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Teaching and Learning in Contemporary Religious Studies

As we career forward into the twenty-first century, in a context where more and more students have access to higher education, where technology advances at an exponential rate, and where the logics of neoliberalism and management seemingly creep further into every aspect of everyday life, critical reflection about the role of academics in teaching has never been more necessary. In this our first podcast of 2016, Chris was joined by Dr Dominic Corrywright of Oxford Brookes University in the UK, to discuss current developments in higher education pedagogy, the challenges and opportunities that these present for Religious Studies, and some practical examples from Dominic’s own experience.

Dominic Corrywright is Principal Lecturer for Quality Assurance, Enhancement and Validations, and Course Coordinator for Religion and Theology at Oxford Brookes. Alongside other research interests, including alternative spiritualities and new religious movements, Dominic has a strong research focus on teaching and learning in higher education, and pedagogy in the study of religions. He is Teaching & Learning representative on the executive committees of both the Particularly relevant publications include a co-edited issue of the BASR’s journal DIskus on Teaching and Learning in 2013, including his own article Landscape of Learning and Teaching in Religion and Theology: Perspectives and Mechanisms for Complex Learning, Programme Health and Pedagogical Well-being, and a chapter entitled Complex Learning and the World Religions Paradigm: Teaching Religion in a Shifting Subject Landscape, in a certain forthcoming volume edited by the RSP’s Christopher Cotter and David Robertson.

Listeners might also be interested in our previous interview with Doe Daughtrey on Teaching Religious Studies Online. 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, ink cartridges, My Little Ponies, and more!

NAASR 2015 Annual Meeting: A Report from the Field

The North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) held its annual meeting last week in connection with the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and Society for Biblical Literature (SBL) conference in Atlanta, GA. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Matt Sheedy.

The theme for this year’s NAASR panels was “Theory in a Time of Excess,” which aimed to signal a basic problem in the study of religions; that despite increased attention and inclusion of debates on method and theory within the field over the last 30-odd years, it would appear, to quote the description on NAASR’s website, “that few of the many examples of doing theory today involve either meta-reflection on the practical conditions of the field or rigorously explanatory studies of religion’s cause(s) or function(s).” Accordingly, this year’s NAASR panels were designed to re-examine just what we mean by “theory” in the study of religion—e.g., should we follow an inclusive, “big tent” approach, or something more precise?

Be sure to wear your NAASR button! Photo thanks to NAASR.

Be sure to wear your NAASR button! Photo thanks to NAASR.

Four pre-circulated papers were presented on November 20-21, each of which included a panel of respondents:

1 “On the Restraint of Theory,” by Jason N. Blum

2 “What the Cognitive Science of Religion Is (And Is Not),” by Claire White

3 “Of Cognitive Science, Bricolage, and Brandom,” by Matt Bagger

4 “The High Stakes of Identifying (with) One’s Object of Study,” by Merinda Simmons

These panels presented a variety of critical approaches to the study of religion—materialist phenomenology, cognitive science of religion, cognitive science and analytic philosophy, and culture and identity studies—in order to explore some competing ideas of what constitutes “theory” in the study of religion, with responses from a variety of early career scholars who were chosen because of their own distance from the approaches in question.

Some questions and ideas that came out of these well-attended discussions (an average of 40-50 per session, by my count) included:

  • Can we speak about “religious” consciousness and experience without privileging particularistic and ahistorical perspectives?
  • Theory challenges us to realize that we are always fictionalizing our data.
  • What is the role of realism and inter-subjective reasoning in our work? Or, to put it differently, what are the lines between theory and addressing practical concerns as they appear in the social world today?
  • How can we address tensions between “naturally occurring” patterns of human cognition (e.g., the tendency to attribute agency to unknown forces) vs. the role of culture in shaping conceptions of the supernatural in the cognitive science of religion (CSR)?
  • Can religion be explained scientifically, as many CSR scholars would have it, or is the term religion itself too unstable to signify a coherent object of study?
  • Can we still talk about “religious belief” in the study of religion?
  • What is new about the “new materialism” (e.g., the return to questions of the body)? Is it merely repeating the idea of “lived religions” or something else altogether?
  • To what extent does one’s position in the academy (e.g., as a grad student, adjunct, or professor) determine what they can and cannot say in terms of their desire to critique certain aspects of the field?

During the NAASR business meeting, it was announced that Steven Ramey will be joining Aaron Hughes as the new co-editor of the NAASR-affiliated journal Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, and that the panel proceedings from this year’s conference will be turned into a book with Equinox Publishing. Providing opportunities for early career scholars was a constant topic of discussion at the conference, as well as the need to draw in new members—though it was noted that there was a significant spike in membership in 2015.

This year’s Presidential Panel featured two papers:

“Theory is the Best Accessory: Some Thoughts on the Power of Scholarly Compartmentalization,” by Leslie Dorrough Smith (Avila University)

“Compared to What?: Collaboration and Accountability in a Time of Excess,” by Greg Johnson (University of Colorado at Boulder)

Leslie Dorrough Smith and Greg Johnson. Photo thanks to NAASR.

NAASR Presidential Panel: Leslie Dorrough Smith and Greg Johnson. Photo thanks to NAASR.

Both of these presenters, along with those in attendance, were encouraged to read an unpublished essay on NAASR’s history by Don Wiebe and Luther Martin, which was written on the occasion of NAASR’s 20th anniversary, some 10 years ago. The purpose of this panel, now some 30 years after NAASR’s inception, was to explore how the organization can “continue pressing the field in novel, rigorous, and interesting directions,” and “to help us think through where the cutting edges may now be in the field.”

Sunday afternoon included a well attended workshop entitled, “…But What Do You Study?”: A NAASR Workshop on Theory & Method in the Job Market. Here a variety of early career scholars were broken up into groups, each with a more established scholar, to discuss strategies such as crafting a Cover Letter and what to include in one’s CV.

The final NAASR panel, co-sponsored with the SBL, was entitled “When Is the Big Tent too Big?” Following the description on the NAASR website, this panel sought to address the following question: “What are the strengths and weaknesses of the ‘big tent” philosophy that governs much of the disciplines of religious studies and biblical studies as represented in many academic societies, the publishing industry, and many colleges and universities?” Some of the questions/ideas raised by the panelists included:

  • The structural need for a big tent given the relative size of NAASR as compared with the AAR and SBL
  • What counts as reasonable, constructive scholarship and what goes too far (e.g., the “anything goes” approach)?
  • The need to highlight the role of ideology, power, and interests
  • An adequate secondary discourse should be neutral in terms of who can do it (i.e., it should privilege certain insiders and aim for theories that all scholars of religion can apply)
  • When is the tent to big? When it forgets its purpose as scholarship? When it covers up its own history?
  • Proposing the need to declare conflicts of interest when one is claiming academic legitimacy (i.e., where one is receiving funds from, relevant organizations they belong to, etc.).

All in all, the format of this year’s conference was deemed a success, and discussions are currently underway for adopting a similar format for the 2016 conference in San Antonio, TX, including another workshop for early career scholars looking to make their way in a challenging market.

 

 

 

 

 

Religious Demography in the US

In this week’s podcast we focus on religious demography and identification, survey tools used for religious demography in America, differences between religious identities and identifications, Americans’ shifting religious identifications, correlations between religion and social positions such as ethnicity or generational cohort, and correlations with various social and political issues.

Expanding beyond the introduction to quantitative sociology of religion the RSP conducted earlier with David Voas, this conversation with Darren Sherkat covers religious demography in the American context. Unlike in the UK, or elsewhere, the U.S. census does not include questions about religion. U.S. religious demographers rely on privately-funded surveys, such as the General Social Survey (GSS), the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey, Baylor Religion Survey, and Gallup polls, among others, for large-scale nationally representative data on religion. Sherkat evaluates the reliability of various surveys as well as the quality of the data on non-Christian populations in the U.S., given that the vast majority of respondents self-identify as Christians or as “nones.” demography (Ariela Keysar), belief and belonging (Abby Day), and identity and identification (with the Culture on the Edge group). Based on findings explored further in his book, Changing Faith (2014), Sherkat explains how generational cohort, lifecourse position, immigration, ethnicity, and religious switching affect religious identifications in America, as well as correlations between religious identifications and sexuality, among other topics.

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, model airplanes, snow globes and more!

“The Last Word…?” A Response to Bruce Lincoln’s interview on “The Critical Study of Religion”

First, let me say how pleased I am to be asked to respond to Professor Lincoln’s interview. Lincoln’s work was a tremendous inspiration for me as a beginning graduate student back in the 1990s, and it has provided a continuing source of provocation, reflection, and productive engagement for my own research over the last two decades.

There were several things that I appreciated about this interview. First, it was invaluable to hear some of the historical and biographical context for several of Lincoln’s seminal works, such as the story behind his “Theses on Method” and his reflections on Discourse and the Construction of Society (a book that I still use regularly in my own classes). Second, I very much appreciated his thoughts on pedagogy and the continuities between his approach to scholarship and his approach to the classroom. As a long-time teacher of religious studies at a large state university, I have always drawn inspiration from Lincoln’s serious, thoughtful, often argumentative, and yet always stimulating pedagogical style.

Finally, as with all of Lincoln’s writings and public talks, I very much admire the clarity and precision of his language.  Whether one agrees with him or not, Lincoln is an exceptionally clear, direct, and incisive speaker; there is never any excess verbiage or obfuscating jargon, simply a straightforward, articulate, and often passionate marshaling of evidence in service of well-reasoned argument.  I was particularly struck by the elegance of Lincoln’s concluding remarks on the critical study of religion. I think he is largely correct to say that the academic study of religion has long been characterized by an uncritical, feel-good sort of approach that has for the most part failed to ask more difficult, unsettling, and irreverent questions about religious claims: “Religion is a really powerful force in world history and a very complicated entity. I think it’s in need of serious critical study that isn’t eager to put the best face on the phenomenon, that doesn’t want to assert coherence and meaning and beauty and comfort but is prepared to see contradiction, ideology, self-interest, social and political forces of less than wholesome nature as at least part of the complex entity that is religion.” I could not agree more with this statement and very much hope that other scholars will be inspired to take up Lincoln’s challenge.

I do not have a great deal in the way of critical comments on Lincoln’s interview. Instead, I simply want to raise some provocative questions in the hope that these might inspire some discussion and debate among readers. In particular, I want to highlight one point of apparent tension – though a productive tension, I think – in Lincoln’s comments. This came up several times in the interview and particularly in the juxtaposition between Lincoln’s discussion of critical scholarship and his discussion of pedagogy. In the latter, Lincoln described his pedagogical style as one of conversation and argumentation rather than monologue, in which no one has the final answer on a given topic: “I like to argue with people. I don’t like monologues. I don’t like my own monologues. I don’t like other people’s monologues. I think they’re boring, and I think they’re evasive. I think challenge, riposte, conversation is where intellectual work takes place…The task is to say we’re colleagues and we have some issues we care about, and none of us have a final word on it.”

This approach to pedagogy appears to be in some tension with Lincoln’s discussion of critical scholarship in the interview. Here, again, he acknowledges the need for respectful conversation with religious practitioners: “I think we owe them the respect one owes to every human being, and that is of a serious conversation.”  Yet he also makes a strong claim to have “the last word” in this conversation: “The first level” of critique, he suggests, “is who has the last word. As a scholar writing for scholars, I think scholars have the last word and that the testimony of believers is evidence with which scholars pursue their work. But I grant no particular privilege to the testimony of those who are committed to a given faith of one sort or another.” This sentiment is echoed, I think, in Lincoln’s “Theses on Method,” particularly thesis number 13: “When one permits those whom one studies to define the terms in which they will be understood…one has ceased to function as historian or scholar.”

I would like to raise two sets of critical questions here. First, can one really engage in a “serious conversation” in which one always has “the last word”? Or is that perhaps a “misrecognized monologue,” to use Lincoln’s terms? And what are the potential political implications of the assertion that scholars “have the last word”? As someone who has worked extensively on colonial India and on British and European Orientalist scholarship on Hinduism, I have to say that any claims to having the last word make me uncomfortable. After all, nineteenth century British Orientalists also claimed to have the “last word” on Indian religions, and that word typically went hand in hand with the project of imperialism. Challenges to Orientalist representations of India, in turn, came not only from later and more careful scholars, but also from religious practitioners, Hindu reformers, and others – and not only from elites such as Rammohun Roy, Vivekananda, Tagore, and Gandhi, but also from ordinary “subaltern” folk, peasants, tribals, etc. The result was a far more complex cross-cultural conversation that involved “scholars” and “believers” alike in messy and ambiguous ways.  I don’t think that acknowledging this fact means that we allow the religious believer to “have the last word” or to “define the terms in which they will be understood.” It simply means that we need to reflect critically on our own terms of understanding as well as those of religious practitioners (a point also made in the ninth of Lincoln’s “Theses on Method:” “Critical inquiry….ought probe scholarly discourse and practice as much as any other”).

This leads to my second question. Lincoln’s approach works well with cases that are long ago or far away, which is primarily the kind of material that he analyzes (with the exception of pieces such as his essay on the Lakota Sun Dance). But does it work as well with cases of living practitioners or ethnographic encounters, in which the scholar forms complex human relationships with religious adherents who may at times seriously disagree with the scholar’s “last word” or the academic terms in which they are understood? Moreover, does his approach allow enough space for the possibility that one’s own theoretical presuppositions may have to be rethought as a result of encounter with other religious lives?

To cite just one alternative example, a rather different sort of approach is suggested by Saba Mahmood in her work on the women’s piety movement in Egypt. The ethnographic approach that Mahmood proposes rests on a principle of “humility” and on “a mode of encountering the Other which does not assume that in the process of culturally translating other lifeworlds one’s own certainty can remain stable” (The Politics of Piety, p.199). Rather than imposing the theoretical apparatus of liberal feminism onto these Muslim women, Mahmood offers a model of reflexive conversation that allows her own academic assumptions to be challenged and rethought as a result of the exchange: “[I]t is through this process of dwelling in the modes of reasoning endemic to a tradition that I once judged abhorrent that I have been able to dislocate the certitude of my own projections and even begin to comprehend why Islamism …exerts such a force in people’s lives. This attempt at comprehension offers the slim hope in this embattled and imperious climate, one in which feminist politics runs the danger of being reduced to a rhetorical display of the placard of Islam’s abuses, that analysis as a mode of conversation, rather than mastery, can yield a vision of coexistence that does not require making another lifeworlds extinct or provisional” (ibid).

Of course, one could legitimately argue that Mahmood also overcorrects a bit on this point: that is, she largely renders her informants immune from critique and downplays the asymmetries of power at work in the women’s piety movement itself. Nonetheless, she does offer an approach that does not necessarily claim to have the last word, but instead asks the scholar to subject her own theoretical assumptions to critical scrutiny, reflection, and possibility of change.

So I would like to end with a final question that might perhaps inspire some further discussion from readers. Does critical scholarship of the sort Lincoln proposes really demand that we insist on the “last word”? Or could it also proceed along the lines that Lincoln suggests in his pedagogy, as an ongoing, critical, and yet self-reflective conversation in which “none of us have a final word on it?”  Again, my questions here are not meant to be damning criticisms of Lincoln’s work or of his comments in the interview. Rather, they are merely intended to provoke some additional debate, in keeping with Lincoln’s observation that “challenge, riposte, conversation is where intellectual work takes place.”

References

Lincoln, Bruce. “Theses on Method.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 8 (1996): 225-27.

______. Discourse and the Construction of Society: Comparative Studies of Myth, Ritual and Classification. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.
Urban, Hugh B. Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics and Power in the Study of Religion. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003.
____. The Power of Tantra: Religion, Sexuality and the Politics of South Asian Studies. New York: Palgrave/ MacMillan, 2010.

Is Britain still a Christian country?

When scholars involved in the social scientific study of ‘religion’ encounter claims concerning ‘religious identity’ – of states, groups or individuals – a number of questions immediately spring to mind. UK Prime Minster David Cameron’s controversy-inducing statement around Easter 2014 that Britain is ‘a Christian country’ is a perfect example of how an apparently simple statement is actually highly ambiguous and can potentially mask a host of powerful ideological concerns.

What does Cameron’s statement actually mean? In what sense can a country be “Christian”? Today on the Religious Studies Project, we welcome back Professor Linda Woodhead to discuss and interrogate the question “Is Britain Still a Christian Country?”, the topic of her recent Croall Lectures at the University of Edinburgh.

The Secularization Thesis. You can also 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 buying academic texts, British cookbooks, cakes, model railways and more.

Religion and Authority in Asia

Given its contextual and perspectival malleability, the notion of ‘authority’, and even more so of ‘religious authority’, is challenging to define and to study. In October 2014, a number of scholars working on both ‘traditional’ and new modes of authority gathered for the Religious Authority in Asia: Problems and Strategies of Recognition workshop, which was funded by the Dr Erica Baffelli who in today’s interview with Paulina Kolata discusses the notion of authority and charismatic leadership in the context of her research on New and ‘New’ New religions in contemporary Japan.

