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Representations of Religious Studies in Popular Culture

Many of our discussions at the Religious Studies Project focus upon the complex intersections between ‘religion’ – whatever that is – and ‘popular culture’. And justifiably so. Indeed, our good friend and colleague Vivian Asimos of Durham University has been producing the very interesting “Religion and Popular Culture Podcast” for a while now. But what about Religious Studies (as a field of study), and the people who do it, in popular culture? When we initially thought about this, we could certainly come up with a list of academics and “bookish” people who are somewhat problematically and wildly inaccurately portrayed in popular culture – from archaeology’s Indiana Jones and paleontology’s Ross Gellar to archivists’ Rupert Giles and linguistics’ Louise Banks – but we struggled to come up with many examples of the study of religion as we, here at the RSP, know it. Luckily, today’s guests have given the question much more attention! Given that popular cultural representations are more likely to shape public perceptions about what the study of religion is and who does it than either direct experience in the classroom or statistics about graduation rates and job placements, we hope that you will agree that we should try to understand what these perceptions are. In this podcast, Chris speaks with Professors Brian Collins and Kristen Tobey about this fascinating and important topic. This interview is based on a recently published article – From Middlemarch to The Da Vinci Code: Portrayals of Religious Studies in Popular Culture – a shorter version of which has been published in blog form as Casaubon’s Revenge: Popular Representations of the Scholar of Religion.

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


Representations of Religious Studies in Popular Culture

Podcast with Brian Collins and Kristen Tobey. (8 October 2018)

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Collins_and_Tobey_-_Representations_of_Religious_Studies_in_Popular_Culture_1.1

 

Christopher Cotter (CC): Many of our discussions at the Religious Studies Project focus upon the complex intersections between religion – whatever that is – and popular culture, and justifiably so. Indeed, our good friend and colleague Vivian Asimos, of Durham University, has been producing a very interesting religion and popular culture podcasts for a while now. But what about Religious Studies, and the people who do it, in popular culture? When I initially thought about this, I could certainly come up with a list of academics and bookish people who are somewhat problematically, and wildly inaccurately portrayed in popular culture – from archaeology’s Indiana Jones, and palaeontology’s Ross Geller, to archivist’s Rupert Giles, or Linguistics’ Louise Banks. But, I have to admit, I struggled to come up with many examples of the Study of Religion, as we – here at the Religious Studies Project – know it. Luckily, today’s guests have the question much more firmly in focus. Given that, as they argue, popular culture representations are more likely to shape public perceptions about what the Study of Religion is, and who does it, than either direct experience in the classroom or statistics about graduation rates and job placements, we hope that you will agree that we should try to understand what these perceptions are. So joining me today, to discuss this fascinating and important topic, are Professors Brian Collins and Kristen Tobey. So first off, Brian and Kristen, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Brian Collins (BC): Thanks for having us.

Kristen Tobey (KT): Thank you.

CC: I’ll just say a little bit about who you are. Brian Collins is Associate Professor and the Drs. Ram and Sushila Gawande Chair in Indian Religion and Philosophy, at Ohio University. He’s the author of The Head Beneath the Altar: Hindu Mythology and the Critique of Sacrifice, and various essays on Hinduism and the Study of Religion. And his second book, The Other Rama: Matricide and Varṇicide

In the Mythology of Paraśurāma – apologies for the pronunciation – is forthcoming from SUNY press. And Kristen Tobey is Assistant Professor of Religion and Social Sciences at John Carroll University, in Cleveland, Ohio. And her research treats religious identity formation and communication in the contemporary United States. And she’s the author of Plowshares: Protest, Performance and Religious Identity in the Nuclear Age. So that’s where you’re coming from. How did you get interested, then, in this question of the representation of the Study of Religion in popular culture? It doesn’t necessarily sound like it’s your main research focus. So how did you get into that?

BC: Well, shall I answer this one Kristen?

KT: Yes, go first.

BC: I asked Kristen to join me, and she graciously did. And together we worked on a project. But it started out because – and I think both of us had an idea at some point – we study religion, and we have to actually tell people that we study religion and then see what they think we do. So very, very infrequently does someone have an actual idea of what the Study of Religion, in the university, entails! You know, I teach classes in Hinduism and Buddhism and if you take both classes, students– who are in the same class – typically ask you: “Why are you teaching this? I thought you were a Hindu.” Or, “Why are you teaching this, I thought you were a Buddhist?” Because I’m teaching both classes. So the idea of studying religion as an academic subject is a mystery to most people. And I say, “Well if they don’t know, what do they know? And where do they get the information?” So I started watching a lot of movies on TV, and I consumed a lot of junk culture. So I saw a few people, here and there, who seemed to be, basically, doing what I do – but not in a way that I recognised! And so I had to cast a wide net and see what impressions were out there.

KT: (Laughs.) I face the same thing. Less from my students, because I teach in a Catholic school so they’re familiar with religion teachers – although not quite the same way I tend to do it. But I face this a lot with my research subjects who are very suspicious of the idea of someone studying religion academically, because the examples that they see, as Brian says, in pop culture, are so very strange. So when Brian asked me to join this project I was really excited, for that reason – and also because my research usually deals with how religious people either present themselves, or are presented. So to think about another piece of that – as you said, Chris: “Well, how is the field presented? How are the people who do it presented?” That was very interesting to me, and thinking about questions of identity.

CC: Wonderful. I should have said in the introduction, of course, that part of the reason that we’re having this conversation is that the two of you have just published an article – I say just – June 2018 – in the Religious Studies Review (5:00) which was called, “From Middlemarch to the Da Vinci Code: Portrayals of Religious Studies in Popular Culture”. So that will give a hint, to the Listeners, of where we might be going with our in-depth examples, here. But before we get to Middlemarch and The Da Vinci Code, how did you go about selecting your cases and just conducting this study in general? As I say, I struggled . . . I mean Robert Langdon, from The Da Vinci Code, kind-of came to mind but, as we’ll discover later on, that’s not really Religious Studies, is it? Sorry! There’s a siren going on outside, as well! That’s typical here.

KT: I’m just so glad that’s you and not me! (Laughs).

CC: Ah. They’re not coming for me, Listeners. Yes. So, Robert Langdon certainly came to mind. But I really struggled to think. So, how did you go about even finding your case studies?

BC: Well, for me, I did have to think about. That’s a methodological question we had to ask at the very beginning. And I compiled a list. I said, “Indiana Jones sort of reminds me of a person who does religion, but he’s clearly identified as an archaeologist. So I wanted to find people that weren’t clearly identified as archaeologists or classicists, or anthropologists. There’s a different article, two articles, by anthropologists in literature and movies that we cite in our article. But they seem to be studying something like what we do. So I eliminated people like parapsychologists and clearly identified historians, so there was a sort-of middle ground. Robert Langdon is a “Religious Symbolist” which is a totally made-up profession, at a real university! Whereas Casaubon from Middlemarch, the other big example that we treat, is . . . . Well what is he identified as, Kristen? Just a scholar?

KT: He’s identified as a scholar, but he’s very clearly engaged in work that would be recognisable for a historian of religions. Pretty much in the mould of somebody from that era. So it was actually, in many ways, a pretty accurate depiction. But as far as garnering the case studies and garnering the examples, I remember Brian – was it years ago maybe? Or do I just have a skewed chronology on this? That you sent round an email to maybe half-a-dozen people, saying “Hey, I’m thinking about this. What examples can you think of? And one thing that was really striking to me was that, as those emails came back to you, most of them were from horror movies, right? The vast majority of these characters were in scary movies, doing scary things. You know, summoning demons, or whatever else. So, as far as characters that we might actually recognise as doing the work that we do, Casaubon is one of very few examples.

BC: Yes. That’s what I did. I crowd-searched the research! It’s easier to get someone else to do the research for you, I find! So I came up with a list and then I said, “. . . like these people. Anybody else you can think of,” again, “that’s not identified clearly as something else?” And so I did get a long list. There were comic books on there. There were podcasts on there. There were movies, mostly horror movies on there. There were a few novels on there. And some of the ones I ended up having to eliminate . . . they were the sort-of archivists. There were a lot of archivists – like the Giles, from Buffy, that you talked about. And that was a limit case for me. I didn’t know whether to include those or not. But I feel like they’re somewhere in the mix. But, for our article, we didn’t discuss them. Archivists have a family resemblance to the archetype of the Religious Studies person. But we ended up leaving them out, because they’re . . . if you asked who they are, somebody can tell you that they’re an archivist, and not a religionist. The case is that nobody is identified as an historian of religion or a religionist. Partly that’s our fault. We have no easily identifiable, transferrable job title from university to university, nor even a place at university that can consistently be found. So it was just that way in the representations, too. We had to kind-of make decisions along the way, and narrow it down.

KT: Yes, with the very memorable exception – and tell me if I’m getting ahead of things here – of Emily Dumont in Black Tapes, right? I think she’s one of just a handful, really, of three or four, who was actually introduced as a professor of Religious Studies. But then it turns out what she does is not really like what professors of Religious Studies do at all! But she’s one of the few who actually get that label attached to her.

CC: Excellent. Well we can get to that . . . The Black Tapes is a podcast that I, unfortunately, had never heard of when I read your article – but you do a good job of discussing it (10:00). So it would be quite good for us on the Religious Studies Project Podcast to discuss that. But I’ll just also mention that I put out on Twitter last week that we were doing this podcast, and we got a couple of responses. I asked, what were your personal favourites and bugbears? So Richard Newton at the University of Alabama said that he likes Professor Jamal in Mooz-lum. He said that there was an emphasis on good questions over simple answers, embrocation of race and religion, and examination of the insider/ outsider problem. And then another character that you discuss is in the Hulu series, The Path. And what came back? We had Tylor Tully saying that he had really enjoyed The Path on Hulu, and their inclusion of a Religious Studies scholar – particularly their treatment of an emerging religious tradition. But then Joel Bordeaux said that the religion professor on The Path is probably the worst he’s ever seen: invited as a guest to a class, openly deriding their tradition, conducting secret sexual relationships with research subjects, deliberately intervening in communities he’s studying, and so on! So you might want to respond to some of that, and then maybe tell us about Emily Dumont.

BC: Well, I think Emily Dumont is interesting. I do want to talk about Jackson Neill from The Path actually. It’s one of the best examples, and it came very late in this project, which was . . . . I was watching the show and I said, “Now I have to go back and rewrite a large part of this!” And I did. But Emily Dumont . . . The Black Tapes is a podcast. It’s a sort of like The X Files. It’s told in the style of a true crime serial-type podcast, where they’re investigating supposedly true occurrences, and the characters are meant to be real people. So it blurs the line between fiction, and reality, and journalism. But they interview people and they interview a religious studies scholar. And she is specifically interested in demonology. She’s described as very sort-of informally dressed. She described her as an over-grown high school freshman with a Ramones T shirt and a funky haircut. And sort of irreverent. And also speaking about Chemtrails, which is strange conspiracy theory about air travel, or something – I don’t really understand it! But it was bizarre X Files-type stuff. And it was put in the mouth of a Religious Studies professor. Elsewhere on the same podcast there’s a different Religious Studies professor, who openly derides her as crank – even though she’s in a university and he’s not – who takes a really hard-nosed, scientific, some would say a kind-of reductivist view of religion. And his job is to disprove . . . . Miracles are a pretty common theme. The job is either to disprove religion or to become a leader of religion. But in the case of Emily Dumont, she’s marginalised as someone who’s sort of a joke. And that’s a little disconcerting. I think that a podcast like that, you’re likely to have people who went to college, an audience who went to college, and somewhere along the way had a class. So I feel like this person seems to me that it was drawn from some experience of some whacky Religious Studies professor. I mean, that was my read on it. What did you think, Kristen?

KT: I think that’s possible. But I also think that podcast is doing something really odd, in that it’s conflating paranormal studies – paranormal activity – with religion in a wholesale, non-nuanced way. Because we do have this Emily Dumont character who’s very childlike, who’s very gullible, who represents one possibility, right: a person who’s involved in Religious Studies and the paranormal because of naiveté, let’s say. But then there’s the other character, Richard Strand, who is very sceptical, very perceptive. He’s not a Religious Studies professor, but he was a Religious Studies major, we are told. So we have these two extremes, both attached to the field of Religious Studies, but then . . . . And I should say, I only managed to listen to the first half-dozen or so episodes before it became too scary for me (laughs).They were interesting, but it was too scary and I couldn’t continue. But throughout those first few episodes we get other characters being brought in, who are also sort-of oddly attached to religion. For example, one character who is described as being – and I’m pretty much quoting here – “what theologians would call a Biblical Demonologist.” (15:00) As far as I know, there is no such thing as Biblical Demonology – though I’m not a theologian, so maybe there is and I just don’t know! Maybe. But that’s what I mean when I say that it’s as though the paranormal and Religious Studies are just completely layered on top of one another in this show – or podcast, rather – in some ways that are kind-of interesting, and some ways that are really bizarre. And there doesn’t really seem to be any explanation – at least in the first half a dozen episodes – of why that’s the case, or how those particular choices are being made. So, yes, maybe there is something very specific going on, in that one of the creators had a professor that that is modelled upon. But maybe there’s something else happening, which is just that it’s a podcast dealing with sort of odd, supernatural, paranormal stuff and there’s nowhere else that it makes sense to house that, other than in Religious Studies.

CC: Yes.

BC: I mean it’s odd, because it would have been ten years ago – a parapsychologist, I mean they used to have those in movies all the time. The people that investigated hauntings and psychic phenomena and stuff. I mean the Ghostbusters are . . .

KT: Ghostbusters! Sure!

BC: They’re in parapsychology lab. They’re doing (audio unclear). So what happened to that, I don’t know. But why it became religion, here . . . . But nothing recognisable as religion is ever studied! Now that said, I was inspired to teach a class on religion and the paranormal and it became the most popular class that I teach, because of seeing these movies. So that’s good, I guess!

CC: Absolutely.

BC: And some people write about it. We mention that in the article too. There a new sort of, newish, wave of books dealing with religious experience and paranormal experience, from different angles. Ann Taves, Geoff (audio unclear) – both from very different points of view. So there is some of that. But I don’t think anybody knew that as they’re making these characters. I think that’s coincidental, or a part of a larger zeitgeist.

CC: Exactly. I’m just keen that we keep pressing on, because I do want to get Jackson Neill, but we’ve got to get to the Da Vinci Code and everything before. So maybe, quickly. . . . In your article, I think you were just saying that Jackson Neill, although he may not be the most morally upright of scholars in that sense, actually, what he’s doing perhaps quite closely resembles what we would consider to be the Study of Religion?

BC: Well, he’s an Americanist, just like Kristen. Which is why I pointed him out to her, very early on. He’s doing a kind of ethnography, which is what she does. But what he does, that she doesn’t do – as far as I know – is give major talk shows advertising his book!

KT: (Laughs) No. Just this. This is my 15 minutes of fame right here!

BC: But he had a sexual relationship with his informant. He inserts himself in the life of this new religious movement, which is uniformly referred to as a “cult” throughout the TV series. All sorts of things that seemed like he had to go through IRB to do, but had no problem doing. He’s eventually sort-of discredited, and they turn against him. But it’s so realistic that it almost feels like that this is something that people would believe references the Study of Religion in the academy! And it does, in the sense that we do that kind of work – we do talk to people about their experiences – but what we don’t do is try and undermine some tradition with an exposé.

KT: Right. And I think another thing that is important about that character is that one of the tropes we identified in a lot of these representations is a thread of hypocrisy. So, yes: maybe he’s a good scholar, or maybe he’s doing actual scholarly work that resembles what an Americanist ethnographer might do, but then he’s got this potentially sort of shady sexual stuff going on. I am hard -pressed to think of a depiction of, say, a math professor – right? – where there is a plot that has to do with sexual behaviour. Whereas it comes up over and over again in these Religious Studies characters, as though people using these characters are doing it in order to identify a hypocrisy that’s inherent to studying religion!

BC: Yes, I think so.

CC: Which would scan with my intuition, anyway. So, just so we can absolutely get to it . . . You discuss how a lot of these characters can sometimes end up on a sort of pathetic-heroic spectrum. You’ve got your nerdy, weedy scholar working away, (20:00) pale-faced and not much interest in real life, and then you’ve got the Indiana Jones’s running around: they’re dashing – wonderful knowledge . . . . And so you set up this comparison really well, in the article, between the Reverend Casaubon from George Elliot’s Middlemarch, and then Robert Langdon from Dan Brown’s books, Angels and Demons, Da Vinci Code, and so on. I’m afraid it’s been over a decade since I read Middlemarch, but it was nice engaging with it again through your article. Can you maybe, just for the next five minutes or so, give a brief introduction to these two characters and maybe sort of set them up against each other, the different models of the Study of Religion?

KT: Yes, I’ll start with Casaubon who appears first in, of course, George Elliot’s Middlemarch in the 19th Century. He is sort-of the quintessential example of a dry, dusty, pedantic scholar, who only cares about his books. As I mentioned earlier, he is doing work that is very recognisable as History of Religions. He’s trying to compile sort of a massive comparative mythology. We learn later on in the book that he doesn’t actually have the language skills to do this, that he will never finish this fruitless project, and most of the characters – ultimately, pretty much all of the characters in the novel – think that he’s ridiculous, and think that he’s so intellectually obsessed that he’s out of touch with real life; it compromises his virility; he doesn’t deserve the love of the beautiful protagonist; and so on, and so forth. So he is pretty much a paradigmatic example of intellectual obsession that, basically, ruins everything else about him. And something interesting that we noticed, as we were thinking about his character, is that even in more recent and contemporary updates, where other characters are treated somewhat differently and more sympathetically, Casaubon never is. So, for example, there’s a very recent YouTube series that is updating Middlemarch. It’s you know, young, attractive students on a college campus. And many of them are socially awkward in some way, but still endearing. Whereas Casaubon – who is now, in this rendering, a graduate student working on some completely obscure dissertation topic that would probably fit in Philosophy of Religion, for example – he’s still a really unpleasant character. There’s still this linkage between intellectual obsession and unpleasantness. No-one likes him. He’s unlikeable, because he is sort of a sham scholar, let’s say. He’s obsessed with this intellectual project, but he doesn’t really have the skills to do it successfully. So “weak”, “pathetic”, “unlikeable”, all of these adjectives continue to attach to him, even in contemporary updates.

CC: Yes. And on a surface level, your gut reaction is that that’s going to be quite different to the character in Dan Brown’s work, who we see portrayed in film by Tom Hanks who’s America’s – if not the world’s – most loved actor, in some ways! That’s quite a different character. But not so different, I believe?

BC: Right. It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t like Tom Hanks. It’s like the Jimmy Stewart of our generation. He’s much beloved, and he’s this. But one thing that’s interesting about him that’s the same- and I’ll talk about what’s different about him in a minute- but it’s the sexual aspect. I mean I think that Casaubon is really a neutered character, right? He has no sexual drive, or sexual energy associated with him. He’s seen as sort of a dried-up old husk of a person, whereas Langdon has a different kind of asceticism, in that . . . Dan Brown uses the term “good clean fun”. It’s all about good clean fun, which means that . . . . Indiana Jones has a different female love interest in every movie. They have a “will they, won’t they?” . . . and of course they will! But in all of the movies based on The Da Vinci Code books, I mean the books about Robert Langdon, his female lead is not in any kind of a romantic relationship. They even have a handshake! It’s the most chaste hero/heroine relationship one can possibly imagine. In the first book she’s the descendent of Jesus Christ – which is a meaningless thing anyway, thinking about 2000 years of generational history – but it’s someone who you can’t imagine having sex with someone on a movie or on screen, right? It’s a very . . . He’s also a very consciously non-sexual, de-eroticised character (25:00), unlike the one’s we talked about before. But what he does is really instructive. I think that nobody has done more to get the Study of Religion in the public consciousness than Dan Brown: the Catholic reaction to those books; the sort-of revival of interest in conspiracy theories about the Illuminati, and what have you. It never really went away, but it certainly got more . . . And that was what became the shorthand for the Study of Religion – is studying the secret conspiracies behind all the fakeness of religion. And that’s what he does. But everything he says about religion is nonsense. And we also learn that he’s not even the person who teaches Religious Studies. That’s somebody else at Harvard, who we never meet. But he has this particularly narrow focus on religious symbology, without any explanation of what a symbol is, and mistaking symbols, cyphers and codes for each other. It’s a very . . . it’s a very thinly researched book, right? There’s lot of work on the conspiracies but, as far as what he’s doing, what we see him doing in classrooms, what we see him talking about, what passes in his dialogue as profound knowledge – that the Feast of Sol Invictus has something to do with Christmas, and blows everybody’s mind (laughs) – really speaks to the depth of ignorance about the Study of Religion. Which I think is an indictment really, for me, anyway. If this just goes over without a ripple, then: how have we not established – in any meaningful way – what we do in the classroom, and what we do with our books?

