal implications. And he addressed some of the legal and political implications. And he continues . . . . In the chapter he talks about places where you encounter this cliché. Where do we see it? We see it in popular culture. We see it in politics. We see it in Law. Of course, he doesn’t mention this, but for example in the work I do in prisons: when you’re an inmate in America you check “Which religion are you?” You have to check one. And in Florida, where I did the bulk of my research, you can only change your religion once every six months. And it dictates where you can move about in the prison, which groups you can attend, which study groups, which religious services. Steven doesn’t address that part, but these are some of the examples. Steven mentions different types of examples like this. You know, this idea that religions are mutually exclusive: it does have political and legal implications. So then he moves in, and he talks about the development, the historical development of the cliché. Talking about, of course, the European context in which the cliché emerged. He talks about the colonial context. I believe he mentions the Protestant Reformation. He talks about places like India, where the distinction between Buddhism and Hinduism is not as rigid as we would imply. Or some other Asian countries where Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism or even Shinto – these alleged, so-called separate religions – the boundaries are just so much more malleable. So, long-story-short, by the time you read Steven’s chapter you get the history of the cliché, you get the political work that it does, and you realise the areas of the world where that cliché becomes quite problematic.

CC: Exactly. And it’s worth noting, here, that the book isn’t attempting to sort-of put something in the place of these clichés. Because the opposite example of religions being mutually exclusive, would be that, I guess, religions are all one and the same – which is another one that is dealt with in the book. You’re not so much asking these authors to say, “This is wrong, and this is right.” You’re rather pointing out that clichés, in and of themselves, never tell the full picture and are always doing ideological work.

BS: That’s true. We highlight that in the introduction, where we make a point of saying that we want to make it clear the work is not to replace these old clichés with new generalisations about religion, or better generalisations about religion. Instead, we’re suggesting to the students, or to the readers, that any cliché about religion or any generalising statement can similarly be interrogated, historicised, etc.

CC: Fantastic. So, Craig, you’ve had a long time to think, there, about which you’re going to pick out!

CM: Well, I decided I can’t pick one. I think – there are so many great chapters in here, in my opinion.

CC: You’ll never hear the end of it if you pick . . . you know, whoever you pick!

CM: Yes. (Laughs). Well, ok

BS: Delete my answer, then!

CM: I really enjoyed Tenzan‘s chapter on learning about how religion leads to tolerance – in part because he did a bunch of research into Ninian Smart’s work that I didn’t have a lot of prior familiarity with. So I actually learned a lot about Ninian Smart by reading his chapter. You know, Ninian Smart reproduces a stereotype that if you learn about religion, or if we teach about religion in public schools or in colleges, then people will be more tolerant and accepting and forgiving of one another. And one of the things that I felt was really important about the book was that I felt that we needed to address how theses stereotypes appear not only in popular culture, but also in scholarly literature. And Tenzan just did a fantastic job of showing, you know, how even a sophisticated scholar like Ninian Smart reproduces some pretty blatant stereotypes. But I really thought he nailed Ninian Smart – that’s probably why I liked it so much.

CC: Yes. When I was reading it I did highlight three or four pages to come back to, the next time I have to teach about Ninian Smart.

CM: I had a chance to teach him in my Intro to Religious Studies class. I taught this book last semester. And literally, the day . . . . So, this was a 9 o’clock in the morning class, and we’d addressed Tenzan’s chapter that education about religion leads to tolerance. And then, literally a couple of hours later, one of my students who was in that class went to one of her other classes where they had a guest lecturer – who showed up to talk about how education about different religions leads to tolerance! So the student came back to me in office hours the next day and said, “You know, Professor, I was arguing with this presenter in my head, and I was pretty sure I won the argument, based on what we had learned in class earlier that day.”

CC: (Laughs).

CM: So it was fun to see . . . . You know, we addressed this cliché and then two hours later, literally, she encounters the cliché in the classroom. It’s fun!

CC: Fantastic. And we’ll talk, hopefully, before we finish about that experiment of using it in the classroom. But you’ve touched on, there, learning about religions leads to tolerance. That sounds like a quite a positive cliché. In one of the chapters, I think it was Matt Sheedy’s on religion being violent, he brought up Karen Armstrong, and others, insisting that proper religion is peaceful, and religion is a peaceful, nice thing. Is there a danger that by critiquing positive clichés we’re doing society a disservice? Or is there such a thing as a positive cliché?

CM: I want to answer this question pointing to what I think is an excellent book on phenomenology of religion, Tim Murphy‘s The Politics of Spirit. And in that book Murphy looks at the history of phenomenology, a lot of which puts a positive spin on religion: that religion is getting in touch with the transcendent; religion is a sort of happiness, etc. Phenomenology of religion tends to think positively about religion. But what Tim Murphy does is show that each one of those phenomenologists uses their rhetorical framework to rank religions and to denigrate some in relationship to others. So that someone like Rudolph Otto says, you know, religion is getting in touch with the transcendent, and that Christianity most beautifully gets us in touch with the transcendent. But, of course, Islam doesn’t do so well, and primitive religion is terrible at it. So I think that even the positive clichés . . . like Karen Armstrong – she also has a ranking system built into her framework. So that the things that she likes she can call authentic religion, and the things that she doesn’t like she can dismiss as inauthentic religion or political religion – or maybe, for her, political religion isn’t even religion. So perhaps it’s ok to bomb the ship in the Middle East, because they’re not good religious people, they’re bad religious people? So I think that even the positive clichés have the potential to be used in that kind of ranking system, where people can favour one and dismiss others. And that can often-times lead to what I consider to be negative effects.

CC: Absolutely. And, indeed, Leslie Dorrough Smith writes in the book about the idea of religion being about transcendence. And I pulled out this quote where she says that cliché can “simultaneously normalise the existence of the supernatural, identify an enemy, justify a political cause, amplify the seriousness of one’s position and unite a group of people under the banner of their own moral worth.” And that’s not even a complete list! So in that . . . . You hear, “Oh religion is just about the transcendent, the supernatural, the ineffable,” and it doesn’t sound harmful. But when you look at how it is deployed, it’s doing real ideological work. So let’s talk about the classroom setting, then. So, as I was saying earlier to you: this is certainly going to be a very useful resource when I’m coming to teaching – not only about Ninian Smart, but any time you casually mention these clichés – it’s going to be fantastic to just pick up the book and find a few examples. So I can see it being a really useful teaching resource, in that respect. But, Brad – you used it in the classroom, then. So how did that go down?

BS: Yes, I used this book in my Intro to Religious Studies class, where we start by reviewing the so-called canon of important or influential Religious Studies scholars, and then we supplement that with people who are omitted from the so-called canon. And then the benefit of that is that the students got a wide survey of theories about religions, approaches to religion, methods, methodologies, etc. And then we ended the semester by reading and discussing Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Clichés. And since it was the first time I taught from the book, I organised it as this: we’d meet three days a week, and I asked groups of students to present for a half hour. And so, you had two or three students each presenting a chapter. And they presented for about twenty minutes, and then we’d open up for Q and A for about ten minutes or so. And then I had some closing comments at the end of the class. And what I like about it is that it allowed me to see what the students took from the book, and what I thought they omitted. And it led to some really good discussions, because the students thought…or the students said, “Yes. Some of the clichés that we’ve identified, I embrace them.” Pretty much the entire class! And so to have someone call them out, and point out the history, and point out the problems with it – it did a lot of work in the class. It helped the students, because it overturned some things that they had just taken for granted. And actually, on the last day of class, we discussed the entire book. And the students tended to agree – obviously they knew that I was one of the editors, so they weren’t going to say too many harsh criticisms; they weren’t going to criticise it too much! But they thought that it was nice to end the semester by addressing these clichés, for the simple fact that it changed the way they were thinking, or that they had thought about religion, you know, for their young adult life.

CC: Fantastic.

BS: Not to over-romanticise it, right?!

CC: Oh, no.

BS: But they did find value in it.

CC: Excellent. I can totally see myself, the next time I’m marking a pile of essays . . . . And you see these clichés coming up all the time. One that’s not in the book is, you know: “Religion has been around since the beginning of time . . .” They’ll sort-of begin with that. But plenty of other ones come up. And I can imagine, immediately, just copying in a URL to the chapter on the library website, for any of these – rather than having to spend my own time deconstructing it! Just say, “Read that chapter, and then come back and write it again.”

BS: That’s a good one! Craig, take note: we should include that in the next edition, if there is one!

CC: Yes! (Laughs). Well, if there’s another one: “Religion is a choice” – you always hear that. People choose to believe, or choose to have a certain religion. So, yes, I’m already filling up the next volume! I guess an obvious question that would come up on the RSP quite often, is: why religion, here? Obviously this is our area of interest. We teach courses on this. But could you do a similar book for say stereotyping sport, or stereotyping gender, or, you know – is religion particularly problematic?

BS: Yes, you could. And I hope other people do!

CC: (Laughs).

BS: So, I have a little more of a substantive response to that question.

All: (Laugh).

BS: I think that, yes, obviously you could write such a book about any subject matter: stereotyping politics, stereotyping gender, stereotyping race. What I think sets Religious Studies apart is the fact that post-structuralism reached Religious Studies twenty years later than it hit all those other fields. And the popularisation of post-structuralist approaches is lagging. I don’t know, apart from Malory Nye‘s intro book, in Russell McCutcheon’s new book, I don’t know of any introductory material in Religious Studies that actually comes from a critical, poststructuralist perspective. And I’m pretty sure that people have been teaching poststructuralism to undergrads since the 80s. So it’s time that we went ahead, and picked up our slack, and tried to catch up by having some undergraduate literature to present. I mean it’s not like post-structuralism is brand new. It’s 50 years old, now! Our introductory textbooks still tend to ignore those types of critical approaches.

CC: Yes. So there are disciplinary reasons why such a book may not be written, necessarily, in other fields. And then also, like it or not, “religion” – this constructed political category – is something that has a lot of power in the modern Western world. To write a book called, I don’t know, “Stereotyping Golf”, or “Stereotyping Stamp Collecting”, whilst it might be interesting . . . . Unfortunately, stereotypes about stamp collecting probably aren’t quite as pervasive, or potentially harmful, as these clichés about “religion”. Every time I say “religion” it’s in scare quotes. But we all know that. We are coming up on about 25 minutes, here. So I’ll be wanting to wrap up, fairly soon. And I’m going to close the interview with Rebekka King‘s close to the book. But I just wondered if there’s anything more on this topic of prevalent stereotypes about religion that you would like to say, or that you’d hoped you were going to say?

CM: I think I would just want to say thanks to Donovan Schaefer and Jeremy Vecchi for working with me on this project in the ancient past, and thanks to Brad for joining the project when I decided to resurrect it. And also thanks to Lalle Pursglove at Bloomsbury publishing, for showing some interest in the idea and taking me up on the offer.

CC: Absolutely. And it’s brilliant to see the sort of critical religion approach applied in this sense, sort-of applied systematically to a variety of clichés that . . . . When I was reading it myself I was doing a lot of, “Well, yes. Yes, that makes sense.” But there were a lot of things that were thoughts that I’d had, but were never actually put down on paper. And lots of interesting examples, and plenty that I’d never thought of before. And I can see it being really useful, both for students and to point students to – and potentially to do the sort of thing that Brad did, sort-of structuring some teaching around it. So do check out the book, Listeners. It’s called Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Clichés, edited by Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin. It came out in paperback immediately, so it’s nice and . . . It’s not a typical academic book price, so you can get your hands on it quite easily, hopefully. And you can find the full list of all the stereotypes and clichés . . . we’ll put them on the page with this podcast. I just wanted to end with Rebekka King’s chapter on “Religion is bullshit”. And she begins by talking about how even the desire to correct the statement “religion is bullshit” is, in itself, bullshit. And she closes the book with the following words, which I thought would be a nice way to end the episode: “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether or not religion is bullshit. The term is an empty signifier. What matters is your ability to weigh evidence, locate sources and pay critical attention to both your scholarly process and product. You may find yourself mired in shit, but at least you’ll be in good company.” And I hope you’ve been in good company today. Thanks so much Craig and Brad.

CM: Thank you.

BS: Thanks so much for having us. We appreciate it.

Citation Info: Stoddard, Brad, Craig Martin and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Clichés”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 30 April 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 25 April 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/stereotyping-religion-critical-approaches-to-pervasive-clichés/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Sexual Ethics and Islam

feetAlongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there is perhaps no other issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of the downtrodden Muslim woman are often countered by the claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there is a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and “problematic” topic? What are some of the most prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for Religious Studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, Chris is joined this week by Professor Kecia Ali, of Boston University.

Check out a recent lecture by Kecia on sexual ethics and Islam here.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Tiger Balm, and more.


A transcription of this interview is available as a PDF, and has also been pasted below.


Sexual Ethics and Islam

Podcast with Kecia Ali (24 April 2017).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Chris Cotter (CC): Alongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there’s perhaps no issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions surrounding sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of down-trodden Muslim women are often countered by claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there’s a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and problematic topic? What are some of the prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for religious studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, I’m joined today by Kecia Ali, who is Professor of Religion at Boston University. Professor Ali is a scholar of religion, gender and ethics whose work focusses mostly on the Muslim tradition, with an emphasis on law and biography. She is currently Status Committee Director at the AAR and is a past president of the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics. Her publication list is impressive and features five monographs, including The Lives of Muhammed, Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam, and – most relevant to today’s interview – Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence, originally published in 2006, with an expanded revised edition published in 2016. So, Professor Ali, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Kecia Ali (KA): Thank you for having me.

CC: And thanks for joining us here in Edinburgh in the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for Study of Islam in the Contemporary World.

KA: That’s a mouthful isn’t it?

CC: It is a mouthful, but they’re graciously hosting us today. And we’ll be sure to shout out about your lecture that you’re doing this evening., when we publish this podcast. So first-off, Islam? Sexual ethics? Why are we even having this discussion?

KA: Yes, it’s sort of impossible not to be having the discussion, really. I think the challenge is to find ways to have it that are productive and don’t just inadvertently reinforce the power of certain dominant discourses by contesting them, if that’s the only thing we do. Look, the question of gendered roles and rights and obligations is one that has been present since – as near as we can tell – the first Muslim community, right? Scripture records specific questions about women’s and men’s respective roles, relationship to each other, relationship to religious obligations, relationship to God, etc. Certainly, accounts of the Prophet’s normative community are replete with gendered descriptions and contestations. Now, obviously, to what extent these reflect a 7th-century community and to what extent they reflect 8th/ 9th/10th-century reflections on that community and attempts to ascribe certain later, normative patterns onto that community, that’s a subject of debate among historians of Islam. But, for Muslims, pious Muslims, lay folk, scholars, these are the stories out of which accounts of virtuous ethical life are made. So Muslims certainly have been having internal conversations about gender norms since quite early on. Now, why are “we” having this conversation?

CC: Yes.

KA: Sexuality is always one of the things that comes up when someone wants to insult someone else, right? When one community, or members of a community are looking for a way to stigmatise, oppose, define “others”, sexuality is very frequently something that gets pressed into service. Whether that’s Protestants saying bad things about Catholics, Catholics saying bad things about Protestants, Protestants saying bad things about Catholics by likening them to Muslims, or the reverse , sexuality frequently comes into play. What we know, if we want to just in very broad terms talk about “The West and Islam” – and I object on principle to those categories, but I’m going to use them anyway as a kind of shorthand – we see, really, that in the Middle Ages and in the Early Modern era, it wasn’t Muslim oppression of women that was a problem for anybody, it was Muslim lustfulness and debauchery. And it’s really in the 19th-century, with the advent of European colonialism in Muslim majority societies – Egypt, for instance, and also India – that Muslim men’s oppressiveness towards women becomes part of a colonial discourse about civilisation, right? What’s very interesting is to look at the ways that the kinds of accusations levelled against Muslims have really changed over time. So not only from wantonness to oppression, but also you’ll find that today one of the things that tends to get said of Muslims is: “Oh, they’re so intolerant of homosexuality! They’re so repressive! Look how awful . . . !” Well, in the Early Modern era, and even into the 19th-century, the claim was, “They’re too tolerant of homosexuality!” They are attached to the practice of sodomy, “ Unlike us upright Brits,” usually, right? And, “Look how awful they are, compared to how moral we are,” which is basically the gist of all of this. And of course there are Muslims equally scandalised by Western women’s dress and the ways in which women and men outside their family interact.

CC: And that’s an important link there, then, when you mention the Muslim perspective. Because contemporary Muslims, whether we’re talking scholars or lay people going about their lives, are having to articulate their views against this dominant Western view.

KA: Yes, I mean, I think part of what’s particularly challenging for me as a scholar, and for media, for lay folk, for religious studies teachers in the classroom, is : how do we talk about this in way that actually recognises the great diversity of perspectives among Muslims? Because, you know, even that phrase, “the Muslim perspective” . . . it’s one that gets bandied about a lot, including by many Muslims. And, of course, part of what’s interesting to me as a scholar of religion, is: how are claims to representing the “authoritative Muslim perspective” being pressed? What are the sources being cited? What are the extra-textual authoritative norms being deployed? How much is it about where you got your degree from? How much is it abut whether you have a beard? How much is it about whether the media is calling you speak on their programmes? And how much is it about the content of your ideas?

CC: Yes. And that’s something that comes up in Aaron Hughes’ Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity

KA: Absolutely.

CC: We’ve had him on the podcast before and he talked about something completely different. We’re going to have to get him on again for that! But, yes, a very broad topic we’re talking about here: sexual ethics and Islam. How does one even go about studying that? I know that you had your own particular approach . . .

KA: So, the book Sexual Ethics and Islam really has its roots in two different things I was doing around the turn of the millennium. I did my doctoral dissertation at Duke University, about marriage and divorce in 8th -10th-century Sunni Muslim Jurisprudence. At the same time, 2001-2003, I was working part-time for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, which was directed by Bernadette Brooton and funded by the Ford Foundation. And so, for the dissertation, which I defended in 2002, I was really looking at about a dozen early Arabic legal texts. And for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project I was actually engaged in putting together a series of short essays for the site, aimed at lay folks – not necessarily Muslim – looking for a general orientation to the Muslim textual tradition. So, Qur’anic and prophetic tradition – to some extent exegesis, to some extent legal tradition – framing particular kinds of issues: issues around female dress, issues around marriage, around divorce, around slavery, around same-sex relationships, but framed in a kind of general way that would make them accessible. And I also wanted to begin to address the ways Muslims today were talking about those topics. Sexual Ethics and Islam really came together out of those two initiatives because, on the one hand, what I found when I was looking at the way contemporary Muslims were talking about these topics, is that they were often completely disconnected and, in fact, making claims that really contradicted, sometimes the positions, but far more often the logic and the assumptions of the early legal tradition. And I wanted to put those two things into conversation: put the 10th-century and the 21st-century into conversation. And I was very frustrated by the kind of “Islam liberated women” apologetic that a lot of Muslims were presenting. And I was equally frustrated with the sort of patriarchal, protective, protectionist . . . you know, “Well, of course, patriarchy done right is the only true Islamic tradition, that protects and respects women.” Which exists in a kind of funny tension with “No, no. The Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammed gave Muslim women all their rights and so there’s no need for patriarchy, because Islam is against patriarchy.” And none of these really grappling with, “What is it that’s there in the texts?”

CC: And that – when you mentioned the Prophet Muhammed – is perhaps an excellent way for us to leap right into some of that analysis. I know that the undergrads at New College, in Edinburgh, will be quite familiar with the chapter of the book that focuses on the Prophet’s relationship with his wife Aisha, so maybe we could use that as an example of these various competing discourses and how people use claims to authority to negotiate sexual ethics?