It seems that the most problematic issue in discussions on authority in the Japanese religious context and beyond is the very recognition and identification of its existence and its impact on communities at trans-national, national and local levels. The assertion of authority can be perceived through the prism of the scholarly discourse on religions, relationships between religious specialists and their supporting communities, and the state-religion interface. There are two watershed dates – 1946 and 1995 – and the events associated with them can be considered as crucial in shaping the socio-economic and political conditions of the religious power struggle in Japanese society in post-war Japan. The first date is linked to the promulgation of the new post-war constitution which sanctioned freedom of religious belief, and separated religion and the state.  The second marks the date of an act of domestic terrorism – the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway – perpetrated by members of new religious group Aum Shinrikyō led by a charismatic figure of Asahara Shōkō. Listen to Erica Baffelli talk charisma, leadership and the media in assertion of religious authority in the context of New Religions in Japan.

Listeners might also be interested in our previous interview with Pauline Hope Cheong on Religious Authority and Social Media.

You can also 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.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying books, pet food, socks, digital radios, action figures, and more.

Pilgrimage in Japan and Beyond: Part 2

In October, RSP interviewer Paulina Kolata was able to sit down with Professor Ian Reader to discuss his publication ‘Pilgrimage in the Marketplace’ (October 2013), which explores the very ‘worldly’ conditions of development, popularisation, and ultimately, survival of pilgrimage centres in connection to the dynamics of the marketplace through which the ‘sacred’ as a category can be sustained. In this interview, Ian offers an insight into the meaning of pilgrimage, particularly in the Japanese context, and discusses the competitiveness of the pilgrimage market, the practice’s connection to tourism, playfulness of religion, and the survival of pilgrimage practice. After a fascinating conversation and a couple of cups of coffee later, we hope that listeners will enjoy this podcast as much as Paula and Ian enjoyed recording it, and we look forward to your discussions.

For ease of listening, we decided to split this week’s interview into two parts. For full podcast notes, and the first part, please click here. Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts with Eoin O’Mahony on “Geographies of Religion and the Secular in Ireland“, and Alex Norman on “Spiritual Tourism“.

You can also 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 books, cooking utensils, waistcoats, stuffed animals, and more.

Pilgrimage in Japan and Beyond: Part 1

The practice of pilgrimage is generally held to be a core feature of religious traditions. Pilgrimage developed as a practice available to only a few. The danger of the road, the cost of travel, and restrictions of class and feudal systems made it impossible for the common people to travel to remote sacred places. Similar to the situation in Early Medieval Europe (Sumption 1975: 11-12), political instability in pre-Tokugawa Japan (pre-1603) and an overall hostility to travelling strangers discouraged even some willing pilgrims from visiting many famous sites.  Whether it was wandering Buddhist monks circuiting Medieval Japan and performing healing rituals or Heian-aristocracy visiting Buddhist sites famous for their wish-granting powers, the practice of pilgrimage, and the special benevolence of the deities that went along with it, was reserved for a handful of people who had time and wealth to spare in order to afford the travel and to secure their safety on the dangerous routes.

Since then, pilgrimage has undergone a number of transitions that have shaped and redefined the way it is practiced and perceived. Various socio-economic and political changes, as well as technological developments, the establishment of modern tourism, and the expansion of the media have changed the way individuals ‘do’ pilgrimage, and shaped scholars’ understandings of modern religious travel, facilitating the transition of pilgrimage from obscure ascetic practice to widely popular touristic activity.

The element of journey, the importance of material culture, the role of media and technology, as well as the commercialisation of the practice of pilgrimage are dictate the conditions of survival and the popularity of pilgrimage today. Pilgrimage is a vivid representation of the way religion interacts with tourism, as we have seen before in our interview with Alex Norman on ‘Spiritual Tourism’. However, the exposure of pilgrimage practice to the influences of tourism and commodification does not necessarily diminish the ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ character of the practice. The utilization of the technological advancements of ‘this world’ is an important element in the survival of pilgrimage in Japan and elsewhere, helping it to become a kind of religious ‘pop culture’.

Within Religious Studies, discussion has rarely focused on the so-called this-worldliness of pilgrimage. Yet,  in October, RSP interviewer Paulina Kolata was able to sit down with Professor Ian Reader to discuss his publication ‘Pilgrimage in the Marketplace’ (October 2013), which explores the very ‘worldly’ conditions of development, popularisation, and ultimately, survival of pilgrimage centres in connection to the dynamics of the marketplace through which the ‘sacred’ as a category can be sustained. In this interview, Ian offers an insight into the meaning of pilgrimage, particularly in the Japanese context, and discusses the competitiveness of the pilgrimage market, the practice’s connection to tourism, playfulness of religion, and the survival of pilgrimage practice. After a fascinating conversation and a couple of cups of coffee later, we hope that listeners will enjoy this podcast as much as Paula and Ian enjoyed recording it, and we look forward to your discussions.

For ease of listening, we decided to split this interview into two parts. The second part is available below, or at this link, where it was originally published.

 

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts with Eoin O’Mahony on “Geographies of Religion and the Secular in Ireland“, and Alex Norman on “Spiritual Tourism“.

You can also 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 books, cooking utensils, waistcoats, stuffed animals, and more.

References/Further Reading

  • Reader, Ian (2013) Pilgrimage in the Marketplace. New York and London: Routledge
  • Reader, Ian. and Swanson, Paul (1997) “Editors’ Introduction: Pilgrimage in the Japanese Religious Tradition”, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1997 24/3-4 pp.225-270
  • Sumption, Jonathan. (1975) Pilgrimage: an image of medieval religion. London: Faber & Faber

The Postsecular

In his 2011 Presidential Address to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Milwaukee, James Beckford focused upon a contested term that has grown in prominence in recent years in the social scientific study of religion – the notion of the ‘postsecular’. In this address – published in the JSSR in 2012, Beckford noted a number of problems associated with the concept.

First, there is enormous variety in the meanings attributed to the ‘postsecular’, and there are many tensions between these meanings. Second, ‘the variety of meanings attributed to “postsecularity” is partly a function of the unusually wide range of intellectual disciplines and fields with an interest in it’. However, Beckford is keen to emphasise that this breadth of disciplinary interest does not imply that there actually is such a phenomenon as ‘postsecularity’. Third, ‘the orientation of many writings about the postsecular is normative and speculative’. (2012, 12-13)

With these issues in mind, Chris took some time to speak solely on this contested topic with Kevin W. Gray while in Belfast for the ESA Sociology of Religion Research Network Conference in September. Discussion focuses upon the history of the term, potential definitions, disciplinary and geographical differences, and ultimately suggests that ‘postsecularity’ is effectively dressing up ‘secularity’ in obfuscating clothing.

You can also download this podcast, 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.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make – particularly in the run up to Christmas!

 

References

  • Beckford, James A. 2012. “SSSR Presidential Address Public Religions and the Postsecular: Critical Reflections.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 51 (1): 1–19. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2011.01625.x.

The First Rule of Adjuncting is…

The first rule of adjuncting is you don’t talk about adjuncting.[1]

The second rule of adjuncting is… you don’t talk about adjuncting!

If you have seen the film Fight Club, a visually stunning piece based on Chuck Palhnuik’s book by the same title which savagely critiques modern consumerism, you know that I am making a link here between this film and the role of the adjunct in American higher education. In the film, this underground fraternal club revolves around cage-fighting style matches between two men in abandoned warehouses. These brutal bouts act as therapy for these men who feel emasculated by modern consumer culture. What does that have to do with adjuncting? Nothing and everything.

The first rule of adjuncting is you don’t talk about adjuncting.

The first rule of adjuncting is you don’t talk about adjuncting.

If you have read my two pieces on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, then you know I have recently come out of the closet as an adjunct. You may not know what an adjunct is. Here is a blurb where I explain the adjunct plight in higher education.

An adjunct is a part-time knowledge worker who teaches 76% of all college courses in the US. We are contract workers (picking up jobs by the semester or year), transient populations (going where the jobs are), we rarely get benefits, are rarely hired in full-time capacity (because this would require we receive benefits), and we often don’t know if we will have work from semester to semester. Many of us have PhDs; some of us, like myself, only have a MA degree. Many of us have written for esteemed journals, published alongside tenured professors, and even written our own books.”

The closest equivalent in the U.K. is perhaps the fixed term temporary lecturer who primarily teaches. This is not to be confused with the more esteemed lecturer position which is more open-ended, fairly stable, and allows for both teaching and research. It seems there is a great deal of confusion regarding nomenclature even within similar systems. In the U.S., students and parents often have no idea how an adjunct (limited term, lowly paid, MA or PhD, instructor with few research opportunities) is different from other faculty… such as full professors (not limited term, well paid, PhD, who usually teaches and does research the rest of the time). Students only see what we do in the classroom… often they assume that those teaching their classes are not part of this underclass, if they even are aware such an underclass exists. Adjuncts don’t usually complain about their situation because they are already living month to month… and they can’t risk getting fired. This allows departments to pay them less and less. The tide is shifting though. Today, adjuncts are fighting for benefits, better wages, and representation in the university. In many small community colleges, adjuncts make up the majority of the faculty and work in less than ideal conditions (no benefits, low wage, no offices or shared offices, and no way to get out). In these cases, the 76% number rings true… where adjuncts teach a majority of the classes. In more prestigious state schools, like where I taught the last two years, about 17% are adjunct (this number is based only on part-time faculty). The count of annual contracted adjuncts is much harder to ascertain. I am sure you can imagine why, no college wants to advertise their use of this contingent labor. Some thinkers warn that the continued corporatization of the American academy is systematically undermining the values of higher education. Even Congress is worried.

So now that you know we exist and that you know that I was one (I taught 52 courses in 10 years at 3 different Georgia universities and colleges) I will explain why you might not have known that I was an adjunct.

Simple…I didn’t want you to know.

Why would I hide my identity as an adjunct? Hello_my_name_is_AdjunctM-773510

1. Fear: Speaking out makes your employers look bad. The first rule of adjuncting is that you don’t talk about adjuncting. The second rule of adjuncting is that you don’t talk about adjuncting! Why? Because if you talk about being underpaid, having no health insurance or benefits, no representation or recourse in administration, your department will be shamed by this disclosure (as they should be) and there will be retribution. I, like other adjuncts, who are disclosing what has happened to them, fear losing our current jobs and we fear that speaking up will make us social and professional pariah. We fear retribution. We also know that by disclosing this information we are burning bridges… I most certainly cannot ask for a letter of recommendation from a department which I have critiqued for unethical employment practices.

2. Shame: Speaking out makes you look bad. I never introduced myself as an adjunct because adjuncting is seen as the dying lands for academic stragglers. It is a job which slowly squeezes out the undesirables from academia. This is a way of culling the herd in the academic world. To say you are an adjunct is to risk being viewed in this negative light. If you are an adjunct, full-time professors want to know why you are an adjunct. They want to know what is wrong with you. If you are a perpetual adjunct, you must be damaged goods. Academia is a lot like high school… who you know, who you sit with, work with, present with… is indicative of your own academic status. Many academics only want to associate with other academics that can raise their scholarly stock. Associating with an adjunct might make your scholarly stock plummet.

So why would I speak out? Why say anything, if it is in my best interest to be silent?

It is no longer in my best interest to be silent. I tried that route and it didn’t work. I have decided to leave adjunct teaching. After all that work, I have finally had it. I had my Towanda moment. I like to call it my Breaking Bad moment… minus the whole becoming a homicidal drug lord part. Once I saw that my department was now hiring annual contracted ‘lecturers’ (PhDs who will teach full-time for up to seven years before a possibility of promotion to senior lecturers), I realized that now that departments could get PhDs to teach classes for pennies on the dollar, they would not need me. Oh they would continue to hire me on a part-time basis semester to semester when these lecturers leave two weeks before the semester starts for a better job. I would still not get benefits. I still wouldn’t be able to even cobble together a living by teaching, tutoring/ etc. at various state schools. I would still need to get a signed letter every single semester from my department so I could check out books from the school library.

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I may be leaving adjunct teaching for a living wage and benefits but I am not leaving academia. I love higher education but I can no longer pretend to be blind to the exploitation in my midst, to the exploitation happening to me. I love to teach, write, and research about religion but the cost of this part-time living is too high. I am personable, resilient, skilled, published, and highly educated… and now fully employed. Most adjuncts are so crippled, emotionally, finically, and physically… that by asking them to fight back you have only given them another job… another job for which they won’t be paid, a job which will likely get them fired and shunned.

I will still speak for adjuncts.

I am breaking the first rule and the second rule of adjuncting.


[1] *editors note: ‘Adjunct’ is a term used in America to denote a college professor who typically has the same and/or greater teaching responsibilities as a tenured professor at a university, but lacks anything even approaching the job security, benefits and stipend of a tenured professor. As Kate has mentioned, 76% of all college courses in the US are taught by adjuncts. Even many PhD’s are adjuncts. As the number of tenured teaching positions in academia continues to shrink, it is likely that most wishing to at least ‘earn a living wage’ will either have to find jobs outside academia altogether, or accept being a contingent laborer who not only teaches but has to compete with the very students they teach for jobs at a local pub for minimum wage – just to make ends meet. You should care about adjuncts for many reasons, but as tenure positions appear more like pipe dreams it’s likely that, if an academic career is your dream, you yourself may be in a similar position one day trying to make ends meet.

Habermas and the Problem with the ‘Problem’ of Religion in Public Discourse

Living in a country where you don’t know the language means you have a great excuse for not talking to Jehovah’s Witnesses.

To be completely honest, I actually did understand the two Witnesses when they came to my door. Though I had just moved to Germany and just begun to study German, I knew what they were saying. “Bible” is the same in German and English and I knew the word for the verb, “to read.” Also they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. They weren’t there to borrow sugar. I understood. But I lied.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “I’m sorry. I only speak English.” It was a great excuse.

A week later, two more Witnesses came to my door. “You want to read the Bible?” they said. “You want to know God’s plan for human happiness?”

Their English was great.

Of course it was. As a religion that prioritizes proselytization, Witnesses put tremendous effort into reaching people who are different than themselves. They translate their message linguistically and culturally. They don’t expect to be accommodated in conversation; they accommodate.

There has been much theorizing under the heading of “post-secular” about the problem of religious participation in public discourse. For the religious to speak to those who do not share their ontological presuppositions, it is said, in public discussions in pluralistic, democratic societies, it must be necessary for there to be a reformulation of religious arguments into publicly accessible, this-world terms. This is a very literal case of that problem. Yet it illustrates, if nothing else, that there might be a problem with framing the matter of religious people dialoguing with those who do not share their religion as a “problem.”

As philosopher Jürgen Habermas explains the problem, religious language can be allowed into the public sphere, but only on certain conditions: “The truth contents of religious contributions can enter into the institutionalized practice of deliberation and decision-making only when the necessary translation already occurs in the pre-parliamentarian domain, i.e. in the political public sphere itself … citizens of faith may make public contributions in their own religious language only subject to the translation proviso” (Between Naturalism and Religion 131-32). They cannot, that is, just appeal to divine authority when they come to your door or come to the public square. They cannot just invoke revelation. What is sacred to them must be re-conceived in reasoned discourse as secular. This burden of “translation” has been central to talk of the post-secular, and also to Habermas’ noted post-secular turn.

However, because this theoretical conceptualization frames translation as a problem, it misses how, in common practice, religious people do speak.

Sociologist Michelle Dillon makes a similar (but not identical) critique of Habermas and the post-secular in her interview with the Religious Studies Project. She notes that in his earlier work on communicative action, Habermas didn’t speak of religious participation in public discourse, implicitly excluding it. In his more recent work, with his turn to the post-secular, Habermas corrects this. He acknowledges that religious reasoning does have a place in pluralist democracies, and yet that toleration still has limits. “Habermas was saying, let’s reassess how we have often marginalized religion,” Dillon says. “But on further reading of Habermas . . . while he’s bringing religion back in, into the public sphere, he’s doing so very much in a Habermasian way.”

According to Dillon, one problem with Habermasian toleration of religion is that it only allows for a very narrow definition of religion. Religion is only acceptable, publicly, when it exhibits a “high rationality.” In this way, he is still excluding a lot of religious reasoning and barring many religious people from public discourse. If someone’s religion is emotional, or traditional, or grounded in personal experience, it is disallowed. Though he sounds like he’s pushing for an act of inclusion — against, for example, “the blinkered enlightenment which is unenlightened about itself and which denies religion any rational content” (An Awareness of What is Missing 18) — it is also an act of exclusion.

This critique can usefully be pushed further.

It seems right that, as Dillon says, the burden of translation is exclusionary. More than that, though, the translation proviso makes exclusion the default. Religious citizens are kept out of the public discourse, unless and until they can prove their reasoning is sufficiently translated. The onus is on them. The starting assumption is that religious people will be fundamentally unable to speak to those who don’t share their faith.

But why start with the assumption that translation will be a problem?

Dillon, in her work, has looked at Catholic bishop’s arguments against legalizing divorce in Ireland. She found that the bishops made sociological claims about the effects of divorce on women, children, and society. They did not just invoke their own authority, nor rely on Catholic moral teaching. Even though most Irish were Catholics, the arguments made by the bishops on this matter were public, secular arguments, entirely within what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the immanent frame” (539-593).

Similarly, in the United States, many religious citizens have organized to oppose same-sex marriage. Mormon, Catholic, and evangelical groups have stated that they want to “defend traditional marriage,” and that their religious beliefs commit them to that position. However, when one looks at the legal briefs filed by religious groups in the landmark Supreme Court case Hollingsworth v. Perry, for example, one doesn’t find mainly religious arguments. One finds religious groups making sociological arguments about the importance of traditional marriage and the probable consequences of changing that. The debate is about what the contested law would and wouldn’t do. Whether or not one agrees, all the purportedly religious arguments are quite intelligible from a non-religious perspective.