CC: Indeed, yes. And someone else pointed out that one of the biggest errors, perhaps, in the portrayal is the completely full lecture hall that . . . (Laughs) he’s teaching to – of attentive students!

BC: And the bottomless budget that he has!

KT: That, too.

CC: So, I mean, we could go into in-depth on these characters, and obviously we direct the Listeners to your article which we’ll link to from the podcast page, to get really into the analysis of them. But towards the end of the article you ask, through this comparison exercise, what kind of picture have you formed of the fictional religious studies scholar? And then, also, about what emerges about religion as an object of study. So perhaps, using the examples that we’ve discussed thus far, could you tell us a little bit about what we can say about the generic fictional Religious Studies scholar, in a nutshell? And maybe, how religion is conceived?

BC: Well the one thing that’s interesting about the Langdon character is that he’s the only one that gives us a real definition of what religion is as an object of study. Now it doesn’t . . . I’ll quote from the book. The book is The Lost Symbol, which is a later book in the series. And he says to his class – this is in the article, too: “‘So, tell me. What are the three prerequisites for an ideology to be considered a religion?’ ‘ABC’, one woman offered: ‘Assure, Believe, Convert.’ ‘Correct.’ Langdon said, ‘Religions assure salvation. Religions believe in a precise theology and religions convert non-believers.’” It’s a self-evident – to him and to everyone else in the class – rote definition of religion. It’s not very useful to me. It has nothing to do with symbols, interestingly, which is the foundation of the Study of Religion as he does it. But it does give you a very pat definition of what religion is. Assure, believe, convert: these are all these verbs that imply control over a crowd, over a group, over minds. It’s a very cynical and, of course, one dimensional – well, it’s three dimensional technically – but thin definition of religion. And it’s the only one we really get. The question of what religion is never comes up for anybody. Which, considering the amount of ink that we’ve spilled over the last 50 years trying to figure out what that is, that does not translate into the representations as we have them.

KT: Yes, it’s pretty interesting that all we have is this very thin, superficial, reductive definition, which might well be a definition that works well for some religious scholars. I find it a bit odd, but that’s just me. Because it seems to me that what Religious Studies does best is sort-of the opposite of thin and superficial. And nowhere in this examination of characters do we see anyone who’s doing the thick work of Religious Studies. (30:00) So, what is religion? Assure, Belief and Control – or something like that?

BC: Convert.

KT: So, then, what is religious studies? As Brian says, it’s this very simplistic endeavour that has to do with recognising a very simplistic dynamic at play. In other words, in these depictions we don’t see Religious Studies scholarship as being about critical empathy; we don’t see it as being about rigorous analysis; we don’t see it as being about robust comparison – which to my mind are the things that it does best, and the things that it can help students to do best. So we get not only a wild misrepresentation of what religion is – that is it’s always about coerced conversion and that sort of thing; it’s always about shadowy mystery and espionage – but we also get a very unfair misrepresentation of what Religious Studies is doing and – by that same token – is not doing.

CC: Well the flip side of what you’re saying there, in the Casaubon character we would have Religious Studies being the sort-of dry, study of texts, and very esoteric search for some sort of higher knowledge that is beyond relevance to the social world. So it’s either something that’s irrelevant bookish and not of interest, or something that’s sort-of swashbuckling, and uncovering of conspiracies, and releasing people from coercive control – neither of which are very accurate depictions of what any of us do!

KT: Or ghost-hunting! Sometimes it’s about ghost-hunting, don’t forget! But, yes included in none of those things is there the important skills that Religious Studies, when done well, actually can and should inculcate.

BC: Well, what you also find is Casaubon is a textual scholar, a clear-cut textual scholar. And I would have expected that to sort-of hold through time. But increasingly they’re not textual scholars, even though we think that’s what we all are, and that’s something to overcome. I mean, that’s the critique: “too text-based”, or whatever. But, mostly, they’re going into cults, or they are talking to believers – and usually believers who are radical in some way. So they seem to be out in the field looking at miraculous events and bizarre beliefs, as they sort-of characterise them, more than they are reading books or comparing. Comparing is the one thing that’s almost never done, except for with Langdon in this very weird kind-of comparison. But outside of him there is almost no comparison. It’s just studying the one thing that’s their dissertation topic; that’s their tenure portfolio; or that’s, usually, their personal dark obsession – which drives them into becoming serial killers, often!

KT: Right.

CC: So we’re over time here, which is fine because we’re going to get to wrapping up and I would say, Listeners, do check out the article where you can read a lot of this stuff that we’re just skimming over, in a lot more detail. But my final two questions I wanted to throw out would be: what can “we” do about this portrayal? So – it’s a similar thing with the media, for example. A lot of my colleagues and I are always moaning about the media never really get things right about religion, “It’s terrible! It’s awful!” But I never really hear solution: “What can we do about the portrayal of religion in the media?” So what, potentially, could we do about the portrayal of Religious Studies in popular culture, or beyond? Any suggestions, based upon your thinking about this?

KT: I’ll try this one. Public scholarship could be an important mitigation here: the extent to which actual Religious Studies scholars are doing the actual work of Religious Studies, in a way that can be seen by the public. That could be one mitigating force against theses sort of wild misrepresentations that we have.

BC: I feel like that it starts with students. I mean, we come into contact with a lot of students over the course of our careers. And it’s not just Religious Studies. I think they often don’t figure out what any of the faculty members do most of the time, because we don’t talk about it. It’s sort-of opaque, for some reason. So, I think talking to students about our work, about our interests, about how we got interested in it – I think it’s useful, I think it’s helpful, it clarifies things (35:00). It makes our position clear. And we can do that on a small level, more. I think we could all, everybody in the academy, could better engage with our students about who they are, and what they do, and how they’re compensated, etc. But I think we could especially do that. Now the interesting thing is, over the time I was writing this article, we had the affair of Reza Aslan, here in the States, who had a rise . . . the first real rise to power, or rise to prominence, as the first real public intellectual in Religious Studies – only to be fired, pretty quickly, for making a comment on Twitter about President Trump, after a few episodes of his show – Believer – which was widely derided by scholars of religion. As was his book about Jesus. What was it called? Zealot. So here we have a failed, missed opportunity to have a public intellectual presenting a model of this kind of work. But that doesn’t mean it has to be the last time we try that. Maybe that’s the place to start. You know, a plot where you save the Pope from a radical Catholic assassin is going to be more interesting than a plot where you translate a text, but it doesn’t have to be about plot, it can be about . . .the old . . . the stuff they used to do on the BBC, where they had long-running, long-form shows to educate the public, in way that is also engaging. And I think that can be done again.

CC: And you know, maybe, if you’re burning the midnight oil, we could all be writing those novels, writing those screenplays that we all wish we were seeing. Is this it, for you, with this project then? Or do you have plans for future research, future publications? What’s next for you?

BC: I think Chris is writing the screenplay, based on the article.

KT: That’s’ right. Look for the screenplay. Just kidding! Not really. No, I am developing a class on religion and pop culture and a lot of this stuff is sort of feeding the mill for that. Brian, what about you?

BC: Well I think that the natural next place to go would be a panel at the AAR – bring in more people to talk about it. And that seems to me like . . . I don’t know if we need another article any time soon. But, bigger conversation – a public conversation about it at our annual meeting here – would be helpful.

CC: Excellent. And hopefully this podcast and your article will kick off a bit more of that conversation, and we can look forward to a future where the discipline, the field, is represented a bit more accurately. But, for now – thank you so much Brian and Kristen. It’s been wonderful having you.

BC: Thank you.

KT: Thanks, Chris.


Citation Info: Collins, Brian, Kristen Tobey and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “Representations of Religious Studies in Popular Culture”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 8 October 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 21 June 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/representations-of-religious-studies-in-popular-culture/

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.

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What is the point of of academic conferences?: A roundtable discussion

At the European Association for the Study of Religions’ Annual Conference in Bern (June 2018), five members of the RSP team – Sammy Bishop, Chris Cotter, Moritz Klenk, Angela Puca and Tom White – gathered together on the final day of the conference to discuss academic conferences in general – the good, the bad and the ugly. Why attend conferences? What is the point? What else could we do instead that might be a better use of our time? And how did we find having a fully-functional podcast studio set up at this conference? These are just a few of the issues that crop up in this lively roundtable discussion, facilitated by the inestimable Moritz Klenk.

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, pickles, duct tape, and more.


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


EASR Roundtable 2018: What is the Point of Academic Conferences?

Podcast with Chris Cotter, Sammy Bishop, Moritz Klenk, Angela Puca and Tom White (24 September 2018).

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

 

Audio and transcript available at: EASR_Roundtable_2018_1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): Welcome to the podcast studio in Bern, Switzerland, on the final day of the European Association for the Study of Religions Conference on Multiple Religious Identities. I’m Chris Cotter, and I’m joined here for an impromptu roundtable with some of my esteemed colleagues. I’m going to say, let’s go round to my right. So I’m Chris, and you should all know me, Listeners, and if you don’t, then: what are you doing? I don’t know. Who have we got here?

Sammy Bishop (SB): I’m Sammy Bishop. I am a PhD student, based in Edinburgh, and also I’m involved with the Religious Studies Project, sometimes interviewing, sometimes helping out in other respects. And it is great to be here.

Angela Puca (AP): I’m Angela Puca and I’m also a PhD student, but at Leeds Trinity University. And I don’t know why I’m here, (laughter) but I’m happy to . . .

CC: We’ll find out, later. And there’s a man behind the sound desk there with a beard that is more impressive than mine!

Moritz Klenk (MK): You’re so kind! My name is Moritz Klenk and I’m also a PhD student, here – from Bern. I’m doing a PhD somewhere between Sociology of Religion, epistemology and the academic Study of Religion – or whatever the most recent name of this discipline might be. And also I’m a podcaster. And this is why I have built this studio for this conference. And I’m very happy to see it in such good use.

CC: And Listeners will really be appreciating the sexy sound quality of everything that has been coming out of this conference! Who’s the last individual?

Tom White (TW): And lastly . . .

CC: And least . . .

TW: And least – last and least – Tom White. I’m also a PhD candidate, from the University of Otago – where it is very wintry, in the South Island of New Zealand – mostly looking at religion, law and climate change in Fiji.

CC: So Moritz, you’ve got us all together here, so I’m going to pass over to you to stir the pot, as it were.

MK: Cheers. So the idea I had in mind, when thinking about making this a reality to come together for a last roundtable at this conference, was actually just . . . I would be interested in some reflections and possible criticism of the conference and what is happening here. Because every one of us, I assume, is getting used to travelling to conferences like these, telling others about his or her research. And so we are . . . . This is what we are doing. This is one part of our business. And so we, I think, can take the time to reflect a bit on what we are actually doing here. If it is the discourse we are all looking for, are we so interested in it? Or if not this, then what else do we do here? And to have a conversation. Because, at least – I’m already telling you what I was experiencing – but I think it is the most important thing you can experience, in these kinds of conferences and events, is that you get into conversations sometimes, and they are very fascinating. Sometimes you want to find your way out of them (Laughter).

CC: Claw your own eyes out sometimes . . .

MK: Yes, also that. (Laughter). But a conversation seemed to be the fitting end of that kind of event. So yes, I’m very glad that you all joined me for this and I’d be interested in your opinion about this conference. I’m a bit biased because I’m a local. So, this happens in Bern, so I shouldn’t start I guess. But maybe some of you have impressions, ideas?

CC: Well, my immediate reaction is that I have spent so much time podcasting! And I decided that this conference would be a chance for me to film various little bits of video and whatnot – which has been a useful experience. I think it’s really ramped up the engagement from folk who hadn’t been able to be here. But my actual impression of this particular conference has been somewhat limited, because I’ve been running around so much. I have seen something like, I don’t know, ten to fifteen papers. (5:00) But that’s not quite . . . you should normally be expecting to see maybe at least double that. So, perhaps someone who . . . . Well, Angela has been probably been the most participatory because the rest of us have been running around doing podcasts.

AP: I’ve been running around from one paper to another, or from a panel to another – so still running! Yes, this was my first EASR Conference and I really enjoyed it. Maybe the only criticism I have is that all the panels on the same topic were at the same time. So it was really difficult. There were, for example, some time slots where I really wished I had the gift of ubiquity and other timeslots there was really nothing relevant to my research – of course, still interesting panels, but not quite relevant to my research. So I would have liked to attend more panels on my research, which were actually there, but at the same time as others.

MK: But maybe this was also the intention, in a way, to bring together scholars from different research areas and to give them, by this kind of overlap . . . . I don’t know if that was the intention. I chose to interpret it in that very friendly way. But I think, to give them a chance to look beyond their own work they’re doing; to see the broader field of the European Studies of Religion, what people are doing. This is also I think the only chance you will get, because normally you’re . . .

CC: That’s a fair point, actually, I would say. Because you come to conferences and at the start of this conference I thought, “Oh. Damn. There’s about five or six different panels on the ‘nones’, the ‘secular’ and all this kind of stuff. I’m going to have to go to those.” But, equally, I’ve kind-of heard all I need to hear, perhaps . . . not all I need to hear. But if I want to approach these scholars, I can approach them; we can have dialogue anyway. But I sort-of felt I was going to have to attend them, because they were there, because I didn’t want to miss out on that key snippet. At the end of the day I actually didn’t go to that many, because of my podcasting schedule and whatnot. But I sometimes do find at a conference that it’s the panels that you go to just because it “sounds vaguely interesting, but isn’t quite connected to your research”, that you can suddenly find, actually, there’s a really good connection. And it opens up a whole new vista, in a way that you aren’t ever going to just pick up a journal article that’s just not on your topic and read it – much as we would all like to. There’s only so many hours in the day! So a conference can do that, that way. Has anyone had that sort of revelation at this one, that we a saw a paper that we didn’t really . . . that we went along to because it was in a panel with something else, or because there was nothing else in the schedule?

TW: I’ve ended up going to a lot of education, or the kind-of “role of religion in schools”, “schools as ideological production sites” whereby people are being trained in citizenship, or where schools are “sites of contested religious identities”: the crucifix; the burka. And, without any intention, I’ve ended up having quite an education in religion-focussed conference – which isn’t really my discipline or my key area, but has been quite nice to move into that and become more familiar with that subject area. But, yes, I think there is a point in picking a theme and trying to go deep, rather than doing a random pick-and-mix of entire breadth of the discipline. Because it loses a certain coherency. And that coherency with the education panels, I’ve really enjoyed.

SB: Just on the topic of themes as well: I was thinking about conference themes, and how this one was “multiple religious identities”. And I don’t know how many papers actually speak to that, that I’ve been to. And then, I was just kind-of wondering . . . sometimes, what the point of having a theme of the conference is. Because everyone knows that, at the EASR, you’ll go if you want to present a paper. And sometimes you can mould it to the conference theme, just for the sake of it. Sometimes there just seems like a bit of a facade, I think.

CC: My one bit of input on that . . . well I’m sure I’ll end up having a bit more . . . ! So, I’ve been doing a history project, on the British Association of the Study of Religions. For a number of years, now, we’ve ended up having a conference theme. But when I went back through the record, the conferences didn’t used to have themes. (10:00) Back in the day, it was just like sort-of ten old white men gathering in effectively a living room and having a chat. There would be one paper, and that was the conference. It then expanded to two papers, one in the evening and then one the following morning. And that’s what the Association was for decades. And then, as things grew and grew, it got bigger. And then they started to have an annual lecture. But there still wasn’t a conference theme. And then what seems to have happened at some point in the mid-‘90s a couple of years after the annual lecture was established, the annual lecture then became the conference theme. It was like, “We’re going to have a keynote. They’ll speak on this.” Then it seems to be people try and get everyone to speak around that topic. And I suppose the justification is that it’s away for having a relatively coherent conversation – but that never really happens! Conferences might produce a conference volume of key papers. But I think most conferences I go to now would even struggle to find enough coherency for that volume. And it’s been proposed at the BASR, recently, that perhaps we just abandon the theme and say that it’s a conference for scholars working in, or on, religion in Britain – and just leave it at that. And tell them what the keynotes are. And the keynotes might produce a certain sort of discourse just by their power position as being the keynote speeches. But, yes. It’s unclear, now, what the utility is. Any thoughts from the others?

TW: Well I think it also relates to . . . you know, you can only go to so many conferences each year. I mean, I’m in New Zealand so, you know, unless the conference is in New Zealand it’s a very expensive exercise going to conferences. So how do you select which ones to go to?

AP: That’s a good question.

CC: And maybe that is where the theme comes into play? Because, yes, there’ll be a core constituency who’d go to every European Association Conference, right? But for others who don’t have that luxury, then having a theme provides a justification.

AP: I don’t know whether the theme actually helps you with that, to be honest. (Laughs).

SB: I think if you want to present your research then you’ll present your research – never mind the theme.

AP: I guess, once you go to a conference, you will find scholars sort-of in your field that can give you feed-back, that you can network with. So it’s not something that a theme will help you with, I feel.

TW: I mean, what are the criteria with which you choose a conference? The exotic location? The location of your family on the travel route? Networking opportunities? Who else is going to be there, and what kind of feedback you might get on your paper? You know, and it’s a juggle between all of these different issues, isn’t it? Some more honourable and some more profane.

AP: Not always purely professional.

CC: And that’s ok, isn’t it? It’s one of the, I’d say, many perks of an academic life. We can all bitch and moan about all the various stresses and strains. But all the travelling to conferences is one of the perks.

SB: Definitely.

CC: Sometimes it’s funded. Sometimes one decides, “Well, I need a holiday, anyway. And that might be a good environment to go to . . .” Mostly I do it based on the sort-of network of scholars. I go to BASR, now, every single year. And it will continue, because that’s become my sort of family. It’s a much smaller conference. This is my first European one since 2013 – again because of the financial commitment is quite heavy. But I would have come regardless of what the theme was. But then, there are other conferences. Like, there’s the Non-religion and Secularity Research one in a few weeks, and I’ll go to that because of the topic. Yes. But that’s more to do with network. I don’t think I’ve ever actually gone to a conference because of a specific theme. It’s more I’ve gone . . . I want to go to that organisation’s conference, rather than . . .

SB: Although even though I’ve just been saying that themes are pointless: this years’ BASR, I only put in a paper because it did directly relate to my research, and I felt like I probably should!

MK: (15:00) Well, I think the theme of conferences, although not the only criteria, at least invite people to talk about something different or just look at it from a different angle than they are normally doing. And they’re normally telling people about their research. And so . . . for applying to get a paper in, you have to, at least . . . I don’t know . . . tentatively, put in some reference to the conference theme. And I think it’s a good way. It would be better – or sometimes I think it could be better – if people are directly invited to talk about this: “I know this person, I know him or her. He or she might be an expert on this or that. I would like to hear her talk about this, although it might not be the current research project she’s working on. But inviting her to say something about that would help to . . . I don’t know, stimulate another kind of conversation than just repeating myself.”

CC: Three points: I said I was going to . . . (Laughs). I think we’re maybe having two conversations. We shouldn’t allow the behaviour of scholars who tend to just go, “Well, I’ll fire in whatever paper anyway, and just put a vague allusion to the theme in.” That’s what we default to doing. But the ideal, where everyone actually engages with the theme, that’s maybe still the ideal to aim for. We shouldn’t be conflating behaviours with ideals. Another point is that some of us . . . I’ve certainly had experience of being at very small conferences that you might more describe as workshops. I’ve been at one on atheist identities, one on religious indifference, where there’s maybe fifteen to twenty-five scholars and it’s very intense, very focussed discussion. And those conferences have always produced, for me, the best outputs. So maybe there’s a scale thing? The final point is, I’ve got a friend who is in Business Studies, in marketing. And she was telling me, she was applying for her first conference. And the selection criteria are very different. You have to write your entire paper ahead, submit it, and then they accept it or reject it. And then you come and present a shortened version of your paper. So we’re used to presenting a very short vague abstract, and conferences tend to be eager for people to come. Whereas, if the conference was having thousands more people than they could actually take applying then the selection criteria would be quite different, and the coherence of the conference would probably be much higher than it is in our discipline.