KA: Sure, so of course, for the pre-modern Muslim tradition, Aisha is an absolutely vital figure. She is the youngest of the Prophet’s wives, many say his favourite wife – certainly after Khadijah died, who was the wife of his younger years – and she’s a scholar,and she’s a contentious political figure and certainly, for the construction of Sunni identity, she becomes a flash point in those debates over loyalty, over succession, over precedence. And Chase Robinson – I’m going to paraphrase him now – says that Early Christians argued about Christology and early Muslims argued over how 7th-century Muslims’ behaviour should be remembered, right? So, later Muslims are trying to construct their own authentic narratives, their own strategies of power, by reference to these early Muslims. And so Aisha was absolutely central there. Which means that the ways in which she’s remembered ends up being very central. The texts that are giving people fits today really are texts about her marriage, in which she reports in the first person, in Hadith narratives – narratives of Prophetic tradition – that she was six or, in another version, seven when the prophet married her, and nine when the marriage was consummated. And there are other details sometimes given in these accounts. Now it’s useful to point out that this isn’t something that people were particularly worried about for a very long time. And its actually really unusual that any of his wives ages would be so important in texts about the marriage. But this is there in the Hadith compilations that we have from the 9th-century. And this is similar to the ages that are reported by early biographers, who maybe sometimes go as high as 10. But really, its quite a young age that’s reported in these texts. And generally, over the centuries, Muslim biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. Western biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. None of them took much notice, until we get to just about 1700, when Humphrey Prideaux, who was an Anglican clergyman, writes a very nasty biography of Muhammed as, actually, part of his ongoing debate with Unitarian Christians. And he says, “Oh isn’t this sort-of amazing there in Arabia, which is the same clime as India,” just like in all these other hot countries, the torrid zone, “how women mature so quickly”. And, for him, Aisha’s age of 6 and 8 is an indication of something that is sort-of exotic and erotic. What he’s worrying about, though, is that Muhammed is marrying her to make an allegiance with her father, which shows that he is making a power grab, in service of his fraudulent imposture. And basically, it only is really in the late 19th/early 20th-century that people start to, maybe, wonder about this a little bit . . . Western biographers. And by the late 20th-century it’s making lots of people uncomfortable, including some Muslims. So the Arabic translation of Washington Irving, for instance – who though this was all very romantic in the middle of the 19th-century – in the 1960s, when its being translated in Egypt, the translator adds a real note, right? And the original marriage has been demoted to a betrothal, and then the translator feels the need to sort-of explain this. But, by the time I’m writing Sexual Ethics and Islam, the context is different and there are two very serious competing strains. There’s a set of polemical accusations that Muhammed is a paedophile, which the Rev Jerry Vines has linked in an epithet as “Demon-possessed paedophile“. So he’s linking a very old accusation against Muhammed with a very new one: a sort of medicalised rhetoric of evil. And then you start to have Muslim apologetics around this question, which say several things. One is that, “Well, things were different back then”. And a version of that is what a number of secular, sympathetic Western academics have also said. And then, the other thing that you get is, “Well, these texts really aren’t reliable on this point.” And the thing that I point out in Sexual Ethics and Islam is: it’s completely fine if you want to make that argument, but then it’s a problem if you turn to those texts as absolutely true on everything else. The thing that was really striking for me, after writing Sexual Ethics and Islam and moving onto the project that became the Lives of Muhammed – which is an investigation of Biographical texts, specifically – is the ways in which, so often in early texts, numbers have a particular kind of symbolic function and resonance. And while I don’t know that six and seven, or nine and ten have the symbolic resonance that say forty does in the accounts of Khadijah’s age, it seems to me that there is plausibly . . . I don’t want to say probably, and I don’t think we can ever know with any kind of certainty these are factually accurate unless we’re simply willing to say, “These texts are all factually accurate and we accept that.” It seems to me, plausibly, there’s an argument to be made that the very low numbers given for her age are in service of praising her, actually; of presenting her as a particularly pure figure, which is very important given that her chastity was impugned during her lifetime, or at least according to texts.They represent this as something that was challenged. And so making her so young at marriage, emphasising her virginity, becomes a way of emphasising her sexual purity. The other thing, it seems to me, is that it’s possible that making her, say nine, when the marriage is consummated, after the Hijrah to Medina, is also a way of making her age low enough that she’s indisputably born to Muslim parents. So although virtually everybody in that first Muslim community would be a convert – according to pious narratives – by the time these Hadith texts are being compiled, having your parents already be Muslim, being born to Muslim parents is quite a status marker. It becomes important to have a genealogy of Muslim parents going further back.

CC: So, time is already running on here! In terms of positioning: you’re a woman, a Western academic, a feminist . . .

KA: And a Muslim

CC: And a Muslim, writing this book, discussing these topics, how was it received? My stereotypical brain is going, “This isn’t going to be that well received in some circles”. So how do you position yourself, in that respect?

KA: One of the more flattering things somebody once told me about the book, was that her graduate advisor – who was also a Muslim man – had suggested that she not read it, because it would be dangerous. And I thought, “Oh! I must have done something right!” (laughs) But, on the other hand, I think that my original intention for the book was not really to have it end up where it’s ended up, which is in the classroom mostly with students, many of whom are not Muslim. This was written, originally, very much as a book that was engaged in a kind of intra-Muslim conversation, to address some frustrations I had with the way intra-Muslim conversations over issues of sexual ethics, were going: I thought, in not particularly productive ways. However, I’m not writing it only as a Muslim feminist. I’m writing as a scholar of Religious Studies. And I know there are some people who don’t think you can or should do both of those things, but I have Religious Studies training. And one of the things that that training enables me to do is to look at the ways in which particular traditions are being constructed, in which particular claims to authority are being made in particular ways. So, for instance, the chapter on female genital cutting in the book is really an extended meditation on: what does the category Islamic, and what do claims to the category Islamic – or, more pertinently, “un-Islamic” – tell us? How useful are they? And where might things that are useful in particular kinds of activist campaigns really break down, if we’re trying to look at them historically, or from within Religious Studies, or from within the world of scholarship, at all?

CC: Yes. And I can remember the students being a little bit frustrated in the sense that so many different points of view were being considered – and not being necessarily condemned – and they were all . . . “Which is the right way?!” (laughs)

KA: I mean, look, answers are great. I have a lot fewer answers than I have questions. And, if anything, in the expanded edition of the book there are even more questions and even fewer answers! But, look, I don’t think we’re going to get better answers until we get better at asking the right questions.

CC: Exactly

KA: And the right questions are very often – and not just for Muslims, and not just about Muslim questions – what’s behind what we’re being told? What’s the evidence for this perspective? Where is this coming from? And how much credit do we want to give it as an accurate representation of something in the world?

CC: And that leads me into, sort of, where I was wanting to get to in the interview – and you’ve been a fantastic interviewee. Religious Studies: I can imagine that some will have maybe seen the title of this interview and thought, “Oh, that’s Area Studies, Islamic Studies. I don’t need to go there.” You know, everything that you’ve been saying, I think, has been illustrating why this is important for the broader study of religion, but I just, maybe, wondered if you wanted to reflect on that from your perspective . . . in multiple different camps.

KA: Yes. I mean, within the academic world of scholars who study Islam and Muslims, some come from Area Studies training: Middle East Studies, Near Eastern Studies, Islamic Studies. Some are really trained to philological work with old texts, and there’s a lot of good work that’s being done with those texts. And some are not trained to work with those texts and instead are very historical, very presentist, very ethnographic in ways that, I think, sometimes make it difficult to understand the resonance of the appeal to the textual tradition that many Muslims take. I’m very fortunate that the American Academy of Religion brings together, in the programme units that study Islam, quite a fabulous group of scholars who have expertise in training in a variety of different disciplines, but who are committed – at least some of the time in their professional engagement – to Religious Studies as a discipline, which is of course inter-disciplinary of necessity. And I think, given that so many questions about Islam are really pivotal to questions that Religious Studies as a discipline is wrestling with, about the rights and roles and responsibilities of insiders and outsiders, with the formation of the category of religion . . . . Look, it’s not an accident that Orientalist, Imperialist categories are very much at play here. I think it’s tremendously important that Islamic Studies be having conversations with folks in Religious Studies and vice versa, to the extent that you can even draw distinctions between them.

CC: And so, on the topic of conversations between different fields, your work’s taken a different turn of late?

KA: (laughs) Yes. A detour!

CC: Your latest book, Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in JD Robb’s Novels . . . What’s this got to do with Islam? (laughs)

KA: Well, at one level, nothing. And at the other level, I suppose, everything. I read these novels recreationally. It’s a series that’s been ongoing over 20 years, published by Nora Roberts, whose a premier American author of popular romance, under the pseudonym JD Robb. They are police procedurals, set in New York, circa 2060, and I read them. And I had things to say about them, and about the way that they deal with intimate relationships; about the way they deal with friendship; about the way they deal with work, especially women’s work; about the way they deal with violence, including police violence; about the way they deal with what it means to be a human being; about abilities and perfection and the idea of a post-human future. And I think that, to the extent that this book connects to my other work, it’s really around the questions of ethics: what it means to live a good, ethical, virtuous life in connection with other human beings in a given set of circumstances. I trained as a historian before I moved into Religious Studies. And one of the things that comes up again in this series – just like it comes up looking at 8th and 9th-century legal texts and biographies – is that understanding the present is sometimes best done from a distance. So looking comparatively at the past, looking at one possible imagined future, can give us a new perspective on the world we’re living in right now.

CC: Wonderful. And that, also, illustrates even more the importance of your work with Islamic texts, with contemporary Islam, sexual ethics. And it’s been fantastic that we’ve been having this conversation on International Women’s Day! So, I know this won’t be going out for another few months, but just to get that onto the recording from the Alwaleed Centre. And I think we’re going to have to draw that to a close there. It’s been fantastic speaking with you. And I wish you all the best with the lecture this evening, which, if the recording of the lecture goes ok, we’ll link to it from this page and everyone can see it and hear it, in all its glory!

KA: Thanks

CC: Thank you.


Citation Info: Ali, Kecia 2017. “Sexual Ethics and Islam”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 24 April 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 1 May 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/sexual-ethics-and-islam/

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Is Secularism a World Religion?

Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will know that we are not the biggest fans of the World Religions Paradigm. Indeed, it was James Cox’s excellent introduction to the topic back in February 2013, and the accompanying response that asked what Religious Studies should do “After the World Religions Paradigm…?” that prompted David and Chris, with some encouragement from Steve Sutcliffe, Russell McCutcheon and Craig Martin, to co-edit the volume “published in February 2016 with Routledge. Listeners will also be relatively familiar with the concept of “secularism”, “the secular” and so on – particularly from our podcasts with Joseph Blankholm on “Permutations of the Secular” and with Phil Zuckerman and John Shook on “Understanding the Secular“. Today we thought it would be an interesting exercise to weave these two strands together and rhetorically ask “Is Secularism a World Religion?” Discussion starts with the entanglement of the concepts ‘religion’ and ‘secularism’, a brief discussion of the problems associated with the World Religions Paradigm, and then moves to the pedagogical merits and challenges of teaching ‘secularism/s’ within a World Religions model. We hope you enjoy this experiment!


A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted below.


(pssst…check out these podcasts below too!)

Is Religion Special? A Critical Look at Religion, Wellbeing, and Prosociality with Luke Galen

Is religion ‘sui generis,? with Russell McCutcheon

Secular Humanism with Tom Flynn

The Secularisation Thesis with Linda Woodhead

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Podcast with Donovan Schaefer (28th November 2016)

Interviewed by Christopher R. Cotter

Transcribed by Catrin J. Sawford

Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/is-secularism-a-world-religion/

Christopher R. Cotter (CC): Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will know that we’re not the biggest fans of the “World religions” paradigm. Indeed, it was James Cox’s excellent introduction to the topic back in February 2013 and the accompanying response that asked what religious studies should do after the world religions paradigm that prompted David and I, with some encouragement from Steve Sutcliffe, Russell McCutcheon, and Craig Martin, to co-edit the volume ‘After World religions’, published in February 2016.  Listeners will also be relatively familiar with concepts of Secularism, the secular, and so on, particularly from podcasts with Joe Blankholm on Permutations of the Secular and with Phil Zuckerman and John Shook on Understanding the Secular.  Today we thought it would be an interesting exercise to weave these two strands together and rhetorically ask, ‘is Secularism a world religion?’ So I’m joined today to discuss this question by Donovan Schaefer at the British Association for the Study of Religion’s annual conference at the University of Wolverhampton. Dr Schaefer is departmental lecturer in science and religion, in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at Oxford University and his first book ‘Religious Affects, Animality, Evolution, and Power’ was published in November 2015 by Duke, and has current projects on the relationship between emotion, science, and Secularism. So Donovan, first off welcome to The Religious Studies Project.

Donovan Schaefer (DS): Thanks a lot Chris, thanks for having me.

(CC): It’s a pleasure. So first of all, in the spirit of rhetorically asking, why are we even asking this question? I mean, Secularism is surely as far removed from the category of world religions as we can get, I mean…why are you asking it?

(DS): Yeah, definitely. A lot of recent research has actually challenged that seemingly common-sensical argument that Secularism is the opposite of religion. This has come from a lot of different directions, historical analysis, cultural studies, even a lot of work in philosophy of religion has started to challenge this idea that there is a clear line between the secular and the religious.

(CC): Mm. And, because they’re so intertwined as concepts even if you were to accept they’re-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): opposites, you’ve always got the study…the opposites within…you know, you can’t know what religion is without studying it’s supposed opposite anyway.

(DS): Yeah, absolutely.

(CC): So, perhaps it would be best to start, I mean, we’ve covered the Secularisation Thesis and a lot of these topics in other podcasts but we should start with that, so let’s paint the context in which this question is being asked then.

(DS): Sure, so the Secularisation Thesis really gets off the ground in the 19th Century and it comes from a variety of different quarters in the sort of, early movements in sociology, some of the early conversations that are being asked in science and religion, late 20th Century, sorry, late 19th Century, philosophy of religion, all of these different conversations start to thematise this idea that religion is a specific thing in the world that is gradually going away.

(CC): Mmm.

(DS): Now, in the 20th century you have thinkers like Max Weber in sociology who formalise this, they make it, they make it even more of a kind of, article of social-scientific faith that religion is on a trajectory of decline. What happens though, is that, later in the 20th Century, you have these historical moments that start to challenge the Secularisation Thesis. So something like the rise of the religious right in the United States in the 1970s in reaction to things like the civil rights movement, or the (05:00) Roe V Wade Supreme Court ruling. The religious right by the mid to late 1970s has become an incredibly powerful force and of course in 1980 you have the election of Ronald Regan with a specifically Christian agenda backing him. Or even across the world, something like the Iranian revolution in 1978 to ’79 that creates a new Islamic Republic where previously there had been a secular state. Stuff like this, it’s just not supposed to happen according to the classical Secularisation narrative. There isn’t supposed to be a return of religion, religion is supposed to be evaporating. And that puts a, it puts pressure on the classical secularisation narrative. So scholars throughout the 1980s, 1990s and up to the present have started to ask questions about the secularisation narrative and have come up with a very robust dialogue about what went wrong with the classical secularisation paradigm and what will replace it.

(CC): Mmm. And that also sort of introduces an ideological element this sort of idea-

(DS): -Right.

 (CC): –that the notion of secularisation is itself a form of ideology, it’s a sort of…thinking of the way things should be-

(DS): Definitely, yeah.

(CC): -it’s not mirroring reality.

(DS): Right.

(CC): So we’ve already alluded to even if these things are dichotomous, obviously it’s studying them alongside each other so…many of us at Universities will be familiar with the standard introductory sort of  ‘here’s a survey of world religions’ like ‘Religion 101’ or something. So I think one of the questions you’re really asking is should… where’s the place of the secular in that sort of Religion 101 class?

(DS): Yeah, exactly.

(CC): Is it a World Religion, so if we’re going to segue into that, we’re going to need to talk about what is a world religion first of all, and then ask why we might want to try and fit the secular into that mould.

(DS): I mean I should really be asking you that but my take on it is that the idea of World religions again has its emergence in the 19th Century, it comes out of these 19th Century thinkers like Max Muller who are interested in making the study of religion into a science, they want to formalize the study of religion and turn it into something that moves away from the obviously supremacist classification scheme that had been used previously in Western Europe. That said though, Tomoko Masuzawa in her book ‘The Invention of World religions’ is actually…even though she spends a great deal of time sort of researching the archives, trying to find out where this paradigm comes from. Even she ultimately says she doesn’t know where it comes from. It emerges obviously through a sort of confluence of different conversations that are taking place throughout the 19th Century and early 20th century. Where precisely it comes from is…is a little bit opaque. Regardless, what we’re left with by the mid to late 20th Century is an understanding of religions as discrete objects that can be studied in the world that have particular histories, they’re often organised under a particular heading. Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and they’re very often structured around a specific text and a specific set of practices. And that structure is something that has become, at least at the level of the dissemination of religious studies in terms of undergraduate teaching, central.

(CC): Yes.

(DS): How did I do?

(CC): You did well, Sir, you did well. And it’s…Yes, so it’s sort of ubiquitous in undergraduate teaching and it’s ubiquitous in society, you know-

(DS): -Right

(CC): –we think about ‘what is your religion’ as a question that makes sense to people and then we have these certain silos-

(DS): -Right

(CC): -that we try and put that into. So yes, this has been…regardless of the origins of it this has been subjected to a number of critiques right so, it’s very Protestant, for example –

(DS): -Yeah.

(CC): –that idea of a text and it being about belief, you can only have one faith and all that sort of thing. This seemingly objective model sort of becomes Oh…that’s a little bit Protestant.

(DS): Definitely. And also something that I think we can see as being a by-product of (10:00) a particular idiom of 19th Century science. 19th Century science it’s the age of classification, it’s the age of grand theories, and that prison divides up the world in a particular way, and I think we can see the World religions paradigm as being a product of that particular way of thinking about the world.

(CC): Mmm. And that particular way of thinking about the world is deeply connected with Colonialism as well.

(DS): Definitely.

(CC): We were encountering others and then classifying them.

(DS): Absolutely.

(CC): ‘Classify and conquer’ was, I think was Max Muller’s term. And then of course it encourages this notion that there is a thing called religion that is made manifest in various forms.

(DS): Right.

(CC): So Russ McCutcheon would take great issue with that.

(DS): Yeah.

(CC): So given all that problem with the World religions paradigm why would we want to try and fit Secularism into that model. What would be the point, shouldn’t we just be jettisoning it?

(DS): Yeah, right. Well, I mean, I have a few thoughts on that. I am not…I’m not blanketly hostile to the World religions paradigm. I think that …I would give it about a six out of ten or a seven out of ten in terms of a pedagogical tool for explaining religion to undergraduates, especially if we start from the assumption that many undergraduates are only going to take one religious studies class. Is the World religions paradigm the best way of doing that? I’m not sure. But I don’t think that it necessarily is evil. However, I do think that it needs to be deconstructed from within. I think that precisely as we’re teaching students within this framework we need to be calling attention to the limitations of this framework. And part of the reason why I think it’s important to talk about Secularism within that context is because I think that it sets the stage for conversation about the World religions paradigm in and of itself.

(CC): Mmm. Yes, and the paradigm, you know, I think it was my colleague Kate Daley-Bailey described it as, you know, it’s a useful way of getting people from one side of the road to the other-

(DS): Absolutely.

(CC):– and if that’s what you need to do, you get them there. But you can also along the way be explaining to them why you chose that why of doing it if it wasn’t the best…

(DS): Exactly. Yeah, right.

(CC): Okay, so… let’s do this then. Let’s take the World religions model and let’s take the notion of Secularism. So how are we going to go about answering the question is it a world religion?

(DS): Definitely. So this is where I want to get a conversation started. I don’t have clear answers to this but what I sort of see us doing is shuffling the deck of Secularism studies into the deck of the World religions paradigm and just seeing what comes out on the other end. So I think that, in terms of a kind of structure, an overall architecture to this, there would be two ways of doing it. So Secularism studies scholars have roughly speaking two ways of talking about Secularism. One of the ways of talking about it is to say that Secularism is itself a particular iteration of Protestant Christianity, that we have the version of Secularism that we have because we are an offshoot of a cultural historical context that defined religion in a particular way. This goes back to something you were saying earlier about the inextricability of the category of religion from the category of the secular. It’s precisely because we see religion as something that is potentially private, individualised, and belief orientated that religion is something that can be relegated to the private sphere and therefore… and therefore secularised, according to the conventional definition.

(CC): Yeah. So we can see that there’s sort of like a Hegelian dialectic there even-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): -look to Feuerbach, and even… you know that we produce the… yeah the… As Christianity secularized… As Catholicism changed to Protestantism that started-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): -started a transition.

(DS): Yeah, absolutely. Or even like, one thing that historians and especially intellectual historians like Jonathan Z. Smith, Talal Asad, when he’s wearing that hat, or someone like Craig Calhoun, they really liked to emphasize the beginning of modernity and the immediate aftermath of the Protestant reformation.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): So you could look at it theoretically in the way that religion gets defined as something that is personal rather than corporate. (15:00) You could look at it historically and the way that the resolution to the wars of religion that emerge in the aftermath of the reformation. The political…the political compromises that are made in that wake tend to make religion into something that is detachable, it’s something that is sort of, as Locke puts it, can be kept in the private sphere rather than the public sphere. All of these…all of these…all of these details of Protestantism, whether they’re sort of, part of the DNA of Protestantism or whether they’re sort of historical accidents that shoot off from Protestantism, they make up the coordinates of what would eventually become Secularism.

(CC): Okay.

(DS): So one of the ways that I could see us potentially integrating Secularism into the World religions classroom would be to talk about it as an offshoot from Christianity.

(CC): Mmhmm.

(DS): When we teach Christianity we teach Secularism as something that Christianity does in exactly the same way as you know, depending on how many days you have for teaching Christianity, you would give a sort of capsule history where you would talk about the great schisms, orthodoxy from Catholicism, Protestantism from Catholicism and then could also locate Secularism as, in a sense, another schism, as another permutation of Christianity that is part of the story of Christianity as a World Religion.