It’s not even clear that it would be right to speak of these religious forays into public discourse as involving “translation.” The idea that divorce in Ireland or same-sex marriage in the United States will hurt families is not the secular equivalent of a religious idea. The sense, rather, is that religious teachings are relevant to human flourishing. To the extent that the wider public shares those conceptions of human flourishing, the arguments are intelligible.

This too can be pushed further: Even when religious people do explicitly invoke an authority that is not generally accepted, that doesn’t, in practice, mean that those arguments cannot be understood. Dillon has found that pro-change Catholics use theological arguments to claim their legitimate social identity. “The Catholics I had studied,” she says, “were clearly grounding their emancipatory claims for greater equality within religious reasoning. And it was the sort of reasoning that would appeal or could persuade people who were Catholic or not Catholic.” The same could be said of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ more controversial practice of rejecting blood transfusion. While the argument is religious — blood is connected to the soul— it is not unintelligible to those who don’t share the presuppositions of Witnesses. To the general public, these claims seem wrong, but not radically indecipherable.

Habermas, even after his new openness to the religious, holds that religious reasoning is entirely different from and incomprehensible to non-religious reasoning. He writes that “The cleavage between secular knowledge and revealed knowledge cannot be bridged” (An Awareness of What is Missing: 17). This is empirically wrong. Perhaps Habermas hasn’t seen such bridges, but they are quite common.

Religious people regularly enter into conversations with those from other religions as well as those with no religion. The Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to my door speaking English are good examples. They wanted to talk about God’s plan for a happy life. Their speech was, to use a Habermasian word, verständigungsorientiert. That is to say, it was oriented toward understanding (Communication and the Evolution of Society: 1).

The Witness’ speech, in fact, was a communicative action. It did all of the things that Habermas’ earlier work explains that communicative action is supposed to do. It was based on the four pragmatic presuppositions necessary to communication, “the shared presupposition of a world of independently existing objects, the reciprocal presupposition of rationality or ‘accountability,’ the unconditionality of context-transcending validity claims such as truth and moral rightness, and the demanding presuppositions of argumentation” (Between Naturalism and Religion: 28). It was, as argumentation, also grounded in the presuppositions of Habermasian rational discourse: publicity and inclusivity, equality, truthfulness, and the absence of coercion (Ibid: 50, 82). Though he might not have recognized it, the Witnesses are a good example of what Habermas has described as the embodiment of reason in everyday communicative practice (Ibid: 25).

Habermas’ ideas about the communicative action, then, usefully counter the so-called translation “problem” of the post-secular public sphere. These religious arguments are part of the normal spectrum of speech, and thus participate in the same normative conditions. To quote Habermas, “one can say that the general and unavoidable—in this sense transcendental—conditions of possible understanding have a normative content when one has in mind not only the binding character of norms of action or even the binding character of rules in general, but the validity basis of speech across its entire spectrum” (Communication and the Evolution of Society: 2).

To assume that translation will be a significant problem is to assume that religious people’s religious communication is not fundamentally verständigungsorientiert, not oriented toward understanding. But of course it is. For, as one can learn from Habermas, that orientation is internal to the structure of communication.

In her interview with the Religious Studies Project, Dillon suggests that Habermas is a great and underused resource. Thinking about religious people in dialogue with those who don’t share their beliefs is an example of how this is true. For those in religious studies, the problems and the potential of Habermas’ thought can serve as a starting place to ask about the kinds of arguments religious people are using in public reasoning and what frameworks they are using to legitimate their views.

Thinking with and against Habermas in this way can also, if nothing else, serve to correct the mistaken assumptions one makes when coming up with excuses not to talk to Jehovah’s Witnesses.

 

 Bibliography

Habermas, Jürgen. Between Naturalism and Religion. Cambridge: Polity, 2008.

——. Communication and the Evolution of Society. Boston: Beacon, 1979.

Habermas, Jürgen, et al. An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age. Cambridge: Polity, 2010.

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge: Harvard, 2007.

‘Religion’ as ‘sui generis’

Is ‘religion’ sui generis? In other words, do scholars of religion study something that forms a unique and special domain of things in the world unlike any other? Wittgenstein thought religion constituted a distinct “form of life”. Eliade spoke of the ‘Sacred’ as existing in a separate reality above the mundaneness of the everyday (i.e. the profane).  Historically and in more modern times, other scholars have held similar views that paint the category of religion as naming a specific and stable set of things in the world set apart from all other. However, it is a view that has fallen out of favour as noted by Dr. Russell McCutcheon.

In this interview with Thomas Coleman, McCutcheon discusses what he terms as the “socio-political strategy” behind the label of “sui generis” as it is applied to religion. The interview begins by exploring some of the terms used to support sui generis claims to religion (e.g. un-mediated, irreducible etc.) followed by a brief overview on the rise of religious studies departments mid-20th century using such claims to obtain funding and autonomy from other disciplines. In closing, Dr. McCutcheon explains one example of how the ideological foundations of belief are ontology centered, examines how the term religion is “traded” and departs leaving us to consider the role of social agreement in defining what religion is or is not.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment torate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Dr. Russell McCutcheon is a full professor of religion and the department chair for the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. His main interests lie in the academic study of ‘the academic study of religion’, focusing on how the category and term ‘religion’ has been employed throughout time. He has published several books such as Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia and more recently The Sacred Is the Profane: The Political Nature of “Religion”  (co-authored with William Arnal). Dr. McCutcheon is a member of Culture on the Edge, an international scholarly collaborative looking at how “identities are produced, managed, and continually reproduced” in society and in academia. Be sure to check out his latest book titled Entanglements: Marking Place in the Field of Religion coming out this March!

Religion, Neoliberalism and Consumer Culture

François Gauthier is currently working as Professor of Sociology of Religion at University of Fribourg, Switzerland. His earlier post was in Département de sciences des religions at Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada. He is also researcher at the Groupe Société, Religions, Laïcités (GSRL-EPHE-CNRS, Paris) and the Chaire de recerche du Canada en Mondialisation, citoyenneté et démocratie (UQAM). Gauthier’s research interests include topics related to e.g. religion and politics and religion and public space. Apart from consumerism and neoliberalism, he has studied topics such as religiosity in rave culture and the Burning Man festival.

Together with Tuomas Martikainen, he has edited two books, Religion in Consumer Society and Religion in the Neoliberal Age: Political Economy and Modes of Governance both of which were published earlier this year in the Ashgate AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society series. In her first interview for the RSP, Hanna Lehtinen met Gauthier during the International Society for the Sociology of Religion (ISSR/SISR) conference in Turku, Finland, where he kindly explained to us some of the key ideas of the recently published work on religion, consumer society and the ethos of neoliberalism.

According to Gauthier, it is important to note is that religious activity of the day is not haphazard or random pick-and-choose at all. Instead, it is following a new kind of logic, that of consumerism. Marketization and commodification among other phenomena are affecting the field of religion – and vice versa. Listen and find out more!

You can also 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.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when participating in consumer culture in your own way.

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

Podcast Transcript

Podcast with François Gauthier on Religion, Neoliberalism and Consumer Culture (7 October 2013). PDF.

Interviewed by Hanna LehtinenTranscribed by Martin Lepage.

 

Hanna Lehtinen: We are here in Turku ISSR conference, and I am here with Francois Gauthier, who is Professor of Sociology of Religion in Fribourg. My French is awful, but this is in Switzerland. Previously he has been based in Quebec in Montreal, and he’s been doing empirical research on subculture, countercultural phenomenon, and today we are talking especially about religion and consumer culture, consumer society and neoliberalism. Welcome.

François Gauthier: Thank you very much for having me. Yes, so basically the economic question came up because I was doing studies on those phenomena, and also on new political phenomena. Protests happening in the mid 90’s that led to the anti-globalization movement, and up to today’s Occupy movement. What I saw is that subcultures self-defined against consumerism, and political movements, new political movements had changed radically since the 70s. In the 70s, it was all about taking power… Maoist guerrilla types of terrorist action, whether it be in Quebec or in Germany or elsewhere, and it was linked with the Arab struggle and stuff like that, the anti-imperialist movement. Starting with the 90s, well, we have these subcultures that are very festive. All the sudden, political protest becomes festive. What’s that? Instead of having a confrontation with power, it was “Let’s open areas of autonomy,” with respect with the State. In a way, it was not about confronting the State, but it was more calling the State back to its public, what Grace Davie would call “public utility”. It was saying, well the State, you have to regulate markets. Basically, what I already intuitively knew, what that the world was governed by a new force that was not political, but was economic. So I started, first of all, challenging political theory, and challenging religious theory, from the margins, saying that theory available today did not allow us to understand these phenomena. Ravers say this is spiritual. This can’t be dealt with [available] theory. What’s wrong with the theory? While most people were doing the contrary, they were saying “This is not religion”. They say it is, but it’s not. But it’s massive, and it still happens today. If ravers say they’re religious, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t fit our definition. I took the contrary way in saying that the problem is the definition. The problem is not the ravers. And if the ravers feel that Catholicism and raves are on the same level, then they are. (5:00) It’s the sociologist that has the problem, not the ravers. That was a starting point, and the same thing with the political theory side. So basically, it was the realisation that a major factor in understanding these phenomena was understanding that we were no longer under a sort of political model, a Nation-State regulating political model, but that there was a new regulation, a new world that was emerging, that was essentially governed by economics. And that therefore there were, and there are, religious dimensions to economics, and political dimensions to economics. So how do we understand that? As of the last… these last fifteen years have been the development of that initial intuition…

HL: So, basically a new power’s come into play or has kind of strengthened, and what happened is that the scholars of religion still look at it kind of from the Westphalian Nation-State point of view. And these new arenas that these religions are taking up do not fit the categories that the State has kind of institutionalised for religion. And this is what we have a problem with, scholars of religion.

FG: Exactly. Exactly. Yes. Just a kind of liminal methodological word. I’m French, and I’m from French theory where Durkheim and Marcel Mauss are still quite important. Actually, Marcel Mauss has become to be important anew. And Marcel Mauss refused to separate sociology and anthropology. He was one of the founders of French sociology, and the French sociologists were the first to, and the only ones to, use sociology as a word, because Weber self-identified as an economist, so when you are talking about sociology, this is what you’re talking about. An this founder of French sociology basically his discourse meant, what he meant by we need not separate, we must not separate sociology and anthropology, is because sociology is concerned with societies, which itself defines as being something like modern societies, bureaucratic societies, with differentiated social spheres. And so it implicitly says that, with respect to every other culture in the world that’s ever been and today the West, there is sort of a great shift. So it postulates a uniqueness. This is the basis for many secularisation theories and many evolutionist theories. Mauss was very aware that this was dangerous. There is a specificity to modern societies, Western societies, and now web societies worldwide, but there are certainly not in complete discontinuity with other so-called archaic societies or societies that existed before. On the other side, anthropologists who study the Other, the archaic so-called primitive societies, the simple societies. You have two normative trends in anthropologists. Either you discredit the primitive societies as being infants that will eventually grow into adults. Or on the contrary you idealize the Natives by saying “This is great, everything is meaningful and peaceful, and now we’ve gone into these modern societies’. And so you have a disenchantment narrative. If you keep both modern societies together with so-called primitive or archaic societies, and you’re always thinking “How do I differentiate what I’m looking at, with respect to the first societies?’, and “Where do I find continuity?” As a point of method, I think this brings a lot of fresh water. It avoids of seeing too much continuity, and the same time it avoids seeing too much difference. So I always read contemporary phenomena while thinking ‘How does this relate to Siberian shamanism in the early 1900s?”, “How does this relate to (10:00) Brazilian Amazonian forest Yanomamis?”, and, even if I’m looking at contemporary Judaism or whatever, I do this. And I tell my students to do this. And I tell them “Put the book, put Malinowski on your table, and once in a while, after you go to the toilet or have a coffee, just open any page and read it. And then close it”. Just to keep that in mind. So that sort of also sketches my approach to contemporary societies.

With the issue of consumerism or economics within culturally regulated system, the two books that we just published with Thomas Martikained, Religion in the Neoliberal Age and Religion in Consumer Society. These are two books, but actually they’re one book. On the one hand, this has not been done before, not at all, even in economics or in sociology, is to think neoliberalism, not only as a dominant political ideology, or an economic theory, but also as a cultural ideology, and asking why did this theory that looked completely crazy in the 1940s, and was almost totally dismissed, has no… promises no utopia, has no [positive] value to it at all, has become so self-evident today and dominant. At the same time, consumption… the age that you have, and the age that I have… we grew up in this. This is obviously one of the major traits of societies today. But you will not find this to be opening statements in books on work, family, religion, law. So this is what we started the book saying, for book one, saying “We live in a neoliberal era”, and the other book, by saying “We live in consumerist societies”. These are not the only traits, but these are very, very important defining traits of our societies today. How did this grow up? How did this occur? In the post-Second World War period, which was a rapid growth period after the Second World War, for about three decades, this is when Nation-State really developed into a welfare state. And what happened also in the economic level at the same time is that production, since the crash of 1929, could no longer pull the economy. That was one of the reasons behind the crisis. Marketing was invented, meaning “We need to create needs, and we need to create consumption, and then production will follow.” So when Max Weber is writing in the early 1900s about economy, he’s writing about a productive industrial economy. But that only applies in part today, because since at least the 1950s and 1960s, we’re living in post-industrial society in which it is no longer production that is pulling the economy, but consumption. And this type of society emerged slowly during the 1960s and 1970s, and really started to be dominant within people’s lives in the 1980s. The 1968 riots in California, May ‘68 in France… if you look at what is claimed, it was not as much of a political revolution as a cultural revolution, and the values of liberty and autonomy, those are also those of consumer capitalism. This was instilling itself. One of the theories, one of the hypotheses we have, is by the time Deng Xiaoping in China, deregulates the inner market, by the time that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan come in and start applying free market policies, it’s not just a question of “Okay, there were four crises in 1973, and 78”. It’s not just because of the inflation and all that. It became widely popular as  a way of governing societies, because people had become accustomed over thirty years of having an economic rapport to life. (15:00) That you can buy services, you can buy vacations, you can buy all these things. Even from the 1950s in the United States, what marketers have found out is that the economy does not function according to laws of… the laws of offer and demand. It has nothing to do with it, or very little in the end. What is driving is that it is no longer what the washing machine can functionally do, because there are seventeen or eighteen other brands that are doing exactly the same thing. It’s in the name of the things marketers, which… can’t remember his name right now… it’s what the washing machine will do for your soul. It’s not what car you will drive, it’s what this projects, how does this project or express who you are? Cigarette brands… Malboro was a woman’s cigarette until I think the 1940s. Then all the sudden they rebranded it, with the Malboro man and that become of the most successful brand name operation in the world. It has nothing to do with the product. It’s the fact that when you’re smoking Malboro’s, and today they rebranded it with more of a hipster content, you’re buying an identity. You’re not buying identity in a commodification way, you’re really, you’re buying signs, that you’re putting out towards the world saying who you are. If consumerism worked, it’s because of that. And because we’re modern individualistic societies, and what individualism is about is that you are unique. You are different than anybody else in the world. This is a radically new way to see, to conceive humanity, and to conceive subjectivity. It’s radically new. But how are you going to do that? In the 1900s, there was a romantic movement, in the elite aristocratic and literary elite could function within that ethos, but with consumer society, starting with the 1950s and 1960s, it got massified, then it meant that anybody could create his own self, in a way. Or at least, participate in certain identities and certain lifestyles, because people are good enough with their own liberty that they can really create their own look. You can only buy the clothes that are in the shops. Consumerism is all about choice, but, right now, if you want baggy jeans, you going to be looking for a long time for baggy jeans, better go to second hand stores, cause everything that is available is tight jeans. You see that it’s a choice, that’s always at the same time determined by what’s out there, and somebody determined this stuff.

So what we were basically saying is that you cannot separate neoliberalism and consumerism, because they work together, and you can’t understand the rise of neoliberalism if you don’t understand that it’s rooted also in the conditioning that being consumers, as the condition that’s happened within the social… and then we talked of other phenomena. The fact that we used to talk about governmentality in politics which meant authority, hierarchical structures, and taking political decisions and values into actions. Today, we talk of governance. Try not to use the word governance, which is more of a market model, horizontal, procedural, consensual way of functioning politically. That has come into the fore. And nobody today in political science writes govermentality, everybody writes governance. There is an ideology behind that, there is a shift, a huge shift in [imagining…]. And then take management, which today, universities, the economics and marketing schools in our university are by far the most populated, the most popular. They didn’t exist at the end of late 1970s. There was not marketer before 1995, I think, that was actually trained as a marketer. And today, it’s the very heart of our universities. We have to realize this, and this goes into, if you’re taught management, and massive parts of that, massive amounts of our contemporaries (20:00) are being trained in management, it makes you think in a management way. And this is why all the sudden you’re managing your stress, you’re managing your love life, you’re managing absolutely everything within your life and this in an economic way of viewing things. So what we’re trying to do with these books is say “You cannot understand what’s going on if you don’t link all this up. You can’t look at just public policies, and neoliberalism as a doctrine. You cannot look at it only philosophically.” It doesn’t help. It’s much more profound and anthropological, and it relates on every level going from high level policies at the UN, how this is implemented in how the world bank functions and all that. And in the very and most privatized aspect of everyday life, and how people choose how to dress every day, and how they decide on their consumption choices, because even the type of coffee you drink is a way of showing who you are.