MK: I’m not sure if you could actually call that kind of workshop experience you had a conference. Because I think that would just mix up terms, and put it in a better light than conferences deserve, I guess!

CC: (Laughs).

MK: Because at least in my experience – and I go to different conferences in Religious Studies, but also in Sociology – I never find the discourse there. I just find repetition. Never actually something really new or interesting – or just a few papers presented. And this is in kind of a contradiction to the bare fact that there are more and more conferences that you could go to and you should attend – or you’re supposed to, if you want to . . . I don’t know, work on your career, or something like that. So I find it really challenging to think about what to do at conferences. What is it we are doing, when we are doing conferencing? And I think, more and more, it turns out to be just some occasion you meet each other and talk to each other, yet the papers and the panels are so full of papers and panels in such a short time, that . . .

CC: But is that ok? In the sense that . . . because I’ve often said that sometimes the papers are the excuse. They’re the excuse for the funding, they’re the excuse that you give, to justify to yourself for going. And sometimes I’ve found them . . . . You know, I will use a conference paper as a way to force myself to write something that I’d been meaning to write for ages. But then, the valuable things are the things like we’re doing right now, or in the coffee breaks, or at an excellent night out dancing to “The Thriller” with Steve Sutcliffe and Giovanni Casadio the other night! (20:00) (Laughter). Those are the things that stay with you, and sort-of humanise the scholarship. But then, also, all the conversations that happen around a conference . . .

SB: In which case, do you think more time should be dedicated to social interactions? Like, you could have . . . take one panel out and just say: “People who want to gather in a room and talk about this topic . . .” – have a round table?

CC: But they wouldn’t . . .

MK: If it’s too much time between the panels they would not – they would just leave. They would split up in very small groups. Friends who haven’t seen each other for a long time, and then they leave the venue. And then they are all scattered all round the city. And I think some of the conversations that you have between the panellists – this was something I was thinking about the other day: some of the conversations you have between the panellists are actually gaining from the fact that you have to run off just in a few minutes. So you get to your point very quickly – and hope you find some laughs – and then go on your daily routine, at these conferences! So I think if you’re there too long, with a break between, this might not happen.

SB: But if it wasn’t a break. If it was, like, “This room can be dedicated to this subject,” then have a conversation about it when you got there.

CC: Would you?

SB: I think I would like to. (Laughs). Don’t sound so sceptical!

MK: (Laughs). Well, maybe you shouldn’t call it “a room that you go to to have the conversations”, but maybe you can call it a podcasting studio and also have the ability to record!

SB: Yes. If conversation’s valuable thing it would be good to facilitate that, you know?

CC: And my facetious thing there is that maybe there are ways that are slightly more innovative than, “Here’s a room, go and talk.”

SB: Well that is a basic presentation of it! (Laughs).

CC: But the spirit of it, I think, is probably quite good. More . . . like more barbeques, for example! I’m not saying they all need to be filled with free alcohol and things. But if there was a barbecue every night and all these conversations . . . . Well, then, maybe not as many people would come every night. But those are the places where the exciting things happen.

TW: What do we think about the stratification of people at various levels in their academic careers? You know, having a junior scholars’ meeting tends to be something a lot of conferences are doing these days. Workshops for post-graduates. There hasn’t really been that here. It’s generally been far less hierarchically organised. But to some degree, what do you miss out from not having those . . . not having kind-of a post-graduate talking shop, or being a bit more aware of facilitating meetings through the hierarchy – which is still a very kind-of important aspect of university institutions. So should we be doing it by topics? Or should we perhaps be doing it by kind of you know career experience? Any thoughts on that?

SB: I think I prefer it by topic. I don’t know if that’s because in Edinburgh I feel like I have a good post-graduate community, where we can share post-graduate experiences in that way. And obviously it would be good to come across other post-grads from other places but I feel like I would benefit more from meeting people at all levels, within my subject area. And it would be great if some of them were also post-grads at the same level as me. But also people who have more experience and more range, I think.

AP: Yes. I usually prefer people with more experience just because they can teach me something about how to improve my research, and how to do stuff, basically. But of course, even a conversation on a topic with a post-grad can be beneficial as well.

CC: Yes, the more democratising things are the better, as far as I’m concerned. I do like it when you get to rub alongside people right at the top end of the field, and at the bottom end, and where titles don’t really matter. I mean, like, last night we were just casually sitting with Veikko Antonnen and just having a beer, talking. There was no pretence of, you know, “He’s really important. We should be deferring here.”

SB: I mean sometimes you don’t realise who they are until afterwards, anyway.

CC: Which is even better as well. There was one thing I remember: Peggy Morgan organised the BASR’s 40th Anniversary Conference. She said she insisted on not having name labels, because it means that you go around the conference and you spent the whole time peering at everyone’s chests – maybe somewhat inappropriately – trying to see what their name is (25:00). And everyone’s looking around for a better person to talk to. They’re waiting to catch that name. And apparently the objection was, “But you could be talking to someone really important, and not realise it!” And her justification was, “Well maybe that’s the point. If you want to introduce yourself, you introduce yourself. If you want to know someone’s name, you ask them their name.” A lot of the name badges thing can actually be a way of kind-of spoiling those conversations a little bit, I know.

TW: It does save you from the forgetting of names once you’ve already been introduced.

AP: And also, especially when you have so many people from different countries. It’s really hard to catch the name properly, unless you have a tag.

MK: Yes, and also I think it is also kind of a misconception of how networks and networking works. I mean, in a network your value is defined by being a knot and the ties you have. So the name is some kind of a label of this knot. So talking to someone who has a name, or might have a name, also means you get the connections you might be looking for. So if it is for just coming together and talk about research questions, or something you’re really interested in topic-wise or something, then this might be a good idea to get rid of badges. But if not, if it is for networking, then it’s really helpful . . . I mean, like helping to find people.

CC: Yes. I have seen instances where you spot a name badge, and you don’t know what the person looks like, but you do know their research. And then you spot the name badge and it’s like: “Yes! Hello! I should speak to you!” Exactly. But that was just feeding into . . . going right back to what Tom was saying: do we want to be coming to this sort of conference and having sitting down just with early career people? Well that’s what we’re doing right now, isn’t it?

MK: Yes it is. And it’s not surprising, I think. Because all the others are busy doing business as usual. So podcasting is not something that is not quite usual yet, maybe. Maybe we could also talk about this institution of podcasting studio at conferences, as an opportunity to get together and record some conversations . . . to be proving the real thing we are looking for at these kind of events? But coming back to the question, I think it’s sometimes might be the only way to get the input you need. Because from established professors you normally tend to get just the usual thing you find in their books and papers.

TW: I think the point I was driving at – and I’m not sure if there’s a difference between, say a European conference and an American conference. My suspicion – completely ungrounded – is that an American conference might have more stratified forums where, as early career researchers, you could meet up. But that’s not for sociability. This is the professionalisation of the trade. And there’s a lot more to this than simply knowing your topic very well. And perhaps doing workshops where you are kind-of professionalised to a degree, would provide that additional aspect to attending a conference – particularly for early career researchers – than just simply attending topic-based panels would provide. So I think that was kind of where I as ruminating around. But of course there’s drawbacks to that as well. Because you are missing out on the more interesting stuff and just learning the CV-building skills. And so on and so forth.

MK: Just reminding of Paul (audio unclear) analysis of “anything goes”, and the critique of the method, and stuff. He showed that the innovative research is not coming from the old established ones, but from those who haven’t read the “important books” you should have read at that time, or didn’t understand it. And then you innovate the hell out this . . . endeavour we call academia. So that might be the place of being here.

CC: Exactly! Well, we’ve always seen the Religious Studies Project as a way of . . . you know . . . . There are all these existing academic structures there: there’s hierarchies, there’s conferences, there’s journals and everything. (30:00) And we never saw the RSP as a way of supplanting that, but as a way of kind-of democratising things a bit; as a way of humanising scholarship and having conversations, alongside what’s going on, and in an alternative fashion; providing ways of accessing research and ideas that are maybe a little bit more irreverent, a little more accessible. And still acknowledging that the other structures are there. But, you know – do we want to be professionalised? Well, to an extent, yes! We have to be . . .

TW: We want to be employed!

CC: We want to be employed, but equally there’s a lot going on in the existing structures that is there just because of habit and tradition and authority. And these little ways, these little things that we’re doing, will hopefully be ways of challenging that or just forcing it to justify itself. I’m speaking in huge generalities here, but . . . . Things shouldn’t be done the way that they are done, just because . . . . And so, having little things that come in and go: “Mmm?”

MK: Well I don’t think that this is actually speaking in huge generalities. I think this is the concrete reality you could experience in these kind of conferences: these connections and power struggles within academia. You can really experience it here. And so I would agree that there might be a reason why we’re not professionalising in a way that, I don’t know, businesses have to . . . . Or get together just for networking purposes only. Because if we are no longer interested in our research topics, then we are no longer researchers!

CC: Exactly. Tom, you may not want to talk about this, but you’re just about to go to Honk Kong to a quite different conference. And you were describing, I guess maybe, the perceived differences. And that might be a useful thing to bring in . . . ?

TW: Yes. Well I think the first thing to say is that I haven’t been there yet. So these are all kind-of anticipations which could be completely grounded in my misunderstandings. But it’s a big public law conference in Hong Kong. And something like 39 concurrent panels, so I’m not sure how many delegates that adds up to – but pretty huge. But I was at the Law and Society Conference in Otago last year and because you’ve got a lot of lawyers going to these conferences, it’s not just academics. It’s a far more kind-of mixing of people who apply the trade, and people who research. And there was a slickness to them: everyone was smartly dressed; and PowerPoints ran to time; and often they would be synchronised with the rehearsed script. And it is impressive when people provide a far more slick presentation. I’m not sure if the ideas rea any better! [Laughter]. But there was a sense that, you know, corporatisation isn’t all bad. And if it’s a more efficient and more crisp delivery, and if the PowerPoints aren’t failing, and people are IT savvy, and they’ve been told to reduce their paper to three or four points – because that’s what people are able to remember, and you want you papers to be efficacious and to walk away with the key concepts – that aspect of the professionalization, I think, is worthwhile learning from and replicating. Whether the horse will take to water, or whether we’ll continue to try and preserve some of the more romantic off-the-cuff presentations that do take place in more Humanities-based subjects, is something . . . I don’t know how things will turn out. It will be very interesting to see how the Hong Kong conference differs from this one.

CC: I must say that there’s a spectrum of conference presentation, right? You’ve got the sort-of very slick end and then you’ve got this off-the-cuff end. And then, somewhere in the middle, you’ve got the reading of a pre-prepared thing – which I tend to probably do far too often. But the ones that I enjoy are either the ones that are very slick, or the ones that are almost entirely off-the-cuff. You know, they’ve got an idea and they just turn up (35:00). And they’ve got a couple of points and they speak around it. And they don’t really know where it’s going to go before it happens. But it can be great.

SB: You do need a certain amount of confidence in yourself as an academic to be able to do that, I think.

TW: Again I think that comes back to the point of professionalisation. Because it gives you those structures with which to be confident through. I don’t think people just emerge confident individuals. They’re given the training. And that kind of aspect, I think, is perhaps undervalued, or not explored enough, or not given enough assistance to people in their early careers.

MK: Well, I would be interested in what you think about the formats that actually prepare one to go to these conferences: what other teaching that may be required, to be prepared presenting in front of an academic professional crowd. Or is there anything you learn during studies and various programmes and universities? Is there something that is reflected in the courses or the structure of the programmes? And is it also reflected in what is worth doing career-wise. Because I have the impression that, at the end, it counts what you have written. And the papers you published in possibly well-known and established peer-reviewed journals. And the books you published. And among us there are only a few people who already published books. But yes, I think this is what counts. And it does not count to be able to get a straight sentence out in front of a crowd listening to you. And in a way I think, this just is reflected . . .

AP: Somehow it does, because it allows you to network in an academic sense. And that will lead to publications in some cases.

MK: Ok. But this also, just already prepares you for another written publication.

AP: Yes. But I think that with your presentation you will catch the attention on yourself as a researcher and on your research topic. So other people who are interested can contact you even afterwards,

CC: And it’s not necessarily just connected to feeding into publications. I suppose, what are academic outputs? They’re publications, they’re large research projects and everything. But you’ve got no idea . . . . And I’ve seen some presentations here that I’ve immediately thought, “I need to contact that person for this other project, down the line.” Or sometimes it will be someone else tells you about a paper that they heard, that you weren’t at, and that personal recommendation can be enough that you will then look at the conference programme, find out who that person was and then seek them out in some sort of other way.

MK: Well my questions were just related to the idea that we might need a professionalisation of conferences. And this sleek point of presenting, 5 points only . . .

TW: I’m saying it through gritted teeth.

MK: I hope so, yes. Because the reason that we don’t have that kind of well, established, elaborate presentation style is because we’re not teaching at universities, and it doesn’t count that much as writing papers properly. And then to read, to hold a paper, literally, and to read a paper you wrote, that is the thing you do. We have nothing else! I mean, podcast has just started to get a standing in the discipline.

CC: Yes. And the podcasts I recorded yesterday evening, for example, with Carmen Becker, went really well in the sense that she had a narrative worked out for her paper. So she had a twenty-minute narrative, which provided an excellent structure for what ended up being a thirty-five-minute podcast. But we did the same content in a much more – I hope, and Listeners can let me know – conversational and accessible way. We got through it all, but the act of it being a conversation was an alternative presentation format, that will hopefully have complemented the presentation (40:00). But maybe, just to put the spotlight on Angela: you’re relatively new to the conference circuit in a sense, so you might be . . . . What preparation did you get before you stepped up to the podium to deliver your first few papers?

AP: Well, actually, I found it quite easy to present in front of people. Because I’ve been teaching for a few years. And I also do some lecturing. So, yes. And also, well my degrees were in Italy, so at the University of Naples. And there, you have to do a lot of exams – there are presentations but without a PowerPoint. You have to orally answer quite a few questions in a well-structured way. So I think that helped me to organise how I elaborate on my thought and on my research. But yes, maybe the only thing would be to . . . . Yes, I spoke to my supervisor, of course, about what would be the main point that I had to address. So it’s like a sort of introduction.

CC: That is what I was thinking. From my outside observation you seem to have a very supportive supervisor in Suzanne Owen. I know that I’ve had very supportive supervisors and now being mentored by Kim Knott and Steve Sutcliffe, who have sort-of walked me through a lot of these things that might seem quite daunting in an academic career. And I think that, for me, like the first few conferences I went to and everything, having a couple of more established advocates guiding me around, introducing me to people – that really helped.

AP: Sometimes it can also help when you have interests beside academia. For example, in my case, I think that since I’ve been a singer for quite a few years, I think that helped me. Because when I ‘m up there it’s like being on a stage and you have to perform. So I think that doing . . . even other kinds of activities – besides academia – that can help you be more relaxed in front of people, can also help.

TW: Yes, by comparison, my hobby is long distance running. (Laughter). I don’t think that’s comparable to the kind of sociability aspect . . .

AP: I guess the other, for example, might be another . . .

CC: Well the long distance running will help you deal with the long keynote lecture in the warm rooms . . . !

MK: Both are different ways to deal with stage fright. The one can run off easily, the other can perform!

CC: Exactly. But you wanted to say something . . . ?

SB: Yes. Just a couple of things. Because the first EASR was the one in Helsinki two years ago, I think, and I didn’t present at that one. And I purposefully went just so I could go to a European conference, suss out the level of things that were happening there. And yes, I had people like Steve Sutcliffe and the whole . . . I think they were referred to as the Edinburgh Mafia at the time, because there was so many of us! And it was really nice just having those people there to introduce me, and not having the pressure to present, but be able to just suss out the situation. And then also, back in Edinburgh, I think in the first year of my PhD, we did a smaller . . . we called it a Post-Grad Colloquium. And that was one where people from all over the Divinity School would present. I can’t remember whether it was a five or ten-minute paper. But they tried to organise it in a very professional way. And I think the day before there’d been a different conference at New College, and Marian Bowman was in Edinburgh and so she came to the Colloquium. So it was quite nice to have a certain level of professionalism there, only have to present for ten minutes. And it was a really good trial run for future presentations.

MK: But isn’t it strange that we already fulfil all the requirements of a conference and presenting professionally, even if we’re just doing post grad or that kind of meeting and workshops just for us, for our sakes, for our research, just to get into conversation and find other people talking about interesting topics. We could do this in many different ways. We could also just meet for podcasting, for example .Just to bring it up once more! (Laughter). Because I think the format is so different. And this kind of professionalisation . . . of the peer pressure you then feel at these big conferences like EASR, or other conferences. (45:00) It’s strange, I think, that we already assume all that professionalism is, in that way that we experience it later. And there is no change. There is no real . . . I don’t know. There is no real development in presentation style.

CC: Yes. We could probably come up with a lot of optimistic things that . . . and think, “Well, surely we could be doing this networking without endless collaboration, without having to have the big carbon footprint and come to this place and sit through lots of papers?” I don’t know how much we would all . . . actually. The existence of the structure acts as gravitational pull, and people make time for it. But, just another anecdote: I think it’s maybe over 5 years ago now, that Russell McCutcheon added me as a Friend on Facebook. And I remember it happening and being “Wow! He’s added me as a Friend on Facebook!” And I’ve still never met him face to face. And, I don’t know . . . I think he was aware of the Religious Studies Project and was just purposefully setting out to network and create the network

MK: Yes. We think of Russell T. McCutcheon as the kind of RSP Twitter-bot. Because he reads everything you guys Tweet!

CC: Yes. And he engages. But I’ve now collaborated with him on a number of publications; I’ve been to conferences that he has helped organise, even though he didn’t end up going there; we’ll bounce around Facebook messages and Twitter conversations and I’m now part of his Culture On The Edge thing. And all of this has happened without ever needing to go to a conference. And there’s been a lot of productive collaboration there. And I’m not saying that we all need to start Facebook stalking and adding people that we’ve never met before. Because that is just weird, and there are issues with that. (Laughter). But there are other ways perhaps than necessarily coming to a physical space and productive scholarly collaboration can happen. We just maybe need to ignore or think outside the large powerful pull that these things have.

SB: And you do need certain ways of making you and your research visible. Because, obviously, you have the platform that Russell was then able to find you on. So it’s just ways of making that work, as well.

MK: And the reason I brought this up again is because I think that, with podcasting, we have the kind of medium that gets out conversations in a proper way. And make it possible to quote podcasts, as well. And I think that only a few of those established scholars in the discipline already know how many downloads those podcasts get. If they knew, I think they would realise that their papers in their established and beloved journals never ever will find so many readers than those podcasts find downloads.

CC: We have already, in this conversation, had more impact than probably every other scholar . . . !

MK: And more listeners than any dissertation ever written!

SB: Yes. And we briefly touched on it earlier. And you were saying that you go to a conference to present only to then write a paper afterwards. Whereas podcasting occupies that in-between space where you can be quoted on it, you don’t have to produce this written piece afterwards.

CC: Exactly. We’re coming up to 12 O’clock, which is going to be our time for getting out. I’m using my “radio host” thing which Moritz has been railing against the whole time. Moritz, I think, would have us talking for another three hours.

MK: Yes. Definitely. There’s no time limit. There’s always space in the Internet.

CC: There is always space in the Internet. And this is a point to remember. So hopefully, Listeners, you’ve enjoyed this conversation. And it’s, maybe, given you some food for thought about conferencing and maybe alternative ways that you can augment that. And one way would be to participate in the conversation surrounding this podcast. You could record your own podcast and respond in that way; YouTube – there’s all the social media options and website options for writing written responses. Don’t be afraid. Just get out there and say it. A lot of people seem to not really like typing written comments on the website.