(CC): Mmm. And indeed, some of the annoyance that some proponents of Secularism feel with that approach to my mind indicates the very importance of taking that approach-

(DS): Exactly.

(CC): –because people don’t feel annoyance unless there’s some sort of deep connection to the category that you’re talking about.

(DS): I think that’s right and especially building on that if we’re talking about teaching students in a Western/Anglo/Euro/American context, we’re going to be teaching students who are going to be coming from a variety of faith positions some of whom will be coming from a non-faith position and probably see their status as mutual. They probably see the religions they’re looking at as in a sense, under glass, as something that is disconnected from where they are. And I think it’s important for those students to recognise that even the liberal Secular idiom that they might see themselves located within, has a history. That it, even it, the agenda of that is set by a particular set of Christian coordinates. Saba Mahmood has done some really excellent work on this, talking about the way that these sort of ostensibly secular legal codes throughout Europe actually privilege a kind of ghost of Christianity, that they are marshalled in the service of defending a sort of Christian heritage and they suppress other ways of being religious.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): Even when they…they give Christianity a special sort of protection. A perfect example of this would be like the Burkini ban-

(CC): –Yes.

(DS): -that’s been happening in the summer of 2016 where Burkinis, this article of clothing that seems like it would be inoffensive enough has actually become offensive to French Secularism. Precisely because it is encoding a set of Christian presuppositions about ways that you are Secular and religious.

(CC): On that note I saw that, it was in the Guardian, they were quoting sort of, the ruling and it said it might offend the people’s (non) religious (non) convictions.

(DS): Exactly.

(CC): So your non-religious non-conviction might be offended by it, there’s something interesting going on there.

(DS): Exactly. I think that that’s exactly…I think that that’s a really important pedagogical manoeuvre  with students is showing them how even our own liberal democratic structures have a sort of conserved Christian genetic coding in them. That’s not to create an equivalence, that’s not to say that the difference aren’t meaningful, it’s just to say that we need to…we need to take a critical eye on our own intellectual inheritance rather than presupposing it’s neutral. So all of that would be one way that I would see Secularism entering the World religions paradigm… structure. I think there’s another way though, which would be equally interesting.

(CC): Mhhmm.

(DS): So one of the ways that scholars working in the mode of critical Secularism studies have approached Secularism is to say there is not just one Secularism.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): There are in fact multiple Secularisms. This is the title of a book, an anthology (20:00) by Janet Jakobsen and Anne Pellegrini, ‘Secularisms’, and this, as I see it, is coming out of these two sort of, kind of, guiding lights of the critical Secularism studies field.  Talal Asad and Charles Taylor. So Talal Asad is very interested in this idea that the Secularism that we have is a result of a particular history and he says that rather than assuming that Secularism is going to be the same everywhere we anticipate a multiplicity of what he calls ‘formations of the Secular’.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): There are different Secularisms that correspond to different historical moments, and they have different priorities, they have different coordinates, they have different outcomes precisely because their starting points, the sort of ingredients out of, the landscape out of which they secularise is different. So his sort of cardinal example of this is the difference between Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity and Islam. Protestant Christianity de-ritualises religion so its version of Secularism is a version of Secularism that doesn’t pay a lot of attention to ritual, doesn’t pay a lot of attention to practices. Asad will say, you know, when we have formations of the secular emerging out of Islamic contexts we need to be attentive to the way that they are…that they are…that they always keep an eye on practices. And the version, the formations of the Secular that emerge in these other contexts will have a different configuration. Charles Taylor calls this…he calls this ‘the myth of the subtraction story’. The myth of the subtraction story is this idea that once you get rid of religion, you’re left with a neutral landscape.

(CC): Yeah. Indeed, yeah, I’ve always thought of using a quotation from my supervisor Kim Knott who just says that there is no neutral point from which to observe religion-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): -we’re participants in that discourse. So would the logical outcome of that then be that if you were incorporating that Secularism(s) into the World religions classroom that you would sort of pair off-

(DS): -Yeah.

(CC):- you would teach Christianity and Christian Secularism, Islam and Islamic Secularism.

(DS): That’s what I’m thinking of. I’m, again, I’m presenting this conversationally, this isn’t something that I’m, I’m at a point where I could publish it but I think that we need to consider this possibility that the best way to teach Secularism within the context of the World religions classroom would be exactly this pairing, to say that Buddhist secularisms, Christian Secularisms, Jewish Secularisms, even we might want to get more specific than that, like Jewish Secularism in the United States, very different from Jewish Secularism in Israel. Islamic Secularism in Saudi Arabia is very different from Islamic Secularism in Iran. To thematise this I think would be a really productive way of getting Secularism into the conversation, but also raising this idea which I think is one of the challenges that you’ve, that you’ve sort of discussed very ably in your own work with Secularism, which is the way it creates a sort of silo model as you said it-

(CC):- Mhhmm.

(DS):- of these religions being sort of ahistorical, sort of fixed compilations of ideas and practices that can be very easily, sort of clinically diagnosed as you know-

(CC):- Mhhmm.

(DS): -you know like, okay, you’ve got, you’ve got your five pillars, you’ve got Islam. That’s not actually adequate, that’s never been adequate for teaching what religion is, but it’s particularly inadequate in the context of a situation, a global situation now, of accelerating mediatisation and globalisation where transactions between different traditions are becoming more and more…more and more rich. They’re just more and more…the dynamic between different traditions is becoming deeper and deeper. And I think that emphasising that localism of Secularism would be a way of raising that to the surface.

(CC): Mhhm. And this is exactly the sort of thing that we should be discussing at this conference, the theme being ‘religion beyond the textbook’.

(DS): Exactly.

(CC): So, conclusion then. So, are you going to do this?

(DS): Yeah, I think I will. I’m not in a situation right now where I teach world religions but as I think about, as I think about that syllabus next time that that portfolio falls into my lap it’s something that I’m actually quite excited to do, precisely because of the way that I think (25:00) it, it reciprocally calls attention to the limits of both the world religions paradigm, which I think is a useful, if limited, pedagogical tool, and the Secularisation narrative.

(CC): And how do we avoid…one of the main problems with subversively employing anything, so subversively employing the world religions category, is that your critical intent isn’t really communicated to the students, again as you say if they’ve come for a one semester course and then they’re gone, they’ve gone in and they’ve done the world religions course and they’ve come out. So say they’ve come to this course and they do a world religions and Secularisms thing and then they come out with this sort of very strict siloed model on Islamic Secularism is this, Christian Secularism is that, what, is there a danger there, going down that route, you could be sort of reifying the very distinction that we…

(DS): Yeah. I think all discourses have dangers. All discourses are going to be provisional ways of organising the abundance of information that is the world. And they’re always going to have certain limitations attached to them. I think that the best that we can do is inhabit those discourses with a sort of deconstructive eye. And my hope is that among other things I think that there are lots of ways of sort of reciprocally critiquing the world religions paradigm while teaching it. I’ve tried to do that in the past when I’ve taught world religions. I think that this method of introducing Secularism as a legitimate object of study within the architecture of the religions, world religions paradigm could be a way of amplifying that technique.

(CC): Yeah. And, you know, you can only resist the dominant expectations of your students so much before they stop coming to your classes and also I can see this being a really good exercise perhaps for higher level students, just to pose the question that we’ve asked-

(DS):- Right.

(CC): –is Secularism a world religion, set it as an essay topic or something, I can see some really excellent discussions happening there.

(DS): That would be fascinating. I mean, I think too, like, I absolutely agree with what you’re saying, that pedagogically that, I mean, there’s only so much we can do to sort of…there’s only so much we can do to sort of destabilise the way that students think, but I’m also…I’m also a firm believer in the pedagogical value of inhabiting something from the inside in order to destabilise it.

(CC): Mhhm.

(DS): Rather than standing so far outside of it that students can’t necessarily see what you’re doing.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): And my hope is, and again I mean, this is just an optimism, it’s not something that I’ve actually put into play, and really I see it more of just a conversation starter in pedagogy circles than anything, and my hope is that this practice of introducing Secularism as an object of study within the context of the world religions paradigm would be a way of inhabiting that paradigm from the inside and leaving students with a very vivid impression of its own limitations.

(CC): That is a wonderful way to end. Bang on half an hour, so thanks so much Donovan.

(DS): Thanks so much Chris, this was wonderful.

(CC): Well, I very much enjoyed recording that interview with Donovan and we both were in the session where he presented that paper at the BASR.

David Robertson: Yeah I was going to mention that, there was an odd moment there. It wasn’t the best attended of sessions, I don’t think it got the audience it deserves let’s put it that way, but I think there was eight or nine people in the room of whom two, two of, were myself and Chris. And he immediately showed a picture of our book, ‘The RSP Volume’ you know, After World Religions, which you should read if you haven’t, and started attacking our argument, which was-

(CC): He didn’t attack our argument!

(DR): I thought it was wonderful, I loved every minute of it [laughs].

(CC): But yeah, it was one of those lovely moments that was sort of the first proper one in my “career” in quotation marks. And so hopefully the catchy title there will have dragged in some listeners, you might have thought ‘what, what, that’s ridiculous!’ But hearing Donovan talk about it as an interesting thought experiment, as a way of dismantling in a way the hegemony of the paradigm itself.

(DR): Indeed, and problematizing the term and its application and the rest of it, and Chris and I have talked about an After After World Religions, be it a journal or a second volume of the book, and Donovan is going to contribute to that (30:00) hopefully, if and when it happens.

(CC): You hear that Donovan? You’re under contract now.

(DR): He gave me a verbal agreement and in Scotland that’s legally binding. It was in Helsinki.

(CC): And in Wolverhampton. Same difference.

(DR): Was it?

(CC): Yes.

(DR): Oh. Either way, I’m Scottish so that’s binding.

[they laugh].

(DR): I think we may be showing too much of the man behind the curtain this week.


All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Researching Radicalisation

Radicalisation, fundamentalism or extremism, are terms which are highly prevalent in media, public, political, and legal discourse these days, and are surrounded by mystification, rhetoric and ideological assumptions that work against clear, objective, non-partisan understandings of the phenomena they denote. Regular listeners to the RSP will be unsurprised that we look askance at such discourses and aim to take a critical approach to this controversial topic. What might the academy mean by the term ‘radicalisation’? How might we study it? What makes it different from ‘socialisation’? Is there a necessary connection between ‘religion’ – or particular forms of ‘religion’ – and radicalisation? And how might we position ourselves in relation to other actors – in politics, the military, or the media – who have a vested interest in our research?

To discuss these and other issues, we are joined this week by Dr Matthew Francis, Senior Research Associate at Lancaster University and Communications Director for the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST). In this interview we discuss what we mean by ‘radicalisation’, and what its connections to socialisation, terrorism, and ‘religion’ might be. We take on the methodological question of how one might go about researching such a contested topic, and look specifically at some of Matthew’s findings relating to the causes of radicalisation, and the neo-Durkheimian ‘sacred’. We also reflect on the position of the researcher when approaching topics entangled such vested political interests, negotiating the media, and future research directions.

Be sure to check out other great podcasts on: Zen Buddhism Terrorism and Holy War with Brian Victoria; Sociotheology and the Cosmic War with Mark Juergensmeyer; Religion, violence and the Media with Jolyon Mitchell; Studying “Cults” with Eileen Barker; The Sacred with Gordon Lynch; and Pilgrimage in Japan and Beyond with Ian Reader and Paulina Kolata. This episode is the fifth in a series co-produced with Religion, Youth and Intergenerationality” with Naomi Thompson, ‘Religion and Feminism‘ with Dawn Llewellyn, ‘Evangelicalism and Civic Space‘ with Anna Strhan, and ‘An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion‘ with Grace Davie.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, this BLACK FRIDAY, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, cough drops, single malt whiskey, and more.

Conference report: “Religious Pluralisation—A Challenge for Modern Societies”

A conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Ashlee Quosigk, a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The “Religious Pluralisation—A Challenge for Modern Societies” Conference was held 4-6 of October 2016 at the Herrenhausen Palace, in Hanover, Germany. The Volkswagen Foundation and the University of Hamburg’s Academy of World Religions joined together to sponsor the conference with an important and timely mission to identify innovative research approaches as well as broad political and social scopes of action to address religious plurality.

Herrenhausen Palace

Herrenhausen Palace

The conference included talks from over 30 academics, including a special lecture from Peter Berger; it also included an additional 30 “young scholars” lightening presentations, along with times for networking that allowed participants to get to know each other and further discuss research ideas. The conference was interdisciplinary and provided a place for participants to engage in dialogue on how to think about religious pluralism. The conference location was well selected as Western Europe holds a prominent secularity. The failure of the secularization thesis (the idea that modernity necessarily leads to a decline in religion) in Western Europe to explain the new, often fervent religious adherents that make up the changing landscape, calls for a significant reassessment. Due to the visible demographic shifts, brought on by established immigrant populations, many of whom are more religious and have more children, along with the very recent massive influx of mainly Muslims refugees, academics are trying to address the questions of how to best meet the challenges of religious pluralisation and how interreligious dialogue can contribute.

The conference included sessions on a variety of topics: religion and dialogue in different contexts, community building and policymaking from European perspectives, the contribution of religious education to dialogue and integration, the relevance of interreligious dialogue in the public sphere, and interreligious education.

fullsizerender_1The conference began with a welcome address by Wilhelm Krull, Secretary General of the Volkswagen Foundation, that invoked Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who argued that religion can have a rational basis and thus, can be a subject matter of intellectual discourse—discourse that would mediate different positions and look at contradictions, which would then pave the way for a richer understanding of God. Krull discussed that Pope Benedikt also, during his controversial Regensburg Address in 2006, made use of a rational concept of God to be applied to interreligious dialogue. Krull contrasted the approach of Leibniz and Pope Benedikt with the goal of the conference, which is not to find an unambiguous conception of divinity, but rather to focus on the phenomenon of religious plurality and coexistence of different religious convictions and mindsets in one society, which according to Krull, means that ambiguities, contradictions, and rational gaps are inevitable. Krull ended his welcome by wishing attendees much light and inspiration during their exchange of ideas.

The conference included a special lecture from Peter Berger, Professor Emeritus of Religion, Sociology, and Theology and Director of the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs at Boston University. His lecture entitled, “Toward a New Paradigm for Religion in a Pluralist Age” argued that our age is not one of secularity but of pluralism. Berger holds secularization theory to be only applicable to Western Europe and the international intelligentsia (mostly of the humanities and social sciences) and believes it to be inadequate to explain the majority world, where religion never went away. Berger feels this new paradigm of pluralism strikes a middle ground between secularization theory and the passionate vitality of religion, allowing that, places like courtrooms and hospitals are secular spaces, even though people of a variety of religious beliefs are engaged in them. According to Berger, these are examples of very important sectors of modern societies where a secular discourse necessarily dominates. Rather than it being modernity or religion, it has become modernity and religion.

Berger also highlighted two current explosions of religion: radical Islamism and the less talked about global explosion of Pentecostal Protestantism. After his discussion of these two movements, Berger posed a sensitive question: “Does Islam belong to Germany?” He responded by stating: “Islam is already in Germany! The question is rather, how will Islam belong? And how is German society going to cope with this?” Berger asked conference attendees if they could envisage a Muslim Bavarian. He added that due to the demographic realities, unless indigenous white Bavarians will have many more kids than they are willing to have now, in a few decades there will be no Bavarians at all.

During the open Q&A following the Forum on Dialogical Theology, Sallie B. King, Professor of Philosophy and Religion at James Madison University, used her experience of teaching on interreligious dialogue at a university in Virginia, where many students were conservative and/or fundamentalist Christians, to answer a question regarding Christian fundamentalism. She captivatingly responded by posing another question, “Who is the fundamentalist, here? “Don’t we think that we know the truth and they [fundamentalists] are wrong?”  While King made clear that she does not agree with their theology, she encouraged those who consider themselves “liberal” and/or “progressive” to intently listen to those whom they disagree with. From her personal teaching experience in Virginia, eventually she believes everyone will find something of value, even in the fundamentalist. If not, King questioned how effective one could be in engaging in dialogue with another.

Peter Berger and Ashlee Quosigk

Peter Berger and Ashlee Quosigk

The young scholars lightening presentations were diverse. My presentation “Conflict on the Topic of Islam: How Comfortability with Secularity Affects Evangelical Views of Muslims in the United States” fell within the fourth and last lightening session, and offered an empirical case to investigate Peter Berger’s new paradigm, which argues that individuals in a pluralistic society undergo “cognitive contamination” that allows them to move away from an either/or distinction between their faith and secularity, and rather toward a both/and view. Other presentations dealing with the topic of Muslim-Christian relations came from Iryna Martynyak on “Contemporary Dialogue between Christians and Muslims in Ukraine” and Susan Mwangi presented on “The Role of Media in Promoting Interreligious Dialogue in Kenya,” which looked at how a Swahili radio show is encouraging dialogue between Christians and Muslims. However, the young scholar presentations were certainly not entirely focused on Christian-Muslim relations, and also included presentations on a wide array of issues, such as “Post-Metaphysical Developments in Continental Philosophy of Religion, Hermeneutic Pluralism, and Interreligious Encounter” presented by Marius van Hoogstraten and “Religious Literacy and Teaching about Religion in a Multicultural and Multi-Faith Society: A Critical Perspective” presented by Najwan Saada.

It was useful and challenging for scholars to learn from the research of others in different fields. Best of all, the academic conference was open to the public—a public with concerned and fertile minds due to the changing religious demographics around them.

 

 

 

 

RSP subscribers get a 30% discount on “Implicit Religion”!

Now published in collaboration with the Religious Studies Project, Implicit Religion was founded by Edward Bailey† in 1998 and formerly the Journal of the Centre for the Study of Implicit Religion and Contemporary Spirituality.

Subscribers to the RSP receive a 30% discount on subscriptions. Click here to access the journal’s subscription page and enter the code: DISCOUNT30

Exciting new directions for Implicit Religion:

This international journal offers a platform for scholarship that challenges the traditional boundary between religion and non-religion and the tacit assumptions underlying this distinction. It invites contributions from a critical perspective on various cultural formations that are usually excluded from religion by the gatekeeping practices of the general public, practitioners, the law, and even some scholars of religion. Taking a broad scope, Implicit Religion showcases analyses of material from the mundane to the extraordinary, but always with critical questions in mind such as: why is this data boundary-challenging? what do such marginal cases tell us about boundary management and category formation with respect to religion? and what interests are being served through acts of inclusion and exclusion?

ISKCON And When New Religions Aren’t So New Anymore

As a follow-up to our interview with Kim Knott on ISKCON in Britain, this podcast is a roundtable discussion at the ISKCON 50 conference at Bath Spa University, 2016.

new

During this roundtable, scholars consider the subjective nature of the term ‘new’ in the study of New Religious Movements. Using the particular movement of ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) as their main example, panelists consider the future of the movement and similar NRMs in contemporary society, the limitations of the category of ‘NRM’, and what the future may pose for the academic study of movements such as ISKCON.

The RSP want to thank Bath Spa University for supporting these recordings, especially to Catherine Robinson and Alan Marshall.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, pogs, neon slap bracelets, and other 90’s memorabilia.

Permutations of Secularism

Joe Blankholm and Dusty Hoesly, we first focus on the origins of the term “secularism,” the proliferation of its meanings, and the uses to which it is put in Anglo-American contexts. Then we discuss the uses of the terms secularism and the secular today, particularly using a specific case study from Joe’s research on American nonbeliever organizations.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, muffins, snorkels and more.

UFOs, Conspiracy Theories… and Religion?

Area 51, Ancient Aliens, endemic child abuse at the BBC, Reptilians, Watergate, 9/11, renegade preachers rising from the dead, the grassy knoll, The Da Vinci Code, Hydra, climate change, the moon landings, Satanic Ritual Abuse, The X Files… the popular imagination is rife with stories of secret plans and cover-ups, agencies working behind the scenes, grand plans carried without the knowledge of the unsuspecting masses, lies, deceit, and an elect few who know ‘the truth’. Sometimes, stories which at one time seemed far-fetched receive widespread acceptance and become the hegemonically accepted norm. At others, they remain the preserve of relatively small groups of “nutters”, and become designated as “conspiracy theories” by those who have the power to do so. What might this popular discursive trope be able to tell us about contemporary Western society? How might scholars go about studying it, particularly when they themselves are frequently implicated as working against the truth by “insiders”? And what might all of this have to do with the contemporary academic study of religion?

9781474253222To discuss this tantalizing subject, we are joined today by a scholar who will be no stranger to regular listeners of the Religious Studies Project, Dr David Robertson. The interview begins with David’s own journey to this research field, before considering some basic questions such as “what is a conspiracy theory?” David then lays out the historical context of the parallel development of contemporary millennial and conspiracist discourse, and his case studies – Whitley Streiber, David Icke, David Wilcock, and their audiences. Discussion then turns to the meat of Robertson’s theoretical conclusions concerning epistemic capital, popular epistemic strategies, the UFO as a discursive object connecting two fields of discourse, power, and prophecy. The interview concludes with discussion of the relevance of this field of study to Religious Studies more broadly, and some challenging admonitions to for the discipline.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, like David Robertson’s new book, and more.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 1 March 2016

Calls for papers

Freedom of/for/from/within Religion: Differing DImensions of a Common Right?