HL: So, because obviously what we were saying earlier about the mix and match approach, which I’ve come across a lot, a lot of people talk about how religion, as you say, your choices are not, and they mean something, always, and they construct you as you are, and that’s why you have to put off weight on it, basically. Then religion is no exception. This has been noted by many scholars, that it is a big identity thing, as well as this kind of spiritual… you can choose, say you can do yoga, you can go to some nice Christian retreat, you can do all these things and that kind of also constructs your identity. But so, you’re saying that there is no mix and match. Could you elaborate on that?

FG: Absolutely, your question is excellent and it comes perfectly in mind with what I was saying before. Religion is not a thing, it is related to different contexts, different societies and different cultures. Shamans… shamanistic cultures in Siberia, I mean there are no spirits, there is no belief, there is no scripture, no god. There is just “how do we manage to kill elk?” It’s much more complicated than that, but it’s just to kind of open our mind to what religion is. With that consumerist shift, what’s happened is that religion has changed, but we’re so used to thinking of religion as being the church, or something that is separated within social sphere. The church is a certain place, there [are] certain people who take care of that, and there are certain times where you go. And it also relates to either a local level belonging and identity, and then national level of identity. We are so used to that that we think this is normal. But if you go back to a country like Quebec in the early 1800s, it was not like that. Catholicism wasn’t even important, that became important in the mid-1900s. So if it changed before, why can’t it change radically now?

HL: Exactly

FG: And so, if you get that perspective, you stop having to think about religion disappearing or coming back or whatever. Now, societies have changed and religious change is an important factor in that change. Today, religion has morphed into tribal belongings, lifestyle-type of belongings, mediated namely through the virtual sphere, but also the local level on a person-to-person basis in collectivity. These are overlapping levels. So religion has become less involved about correct belief and belonging to a set community, it’s more about ethics. ‘How do you live your life?’ If I’m a Muslim, I will eat halal, and avoid haram, and I will wear a veil if I’m a woman, and do this, and the five prayers. This wasn’t important in Islam, twenty, thirty, forty years ago. This was not important. This has become important since that economic shift that changes religion towards ethics and identity. (25:00)

So, your question was about the pick and choose. How do you analyze that? Many scholars have talked about this as being à la carte, people choose their religion, they mix and match this and that, it’s sort of light, it doesn’t have many incidences, and therefore sort of degraded form of religion. This is sort of what is involved in this kind of thinking. The subtext of this is saying that this type of religiosity is sort of not real religiosity. And the second thing that it is saying is that this is not structured, it’s fragmented, it’s incoherent, it’s amorphous. In the end, it doesn’t really make sense. Another line of argument, that sort of touches on to this, has been thinking of religion in economic terms. There is a religious market, and people pick and choose, and there are laws of offer and demand, and all this. The first narrative, the one that says that things are fragmented, and all this, basically, it’s trying to think within the same categories of what religion was before, and so what it is seeing it that it looks fragmented, because it’s looking with the eyeglasses of what it used to be. We’ve heard that loads in this conference. It’s been a huge debate and it’s starting to change. I think that there are new ways emerging, and I think that this conference is probably, in Turku, is probably one of the moments where the discipline is shifting. The other way, the second part that sees rational choice theory and that kind of salvation goods, or looking at the branding of religion, these are interesting insights, but when you look at what they really do, is that they completely lose specificity of religion and they treat religion as any other product, being a Mars bar or buying a vacation on Club Med, and nobody has ever asked the question “Is religion really that much of a product?” The basic flaw, and this has perhaps not been said enough, cause there’s been loads of debates on rational choice and even important people, intelligent people, have given rational choice way too much credit in my view. Rational choice must be absolutely avoided at all cost. Why? Because it’s not understanding this new way of religiosity, it’s not understating the relationship between a consumer neoliberal type of society, with respect to religious change. It’s interpreting religious change in economic terms. And it’s doing so saying that, basically, it’s always been the case. Well, I’m sorry. Yanomami religion, Siberian shamanism, 1930s Catholicism in Quebec, or Lutheran Christianity in Finland, did not… was not an economic decision of maximizing utility with the laws of offer and demand. It was not that. So the question is “Why did these theories emerge?” Actually, the theories emerged because we are in a economic driven society. This is the only thing that rational choice theories hint us. They tell us where we should be looking, we should be understanding that we don’t have to think religion in economic terms, we have to see how the society has changed, where economy is being structuring… has become structuring, and religion changes in rapport with this. What we’re proposing is a radical sidestep outside of rational choice.

And if I may pursue the line of argument that was crossing my mind… is that secularisation theory, meaning the decline of religion, the decline of social functions of religion, the privatization of religion within the private life, the separation from the public sphere, religion becoming a differentiated social sphere that basically has relationships with the rest of the social spheres, but that keeps to itself, this kind of thing. And then the debates on “Is religion returning?”. It went away and now it’s returning. Basically these debates have come to criticise secularisation theory in a way that I think, the great majority of sociologists of religion today (30:00) would sort of agree that secularisation doesn’t work anymore to think today. But nothing has emerged yet that can present itself as being the new paradigm. One of the problems is that we’ve been so scared of general theory, because the general theories we had until Parsons and Luhmann, and that kind of stuff, was basically trying to explain everything from theory. And so, it didn’t work with the facts and people rebelled against that. Today, we’re on a very contrary, we’re on the contrary of the 1960s, where, today, and that’s the question we get all the time, is that, “Yes, but what about specific local context?”. Well, of course there is a specific local context, but the problem is nobody’s thinking the link between the fact that yoga has become a major site of spirituality/religiosity today, in Western countries, and that Islam is totally reshaped by Islamic televangelists all over the world, including the Arab world and Indonesia, and that these televangelists are not religiously trained, they’re businessmen types. And Julia Howell was talking about that in the plenary this morning. And this is totally redefining Islam. Nobody connects these dots, and tries to show how this frames. Everybody’s looking at all the variegated aspects within national contexts, but nobody’s trying to grab that globally and transnationally and showing that, well, if you sidestep and look at things a certain way, all of the sudden, these things seem structured, all of a sudden you start seeing the links Burning Man festival, festivals of the Senegalese Sufis in New York. So, this is what we are attempting to do. We’re not saying it applies absolutely everywhere, because it’s tied to the logics of globalization, where has  the market, and where has the Internet and all that reached. Where Internet, the marketing and consumerism have reached, this is where you will find this type of change in religiosity. And this is not fragmented, this makes a lot of sense, this is very much structured. But then, it expresses itself in different parts of the world in amazing manners that are sometimes quite different, but at the same time sometimes quite similar. For example, these Islamic televangelists in Indonesia hired Texan Pentecostals to help them build their thing. So there’s more and more of these transnational movements that are all collaborating to structure religion in this new way.

HL: This is hugely interesting. I’m just listening in awe, I’m not even coming up with anything to say, really. I’m afraid we don’t have much time left and we have to close this interview. Pack it up. I have one more question, a question I tend to ask always. And that is what next?

FG: What next? Today, in Turku 2013 ISSR conference, I would say that what next is to not do once again the same normative and ideological mistake we did with the secularization theory. Secularization theory was bound to a certain type of religion, and to a certain way of seeing religion that was Christian-oriented. This way of looking at things devalued women, it didn’t look at what women we’re doing, but women were doing stuff, and devalued non-institutional phenomena as being irrelevant. What we’re saying today is that women are foremost in religious change, and that the non-institutional stuff is probably the most important today, and the institutions are changing in relationship to the non-institutional. So the secularization paradigm was stuck in modern ideologies, stipulating that religion was going to stay what it was, and therefore decline because there was modernisation equal non-religion. (35:00) There is a whole lot of debate around this. It’s an ideological frame that left a lot of stuff out, and what can we do with the “What now?” is “How do we avoid doing that again?” Obviously, any type of paradigm, any type of general theory of understanding the world will leave stuff behind. But you can try not to be too stupid about it, and in my view, one of the major challenges today comes from the idea of post-secularity. Post-secularity is the greatest threat to sociology of religion today. Why? Because it stipulates secularization, says it’s an after, first of all. Second, it’s it was coined by Habermas, who was a philosopher, and is mostly concerned with a rationalist and public-space bias. This is a philosophical discussion, it’s not a sociological description of societies. So it looks sexy, but actually it shouldn’t be a sociological concept. And another main thing is that in all of this discussion on post-secularity, at least most of it, the essential core if it… stays within the secularisation in the Nation-State frame, what things used to be, politics and religion being the two self-structuring… the two structuring spheres, and it does forget about economy. It says nothing about the fact that we live in consumer societies. Habermas has absolutely nothing to say about neoliberalism except the Frankfurt critiques of the 1960s. This has never thought of how consumption is different from production, it has not entered their mind, they haven’t thought the Internet out, and they’ve especially forgotten women and culture. So even if you are paying attention to economics and culture within this frame of post-secularity, you’re still continuing to miss what’s happening. I think what the challenges in “what now?”, is “Let’s try not to be as stupid. Let’s try not to be as ideological,” and let’s go into this very exciting period which is the redefinition if the paradigm through which we’re going to study religion. And of course, we think we’re right, saying that you must pay attention to the ideologies of neoliberalism, consumerism as an ethos, and the relationship of all this with hypermediatization and real time technologies, which in places like Africa, remote places of Africa, where they don’t even have normal telephone lines and electricity, they have cellular phones now. They have one set of pants, one set of shirts, and a cell phone. And so even the places that don’t seem like they are relevant to this type of analysis… you can ask the scholars on the field ,as I do, as much as I can, and this is relevant. This is very very relevant.

HL: Thank you very much. This has been great.

Citation Info: Gauthier, François and Hanna Lehtinen. 2013. “Religion, Neoliberalism, and Consumer Culture.” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 7 October 2013. Transcribed by Martin Lepage. Version 1.1, 25 September 2015. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/francois-gauthier-on-religion-neoliberalism-and-consumer-culture/

Religion and the Law

Within modern American society the meme of a separation of Church and State exists without a doubt; however, there is very little evidence to actually prove that this separation exists, functions as such, or indeed that it ever existed. In the textbooks, popular news outlets and in the political arena religion is supposed to be wholly withheld-expelled in favor of majority rule. However, when we turn our attention to state-managed organizations such as the federal prisons or state forest services or support for military veterans, we find that the lines are blurred.

With an eye to this seemingly ironic phenomenon Winnifred F. Sullivan presented a lecture entitled “Ministries of Presence: Chaplains as Priests of the Secular” at Arizona State University as part of the ASU Center for Religion and Conflict’s lecture series. Excerpted from her upcoming book of the same title, Sullivan considers the oversight, regulation and licensure of religious chaplains within the American Veterans’ Administration, as well several other governmental and on-governmental institutions. In this interview with Chris Duncan (Arizona State University), the discussion centers predominantly on the world in which many chaplains come to find themselves due to a “new kind of religious universalism”; from having to be prepared to minister across the borders of their own religious traditions, as in the case of a Catholic chaplain being required to assist Jewish or otherwise non-Catholic practitioners in a federal prison or a chaplain working with the state of Maine Warden Service. Sullivan asks whether we really have a separation of the Church and the State, how do we insure that everyone’s religious needs are being met within secular institutions like the Veterans’ Administration, and how does the State license and approve of applicants to the chaplaincy- how does, should, could an ostensibly secular federal organization approve or disapprove of religious ministers within its ranks.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc.

Sullivan is the Department Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University Bloomington as well as Affiliate Professor of Law in the Maurer School of Law at the same institution. She holds both a J.D. and a PhD. from the University of Chicago and is the author of  Paying the Words Extra: Religious Discourse in the Supreme Court of the United States (Harvard 1994), The Impossibility of Religious Freedom (Princeton 2005), and Prison Religion: Faith-Based Reform and the Constitution (Princeton 2009).

So What Is Religion Anyway? Power, Belief, the Vestigial State

Editors Note: To contextualise this piece, you may also wish to read Naomi Goldenberg’s post on the Critical Religion blog, entitled Gender and the Vestigial State of Religion.

Prof. Goldenberg’s interview raises as many questions as it answers, in a good way. It seems to square the circle. She puts the topic of “religion” into context by making it disappear — or, to put it less cryptically, she insists that the codes by which we understand religion to be defined, and perhaps “made official”, are in fact no different from any other codes of law. Religion is a force that structures our social world, and so the study of religions is necessarily the study of politics. The division between church and state is arbitrary: religion is politics.

A religion is a vestigial state because it can do many of the same things a modern, functioning state does. Depending on the situation, it might provide an identity, govern behaviour, apportion powers, legitimate violence — in short, structure the community that belongs to it. Prof. Goldenberg underlines very strongly that she is looking at religion in terms of its impact on, and presence in, ordinary people’s lives.

Her caution around her own term ‘vestigial state’, and indeed ‘religion’, reflects a classically Feminist position. She endorses the evidence first and the terminology second. This should also make sense to those for whom religion is real: those who respect the fact that religion, however we understand that term, plays a very strong role in shaping our life and customs. This is especially important for the regularly oppressed category of women. I am reminded of work by Sally Haslanger, who looks at another tricky word, ‘gender’, and considers it to be a social class [article].

Prof. Goldenberg’s insistence on a functional view of religion, a perspective that describes it in terms of its role, also suggests a point of view very different from that of a classical believer. If religion is part of culture, and culture is a tool that we use, then religion is also a tool. God, and the series of texts that explain him, serves us — not the other way around. This is what might be described as a focal analysis — again, comparable to Prof. Haslanger’s work in describing gender.

It might be unnerving for some to understand the subtext to Prof. Goldenberg’s statement that this does not do away with the concept of God because every state, she suspects, probably depends on some sort of abstraction. What we are asked to consider is a spectrum of cultures, practices, organizations, each with their own abstraction — perhaps the identity of a people, perhaps “America”, perhaps God, to give three examples — that the population reveres. From an Abrahamic prespective, it might well be peculiar to see it suggested that God might be not separate, not ‘special’, but rather a particular version of a range of abstractions that exist or have existed in every society.

The suggestion of a range of God-concepts – perhaps a multidimensional range or field – is an appealing one for students of human nature. At the same time, Prof. Goldenberg wants us to consider historical contingency very carefully.  When our focus is so practical, so earthbound and concerned with everyday people and experiences, we suddenly realize that everyday experience is very different for different times, places, people. The statement might seem banal until we realize that, as Prof. Goldenberg reminds us, ‘religion’ as a term of argument is a confused, unstable, even incoherent category. We will discover, if we compare (for example) Roman ritual beliefs with Medieval Christianity with modern Islam with contemporary Buddhism, that each of these — cultures? Belief systems? — does many things for the people who espouse them, but that those many things are never identical from one “religion” to another, and certainly not one time to another.

These ideas seem to strike a chord with certain developments from literary theory. Consider, for example, how she highlights the need for scholars in religious studies (indeed, perhaps, any field of cultural studies) to remember the constructed nature of our tools. We should always remember that our ideas are never truly independent from their makers. This reminds me of Jacques Derrida’s suggestion that we should consider “la structuralité d’une structure”, the quality that a framework has of creating relationships. A conceptual framework becomes a differential field, of differential meanings, with both local and general biases.

At the same time, Prof. Goldenberg’s focus on how these structuralities can produce bitter consequences for living people – again, women in particular – is a much more direct, and serious, attitude towards the subject than Derrida’s playfulness. She seems to be closer in spirit to Eve Sedgwick, who reminds us that power in culture is often filtered through a series of systems, codes, and different bodies of law, present and struggling at the same time (Sedgwick 1991: 46-47). Sedgwick discusses concepts regarding another ill-defined concept, ‘sexuality’. She observes that recent scholarship concerning sexuality has, in her view, done away with many outmoded concepts and definitions of it. However, she also reminds us that these ‘outmoded’ concepts are both popularly held by many, and a constitutive force in many jurisdictions, including the one she lives in (North Carolina in the early 1990s, for that text). Her humanitarian crique is very comparable with Goldenberg’s enquiry into ‘religion’, which focuses on effect rather than justification or truth (claimed or otherwise).

The question of terminology lingers over this discussion. ‘Vestigial’ does imply a negative teleology, a dwindling, which seems to be at odds with religion’s continuing influence in culture. ‘Once and future’ also fits ill, given that religion is effective now, if only to a degree. ‘Partial state’? This suggests that every state needs a religion. Given the breadth of possible definitions of religion this seems to be true, but the simplicity of that formula looks too risky – too prone to abuse if it were applied to the material world.

I like the term ‘metastate’. Religion can provide a narrative that justifies a power system – so, by extension, it is about a state as well as constituting one. The etymological root meanings of ‘adjacent’ and ‘beyond’ also appeal, although this might reflect my own bias as a Westerner. I am used to a culture with several sets of partially-integrated rules.

Whatever term proves to work best, there is no escaping the force of Prof. Goldenberg’s suggestion that religion fundamentally is about power. If we can agree that religion is the combination of power and belief, we will have her to thank for helping us pin down this evasive, volatile concept.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

 

References

Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” 1966. Trans. Alan Bass.            Modern Criticism and Theory: a Reader. Ed. David Lodge. Rev. ed. Harlow: Longman, 1997. 108-23.

Haslanger, Sally.Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them to Be?The Philosopher’s Annual 23 (2000). 2 Nov 2007.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. 1990. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Weatsheaf, 1991.