MK: But then you should definitely establish a way to get audio comments as well. So it’s very easy to record them with WhatsApp or voice memo apps on smart phones (50:00). So you could send it easily and in a very nice format. And you could include them in the podcasts.

CC: That would be a brilliant idea, Moritz! Thank you for that!

MK: You’re welcome.

CC: So, Listeners, thanks for listening. We should all say that I suppose. So, from all five of us here in Switzerland:

All: Thanks for listening!


Citation Info: Cotter, Christopher, Sammy Bishop, Moritz Klenk, Angela Puca, Tom White. 2018. “What is the Point of Academic Conferences?”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 24 September 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 19 September 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/easr-roundtable-2108-what-is-the-point-of-academic-conferences/

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

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

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

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

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

Exciting new directions for Implicit Religion:

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

Playing the Field: the Logistics of Religion and Video Game Studies

The field of religion and video games is still new and forming. In its struggle to find itself, it simultaneously competes with a university’s traditional understanding of both education and culture, often involving Gregory Price Grieve’s comment that video games are perceived as “low brow” culture. The view of video games as, again to quote Grieve, “just above pornography,” is a misconception that the academic study of video games is constantly fighting against.

That being said, hearing about Grieve’s success in bringing the study of video games to his university is promising. Not only was he able to establish courses for the study of religion and video games, but was also able to work with his library and university in order to establish gaming centres for students to play games. Having digital media pushed across disciplines throughout the university, as well as having a Digital Media Centre in their library, helps to establish video games and other forms of digital media as important and worthy of study in the university.

Grieve did have an understanding university, which is something important to keep in mind. While his approach to getting video games in the classroom is a format presented to be copied, not everyone is lucky enough to be present in a university that is so understanding. This is especially the case in universities rooted in academic tradition, built on older standards which seldom factor in elements of popular culture. This is not even considering the cost of this kind of endeavour. Even with a buy-in from the library, Grieve’s project still needed $10,000. And this is only considering the technicalities of this new media, and not the thought process of people who still believe that video games are not an important element of popular culture today, or who don’t seem to really care about the “popular” at all. In that sense, there are bigger problems facing some people at less understanding universities than a lack of technology.

The positive reception Grieve has experienced with his students can hopefully begin to be experienced by researchers and teachers in the study of video games in many universities throughout the world. However, there are many elements that still work against progression in the field. Some of the thoughts and actions impeding the growth of the field are, sadly, still present even among scholars in the field. By studying only video games, we impede ourselves and the progress which can be made; there are many aspects of video games which are affecting other elements of popular culture. An example of this are Let’s Play videos, in which players record themselves playing a video game, with commentary and sometimes even recordings of the player’s face (as the Let’s Player PewDiePie became known for), which are then uploaded on video sharing sites such as YouTube. Unfortunately, the popularity of Let’s Plays have been stereotyped almost as much as video games themselves are, an element that is unfortunately heard even in Grieves interview in which he relegates their popularity and interest almost exclusively to “teenagers”, even though the demographic may not be this concrete, especially for Let’s Players who are older themselves, such as Fun Haus. PewDiePIe has over 41 million subscribers, and it is hard to imagine that all 41 million are only teenagers. Not to mention that the fastest growing demographic for gaming content are women over the age of 25.[1]

What Let’s Plays demonstrate for academics of video games is the creativity enjoyed by Let’s Players. Geoff Ramsey, the founder of the Let’s Play group Achievement Hunter has commented on this creativity: “Any time we can take and use [a game] in a way that it wasn’t necessarily intended by the developers, that’s like the best thing in the world to me.”[2] This out-pouring of creativity allows researchers to have easy access to new narratives being created and the emotions they create and share. These new narratives and emotions are not experienced solely by the Let’s Player, but also by those who watch these videos; these narratives are then shared by the viewer to others, and new narratives are created by the viewer in relation to these new narratives. These videos are then not only relegated to the realm of video games, but also to internet studies and realms of internet discourse, particularly when elements of them become shared as memes.

The field of religion and video games is still emerging, and thus still solidifying its own definition and place. What is most important is for scholars interested in engaging with digital media, like video games, to demonstrate to their students, universities, and themselves that video games are a medium worthy of study.

[1] Gautam Ramdurai, “Think Gaming Content is Niche? Think Again,” Think with Google, December 2014, accessed February 2016, https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/articles/think-gaming-content-is-niche-think-again.html.

[2] Rooster Teeth, Let’s Play Live: The Documentary, Video (2015), ), http://roosterteeth.com/episode/r-t-docs-let-s-play-live-let-s-play-live-the-documentary

Gods and Demons, Scholars and Lawyers: Brief Reflections on American Religion and Law

Talking to lawyers is a real skill, and Eric Mazur is very good at it. In the subfield of traditional American church-state studies, legal historians, lawyers, lobbyists, and religion scholars convene for conservation and debate, mostly about First Amendment jurisprudence. As Mazur explains in his RSP interview, that conversation has in recent years lost its place, at least at the American Academy of Religion, and so he has revived it with a Religion and Law discussion group, which has met concurrently with AAR for each of the last two years (full disclosure: I have participated in both meetings). These conversations—at the AAR meetings and in the field more generally—are lively, rigorous, and fascinating, but sometimes frustrating. Unlike many other fields, the range of topics is actually quite small but the variety of approaches is wide. This self-imposed limitation was, according to Mazur, a primary reason for forming the discussion group. This is a group of people who come from very different backgrounds and perspectives—and with different goals—but can talk about the same things, namely, court cases dealing with the First Amendment’s establishment clause and free exercise clause. This is the opposite of many subfield groups, who are organized by a method (ethnography, for example) and use that same method on vastly different data sets. Here, we have a quite small shared data set but diverse methods. Everyone can speak at length, using shorthand, about certain acts, cases, decisions, and dissents, and everyone in the room can follow it. But why these people care, and, more practically, what they’re trying to do, can result in some talking-past each other. Few people are as good as Mazur at bridging these interests and assembling the components for a productive exchange.

The interview includes a number of interesting exchanges, as Mazur describes the state of the field, the advent of the discussion group, and his own career. I was particularly interested in Mazur’s answer to the question about why there is an increasing interest in religion and law. He noted that some religion scholars got into studying the law through studying New Religious Movements (NRMs) or minority religions, as they tend to be treated differently under the law. One of Mazur’s books, here.) This focus does bring out a possible tension between two approaches. Are we studying the law, the Supreme Court decisions, and legal language, etc., or are we studying religious groups and how their practices and beliefs shape and are shaped by law? Of course, it can be both, but the different emphases can evince different goals among scholars. Mazur highlighted the tension between those who have a “normative notion” of religious freedom and those who do not (at least not so explicitly.) On the normative side are not just lawyers, but also theologians, philosophers, lobbyists, and even clergy members. Others take a more descriptive/analytical approach, seeing the law as an institution with effects on American (religious) life and thus worth studying in historical or sociological ways.

In my view, there are two ways that the field of religion and law should expand. First, I think that “law” has been taken to mean primarily the First Amendment’s religion clauses, and there are many other interactions between religious communities and the law worth studying. Mazur mentions this briefly in the interview. Religion scholars would do well to learn about tax law or tort law or intellectual property. Law is not simply religious freedom. And, furthermore, religious freedom means a lot more than First Amendment law. The discourse of freedom, the various states of freedom and un-freedom under which subjects live, and the processes by which freedom is manufactured and protected are all topics that could be taken up by scholars of religion and law. Second, delimiting our area of focus to the United States can miss the international context for American religious law. On one hand, the limited scope makes sense, since American law does apply, for the most part, to America. However, American religious freedom, understood as a human right, is being naturalized and exported. This has tremendous ramifications for foreign policy, religious nationalism, and diplomacy. Constitutional scholars who focus on religion largely have ignored these important developments.

That being said, I think there is a place for the type of “traditional” constitutional conversations Mazur has advocated and facilitated. As I stated above, it is enjoyable and somewhat rare to have a room (or some non-physical space) full of people who speak the same language, who know what Reynolds and Schempp and Boerne v. Flores and RFRA mean. It can lead to productive and detailed conversations. Historians and other scholars contribute to public understanding, but they also can be involved in shaping the law, through an amicus brief or as an expert witness, for example. Many religion scholars (though of course not all) are wary to do anything that smacks of “advocacy.” However, if we are writing about contemporary laws and their impact on religious communities, or about the logic structuring certain laws and cases, our work can have effects even if we do not intend them. So, why not be intentional about it in the first place? Or at least be willing to engage in conversation, if not outright “political” action? If we are going to engage in this type of public work, we need a common language to speak. Working with academics can be an unpleasant experience, and our analytical goals can distract from the winning cases or lobbying for particular causes. But, if lawyers and scholars are going to talk to each other, it has to be at least somewhat on the lawyers’ terms.

References

Gordon, Sarah Barringer. The Spirit of the Law: Religious Voices and the Constitution in Modern America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Mazur, Eric Michael. The Americanization of Religious Minorities: Confronting the Constitutional Order. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Su, Anna. Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Wenger, Tisa. We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Expanding Thought Trench: Ivy League Authority in South Korea

I spent two years as an English teacher in South Korea. I went because they wanted native speakers in their classrooms and promotional photos, particularly young American females, which made the salary tempting due to capitalistic law. Almost everyone I met there was desperate to learn from me, and I taught just about every demographic imaginable. I crawled on the floor with drooling toddlers, sipped Starbucks coffee with black-tie businessmen, gossiped with housewives over kimchi and tea, and kept awake teenagers cramming for exams until nearly midnight on Friday.

For the most part, overlooking several significant outliers, my students’ goals for learning the language was not communication. The goal was advancement within an extremely competitive system. English was the language of authority. It was generally accepted that English-speaking universities were somehow better than their Korean counterparts to the extent that a degree from a brand-name university was claimed to guarantee career success.

As a scholar trained in this university system, I feel the urge now to offer peer-reviewed evidence in support of my claims. The works I have read suggest a link between the demand for English and a mix of economic colonialism and Confucian values.[1] In my experience, this feels true, but these historical forces are expressed in a nuanced way that I have yet to find clearly or comprehensively expressed in literature. But the phenomenon is certainly there, and for my purpose here, its existence is enough.

What is relevant and clear from my experience in relation to the Masuzawa interview, though, is that British and American universities possess significant authority in Korean culture over the accepted way knowledge should be acquired, classified, and acknowledged.

What Masuzawa’s research shows is something both Koreans and Americans often forget: that the university, even the idea of the university as an institution, has a history, and their structures and traditions are less often the products of pure reason and rather products of specific historical circumstances. They are like the humans who made them, creatures of evolution.

More specifically, as Masuzawa chronicles for us, the current knowledge categories of the university were never inevitable nor even are they permanent as they stand. The interview shows us specifically how our current of understanding of religion is particular to our current point in history.

As a student of religious studies raised in the American intellectual tradition, this history, once pointed out, is obvious. Moreover, it is embedded within my language. In English, I can easily think of religion as an abstract concept, and call to mind specific behaviours that I think of as religious. Yet as the history of scholarship on religion shows, defining religion itself is a slippery task and has mostly abandoned.

The ability to be within an institution of knowledge and to still be critical of its foundations and categories is important. We can become aware of the logical fallacies and dialectical reactions within our institutions and work to correct them.

My point, however, is that the history of the university is not well known and perhaps is even willfully ignored in places where a degree from elite universities make significant practical differences. This is not limited to Korea, for these institutions are given similar authority by groups everywhere, even by those who are disenfranchised by that very elitism.[2]

Does it matter that many individuals aspiring so hard to attend these schools do not possess a critical understanding of the unsteady ground upon which disciplines draw their lines? In some senses, perhaps not. In time, and once inside the institutions, these individuals may come to understand their history just as I have.

It’s more likely, though, that in the short term, the authority of the universities will stand in the minds of those sending their children to Ivy Prep Academy.[3] That authority can be good when it sets in place standards and practices which leads to clear thinking. However, it also limits categories of thought by predetermining them.

New ideas begin with critical thinking, which is enhanced by diversity.[4] In Korea, for example, I questioned unfamiliar things, and sometimes the subsequent dialogue hatched new thoughts in myself and my students. The reverse process should occur when Korean students attend elite universities. Unfamiliar with the European cultural traditions and their associated thought trenches, they should question the standards and categories of knowledge. It is likely, though, that because of the status they give to elite universities, such questioning rarely happens. As a result, it is likely that they too will adopt the language of European universalism.

While I respect Masuwaza’s work on many levels, I mostly like it because she reminds me, again and again, to look at my tools of inquiry and see how my tools have shaped what I have found.

[1] A couple of the better titles I have found are the following: 1. Tsui, A. and Tollefson, J. (2007) Language Policy, Culture, and Identity in Asian Contexts. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 2. Sorensen, C. (1994) Success and Education in South Korea. Comparative Education Review. 38(1): 10-35. 3. Lee, S. and Brinton, M. (1996) Elite Education and Social Capital: The Case of South Korea. Sociology of Education. 69(3): 177-192. 4. Seth, M. (2002) Education Fever: Society, Politics, and the Pursuit of Schooling in South Korea. University of Hawaii Press.

[2] Mullen, for example, describes how some high-achieving but less-wealthy students avoid elite schools precisely because of they are elite. Mullen, A. (2009) Elite Destinations: Pathways to Attending an Ivy League University. British Journal of Sociology of Education. 30(1): 15-27.

[3] http://ivyprepacademy.net/pages/team/

[4] The relationship between critical thinking and diversity has often been studied. For example, see Laird, T. (2005). College Students’ Experiences with Diversity and Their Effects on Academic Self-Confidence, Social Agency, and Disposition toward Critical Thinking. Research in Higher Education. 46(4): 365-387.

The Invention of the Secular Academy

The Religious Studies Project, as an academic endeavour studying religion, is of course devoutly secular. In fact, we tend to take the connection between secularity and the academy completely for granted. But was this always the case? If not, how did it become so? And what does secular mean in this context? In this interview recorded at the 2015 IAHR Congress in Erfurt, Tomoko Masuzawa tells David G. Robertson how the medieval university was transformed – first through the introduction of the collegiate system in the 1700s, which gave private donors a say in who could study, and then again in the late 19th Century, with the Berlin model being exported throughout Europe and the colonies. What we discover is not a dialogue between the religious and the secular, but between different Christian sects. What does this say about our present-day academic endeavours?

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, dried lentils, soft furnishings, and more!

World Religions in Academia and the Loci of Tradition in Irish Paganism(s)

In her interview with the Religious Studies Project, Dr. Jenny Butler spoke with Christopher Cotter about the specificities of the object of her doctoral research at University College Cork (2012), contemporary Irish Paganism, and about the field of Pagan studies in the context of Irish academia. Butler’s research encompasses very diverse aspects of contemporary Paganism in general, from Wicca to Pagan Witchcraft, through Heathenism and Druidry, without forgetting to pay attention to solitary practitioners who revolve around groups like Wiccan covens and Druidic groves. Nevertheless, what started as an overview of Butler’s work in Ireland quickly turned into a much-needed critique of the context surrounding academia and religious studies. Her own ethnographic research raises questions about important categories and paradigms in religious studies today.

The first element of interest in Butler’s work is her use of “Paganism”, a somewhat monolithic term, to describe the Pagan movement. It is most interesting to see how her use of the term “Paganism” instead of “Paganisms” pertains to the current hesitation in academia to talk about “Christianisms,” for example, as an array of different traditions included in Christianity. Some scholars of Pagan studies prefer the use of “Paganisms,” easily recognizing that it is more appropriate to talk about it in a way that reflects its inner diversity and lack of cohesion in regards to beliefs, practices and ethics. We can only deduct that Butler’s move to speak of her object of study in the singular form must be due in part to the fact that the study of Pagans and Paganism in Ireland is still nascent. For that reason, it would probably have been harder for her to have her object recognized by the academic institution if she didn’t comply with the same convention that usually applies to the major religious traditions of this world, i.e. world religions. Does it have anything to do with the possibility that a confessional approach of religion still lingers within religious studies in the Republic of Ireland? Compared to the context of Butler’s research, it seems that American and Canadian scholars of religion show much less hesitation to talk about “Christianisms” or “Hinduisms,” for example, as a series of several sub-traditions, rather than as uniform religions. Butler specifies that this decision derives from her ethnographic methods of research, and, in that sense, that her use of the term “Paganism” as a whole stems from her fieldwork. In this manner, she gracefully avoids some of the methodological and theoretical problems that would come out of an ethnocentered perception of religion.

In light of this, one can wonder how expeditious is the common assumption that most Pagans, or at least a majority of them are well read (Davy, 2007). First, let’s not forget that it is not unusual at all that members or adepts of a religion, be it new or old, take upon themselves to be well aware of the literature, academic or confessional, surrounding their religion. In my experience, Pagans are certainly well read in particular areas, like mythology, folklore and sometimes history, but they seem much less informed when the time comes to compare “world religions” to their own religiosities or to compare their own religious categories to those produced and accepted in academic circles in religious studies, anthropology, and history, among others. This is not to say that Pagans are particularly less well-read than individuals who belong to other institutionalized or formal religious traditions. Many adepts of Neo-Druidry do indeed dig deep into historical and archaeological material to reconstruct parts of their worldviews, practices, and social organisations. It is also possible that for a great number of individuals who identify themselves against religions, like some atheists for example, being informed by scholarly works might be an important aspect of their “non-religion.”

As far as I am concerned, this idea that Pagans are more informed about scholarly works in religious studies is questionable only because most Pagans, as Butler indicates, do not interrogate the origins of their religiosities beyond their romanticized interpretation of geographical locations and historical or mythological influences. In fact, one can wonder why it has never been articulated anywhere so far within Pagan studies that Wicca, the only “religion” stemming out of Britain (Hutton, 1999), is rooted in elements often associated with Irish Celtic myths or figures. What about the veneration of deities such as the popular Ceridwen and Cernunnos? What changes did those figures go through by leaving English soil, going around the Western world through the popularization of Wicca, contemporary Paganism, New Age, and Goddess spiritualities, before coming back to Ireland, decades later? Is it just that Pagan studies in Ireland haven’t made the connection yet? Probably not. Is it that these figures did not undergo any kind of transformation? That would, of course, be quite surprising. Or, maybe is it that these distinctions do not matter for Pagans and scholars who study them? Paganism, being a religion without dogma, without a “proper” institution standardizing discourse and practice, in the face of globalization, might not have what it takes to conceive these divergences as significant issues to deal with.

In my eye, the most interesting aspect of Butler’s study is that it shows just how locations and spiritual nexuses in Ireland are at the heart of Irish Pagan religiosities. Certainly akin to what happens in Britain at Stonehenge or Glastonbury, this phenomenon invokes issues of authenticity and “nativeness.” These locations point to a long gone past, which then comprised very different worldviews from those at play today that have inevitably been marked by what Butler qualifies as a “Christian veneer.” This brings up and interrogates the basic distinction between Christianity and paganism[1], or rather the issue of identification of paganism by agents of Christianity. Would a certain paganism occurring today not be paganism anymore after being marked by centuries of Christian proselytism? This forces researchers to work outside of these ever-reproduced categories to focus on more current issues, giving more space to collective and individual stories rather than written texts that prescribe modes of practice.

In the last couple of years, scholarship in Pagan studies has begun to slow down. The main source cited by Butler, The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, is struggling more and more as the years go by to find new approaches to Paganisms and Earth-centered or nature-based religions that would give them some sort of undisputable recognition within universities. In fact, it seems that as soon as students and scholars of Pagan Studies step out of the United States or Britain (mostly), they still face an ever-present normative push that won’t accept Paganisms as legitimate religious objects of study or Pagan studies as a legitimate field of study. We can only hope that Butler’s work, quite unique in itself, can revive this pull towards understanding the originality and specificities of contemporary Paganism as it spreads in different ways throughout the globe.

Reference

Davy, B. J. (2007). Introduction to Pagan Studies. New York/Toronto: Altamira Press.

Hutton, R. (1999). The Triumph of the Moon. A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. New York: Oxford University Press.

York, M. (2005). Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion. New York: NYU Press.