September 8–11, 2016

Oxford, UK

Deadline: March 31, 2016

More information

Public Religions and Their Secrets, Secret Religions and Their Publics

October 27–28, 2016

University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Deadline: April 1, 2016

More information: Conference, Master Class

CHAOS-symposium: Religion og materialitet

April 29–30, 2016

University of Bergen, Norway

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information (Norwegian)

AAR panel: Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group

November 19–22, 2016

San Antonio, TX, USA

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

AAR panel: Religion, Media, and Culture Group

Deadline: March 1, 2016

November 19–22, 2016

San Antonio, TX, USA

More information

Events

Religious Diversity and Cultural Change in Scotland: Modern Perspectives

April 19, 2016

University of Edinburgh, UK

More information

Les Politiques du Blasphème: Perspectives Comparées

March 7, 2016

Paris, France

More information

Postgraduate Workshop on the Materiality of Divine Agency in the Graeco-Roman World

August 29–September 2, 2016

University of Erfurt, Germany

Deadline: May 31, 2016

More information

Open Access

Open Theology: Cognitive Science of Religion

Available here

Jobs and funding

Postdoctoral teaching fellowship

Kenyon College, OH, USA

Deadline: March 25, 2016

More information

Lecturer in Hebrew

University of California, Santa Barbara, USA

Deadline: April 30, 2016

More information

University Lectureship in Anthropology and Islamic Studies

Leiden University, The Netherlands

Deadline: May 18, 2016

More information

Editor: Shambhala and Snow Lion Publications

Boulder, CO, USA

Deadline: May 17, 2016

More information

Assistant professor of Religious Studies

Utrecht University, the Netherlands

Deadline: March 11, 2016

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Instructor in Religion and Culture

Virginia Tech, VA, USA

Deadline: March 14, 2016

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AAR-Luce Fellowships in Religion and International Affairs

Deadline: March 31, 2016

DC, USA

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Dean of Graduate Jewish Studies

Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership

Deadline: May 22, 2016

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Postdoctoral Fellow in Judaic Studies

Virginia Tech, VA, USA

March 14, 2016

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Funding

CSA Research Fellowship

Deadline: March 1, 2016

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Two fully funded PhD positions, one Postdoctoral position in the Study of Religions

Creative Agency and Religious Minorities: “Hidden galleries” in the secret police archives in 20th Century Central and Eastern Europe

University College Cork, Ireland

Deadline: April 22, 2016

More information: PhDs, Postdoc

 

Discursive Approaches and the Crises of Religious Studies

Discursive analysis of one kind or another is perhaps the most prominent methodology in the study of religion today. The linguistic turn took longer to influence Religious Studies than many other areas of the social sciences, but in recent years this approach has produced some hugely influential works which challenge many of the traditional assumptions of the field. In this interview recorded at the 2015 IAHR Congress in Erfurt, Kocku von Stuckrad tells David G. Robertson how discursive approaches might help solve the challenges of contemporary Religious Studies: the crisis of representation; the situated observer; and the dilemma of essentialism and relativism.

Bruce Lincoln and Titus Hjelm, and feature essays by Ethan Quillen, David Gordon White, Martin Lepage, Emily Stratton, and Craig Martin. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, wooden chess sets, monkey nuts, and more!

Podcasts

The ‘secular’, the ‘religious’, and the ‘refugee’ in Germany

Ever since the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015, the ‘refugee’ in Germany has been constructed in a variety of ways that are implicated in specific co-constitutive notions of the ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ that exert symbolic power by naturalizing certain notions of the religious and thereby the secular while excluding others and feeding back into the subject formation (or subjectivation) of people classified as ‘refugees’. In this process certain positions are produced as hegemonic while others are classified as not acceptable (e.g., “radical”, “not European” or “anti-humanist”). This in turn feeds into the on-going institutionalization of Islam in Germany. In this podcast, Chris speaks with Carmen Becker on this important topic, drawing upon her critically engaged ongoing fieldwork among Syrian forced migrants in the city of Hannover and an analysis of political measures, research designs and media productions that are part of the apparatus producing the ‘refugee’.

This interview was recorded at the European Association for the Study of Religions’ 2018 conference on Multiple Religious Identities in Bern, Switzerland. It also make specific reference to the documentary series “Marhaba – Ankommen in Deutschland” – particularly the episode “Liebe und Sex”.

 

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, abusive party balloons, the “Crafting with Cat Hair” book, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


The ‘secular’, the ‘religious’ and the ‘refugee’ in Germany

Podcast with Carmen Becker (22 October 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Becker_-__The_Secular,_The_Religious,_and_The_Refugee_in_Germany_1.1

 

Christopher Cotter (CC): We are recording this interview on what I believe is the International Day of the Refugee. And I’m joined in Bern, at the European Association for the Study of Religions Conference, by Carmen Becker. And we are going to be talking about the role of religion and secularity in the construction of the category of the refugee, and the sort-of mutual co-constructing natures of those discourses, with particular reference to Germany. Carmen is based at the Leibnitz University at Hannover. And she’s done a lot of work on various historical constructions of Salafism. And we’re going to be talking about her current project today. So first off – welcome to the Religious Studies Project, Carmen!

Carmen Becker (CB): Thank you.

CC: So I’ve just seen your presentation on the panel, there. This is 7o’clock in the evening which is quite late a conference, particularly when we had . . .

CB: The Network dance the day before! (Laughs).

CC: Exactly! They did not plan this well! But I’ve just seen your paper and it was excellent. And I’m hoping what we can do is have a sort of conversational version of that paper. So, first of all, if you can set the scene? Because people might be listening to this five years from now, ten years from now – who knows? So, what’s happening? There’s that phrase the “refugee crisis”, the “migrant crisis” and things like that. Can you maybe just set the scene? In fact you started your paper with a couple of anecdotes . . .

CB: That’s true, yes. We’re all aware of the term “refugee crisis”. Since the summer of 2015, roughly, was when the high amounts of asylum seekers came to Germany and Austria – Europe in general. We still remember the scenes from television and so on of huge masses of people at the border between Hungary and Germany, trying to get into Germany. So there is a sort of imaginary behind it all. In 2015, I was still living in the Netherlands and, there, not so many people from Syria and Afghanistan and Iraq came to the Netherlands. Most of them went to Germany and to Sweden, actually. And when I travelled from the Netherlands to Hannover – this anecdote of the train stain station, famously – I was welcomed at Hannover train station by a Syrian man with a red rose, and a board saying “Thank you”. And I really couldn’t make sense of it. So I started talking to him and he explained that he wanted to thank the German people, as he put it, for welcoming the refugees in and for letting them cross the border from Hungary to Germany. And they really appreciated it and that was why they gave the rose. And I thought that was really intriguing, in a way. And then later, after I had moved to Hanover, a few weeks later, I saw that there was a Wikipedia entry dedicated to the European Refugee crisis. The title of the entry was European Refugee Crisis. And Wikipedia for me is sort of an instance that, when something gets an entry there it’s established fact. It’s a truth, right? This is a reference point. It’s also interesting, then, to see how the truth is established on the editorial pages. But that’s another thing. And this entry: European refugee crisis, which later turned into a European Migrant Crisis – you could also look why they used refugee in the beginning and migrant later on, but that’s another story again – has been translated into 60 different languages, which is a lot I think. There are also substantial entries, not just a few words on it. But there are full texts on there. So something that actually . . . This is an image, the refugee crisis, that has travelled widely then, in several languages – also Arabic, Persian, Turkish and so on.

CC: And so you use the term, “discursive event”.

CB: Yes. Because, I mean, how does something become recognised as an event, right? It has to be termed; images have to be established; it has to be understood as something disruptive, something out of the ordinary, something that is breaking into normality. And if we would have looked at the development before the so-called refugee crisis, it wouldn’t have been so surprising. The camps in the region in Lebanon and Jordan they were just running out of money – camps provided by the United Nations Food Programme. They were issuing calls for donations. They were saying “If we don’t get donations, we have to cut the amount we can give to those in our camps half. And the full amount is what they need to survive.” So if you cut this in half, this is a crisis, in the sense that it’s existential. (5:00) And this was known already by the end of 2014, beginning of 2015. And what do people do if they cannot survive? They move on. They run out of money, they don’t get anything, so they look elsewhere. So that was expectable. But it still came as a surprise, as a wave, right? So it’s interesting see how people perceive things and what they do not perceive – also in the media. In between the World Food Programme from the United Nations was calling for donations. But there was no connection, no further thinking about it. Also from the politicians – at least, done in public.

CC: So we’re going to get to the religion thing, of course, because we’re on the Religious Studies Project. But you’re going to try really hard here, because you’re not going to have your diagrams!

CB: Dammit! (Laughs).

CC: But you’ve got some theories for us to set the scene. So Foucault . . .

CB: Yes. So I like Foucault a lot when you think about how truth is established, in general. And I think in Religious Studies it’s not surprising when someone uses discourse theory, to theorise something. What is not so common is to use the “dispositive” as a concept. It’s something you find in Foucault’s later work, right. And it’s something he has never really fleshed out – like many things he hasn’t fleshed out! (Laughs). And this is something that is now really discussed amongst journals of sociologists. I mean the dispositive as a concept: how do you do research with it? So, just in parallel, just like the discourse term was taken from Foucault and then fleshed out into different varying programmes of research, and research styles, and so forth the same is happening now and has been happening for roughly ten years in Germany, with reference to the dispositive. Yes. What is the dispositive?

CC: (Laughs).

CB: I always use the French language to make it clear. I was talking about three connotations of the dispositive – or three semantic fields that the dispositive brings us to. For example: first of all there’s the dispositive as a sort of mechanism or sort of apparatus – that also reminds us of Gramsci, for example – that means that different elements in the system are put together and they function together. They link together so that they function as a machine, as an apparatus, as a mechanism – an alarm system I use as an example. You put different technical devices, manual knowledge about how to switch it on and off. So all different elements are put together then they are linked to each other so that the whole system can function. This is the baseline of what a dispositive is. And in, for example, in the French language they use the term “dispositif d’alarme” for alarm system. So you have the word dispositive.

CC: Is it the system itself, or is it the connections that make the system?

CB: It is the connections that make the system. And this is typical for Foucault, right? Also in discourse, it’s not that much the content of the discourse but the rules that establish the discourse. And that’s the same idea here. So how come these elements are ordered together to form the dispositive? What links them logically or illogically? So that’s very important to look at the net that is established, between these elements. But of course we have to somehow identify these elements first, in order to see how they are connected and what functions they have in the dispositive. And then the second understanding: the dispositive is thought of as a strategic intervention. So it’s a production that strategically intervenes into society, and responds to an emergency case. And this, I think, fits really nicely when you think of the refugee crisis, right? It’s a crisis – we have to intervene. And also Germans were mobilised to volunteer, to donate. The State was busy building shelters, coming up with new administrative regulations, even now it’s still going on. So there is a sort of pressing need to act, right? We have to do something. And again, this sort of strategic intervention is something that we can also see again in French language when I talk about the “dispositifs de lutter contre le chomage”. So, all the means and the measures taken in order to fight unemployment for example. This was the dispositive event in the French language. And then on the third level – and this is similar to a discourse – that the dispositive establishes the current truth, the valid truth at the moment in time, right. Of course this can change, but at the point we are living it defines the truth just like discourse do. (10:00) What can we say about a refugee? What is a refugee? Who is a refugee? How do you talk about refugees? How are they? What do we project into them? This is established also in the dispositive. Which is quite similar to discourse research – right? – to flesh out how the objects . . . how discourses objectivate.

CC: Excellent. And so, I know we’re going to get to a wonderful example and I’m going to try and bring in some multi-media in.

CB: Oh yes! (Laughs).

CC: So there’s a reason that you’ve chosen that as your example. So how are we utilising this notion of the dispositive in your research?

CB: That’s a big question, when you’re doing research. I’m also an ethnographer so I like to look at the micro-level, the local level. But as a trained political scientist I’m also looking at power, right? So I want to connect these levels. And then the question is, how does power work on a micro-level actually? And I mean, you could look at discourse. I would say what most of us do in discursive studies in religion, we look at the meso and macro-level of how religion is established as an object and so forth. But we don’t look so much down on a local level, how it trickles down, how it shapes behaviour and practices, how people incorporate it in their lives. And this is where it becomes effective, actually. So what I look at is not so much at the . . . what Foucault usually did. He looked at how science or expert talk established knowledge.

CC: Law and that kind of thing.

CB: But I look at the intermediate level. I use the term from Jurgen Lingen, a scholar of literature. I use the term inter-discourse. These are discourses that try to break down expert discourses into everyday life. For example, talk shows. They get an expert to talk about things that somehow keep society busy, they are pressing social questions, and they try to solve them to propose solutions and to make it intelligible for people in everyday life. And this is the example I uses in the presentation today. There’s one show that was produced by a German TV news outlet. And by the end of 2015 had started and the production went on until the beginning of 2016. The programme is called Marhaba Ankommen in Deutschland which means basically, “Hello, welcome to Germany”. And it’s a programme with roughly 18 episodes. And each episode has about 5 minutes. And the aim of the show is to explain Germany to the refugees, basically.

CC: Let’s hear a little bit from that show:

[Music followed by Arabic language]

CC: So what’s going on here?

CB: Well, he’s basically saying, in Arabic, that personal freedom is very important in Germany. They have personal choices and among this is that you can choose whatever sexual orientation you would like and that everybody has to respect it. It portrays this as how things are done in Germany, basically.

CC: Fantastic. So . . . and this is fairly typical of the programme?

CB: This is very typical, yes. One part always establishes what he thinks is typical of Germany and what he thinks refugees – so-called refugees – need to know, because they don’t know them yet. He insinuates, “I tell you now, because you probably don’t know, but you need to know that when you come here.” So that means: those coming from Syria, from Afghanistan, they don’t know anything about choice, freedom and so forth, because their societies are oppressed. This is the insinuation. And then there are some episodes, some sections in the episodes where he talks with the expert. Why they are experts we don’t know. But he talks with them on a deeper . . . . Sometimes they are psychologists. There was also a lawyer in one episode. And some episodes we don’t get to know what their occupation is. We just get to know the name. So it’s interesting. He doesn’t feel a need to explain why he’s talking to this specific person over this specific topic. (15:00)

CC: Excellent. So what we have here is sort of a national discourse, in some way, on the refugee being channelled through this individual, this television programme. And directly speaking to people who are coming in.

CB: Yes. He’s addressing them directly – also, linguistically. He’s saying [in Arabic,] “You”: “You will have to this, and this, and then everything will work fine.” Right? And the load, or the burden is put on the refugees because they now know how they have to behave. “So please behave like this and then we don’t have any problem!” It’s a crash course in, I don’t know, in integration.

CC: Yes. I mean, God forbid that the host society would have to change as well!

CB: Well, the interesting thing is that it tells us a lot about how we imagine ourselves as Germans, right? When he talks about “the Germans” there is no ambiguity. There’s no contradiction. It’s all clear, basically. It’s easy to decipher, right? “We support sexual freedom, do this and this.” But this is really not the case. This is a discourse we are having about ourselves. We imagine ourselves.

CC: I’m just going to interrupt your flow a little bit to . . . Do we know, are refugees actually watching these? Have you found that out in your fieldwork? Have people encountered them? And how are they encountering them?

CB: Well, if you look at YouTube you’ll see that refugees comment in Arabic on the show. I haven’t analysed those yet, but I have found them. And it’s interesting material, I think, looking at the comments. And also during my fieldwork. I did fieldwork in a church where a group of six refugees had asked for asylum. It’s called “church asylum” in Germany – sanctuary. They were under threat of deportation to Bulgaria. So they had passed . . . while fleeing Syria they had passed through Bulgaria and got registered there with their fingerprints. And, arriving in Germany, they were not eligible for applying for asylum here because they had been registered in the EU, in Bulgaria, elsewhere. So they would have been sent back. So, their last chance to stay in Germany was to go into a church asking for church asylum. Because then, the police officers don’t enforce the deportation. They don’t go into the premises of the church. It’s like a tolerated agreement between the church and the state, basically. It’s not a law. It’s not written in law somewhere. It’s an agreement. It’s also the Church then that takes over the asylum procedure. They provide lawyers to the refugees. They interact with the State authorities. So that’s the construct of it. So, in the neighbourhood where I lived in Hannover, I heard that there were six refugees in a Protestant church there who had asked for church asylum. They had been granted church asylum and I thought, “Oh that’s a good opportunity to go there!” Because I also studied Arabic in Syria, so I know Syrian Arabic. And I know Syria quite well from all my travels there. So I also felt it would be good to be there. So I became also sort-of an intermediary between the volunteers of the church in the neighbourhood – a volunteer group formed in order to support them – and the Syrians who were in the church at the time. They were not allowed to leave the premises. As soon as you step out of the premises and you are caught by a police officer, you are gone. The church cannot protect you anymore. The power of the church ends there.

CC: Yes, that’s really like going into a national embassy in that.

CB: Yes.

CC: So you, I’m sure, are going to have some examples that you weren’t able to give in your presentation from your ethnographic work. You also, then . . . you’ve been taking this discourse that’s being propounded particularly in . . .

CB: Oh yes, the programme, yes.

CC: And you set up, what was it called? “Chains of equivalence”?

CB: I encountered the programme, I got to know the programme while I was volunteering in church asylum – this was the story behind it. Because one of the men who were also volunteering in the church asylum, he was a retired German teacher and he taught German to the refugees, and he used the programme for his classes. And I know a few refugees who know it at least, and who have looked at it. And it was also given the Grimme-Preis which is like a prestigious German TV award, which just shows the standing of it. At least from the German side.

CC: Yes!

CB: Well, what I’ve done with the 18 episodes, I watched them several times, and I tried to see how they construct what you’ve been hinting at, chains of equivalence. (20:00) This is a term I got from Laclau. It means that you look, basically, how are different categories labels put on an equal footing, linked, with reference to a third category. So how was . . . You look for how A and B are equivalent, in reference to C.

CC: OK.

CB: And this is what I did with the episodes. And what became quite clear, right from the start, is that there are two main categories that are the reference categories for everything that’s constructed. There’s the German society and then there’s the society of the refugees. And since this is mainly about Germany, the German society plays the main role in the episode. And the refugee societies – they’re assumed to be Arabic, because they’re addressed to Arabic speakers. And they’re assumed to be Muslim. So this is what we get to know about this. There are some more markers where they explicitly characterise societies as sexually oppressed, violent. There are a few that the host, Constantin Schreiber, mentions a few times: violence against children and women in these societies and “this is not tolerated in Germany and is sanctioned by law”. Something the refugees need to know in case they want to engage in that! (Laughs).

CC: Yes.

CB: So this is what we get to know about refugees – the societies of the refuges. And then he uses all different terms and concepts in order to flesh out what German society is all about. And the main terms that really keep reoccurring on the German side is “secular”, and the “German constitution” – a kind of constitutional patriotism that’s going on there: a foundation of the German constitution that’s there and makes sure that we are secular, and democratic and so on. And then on the other side, the refugees’ society is contrasted to it. So we have the secularity here, we are secular here, they are Muslim- there is Islam. And this is explicitly done in statements and so on. So “secular/ Islam” is one contrast. And then you have the “constitution” and “Sharia” – although they’re really different concepts, totally different categories that cannot really compare, but he does it! So the viewer gets the impression that the Sharia is just a positive law put into law books, that you can look at and then you know what it is all about. But it’s not.

CC: Exactly.

CB: So then, in the rest, you can see how he fleshes out what secular is. And there it gets interesting, because most of us think it maybe comes up as something like, it’s a separation of state and religion or state institutions and religious institutions. He mentions this only once without going further into it. What he mentions all the time when he talks about secular democratic society is rights and freedom, individual rights and freedom. And there are two rights that he mentions in particular which is freedom of religion, and sexual rights. And this is I find very intriguing, that the secular is then boiled down to two freedom and rights discourses, but in particular a freedom of religion and sexual rights. This is how he constructs these equivalences, all geared toward “This is the German society”.

CC: Excellent. And so this is all very esoteric in the sense that we’re talking about what’s being said in programme. But how does this, how is it playing out on the ground as it were, in your experiences with your research participants?