Podcasts

Teaching and Learning in Contemporary Religious Studies

As we career forward into the twenty-first century, in a context where more and more students have access to higher education, where technology advances at an exponential rate, and where the logics of neoliberalism and management seemingly creep further into every aspect of everyday life, critical reflection about the role of academics in teaching has never been more necessary. In this our first podcast of 2016, Chris was joined by Dr Dominic Corrywright of Oxford Brookes University in the UK, to discuss current developments in higher education pedagogy, the challenges and opportunities that these present for Religious Studies, and some practical examples from Dominic’s own experience.

Dominic Corrywright is Principal Lecturer for Quality Assurance, Enhancement and Validations, and Course Coordinator for Religion and Theology at Oxford Brookes. Alongside other research interests, including alternative spiritualities and new religious movements, Dominic has a strong research focus on teaching and learning in higher education, and pedagogy in the study of religions. He is Teaching & Learning representative on the executive committees of both the Particularly relevant publications include a co-edited issue of the BASR’s journal DIskus on Teaching and Learning in 2013, including his own article Landscape of Learning and Teaching in Religion and Theology: Perspectives and Mechanisms for Complex Learning, Programme Health and Pedagogical Well-being, and a chapter entitled Complex Learning and the World Religions Paradigm: Teaching Religion in a Shifting Subject Landscape, in a certain forthcoming volume edited by the RSP’s Christopher Cotter and David Robertson.

Listeners might also be interested in our previous interview with Doe Daughtrey on Teaching Religious Studies Online. 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, ink cartridges, My Little Ponies, and more!

NAASR 2015 Annual Meeting: A Report from the Field

The North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) held its annual meeting last week in connection with the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and Society for Biblical Literature (SBL) conference in Atlanta, GA. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Matt Sheedy.

The theme for this year’s NAASR panels was “Theory in a Time of Excess,” which aimed to signal a basic problem in the study of religions; that despite increased attention and inclusion of debates on method and theory within the field over the last 30-odd years, it would appear, to quote the description on NAASR’s website, “that few of the many examples of doing theory today involve either meta-reflection on the practical conditions of the field or rigorously explanatory studies of religion’s cause(s) or function(s).” Accordingly, this year’s NAASR panels were designed to re-examine just what we mean by “theory” in the study of religion—e.g., should we follow an inclusive, “big tent” approach, or something more precise?

Be sure to wear your NAASR button! Photo thanks to NAASR.

Be sure to wear your NAASR button! Photo thanks to NAASR.

Four pre-circulated papers were presented on November 20-21, each of which included a panel of respondents:

1 “On the Restraint of Theory,” by Jason N. Blum

2 “What the Cognitive Science of Religion Is (And Is Not),” by Claire White

3 “Of Cognitive Science, Bricolage, and Brandom,” by Matt Bagger

4 “The High Stakes of Identifying (with) One’s Object of Study,” by Merinda Simmons

These panels presented a variety of critical approaches to the study of religion—materialist phenomenology, cognitive science of religion, cognitive science and analytic philosophy, and culture and identity studies—in order to explore some competing ideas of what constitutes “theory” in the study of religion, with responses from a variety of early career scholars who were chosen because of their own distance from the approaches in question.

Some questions and ideas that came out of these well-attended discussions (an average of 40-50 per session, by my count) included:

  • Can we speak about “religious” consciousness and experience without privileging particularistic and ahistorical perspectives?
  • Theory challenges us to realize that we are always fictionalizing our data.
  • What is the role of realism and inter-subjective reasoning in our work? Or, to put it differently, what are the lines between theory and addressing practical concerns as they appear in the social world today?
  • How can we address tensions between “naturally occurring” patterns of human cognition (e.g., the tendency to attribute agency to unknown forces) vs. the role of culture in shaping conceptions of the supernatural in the cognitive science of religion (CSR)?
  • Can religion be explained scientifically, as many CSR scholars would have it, or is the term religion itself too unstable to signify a coherent object of study?
  • Can we still talk about “religious belief” in the study of religion?
  • What is new about the “new materialism” (e.g., the return to questions of the body)? Is it merely repeating the idea of “lived religions” or something else altogether?
  • To what extent does one’s position in the academy (e.g., as a grad student, adjunct, or professor) determine what they can and cannot say in terms of their desire to critique certain aspects of the field?

During the NAASR business meeting, it was announced that Steven Ramey will be joining Aaron Hughes as the new co-editor of the NAASR-affiliated journal Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, and that the panel proceedings from this year’s conference will be turned into a book with Equinox Publishing. Providing opportunities for early career scholars was a constant topic of discussion at the conference, as well as the need to draw in new members—though it was noted that there was a significant spike in membership in 2015.

This year’s Presidential Panel featured two papers:

“Theory is the Best Accessory: Some Thoughts on the Power of Scholarly Compartmentalization,” by Leslie Dorrough Smith (Avila University)

“Compared to What?: Collaboration and Accountability in a Time of Excess,” by Greg Johnson (University of Colorado at Boulder)

Leslie Dorrough Smith and Greg Johnson. Photo thanks to NAASR.

NAASR Presidential Panel: Leslie Dorrough Smith and Greg Johnson. Photo thanks to NAASR.

Both of these presenters, along with those in attendance, were encouraged to read an unpublished essay on NAASR’s history by Don Wiebe and Luther Martin, which was written on the occasion of NAASR’s 20th anniversary, some 10 years ago. The purpose of this panel, now some 30 years after NAASR’s inception, was to explore how the organization can “continue pressing the field in novel, rigorous, and interesting directions,” and “to help us think through where the cutting edges may now be in the field.”

Sunday afternoon included a well attended workshop entitled, “…But What Do You Study?”: A NAASR Workshop on Theory & Method in the Job Market. Here a variety of early career scholars were broken up into groups, each with a more established scholar, to discuss strategies such as crafting a Cover Letter and what to include in one’s CV.

The final NAASR panel, co-sponsored with the SBL, was entitled “When Is the Big Tent too Big?” Following the description on the NAASR website, this panel sought to address the following question: “What are the strengths and weaknesses of the ‘big tent” philosophy that governs much of the disciplines of religious studies and biblical studies as represented in many academic societies, the publishing industry, and many colleges and universities?” Some of the questions/ideas raised by the panelists included:

  • The structural need for a big tent given the relative size of NAASR as compared with the AAR and SBL
  • What counts as reasonable, constructive scholarship and what goes too far (e.g., the “anything goes” approach)?
  • The need to highlight the role of ideology, power, and interests
  • An adequate secondary discourse should be neutral in terms of who can do it (i.e., it should privilege certain insiders and aim for theories that all scholars of religion can apply)
  • When is the tent to big? When it forgets its purpose as scholarship? When it covers up its own history?
  • Proposing the need to declare conflicts of interest when one is claiming academic legitimacy (i.e., where one is receiving funds from, relevant organizations they belong to, etc.).

All in all, the format of this year’s conference was deemed a success, and discussions are currently underway for adopting a similar format for the 2016 conference in San Antonio, TX, including another workshop for early career scholars looking to make their way in a challenging market.

 

 

 

 

 

Religious Demography in the US

In this week’s podcast we focus on religious demography and identification, survey tools used for religious demography in America, differences between religious identities and identifications, Americans’ shifting religious identifications, correlations between religion and social positions such as ethnicity or generational cohort, and correlations with various social and political issues.

Expanding beyond the introduction to quantitative sociology of religion the RSP conducted earlier with David Voas, this conversation with Darren Sherkat covers religious demography in the American context. Unlike in the UK, or elsewhere, the U.S. census does not include questions about religion. U.S. religious demographers rely on privately-funded surveys, such as the General Social Survey (GSS), the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey, Baylor Religion Survey, and Gallup polls, among others, for large-scale nationally representative data on religion. Sherkat evaluates the reliability of various surveys as well as the quality of the data on non-Christian populations in the U.S., given that the vast majority of respondents self-identify as Christians or as “nones.” demography (Ariela Keysar), belief and belonging (Abby Day), and identity and identification (with the Culture on the Edge group). Based on findings explored further in his book, Changing Faith (2014), Sherkat explains how generational cohort, lifecourse position, immigration, ethnicity, and religious switching affect religious identifications in America, as well as correlations between religious identifications and sexuality, among other topics.

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, model airplanes, snow globes and more!

“The Last Word…?” A Response to Bruce Lincoln’s interview on “The Critical Study of Religion”

First, let me say how pleased I am to be asked to respond to Professor Lincoln’s interview. Lincoln’s work was a tremendous inspiration for me as a beginning graduate student back in the 1990s, and it has provided a continuing source of provocation, reflection, and productive engagement for my own research over the last two decades.

There were several things that I appreciated about this interview. First, it was invaluable to hear some of the historical and biographical context for several of Lincoln’s seminal works, such as the story behind his “Theses on Method” and his reflections on Discourse and the Construction of Society (a book that I still use regularly in my own classes). Second, I very much appreciated his thoughts on pedagogy and the continuities between his approach to scholarship and his approach to the classroom. As a long-time teacher of religious studies at a large state university, I have always drawn inspiration from Lincoln’s serious, thoughtful, often argumentative, and yet always stimulating pedagogical style.

Finally, as with all of Lincoln’s writings and public talks, I very much admire the clarity and precision of his language.  Whether one agrees with him or not, Lincoln is an exceptionally clear, direct, and incisive speaker; there is never any excess verbiage or obfuscating jargon, simply a straightforward, articulate, and often passionate marshaling of evidence in service of well-reasoned argument.  I was particularly struck by the elegance of Lincoln’s concluding remarks on the critical study of religion. I think he is largely correct to say that the academic study of religion has long been characterized by an uncritical, feel-good sort of approach that has for the most part failed to ask more difficult, unsettling, and irreverent questions about religious claims: “Religion is a really powerful force in world history and a very complicated entity. I think it’s in need of serious critical study that isn’t eager to put the best face on the phenomenon, that doesn’t want to assert coherence and meaning and beauty and comfort but is prepared to see contradiction, ideology, self-interest, social and political forces of less than wholesome nature as at least part of the complex entity that is religion.” I could not agree more with this statement and very much hope that other scholars will be inspired to take up Lincoln’s challenge.

I do not have a great deal in the way of critical comments on Lincoln’s interview. Instead, I simply want to raise some provocative questions in the hope that these might inspire some discussion and debate among readers. In particular, I want to highlight one point of apparent tension – though a productive tension, I think – in Lincoln’s comments. This came up several times in the interview and particularly in the juxtaposition between Lincoln’s discussion of critical scholarship and his discussion of pedagogy. In the latter, Lincoln described his pedagogical style as one of conversation and argumentation rather than monologue, in which no one has the final answer on a given topic: “I like to argue with people. I don’t like monologues. I don’t like my own monologues. I don’t like other people’s monologues. I think they’re boring, and I think they’re evasive. I think challenge, riposte, conversation is where intellectual work takes place…The task is to say we’re colleagues and we have some issues we care about, and none of us have a final word on it.”

This approach to pedagogy appears to be in some tension with Lincoln’s discussion of critical scholarship in the interview. Here, again, he acknowledges the need for respectful conversation with religious practitioners: “I think we owe them the respect one owes to every human being, and that is of a serious conversation.”  Yet he also makes a strong claim to have “the last word” in this conversation: “The first level” of critique, he suggests, “is who has the last word. As a scholar writing for scholars, I think scholars have the last word and that the testimony of believers is evidence with which scholars pursue their work. But I grant no particular privilege to the testimony of those who are committed to a given faith of one sort or another.” This sentiment is echoed, I think, in Lincoln’s “Theses on Method,” particularly thesis number 13: “When one permits those whom one studies to define the terms in which they will be understood…one has ceased to function as historian or scholar.”

I would like to raise two sets of critical questions here. First, can one really engage in a “serious conversation” in which one always has “the last word”? Or is that perhaps a “misrecognized monologue,” to use Lincoln’s terms? And what are the potential political implications of the assertion that scholars “have the last word”? As someone who has worked extensively on colonial India and on British and European Orientalist scholarship on Hinduism, I have to say that any claims to having the last word make me uncomfortable. After all, nineteenth century British Orientalists also claimed to have the “last word” on Indian religions, and that word typically went hand in hand with the project of imperialism. Challenges to Orientalist representations of India, in turn, came not only from later and more careful scholars, but also from religious practitioners, Hindu reformers, and others – and not only from elites such as Rammohun Roy, Vivekananda, Tagore, and Gandhi, but also from ordinary “subaltern” folk, peasants, tribals, etc. The result was a far more complex cross-cultural conversation that involved “scholars” and “believers” alike in messy and ambiguous ways.  I don’t think that acknowledging this fact means that we allow the religious believer to “have the last word” or to “define the terms in which they will be understood.” It simply means that we need to reflect critically on our own terms of understanding as well as those of religious practitioners (a point also made in the ninth of Lincoln’s “Theses on Method:” “Critical inquiry….ought probe scholarly discourse and practice as much as any other”).

This leads to my second question. Lincoln’s approach works well with cases that are long ago or far away, which is primarily the kind of material that he analyzes (with the exception of pieces such as his essay on the Lakota Sun Dance). But does it work as well with cases of living practitioners or ethnographic encounters, in which the scholar forms complex human relationships with religious adherents who may at times seriously disagree with the scholar’s “last word” or the academic terms in which they are understood? Moreover, does his approach allow enough space for the possibility that one’s own theoretical presuppositions may have to be rethought as a result of encounter with other religious lives?

To cite just one alternative example, a rather different sort of approach is suggested by Saba Mahmood in her work on the women’s piety movement in Egypt. The ethnographic approach that Mahmood proposes rests on a principle of “humility” and on “a mode of encountering the Other which does not assume that in the process of culturally translating other lifeworlds one’s own certainty can remain stable” (The Politics of Piety, p.199). Rather than imposing the theoretical apparatus of liberal feminism onto these Muslim women, Mahmood offers a model of reflexive conversation that allows her own academic assumptions to be challenged and rethought as a result of the exchange: “[I]t is through this process of dwelling in the modes of reasoning endemic to a tradition that I once judged abhorrent that I have been able to dislocate the certitude of my own projections and even begin to comprehend why Islamism …exerts such a force in people’s lives. This attempt at comprehension offers the slim hope in this embattled and imperious climate, one in which feminist politics runs the danger of being reduced to a rhetorical display of the placard of Islam’s abuses, that analysis as a mode of conversation, rather than mastery, can yield a vision of coexistence that does not require making another lifeworlds extinct or provisional” (ibid).

Of course, one could legitimately argue that Mahmood also overcorrects a bit on this point: that is, she largely renders her informants immune from critique and downplays the asymmetries of power at work in the women’s piety movement itself. Nonetheless, she does offer an approach that does not necessarily claim to have the last word, but instead asks the scholar to subject her own theoretical assumptions to critical scrutiny, reflection, and possibility of change.

So I would like to end with a final question that might perhaps inspire some further discussion from readers. Does critical scholarship of the sort Lincoln proposes really demand that we insist on the “last word”? Or could it also proceed along the lines that Lincoln suggests in his pedagogy, as an ongoing, critical, and yet self-reflective conversation in which “none of us have a final word on it?”  Again, my questions here are not meant to be damning criticisms of Lincoln’s work or of his comments in the interview. Rather, they are merely intended to provoke some additional debate, in keeping with Lincoln’s observation that “challenge, riposte, conversation is where intellectual work takes place.”

References

Lincoln, Bruce. “Theses on Method.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 8 (1996): 225-27.

______. Discourse and the Construction of Society: Comparative Studies of Myth, Ritual and Classification. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.
Urban, Hugh B. Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics and Power in the Study of Religion. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003.
____. The Power of Tantra: Religion, Sexuality and the Politics of South Asian Studies. New York: Palgrave/ MacMillan, 2010.

Is Britain still a Christian country?

When scholars involved in the social scientific study of ‘religion’ encounter claims concerning ‘religious identity’ – of states, groups or individuals – a number of questions immediately spring to mind. UK Prime Minster David Cameron’s controversy-inducing statement around Easter 2014 that Britain is ‘a Christian country’ is a perfect example of how an apparently simple statement is actually highly ambiguous and can potentially mask a host of powerful ideological concerns.

What does Cameron’s statement actually mean? In what sense can a country be “Christian”? Today on the Religious Studies Project, we welcome back Professor Linda Woodhead to discuss and interrogate the question “Is Britain Still a Christian Country?”, the topic of her recent Croall Lectures at the University of Edinburgh.

The Secularization Thesis. You can also 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 buying academic texts, British cookbooks, cakes, model railways and more.

Religion and Authority in Asia

Given its contextual and perspectival malleability, the notion of ‘authority’, and even more so of ‘religious authority’, is challenging to define and to study. In October 2014, a number of scholars working on both ‘traditional’ and new modes of authority gathered for the Religious Authority in Asia: Problems and Strategies of Recognition workshop, which was funded by the Dr Erica Baffelli who in today’s interview with Paulina Kolata discusses the notion of authority and charismatic leadership in the context of her research on New and ‘New’ New religions in contemporary Japan.