[1] The term “paganism” refers to what Michael York calls a spontaneous religiosity linked to the land (2005), found in Native and aboriginal cultures for example, as opposed to “Paganism”, capitalized to refer to the contemporary revival of pre-Christian mythologies.

Conference Report (and rant): Fandom and Religion, Leicester, 2015

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by our very own Venetia Robertson, RSP Editor and a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney.

The University of Leicester hosted the Fandom and Religion conference this July 28-30 in affiliation with the Theology, Religion and Popular Culture network. A reasonably small conference with just over 30 presenters and 50 attendees, organisers Clive Marshall and Isobel Woodcliffe of Leicester’s Lifelong Learning Centre ran the event smoothly with the help of attentive session chairs and the professional staff at the clean and comfortable College Court conference centre. The Court was truly the home of the conference—with all of the sessions, meals, drinks, and most of our accommodation being there (and with little to do in the surrounding area)—one could be excused for experiencing a bit of cabin fever by end of the week. Still, when tomorrow morning’s keynote speaker is ordering another pint at midnight, we’re probably all glad that bed is just a few steps away from the bar. I want to talk about the papers I saw, and those I wish I’d caught, because that’s primarily what a conference review should be, but I’m also going to take this opportunity to give the study of fandom and religion in general some evaluation, as this conference both pointed out to me the breadth and the dearth of this relatively new academic field.

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One of the main draws of this conference for me, and why I was willing to endure the very long plane trip to get there, was the keynote line-up. I heard of this event at last year’s Media, Religion, and Culture Conference, and was excited to see that it would be featuring excellent speakers like Kathryn Lofton (who sadly had to pull out), and scholars whose work my own is intimately connected to, like Chris Partridge and Matt Hills. The way these thinkers combine innovative thinking with the analysis of meaning-making and popular culture highlights, and inspiringly so, the importance of this area of investigation. Partridge and Hill’s plenary papers, ‘Fandom, Pop Devotion, and the Transfiguration of Dead Celebrities’ and ‘Revisiting the “Affective Spaces” of Fan Conventions: Sites of Pilgrimage, Sacredness, and Enchantment… or Non-Places?’ respectively, were both illustrative of the fruitful amalgamation of approaches from media, cultural, and religious studies when examining these developments. I brought together Partridge’s concept of occulture with Hill’s hyperdiegesis in my own paper on how medieval female mystics and modern fangirls use relational narratives with their ‘gods’ to reify sacred subjectivities from within the patriarchal cultures of Christendom and geek culture. On the whole, the conference represented multi- and inter-disciplinary methods, with scholars of anthropology, psychology, music, digital cultures, and literature alongside those of religion. There was, however, in the overall makeup and theme of Fandom and Religion, an unmistakeably strong theological bent—but more on that in a moment.

Though it meant having to miss out on what I heard was a great session on fan experiences in Bob Dylan, indie, and Israeli popular music scenes, and a session on comics and hero narratives that I would have no doubt enjoyed, I felt very satisfied with the methodological offerings from Rhiannon Grant and Emanuelle Burton that dealt with the tensions of canon and fanon, interpretation and creativity, group consensus and personal gnosis, that affect religious and fan communities alike. With a mix of midrashic, pagan, and Quaker approaches to truth and authority, this panel had my mind whirring. Papers on the commercial and the communal aspects of the Hillsong and the role of music in the Pentecostal mega church system provided fascinating insights (and stay tuned for more on this from Tom Wagner). Offerings from Bex Lewis on the Keep Calm and meme on trend and Andrew Crome on My Little Pony fandom, Bronies, and Christianity, proffered some intriguing ways in which viral cultures enable believers to remix media for religious purposes and find the sacred within the secular. Film and television were well represented with talks on American Horror Story, the Alien franchise, small screen vampires, children’s programming, and anime, though I unfortunately could not get to those sessions. Sport, fiction, and celebrity were of course popular topics, with a Harry Potter themed session, and talks on football and faith and evangelism amongst skaters and surfers. Two talks I again missed but would have liked to have caught were the inimitably odd Ian Vincent on tulpas and tulpamancy and François Bauduin’s talk on the Raelians, for what I’m sure would have been a robust discussion of how these esoteric movements translate into the online sphere, and how this affects notions of authenticity and creativity.

11222652_10156115964950413_6985333271960933871_oWhile this program certainly presents a swathe of relevant subjects in the field of fandom and religion, there were several key moments that made me realise that some central issues had gone by the wayside. It struck me that this was a very “white” conference: there were, even for a small number of papers, strikingly none that I could see on non-Western peoples or traditions. A tiny fraction looked at non-Western media and non-Abrahamic religious beliefs. Searching the abstract booklet I found Islam mentioned once, Buddhism only in passing, and no references to countries with historical, pertinent, and I would say seminal engagements with religious fandoms (Japan, India, Vanuatu are just a few examples). When pointed out during the ‘feedback session’ that concluded the conference two responses were offered: one, that there was no one writing on these topics, and two, that it’s a shame that it looks like the conference lacked diversity but that the organizing body does have one Jewish member… In her keynote, Tracy Trothen remarked on the subject of religion and sport that when we say ‘religion’ we usually mean ‘Christianity’, which I had initially interpreted as a reflexive moment on the ‘god problem’ the academy continues to have, that is, the perpetuation of “the myth of Christian uniqueness” despite the reality of pluralism and secularization, but unfortunately it merely signaled the habitual preferential treatment of this one theological outlook. The suggestion that “no one is writing on these topics” is patently false, but is indicative of the core issue I had with this event: it wasn’t just saturated with a Christo-theological focus in material and approach because that’s representative of the academy, but rather it seemed it was primarily interested in representing that viewpoint—and this is something I don’t think was made clear from the outset.

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For example, the website for this conference followed on from the flyer that had first alerted me to the “international, inter-disciplinary conference,” and stated that its purpose was to “explore interactions between religion and popular culture” which sounded great. “What is happening to fans as they express their enthusiasms and allegiances? Has fandom replaced or become a form of religion?”—cool, interesting questions, I thought. Compare with this description from a CFP I, after the fact, found elsewhere: “A Major Conference for Faith Community Practitioners and Academics,” “including a session solely for faith community practitioners.” There were actually several ‘practitioner’ sessions, and it seemed clear after a while that ‘faith community’ meant Christian worship. It became explicit from the first day with our welcome that in part this event was for not just religious people but those active in their Churches to learn not so much about, but from fandoms. I am used to attending academic conferences with a notable number of ‘practitioners’ present, they may even present non-academic papers. I am also used to having to define religious studies as a separate disciplinary enterprise to theology. But what I wasn’t expecting in Leicester, and I don’t think I was alone here, was to be at a conference where religion, theology, and Christianity were so automatically synonymous that it didn’t seem to occur to the organisers that major non-Christian themes in religion and fandom had been overlooked in their selection of papers, or even that such themes were major. I wasn’t expecting to feel like such an outsider, as a religious studies academic at what I had thought was an academic religious studies affair.

To be fair, now that I have delved deeper into the faith-based networks that organised this event (Donald Wiebe). However, this issue goes beyond the academy, and this became obvious when a reporter for a religion-themed program on BBC4 interviewed some of the conference’s speakers. What thankfully doesn’t make it into our few minutes of fame in this radio segment is the interviewer’s clear discomfort with the idea of converging ‘obsessive’ fans and their ‘low brow’ media with ‘devoted’ believers and their ‘respectable’ forms of the divine. “Are they [typical othering language] just crazy?” he asks me of fans, and makes me repeat my answer several times in order to get something “more quippy, less academic”, and, I suppose, more damning to confirm his perception that there are right and wrong forms of meaning-making. Journalists from The Daily Mail also tried (but failed) to get a talking head, so I guess things could have been worse.

Venetia Robertson ready for the conference!

Venetia Robertson ready for the conference!

I certainly don’t mean to detract from the importance of making niche areas like fandom and religion studies visible on an international and interdisciplinary scale, or the much-appreciated effort that went in to the organisation and contribution of this conference and its participants: there was indeed a wealth of interesting, useful, and high-quality papers. Nonetheless, as a reflection on the state of popular culture and its integration into multi­-religious studies (not to mention the relevant spheres of civil/quasi/alternative/implicit religion etc.) I feel these criticisms need timely evaluation. And I have some heartening thoughts to that effect: there is a blossoming field of intersectional work on these topics at the moment if one takes the time to look! The promotional material available at Leicester, interestingly, confirmed this, and I include some pictures of it here. I think it’s telling that Joss Whedon studies has had its own journal, Slayage, for over ten years, but to find more journal articles on a vast panoply of religion and fandom junctures you can try the Journal Of Religion And Popular Culture, the classic Journal Of Popular Culture or the newer Transformative Works And Cultures and the Journal of Fandom Studies, whose book reviews keep on top of the most recent additions to this field. This conference also saw the launch of the comprehensive volume, The Routledge Companion to Religion and Popular Culture (which ranges in price between $277 AUD on BookDepository to a whopping $405 at Angus and Robertson), edited by John Lyden and Eric Mazur, as yet another example of the popularity of this topic in contemporary scholarship. I’m also pleased to say that my paper will be a chapter in the forthcoming volume for INFORM/Ashgate, Fiction, Invention, and Hyper-reality: From Popular Culture to Religion (edited by Carole Cusack and Pavol Kosnáč) alongside some brilliant minds exploring the relationship of spirituality to conspiracy theories, Tolkein’s legendarium, Discordianism, with a handful of, yes, practitioner’s accounts, this time from Pagans, Jedis and Dudeists—it’s sure to be a vibrant, diverse, and illuminating contribution to the discussion on fandom and religion.

 

 

2015 APA Convention Report (Religion and Spirituality Research)

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by David Bradley, a PhD student at Case Western Reserve University.

The American Psychological Association’s 123rd Annual Convention was held in Toronto, Ontario from August 6 through August 9, 2015.  Conferences often have an organizing theme, but the APA Convention is simply too big to be focused on one or two themes.  To give you a sense of scale, here is what was happening at 1 PM on Thursday of the convention: 46 symposia or paper sessions, 3 invited talks, and 119 posters.  And that’s just official APA programming – many of APA’s 54 divisions, including Division 36 (the Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality), offer informal programming in hotel suites.  The atmosphere for the APA conference this year was a bit strange, and reminders of the recently released Hoffman Report, which detailed the relationship between the APA leadership and support for enhanced interrogation/torture by the U.S. government.  Several people could be seen wearing t-shirts or pins bearing the statement “First, do no harm,” and the Hoffman Report was often referenced in Q&A portions of talks, even when only tangentially related to the topic at hand (as is standard for post-talk Q&As).

David Bradley with "Super" Phil Zimbardo. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

David Bradley with “Super” Philip Zimbardo. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

Despite the thousands of offerings, there were only three or four sessions across the entire convention that hit at the truly important topics (i.e., my own area of research).  I have tried to expand my coverage of the conference to address matters of secondary importance, but I apologize in advance for giving such a limited view of the large, diverse convention.

At any large conference, it’s often the poster sessions that are most engaging, and this was true here as well.  The poster format is well-suited for conversations about the details of a study, and in a large conference like APA, there are enough posters that a handful will be interesting and at least one will be important (see above regarding the definition of important).  Namele Gutierrez (Pepperdine University, abstract available here) conducted a study of friendships at a Christian college.  Participants were asked about their own religiosity, their best friend’s religiosity, and the strength of their relationship.  Students with low self-reported religiosity (below a median-split) reported having friendships that were stronger (deeper and more supportive) if the student reported that the best friend was highly religious (above a median-split).  This relationship was not seen among students with above-the-median self-reported religiosity.  Effect sizes were small but significant.  The reasons for this effect could not be addressed by the data, but I wonder if the context – a Christian university – is important here.  Perhaps the religious nature of the university prevents individuals with low religiosity from being as open and supportive, even with close friends.

Also at the poster session, Courtney Nelson (Texas A&M, abstract available here) reported findings from a study on the relationship between religious vs. nonreligious psychologists’ self-reported ability to do treatment planning for client problems with vs. without religious content.  Predictably, the primary finding was that nonreligious psychologists were more hesitant regarding their ability to accurately conduct treatment planning for religious clients.  The author concluded that this study implied the need for increased training on religious/spiritual matters in graduate schools.  That may be useful for a number of reasons, but since this study included no measure of accuracy of treatment planning, it seems that an equally valid route would be to spend time in training programs reassuring nonreligious therapists of their ability to work with people who are not like them, which would likely increase their self-reported ability to conduct treatment planning.  Or, perhaps, the confidence of religious therapists should be reduced: perhaps religious therapists are too confident in their ability to conceptualize religious material, simply because they themselves are religious, though the meaning of religion in the client’s life may be quite different from the psychologist’s.

Regretfully, I had to pull myself away from the poster session before I could plumb its full wonders to attend another paper session.  The abstracts for the rest of the poster session can be found here.

The next session I attended was the Division 36 Data Blitz featuring six five-minute presentations from graduate students, including your correspondent.  All of the presentations were excellent, but I would like to single out the presentation John Jones (University of Detroit Mercy, abstract available here).  Much has been made about the discrepancies in religiosity between academic psychologists and the general public.  However, this presentation presented data to the effect that while academic psychologists have rates of religious identification much lower than the general U.S. public, their rates of belief in “God or something divine” were close to (though still lower than) the general public.  This might point to psychologists having a more individualistic notion of religion and spirituality, separate from the notions of traditional organized religion.  Whereas before, the conflict appeared to be between nonreligious psychology and religious public, perhaps the conflict is more between liberal notions of supernatural spirituality (popular in academia) and traditional conceptions of religion (popular in the general public, though perhaps less now than in the past).

Downtown Toronto, APA Convention. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

Downtown Toronto, APA Convention. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

One Division 36 symposium featured four talks relying on religious priming.  Three of the talks used contextual priming (conducting a study in a church vs. a classroom, or in front of a chapel vs. in front of a science center, or in front of a cathedral vs. in a secular civic square) and one study used websites (asking participants to evaluate the design of one of two websites created by the researcher, identical except for religious content).  Priming religiosity was found to: reduce the need for dissonance reduction and increase decision certainty; increase prejudice toward LGB individuals; and increase prosociality. I find priming fascinating as an increasingly controversial method in psychology, but remain skeptical of its importance, though this may be because all of my priming studies have failed so far.

Division 36 also hosted a symposium on the experiences of nonreligious and LGBTQ individuals, featuring three talks.  Two of the talks, by Zhen Cheng (University of Oregon) and Jacob Sawyer (Columbia University), introduced new measures of microaggressions against nonreligious people and experiences of anti-atheist discrimination, respectively.  Both talks linked experiences of anti-nonbeliever sentiment to lower scores on several measures of psychological well-being.  The existence of anti-atheist/anti-nonreligious sentiment has been well-documented, and I’m glad that the psychological impact of these experiences are finally being explored.  The third talk, by Kimberly Applewhite (Yeshiva University), used excellent qualitative, grounded theory methodology to explore the experiences of individuals who currently identified as members of the LDS Church (Mormon) and were LGB identified.  These participants often struggled to progress through the stages of faith development and LGB development simultaneously – indeed, the title of the talk, taken from a quotation from a participant, was “The Conflict is Constant.”  More high-quality qualitative work, please!

11863297_10205742746822141_4995918497479033784_nFinally, my time with Division 36 at APA concluded with a talk by Will Gervais (University of Kentucky), who was given the Margaret Gorman Early Career Award.  His talk was an overview of his research on the psychological underpinnings of belief in God, and therefore nonbelief in God.  For a good overview of his approach, see his article in Trends in Cognitive Science and the RSP interview with Will Gervais.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 30 June 2015

Dear subscriber,

We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest!

We would like to express our gratitude to everyone who forwards notifications. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so in the future (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

Having a call for papers, an exciting event, or an alluring job vacancy appear in future Opportunities Digests is easy! Simply use the submission form, forward them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com or, better yet, include said e-mail address in your mailing list for such e-mails!

We thank you for your contribution. And now for this week’s digest:

Calls for papers

Conference: EASR 2016

June 28–July 1, 2016

Helsinki, Finland

Deadlines: Multiple

More information

Conference: Ways of Knowing

October 22–24, 2015

Harvard Divinity School, MA, US

Deadline: July 17, 2015

More information

Conference: Race, Religion and Migration: Spaces, Practices, Representations

January 13–15, 2016

Newcastle University, UK

Deadline: September 10, 2015

More information

Events

Colloquium: BABEL: In search of the origins of religions

September 11–12, 2015

Ghent, Belgium

More information (French, Dutch, English)

Conference: SGEM Social Sciences and Arts

August 24–September 2, 2015

Albena, Bulgaria

More information

Jobs

PhD studentship

Lancaster University, UK

Deadline: September 8, 2015

More information

Assistant/Associate Professorship

San Diego, CA, US

Deadline: N/A

More information

“The Study of Religions in Ireland: People, Places, Projects” – 2015 ISASR Conference Report

“The Study of Religions in Ireland: People, Places, Projects” Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions (ISASR), Trinity College Dublin, May 11th 2015. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Dr. Eoin O’Mahony, Department of Geography, St Patrick’s College DCU

The fourth annual conference of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions took place at Trinity College Dublin on May 11th. It was organised in association with the Trinity Long Room Hub Art & Humanities Institute and sponsored by the Department of Religions & Theology, TCD. This year, it took a novel turn. In place of an event over two or three days, it was in the form of a research slam, a format set to test the garrulous nature of the academic. This was to take account of the IAHR Congress in Erfurt later this summer. Following an opening address from the outgoing president of the Association, Dr. Patrick Claffey, the slam began in earnest. The Society has a relatively small number of members but we had twelve presentations, seven minutes and one carefully monitored countdown clock.

Chris Heinhold (University of Chester) told us about his theory-building approach to investigating modern British Shia identity. Chris is about to embark on intensive fieldwork but has already noted how being part of a diaspora is performative. As a researcher and migrant himself, he has made attempts to build a flexible theory based on data collection. How culture is remembered and mythologised formed the centre of the contribution by Deirdre Nuttall (independent researcher). The stories we tell ourselves influence the way we act and the story of Ireland has been told largely through Roman Catholic action. She has found that the lives of a working class Protestant minority are largely absent from the folklore archives. Early attempts at nation building in Ireland reinforced a Catholic retelling of the myths at the expense of a shrinking Protestant minority.

Dr. Jenny Butler presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

Dr. Jenny Butler presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

In further tales of cultural erasure, Jenny Butler (University College Cork) told us about Irish fairy beliefs. She is trying to address the academic deficit in this subject. In most academic studies of Irish culture, the focus is on fairy beliefs as “explaining away” rather than as an animistic worldview; for example, there is a focus on folk stories in which fairies are blamed mostly for the ill-effects of human interaction with nature and fairies were often said to be the cause of infant loss or disability and even bad harvests. Her dialogical and anthropological approach is making an attempt to plait strands of research that currently run in parallel.

Lawrence Cox (Maynooth University) brought us on a lyrical journey of the lives of Buddhist monks from Ireland to Asia. He narrated these accounts through the letters sent by these monks in a poetic stroll through space and time. Tadhg Foley (NUI Galway) told us about the wanderings of Max Arthur McAuliffe. McAuliffe’s efforts to avoid responsibility for his progeny was bested only by his commitment to translating Sikh holy texts. Christopher Cotter (Lancaster University) brought us on a technical journey across continents. Christopher walked us through the process by which the Religious Studies Project manages content and podcasts across time zones and continents using online collaborative software.

RSP Editor Christopher Cotter presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

RSP Editor Christopher Cotter presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

Ireland’s missionary past was recalled in a presentation by (UCC’s) Yuwu Shan. His new research on the Columban missions to China over the course of 150 years shows us that globalisation is not necessarily a recent phenomenon. Through the archive available to him in Dalgan Park, the Columban order’s world headquarters based in Kildare, Ireland, Shan brought their long history in China to life. He is working with photographs and other material to reconstruct the efforts of the holy order navigating turbulent political revolution. Colette Colfer (WIT) and I outlined our initial data from a new project mapping the warehouse worship spaces of Dublin and Waterford, two very different cities. Our work is focused on the ways that warehouses form community around Pentecostal churches and mosques, often defying a visible centrality usually reserved for religious space in Ireland, a majority Catholic country. We are planning a lot more fieldwork. Alexandra Greiser (Trinity College Dublin) told us about transhumanism and how it may be developing into a new universalism through a scientific discourse. This forms part of a larger project she is working on that will take a comparative perspective and a possible account of multiple modernities. Bringing the universal to the local, Vlad Kmec (UCD) told us about his research on the formation of religious identity among migrants to Ireland. He is conducting focus groups with young people and adults among the Czech and Polish communities to examine the functional and substantive roles of religion in migrant lives.