CB: And this is really what interests me, right? How does the truth, which is established at the discursive level, then play out in everyday life? And interact? And how it’s shaped? Well I’m starting to sift through my data and I’ve seen a few things that come up on a regular basis. One thing is that the discourse of secular Germany is there to ensure that we have the freedom of choice, that we have a choice and that we can fulfil our desires, which I find really interesting . . . that there’s a task: that the aim of secularism is to do that. I see this in certain instances, for example. One example I used during my presentation was interaction between me and a woman from the volunteer group, I call her Anna (25:00). And she was thinking about engaging romantically with a Syrian – who was not part of the group in the church asylum, but she knew him from elsewhere. But she was taking me as an expert on Islam and wanted to know, and had questions about it. Because she said that this friend of hers said that if he ever wanted to have a girlfriend or to marry, this woman should be covered, wear a headscarf, just a normal headscarf. And at the beginning I didn’t understand the problem she had, because I thought, “OK, fine, so he’s saying this to you, you’re not in any relationship with him, so that should be fine.” But she really wanted him to step back from this – not to make this choice, right? She wanted to ensure that he would make a different, a better choice. And so she was asking me about anything from religious tradition that she could use to convince him that this is not “good” Islam that he is doing there. Anything she could use strategically, basically. Because she didn’t want to accept his choice. So, I mean, there is a discourse of choice. But some things are taken out of . . . There are somethings that you cannot choose, that are taken out of the range of options that you have, like covering. And this occurred really often. There were a lot of discussions about covering and headscarves and so on. For example, there were often discussions, people were discussing with one of the women . . . . There was one woman only in the group of the six Syrians who were asking for asylum in the church. She had never worn a headscarf in her life, neither in Syria nor in Germany. For her it was not a big deal, nothing special. But people kept asking her, “Why are you not wearing a headscarf here? For sure, it must be because you are in Germany right now, and you have the choice? Where as in Syria you didn’t have the choice.” And she just tried to make sure, against all the odds, “No I didn’t wear a headscarf in Syria either.” But people didn’t really want to believe this. And there was a man from the volunteer group – this was also one instance of engaging her in conversation on her headscarf and he was supportive of her choice, “Yes it’s a good choice you are making not wearing the headscarf, because how could you otherwise be phrased as participating in society and being yourself, if you were wearing a headscarf? How can you be a valid participant in society when you wear a headscarf and cover up? So, again, this is not a part of the secular choice, technically.

CC: Well, secularity allows “good” religion space . . .

CB: Yes. It’s never differentiated, but this is the idea behind it, right? So there is also the idea that the secular encompasses religion. And this is what people also phrase, right? “That we have here religion – it’s part of our makeup. It’s not a problem, because we still have the choice. Religion doesn’t have to interfere with it.”

CC: As long as it doesn’t interfere with liberal secular principals.

CB: As long as it doesn’t interfere with the sexual rights or the freedom to choose your faith or your lifestyle, or whatever. And what we see then, if you look at how it’s contrasted with Islam, it’s not that the secular and religious contrast, but that the secular and religion on one side is contrasted with Islam on the other side. So Islam is not yet in the realm of the secular and the religious. And this I find very intriguing. Maybe that’s particular to Germany. I’m not sure. I would have to look at other societies, how it’s spelt out there. But I find it very interesting that the religious is part of the make-up, obviously, of German secular society. It’s accepted. Islam, not yet. This is why Islam has to reform to change, which means giving way to all the choices. Making sure you can make the sexual choices you want to make, all the lifestyle choices and so on. But you must never take a choice that might be considered Islamic or Muslim. That’s the interesting thing, right? Being Muslim, in a stereotypical sense, is not part of the choice, right? Not there.

CC: Exactly, yes. Because when one makes a Protestant choice one doesn’t – we don’t talk about that.

CB: It’s also interesting, the episodes of the TV programme, when they symbolise religion visually, it’s not Protestantism. It’s totally neutered. It never talks about Protestantism, neither discursively nor when he’s talking, it isn’t mentioned visually. It’s not depicted visually. He talks about Catholicism, Judaism and Islam and that’s also what is portrayed visually. (30:00) Protestantism is not there. It’s the default position, right? It’s neutered.

CC: Harmless.

CB: Harmless, yes.

CC: OK. And I should just say we’ve had to have the windows open because it’s so warm in here, so I hope the Listeners are enjoying the slight birdsong that’s making its way in.

CB: (Laughs).

CC: Just to get towards wrapping up here. That’s been some excellent examples from your ethnographic work, and also tying it into the broader national discourse through the vehicle of this TV programme. But, I guess, if I were to force you to come up with some conclusions about the religious and the secular and the construction of refugees in Germany, where would you go?

CB: Yes. Well first of all, I have to mention I didn’t look for any notions of the secular and the religious at the beginning when I was doing research. It just came up to me, because people were using this terminology, right? From media polemical terms, basically, people identified . . . . So for me they’re not the critical categories I use. What I’ve seen – and this is an argument I’m putting up – is that in this dispositive of the refugee we have the notions of the secular and the religious that are constructed there, and are implemented into everyday life. But they’re normative of course, right? They’re not neutral. And they’re also inserted into interaction. And this is where it comes to shaping subjectivities, right? Because for example the Syrians at Church, they were constantly being confronted with a secular idea of being an individual – a secular conceptualisation of subjectivity. And they were more or less subtly asked to adapt to it, to internalise it. And I think this is very interesting when you look in terms of power effect. This is how power is inserted into life, into micro-politics, basically. Power is not something abstract that somehow defines discourses and is established in discourses, but it also trickles down into everyday life.

CC: Yes. The norms of conduct and the things that are censured. And all those unspoken rules, which actually, this programme is ending up speaking the unspoken rules in many ways.

CB: Yes. They’re fleshing it out for you so you can just take an easy lesson with you and know what you have to do. So this is where I’ve seen my fieldwork so far – this was my focus so far: how, through interactions with the Syrians, and the volunteers, and the specific setting, specific secular subjectivities are inserted into their Muslim subjectivities. They have to be Muslim in a secular-specific way – a secular-Protestant-specific way – in order to become part of German society, in order to be here. And what further interests me in my fieldwork – and this is what I will be doing in the coming months – is to see how the other side handles this. Basically, they are presented with subject positions. And they have to somehow deal with them, negotiate them. Either they try to resist consciously or just adapt a bit, internalise a bit, usually it’s much more ambiguous and not so clearly seen. But it’s interesting to see what they do with it. What I noticed in my fieldwork is that these six who I was seeing quite a lot – and I’m still in contact and see them around, like at bases – they’re insecure about how to behave, basically. Because they’re totally decentred right now. All these demands are put on to them and they don’t see what the difference is between them and what is demanded of them. They don’t seem to be properly adapted. And for them it’s very difficult to wrap their head around. Some of the men even ask me, “Carmen, when I’m working on the street, am I allowed to look women in the face? Is that indecent?” Especially after the events in Cologne, with the assaults on the women in New Year’s Eve. And the entire discourse that came out of the debate afterwards. They said, “If I see women, had I better cross the street to not be offensive?” So for some it’s really difficult – who are conscious of the sort- of, yes, antagonisms going on there – how to deal with it in their daily lives; how to behave properly; not to be seen as an outsider or as a predator, for example. (35:00)

CC: Exactly.

CB: So they have to find new scripts, basically, for how to behave properly. And this can be done by negotiating but also on a more subconscious level, I think. So I’m trying to get at this whole level of micro-politics.

CC: That’s fantastic. Well, we are out of time, so we are going to have to stop it there. But it’s excellent to hear of such rigorous empirical work being done with this sort of critical discourse/ analytical power angle. A lot of times empirical work . . .

CB: It lacks that.

CC: . . . lacks that, so it’s really good to hear. So thank you very much, Carmen Becker.

CB: Well, thank you for having me!


Citation Info: Becker, Carmen and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “’The ‘Secular’, the ‘Religious’ and the ‘Refugee’ in Germany”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 22 October 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 30 July 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-secular-the-religious-and-the-refugee-in-germany/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

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Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: The Co-Dependency of Religion and the Secular

In our fifth editors’ pick, Marek Sullivan writes “Few questions are as meta-reflexive as the question ‘Is secularism a world religion?’ It’s now established that secularism and religion are co-constitutive terms: the history of the category ‘religion’ is inseparable from the history of secularisation. But what happens when secularism is rethought as a mode or sub-category of one of its core progenies, ‘world religion’? Donovan Schaefer brings his background in critical theory and material religions to bear on this mind-bending question, leading us through the history of the secularisation thesis, the idea of ‘world religions’, the Protestant genealogy of secularism, and the urgency of parsing the academic study of secularism into historically and culturally differentiated variants. Despite the broad sweep of the interview, I was left wanting more!”

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Continuing the ‘series’ is our new features co-editor, Marek Sullivan.

Few questions are as meta-reflexive as the question ‘Is secularism a world religion?’ It’s now established that secularism and religion are co-constitutive terms: the history of the category ‘religion’ is inseparable from the history of secularisation. But what happens when secularism is rethought as a mode or sub-category of one of its core progenies, ‘world religion’? Donovan Schaefer brings his background in critical theory and material religions to bear on this mind-bending question, leading us through the history of the secularisation thesis, the idea of ‘world religions’, the Protestant genealogy of secularism, and the urgency of parsing the academic study of secularism into historically and culturally differentiated variants. Despite the broad sweep of the interview, I was left wanting more!

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Pulp Fiction memorabilia, astronaut ice cream and more.

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: Critiquing the Axial Age

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Kicking off the ‘series’ is co-editor-in-chief, Chris Cotter.

It only took me a few seconds to decide to flag up Breann Fallon‘s interview with Jack Tsonis on “The “Axial Age”: Problematising Religious History in a Post-Colonial Setting.” Not only did I enjoy the very ‘meta’ nature of this interview – with two long-standing Cusackian RSP team members producing content independent of David and myself – but I also delight to this day in remembering Jack’s fiery and animated presentation on the same topic at IAHR 2015 in Erfurt. I don’t think I have ever seen a scholar ‘go off on one’ quite like he did… and it was brilliant. Would that more scholars were so passionate about their area of study, and so willing to pierce through the established (boring) norms of conference presentations.

In this important interview, Tsonis demonstrates how the term ‘Axial Age’ shares much in common with the notion of ‘World Religions’ in that both – to quote the subtitle to Tomoko Masuzawa‘s seminal work – preserve ‘European universalism […] in the language of pluralism’. Tsonis forcefully argues that many left-wing scholars fail to see the racist ideology encoded in the term, and that critical scholars have a duty to not only cast the terms ‘Axial Age’ and ‘World Religions’ on the scrapheap of history, but starve them of oxygen. This is a difficult argument for some to hear, but one I heartily encourage listeners to engage with and put into practice.

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, incense, lava lamps, and more.

 

Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Cliches

“Religions are belief systems”, “Religions are intrinsically violent”, “Religion is Bullshit”… these are just some of the pervasive cliches that we might hear from time to time in the English-speaking world about our central topic of discussion on the RSP, ‘religion’. In this podcast, Chris is joined by Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin, the editors of the recently published Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Cliches (Bloomsbury, 2017) to discuss these cliches, the ideological work that they do, how scholars could and should approach them, the construction of the book, and more.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for making this recording possible. The other cliches addressed in the book and/or covered in the podcast include:

* “Religion Makes People Moral”
* “Religion Concerns the Transcendent”
* “Religion is a Private Matter”
* “Religions are Mutually Exclusive”
* “I’m Spiritual but Not Religious”
* “Learning about Religion Leads to Tolerance”
* “Everyone has a Faith”

You can find a full list of contributors, and more about the book, on the publisher’s website: HERE.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Wu-Wear, previously enjoyed golf balls, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Clichés

Podcast with Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin (30 April 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Stoddard and Martin – Stereotyping Religion 1.1

Chris Cotter (CC): “Religions are belief systems.” “Religions are intrinsically violent.” “Religion is bullshit.” These are just some of the pervasive clichés that we might hear from time to time, in the English-speaking world, about our central topic of discussion on the RSP: religion. Joining me today to talk about a new book that’s coming out called Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin, neither of whom should be strangers to the Religious Studies Project. But, just to introduce them, Brad is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. He completed his dissertation at Florida State University and is currently revising his manuscript on Florida’s faith-based correctional institutions. He teaches American Religious History and the History of Christianity. And he’s primarily interested in religion and the law, religion in American prisons, and theory and method in the Study of Religion. And he’s currently serving as the president of our beneficent sponsors, the North American Association for the Study of Religion. And Craig Martin is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at St Thomas Aquinas College. And his research and teaching focuses on theoretical questions in the academic Study of Religion, typically related to discourse, ideology and power. And some of his books include, Masking Hegemony: A Genealogy of Liberalism, Religion and the Private Sphere; Capitalising Religion: Ideology and the Opiate of the Bourgeoisie; and A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion. And he is currently the editor of a book series with Bloomsbury, titled Critiquing Religion: Discourse, Culture and Power, in which this book, Stereotyping Religion, appears. So, Brad and Craig – welcome back to the Religious Studies Project!

Brad Stoddard (BS): Thank you.

Craig Martin (CM): Thanks so much.

CC: And I should say that we are conversing via the wonders of Skype. So maybe – just to set the scene here for me – if you want to tell me, how did this book come to be? Why did it come to be? What’s the point here?

CM: Brad, can I field that one to begin with?

BS: I think you should!

CM: (Laughs.) So, the initial idea for this book project came to me when I was working on my dissertation at Syracuse University. I was thinking about all the stereotypes about religion that my students came into the class with, and that I found frustrating to know how to deal with – and not just students, but also friends and family members who would repeat these clichés. And it was like, I couldn’t think of an obvious scholarly source to point them to, to say, “OK. In a nutshell, here’s why scholars try to avoid this cliché.” So, through conversations with my friends Donovan Schaefer and Jeremy Vecchi  . . . Schaefer’s now at – I’m going to get this wrong. He’s either at Penn State, or the University of Pennsylvania – I can’t remember which.

CC: (Laughs).

CM: But, I reached out to Donovan Schaefer and Jeremy Vecchi and I said, “You know, I think we could write this book really quickly and easily, because we already know what we want to say about each of these stereotypes.” And we produced three chapters, and I graduated and moved away, and the thing just kind-of languished and was never picked up and continued. So a couple of years ago I was like, “You know, that really was a good idea for a book. There should be something on clichés and stereotypes.” So I reached out to Brad and said, “Hey, are you interested in helping me edit this?” And he jumped on board, and then we ran with it.

CC: Wonderful. And it’s really great when that sort of thing happens, when you get to revisit an idea that you had – and no one else has stolen it! Yes.

CM: (Laughs). Yes. Well in ten years of it sitting, nobody else stole the idea. And I think that the stereotypes we chose are so pervasive that we didn’t have any difficulty getting people to sign up for the project. People were immediately, “Oh yes! That’s a great idea. Can I address this one?” Or, “Can I address that one?” So, yes we were pleased with how quickly it came together, and how great our submitting authors were.

CC: On that note . . . . So, you say you found it quite easy to come up with the list of clichés: did you present a ready-made list and then try and find contributors? Or did contributors come to you with clichés they particularly wanted to write about? And were there ones that you had wanted to include, that you couldn’t?

BS: As I recall, Craig and I . . . when Craig approached me with the project we sat down, you know, over the phone or email and went back and forth to create a list of about ten clichés that we agreed on. And then we started looking for people to write about the individual clichés. And in conversations with the individual authors at least one or maybe two of the clichés changed, because the author would say, “Well that’s good – can I approach it from this angle” And of course, when it made sense, we gave the individual authors the freedom to run with the cliché. But the bulk of it, I think, came from a few conversations where Craig and I just identified: these are the main clichés we see in society and politics. These are the main clichés we encounter in class. And so we had this list of clichés – and it just changed a little bit, but for the most part we ran with our list.

CC: Fantastic. I’ll ask you in a moment to take me through a few of them. But, in the introduction you set out the context for the book, but also the context in which the clichés are operating. So you talk about liberal political theory, idealised Protestantism, secularisation theory and so on. Maybe you could – just for the listeners – lay out the context that we’re talking about, in which these stereotypes are operating?

CM: I think a lot of that stuff in the intro was from me. Because when we were finishing edits to the various chapters, and I was reading through them and thinking about, you know – would my students be able to follow these or not? Because we wanted this to be accessible at an undergraduate level. I realised a common theme that went throughout a majority of the chapters were those three things that you mentioned: liberal political discourse that says religion is a private matter, the discourses on secularism and the discourses on New Atheism. These didn’t pop up in every single chapter, but in a majority of ones. So I was like, you know: we should give some background to the consistent themes that were going to pop up as the reader moves through the book.

CC: Yes.

CM: So that’s why I used those in particular: because I thought that they would help the readers understand the chapters.

BS: The only thing that I would add to that – I think you also mention in that section anti-Catholic propaganda, or anti-Catholic Protestant propaganda, about religion being a private matter. Or some of the other clichés: that they have a Protestant bias built into them. And, of course, the colonial context. Those are two other factors that we saw as common themes in the history of the general clichés.

CM: Yes, for sure. Exactly.

CC: Fantastic. So, I’m wary of asking you pull out favourites or anything, because we’ll not have time to get through every cliché. But perhaps you could take us through one or two of them, and just show us some of the analysis in action?

BS: Do you have any ones you want to pull out, Craig?

CM: I’ll wait till after you go.

CC: (Laughs). I like that.

BS: I have a soft spot for Steven Ramey’s piece. Steven Ramey writes about religions being mutually exclusive. And I think Steven’s was the first . . . . The reason I have a soft spot for it: I think it was the first one that came back to us; he was the first to submit it, that is. And I read it and I thought, “This is exactly how I want this book to look.” So, Steven Ramey addresses the cliché that religions are mutually exclusive. And so he introduces the chapter with I think the opening sentence, “What is your religion? Check one box.” And this is something that all undergraduates have seen in some version, right? What is your religion? They get it here. They have the option to check that box when they apply for admission. So I know they’ve at least seen it once, but probably many times before. So he introduces the cliché. In the introduction he talks about how this is not . . . this cliché that religions are mutually exclusive is not just academic navel-gazing, but that there are real political and legal implications. And he addressed some of the legal and political implications. And he continues . . . . In the chapter he talks about places where you encounter this cliché. Where do we see it? We see it in popular culture. We see it in politics. We see it in Law. Of course, he doesn’t mention this, but for example in the work I do in prisons: when you’re an inmate in America you check “Which religion are you?” You have to check one. And in Florida, where I did the bulk of my research, you can only change your religion once every six months. And it dictates where you can move about in the prison, which groups you can attend, which study groups, which religious services. Steven doesn’t address that part, but these are some of the examples. Steven mentions different types of examples like this. You know, this idea that religions are mutually exclusive: it does have political and legal implications. So then he moves in, and he talks about the development, the historical development of the cliché. Talking about, of course, the European context in which the cliché emerged. He talks about the colonial context. I believe he mentions the Protestant Reformation. He talks about places like India, where the distinction between Buddhism and Hinduism is not as rigid as we would imply. Or some other Asian countries where Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism or even Shinto – these alleged, so-called separate religions – the boundaries are just so much more malleable. So, long-story-short, by the time you read Steven’s chapter you get the history of the cliché, you get the political work that it does, and you realise the areas of the world where that cliché becomes quite problematic.

CC: Exactly. And it’s worth noting, here, that the book isn’t attempting to sort-of put something in the place of these clichés. Because the opposite example of religions being mutually exclusive, would be that, I guess, religions are all one and the same – which is another one that is dealt with in the book. You’re not so much asking these authors to say, “This is wrong, and this is right.” You’re rather pointing out that clichés, in and of themselves, never tell the full picture and are always doing ideological work.

BS: That’s true. We highlight that in the introduction, where we make a point of saying that we want to make it clear the work is not to replace these old clichés with new generalisations about religion, or better generalisations about religion. Instead, we’re suggesting to the students, or to the readers, that any cliché about religion or any generalising statement can similarly be interrogated, historicised, etc.

CC: Fantastic. So, Craig, you’ve had a long time to think, there, about which you’re going to pick out!

CM: Well, I decided I can’t pick one. I think – there are so many great chapters in here, in my opinion.

CC: You’ll never hear the end of it if you pick . . . you know, whoever you pick!

CM: Yes. (Laughs). Well, ok

BS: Delete my answer, then!

CM: I really enjoyed Tenzan‘s chapter on learning about how religion leads to tolerance – in part because he did a bunch of research into Ninian Smart’s work that I didn’t have a lot of prior familiarity with. So I actually learned a lot about Ninian Smart by reading his chapter. You know, Ninian Smart reproduces a stereotype that if you learn about religion, or if we teach about religion in public schools or in colleges, then people will be more tolerant and accepting and forgiving of one another. And one of the things that I felt was really important about the book was that I felt that we needed to address how theses stereotypes appear not only in popular culture, but also in scholarly literature. And Tenzan just did a fantastic job of showing, you know, how even a sophisticated scholar like Ninian Smart reproduces some pretty blatant stereotypes. But I really thought he nailed Ninian Smart – that’s probably why I liked it so much.

CC: Yes. When I was reading it I did highlight three or four pages to come back to, the next time I have to teach about Ninian Smart.