It seems that the most problematic issue in discussions on authority in the Japanese religious context and beyond is the very recognition and identification of its existence and its impact on communities at trans-national, national and local levels. The assertion of authority can be perceived through the prism of the scholarly discourse on religions, relationships between religious specialists and their supporting communities, and the state-religion interface. There are two watershed dates – 1946 and 1995 – and the events associated with them can be considered as crucial in shaping the socio-economic and political conditions of the religious power struggle in Japanese society in post-war Japan. The first date is linked to the promulgation of the new post-war constitution which sanctioned freedom of religious belief, and separated religion and the state.  The second marks the date of an act of domestic terrorism – the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway – perpetrated by members of new religious group Aum Shinrikyō led by a charismatic figure of Asahara Shōkō. Listen to Erica Baffelli talk charisma, leadership and the media in assertion of religious authority in the context of New Religions in Japan.

Listeners might also be interested in our previous interview with Pauline Hope Cheong on Religious Authority and Social Media.

You can also 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.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying books, pet food, socks, digital radios, action figures, and more.

Pilgrimage in Japan and Beyond: Part 2

In October, RSP interviewer Paulina Kolata was able to sit down with Professor Ian Reader to discuss his publication ‘Pilgrimage in the Marketplace’ (October 2013), which explores the very ‘worldly’ conditions of development, popularisation, and ultimately, survival of pilgrimage centres in connection to the dynamics of the marketplace through which the ‘sacred’ as a category can be sustained. In this interview, Ian offers an insight into the meaning of pilgrimage, particularly in the Japanese context, and discusses the competitiveness of the pilgrimage market, the practice’s connection to tourism, playfulness of religion, and the survival of pilgrimage practice. After a fascinating conversation and a couple of cups of coffee later, we hope that listeners will enjoy this podcast as much as Paula and Ian enjoyed recording it, and we look forward to your discussions.

For ease of listening, we decided to split this week’s interview into two parts. For full podcast notes, and the first part, please click here. Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts with Eoin O’Mahony on “Geographies of Religion and the Secular in Ireland“, and Alex Norman on “Spiritual Tourism“.

You can also 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 books, cooking utensils, waistcoats, stuffed animals, and more.

Pilgrimage in Japan and Beyond: Part 1

The practice of pilgrimage is generally held to be a core feature of religious traditions. Pilgrimage developed as a practice available to only a few. The danger of the road, the cost of travel, and restrictions of class and feudal systems made it impossible for the common people to travel to remote sacred places. Similar to the situation in Early Medieval Europe (Sumption 1975: 11-12), political instability in pre-Tokugawa Japan (pre-1603) and an overall hostility to travelling strangers discouraged even some willing pilgrims from visiting many famous sites.  Whether it was wandering Buddhist monks circuiting Medieval Japan and performing healing rituals or Heian-aristocracy visiting Buddhist sites famous for their wish-granting powers, the practice of pilgrimage, and the special benevolence of the deities that went along with it, was reserved for a handful of people who had time and wealth to spare in order to afford the travel and to secure their safety on the dangerous routes.

Since then, pilgrimage has undergone a number of transitions that have shaped and redefined the way it is practiced and perceived. Various socio-economic and political changes, as well as technological developments, the establishment of modern tourism, and the expansion of the media have changed the way individuals ‘do’ pilgrimage, and shaped scholars’ understandings of modern religious travel, facilitating the transition of pilgrimage from obscure ascetic practice to widely popular touristic activity.

The element of journey, the importance of material culture, the role of media and technology, as well as the commercialisation of the practice of pilgrimage are dictate the conditions of survival and the popularity of pilgrimage today. Pilgrimage is a vivid representation of the way religion interacts with tourism, as we have seen before in our interview with Alex Norman on ‘Spiritual Tourism’. However, the exposure of pilgrimage practice to the influences of tourism and commodification does not necessarily diminish the ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ character of the practice. The utilization of the technological advancements of ‘this world’ is an important element in the survival of pilgrimage in Japan and elsewhere, helping it to become a kind of religious ‘pop culture’.

Within Religious Studies, discussion has rarely focused on the so-called this-worldliness of pilgrimage. Yet,  in October, RSP interviewer Paulina Kolata was able to sit down with Professor Ian Reader to discuss his publication ‘Pilgrimage in the Marketplace’ (October 2013), which explores the very ‘worldly’ conditions of development, popularisation, and ultimately, survival of pilgrimage centres in connection to the dynamics of the marketplace through which the ‘sacred’ as a category can be sustained. In this interview, Ian offers an insight into the meaning of pilgrimage, particularly in the Japanese context, and discusses the competitiveness of the pilgrimage market, the practice’s connection to tourism, playfulness of religion, and the survival of pilgrimage practice. After a fascinating conversation and a couple of cups of coffee later, we hope that listeners will enjoy this podcast as much as Paula and Ian enjoyed recording it, and we look forward to your discussions.

For ease of listening, we decided to split this interview into two parts. The second part is available below, or at this link, where it was originally published.

 

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts with Eoin O’Mahony on “Geographies of Religion and the Secular in Ireland“, and Alex Norman on “Spiritual Tourism“.

You can also 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 books, cooking utensils, waistcoats, stuffed animals, and more.

References/Further Reading

  • Reader, Ian (2013) Pilgrimage in the Marketplace. New York and London: Routledge
  • Reader, Ian. and Swanson, Paul (1997) “Editors’ Introduction: Pilgrimage in the Japanese Religious Tradition”, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1997 24/3-4 pp.225-270
  • Sumption, Jonathan. (1975) Pilgrimage: an image of medieval religion. London: Faber & Faber

The Postsecular

In his 2011 Presidential Address to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Milwaukee, James Beckford focused upon a contested term that has grown in prominence in recent years in the social scientific study of religion – the notion of the ‘postsecular’. In this address – published in the JSSR in 2012, Beckford noted a number of problems associated with the concept.

First, there is enormous variety in the meanings attributed to the ‘postsecular’, and there are many tensions between these meanings. Second, ‘the variety of meanings attributed to “postsecularity” is partly a function of the unusually wide range of intellectual disciplines and fields with an interest in it’. However, Beckford is keen to emphasise that this breadth of disciplinary interest does not imply that there actually is such a phenomenon as ‘postsecularity’. Third, ‘the orientation of many writings about the postsecular is normative and speculative’. (2012, 12-13)

With these issues in mind, Chris took some time to speak solely on this contested topic with Kevin W. Gray while in Belfast for the ESA Sociology of Religion Research Network Conference in September. Discussion focuses upon the history of the term, potential definitions, disciplinary and geographical differences, and ultimately suggests that ‘postsecularity’ is effectively dressing up ‘secularity’ in obfuscating clothing.

You can also download this podcast, 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.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make – particularly in the run up to Christmas!

 

References

  • Beckford, James A. 2012. “SSSR Presidential Address Public Religions and the Postsecular: Critical Reflections.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 51 (1): 1–19. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2011.01625.x.

The First Rule of Adjuncting is…

The first rule of adjuncting is you don’t talk about adjuncting.[1]

The second rule of adjuncting is… you don’t talk about adjuncting!

If you have seen the film Fight Club, a visually stunning piece based on Chuck Palhnuik’s book by the same title which savagely critiques modern consumerism, you know that I am making a link here between this film and the role of the adjunct in American higher education. In the film, this underground fraternal club revolves around cage-fighting style matches between two men in abandoned warehouses. These brutal bouts act as therapy for these men who feel emasculated by modern consumer culture. What does that have to do with adjuncting? Nothing and everything.

The first rule of adjuncting is you don’t talk about adjuncting.

The first rule of adjuncting is you don’t talk about adjuncting.

If you have read my two pieces on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, then you know I have recently come out of the closet as an adjunct. You may not know what an adjunct is. Here is a blurb where I explain the adjunct plight in higher education.

An adjunct is a part-time knowledge worker who teaches 76% of all college courses in the US. We are contract workers (picking up jobs by the semester or year), transient populations (going where the jobs are), we rarely get benefits, are rarely hired in full-time capacity (because this would require we receive benefits), and we often don’t know if we will have work from semester to semester. Many of us have PhDs; some of us, like myself, only have a MA degree. Many of us have written for esteemed journals, published alongside tenured professors, and even written our own books.”

The closest equivalent in the U.K. is perhaps the fixed term temporary lecturer who primarily teaches. This is not to be confused with the more esteemed lecturer position which is more open-ended, fairly stable, and allows for both teaching and research. It seems there is a great deal of confusion regarding nomenclature even within similar systems. In the U.S., students and parents often have no idea how an adjunct (limited term, lowly paid, MA or PhD, instructor with few research opportunities) is different from other faculty… such as full professors (not limited term, well paid, PhD, who usually teaches and does research the rest of the time). Students only see what we do in the classroom… often they assume that those teaching their classes are not part of this underclass, if they even are aware such an underclass exists. Adjuncts don’t usually complain about their situation because they are already living month to month… and they can’t risk getting fired. This allows departments to pay them less and less. The tide is shifting though. Today, adjuncts are fighting for benefits, better wages, and representation in the university. In many small community colleges, adjuncts make up the majority of the faculty and work in less than ideal conditions (no benefits, low wage, no offices or shared offices, and no way to get out). In these cases, the 76% number rings true… where adjuncts teach a majority of the classes. In more prestigious state schools, like where I taught the last two years, about 17% are adjunct (this number is based only on part-time faculty). The count of annual contracted adjuncts is much harder to ascertain. I am sure you can imagine why, no college wants to advertise their use of this contingent labor. Some thinkers warn that the continued corporatization of the American academy is systematically undermining the values of higher education. Even Congress is worried.

So now that you know we exist and that you know that I was one (I taught 52 courses in 10 years at 3 different Georgia universities and colleges) I will explain why you might not have known that I was an adjunct.

Simple…I didn’t want you to know.

Why would I hide my identity as an adjunct? Hello_my_name_is_AdjunctM-773510

1. Fear: Speaking out makes your employers look bad. The first rule of adjuncting is that you don’t talk about adjuncting. The second rule of adjuncting is that you don’t talk about adjuncting! Why? Because if you talk about being underpaid, having no health insurance or benefits, no representation or recourse in administration, your department will be shamed by this disclosure (as they should be) and there will be retribution. I, like other adjuncts, who are disclosing what has happened to them, fear losing our current jobs and we fear that speaking up will make us social and professional pariah. We fear retribution. We also know that by disclosing this information we are burning bridges… I most certainly cannot ask for a letter of recommendation from a department which I have critiqued for unethical employment practices.

2. Shame: Speaking out makes you look bad. I never introduced myself as an adjunct because adjuncting is seen as the dying lands for academic stragglers. It is a job which slowly squeezes out the undesirables from academia. This is a way of culling the herd in the academic world. To say you are an adjunct is to risk being viewed in this negative light. If you are an adjunct, full-time professors want to know why you are an adjunct. They want to know what is wrong with you. If you are a perpetual adjunct, you must be damaged goods. Academia is a lot like high school… who you know, who you sit with, work with, present with… is indicative of your own academic status. Many academics only want to associate with other academics that can raise their scholarly stock. Associating with an adjunct might make your scholarly stock plummet.

So why would I speak out? Why say anything, if it is in my best interest to be silent?

It is no longer in my best interest to be silent. I tried that route and it didn’t work. I have decided to leave adjunct teaching. After all that work, I have finally had it. I had my Towanda moment. I like to call it my Breaking Bad moment… minus the whole becoming a homicidal drug lord part. Once I saw that my department was now hiring annual contracted ‘lecturers’ (PhDs who will teach full-time for up to seven years before a possibility of promotion to senior lecturers), I realized that now that departments could get PhDs to teach classes for pennies on the dollar, they would not need me. Oh they would continue to hire me on a part-time basis semester to semester when these lecturers leave two weeks before the semester starts for a better job. I would still not get benefits. I still wouldn’t be able to even cobble together a living by teaching, tutoring/ etc. at various state schools. I would still need to get a signed letter every single semester from my department so I could check out books from the school library.

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I may be leaving adjunct teaching for a living wage and benefits but I am not leaving academia. I love higher education but I can no longer pretend to be blind to the exploitation in my midst, to the exploitation happening to me. I love to teach, write, and research about religion but the cost of this part-time living is too high. I am personable, resilient, skilled, published, and highly educated… and now fully employed. Most adjuncts are so crippled, emotionally, finically, and physically… that by asking them to fight back you have only given them another job… another job for which they won’t be paid, a job which will likely get them fired and shunned.

I will still speak for adjuncts.

I am breaking the first rule and the second rule of adjuncting.


[1] *editors note: ‘Adjunct’ is a term used in America to denote a college professor who typically has the same and/or greater teaching responsibilities as a tenured professor at a university, but lacks anything even approaching the job security, benefits and stipend of a tenured professor. As Kate has mentioned, 76% of all college courses in the US are taught by adjuncts. Even many PhD’s are adjuncts. As the number of tenured teaching positions in academia continues to shrink, it is likely that most wishing to at least ‘earn a living wage’ will either have to find jobs outside academia altogether, or accept being a contingent laborer who not only teaches but has to compete with the very students they teach for jobs at a local pub for minimum wage – just to make ends meet. You should care about adjuncts for many reasons, but as tenure positions appear more like pipe dreams it’s likely that, if an academic career is your dream, you yourself may be in a similar position one day trying to make ends meet.

Habermas and the Problem with the ‘Problem’ of Religion in Public Discourse

Living in a country where you don’t know the language means you have a great excuse for not talking to Jehovah’s Witnesses.

To be completely honest, I actually did understand the two Witnesses when they came to my door. Though I had just moved to Germany and just begun to study German, I knew what they were saying. “Bible” is the same in German and English and I knew the word for the verb, “to read.” Also they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. They weren’t there to borrow sugar. I understood. But I lied.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “I’m sorry. I only speak English.” It was a great excuse.

A week later, two more Witnesses came to my door. “You want to read the Bible?” they said. “You want to know God’s plan for human happiness?”

Their English was great.

Of course it was. As a religion that prioritizes proselytization, Witnesses put tremendous effort into reaching people who are different than themselves. They translate their message linguistically and culturally. They don’t expect to be accommodated in conversation; they accommodate.

There has been much theorizing under the heading of “post-secular” about the problem of religious participation in public discourse. For the religious to speak to those who do not share their ontological presuppositions, it is said, in public discussions in pluralistic, democratic societies, it must be necessary for there to be a reformulation of religious arguments into publicly accessible, this-world terms. This is a very literal case of that problem. Yet it illustrates, if nothing else, that there might be a problem with framing the matter of religious people dialoguing with those who do not share their religion as a “problem.”

As philosopher Jürgen Habermas explains the problem, religious language can be allowed into the public sphere, but only on certain conditions: “The truth contents of religious contributions can enter into the institutionalized practice of deliberation and decision-making only when the necessary translation already occurs in the pre-parliamentarian domain, i.e. in the political public sphere itself … citizens of faith may make public contributions in their own religious language only subject to the translation proviso” (Between Naturalism and Religion 131-32). They cannot, that is, just appeal to divine authority when they come to your door or come to the public square. They cannot just invoke revelation. What is sacred to them must be re-conceived in reasoned discourse as secular. This burden of “translation” has been central to talk of the post-secular, and also to Habermas’ noted post-secular turn.

However, because this theoretical conceptualization frames translation as a problem, it misses how, in common practice, religious people do speak.

Sociologist Michelle Dillon makes a similar (but not identical) critique of Habermas and the post-secular in her interview with the Religious Studies Project. She notes that in his earlier work on communicative action, Habermas didn’t speak of religious participation in public discourse, implicitly excluding it. In his more recent work, with his turn to the post-secular, Habermas corrects this. He acknowledges that religious reasoning does have a place in pluralist democracies, and yet that toleration still has limits. “Habermas was saying, let’s reassess how we have often marginalized religion,” Dillon says. “But on further reading of Habermas . . . while he’s bringing religion back in, into the public sphere, he’s doing so very much in a Habermasian way.”

According to Dillon, one problem with Habermasian toleration of religion is that it only allows for a very narrow definition of religion. Religion is only acceptable, publicly, when it exhibits a “high rationality.” In this way, he is still excluding a lot of religious reasoning and barring many religious people from public discourse. If someone’s religion is emotional, or traditional, or grounded in personal experience, it is disallowed. Though he sounds like he’s pushing for an act of inclusion — against, for example, “the blinkered enlightenment which is unenlightened about itself and which denies religion any rational content” (An Awareness of What is Missing 18) — it is also an act of exclusion.

This critique can usefully be pushed further.

It seems right that, as Dillon says, the burden of translation is exclusionary. More than that, though, the translation proviso makes exclusion the default. Religious citizens are kept out of the public discourse, unless and until they can prove their reasoning is sufficiently translated. The onus is on them. The starting assumption is that religious people will be fundamentally unable to speak to those who don’t share their faith.

But why start with the assumption that translation will be a problem?

Dillon, in her work, has looked at Catholic bishop’s arguments against legalizing divorce in Ireland. She found that the bishops made sociological claims about the effects of divorce on women, children, and society. They did not just invoke their own authority, nor rely on Catholic moral teaching. Even though most Irish were Catholics, the arguments made by the bishops on this matter were public, secular arguments, entirely within what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the immanent frame” (539-593).

Similarly, in the United States, many religious citizens have organized to oppose same-sex marriage. Mormon, Catholic, and evangelical groups have stated that they want to “defend traditional marriage,” and that their religious beliefs commit them to that position. However, when one looks at the legal briefs filed by religious groups in the landmark Supreme Court case Hollingsworth v. Perry, for example, one doesn’t find mainly religious arguments. One finds religious groups making sociological arguments about the importance of traditional marriage and the probable consequences of changing that. The debate is about what the contested law would and wouldn’t do. Whether or not one agrees, all the purportedly religious arguments are quite intelligible from a non-religious perspective.