Eoin O'Mahony and Colette Colfer. Photo by James Kapalo.

Dr. Eoin O’Mahony and Colette Colfer. Photo by James Kapalo.

Olivia Wilkinson (TCD) is interested in the role of faith based organisations in disaster relief efforts. She has conducted extensive participatory methods in her fieldwork in the Philippines as a way to examine what is counted as faith based in the post-Haiyan aid process. What gets prioritised and, perhaps more importantly, what does not is of central concern to her research. James Kapaló (UCC) told us about a relatively new network called the Marginalised and Endangered Worldviews Study Centre. Its main work is to build comparative perspectives on these endangered of marginalised worldviews and their cultural expressions. The projects here are engaged forms of research and encouraging of a counter-hegemonical perspective for these forms of knowledge. Some were running to the seven minute bell, others seemed to have timed it perfectly to 6 minutes and 57 seconds.

Our slamming over, Brian Bocking (outgoing secretary) recalled for us how far the academic study of religions in Ireland had come in a few short years. Brian has been instrumental in founding and developing the ISASR, as well as the Department of Study of Religions at UCC (the only department of its kind in Ireland) and in his short lecture, summarised for us why the academic study of religions remains vital. He drew a crucial distinction using an analogy between astrology and astronomy. For astrologers, a cosmological system of belief in the power of star alignment forms the basis for earthly action. Among astronomers, the gathering of evidence about the composition of star systems helps us to understand our place in the universe. Both are concerned with the stars but equally both observe from a position of relative powerlessness over their object of study. The academic study of religions, in this way, is just as bound by tradition and human agency as their confessional co-researchers in Theology.

The day’s proceedings were rounded off with a book launch. The book, Muslims in Ireland: Past and Present (Edinburgh UP), is the first complete study of a little known Muslim presence in Europe. Two of its five editors, Oliver Scharbrodt (Univ. of Chester, formerly UCC) and Tuula Sakaranaho (Univ. of Helsinki) spoke about the purpose of the book, its meaning to the academic study of religions in Ireland. Its remaining editors, Adil Hussain Khan (Loyola University, New Orleans), Vivian Ibrahim (Univ. of Mississippi) and Yafa Shanneik (Univ. of Chester, formerly UCC) were acknowledged. Edinburgh University Press sponsored the reception that followed and the Silk Road Café provided wonderful food. The conference as a whole points to a secure future for the small and yet vital academic study of religions in a country with a long tradition of theological investigation. It is not that one pushes the other out of the light of investigation. Rather, it is the academy investing itself with a way to specify the meaning, location and features of religious culture.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 31 March 2015

Calls for papers

CISSR Annual Meeting on Christian Origins

October 1–4, 2015

Bertinoro, Italy

Deadline: April 25, 2015

More information

Women negotiating secularism and multiculturalism through civil society organisations

June 30–July 1, 2015

Coventry University, UK

Deadline: April 10, 2015

More information

Making Sense of Religious Texts: Patterns of Agency, Synergy and Identity

October 27–29, 2015

University of Groningen, The Netherlands

Deadline: April 15, 2015

More information

Religion, Art, and Creativity in the Global City

November 18–22, 2015

Denver, Colorado, USA

More information

JASR book reviews

More information

Events

Textual Diversity in Context

October 30, 2015, 9:00–14:00

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

More information

Grants and awards

ISSA Shinto Essay Competition

Deadline: July 31, 2015

More information

Podcasts

Representations of Religious Studies in Popular Culture

Many of our discussions at the Religious Studies Project focus upon the complex intersections between ‘religion’ – whatever that is – and ‘popular culture’. And justifiably so. Indeed, our good friend and colleague Vivian Asimos of Durham University has been producing the very interesting “Religion and Popular Culture Podcast” for a while now. But what about Religious Studies (as a field of study), and the people who do it, in popular culture? When we initially thought about this, we could certainly come up with a list of academics and “bookish” people who are somewhat problematically and wildly inaccurately portrayed in popular culture – from archaeology’s Indiana Jones and paleontology’s Ross Gellar to archivists’ Rupert Giles and linguistics’ Louise Banks – but we struggled to come up with many examples of the study of religion as we, here at the RSP, know it. Luckily, today’s guests have given the question much more attention! Given that popular cultural representations are more likely to shape public perceptions about what the study of religion is and who does it than either direct experience in the classroom or statistics about graduation rates and job placements, we hope that you will agree that we should try to understand what these perceptions are. In this podcast, Chris speaks with Professors Brian Collins and Kristen Tobey about this fascinating and important topic. This interview is based on a recently published article – From Middlemarch to The Da Vinci Code: Portrayals of Religious Studies in Popular Culture – a shorter version of which has been published in blog form as Casaubon’s Revenge: Popular Representations of the Scholar of Religion.

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, Aluminum foil, Zucchini, and more.


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


Representations of Religious Studies in Popular Culture

Podcast with Brian Collins and Kristen Tobey. (8 October 2018)

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Collins_and_Tobey_-_Representations_of_Religious_Studies_in_Popular_Culture_1.1

 

Christopher Cotter (CC): Many of our discussions at the Religious Studies Project focus upon the complex intersections between religion – whatever that is – and popular culture, and justifiably so. Indeed, our good friend and colleague Vivian Asimos, of Durham University, has been producing a very interesting religion and popular culture podcasts for a while now. But what about Religious Studies, and the people who do it, in popular culture? When I initially thought about this, I could certainly come up with a list of academics and bookish people who are somewhat problematically, and wildly inaccurately portrayed in popular culture – from archaeology’s Indiana Jones, and palaeontology’s Ross Geller, to archivist’s Rupert Giles, or Linguistics’ Louise Banks. But, I have to admit, I struggled to come up with many examples of the Study of Religion, as we – here at the Religious Studies Project – know it. Luckily, today’s guests have the question much more firmly in focus. Given that, as they argue, popular culture representations are more likely to shape public perceptions about what the Study of Religion is, and who does it, than either direct experience in the classroom or statistics about graduation rates and job placements, we hope that you will agree that we should try to understand what these perceptions are. So joining me today, to discuss this fascinating and important topic, are Professors Brian Collins and Kristen Tobey. So first off, Brian and Kristen, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Brian Collins (BC): Thanks for having us.

Kristen Tobey (KT): Thank you.

CC: I’ll just say a little bit about who you are. Brian Collins is Associate Professor and the Drs. Ram and Sushila Gawande Chair in Indian Religion and Philosophy, at Ohio University. He’s the author of The Head Beneath the Altar: Hindu Mythology and the Critique of Sacrifice, and various essays on Hinduism and the Study of Religion. And his second book, The Other Rama: Matricide and Varṇicide

In the Mythology of Paraśurāma – apologies for the pronunciation – is forthcoming from SUNY press. And Kristen Tobey is Assistant Professor of Religion and Social Sciences at John Carroll University, in Cleveland, Ohio. And her research treats religious identity formation and communication in the contemporary United States. And she’s the author of Plowshares: Protest, Performance and Religious Identity in the Nuclear Age. So that’s where you’re coming from. How did you get interested, then, in this question of the representation of the Study of Religion in popular culture? It doesn’t necessarily sound like it’s your main research focus. So how did you get into that?

BC: Well, shall I answer this one Kristen?

KT: Yes, go first.

BC: I asked Kristen to join me, and she graciously did. And together we worked on a project. But it started out because – and I think both of us had an idea at some point – we study religion, and we have to actually tell people that we study religion and then see what they think we do. So very, very infrequently does someone have an actual idea of what the Study of Religion, in the university, entails! You know, I teach classes in Hinduism and Buddhism and if you take both classes, students– who are in the same class – typically ask you: “Why are you teaching this? I thought you were a Hindu.” Or, “Why are you teaching this, I thought you were a Buddhist?” Because I’m teaching both classes. So the idea of studying religion as an academic subject is a mystery to most people. And I say, “Well if they don’t know, what do they know? And where do they get the information?” So I started watching a lot of movies on TV, and I consumed a lot of junk culture. So I saw a few people, here and there, who seemed to be, basically, doing what I do – but not in a way that I recognised! And so I had to cast a wide net and see what impressions were out there.

KT: (Laughs.) I face the same thing. Less from my students, because I teach in a Catholic school so they’re familiar with religion teachers – although not quite the same way I tend to do it. But I face this a lot with my research subjects who are very suspicious of the idea of someone studying religion academically, because the examples that they see, as Brian says, in pop culture, are so very strange. So when Brian asked me to join this project I was really excited, for that reason – and also because my research usually deals with how religious people either present themselves, or are presented. So to think about another piece of that – as you said, Chris: “Well, how is the field presented? How are the people who do it presented?” That was very interesting to me, and thinking about questions of identity.

CC: Wonderful. I should have said in the introduction, of course, that part of the reason that we’re having this conversation is that the two of you have just published an article – I say just – June 2018 – in the Religious Studies Review (5:00) which was called, “From Middlemarch to the Da Vinci Code: Portrayals of Religious Studies in Popular Culture”. So that will give a hint, to the Listeners, of where we might be going with our in-depth examples, here. But before we get to Middlemarch and The Da Vinci Code, how did you go about selecting your cases and just conducting this study in general? As I say, I struggled . . . I mean Robert Langdon, from The Da Vinci Code, kind-of came to mind but, as we’ll discover later on, that’s not really Religious Studies, is it? Sorry! There’s a siren going on outside, as well! That’s typical here.

KT: I’m just so glad that’s you and not me! (Laughs).

CC: Ah. They’re not coming for me, Listeners. Yes. So, Robert Langdon certainly came to mind. But I really struggled to think. So, how did you go about even finding your case studies?

BC: Well, for me, I did have to think about. That’s a methodological question we had to ask at the very beginning. And I compiled a list. I said, “Indiana Jones sort of reminds me of a person who does religion, but he’s clearly identified as an archaeologist. So I wanted to find people that weren’t clearly identified as archaeologists or classicists, or anthropologists. There’s a different article, two articles, by anthropologists in literature and movies that we cite in our article. But they seem to be studying something like what we do. So I eliminated people like parapsychologists and clearly identified historians, so there was a sort-of middle ground. Robert Langdon is a “Religious Symbolist” which is a totally made-up profession, at a real university! Whereas Casaubon from Middlemarch, the other big example that we treat, is . . . . Well what is he identified as, Kristen? Just a scholar?

KT: He’s identified as a scholar, but he’s very clearly engaged in work that would be recognisable for a historian of religions. Pretty much in the mould of somebody from that era. So it was actually, in many ways, a pretty accurate depiction. But as far as garnering the case studies and garnering the examples, I remember Brian – was it years ago maybe? Or do I just have a skewed chronology on this? That you sent round an email to maybe half-a-dozen people, saying “Hey, I’m thinking about this. What examples can you think of? And one thing that was really striking to me was that, as those emails came back to you, most of them were from horror movies, right? The vast majority of these characters were in scary movies, doing scary things. You know, summoning demons, or whatever else. So, as far as characters that we might actually recognise as doing the work that we do, Casaubon is one of very few examples.

BC: Yes. That’s what I did. I crowd-searched the research! It’s easier to get someone else to do the research for you, I find! So I came up with a list and then I said, “. . . like these people. Anybody else you can think of,” again, “that’s not identified clearly as something else?” And so I did get a long list. There were comic books on there. There were podcasts on there. There were movies, mostly horror movies on there. There were a few novels on there. And some of the ones I ended up having to eliminate . . . they were the sort-of archivists. There were a lot of archivists – like the Giles, from Buffy, that you talked about. And that was a limit case for me. I didn’t know whether to include those or not. But I feel like they’re somewhere in the mix. But, for our article, we didn’t discuss them. Archivists have a family resemblance to the archetype of the Religious Studies person. But we ended up leaving them out, because they’re . . . if you asked who they are, somebody can tell you that they’re an archivist, and not a religionist. The case is that nobody is identified as an historian of religion or a religionist. Partly that’s our fault. We have no easily identifiable, transferrable job title from university to university, nor even a place at university that can consistently be found. So it was just that way in the representations, too. We had to kind-of make decisions along the way, and narrow it down.

KT: Yes, with the very memorable exception – and tell me if I’m getting ahead of things here – of Emily Dumont in Black Tapes, right? I think she’s one of just a handful, really, of three or four, who was actually introduced as a professor of Religious Studies. But then it turns out what she does is not really like what professors of Religious Studies do at all! But she’s one of the few who actually get that label attached to her.

CC: Excellent. Well we can get to that . . . The Black Tapes is a podcast that I, unfortunately, had never heard of when I read your article – but you do a good job of discussing it (10:00). So it would be quite good for us on the Religious Studies Project Podcast to discuss that. But I’ll just also mention that I put out on Twitter last week that we were doing this podcast, and we got a couple of responses. I asked, what were your personal favourites and bugbears? So Richard Newton at the University of Alabama said that he likes Professor Jamal in Mooz-lum. He said that there was an emphasis on good questions over simple answers, embrocation of race and religion, and examination of the insider/ outsider problem. And then another character that you discuss is in the Hulu series, The Path. And what came back? We had Tylor Tully saying that he had really enjoyed The Path on Hulu, and their inclusion of a Religious Studies scholar – particularly their treatment of an emerging religious tradition. But then Joel Bordeaux said that the religion professor on The Path is probably the worst he’s ever seen: invited as a guest to a class, openly deriding their tradition, conducting secret sexual relationships with research subjects, deliberately intervening in communities he’s studying, and so on! So you might want to respond to some of that, and then maybe tell us about Emily Dumont.

BC: Well, I think Emily Dumont is interesting. I do want to talk about Jackson Neill from The Path actually. It’s one of the best examples, and it came very late in this project, which was . . . . I was watching the show and I said, “Now I have to go back and rewrite a large part of this!” And I did. But Emily Dumont . . . The Black Tapes is a podcast. It’s a sort of like The X Files. It’s told in the style of a true crime serial-type podcast, where they’re investigating supposedly true occurrences, and the characters are meant to be real people. So it blurs the line between fiction, and reality, and journalism. But they interview people and they interview a religious studies scholar. And she is specifically interested in demonology. She’s described as very sort-of informally dressed. She described her as an over-grown high school freshman with a Ramones T shirt and a funky haircut. And sort of irreverent. And also speaking about Chemtrails, which is strange conspiracy theory about air travel, or something – I don’t really understand it! But it was bizarre X Files-type stuff. And it was put in the mouth of a Religious Studies professor. Elsewhere on the same podcast there’s a different Religious Studies professor, who openly derides her as crank – even though she’s in a university and he’s not – who takes a really hard-nosed, scientific, some would say a kind-of reductivist view of religion. And his job is to disprove . . . . Miracles are a pretty common theme. The job is either to disprove religion or to become a leader of religion. But in the case of Emily Dumont, she’s marginalised as someone who’s sort of a joke. And that’s a little disconcerting. I think that a podcast like that, you’re likely to have people who went to college, an audience who went to college, and somewhere along the way had a class. So I feel like this person seems to me that it was drawn from some experience of some whacky Religious Studies professor. I mean, that was my read on it. What did you think, Kristen?

KT: I think that’s possible. But I also think that podcast is doing something really odd, in that it’s conflating paranormal studies – paranormal activity – with religion in a wholesale, non-nuanced way. Because we do have this Emily Dumont character who’s very childlike, who’s very gullible, who represents one possibility, right: a person who’s involved in Religious Studies and the paranormal because of naiveté, let’s say. But then there’s the other character, Richard Strand, who is very sceptical, very perceptive. He’s not a Religious Studies professor, but he was a Religious Studies major, we are told. So we have these two extremes, both attached to the field of Religious Studies, but then . . . . And I should say, I only managed to listen to the first half-dozen or so episodes before it became too scary for me (laughs).They were interesting, but it was too scary and I couldn’t continue. But throughout those first few episodes we get other characters being brought in, who are also sort-of oddly attached to religion. For example, one character who is described as being – and I’m pretty much quoting here – “what theologians would call a Biblical Demonologist.” (15:00) As far as I know, there is no such thing as Biblical Demonology – though I’m not a theologian, so maybe there is and I just don’t know! Maybe. But that’s what I mean when I say that it’s as though the paranormal and Religious Studies are just completely layered on top of one another in this show – or podcast, rather – in some ways that are kind-of interesting, and some ways that are really bizarre. And there doesn’t really seem to be any explanation – at least in the first half a dozen episodes – of why that’s the case, or how those particular choices are being made. So, yes, maybe there is something very specific going on, in that one of the creators had a professor that that is modelled upon. But maybe there’s something else happening, which is just that it’s a podcast dealing with sort of odd, supernatural, paranormal stuff and there’s nowhere else that it makes sense to house that, other than in Religious Studies.

CC: Yes.

BC: I mean it’s odd, because it would have been ten years ago – a parapsychologist, I mean they used to have those in movies all the time. The people that investigated hauntings and psychic phenomena and stuff. I mean the Ghostbusters are . . .

KT: Ghostbusters! Sure!

BC: They’re in parapsychology lab. They’re doing (audio unclear). So what happened to that, I don’t know. But why it became religion, here . . . . But nothing recognisable as religion is ever studied! Now that said, I was inspired to teach a class on religion and the paranormal and it became the most popular class that I teach, because of seeing these movies. So that’s good, I guess!

CC: Absolutely.

BC: And some people write about it. We mention that in the article too. There a new sort of, newish, wave of books dealing with religious experience and paranormal experience, from different angles. Ann Taves, Geoff (audio unclear) – both from very different points of view. So there is some of that. But I don’t think anybody knew that as they’re making these characters. I think that’s coincidental, or a part of a larger zeitgeist.

CC: Exactly. I’m just keen that we keep pressing on, because I do want to get Jackson Neill, but we’ve got to get to the Da Vinci Code and everything before. So maybe, quickly. . . . In your article, I think you were just saying that Jackson Neill, although he may not be the most morally upright of scholars in that sense, actually, what he’s doing perhaps quite closely resembles what we would consider to be the Study of Religion?

BC: Well, he’s an Americanist, just like Kristen. Which is why I pointed him out to her, very early on. He’s doing a kind of ethnography, which is what she does. But what he does, that she doesn’t do – as far as I know – is give major talk shows advertising his book!

KT: (Laughs) No. Just this. This is my 15 minutes of fame right here!

BC: But he had a sexual relationship with his informant. He inserts himself in the life of this new religious movement, which is uniformly referred to as a “cult” throughout the TV series. All sorts of things that seemed like he had to go through IRB to do, but had no problem doing. He’s eventually sort-of discredited, and they turn against him. But it’s so realistic that it almost feels like that this is something that people would believe references the Study of Religion in the academy! And it does, in the sense that we do that kind of work – we do talk to people about their experiences – but what we don’t do is try and undermine some tradition with an exposé.

KT: Right. And I think another thing that is important about that character is that one of the tropes we identified in a lot of these representations is a thread of hypocrisy. So, yes: maybe he’s a good scholar, or maybe he’s doing actual scholarly work that resembles what an Americanist ethnographer might do, but then he’s got this potentially sort of shady sexual stuff going on. I am hard -pressed to think of a depiction of, say, a math professor – right? – where there is a plot that has to do with sexual behaviour. Whereas it comes up over and over again in these Religious Studies characters, as though people using these characters are doing it in order to identify a hypocrisy that’s inherent to studying religion!

BC: Yes, I think so.

CC: Which would scan with my intuition, anyway. So, just so we can absolutely get to it . . . You discuss how a lot of these characters can sometimes end up on a sort of pathetic-heroic spectrum. You’ve got your nerdy, weedy scholar working away, (20:00) pale-faced and not much interest in real life, and then you’ve got the Indiana Jones’s running around: they’re dashing – wonderful knowledge . . . . And so you set up this comparison really well, in the article, between the Reverend Casaubon from George Elliot’s Middlemarch, and then Robert Langdon from Dan Brown’s books, Angels and Demons, Da Vinci Code, and so on. I’m afraid it’s been over a decade since I read Middlemarch, but it was nice engaging with it again through your article. Can you maybe, just for the next five minutes or so, give a brief introduction to these two characters and maybe sort of set them up against each other, the different models of the Study of Religion?