CM: I had a chance to teach him in my Intro to Religious Studies class. I taught this book last semester. And literally, the day . . . . So, this was a 9 o’clock in the morning class, and we’d addressed Tenzan’s chapter that education about religion leads to tolerance. And then, literally a couple of hours later, one of my students who was in that class went to one of her other classes where they had a guest lecturer – who showed up to talk about how education about different religions leads to tolerance! So the student came back to me in office hours the next day and said, “You know, Professor, I was arguing with this presenter in my head, and I was pretty sure I won the argument, based on what we had learned in class earlier that day.”

CC: (Laughs).

CM: So it was fun to see . . . . You know, we addressed this cliché and then two hours later, literally, she encounters the cliché in the classroom. It’s fun!

CC: Fantastic. And we’ll talk, hopefully, before we finish about that experiment of using it in the classroom. But you’ve touched on, there, learning about religions leads to tolerance. That sounds like a quite a positive cliché. In one of the chapters, I think it was Matt Sheedy’s on religion being violent, he brought up Karen Armstrong, and others, insisting that proper religion is peaceful, and religion is a peaceful, nice thing. Is there a danger that by critiquing positive clichés we’re doing society a disservice? Or is there such a thing as a positive cliché?

CM: I want to answer this question pointing to what I think is an excellent book on phenomenology of religion, Tim Murphy‘s The Politics of Spirit. And in that book Murphy looks at the history of phenomenology, a lot of which puts a positive spin on religion: that religion is getting in touch with the transcendent; religion is a sort of happiness, etc. Phenomenology of religion tends to think positively about religion. But what Tim Murphy does is show that each one of those phenomenologists uses their rhetorical framework to rank religions and to denigrate some in relationship to others. So that someone like Rudolph Otto says, you know, religion is getting in touch with the transcendent, and that Christianity most beautifully gets us in touch with the transcendent. But, of course, Islam doesn’t do so well, and primitive religion is terrible at it. So I think that even the positive clichés . . . like Karen Armstrong – she also has a ranking system built into her framework. So that the things that she likes she can call authentic religion, and the things that she doesn’t like she can dismiss as inauthentic religion or political religion – or maybe, for her, political religion isn’t even religion. So perhaps it’s ok to bomb the ship in the Middle East, because they’re not good religious people, they’re bad religious people? So I think that even the positive clichés have the potential to be used in that kind of ranking system, where people can favour one and dismiss others. And that can often-times lead to what I consider to be negative effects.

CC: Absolutely. And, indeed, Leslie Dorrough Smith writes in the book about the idea of religion being about transcendence. And I pulled out this quote where she says that cliché can “simultaneously normalise the existence of the supernatural, identify an enemy, justify a political cause, amplify the seriousness of one’s position and unite a group of people under the banner of their own moral worth.” And that’s not even a complete list! So in that . . . . You hear, “Oh religion is just about the transcendent, the supernatural, the ineffable,” and it doesn’t sound harmful. But when you look at how it is deployed, it’s doing real ideological work. So let’s talk about the classroom setting, then. So, as I was saying earlier to you: this is certainly going to be a very useful resource when I’m coming to teaching – not only about Ninian Smart, but any time you casually mention these clichés – it’s going to be fantastic to just pick up the book and find a few examples. So I can see it being a really useful teaching resource, in that respect. But, Brad – you used it in the classroom, then. So how did that go down?

BS: Yes, I used this book in my Intro to Religious Studies class, where we start by reviewing the so-called canon of important or influential Religious Studies scholars, and then we supplement that with people who are omitted from the so-called canon. And then the benefit of that is that the students got a wide survey of theories about religions, approaches to religion, methods, methodologies, etc. And then we ended the semester by reading and discussing Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Clichés. And since it was the first time I taught from the book, I organised it as this: we’d meet three days a week, and I asked groups of students to present for a half hour. And so, you had two or three students each presenting a chapter. And they presented for about twenty minutes, and then we’d open up for Q and A for about ten minutes or so. And then I had some closing comments at the end of the class. And what I like about it is that it allowed me to see what the students took from the book, and what I thought they omitted. And it led to some really good discussions, because the students thought…or the students said, “Yes. Some of the clichés that we’ve identified, I embrace them.” Pretty much the entire class! And so to have someone call them out, and point out the history, and point out the problems with it – it did a lot of work in the class. It helped the students, because it overturned some things that they had just taken for granted. And actually, on the last day of class, we discussed the entire book. And the students tended to agree – obviously they knew that I was one of the editors, so they weren’t going to say too many harsh criticisms; they weren’t going to criticise it too much! But they thought that it was nice to end the semester by addressing these clichés, for the simple fact that it changed the way they were thinking, or that they had thought about religion, you know, for their young adult life.

CC: Fantastic.

BS: Not to over-romanticise it, right?!

CC: Oh, no.

BS: But they did find value in it.

CC: Excellent. I can totally see myself, the next time I’m marking a pile of essays . . . . And you see these clichés coming up all the time. One that’s not in the book is, you know: “Religion has been around since the beginning of time . . .” They’ll sort-of begin with that. But plenty of other ones come up. And I can imagine, immediately, just copying in a URL to the chapter on the library website, for any of these – rather than having to spend my own time deconstructing it! Just say, “Read that chapter, and then come back and write it again.”

BS: That’s a good one! Craig, take note: we should include that in the next edition, if there is one!

CC: Yes! (Laughs). Well, if there’s another one: “Religion is a choice” – you always hear that. People choose to believe, or choose to have a certain religion. So, yes, I’m already filling up the next volume! I guess an obvious question that would come up on the RSP quite often, is: why religion, here? Obviously this is our area of interest. We teach courses on this. But could you do a similar book for say stereotyping sport, or stereotyping gender, or, you know – is religion particularly problematic?

BS: Yes, you could. And I hope other people do!

CC: (Laughs).

BS: So, I have a little more of a substantive response to that question.

All: (Laugh).

BS: I think that, yes, obviously you could write such a book about any subject matter: stereotyping politics, stereotyping gender, stereotyping race. What I think sets Religious Studies apart is the fact that post-structuralism reached Religious Studies twenty years later than it hit all those other fields. And the popularisation of post-structuralist approaches is lagging. I don’t know, apart from Malory Nye‘s intro book, in Russell McCutcheon’s new book, I don’t know of any introductory material in Religious Studies that actually comes from a critical, poststructuralist perspective. And I’m pretty sure that people have been teaching poststructuralism to undergrads since the 80s. So it’s time that we went ahead, and picked up our slack, and tried to catch up by having some undergraduate literature to present. I mean it’s not like post-structuralism is brand new. It’s 50 years old, now! Our introductory textbooks still tend to ignore those types of critical approaches.

CC: Yes. So there are disciplinary reasons why such a book may not be written, necessarily, in other fields. And then also, like it or not, “religion” – this constructed political category – is something that has a lot of power in the modern Western world. To write a book called, I don’t know, “Stereotyping Golf”, or “Stereotyping Stamp Collecting”, whilst it might be interesting . . . . Unfortunately, stereotypes about stamp collecting probably aren’t quite as pervasive, or potentially harmful, as these clichés about “religion”. Every time I say “religion” it’s in scare quotes. But we all know that. We are coming up on about 25 minutes, here. So I’ll be wanting to wrap up, fairly soon. And I’m going to close the interview with Rebekka King‘s close to the book. But I just wondered if there’s anything more on this topic of prevalent stereotypes about religion that you would like to say, or that you’d hoped you were going to say?

CM: I think I would just want to say thanks to Donovan Schaefer and Jeremy Vecchi for working with me on this project in the ancient past, and thanks to Brad for joining the project when I decided to resurrect it. And also thanks to Lalle Pursglove at Bloomsbury publishing, for showing some interest in the idea and taking me up on the offer.

CC: Absolutely. And it’s brilliant to see the sort of critical religion approach applied in this sense, sort-of applied systematically to a variety of clichés that . . . . When I was reading it myself I was doing a lot of, “Well, yes. Yes, that makes sense.” But there were a lot of things that were thoughts that I’d had, but were never actually put down on paper. And lots of interesting examples, and plenty that I’d never thought of before. And I can see it being really useful, both for students and to point students to – and potentially to do the sort of thing that Brad did, sort-of structuring some teaching around it. So do check out the book, Listeners. It’s called Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Clichés, edited by Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin. It came out in paperback immediately, so it’s nice and . . . It’s not a typical academic book price, so you can get your hands on it quite easily, hopefully. And you can find the full list of all the stereotypes and clichés . . . we’ll put them on the page with this podcast. I just wanted to end with Rebekka King’s chapter on “Religion is bullshit”. And she begins by talking about how even the desire to correct the statement “religion is bullshit” is, in itself, bullshit. And she closes the book with the following words, which I thought would be a nice way to end the episode: “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether or not religion is bullshit. The term is an empty signifier. What matters is your ability to weigh evidence, locate sources and pay critical attention to both your scholarly process and product. You may find yourself mired in shit, but at least you’ll be in good company.” And I hope you’ve been in good company today. Thanks so much Craig and Brad.

CM: Thank you.

BS: Thanks so much for having us. We appreciate it.

Citation Info: Stoddard, Brad, Craig Martin and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Clichés”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 30 April 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 25 April 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/stereotyping-religion-critical-approaches-to-pervasive-clichés/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Sexual Ethics and Islam

feetAlongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there is perhaps no other issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of the downtrodden Muslim woman are often countered by the claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there is a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and “problematic” topic? What are some of the most prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for Religious Studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, Chris is joined this week by Professor Kecia Ali, of Boston University.

Check out a recent lecture by Kecia on sexual ethics and Islam here.

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A transcription of this interview is available as a PDF, and has also been pasted below.


Sexual Ethics and Islam

Podcast with Kecia Ali (24 April 2017).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Chris Cotter (CC): Alongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there’s perhaps no issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions surrounding sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of down-trodden Muslim women are often countered by claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there’s a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and problematic topic? What are some of the prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for religious studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, I’m joined today by Kecia Ali, who is Professor of Religion at Boston University. Professor Ali is a scholar of religion, gender and ethics whose work focusses mostly on the Muslim tradition, with an emphasis on law and biography. She is currently Status Committee Director at the AAR and is a past president of the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics. Her publication list is impressive and features five monographs, including The Lives of Muhammed, Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam, and – most relevant to today’s interview – Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence, originally published in 2006, with an expanded revised edition published in 2016. So, Professor Ali, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Kecia Ali (KA): Thank you for having me.

CC: And thanks for joining us here in Edinburgh in the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for Study of Islam in the Contemporary World.

KA: That’s a mouthful isn’t it?

CC: It is a mouthful, but they’re graciously hosting us today. And we’ll be sure to shout out about your lecture that you’re doing this evening., when we publish this podcast. So first-off, Islam? Sexual ethics? Why are we even having this discussion?

KA: Yes, it’s sort of impossible not to be having the discussion, really. I think the challenge is to find ways to have it that are productive and don’t just inadvertently reinforce the power of certain dominant discourses by contesting them, if that’s the only thing we do. Look, the question of gendered roles and rights and obligations is one that has been present since – as near as we can tell – the first Muslim community, right? Scripture records specific questions about women’s and men’s respective roles, relationship to each other, relationship to religious obligations, relationship to God, etc. Certainly, accounts of the Prophet’s normative community are replete with gendered descriptions and contestations. Now, obviously, to what extent these reflect a 7th-century community and to what extent they reflect 8th/ 9th/10th-century reflections on that community and attempts to ascribe certain later, normative patterns onto that community, that’s a subject of debate among historians of Islam. But, for Muslims, pious Muslims, lay folk, scholars, these are the stories out of which accounts of virtuous ethical life are made. So Muslims certainly have been having internal conversations about gender norms since quite early on. Now, why are “we” having this conversation?

CC: Yes.

KA: Sexuality is always one of the things that comes up when someone wants to insult someone else, right? When one community, or members of a community are looking for a way to stigmatise, oppose, define “others”, sexuality is very frequently something that gets pressed into service. Whether that’s Protestants saying bad things about Catholics, Catholics saying bad things about Protestants, Protestants saying bad things about Catholics by likening them to Muslims, or the reverse , sexuality frequently comes into play. What we know, if we want to just in very broad terms talk about “The West and Islam” – and I object on principle to those categories, but I’m going to use them anyway as a kind of shorthand – we see, really, that in the Middle Ages and in the Early Modern era, it wasn’t Muslim oppression of women that was a problem for anybody, it was Muslim lustfulness and debauchery. And it’s really in the 19th-century, with the advent of European colonialism in Muslim majority societies – Egypt, for instance, and also India – that Muslim men’s oppressiveness towards women becomes part of a colonial discourse about civilisation, right? What’s very interesting is to look at the ways that the kinds of accusations levelled against Muslims have really changed over time. So not only from wantonness to oppression, but also you’ll find that today one of the things that tends to get said of Muslims is: “Oh, they’re so intolerant of homosexuality! They’re so repressive! Look how awful . . . !” Well, in the Early Modern era, and even into the 19th-century, the claim was, “They’re too tolerant of homosexuality!” They are attached to the practice of sodomy, “ Unlike us upright Brits,” usually, right? And, “Look how awful they are, compared to how moral we are,” which is basically the gist of all of this. And of course there are Muslims equally scandalised by Western women’s dress and the ways in which women and men outside their family interact.

CC: And that’s an important link there, then, when you mention the Muslim perspective. Because contemporary Muslims, whether we’re talking scholars or lay people going about their lives, are having to articulate their views against this dominant Western view.

KA: Yes, I mean, I think part of what’s particularly challenging for me as a scholar, and for media, for lay folk, for religious studies teachers in the classroom, is : how do we talk about this in way that actually recognises the great diversity of perspectives among Muslims? Because, you know, even that phrase, “the Muslim perspective” . . . it’s one that gets bandied about a lot, including by many Muslims. And, of course, part of what’s interesting to me as a scholar of religion, is: how are claims to representing the “authoritative Muslim perspective” being pressed? What are the sources being cited? What are the extra-textual authoritative norms being deployed? How much is it about where you got your degree from? How much is it abut whether you have a beard? How much is it about whether the media is calling you speak on their programmes? And how much is it about the content of your ideas?

CC: Yes. And that’s something that comes up in Aaron Hughes’ Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity

KA: Absolutely.

CC: We’ve had him on the podcast before and he talked about something completely different. We’re going to have to get him on again for that! But, yes, a very broad topic we’re talking about here: sexual ethics and Islam. How does one even go about studying that? I know that you had your own particular approach . . .

KA: So, the book Sexual Ethics and Islam really has its roots in two different things I was doing around the turn of the millennium. I did my doctoral dissertation at Duke University, about marriage and divorce in 8th -10th-century Sunni Muslim Jurisprudence. At the same time, 2001-2003, I was working part-time for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, which was directed by Bernadette Brooton and funded by the Ford Foundation. And so, for the dissertation, which I defended in 2002, I was really looking at about a dozen early Arabic legal texts. And for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project I was actually engaged in putting together a series of short essays for the site, aimed at lay folks – not necessarily Muslim – looking for a general orientation to the Muslim textual tradition. So, Qur’anic and prophetic tradition – to some extent exegesis, to some extent legal tradition – framing particular kinds of issues: issues around female dress, issues around marriage, around divorce, around slavery, around same-sex relationships, but framed in a kind of general way that would make them accessible. And I also wanted to begin to address the ways Muslims today were talking about those topics. Sexual Ethics and Islam really came together out of those two initiatives because, on the one hand, what I found when I was looking at the way contemporary Muslims were talking about these topics, is that they were often completely disconnected and, in fact, making claims that really contradicted, sometimes the positions, but far more often the logic and the assumptions of the early legal tradition. And I wanted to put those two things into conversation: put the 10th-century and the 21st-century into conversation. And I was very frustrated by the kind of “Islam liberated women” apologetic that a lot of Muslims were presenting. And I was equally frustrated with the sort of patriarchal, protective, protectionist . . . you know, “Well, of course, patriarchy done right is the only true Islamic tradition, that protects and respects women.” Which exists in a kind of funny tension with “No, no. The Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammed gave Muslim women all their rights and so there’s no need for patriarchy, because Islam is against patriarchy.” And none of these really grappling with, “What is it that’s there in the texts?”

CC: And that – when you mentioned the Prophet Muhammed – is perhaps an excellent way for us to leap right into some of that analysis. I know that the undergrads at New College, in Edinburgh, will be quite familiar with the chapter of the book that focuses on the Prophet’s relationship with his wife Aisha, so maybe we could use that as an example of these various competing discourses and how people use claims to authority to negotiate sexual ethics?

KA: Sure, so of course, for the pre-modern Muslim tradition, Aisha is an absolutely vital figure. She is the youngest of the Prophet’s wives, many say his favourite wife – certainly after Khadijah died, who was the wife of his younger years – and she’s a scholar,and she’s a contentious political figure and certainly, for the construction of Sunni identity, she becomes a flash point in those debates over loyalty, over succession, over precedence. And Chase Robinson – I’m going to paraphrase him now – says that Early Christians argued about Christology and early Muslims argued over how 7th-century Muslims’ behaviour should be remembered, right? So, later Muslims are trying to construct their own authentic narratives, their own strategies of power, by reference to these early Muslims. And so Aisha was absolutely central there. Which means that the ways in which she’s remembered ends up being very central. The texts that are giving people fits today really are texts about her marriage, in which she reports in the first person, in Hadith narratives – narratives of Prophetic tradition – that she was six or, in another version, seven when the prophet married her, and nine when the marriage was consummated. And there are other details sometimes given in these accounts. Now it’s useful to point out that this isn’t something that people were particularly worried about for a very long time. And its actually really unusual that any of his wives ages would be so important in texts about the marriage. But this is there in the Hadith compilations that we have from the 9th-century. And this is similar to the ages that are reported by early biographers, who maybe sometimes go as high as 10. But really, its quite a young age that’s reported in these texts. And generally, over the centuries, Muslim biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. Western biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. None of them took much notice, until we get to just about 1700, when Humphrey Prideaux, who was an Anglican clergyman, writes a very nasty biography of Muhammed as, actually, part of his ongoing debate with Unitarian Christians. And he says, “Oh isn’t this sort-of amazing there in Arabia, which is the same clime as India,” just like in all these other hot countries, the torrid zone, “how women mature so quickly”. And, for him, Aisha’s age of 6 and 8 is an indication of something that is sort-of exotic and erotic. What he’s worrying about, though, is that Muhammed is marrying her to make an allegiance with her father, which shows that he is making a power grab, in service of his fraudulent imposture. And basically, it only is really in the late 19th/early 20th-century that people start to, maybe, wonder about this a little bit . . . Western biographers. And by the late 20th-century it’s making lots of people uncomfortable, including some Muslims. So the Arabic translation of Washington Irving, for instance – who though this was all very romantic in the middle of the 19th-century – in the 1960s, when its being translated in Egypt, the translator adds a real note, right? And the original marriage has been demoted to a betrothal, and then the translator feels the need to sort-of explain this. But, by the time I’m writing Sexual Ethics and Islam, the context is different and there are two very serious competing strains. There’s a set of polemical accusations that Muhammed is a paedophile, which the Rev Jerry Vines has linked in an epithet as “Demon-possessed paedophile“. So he’s linking a very old accusation against Muhammed with a very new one: a sort of medicalised rhetoric of evil. And then you start to have Muslim apologetics around this question, which say several things. One is that, “Well, things were different back then”. And a version of that is what a number of secular, sympathetic Western academics have also said. And then, the other thing that you get is, “Well, these texts really aren’t reliable on this point.” And the thing that I point out in Sexual Ethics and Islam is: it’s completely fine if you want to make that argument, but then it’s a problem if you turn to those texts as absolutely true on everything else. The thing that was really striking for me, after writing Sexual Ethics and Islam and moving onto the project that became the Lives of Muhammed – which is an investigation of Biographical texts, specifically – is the ways in which, so often in early texts, numbers have a particular kind of symbolic function and resonance. And while I don’t know that six and seven, or nine and ten have the symbolic resonance that say forty does in the accounts of Khadijah’s age, it seems to me that there is plausibly . . . I don’t want to say probably, and I don’t think we can ever know with any kind of certainty these are factually accurate unless we’re simply willing to say, “These texts are all factually accurate and we accept that.” It seems to me, plausibly, there’s an argument to be made that the very low numbers given for her age are in service of praising her, actually; of presenting her as a particularly pure figure, which is very important given that her chastity was impugned during her lifetime, or at least according to texts.They represent this as something that was challenged. And so making her so young at marriage, emphasising her virginity, becomes a way of emphasising her sexual purity. The other thing, it seems to me, is that it’s possible that making her, say nine, when the marriage is consummated, after the Hijrah to Medina, is also a way of making her age low enough that she’s indisputably born to Muslim parents. So although virtually everybody in that first Muslim community would be a convert – according to pious narratives – by the time these Hadith texts are being compiled, having your parents already be Muslim, being born to Muslim parents is quite a status marker. It becomes important to have a genealogy of Muslim parents going further back.

CC: So, time is already running on here! In terms of positioning: you’re a woman, a Western academic, a feminist . . .