It’s not even clear that it would be right to speak of these religious forays into public discourse as involving “translation.” The idea that divorce in Ireland or same-sex marriage in the United States will hurt families is not the secular equivalent of a religious idea. The sense, rather, is that religious teachings are relevant to human flourishing. To the extent that the wider public shares those conceptions of human flourishing, the arguments are intelligible.

This too can be pushed further: Even when religious people do explicitly invoke an authority that is not generally accepted, that doesn’t, in practice, mean that those arguments cannot be understood. Dillon has found that pro-change Catholics use theological arguments to claim their legitimate social identity. “The Catholics I had studied,” she says, “were clearly grounding their emancipatory claims for greater equality within religious reasoning. And it was the sort of reasoning that would appeal or could persuade people who were Catholic or not Catholic.” The same could be said of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ more controversial practice of rejecting blood transfusion. While the argument is religious — blood is connected to the soul— it is not unintelligible to those who don’t share the presuppositions of Witnesses. To the general public, these claims seem wrong, but not radically indecipherable.

Habermas, even after his new openness to the religious, holds that religious reasoning is entirely different from and incomprehensible to non-religious reasoning. He writes that “The cleavage between secular knowledge and revealed knowledge cannot be bridged” (An Awareness of What is Missing: 17). This is empirically wrong. Perhaps Habermas hasn’t seen such bridges, but they are quite common.

Religious people regularly enter into conversations with those from other religions as well as those with no religion. The Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to my door speaking English are good examples. They wanted to talk about God’s plan for a happy life. Their speech was, to use a Habermasian word, verständigungsorientiert. That is to say, it was oriented toward understanding (Communication and the Evolution of Society: 1).

The Witness’ speech, in fact, was a communicative action. It did all of the things that Habermas’ earlier work explains that communicative action is supposed to do. It was based on the four pragmatic presuppositions necessary to communication, “the shared presupposition of a world of independently existing objects, the reciprocal presupposition of rationality or ‘accountability,’ the unconditionality of context-transcending validity claims such as truth and moral rightness, and the demanding presuppositions of argumentation” (Between Naturalism and Religion: 28). It was, as argumentation, also grounded in the presuppositions of Habermasian rational discourse: publicity and inclusivity, equality, truthfulness, and the absence of coercion (Ibid: 50, 82). Though he might not have recognized it, the Witnesses are a good example of what Habermas has described as the embodiment of reason in everyday communicative practice (Ibid: 25).

Habermas’ ideas about the communicative action, then, usefully counter the so-called translation “problem” of the post-secular public sphere. These religious arguments are part of the normal spectrum of speech, and thus participate in the same normative conditions. To quote Habermas, “one can say that the general and unavoidable—in this sense transcendental—conditions of possible understanding have a normative content when one has in mind not only the binding character of norms of action or even the binding character of rules in general, but the validity basis of speech across its entire spectrum” (Communication and the Evolution of Society: 2).

To assume that translation will be a significant problem is to assume that religious people’s religious communication is not fundamentally verständigungsorientiert, not oriented toward understanding. But of course it is. For, as one can learn from Habermas, that orientation is internal to the structure of communication.

In her interview with the Religious Studies Project, Dillon suggests that Habermas is a great and underused resource. Thinking about religious people in dialogue with those who don’t share their beliefs is an example of how this is true. For those in religious studies, the problems and the potential of Habermas’ thought can serve as a starting place to ask about the kinds of arguments religious people are using in public reasoning and what frameworks they are using to legitimate their views.

Thinking with and against Habermas in this way can also, if nothing else, serve to correct the mistaken assumptions one makes when coming up with excuses not to talk to Jehovah’s Witnesses.

 

 Bibliography

Habermas, Jürgen. Between Naturalism and Religion. Cambridge: Polity, 2008.

——. Communication and the Evolution of Society. Boston: Beacon, 1979.

Habermas, Jürgen, et al. An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age. Cambridge: Polity, 2010.

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge: Harvard, 2007.

‘Religion’ as ‘sui generis’

Is ‘religion’ sui generis? In other words, do scholars of religion study something that forms a unique and special domain of things in the world unlike any other? Wittgenstein thought religion constituted a distinct “form of life”. Eliade spoke of the ‘Sacred’ as existing in a separate reality above the mundaneness of the everyday (i.e. the profane).  Historically and in more modern times, other scholars have held similar views that paint the category of religion as naming a specific and stable set of things in the world set apart from all other. However, it is a view that has fallen out of favour as noted by Dr. Russell McCutcheon.

In this interview with Thomas Coleman, McCutcheon discusses what he terms as the “socio-political strategy” behind the label of “sui generis” as it is applied to religion. The interview begins by exploring some of the terms used to support sui generis claims to religion (e.g. un-mediated, irreducible etc.) followed by a brief overview on the rise of religious studies departments mid-20th century using such claims to obtain funding and autonomy from other disciplines. In closing, Dr. McCutcheon explains one example of how the ideological foundations of belief are ontology centered, examines how the term religion is “traded” and departs leaving us to consider the role of social agreement in defining what religion is or is not.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment torate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Dr. Russell McCutcheon is a full professor of religion and the department chair for the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. His main interests lie in the academic study of ‘the academic study of religion’, focusing on how the category and term ‘religion’ has been employed throughout time. He has published several books such as Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia and more recently The Sacred Is the Profane: The Political Nature of “Religion”  (co-authored with William Arnal). Dr. McCutcheon is a member of Culture on the Edge, an international scholarly collaborative looking at how “identities are produced, managed, and continually reproduced” in society and in academia. Be sure to check out his latest book titled Entanglements: Marking Place in the Field of Religion coming out this March!

Religion, Neoliberalism and Consumer Culture

François Gauthier is currently working as Professor of Sociology of Religion at University of Fribourg, Switzerland. His earlier post was in Département de sciences des religions at Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada. He is also researcher at the Groupe Société, Religions, Laïcités (GSRL-EPHE-CNRS, Paris) and the Chaire de recerche du Canada en Mondialisation, citoyenneté et démocratie (UQAM). Gauthier’s research interests include topics related to e.g. religion and politics and religion and public space. Apart from consumerism and neoliberalism, he has studied topics such as religiosity in rave culture and the Burning Man festival.

Together with Tuomas Martikainen, he has edited two books, Religion in Consumer Society and Religion in the Neoliberal Age: Political Economy and Modes of Governance both of which were published earlier this year in the Ashgate AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society series. In her first interview for the RSP, Hanna Lehtinen met Gauthier during the International Society for the Sociology of Religion (ISSR/SISR) conference in Turku, Finland, where he kindly explained to us some of the key ideas of the recently published work on religion, consumer society and the ethos of neoliberalism.

According to Gauthier, it is important to note is that religious activity of the day is not haphazard or random pick-and-choose at all. Instead, it is following a new kind of logic, that of consumerism. Marketization and commodification among other phenomena are affecting the field of religion – and vice versa. Listen and find out more!

You can also 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.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when participating in consumer culture in your own way.

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

Podcast Transcript

Podcast with François Gauthier on Religion, Neoliberalism and Consumer Culture (7 October 2013). PDF.

Interviewed by Hanna LehtinenTranscribed by Martin Lepage.

 

Hanna Lehtinen: We are here in Turku ISSR conference, and I am here with Francois Gauthier, who is Professor of Sociology of Religion in Fribourg. My French is awful, but this is in Switzerland. Previously he has been based in Quebec in Montreal, and he’s been doing empirical research on subculture, countercultural phenomenon, and today we are talking especially about religion and consumer culture, consumer society and neoliberalism. Welcome.

François Gauthier: Thank you very much for having me. Yes, so basically the economic question came up because I was doing studies on those phenomena, and also on new political phenomena. Protests happening in the mid 90’s that led to the anti-globalization movement, and up to today’s Occupy movement. What I saw is that subcultures self-defined against consumerism, and political movements, new political movements had changed radically since the 70s. In the 70s, it was all about taking power… Maoist guerrilla types of terrorist action, whether it be in Quebec or in Germany or elsewhere, and it was linked with the Arab struggle and stuff like that, the anti-imperialist movement. Starting with the 90s, well, we have these subcultures that are very festive. All the sudden, political protest becomes festive. What’s that? Instead of having a confrontation with power, it was “Let’s open areas of autonomy,” with respect with the State. In a way, it was not about confronting the State, but it was more calling the State back to its public, what Grace Davie would call “public utility”. It was saying, well the State, you have to regulate markets. Basically, what I already intuitively knew, what that the world was governed by a new force that was not political, but was economic. So I started, first of all, challenging political theory, and challenging religious theory, from the margins, saying that theory available today did not allow us to understand these phenomena. Ravers say this is spiritual. This can’t be dealt with [available] theory. What’s wrong with the theory? While most people were doing the contrary, they were saying “This is not religion”. They say it is, but it’s not. But it’s massive, and it still happens today. If ravers say they’re religious, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t fit our definition. I took the contrary way in saying that the problem is the definition. The problem is not the ravers. And if the ravers feel that Catholicism and raves are on the same level, then they are. (5:00) It’s the sociologist that has the problem, not the ravers. That was a starting point, and the same thing with the political theory side. So basically, it was the realisation that a major factor in understanding these phenomena was understanding that we were no longer under a sort of political model, a Nation-State regulating political model, but that there was a new regulation, a new world that was emerging, that was essentially governed by economics. And that therefore there were, and there are, religious dimensions to economics, and political dimensions to economics. So how do we understand that? As of the last… these last fifteen years have been the development of that initial intuition…

HL: So, basically a new power’s come into play or has kind of strengthened, and what happened is that the scholars of religion still look at it kind of from the Westphalian Nation-State point of view. And these new arenas that these religions are taking up do not fit the categories that the State has kind of institutionalised for religion. And this is what we have a problem with, scholars of religion.

FG: Exactly. Exactly. Yes. Just a kind of liminal methodological word. I’m French, and I’m from French theory where Durkheim and Marcel Mauss are still quite important. Actually, Marcel Mauss has become to be important anew. And Marcel Mauss refused to separate sociology and anthropology. He was one of the founders of French sociology, and the French sociologists were the first to, and the only ones to, use sociology as a word, because Weber self-identified as an economist, so when you are talking about sociology, this is what you’re talking about. An this founder of French sociology basically his discourse meant, what he meant by we need not separate, we must not separate sociology and anthropology, is because sociology is concerned with societies, which itself defines as being something like modern societies, bureaucratic societies, with differentiated social spheres. And so it implicitly says that, with respect to every other culture in the world that’s ever been and today the West, there is sort of a great shift. So it postulates a uniqueness. This is the basis for many secularisation theories and many evolutionist theories. Mauss was very aware that this was dangerous. There is a specificity to modern societies, Western societies, and now web societies worldwide, but there are certainly not in complete discontinuity with other so-called archaic societies or societies that existed before. On the other side, anthropologists who study the Other, the archaic so-called primitive societies, the simple societies. You have two normative trends in anthropologists. Either you discredit the primitive societies as being infants that will eventually grow into adults. Or on the contrary you idealize the Natives by saying “This is great, everything is meaningful and peaceful, and now we’ve gone into these modern societies’. And so you have a disenchantment narrative. If you keep both modern societies together with so-called primitive or archaic societies, and you’re always thinking “How do I differentiate what I’m looking at, with respect to the first societies?’, and “Where do I find continuity?” As a point of method, I think this brings a lot of fresh water. It avoids of seeing too much continuity, and the same time it avoids seeing too much difference. So I always read contemporary phenomena while thinking ‘How does this relate to Siberian shamanism in the early 1900s?”, “How does this relate to (10:00) Brazilian Amazonian forest Yanomamis?”, and, even if I’m looking at contemporary Judaism or whatever, I do this. And I tell my students to do this. And I tell them “Put the book, put Malinowski on your table, and once in a while, after you go to the toilet or have a coffee, just open any page and read it. And then close it”. Just to keep that in mind. So that sort of also sketches my approach to contemporary societies.

With the issue of consumerism or economics within culturally regulated system, the two books that we just published with Thomas Martikained, Religion in the Neoliberal Age and Religion in Consumer Society. These are two books, but actually they’re one book. On the one hand, this has not been done before, not at all, even in economics or in sociology, is to think neoliberalism, not only as a dominant political ideology, or an economic theory, but also as a cultural ideology, and asking why did this theory that looked completely crazy in the 1940s, and was almost totally dismissed, has no… promises no utopia, has no [positive] value to it at all, has become so self-evident today and dominant. At the same time, consumption… the age that you have, and the age that I have… we grew up in this. This is obviously one of the major traits of societies today. But you will not find this to be opening statements in books on work, family, religion, law. So this is what we started the book saying, for book one, saying “We live in a neoliberal era”, and the other book, by saying “We live in consumerist societies”. These are not the only traits, but these are very, very important defining traits of our societies today. How did this grow up? How did this occur? In the post-Second World War period, which was a rapid growth period after the Second World War, for about three decades, this is when Nation-State really developed into a welfare state. And what happened also in the economic level at the same time is that production, since the crash of 1929, could no longer pull the economy. That was one of the reasons behind the crisis. Marketing was invented, meaning “We need to create needs, and we need to create consumption, and then production will follow.” So when Max Weber is writing in the early 1900s about economy, he’s writing about a productive industrial economy. But that only applies in part today, because since at least the 1950s and 1960s, we’re living in post-industrial society in which it is no longer production that is pulling the economy, but consumption. And this type of society emerged slowly during the 1960s and 1970s, and really started to be dominant within people’s lives in the 1980s. The 1968 riots in California, May ‘68 in France… if you look at what is claimed, it was not as much of a political revolution as a cultural revolution, and the values of liberty and autonomy, those are also those of consumer capitalism. This was instilling itself. One of the theories, one of the hypotheses we have, is by the time Deng Xiaoping in China, deregulates the inner market, by the time that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan come in and start applying free market policies, it’s not just a question of “Okay, there were four crises in 1973, and 78”. It’s not just because of the inflation and all that. It became widely popular as  a way of governing societies, because people had become accustomed over thirty years of having an economic rapport to life. (15:00) That you can buy services, you can buy vacations, you can buy all these things. Even from the 1950s in the United States, what marketers have found out is that the economy does not function according to laws of… the laws of offer and demand. It has nothing to do with it, or very little in the end. What is driving is that it is no longer what the washing machine can functionally do, because there are seventeen or eighteen other brands that are doing exactly the same thing. It’s in the name of the things marketers, which… can’t remember his name right now… it’s what the washing machine will do for your soul. It’s not what car you will drive, it’s what this projects, how does this project or express who you are? Cigarette brands… Malboro was a woman’s cigarette until I think the 1940s. Then all the sudden they rebranded it, with the Malboro man and that become of the most successful brand name operation in the world. It has nothing to do with the product. It’s the fact that when you’re smoking Malboro’s, and today they rebranded it with more of a hipster content, you’re buying an identity. You’re not buying identity in a commodification way, you’re really, you’re buying signs, that you’re putting out towards the world saying who you are. If consumerism worked, it’s because of that. And because we’re modern individualistic societies, and what individualism is about is that you are unique. You are different than anybody else in the world. This is a radically new way to see, to conceive humanity, and to conceive subjectivity. It’s radically new. But how are you going to do that? In the 1900s, there was a romantic movement, in the elite aristocratic and literary elite could function within that ethos, but with consumer society, starting with the 1950s and 1960s, it got massified, then it meant that anybody could create his own self, in a way. Or at least, participate in certain identities and certain lifestyles, because people are good enough with their own liberty that they can really create their own look. You can only buy the clothes that are in the shops. Consumerism is all about choice, but, right now, if you want baggy jeans, you going to be looking for a long time for baggy jeans, better go to second hand stores, cause everything that is available is tight jeans. You see that it’s a choice, that’s always at the same time determined by what’s out there, and somebody determined this stuff.

So what we were basically saying is that you cannot separate neoliberalism and consumerism, because they work together, and you can’t understand the rise of neoliberalism if you don’t understand that it’s rooted also in the conditioning that being consumers, as the condition that’s happened within the social… and then we talked of other phenomena. The fact that we used to talk about governmentality in politics which meant authority, hierarchical structures, and taking political decisions and values into actions. Today, we talk of governance. Try not to use the word governance, which is more of a market model, horizontal, procedural, consensual way of functioning politically. That has come into the fore. And nobody today in political science writes govermentality, everybody writes governance. There is an ideology behind that, there is a shift, a huge shift in [imagining…]. And then take management, which today, universities, the economics and marketing schools in our university are by far the most populated, the most popular. They didn’t exist at the end of late 1970s. There was not marketer before 1995, I think, that was actually trained as a marketer. And today, it’s the very heart of our universities. We have to realize this, and this goes into, if you’re taught management, and massive parts of that, massive amounts of our contemporaries (20:00) are being trained in management, it makes you think in a management way. And this is why all the sudden you’re managing your stress, you’re managing your love life, you’re managing absolutely everything within your life and this in an economic way of viewing things. So what we’re trying to do with these books is say “You cannot understand what’s going on if you don’t link all this up. You can’t look at just public policies, and neoliberalism as a doctrine. You cannot look at it only philosophically.” It doesn’t help. It’s much more profound and anthropological, and it relates on every level going from high level policies at the UN, how this is implemented in how the world bank functions and all that. And in the very and most privatized aspect of everyday life, and how people choose how to dress every day, and how they decide on their consumption choices, because even the type of coffee you drink is a way of showing who you are.