KT: Yes, I’ll start with Casaubon who appears first in, of course, George Elliot’s Middlemarch in the 19th Century. He is sort-of the quintessential example of a dry, dusty, pedantic scholar, who only cares about his books. As I mentioned earlier, he is doing work that is very recognisable as History of Religions. He’s trying to compile sort of a massive comparative mythology. We learn later on in the book that he doesn’t actually have the language skills to do this, that he will never finish this fruitless project, and most of the characters – ultimately, pretty much all of the characters in the novel – think that he’s ridiculous, and think that he’s so intellectually obsessed that he’s out of touch with real life; it compromises his virility; he doesn’t deserve the love of the beautiful protagonist; and so on, and so forth. So he is pretty much a paradigmatic example of intellectual obsession that, basically, ruins everything else about him. And something interesting that we noticed, as we were thinking about his character, is that even in more recent and contemporary updates, where other characters are treated somewhat differently and more sympathetically, Casaubon never is. So, for example, there’s a very recent YouTube series that is updating Middlemarch. It’s you know, young, attractive students on a college campus. And many of them are socially awkward in some way, but still endearing. Whereas Casaubon – who is now, in this rendering, a graduate student working on some completely obscure dissertation topic that would probably fit in Philosophy of Religion, for example – he’s still a really unpleasant character. There’s still this linkage between intellectual obsession and unpleasantness. No-one likes him. He’s unlikeable, because he is sort of a sham scholar, let’s say. He’s obsessed with this intellectual project, but he doesn’t really have the skills to do it successfully. So “weak”, “pathetic”, “unlikeable”, all of these adjectives continue to attach to him, even in contemporary updates.

CC: Yes. And on a surface level, your gut reaction is that that’s going to be quite different to the character in Dan Brown’s work, who we see portrayed in film by Tom Hanks who’s America’s – if not the world’s – most loved actor, in some ways! That’s quite a different character. But not so different, I believe?

BC: Right. It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t like Tom Hanks. It’s like the Jimmy Stewart of our generation. He’s much beloved, and he’s this. But one thing that’s interesting about him that’s the same- and I’ll talk about what’s different about him in a minute- but it’s the sexual aspect. I mean I think that Casaubon is really a neutered character, right? He has no sexual drive, or sexual energy associated with him. He’s seen as sort of a dried-up old husk of a person, whereas Langdon has a different kind of asceticism, in that . . . Dan Brown uses the term “good clean fun”. It’s all about good clean fun, which means that . . . . Indiana Jones has a different female love interest in every movie. They have a “will they, won’t they?” . . . and of course they will! But in all of the movies based on The Da Vinci Code books, I mean the books about Robert Langdon, his female lead is not in any kind of a romantic relationship. They even have a handshake! It’s the most chaste hero/heroine relationship one can possibly imagine. In the first book she’s the descendent of Jesus Christ – which is a meaningless thing anyway, thinking about 2000 years of generational history – but it’s someone who you can’t imagine having sex with someone on a movie or on screen, right? It’s a very . . . He’s also a very consciously non-sexual, de-eroticised character (25:00), unlike the one’s we talked about before. But what he does is really instructive. I think that nobody has done more to get the Study of Religion in the public consciousness than Dan Brown: the Catholic reaction to those books; the sort-of revival of interest in conspiracy theories about the Illuminati, and what have you. It never really went away, but it certainly got more . . . And that was what became the shorthand for the Study of Religion – is studying the secret conspiracies behind all the fakeness of religion. And that’s what he does. But everything he says about religion is nonsense. And we also learn that he’s not even the person who teaches Religious Studies. That’s somebody else at Harvard, who we never meet. But he has this particularly narrow focus on religious symbology, without any explanation of what a symbol is, and mistaking symbols, cyphers and codes for each other. It’s a very . . . it’s a very thinly researched book, right? There’s lot of work on the conspiracies but, as far as what he’s doing, what we see him doing in classrooms, what we see him talking about, what passes in his dialogue as profound knowledge – that the Feast of Sol Invictus has something to do with Christmas, and blows everybody’s mind (laughs) – really speaks to the depth of ignorance about the Study of Religion. Which I think is an indictment really, for me, anyway. If this just goes over without a ripple, then: how have we not established – in any meaningful way – what we do in the classroom, and what we do with our books?

CC: Indeed, yes. And someone else pointed out that one of the biggest errors, perhaps, in the portrayal is the completely full lecture hall that . . . (Laughs) he’s teaching to – of attentive students!

BC: And the bottomless budget that he has!

KT: That, too.

CC: So, I mean, we could go into in-depth on these characters, and obviously we direct the Listeners to your article which we’ll link to from the podcast page, to get really into the analysis of them. But towards the end of the article you ask, through this comparison exercise, what kind of picture have you formed of the fictional religious studies scholar? And then, also, about what emerges about religion as an object of study. So perhaps, using the examples that we’ve discussed thus far, could you tell us a little bit about what we can say about the generic fictional Religious Studies scholar, in a nutshell? And maybe, how religion is conceived?

BC: Well the one thing that’s interesting about the Langdon character is that he’s the only one that gives us a real definition of what religion is as an object of study. Now it doesn’t . . . I’ll quote from the book. The book is The Lost Symbol, which is a later book in the series. And he says to his class – this is in the article, too: “‘So, tell me. What are the three prerequisites for an ideology to be considered a religion?’ ‘ABC’, one woman offered: ‘Assure, Believe, Convert.’ ‘Correct.’ Langdon said, ‘Religions assure salvation. Religions believe in a precise theology and religions convert non-believers.’” It’s a self-evident – to him and to everyone else in the class – rote definition of religion. It’s not very useful to me. It has nothing to do with symbols, interestingly, which is the foundation of the Study of Religion as he does it. But it does give you a very pat definition of what religion is. Assure, believe, convert: these are all these verbs that imply control over a crowd, over a group, over minds. It’s a very cynical and, of course, one dimensional – well, it’s three dimensional technically – but thin definition of religion. And it’s the only one we really get. The question of what religion is never comes up for anybody. Which, considering the amount of ink that we’ve spilled over the last 50 years trying to figure out what that is, that does not translate into the representations as we have them.

KT: Yes, it’s pretty interesting that all we have is this very thin, superficial, reductive definition, which might well be a definition that works well for some religious scholars. I find it a bit odd, but that’s just me. Because it seems to me that what Religious Studies does best is sort-of the opposite of thin and superficial. And nowhere in this examination of characters do we see anyone who’s doing the thick work of Religious Studies. (30:00) So, what is religion? Assure, Belief and Control – or something like that?

BC: Convert.

KT: So, then, what is religious studies? As Brian says, it’s this very simplistic endeavour that has to do with recognising a very simplistic dynamic at play. In other words, in these depictions we don’t see Religious Studies scholarship as being about critical empathy; we don’t see it as being about rigorous analysis; we don’t see it as being about robust comparison – which to my mind are the things that it does best, and the things that it can help students to do best. So we get not only a wild misrepresentation of what religion is – that is it’s always about coerced conversion and that sort of thing; it’s always about shadowy mystery and espionage – but we also get a very unfair misrepresentation of what Religious Studies is doing and – by that same token – is not doing.

CC: Well the flip side of what you’re saying there, in the Casaubon character we would have Religious Studies being the sort-of dry, study of texts, and very esoteric search for some sort of higher knowledge that is beyond relevance to the social world. So it’s either something that’s irrelevant bookish and not of interest, or something that’s sort-of swashbuckling, and uncovering of conspiracies, and releasing people from coercive control – neither of which are very accurate depictions of what any of us do!

KT: Or ghost-hunting! Sometimes it’s about ghost-hunting, don’t forget! But, yes included in none of those things is there the important skills that Religious Studies, when done well, actually can and should inculcate.

BC: Well, what you also find is Casaubon is a textual scholar, a clear-cut textual scholar. And I would have expected that to sort-of hold through time. But increasingly they’re not textual scholars, even though we think that’s what we all are, and that’s something to overcome. I mean, that’s the critique: “too text-based”, or whatever. But, mostly, they’re going into cults, or they are talking to believers – and usually believers who are radical in some way. So they seem to be out in the field looking at miraculous events and bizarre beliefs, as they sort-of characterise them, more than they are reading books or comparing. Comparing is the one thing that’s almost never done, except for with Langdon in this very weird kind-of comparison. But outside of him there is almost no comparison. It’s just studying the one thing that’s their dissertation topic; that’s their tenure portfolio; or that’s, usually, their personal dark obsession – which drives them into becoming serial killers, often!

KT: Right.

CC: So we’re over time here, which is fine because we’re going to get to wrapping up and I would say, Listeners, do check out the article where you can read a lot of this stuff that we’re just skimming over, in a lot more detail. But my final two questions I wanted to throw out would be: what can “we” do about this portrayal? So – it’s a similar thing with the media, for example. A lot of my colleagues and I are always moaning about the media never really get things right about religion, “It’s terrible! It’s awful!” But I never really hear solution: “What can we do about the portrayal of religion in the media?” So what, potentially, could we do about the portrayal of Religious Studies in popular culture, or beyond? Any suggestions, based upon your thinking about this?

KT: I’ll try this one. Public scholarship could be an important mitigation here: the extent to which actual Religious Studies scholars are doing the actual work of Religious Studies, in a way that can be seen by the public. That could be one mitigating force against theses sort of wild misrepresentations that we have.

BC: I feel like that it starts with students. I mean, we come into contact with a lot of students over the course of our careers. And it’s not just Religious Studies. I think they often don’t figure out what any of the faculty members do most of the time, because we don’t talk about it. It’s sort-of opaque, for some reason. So, I think talking to students about our work, about our interests, about how we got interested in it – I think it’s useful, I think it’s helpful, it clarifies things (35:00). It makes our position clear. And we can do that on a small level, more. I think we could all, everybody in the academy, could better engage with our students about who they are, and what they do, and how they’re compensated, etc. But I think we could especially do that. Now the interesting thing is, over the time I was writing this article, we had the affair of Reza Aslan, here in the States, who had a rise . . . the first real rise to power, or rise to prominence, as the first real public intellectual in Religious Studies – only to be fired, pretty quickly, for making a comment on Twitter about President Trump, after a few episodes of his show – Believer – which was widely derided by scholars of religion. As was his book about Jesus. What was it called? Zealot. So here we have a failed, missed opportunity to have a public intellectual presenting a model of this kind of work. But that doesn’t mean it has to be the last time we try that. Maybe that’s the place to start. You know, a plot where you save the Pope from a radical Catholic assassin is going to be more interesting than a plot where you translate a text, but it doesn’t have to be about plot, it can be about . . .the old . . . the stuff they used to do on the BBC, where they had long-running, long-form shows to educate the public, in way that is also engaging. And I think that can be done again.

CC: And you know, maybe, if you’re burning the midnight oil, we could all be writing those novels, writing those screenplays that we all wish we were seeing. Is this it, for you, with this project then? Or do you have plans for future research, future publications? What’s next for you?

BC: I think Chris is writing the screenplay, based on the article.

KT: That’s’ right. Look for the screenplay. Just kidding! Not really. No, I am developing a class on religion and pop culture and a lot of this stuff is sort of feeding the mill for that. Brian, what about you?

BC: Well I think that the natural next place to go would be a panel at the AAR – bring in more people to talk about it. And that seems to me like . . . I don’t know if we need another article any time soon. But, bigger conversation – a public conversation about it at our annual meeting here – would be helpful.

CC: Excellent. And hopefully this podcast and your article will kick off a bit more of that conversation, and we can look forward to a future where the discipline, the field, is represented a bit more accurately. But, for now – thank you so much Brian and Kristen. It’s been wonderful having you.

BC: Thank you.

KT: Thanks, Chris.


Citation Info: Collins, Brian, Kristen Tobey and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “Representations of Religious Studies in Popular Culture”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 8 October 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 21 June 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/representations-of-religious-studies-in-popular-culture/

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.

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What is the point of of academic conferences?: A roundtable discussion

At the European Association for the Study of Religions’ Annual Conference in Bern (June 2018), five members of the RSP team – Sammy Bishop, Chris Cotter, Moritz Klenk, Angela Puca and Tom White – gathered together on the final day of the conference to discuss academic conferences in general – the good, the bad and the ugly. Why attend conferences? What is the point? What else could we do instead that might be a better use of our time? And how did we find having a fully-functional podcast studio set up at this conference? These are just a few of the issues that crop up in this lively roundtable discussion, facilitated by the inestimable Moritz Klenk.

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, pickles, duct tape, and more.


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


EASR Roundtable 2018: What is the Point of Academic Conferences?

Podcast with Chris Cotter, Sammy Bishop, Moritz Klenk, Angela Puca and Tom White (24 September 2018).

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

 

Audio and transcript available at: EASR_Roundtable_2018_1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): Welcome to the podcast studio in Bern, Switzerland, on the final day of the European Association for the Study of Religions Conference on Multiple Religious Identities. I’m Chris Cotter, and I’m joined here for an impromptu roundtable with some of my esteemed colleagues. I’m going to say, let’s go round to my right. So I’m Chris, and you should all know me, Listeners, and if you don’t, then: what are you doing? I don’t know. Who have we got here?

Sammy Bishop (SB): I’m Sammy Bishop. I am a PhD student, based in Edinburgh, and also I’m involved with the Religious Studies Project, sometimes interviewing, sometimes helping out in other respects. And it is great to be here.

Angela Puca (AP): I’m Angela Puca and I’m also a PhD student, but at Leeds Trinity University. And I don’t know why I’m here, (laughter) but I’m happy to . . .

CC: We’ll find out, later. And there’s a man behind the sound desk there with a beard that is more impressive than mine!

Moritz Klenk (MK): You’re so kind! My name is Moritz Klenk and I’m also a PhD student, here – from Bern. I’m doing a PhD somewhere between Sociology of Religion, epistemology and the academic Study of Religion – or whatever the most recent name of this discipline might be. And also I’m a podcaster. And this is why I have built this studio for this conference. And I’m very happy to see it in such good use.

CC: And Listeners will really be appreciating the sexy sound quality of everything that has been coming out of this conference! Who’s the last individual?

Tom White (TW): And lastly . . .

CC: And least . . .

TW: And least – last and least – Tom White. I’m also a PhD candidate, from the University of Otago – where it is very wintry, in the South Island of New Zealand – mostly looking at religion, law and climate change in Fiji.

CC: So Moritz, you’ve got us all together here, so I’m going to pass over to you to stir the pot, as it were.

MK: Cheers. So the idea I had in mind, when thinking about making this a reality to come together for a last roundtable at this conference, was actually just . . . I would be interested in some reflections and possible criticism of the conference and what is happening here. Because every one of us, I assume, is getting used to travelling to conferences like these, telling others about his or her research. And so we are . . . . This is what we are doing. This is one part of our business. And so we, I think, can take the time to reflect a bit on what we are actually doing here. If it is the discourse we are all looking for, are we so interested in it? Or if not this, then what else do we do here? And to have a conversation. Because, at least – I’m already telling you what I was experiencing – but I think it is the most important thing you can experience, in these kinds of conferences and events, is that you get into conversations sometimes, and they are very fascinating. Sometimes you want to find your way out of them (Laughter).

CC: Claw your own eyes out sometimes . . .

MK: Yes, also that. (Laughter). But a conversation seemed to be the fitting end of that kind of event. So yes, I’m very glad that you all joined me for this and I’d be interested in your opinion about this conference. I’m a bit biased because I’m a local. So, this happens in Bern, so I shouldn’t start I guess. But maybe some of you have impressions, ideas?

CC: Well, my immediate reaction is that I have spent so much time podcasting! And I decided that this conference would be a chance for me to film various little bits of video and whatnot – which has been a useful experience. I think it’s really ramped up the engagement from folk who hadn’t been able to be here. But my actual impression of this particular conference has been somewhat limited, because I’ve been running around so much. I have seen something like, I don’t know, ten to fifteen papers. (5:00) But that’s not quite . . . you should normally be expecting to see maybe at least double that. So, perhaps someone who . . . . Well, Angela has been probably been the most participatory because the rest of us have been running around doing podcasts.

AP: I’ve been running around from one paper to another, or from a panel to another – so still running! Yes, this was my first EASR Conference and I really enjoyed it. Maybe the only criticism I have is that all the panels on the same topic were at the same time. So it was really difficult. There were, for example, some time slots where I really wished I had the gift of ubiquity and other timeslots there was really nothing relevant to my research – of course, still interesting panels, but not quite relevant to my research. So I would have liked to attend more panels on my research, which were actually there, but at the same time as others.

MK: But maybe this was also the intention, in a way, to bring together scholars from different research areas and to give them, by this kind of overlap . . . . I don’t know if that was the intention. I chose to interpret it in that very friendly way. But I think, to give them a chance to look beyond their own work they’re doing; to see the broader field of the European Studies of Religion, what people are doing. This is also I think the only chance you will get, because normally you’re . . .

CC: That’s a fair point, actually, I would say. Because you come to conferences and at the start of this conference I thought, “Oh. Damn. There’s about five or six different panels on the ‘nones’, the ‘secular’ and all this kind of stuff. I’m going to have to go to those.” But, equally, I’ve kind-of heard all I need to hear, perhaps . . . not all I need to hear. But if I want to approach these scholars, I can approach them; we can have dialogue anyway. But I sort-of felt I was going to have to attend them, because they were there, because I didn’t want to miss out on that key snippet. At the end of the day I actually didn’t go to that many, because of my podcasting schedule and whatnot. But I sometimes do find at a conference that it’s the panels that you go to just because it “sounds vaguely interesting, but isn’t quite connected to your research”, that you can suddenly find, actually, there’s a really good connection. And it opens up a whole new vista, in a way that you aren’t ever going to just pick up a journal article that’s just not on your topic and read it – much as we would all like to. There’s only so many hours in the day! So a conference can do that, that way. Has anyone had that sort of revelation at this one, that we a saw a paper that we didn’t really . . . that we went along to because it was in a panel with something else, or because there was nothing else in the schedule?

TW: I’ve ended up going to a lot of education, or the kind-of “role of religion in schools”, “schools as ideological production sites” whereby people are being trained in citizenship, or where schools are “sites of contested religious identities”: the crucifix; the burka. And, without any intention, I’ve ended up having quite an education in religion-focussed conference – which isn’t really my discipline or my key area, but has been quite nice to move into that and become more familiar with that subject area. But, yes, I think there is a point in picking a theme and trying to go deep, rather than doing a random pick-and-mix of entire breadth of the discipline. Because it loses a certain coherency. And that coherency with the education panels, I’ve really enjoyed.

SB: Just on the topic of themes as well: I was thinking about conference themes, and how this one was “multiple religious identities”. And I don’t know how many papers actually speak to that, that I’ve been to. And then, I was just kind-of wondering . . . sometimes, what the point of having a theme of the conference is. Because everyone knows that, at the EASR, you’ll go if you want to present a paper. And sometimes you can mould it to the conference theme, just for the sake of it. Sometimes there just seems like a bit of a facade, I think.

CC: My one bit of input on that . . . well I’m sure I’ll end up having a bit more . . . ! So, I’ve been doing a history project, on the British Association of the Study of Religions. For a number of years, now, we’ve ended up having a conference theme. But when I went back through the record, the conferences didn’t used to have themes. (10:00) Back in the day, it was just like sort-of ten old white men gathering in effectively a living room and having a chat. There would be one paper, and that was the conference. It then expanded to two papers, one in the evening and then one the following morning. And that’s what the Association was for decades. And then, as things grew and grew, it got bigger. And then they started to have an annual lecture. But there still wasn’t a conference theme. And then what seems to have happened at some point in the mid-‘90s a couple of years after the annual lecture was established, the annual lecture then became the conference theme. It was like, “We’re going to have a keynote. They’ll speak on this.” Then it seems to be people try and get everyone to speak around that topic. And I suppose the justification is that it’s away for having a relatively coherent conversation – but that never really happens! Conferences might produce a conference volume of key papers. But I think most conferences I go to now would even struggle to find enough coherency for that volume. And it’s been proposed at the BASR, recently, that perhaps we just abandon the theme and say that it’s a conference for scholars working in, or on, religion in Britain – and just leave it at that. And tell them what the keynotes are. And the keynotes might produce a certain sort of discourse just by their power position as being the keynote speeches. But, yes. It’s unclear, now, what the utility is. Any thoughts from the others?