KA: And a Muslim

CC: And a Muslim, writing this book, discussing these topics, how was it received? My stereotypical brain is going, “This isn’t going to be that well received in some circles”. So how do you position yourself, in that respect?

KA: One of the more flattering things somebody once told me about the book, was that her graduate advisor – who was also a Muslim man – had suggested that she not read it, because it would be dangerous. And I thought, “Oh! I must have done something right!” (laughs) But, on the other hand, I think that my original intention for the book was not really to have it end up where it’s ended up, which is in the classroom mostly with students, many of whom are not Muslim. This was written, originally, very much as a book that was engaged in a kind of intra-Muslim conversation, to address some frustrations I had with the way intra-Muslim conversations over issues of sexual ethics, were going: I thought, in not particularly productive ways. However, I’m not writing it only as a Muslim feminist. I’m writing as a scholar of Religious Studies. And I know there are some people who don’t think you can or should do both of those things, but I have Religious Studies training. And one of the things that that training enables me to do is to look at the ways in which particular traditions are being constructed, in which particular claims to authority are being made in particular ways. So, for instance, the chapter on female genital cutting in the book is really an extended meditation on: what does the category Islamic, and what do claims to the category Islamic – or, more pertinently, “un-Islamic” – tell us? How useful are they? And where might things that are useful in particular kinds of activist campaigns really break down, if we’re trying to look at them historically, or from within Religious Studies, or from within the world of scholarship, at all?

CC: Yes. And I can remember the students being a little bit frustrated in the sense that so many different points of view were being considered – and not being necessarily condemned – and they were all . . . “Which is the right way?!” (laughs)

KA: I mean, look, answers are great. I have a lot fewer answers than I have questions. And, if anything, in the expanded edition of the book there are even more questions and even fewer answers! But, look, I don’t think we’re going to get better answers until we get better at asking the right questions.

CC: Exactly

KA: And the right questions are very often – and not just for Muslims, and not just about Muslim questions – what’s behind what we’re being told? What’s the evidence for this perspective? Where is this coming from? And how much credit do we want to give it as an accurate representation of something in the world?

CC: And that leads me into, sort of, where I was wanting to get to in the interview – and you’ve been a fantastic interviewee. Religious Studies: I can imagine that some will have maybe seen the title of this interview and thought, “Oh, that’s Area Studies, Islamic Studies. I don’t need to go there.” You know, everything that you’ve been saying, I think, has been illustrating why this is important for the broader study of religion, but I just, maybe, wondered if you wanted to reflect on that from your perspective . . . in multiple different camps.

KA: Yes. I mean, within the academic world of scholars who study Islam and Muslims, some come from Area Studies training: Middle East Studies, Near Eastern Studies, Islamic Studies. Some are really trained to philological work with old texts, and there’s a lot of good work that’s being done with those texts. And some are not trained to work with those texts and instead are very historical, very presentist, very ethnographic in ways that, I think, sometimes make it difficult to understand the resonance of the appeal to the textual tradition that many Muslims take. I’m very fortunate that the American Academy of Religion brings together, in the programme units that study Islam, quite a fabulous group of scholars who have expertise in training in a variety of different disciplines, but who are committed – at least some of the time in their professional engagement – to Religious Studies as a discipline, which is of course inter-disciplinary of necessity. And I think, given that so many questions about Islam are really pivotal to questions that Religious Studies as a discipline is wrestling with, about the rights and roles and responsibilities of insiders and outsiders, with the formation of the category of religion . . . . Look, it’s not an accident that Orientalist, Imperialist categories are very much at play here. I think it’s tremendously important that Islamic Studies be having conversations with folks in Religious Studies and vice versa, to the extent that you can even draw distinctions between them.

CC: And so, on the topic of conversations between different fields, your work’s taken a different turn of late?

KA: (laughs) Yes. A detour!

CC: Your latest book, Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in JD Robb’s Novels . . . What’s this got to do with Islam? (laughs)

KA: Well, at one level, nothing. And at the other level, I suppose, everything. I read these novels recreationally. It’s a series that’s been ongoing over 20 years, published by Nora Roberts, whose a premier American author of popular romance, under the pseudonym JD Robb. They are police procedurals, set in New York, circa 2060, and I read them. And I had things to say about them, and about the way that they deal with intimate relationships; about the way they deal with friendship; about the way they deal with work, especially women’s work; about the way they deal with violence, including police violence; about the way they deal with what it means to be a human being; about abilities and perfection and the idea of a post-human future. And I think that, to the extent that this book connects to my other work, it’s really around the questions of ethics: what it means to live a good, ethical, virtuous life in connection with other human beings in a given set of circumstances. I trained as a historian before I moved into Religious Studies. And one of the things that comes up again in this series – just like it comes up looking at 8th and 9th-century legal texts and biographies – is that understanding the present is sometimes best done from a distance. So looking comparatively at the past, looking at one possible imagined future, can give us a new perspective on the world we’re living in right now.

CC: Wonderful. And that, also, illustrates even more the importance of your work with Islamic texts, with contemporary Islam, sexual ethics. And it’s been fantastic that we’ve been having this conversation on International Women’s Day! So, I know this won’t be going out for another few months, but just to get that onto the recording from the Alwaleed Centre. And I think we’re going to have to draw that to a close there. It’s been fantastic speaking with you. And I wish you all the best with the lecture this evening, which, if the recording of the lecture goes ok, we’ll link to it from this page and everyone can see it and hear it, in all its glory!

KA: Thanks

CC: Thank you.


Citation Info: Ali, Kecia 2017. “Sexual Ethics and Islam”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 24 April 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 1 May 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/sexual-ethics-and-islam/

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Is Secularism a World Religion?

Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will know that we are not the biggest fans of the World Religions Paradigm. Indeed, it was James Cox’s excellent introduction to the topic back in February 2013, and the accompanying response that asked what Religious Studies should do “After the World Religions Paradigm…?” that prompted David and Chris, with some encouragement from Steve Sutcliffe, Russell McCutcheon and Craig Martin, to co-edit the volume “published in February 2016 with Routledge. Listeners will also be relatively familiar with the concept of “secularism”, “the secular” and so on – particularly from our podcasts with Joseph Blankholm on “Permutations of the Secular” and with Phil Zuckerman and John Shook on “Understanding the Secular“. Today we thought it would be an interesting exercise to weave these two strands together and rhetorically ask “Is Secularism a World Religion?” Discussion starts with the entanglement of the concepts ‘religion’ and ‘secularism’, a brief discussion of the problems associated with the World Religions Paradigm, and then moves to the pedagogical merits and challenges of teaching ‘secularism/s’ within a World Religions model. We hope you enjoy this experiment!


A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted below.


(pssst…check out these podcasts below too!)

Is Religion Special? A Critical Look at Religion, Wellbeing, and Prosociality with Luke Galen

Is religion ‘sui generis,? with Russell McCutcheon

Secular Humanism with Tom Flynn

The Secularisation Thesis with Linda Woodhead

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Podcast with Donovan Schaefer (28th November 2016)

Interviewed by Christopher R. Cotter

Transcribed by Catrin J. Sawford

Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/is-secularism-a-world-religion/

Christopher R. Cotter (CC): Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will know that we’re not the biggest fans of the “World religions” paradigm. Indeed, it was James Cox’s excellent introduction to the topic back in February 2013 and the accompanying response that asked what religious studies should do after the world religions paradigm that prompted David and I, with some encouragement from Steve Sutcliffe, Russell McCutcheon, and Craig Martin, to co-edit the volume ‘After World religions’, published in February 2016.  Listeners will also be relatively familiar with concepts of Secularism, the secular, and so on, particularly from podcasts with Joe Blankholm on Permutations of the Secular and with Phil Zuckerman and John Shook on Understanding the Secular.  Today we thought it would be an interesting exercise to weave these two strands together and rhetorically ask, ‘is Secularism a world religion?’ So I’m joined today to discuss this question by Donovan Schaefer at the British Association for the Study of Religion’s annual conference at the University of Wolverhampton. Dr Schaefer is departmental lecturer in science and religion, in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at Oxford University and his first book ‘Religious Affects, Animality, Evolution, and Power’ was published in November 2015 by Duke, and has current projects on the relationship between emotion, science, and Secularism. So Donovan, first off welcome to The Religious Studies Project.

Donovan Schaefer (DS): Thanks a lot Chris, thanks for having me.

(CC): It’s a pleasure. So first of all, in the spirit of rhetorically asking, why are we even asking this question? I mean, Secularism is surely as far removed from the category of world religions as we can get, I mean…why are you asking it?

(DS): Yeah, definitely. A lot of recent research has actually challenged that seemingly common-sensical argument that Secularism is the opposite of religion. This has come from a lot of different directions, historical analysis, cultural studies, even a lot of work in philosophy of religion has started to challenge this idea that there is a clear line between the secular and the religious.

(CC): Mm. And, because they’re so intertwined as concepts even if you were to accept they’re-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): opposites, you’ve always got the study…the opposites within…you know, you can’t know what religion is without studying it’s supposed opposite anyway.

(DS): Yeah, absolutely.

(CC): So, perhaps it would be best to start, I mean, we’ve covered the Secularisation Thesis and a lot of these topics in other podcasts but we should start with that, so let’s paint the context in which this question is being asked then.

(DS): Sure, so the Secularisation Thesis really gets off the ground in the 19th Century and it comes from a variety of different quarters in the sort of, early movements in sociology, some of the early conversations that are being asked in science and religion, late 20th Century, sorry, late 19th Century, philosophy of religion, all of these different conversations start to thematise this idea that religion is a specific thing in the world that is gradually going away.

(CC): Mmm.

(DS): Now, in the 20th century you have thinkers like Max Weber in sociology who formalise this, they make it, they make it even more of a kind of, article of social-scientific faith that religion is on a trajectory of decline. What happens though, is that, later in the 20th Century, you have these historical moments that start to challenge the Secularisation Thesis. So something like the rise of the religious right in the United States in the 1970s in reaction to things like the civil rights movement, or the (05:00) Roe V Wade Supreme Court ruling. The religious right by the mid to late 1970s has become an incredibly powerful force and of course in 1980 you have the election of Ronald Regan with a specifically Christian agenda backing him. Or even across the world, something like the Iranian revolution in 1978 to ’79 that creates a new Islamic Republic where previously there had been a secular state. Stuff like this, it’s just not supposed to happen according to the classical Secularisation narrative. There isn’t supposed to be a return of religion, religion is supposed to be evaporating. And that puts a, it puts pressure on the classical secularisation narrative. So scholars throughout the 1980s, 1990s and up to the present have started to ask questions about the secularisation narrative and have come up with a very robust dialogue about what went wrong with the classical secularisation paradigm and what will replace it.

(CC): Mmm. And that also sort of introduces an ideological element this sort of idea-

(DS): -Right.

 (CC): –that the notion of secularisation is itself a form of ideology, it’s a sort of…thinking of the way things should be-

(DS): Definitely, yeah.

(CC): -it’s not mirroring reality.

(DS): Right.

(CC): So we’ve already alluded to even if these things are dichotomous, obviously it’s studying them alongside each other so…many of us at Universities will be familiar with the standard introductory sort of  ‘here’s a survey of world religions’ like ‘Religion 101’ or something. So I think one of the questions you’re really asking is should… where’s the place of the secular in that sort of Religion 101 class?

(DS): Yeah, exactly.

(CC): Is it a World Religion, so if we’re going to segue into that, we’re going to need to talk about what is a world religion first of all, and then ask why we might want to try and fit the secular into that mould.

(DS): I mean I should really be asking you that but my take on it is that the idea of World religions again has its emergence in the 19th Century, it comes out of these 19th Century thinkers like Max Muller who are interested in making the study of religion into a science, they want to formalize the study of religion and turn it into something that moves away from the obviously supremacist classification scheme that had been used previously in Western Europe. That said though, Tomoko Masuzawa in her book ‘The Invention of World religions’ is actually…even though she spends a great deal of time sort of researching the archives, trying to find out where this paradigm comes from. Even she ultimately says she doesn’t know where it comes from. It emerges obviously through a sort of confluence of different conversations that are taking place throughout the 19th Century and early 20th century. Where precisely it comes from is…is a little bit opaque. Regardless, what we’re left with by the mid to late 20th Century is an understanding of religions as discrete objects that can be studied in the world that have particular histories, they’re often organised under a particular heading. Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and they’re very often structured around a specific text and a specific set of practices. And that structure is something that has become, at least at the level of the dissemination of religious studies in terms of undergraduate teaching, central.

(CC): Yes.

(DS): How did I do?

(CC): You did well, Sir, you did well. And it’s…Yes, so it’s sort of ubiquitous in undergraduate teaching and it’s ubiquitous in society, you know-

(DS): -Right

(CC): –we think about ‘what is your religion’ as a question that makes sense to people and then we have these certain silos-

(DS): -Right

(CC): -that we try and put that into. So yes, this has been…regardless of the origins of it this has been subjected to a number of critiques right so, it’s very Protestant, for example –

(DS): -Yeah.

(CC): –that idea of a text and it being about belief, you can only have one faith and all that sort of thing. This seemingly objective model sort of becomes Oh…that’s a little bit Protestant.

(DS): Definitely. And also something that I think we can see as being a by-product of (10:00) a particular idiom of 19th Century science. 19th Century science it’s the age of classification, it’s the age of grand theories, and that prison divides up the world in a particular way, and I think we can see the World religions paradigm as being a product of that particular way of thinking about the world.

(CC): Mmm. And that particular way of thinking about the world is deeply connected with Colonialism as well.

(DS): Definitely.

(CC): We were encountering others and then classifying them.

(DS): Absolutely.

(CC): ‘Classify and conquer’ was, I think was Max Muller’s term. And then of course it encourages this notion that there is a thing called religion that is made manifest in various forms.

(DS): Right.

(CC): So Russ McCutcheon would take great issue with that.

(DS): Yeah.

(CC): So given all that problem with the World religions paradigm why would we want to try and fit Secularism into that model. What would be the point, shouldn’t we just be jettisoning it?

(DS): Yeah, right. Well, I mean, I have a few thoughts on that. I am not…I’m not blanketly hostile to the World religions paradigm. I think that …I would give it about a six out of ten or a seven out of ten in terms of a pedagogical tool for explaining religion to undergraduates, especially if we start from the assumption that many undergraduates are only going to take one religious studies class. Is the World religions paradigm the best way of doing that? I’m not sure. But I don’t think that it necessarily is evil. However, I do think that it needs to be deconstructed from within. I think that precisely as we’re teaching students within this framework we need to be calling attention to the limitations of this framework. And part of the reason why I think it’s important to talk about Secularism within that context is because I think that it sets the stage for conversation about the World religions paradigm in and of itself.

(CC): Mmm. Yes, and the paradigm, you know, I think it was my colleague Kate Daley-Bailey described it as, you know, it’s a useful way of getting people from one side of the road to the other-

(DS): Absolutely.

(CC):– and if that’s what you need to do, you get them there. But you can also along the way be explaining to them why you chose that why of doing it if it wasn’t the best…

(DS): Exactly. Yeah, right.

(CC): Okay, so… let’s do this then. Let’s take the World religions model and let’s take the notion of Secularism. So how are we going to go about answering the question is it a world religion?

(DS): Definitely. So this is where I want to get a conversation started. I don’t have clear answers to this but what I sort of see us doing is shuffling the deck of Secularism studies into the deck of the World religions paradigm and just seeing what comes out on the other end. So I think that, in terms of a kind of structure, an overall architecture to this, there would be two ways of doing it. So Secularism studies scholars have roughly speaking two ways of talking about Secularism. One of the ways of talking about it is to say that Secularism is itself a particular iteration of Protestant Christianity, that we have the version of Secularism that we have because we are an offshoot of a cultural historical context that defined religion in a particular way. This goes back to something you were saying earlier about the inextricability of the category of religion from the category of the secular. It’s precisely because we see religion as something that is potentially private, individualised, and belief orientated that religion is something that can be relegated to the private sphere and therefore… and therefore secularised, according to the conventional definition.

(CC): Yeah. So we can see that there’s sort of like a Hegelian dialectic there even-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): -look to Feuerbach, and even… you know that we produce the… yeah the… As Christianity secularized… As Catholicism changed to Protestantism that started-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): -started a transition.

(DS): Yeah, absolutely. Or even like, one thing that historians and especially intellectual historians like Jonathan Z. Smith, Talal Asad, when he’s wearing that hat, or someone like Craig Calhoun, they really liked to emphasize the beginning of modernity and the immediate aftermath of the Protestant reformation.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): So you could look at it theoretically in the way that religion gets defined as something that is personal rather than corporate. (15:00) You could look at it historically and the way that the resolution to the wars of religion that emerge in the aftermath of the reformation. The political…the political compromises that are made in that wake tend to make religion into something that is detachable, it’s something that is sort of, as Locke puts it, can be kept in the private sphere rather than the public sphere. All of these…all of these…all of these details of Protestantism, whether they’re sort of, part of the DNA of Protestantism or whether they’re sort of historical accidents that shoot off from Protestantism, they make up the coordinates of what would eventually become Secularism.

(CC): Okay.

(DS): So one of the ways that I could see us potentially integrating Secularism into the World religions classroom would be to talk about it as an offshoot from Christianity.

(CC): Mmhmm.

(DS): When we teach Christianity we teach Secularism as something that Christianity does in exactly the same way as you know, depending on how many days you have for teaching Christianity, you would give a sort of capsule history where you would talk about the great schisms, orthodoxy from Catholicism, Protestantism from Catholicism and then could also locate Secularism as, in a sense, another schism, as another permutation of Christianity that is part of the story of Christianity as a World Religion.

(CC): Mmm. And indeed, some of the annoyance that some proponents of Secularism feel with that approach to my mind indicates the very importance of taking that approach-

(DS): Exactly.

(CC): –because people don’t feel annoyance unless there’s some sort of deep connection to the category that you’re talking about.

(DS): I think that’s right and especially building on that if we’re talking about teaching students in a Western/Anglo/Euro/American context, we’re going to be teaching students who are going to be coming from a variety of faith positions some of whom will be coming from a non-faith position and probably see their status as mutual. They probably see the religions they’re looking at as in a sense, under glass, as something that is disconnected from where they are. And I think it’s important for those students to recognise that even the liberal Secular idiom that they might see themselves located within, has a history. That it, even it, the agenda of that is set by a particular set of Christian coordinates. Saba Mahmood has done some really excellent work on this, talking about the way that these sort of ostensibly secular legal codes throughout Europe actually privilege a kind of ghost of Christianity, that they are marshalled in the service of defending a sort of Christian heritage and they suppress other ways of being religious.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): Even when they…they give Christianity a special sort of protection. A perfect example of this would be like the Burkini ban-

(CC): –Yes.

(DS): -that’s been happening in the summer of 2016 where Burkinis, this article of clothing that seems like it would be inoffensive enough has actually become offensive to French Secularism. Precisely because it is encoding a set of Christian presuppositions about ways that you are Secular and religious.

(CC): On that note I saw that, it was in the Guardian, they were quoting sort of, the ruling and it said it might offend the people’s (non) religious (non) convictions.

(DS): Exactly.

(CC): So your non-religious non-conviction might be offended by it, there’s something interesting going on there.

(DS): Exactly. I think that that’s exactly…I think that that’s a really important pedagogical manoeuvre  with students is showing them how even our own liberal democratic structures have a sort of conserved Christian genetic coding in them. That’s not to create an equivalence, that’s not to say that the difference aren’t meaningful, it’s just to say that we need to…we need to take a critical eye on our own intellectual inheritance rather than presupposing it’s neutral. So all of that would be one way that I would see Secularism entering the World religions paradigm… structure. I think there’s another way though, which would be equally interesting.

(CC): Mhhmm.

(DS): So one of the ways that scholars working in the mode of critical Secularism studies have approached Secularism is to say there is not just one Secularism.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): There are in fact multiple Secularisms. This is the title of a book, an anthology (20:00) by Janet Jakobsen and Anne Pellegrini, ‘Secularisms’, and this, as I see it, is coming out of these two sort of, kind of, guiding lights of the critical Secularism studies field.  Talal Asad and Charles Taylor. So Talal Asad is very interested in this idea that the Secularism that we have is a result of a particular history and he says that rather than assuming that Secularism is going to be the same everywhere we anticipate a multiplicity of what he calls ‘formations of the Secular’.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): There are different Secularisms that correspond to different historical moments, and they have different priorities, they have different coordinates, they have different outcomes precisely because their starting points, the sort of ingredients out of, the landscape out of which they secularise is different. So his sort of cardinal example of this is the difference between Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity and Islam. Protestant Christianity de-ritualises religion so its version of Secularism is a version of Secularism that doesn’t pay a lot of attention to ritual, doesn’t pay a lot of attention to practices. Asad will say, you know, when we have formations of the secular emerging out of Islamic contexts we need to be attentive to the way that they are…that they are…that they always keep an eye on practices. And the version, the formations of the Secular that emerge in these other contexts will have a different configuration. Charles Taylor calls this…he calls this ‘the myth of the subtraction story’. The myth of the subtraction story is this idea that once you get rid of religion, you’re left with a neutral landscape.