HL: So, because obviously what we were saying earlier about the mix and match approach, which I’ve come across a lot, a lot of people talk about how religion, as you say, your choices are not, and they mean something, always, and they construct you as you are, and that’s why you have to put off weight on it, basically. Then religion is no exception. This has been noted by many scholars, that it is a big identity thing, as well as this kind of spiritual… you can choose, say you can do yoga, you can go to some nice Christian retreat, you can do all these things and that kind of also constructs your identity. But so, you’re saying that there is no mix and match. Could you elaborate on that?

FG: Absolutely, your question is excellent and it comes perfectly in mind with what I was saying before. Religion is not a thing, it is related to different contexts, different societies and different cultures. Shamans… shamanistic cultures in Siberia, I mean there are no spirits, there is no belief, there is no scripture, no god. There is just “how do we manage to kill elk?” It’s much more complicated than that, but it’s just to kind of open our mind to what religion is. With that consumerist shift, what’s happened is that religion has changed, but we’re so used to thinking of religion as being the church, or something that is separated within social sphere. The church is a certain place, there [are] certain people who take care of that, and there are certain times where you go. And it also relates to either a local level belonging and identity, and then national level of identity. We are so used to that that we think this is normal. But if you go back to a country like Quebec in the early 1800s, it was not like that. Catholicism wasn’t even important, that became important in the mid-1900s. So if it changed before, why can’t it change radically now?

HL: Exactly

FG: And so, if you get that perspective, you stop having to think about religion disappearing or coming back or whatever. Now, societies have changed and religious change is an important factor in that change. Today, religion has morphed into tribal belongings, lifestyle-type of belongings, mediated namely through the virtual sphere, but also the local level on a person-to-person basis in collectivity. These are overlapping levels. So religion has become less involved about correct belief and belonging to a set community, it’s more about ethics. ‘How do you live your life?’ If I’m a Muslim, I will eat halal, and avoid haram, and I will wear a veil if I’m a woman, and do this, and the five prayers. This wasn’t important in Islam, twenty, thirty, forty years ago. This was not important. This has become important since that economic shift that changes religion towards ethics and identity. (25:00)

So, your question was about the pick and choose. How do you analyze that? Many scholars have talked about this as being à la carte, people choose their religion, they mix and match this and that, it’s sort of light, it doesn’t have many incidences, and therefore sort of degraded form of religion. This is sort of what is involved in this kind of thinking. The subtext of this is saying that this type of religiosity is sort of not real religiosity. And the second thing that it is saying is that this is not structured, it’s fragmented, it’s incoherent, it’s amorphous. In the end, it doesn’t really make sense. Another line of argument, that sort of touches on to this, has been thinking of religion in economic terms. There is a religious market, and people pick and choose, and there are laws of offer and demand, and all this. The first narrative, the one that says that things are fragmented, and all this, basically, it’s trying to think within the same categories of what religion was before, and so what it is seeing it that it looks fragmented, because it’s looking with the eyeglasses of what it used to be. We’ve heard that loads in this conference. It’s been a huge debate and it’s starting to change. I think that there are new ways emerging, and I think that this conference is probably, in Turku, is probably one of the moments where the discipline is shifting. The other way, the second part that sees rational choice theory and that kind of salvation goods, or looking at the branding of religion, these are interesting insights, but when you look at what they really do, is that they completely lose specificity of religion and they treat religion as any other product, being a Mars bar or buying a vacation on Club Med, and nobody has ever asked the question “Is religion really that much of a product?” The basic flaw, and this has perhaps not been said enough, cause there’s been loads of debates on rational choice and even important people, intelligent people, have given rational choice way too much credit in my view. Rational choice must be absolutely avoided at all cost. Why? Because it’s not understanding this new way of religiosity, it’s not understating the relationship between a consumer neoliberal type of society, with respect to religious change. It’s interpreting religious change in economic terms. And it’s doing so saying that, basically, it’s always been the case. Well, I’m sorry. Yanomami religion, Siberian shamanism, 1930s Catholicism in Quebec, or Lutheran Christianity in Finland, did not… was not an economic decision of maximizing utility with the laws of offer and demand. It was not that. So the question is “Why did these theories emerge?” Actually, the theories emerged because we are in a economic driven society. This is the only thing that rational choice theories hint us. They tell us where we should be looking, we should be understanding that we don’t have to think religion in economic terms, we have to see how the society has changed, where economy is being structuring… has become structuring, and religion changes in rapport with this. What we’re proposing is a radical sidestep outside of rational choice.

And if I may pursue the line of argument that was crossing my mind… is that secularisation theory, meaning the decline of religion, the decline of social functions of religion, the privatization of religion within the private life, the separation from the public sphere, religion becoming a differentiated social sphere that basically has relationships with the rest of the social spheres, but that keeps to itself, this kind of thing. And then the debates on “Is religion returning?”. It went away and now it’s returning. Basically these debates have come to criticise secularisation theory in a way that I think, the great majority of sociologists of religion today (30:00) would sort of agree that secularisation doesn’t work anymore to think today. But nothing has emerged yet that can present itself as being the new paradigm. One of the problems is that we’ve been so scared of general theory, because the general theories we had until Parsons and Luhmann, and that kind of stuff, was basically trying to explain everything from theory. And so, it didn’t work with the facts and people rebelled against that. Today, we’re on a very contrary, we’re on the contrary of the 1960s, where, today, and that’s the question we get all the time, is that, “Yes, but what about specific local context?”. Well, of course there is a specific local context, but the problem is nobody’s thinking the link between the fact that yoga has become a major site of spirituality/religiosity today, in Western countries, and that Islam is totally reshaped by Islamic televangelists all over the world, including the Arab world and Indonesia, and that these televangelists are not religiously trained, they’re businessmen types. And Julia Howell was talking about that in the plenary this morning. And this is totally redefining Islam. Nobody connects these dots, and tries to show how this frames. Everybody’s looking at all the variegated aspects within national contexts, but nobody’s trying to grab that globally and transnationally and showing that, well, if you sidestep and look at things a certain way, all of the sudden, these things seem structured, all of a sudden you start seeing the links Burning Man festival, festivals of the Senegalese Sufis in New York. So, this is what we are attempting to do. We’re not saying it applies absolutely everywhere, because it’s tied to the logics of globalization, where has  the market, and where has the Internet and all that reached. Where Internet, the marketing and consumerism have reached, this is where you will find this type of change in religiosity. And this is not fragmented, this makes a lot of sense, this is very much structured. But then, it expresses itself in different parts of the world in amazing manners that are sometimes quite different, but at the same time sometimes quite similar. For example, these Islamic televangelists in Indonesia hired Texan Pentecostals to help them build their thing. So there’s more and more of these transnational movements that are all collaborating to structure religion in this new way.

HL: This is hugely interesting. I’m just listening in awe, I’m not even coming up with anything to say, really. I’m afraid we don’t have much time left and we have to close this interview. Pack it up. I have one more question, a question I tend to ask always. And that is what next?

FG: What next? Today, in Turku 2013 ISSR conference, I would say that what next is to not do once again the same normative and ideological mistake we did with the secularization theory. Secularization theory was bound to a certain type of religion, and to a certain way of seeing religion that was Christian-oriented. This way of looking at things devalued women, it didn’t look at what women we’re doing, but women were doing stuff, and devalued non-institutional phenomena as being irrelevant. What we’re saying today is that women are foremost in religious change, and that the non-institutional stuff is probably the most important today, and the institutions are changing in relationship to the non-institutional. So the secularization paradigm was stuck in modern ideologies, stipulating that religion was going to stay what it was, and therefore decline because there was modernisation equal non-religion. (35:00) There is a whole lot of debate around this. It’s an ideological frame that left a lot of stuff out, and what can we do with the “What now?” is “How do we avoid doing that again?” Obviously, any type of paradigm, any type of general theory of understanding the world will leave stuff behind. But you can try not to be too stupid about it, and in my view, one of the major challenges today comes from the idea of post-secularity. Post-secularity is the greatest threat to sociology of religion today. Why? Because it stipulates secularization, says it’s an after, first of all. Second, it’s it was coined by Habermas, who was a philosopher, and is mostly concerned with a rationalist and public-space bias. This is a philosophical discussion, it’s not a sociological description of societies. So it looks sexy, but actually it shouldn’t be a sociological concept. And another main thing is that in all of this discussion on post-secularity, at least most of it, the essential core if it… stays within the secularisation in the Nation-State frame, what things used to be, politics and religion being the two self-structuring… the two structuring spheres, and it does forget about economy. It says nothing about the fact that we live in consumer societies. Habermas has absolutely nothing to say about neoliberalism except the Frankfurt critiques of the 1960s. This has never thought of how consumption is different from production, it has not entered their mind, they haven’t thought the Internet out, and they’ve especially forgotten women and culture. So even if you are paying attention to economics and culture within this frame of post-secularity, you’re still continuing to miss what’s happening. I think what the challenges in “what now?”, is “Let’s try not to be as stupid. Let’s try not to be as ideological,” and let’s go into this very exciting period which is the redefinition if the paradigm through which we’re going to study religion. And of course, we think we’re right, saying that you must pay attention to the ideologies of neoliberalism, consumerism as an ethos, and the relationship of all this with hypermediatization and real time technologies, which in places like Africa, remote places of Africa, where they don’t even have normal telephone lines and electricity, they have cellular phones now. They have one set of pants, one set of shirts, and a cell phone. And so even the places that don’t seem like they are relevant to this type of analysis… you can ask the scholars on the field ,as I do, as much as I can, and this is relevant. This is very very relevant.

HL: Thank you very much. This has been great.

Citation Info: Gauthier, François and Hanna Lehtinen. 2013. “Religion, Neoliberalism, and Consumer Culture.” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 7 October 2013. Transcribed by Martin Lepage. Version 1.1, 25 September 2015. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/francois-gauthier-on-religion-neoliberalism-and-consumer-culture/

Religion and the Law

Within modern American society the meme of a separation of Church and State exists without a doubt; however, there is very little evidence to actually prove that this separation exists, functions as such, or indeed that it ever existed. In the textbooks, popular news outlets and in the political arena religion is supposed to be wholly withheld-expelled in favor of majority rule. However, when we turn our attention to state-managed organizations such as the federal prisons or state forest services or support for military veterans, we find that the lines are blurred.

With an eye to this seemingly ironic phenomenon Winnifred F. Sullivan presented a lecture entitled “Ministries of Presence: Chaplains as Priests of the Secular” at Arizona State University as part of the ASU Center for Religion and Conflict’s lecture series. Excerpted from her upcoming book of the same title, Sullivan considers the oversight, regulation and licensure of religious chaplains within the American Veterans’ Administration, as well several other governmental and on-governmental institutions. In this interview with Chris Duncan (Arizona State University), the discussion centers predominantly on the world in which many chaplains come to find themselves due to a “new kind of religious universalism”; from having to be prepared to minister across the borders of their own religious traditions, as in the case of a Catholic chaplain being required to assist Jewish or otherwise non-Catholic practitioners in a federal prison or a chaplain working with the state of Maine Warden Service. Sullivan asks whether we really have a separation of the Church and the State, how do we insure that everyone’s religious needs are being met within secular institutions like the Veterans’ Administration, and how does the State license and approve of applicants to the chaplaincy- how does, should, could an ostensibly secular federal organization approve or disapprove of religious ministers within its ranks.

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Sullivan is the Department Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University Bloomington as well as Affiliate Professor of Law in the Maurer School of Law at the same institution. She holds both a J.D. and a PhD. from the University of Chicago and is the author of  Paying the Words Extra: Religious Discourse in the Supreme Court of the United States (Harvard 1994), The Impossibility of Religious Freedom (Princeton 2005), and Prison Religion: Faith-Based Reform and the Constitution (Princeton 2009).

So What Is Religion Anyway? Power, Belief, the Vestigial State

Editors Note: To contextualise this piece, you may also wish to read Naomi Goldenberg’s post on the Critical Religion blog, entitled Gender and the Vestigial State of Religion.

Prof. Goldenberg’s interview raises as many questions as it answers, in a good way. It seems to square the circle. She puts the topic of “religion” into context by making it disappear — or, to put it less cryptically, she insists that the codes by which we understand religion to be defined, and perhaps “made official”, are in fact no different from any other codes of law. Religion is a force that structures our social world, and so the study of religions is necessarily the study of politics. The division between church and state is arbitrary: religion is politics.

A religion is a vestigial state because it can do many of the same things a modern, functioning state does. Depending on the situation, it might provide an identity, govern behaviour, apportion powers, legitimate violence — in short, structure the community that belongs to it. Prof. Goldenberg underlines very strongly that she is looking at religion in terms of its impact on, and presence in, ordinary people’s lives.

Her caution around her own term ‘vestigial state’, and indeed ‘religion’, reflects a classically Feminist position. She endorses the evidence first and the terminology second. This should also make sense to those for whom religion is real: those who respect the fact that religion, however we understand that term, plays a very strong role in shaping our life and customs. This is especially important for the regularly oppressed category of women. I am reminded of work by Sally Haslanger, who looks at another tricky word, ‘gender’, and considers it to be a social class [article].

Prof. Goldenberg’s insistence on a functional view of religion, a perspective that describes it in terms of its role, also suggests a point of view very different from that of a classical believer. If religion is part of culture, and culture is a tool that we use, then religion is also a tool. God, and the series of texts that explain him, serves us — not the other way around. This is what might be described as a focal analysis — again, comparable to Prof. Haslanger’s work in describing gender.

It might be unnerving for some to understand the subtext to Prof. Goldenberg’s statement that this does not do away with the concept of God because every state, she suspects, probably depends on some sort of abstraction. What we are asked to consider is a spectrum of cultures, practices, organizations, each with their own abstraction — perhaps the identity of a people, perhaps “America”, perhaps God, to give three examples — that the population reveres. From an Abrahamic prespective, it might well be peculiar to see it suggested that God might be not separate, not ‘special’, but rather a particular version of a range of abstractions that exist or have existed in every society.

The suggestion of a range of God-concepts – perhaps a multidimensional range or field – is an appealing one for students of human nature. At the same time, Prof. Goldenberg wants us to consider historical contingency very carefully.  When our focus is so practical, so earthbound and concerned with everyday people and experiences, we suddenly realize that everyday experience is very different for different times, places, people. The statement might seem banal until we realize that, as Prof. Goldenberg reminds us, ‘religion’ as a term of argument is a confused, unstable, even incoherent category. We will discover, if we compare (for example) Roman ritual beliefs with Medieval Christianity with modern Islam with contemporary Buddhism, that each of these — cultures? Belief systems? — does many things for the people who espouse them, but that those many things are never identical from one “religion” to another, and certainly not one time to another.

These ideas seem to strike a chord with certain developments from literary theory. Consider, for example, how she highlights the need for scholars in religious studies (indeed, perhaps, any field of cultural studies) to remember the constructed nature of our tools. We should always remember that our ideas are never truly independent from their makers. This reminds me of Jacques Derrida’s suggestion that we should consider “la structuralité d’une structure”, the quality that a framework has of creating relationships. A conceptual framework becomes a differential field, of differential meanings, with both local and general biases.

At the same time, Prof. Goldenberg’s focus on how these structuralities can produce bitter consequences for living people – again, women in particular – is a much more direct, and serious, attitude towards the subject than Derrida’s playfulness. She seems to be closer in spirit to Eve Sedgwick, who reminds us that power in culture is often filtered through a series of systems, codes, and different bodies of law, present and struggling at the same time (Sedgwick 1991: 46-47). Sedgwick discusses concepts regarding another ill-defined concept, ‘sexuality’. She observes that recent scholarship concerning sexuality has, in her view, done away with many outmoded concepts and definitions of it. However, she also reminds us that these ‘outmoded’ concepts are both popularly held by many, and a constitutive force in many jurisdictions, including the one she lives in (North Carolina in the early 1990s, for that text). Her humanitarian crique is very comparable with Goldenberg’s enquiry into ‘religion’, which focuses on effect rather than justification or truth (claimed or otherwise).

The question of terminology lingers over this discussion. ‘Vestigial’ does imply a negative teleology, a dwindling, which seems to be at odds with religion’s continuing influence in culture. ‘Once and future’ also fits ill, given that religion is effective now, if only to a degree. ‘Partial state’? This suggests that every state needs a religion. Given the breadth of possible definitions of religion this seems to be true, but the simplicity of that formula looks too risky – too prone to abuse if it were applied to the material world.

I like the term ‘metastate’. Religion can provide a narrative that justifies a power system – so, by extension, it is about a state as well as constituting one. The etymological root meanings of ‘adjacent’ and ‘beyond’ also appeal, although this might reflect my own bias as a Westerner. I am used to a culture with several sets of partially-integrated rules.

Whatever term proves to work best, there is no escaping the force of Prof. Goldenberg’s suggestion that religion fundamentally is about power. If we can agree that religion is the combination of power and belief, we will have her to thank for helping us pin down this evasive, volatile concept.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

 

References

Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” 1966. Trans. Alan Bass.            Modern Criticism and Theory: a Reader. Ed. David Lodge. Rev. ed. Harlow: Longman, 1997. 108-23.

Haslanger, Sally.Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them to Be?The Philosopher’s Annual 23 (2000). 2 Nov 2007.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. 1990. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Weatsheaf, 1991.