(CC): Yeah. Indeed, yeah, I’ve always thought of using a quotation from my supervisor Kim Knott who just says that there is no neutral point from which to observe religion-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): -we’re participants in that discourse. So would the logical outcome of that then be that if you were incorporating that Secularism(s) into the World religions classroom that you would sort of pair off-

(DS): -Yeah.

(CC):- you would teach Christianity and Christian Secularism, Islam and Islamic Secularism.

(DS): That’s what I’m thinking of. I’m, again, I’m presenting this conversationally, this isn’t something that I’m, I’m at a point where I could publish it but I think that we need to consider this possibility that the best way to teach Secularism within the context of the World religions classroom would be exactly this pairing, to say that Buddhist secularisms, Christian Secularisms, Jewish Secularisms, even we might want to get more specific than that, like Jewish Secularism in the United States, very different from Jewish Secularism in Israel. Islamic Secularism in Saudi Arabia is very different from Islamic Secularism in Iran. To thematise this I think would be a really productive way of getting Secularism into the conversation, but also raising this idea which I think is one of the challenges that you’ve, that you’ve sort of discussed very ably in your own work with Secularism, which is the way it creates a sort of silo model as you said it-

(CC):- Mhhmm.

(DS):- of these religions being sort of ahistorical, sort of fixed compilations of ideas and practices that can be very easily, sort of clinically diagnosed as you know-

(CC):- Mhhmm.

(DS): -you know like, okay, you’ve got, you’ve got your five pillars, you’ve got Islam. That’s not actually adequate, that’s never been adequate for teaching what religion is, but it’s particularly inadequate in the context of a situation, a global situation now, of accelerating mediatisation and globalisation where transactions between different traditions are becoming more and more…more and more rich. They’re just more and more…the dynamic between different traditions is becoming deeper and deeper. And I think that emphasising that localism of Secularism would be a way of raising that to the surface.

(CC): Mhhm. And this is exactly the sort of thing that we should be discussing at this conference, the theme being ‘religion beyond the textbook’.

(DS): Exactly.

(CC): So, conclusion then. So, are you going to do this?

(DS): Yeah, I think I will. I’m not in a situation right now where I teach world religions but as I think about, as I think about that syllabus next time that that portfolio falls into my lap it’s something that I’m actually quite excited to do, precisely because of the way that I think (25:00) it, it reciprocally calls attention to the limits of both the world religions paradigm, which I think is a useful, if limited, pedagogical tool, and the Secularisation narrative.

(CC): And how do we avoid…one of the main problems with subversively employing anything, so subversively employing the world religions category, is that your critical intent isn’t really communicated to the students, again as you say if they’ve come for a one semester course and then they’re gone, they’ve gone in and they’ve done the world religions course and they’ve come out. So say they’ve come to this course and they do a world religions and Secularisms thing and then they come out with this sort of very strict siloed model on Islamic Secularism is this, Christian Secularism is that, what, is there a danger there, going down that route, you could be sort of reifying the very distinction that we…

(DS): Yeah. I think all discourses have dangers. All discourses are going to be provisional ways of organising the abundance of information that is the world. And they’re always going to have certain limitations attached to them. I think that the best that we can do is inhabit those discourses with a sort of deconstructive eye. And my hope is that among other things I think that there are lots of ways of sort of reciprocally critiquing the world religions paradigm while teaching it. I’ve tried to do that in the past when I’ve taught world religions. I think that this method of introducing Secularism as a legitimate object of study within the architecture of the religions, world religions paradigm could be a way of amplifying that technique.

(CC): Yeah. And, you know, you can only resist the dominant expectations of your students so much before they stop coming to your classes and also I can see this being a really good exercise perhaps for higher level students, just to pose the question that we’ve asked-

(DS):- Right.

(CC): –is Secularism a world religion, set it as an essay topic or something, I can see some really excellent discussions happening there.

(DS): That would be fascinating. I mean, I think too, like, I absolutely agree with what you’re saying, that pedagogically that, I mean, there’s only so much we can do to sort of…there’s only so much we can do to sort of destabilise the way that students think, but I’m also…I’m also a firm believer in the pedagogical value of inhabiting something from the inside in order to destabilise it.

(CC): Mhhm.

(DS): Rather than standing so far outside of it that students can’t necessarily see what you’re doing.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): And my hope is, and again I mean, this is just an optimism, it’s not something that I’ve actually put into play, and really I see it more of just a conversation starter in pedagogy circles than anything, and my hope is that this practice of introducing Secularism as an object of study within the context of the world religions paradigm would be a way of inhabiting that paradigm from the inside and leaving students with a very vivid impression of its own limitations.

(CC): That is a wonderful way to end. Bang on half an hour, so thanks so much Donovan.

(DS): Thanks so much Chris, this was wonderful.

(CC): Well, I very much enjoyed recording that interview with Donovan and we both were in the session where he presented that paper at the BASR.

David Robertson: Yeah I was going to mention that, there was an odd moment there. It wasn’t the best attended of sessions, I don’t think it got the audience it deserves let’s put it that way, but I think there was eight or nine people in the room of whom two, two of, were myself and Chris. And he immediately showed a picture of our book, ‘The RSP Volume’ you know, After World Religions, which you should read if you haven’t, and started attacking our argument, which was-

(CC): He didn’t attack our argument!

(DR): I thought it was wonderful, I loved every minute of it [laughs].

(CC): But yeah, it was one of those lovely moments that was sort of the first proper one in my “career” in quotation marks. And so hopefully the catchy title there will have dragged in some listeners, you might have thought ‘what, what, that’s ridiculous!’ But hearing Donovan talk about it as an interesting thought experiment, as a way of dismantling in a way the hegemony of the paradigm itself.

(DR): Indeed, and problematizing the term and its application and the rest of it, and Chris and I have talked about an After After World Religions, be it a journal or a second volume of the book, and Donovan is going to contribute to that (30:00) hopefully, if and when it happens.

(CC): You hear that Donovan? You’re under contract now.

(DR): He gave me a verbal agreement and in Scotland that’s legally binding. It was in Helsinki.

(CC): And in Wolverhampton. Same difference.

(DR): Was it?

(CC): Yes.

(DR): Oh. Either way, I’m Scottish so that’s binding.

[they laugh].

(DR): I think we may be showing too much of the man behind the curtain this week.


All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Researching Radicalisation

Radicalisation, fundamentalism or extremism, are terms which are highly prevalent in media, public, political, and legal discourse these days, and are surrounded by mystification, rhetoric and ideological assumptions that work against clear, objective, non-partisan understandings of the phenomena they denote. Regular listeners to the RSP will be unsurprised that we look askance at such discourses and aim to take a critical approach to this controversial topic. What might the academy mean by the term ‘radicalisation’? How might we study it? What makes it different from ‘socialisation’? Is there a necessary connection between ‘religion’ – or particular forms of ‘religion’ – and radicalisation? And how might we position ourselves in relation to other actors – in politics, the military, or the media – who have a vested interest in our research?

To discuss these and other issues, we are joined this week by Dr Matthew Francis, Senior Research Associate at Lancaster University and Communications Director for the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST). In this interview we discuss what we mean by ‘radicalisation’, and what its connections to socialisation, terrorism, and ‘religion’ might be. We take on the methodological question of how one might go about researching such a contested topic, and look specifically at some of Matthew’s findings relating to the causes of radicalisation, and the neo-Durkheimian ‘sacred’. We also reflect on the position of the researcher when approaching topics entangled such vested political interests, negotiating the media, and future research directions.

Be sure to check out other great podcasts on: Zen Buddhism Terrorism and Holy War with Brian Victoria; Sociotheology and the Cosmic War with Mark Juergensmeyer; Religion, violence and the Media with Jolyon Mitchell; Studying “Cults” with Eileen Barker; The Sacred with Gordon Lynch; and Pilgrimage in Japan and Beyond with Ian Reader and Paulina Kolata. This episode is the fifth in a series co-produced with Religion, Youth and Intergenerationality” with Naomi Thompson, ‘Religion and Feminism‘ with Dawn Llewellyn, ‘Evangelicalism and Civic Space‘ with Anna Strhan, and ‘An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion‘ with Grace Davie.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, this BLACK FRIDAY, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, cough drops, single malt whiskey, and more.

Conference report: “Religious Pluralisation—A Challenge for Modern Societies”

A conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Ashlee Quosigk, a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The “Religious Pluralisation—A Challenge for Modern Societies” Conference was held 4-6 of October 2016 at the Herrenhausen Palace, in Hanover, Germany. The Volkswagen Foundation and the University of Hamburg’s Academy of World Religions joined together to sponsor the conference with an important and timely mission to identify innovative research approaches as well as broad political and social scopes of action to address religious plurality.

Herrenhausen Palace

Herrenhausen Palace

The conference included talks from over 30 academics, including a special lecture from Peter Berger; it also included an additional 30 “young scholars” lightening presentations, along with times for networking that allowed participants to get to know each other and further discuss research ideas. The conference was interdisciplinary and provided a place for participants to engage in dialogue on how to think about religious pluralism. The conference location was well selected as Western Europe holds a prominent secularity. The failure of the secularization thesis (the idea that modernity necessarily leads to a decline in religion) in Western Europe to explain the new, often fervent religious adherents that make up the changing landscape, calls for a significant reassessment. Due to the visible demographic shifts, brought on by established immigrant populations, many of whom are more religious and have more children, along with the very recent massive influx of mainly Muslims refugees, academics are trying to address the questions of how to best meet the challenges of religious pluralisation and how interreligious dialogue can contribute.

The conference included sessions on a variety of topics: religion and dialogue in different contexts, community building and policymaking from European perspectives, the contribution of religious education to dialogue and integration, the relevance of interreligious dialogue in the public sphere, and interreligious education.

fullsizerender_1The conference began with a welcome address by Wilhelm Krull, Secretary General of the Volkswagen Foundation, that invoked Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who argued that religion can have a rational basis and thus, can be a subject matter of intellectual discourse—discourse that would mediate different positions and look at contradictions, which would then pave the way for a richer understanding of God. Krull discussed that Pope Benedikt also, during his controversial Regensburg Address in 2006, made use of a rational concept of God to be applied to interreligious dialogue. Krull contrasted the approach of Leibniz and Pope Benedikt with the goal of the conference, which is not to find an unambiguous conception of divinity, but rather to focus on the phenomenon of religious plurality and coexistence of different religious convictions and mindsets in one society, which according to Krull, means that ambiguities, contradictions, and rational gaps are inevitable. Krull ended his welcome by wishing attendees much light and inspiration during their exchange of ideas.

The conference included a special lecture from Peter Berger, Professor Emeritus of Religion, Sociology, and Theology and Director of the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs at Boston University. His lecture entitled, “Toward a New Paradigm for Religion in a Pluralist Age” argued that our age is not one of secularity but of pluralism. Berger holds secularization theory to be only applicable to Western Europe and the international intelligentsia (mostly of the humanities and social sciences) and believes it to be inadequate to explain the majority world, where religion never went away. Berger feels this new paradigm of pluralism strikes a middle ground between secularization theory and the passionate vitality of religion, allowing that, places like courtrooms and hospitals are secular spaces, even though people of a variety of religious beliefs are engaged in them. According to Berger, these are examples of very important sectors of modern societies where a secular discourse necessarily dominates. Rather than it being modernity or religion, it has become modernity and religion.

Berger also highlighted two current explosions of religion: radical Islamism and the less talked about global explosion of Pentecostal Protestantism. After his discussion of these two movements, Berger posed a sensitive question: “Does Islam belong to Germany?” He responded by stating: “Islam is already in Germany! The question is rather, how will Islam belong? And how is German society going to cope with this?” Berger asked conference attendees if they could envisage a Muslim Bavarian. He added that due to the demographic realities, unless indigenous white Bavarians will have many more kids than they are willing to have now, in a few decades there will be no Bavarians at all.

During the open Q&A following the Forum on Dialogical Theology, Sallie B. King, Professor of Philosophy and Religion at James Madison University, used her experience of teaching on interreligious dialogue at a university in Virginia, where many students were conservative and/or fundamentalist Christians, to answer a question regarding Christian fundamentalism. She captivatingly responded by posing another question, “Who is the fundamentalist, here? “Don’t we think that we know the truth and they [fundamentalists] are wrong?”  While King made clear that she does not agree with their theology, she encouraged those who consider themselves “liberal” and/or “progressive” to intently listen to those whom they disagree with. From her personal teaching experience in Virginia, eventually she believes everyone will find something of value, even in the fundamentalist. If not, King questioned how effective one could be in engaging in dialogue with another.

Peter Berger and Ashlee Quosigk

Peter Berger and Ashlee Quosigk

The young scholars lightening presentations were diverse. My presentation “Conflict on the Topic of Islam: How Comfortability with Secularity Affects Evangelical Views of Muslims in the United States” fell within the fourth and last lightening session, and offered an empirical case to investigate Peter Berger’s new paradigm, which argues that individuals in a pluralistic society undergo “cognitive contamination” that allows them to move away from an either/or distinction between their faith and secularity, and rather toward a both/and view. Other presentations dealing with the topic of Muslim-Christian relations came from Iryna Martynyak on “Contemporary Dialogue between Christians and Muslims in Ukraine” and Susan Mwangi presented on “The Role of Media in Promoting Interreligious Dialogue in Kenya,” which looked at how a Swahili radio show is encouraging dialogue between Christians and Muslims. However, the young scholar presentations were certainly not entirely focused on Christian-Muslim relations, and also included presentations on a wide array of issues, such as “Post-Metaphysical Developments in Continental Philosophy of Religion, Hermeneutic Pluralism, and Interreligious Encounter” presented by Marius van Hoogstraten and “Religious Literacy and Teaching about Religion in a Multicultural and Multi-Faith Society: A Critical Perspective” presented by Najwan Saada.

It was useful and challenging for scholars to learn from the research of others in different fields. Best of all, the academic conference was open to the public—a public with concerned and fertile minds due to the changing religious demographics around them.

 

 

 

 

RSP subscribers get a 30% discount on “Implicit Religion”!

Now published in collaboration with the Religious Studies Project, Implicit Religion was founded by Edward Bailey† in 1998 and formerly the Journal of the Centre for the Study of Implicit Religion and Contemporary Spirituality.

Subscribers to the RSP receive a 30% discount on subscriptions. Click here to access the journal’s subscription page and enter the code: DISCOUNT30

Exciting new directions for Implicit Religion:

This international journal offers a platform for scholarship that challenges the traditional boundary between religion and non-religion and the tacit assumptions underlying this distinction. It invites contributions from a critical perspective on various cultural formations that are usually excluded from religion by the gatekeeping practices of the general public, practitioners, the law, and even some scholars of religion. Taking a broad scope, Implicit Religion showcases analyses of material from the mundane to the extraordinary, but always with critical questions in mind such as: why is this data boundary-challenging? what do such marginal cases tell us about boundary management and category formation with respect to religion? and what interests are being served through acts of inclusion and exclusion?

ISKCON And When New Religions Aren’t So New Anymore

As a follow-up to our interview with Kim Knott on ISKCON in Britain, this podcast is a roundtable discussion at the ISKCON 50 conference at Bath Spa University, 2016.

new

During this roundtable, scholars consider the subjective nature of the term ‘new’ in the study of New Religious Movements. Using the particular movement of ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) as their main example, panelists consider the future of the movement and similar NRMs in contemporary society, the limitations of the category of ‘NRM’, and what the future may pose for the academic study of movements such as ISKCON.

The RSP want to thank Bath Spa University for supporting these recordings, especially to Catherine Robinson and Alan Marshall.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, pogs, neon slap bracelets, and other 90’s memorabilia.

Permutations of Secularism

Joe Blankholm and Dusty Hoesly, we first focus on the origins of the term “secularism,” the proliferation of its meanings, and the uses to which it is put in Anglo-American contexts. Then we discuss the uses of the terms secularism and the secular today, particularly using a specific case study from Joe’s research on American nonbeliever organizations.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, muffins, snorkels and more.

UFOs, Conspiracy Theories… and Religion?

Area 51, Ancient Aliens, endemic child abuse at the BBC, Reptilians, Watergate, 9/11, renegade preachers rising from the dead, the grassy knoll, The Da Vinci Code, Hydra, climate change, the moon landings, Satanic Ritual Abuse, The X Files… the popular imagination is rife with stories of secret plans and cover-ups, agencies working behind the scenes, grand plans carried without the knowledge of the unsuspecting masses, lies, deceit, and an elect few who know ‘the truth’. Sometimes, stories which at one time seemed far-fetched receive widespread acceptance and become the hegemonically accepted norm. At others, they remain the preserve of relatively small groups of “nutters”, and become designated as “conspiracy theories” by those who have the power to do so. What might this popular discursive trope be able to tell us about contemporary Western society? How might scholars go about studying it, particularly when they themselves are frequently implicated as working against the truth by “insiders”? And what might all of this have to do with the contemporary academic study of religion?

9781474253222To discuss this tantalizing subject, we are joined today by a scholar who will be no stranger to regular listeners of the Religious Studies Project, Dr David Robertson. The interview begins with David’s own journey to this research field, before considering some basic questions such as “what is a conspiracy theory?” David then lays out the historical context of the parallel development of contemporary millennial and conspiracist discourse, and his case studies – Whitley Streiber, David Icke, David Wilcock, and their audiences. Discussion then turns to the meat of Robertson’s theoretical conclusions concerning epistemic capital, popular epistemic strategies, the UFO as a discursive object connecting two fields of discourse, power, and prophecy. The interview concludes with discussion of the relevance of this field of study to Religious Studies more broadly, and some challenging admonitions to for the discipline.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, like David Robertson’s new book, and more.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 1 March 2016

Calls for papers

Freedom of/for/from/within Religion: Differing DImensions of a Common Right?

September 8–11, 2016

Oxford, UK

Deadline: March 31, 2016

More information

Public Religions and Their Secrets, Secret Religions and Their Publics

October 27–28, 2016

University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Deadline: April 1, 2016

More information: Conference, Master Class

CHAOS-symposium: Religion og materialitet

April 29–30, 2016

University of Bergen, Norway

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information (Norwegian)

AAR panel: Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group

November 19–22, 2016

San Antonio, TX, USA

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

AAR panel: Religion, Media, and Culture Group

Deadline: March 1, 2016

November 19–22, 2016

San Antonio, TX, USA

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Events

Religious Diversity and Cultural Change in Scotland: Modern Perspectives

April 19, 2016

University of Edinburgh, UK

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Les Politiques du Blasphème: Perspectives Comparées

March 7, 2016

Paris, France

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Postgraduate Workshop on the Materiality of Divine Agency in the Graeco-Roman World

August 29–September 2, 2016

University of Erfurt, Germany

Deadline: May 31, 2016

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Open Access

Open Theology: Cognitive Science of Religion

Available here

Jobs and funding

Postdoctoral teaching fellowship

Kenyon College, OH, USA

Deadline: March 25, 2016

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Lecturer in Hebrew

University of California, Santa Barbara, USA

Deadline: April 30, 2016

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University Lectureship in Anthropology and Islamic Studies

Leiden University, The Netherlands

Deadline: May 18, 2016

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Editor: Shambhala and Snow Lion Publications

Boulder, CO, USA

Deadline: May 17, 2016

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Assistant professor of Religious Studies

Utrecht University, the Netherlands

Deadline: March 11, 2016

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Instructor in Religion and Culture

Virginia Tech, VA, USA

Deadline: March 14, 2016

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AAR-Luce Fellowships in Religion and International Affairs

Deadline: March 31, 2016

DC, USA

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Dean of Graduate Jewish Studies

Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership

Deadline: May 22, 2016

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Postdoctoral Fellow in Judaic Studies

Virginia Tech, VA, USA

March 14, 2016

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Funding

CSA Research Fellowship

Deadline: March 1, 2016

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Two fully funded PhD positions, one Postdoctoral position in the Study of Religions

Creative Agency and Religious Minorities: “Hidden galleries” in the secret police archives in 20th Century Central and Eastern Europe

University College Cork, Ireland

Deadline: April 22, 2016

More information: PhDs, Postdoc

 

Discursive Approaches and the Crises of Religious Studies

Discursive analysis of one kind or another is perhaps the most prominent methodology in the study of religion today. The linguistic turn took longer to influence Religious Studies than many other areas of the social sciences, but in recent years this approach has produced some hugely influential works which challenge many of the traditional assumptions of the field. In this interview recorded at the 2015 IAHR Congress in Erfurt, Kocku von Stuckrad tells David G. Robertson how discursive approaches might help solve the challenges of contemporary Religious Studies: the crisis of representation; the situated observer; and the dilemma of essentialism and relativism.

Bruce Lincoln and Titus Hjelm, and feature essays by Ethan Quillen, David Gordon White, Martin Lepage, Emily Stratton, and Craig Martin. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, wooden chess sets, monkey nuts, and more!