TW: Well I think it also relates to . . . you know, you can only go to so many conferences each year. I mean, I’m in New Zealand so, you know, unless the conference is in New Zealand it’s a very expensive exercise going to conferences. So how do you select which ones to go to?

AP: That’s a good question.

CC: And maybe that is where the theme comes into play? Because, yes, there’ll be a core constituency who’d go to every European Association Conference, right? But for others who don’t have that luxury, then having a theme provides a justification.

AP: I don’t know whether the theme actually helps you with that, to be honest. (Laughs).

SB: I think if you want to present your research then you’ll present your research – never mind the theme.

AP: I guess, once you go to a conference, you will find scholars sort-of in your field that can give you feed-back, that you can network with. So it’s not something that a theme will help you with, I feel.

TW: I mean, what are the criteria with which you choose a conference? The exotic location? The location of your family on the travel route? Networking opportunities? Who else is going to be there, and what kind of feedback you might get on your paper? You know, and it’s a juggle between all of these different issues, isn’t it? Some more honourable and some more profane.

AP: Not always purely professional.

CC: And that’s ok, isn’t it? It’s one of the, I’d say, many perks of an academic life. We can all bitch and moan about all the various stresses and strains. But all the travelling to conferences is one of the perks.

SB: Definitely.

CC: Sometimes it’s funded. Sometimes one decides, “Well, I need a holiday, anyway. And that might be a good environment to go to . . .” Mostly I do it based on the sort-of network of scholars. I go to BASR, now, every single year. And it will continue, because that’s become my sort of family. It’s a much smaller conference. This is my first European one since 2013 – again because of the financial commitment is quite heavy. But I would have come regardless of what the theme was. But then, there are other conferences. Like, there’s the Non-religion and Secularity Research one in a few weeks, and I’ll go to that because of the topic. Yes. But that’s more to do with network. I don’t think I’ve ever actually gone to a conference because of a specific theme. It’s more I’ve gone . . . I want to go to that organisation’s conference, rather than . . .

SB: Although even though I’ve just been saying that themes are pointless: this years’ BASR, I only put in a paper because it did directly relate to my research, and I felt like I probably should!

MK: (15:00) Well, I think the theme of conferences, although not the only criteria, at least invite people to talk about something different or just look at it from a different angle than they are normally doing. And they’re normally telling people about their research. And so . . . for applying to get a paper in, you have to, at least . . . I don’t know . . . tentatively, put in some reference to the conference theme. And I think it’s a good way. It would be better – or sometimes I think it could be better – if people are directly invited to talk about this: “I know this person, I know him or her. He or she might be an expert on this or that. I would like to hear her talk about this, although it might not be the current research project she’s working on. But inviting her to say something about that would help to . . . I don’t know, stimulate another kind of conversation than just repeating myself.”

CC: Three points: I said I was going to . . . (Laughs). I think we’re maybe having two conversations. We shouldn’t allow the behaviour of scholars who tend to just go, “Well, I’ll fire in whatever paper anyway, and just put a vague allusion to the theme in.” That’s what we default to doing. But the ideal, where everyone actually engages with the theme, that’s maybe still the ideal to aim for. We shouldn’t be conflating behaviours with ideals. Another point is that some of us . . . I’ve certainly had experience of being at very small conferences that you might more describe as workshops. I’ve been at one on atheist identities, one on religious indifference, where there’s maybe fifteen to twenty-five scholars and it’s very intense, very focussed discussion. And those conferences have always produced, for me, the best outputs. So maybe there’s a scale thing? The final point is, I’ve got a friend who is in Business Studies, in marketing. And she was telling me, she was applying for her first conference. And the selection criteria are very different. You have to write your entire paper ahead, submit it, and then they accept it or reject it. And then you come and present a shortened version of your paper. So we’re used to presenting a very short vague abstract, and conferences tend to be eager for people to come. Whereas, if the conference was having thousands more people than they could actually take applying then the selection criteria would be quite different, and the coherence of the conference would probably be much higher than it is in our discipline.

MK: I’m not sure if you could actually call that kind of workshop experience you had a conference. Because I think that would just mix up terms, and put it in a better light than conferences deserve, I guess!

CC: (Laughs).

MK: Because at least in my experience – and I go to different conferences in Religious Studies, but also in Sociology – I never find the discourse there. I just find repetition. Never actually something really new or interesting – or just a few papers presented. And this is in kind of a contradiction to the bare fact that there are more and more conferences that you could go to and you should attend – or you’re supposed to, if you want to . . . I don’t know, work on your career, or something like that. So I find it really challenging to think about what to do at conferences. What is it we are doing, when we are doing conferencing? And I think, more and more, it turns out to be just some occasion you meet each other and talk to each other, yet the papers and the panels are so full of papers and panels in such a short time, that . . .

CC: But is that ok? In the sense that . . . because I’ve often said that sometimes the papers are the excuse. They’re the excuse for the funding, they’re the excuse that you give, to justify to yourself for going. And sometimes I’ve found them . . . . You know, I will use a conference paper as a way to force myself to write something that I’d been meaning to write for ages. But then, the valuable things are the things like we’re doing right now, or in the coffee breaks, or at an excellent night out dancing to “The Thriller” with Steve Sutcliffe and Giovanni Casadio the other night! (20:00) (Laughter). Those are the things that stay with you, and sort-of humanise the scholarship. But then, also, all the conversations that happen around a conference . . .

SB: In which case, do you think more time should be dedicated to social interactions? Like, you could have . . . take one panel out and just say: “People who want to gather in a room and talk about this topic . . .” – have a round table?

CC: But they wouldn’t . . .

MK: If it’s too much time between the panels they would not – they would just leave. They would split up in very small groups. Friends who haven’t seen each other for a long time, and then they leave the venue. And then they are all scattered all round the city. And I think some of the conversations that you have between the panellists – this was something I was thinking about the other day: some of the conversations you have between the panellists are actually gaining from the fact that you have to run off just in a few minutes. So you get to your point very quickly – and hope you find some laughs – and then go on your daily routine, at these conferences! So I think if you’re there too long, with a break between, this might not happen.

SB: But if it wasn’t a break. If it was, like, “This room can be dedicated to this subject,” then have a conversation about it when you got there.

CC: Would you?

SB: I think I would like to. (Laughs). Don’t sound so sceptical!

MK: (Laughs). Well, maybe you shouldn’t call it “a room that you go to to have the conversations”, but maybe you can call it a podcasting studio and also have the ability to record!

SB: Yes. If conversation’s valuable thing it would be good to facilitate that, you know?

CC: And my facetious thing there is that maybe there are ways that are slightly more innovative than, “Here’s a room, go and talk.”

SB: Well that is a basic presentation of it! (Laughs).

CC: But the spirit of it, I think, is probably quite good. More . . . like more barbeques, for example! I’m not saying they all need to be filled with free alcohol and things. But if there was a barbecue every night and all these conversations . . . . Well, then, maybe not as many people would come every night. But those are the places where the exciting things happen.

TW: What do we think about the stratification of people at various levels in their academic careers? You know, having a junior scholars’ meeting tends to be something a lot of conferences are doing these days. Workshops for post-graduates. There hasn’t really been that here. It’s generally been far less hierarchically organised. But to some degree, what do you miss out from not having those . . . not having kind-of a post-graduate talking shop, or being a bit more aware of facilitating meetings through the hierarchy – which is still a very kind-of important aspect of university institutions. So should we be doing it by topics? Or should we perhaps be doing it by kind of you know career experience? Any thoughts on that?

SB: I think I prefer it by topic. I don’t know if that’s because in Edinburgh I feel like I have a good post-graduate community, where we can share post-graduate experiences in that way. And obviously it would be good to come across other post-grads from other places but I feel like I would benefit more from meeting people at all levels, within my subject area. And it would be great if some of them were also post-grads at the same level as me. But also people who have more experience and more range, I think.

AP: Yes. I usually prefer people with more experience just because they can teach me something about how to improve my research, and how to do stuff, basically. But of course, even a conversation on a topic with a post-grad can be beneficial as well.

CC: Yes, the more democratising things are the better, as far as I’m concerned. I do like it when you get to rub alongside people right at the top end of the field, and at the bottom end, and where titles don’t really matter. I mean, like, last night we were just casually sitting with Veikko Antonnen and just having a beer, talking. There was no pretence of, you know, “He’s really important. We should be deferring here.”

SB: I mean sometimes you don’t realise who they are until afterwards, anyway.

CC: Which is even better as well. There was one thing I remember: Peggy Morgan organised the BASR’s 40th Anniversary Conference. She said she insisted on not having name labels, because it means that you go around the conference and you spent the whole time peering at everyone’s chests – maybe somewhat inappropriately – trying to see what their name is (25:00). And everyone’s looking around for a better person to talk to. They’re waiting to catch that name. And apparently the objection was, “But you could be talking to someone really important, and not realise it!” And her justification was, “Well maybe that’s the point. If you want to introduce yourself, you introduce yourself. If you want to know someone’s name, you ask them their name.” A lot of the name badges thing can actually be a way of kind-of spoiling those conversations a little bit, I know.

TW: It does save you from the forgetting of names once you’ve already been introduced.

AP: And also, especially when you have so many people from different countries. It’s really hard to catch the name properly, unless you have a tag.

MK: Yes, and also I think it is also kind of a misconception of how networks and networking works. I mean, in a network your value is defined by being a knot and the ties you have. So the name is some kind of a label of this knot. So talking to someone who has a name, or might have a name, also means you get the connections you might be looking for. So if it is for just coming together and talk about research questions, or something you’re really interested in topic-wise or something, then this might be a good idea to get rid of badges. But if not, if it is for networking, then it’s really helpful . . . I mean, like helping to find people.

CC: Yes. I have seen instances where you spot a name badge, and you don’t know what the person looks like, but you do know their research. And then you spot the name badge and it’s like: “Yes! Hello! I should speak to you!” Exactly. But that was just feeding into . . . going right back to what Tom was saying: do we want to be coming to this sort of conference and having sitting down just with early career people? Well that’s what we’re doing right now, isn’t it?

MK: Yes it is. And it’s not surprising, I think. Because all the others are busy doing business as usual. So podcasting is not something that is not quite usual yet, maybe. Maybe we could also talk about this institution of podcasting studio at conferences, as an opportunity to get together and record some conversations . . . to be proving the real thing we are looking for at these kind of events? But coming back to the question, I think it’s sometimes might be the only way to get the input you need. Because from established professors you normally tend to get just the usual thing you find in their books and papers.

TW: I think the point I was driving at – and I’m not sure if there’s a difference between, say a European conference and an American conference. My suspicion – completely ungrounded – is that an American conference might have more stratified forums where, as early career researchers, you could meet up. But that’s not for sociability. This is the professionalisation of the trade. And there’s a lot more to this than simply knowing your topic very well. And perhaps doing workshops where you are kind-of professionalised to a degree, would provide that additional aspect to attending a conference – particularly for early career researchers – than just simply attending topic-based panels would provide. So I think that was kind of where I as ruminating around. But of course there’s drawbacks to that as well. Because you are missing out on the more interesting stuff and just learning the CV-building skills. And so on and so forth.

MK: Just reminding of Paul (audio unclear) analysis of “anything goes”, and the critique of the method, and stuff. He showed that the innovative research is not coming from the old established ones, but from those who haven’t read the “important books” you should have read at that time, or didn’t understand it. And then you innovate the hell out this . . . endeavour we call academia. So that might be the place of being here.

CC: Exactly! Well, we’ve always seen the Religious Studies Project as a way of . . . you know . . . . There are all these existing academic structures there: there’s hierarchies, there’s conferences, there’s journals and everything. (30:00) And we never saw the RSP as a way of supplanting that, but as a way of kind-of democratising things a bit; as a way of humanising scholarship and having conversations, alongside what’s going on, and in an alternative fashion; providing ways of accessing research and ideas that are maybe a little bit more irreverent, a little more accessible. And still acknowledging that the other structures are there. But, you know – do we want to be professionalised? Well, to an extent, yes! We have to be . . .

TW: We want to be employed!

CC: We want to be employed, but equally there’s a lot going on in the existing structures that is there just because of habit and tradition and authority. And these little ways, these little things that we’re doing, will hopefully be ways of challenging that or just forcing it to justify itself. I’m speaking in huge generalities here, but . . . . Things shouldn’t be done the way that they are done, just because . . . . And so, having little things that come in and go: “Mmm?”

MK: Well I don’t think that this is actually speaking in huge generalities. I think this is the concrete reality you could experience in these kind of conferences: these connections and power struggles within academia. You can really experience it here. And so I would agree that there might be a reason why we’re not professionalising in a way that, I don’t know, businesses have to . . . . Or get together just for networking purposes only. Because if we are no longer interested in our research topics, then we are no longer researchers!

CC: Exactly. Tom, you may not want to talk about this, but you’re just about to go to Honk Kong to a quite different conference. And you were describing, I guess maybe, the perceived differences. And that might be a useful thing to bring in . . . ?

TW: Yes. Well I think the first thing to say is that I haven’t been there yet. So these are all kind-of anticipations which could be completely grounded in my misunderstandings. But it’s a big public law conference in Hong Kong. And something like 39 concurrent panels, so I’m not sure how many delegates that adds up to – but pretty huge. But I was at the Law and Society Conference in Otago last year and because you’ve got a lot of lawyers going to these conferences, it’s not just academics. It’s a far more kind-of mixing of people who apply the trade, and people who research. And there was a slickness to them: everyone was smartly dressed; and PowerPoints ran to time; and often they would be synchronised with the rehearsed script. And it is impressive when people provide a far more slick presentation. I’m not sure if the ideas rea any better! [Laughter]. But there was a sense that, you know, corporatisation isn’t all bad. And if it’s a more efficient and more crisp delivery, and if the PowerPoints aren’t failing, and people are IT savvy, and they’ve been told to reduce their paper to three or four points – because that’s what people are able to remember, and you want you papers to be efficacious and to walk away with the key concepts – that aspect of the professionalization, I think, is worthwhile learning from and replicating. Whether the horse will take to water, or whether we’ll continue to try and preserve some of the more romantic off-the-cuff presentations that do take place in more Humanities-based subjects, is something . . . I don’t know how things will turn out. It will be very interesting to see how the Hong Kong conference differs from this one.

CC: I must say that there’s a spectrum of conference presentation, right? You’ve got the sort-of very slick end and then you’ve got this off-the-cuff end. And then, somewhere in the middle, you’ve got the reading of a pre-prepared thing – which I tend to probably do far too often. But the ones that I enjoy are either the ones that are very slick, or the ones that are almost entirely off-the-cuff. You know, they’ve got an idea and they just turn up (35:00). And they’ve got a couple of points and they speak around it. And they don’t really know where it’s going to go before it happens. But it can be great.

SB: You do need a certain amount of confidence in yourself as an academic to be able to do that, I think.

TW: Again I think that comes back to the point of professionalisation. Because it gives you those structures with which to be confident through. I don’t think people just emerge confident individuals. They’re given the training. And that kind of aspect, I think, is perhaps undervalued, or not explored enough, or not given enough assistance to people in their early careers.

MK: Well, I would be interested in what you think about the formats that actually prepare one to go to these conferences: what other teaching that may be required, to be prepared presenting in front of an academic professional crowd. Or is there anything you learn during studies and various programmes and universities? Is there something that is reflected in the courses or the structure of the programmes? And is it also reflected in what is worth doing career-wise. Because I have the impression that, at the end, it counts what you have written. And the papers you published in possibly well-known and established peer-reviewed journals. And the books you published. And among us there are only a few people who already published books. But yes, I think this is what counts. And it does not count to be able to get a straight sentence out in front of a crowd listening to you. And in a way I think, this just is reflected . . .

AP: Somehow it does, because it allows you to network in an academic sense. And that will lead to publications in some cases.

MK: Ok. But this also, just already prepares you for another written publication.

AP: Yes. But I think that with your presentation you will catch the attention on yourself as a researcher and on your research topic. So other people who are interested can contact you even afterwards,

CC: And it’s not necessarily just connected to feeding into publications. I suppose, what are academic outputs? They’re publications, they’re large research projects and everything. But you’ve got no idea . . . . And I’ve seen some presentations here that I’ve immediately thought, “I need to contact that person for this other project, down the line.” Or sometimes it will be someone else tells you about a paper that they heard, that you weren’t at, and that personal recommendation can be enough that you will then look at the conference programme, find out who that person was and then seek them out in some sort of other way.

MK: Well my questions were just related to the idea that we might need a professionalisation of conferences. And this sleek point of presenting, 5 points only . . .

TW: I’m saying it through gritted teeth.

MK: I hope so, yes. Because the reason that we don’t have that kind of well, established, elaborate presentation style is because we’re not teaching at universities, and it doesn’t count that much as writing papers properly. And then to read, to hold a paper, literally, and to read a paper you wrote, that is the thing you do. We have nothing else! I mean, podcast has just started to get a standing in the discipline.

CC: Yes. And the podcasts I recorded yesterday evening, for example, with Carmen Becker, went really well in the sense that she had a narrative worked out for her paper. So she had a twenty-minute narrative, which provided an excellent structure for what ended up being a thirty-five-minute podcast. But we did the same content in a much more – I hope, and Listeners can let me know – conversational and accessible way. We got through it all, but the act of it being a conversation was an alternative presentation format, that will hopefully have complemented the presentation (40:00). But maybe, just to put the spotlight on Angela: you’re relatively new to the conference circuit in a sense, so you might be . . . . What preparation did you get before you stepped up to the podium to deliver your first few papers?

AP: Well, actually, I found it quite easy to present in front of people. Because I’ve been teaching for a few years. And I also do some lecturing. So, yes. And also, well my degrees were in Italy, so at the University of Naples. And there, you have to do a lot of exams – there are presentations but without a PowerPoint. You have to orally answer quite a few questions in a well-structured way. So I think that helped me to organise how I elaborate on my thought and on my research. But yes, maybe the only thing would be to . . . . Yes, I spoke to my supervisor, of course, about what would be the main point that I had to address. So it’s like a sort of introduction.

CC: That is what I was thinking. From my outside observation you seem to have a very supportive supervisor in Suzanne Owen. I know that I’ve had very supportive supervisors and now being mentored by Kim Knott and Steve Sutcliffe, who have sort-of walked me through a lot of these things that might seem quite daunting in an academic career. And I think that, for me, like the first few conferences I went to and everything, having a couple of more established advocates guiding me around, introducing me to people – that really helped.

AP: Sometimes it can also help when you have interests beside academia. For example, in my case, I think that since I’ve been a singer for quite a few years, I think that helped me. Because when I ‘m up there it’s like being on a stage and you have to perform. So I think that doing . . . even other kinds of activities – besides academia – that can help you be more relaxed in front of people, can also help.

TW: Yes, by comparison, my hobby is long distance running. (Laughter). I don’t think that’s comparable to the kind of sociability aspect . . .

AP: I guess the other, for example, might be another . . .

CC: Well the long distance running will help you deal with the long keynote lecture in the warm rooms . . . !

MK: Both are different ways to deal with stage fright. The one can run off easily, the other can perform!

CC: Exactly. But you wanted to say something . . . ?

SB: Yes. Just a couple of things. Because the first EASR was the one in Helsinki two years ago, I think, and I didn’t present at that one. And I purposefully went just so I could go to a European conference, suss out the level of things that were happening there. And yes, I had people like Steve Sutcliffe and the whole . . . I think they were referred to as the Edinburgh Mafia at the time, because there was so many of us! And it was really nice just having those people there to introduce me, and not having the pressure to present, but be able to just suss out the situation. And then also, back in Edinburgh, I think in the first year of my PhD, we did a smaller . . . we called it a Post-Grad Colloquium. And that was one where people from all over the Divinity School would present. I can’t remember whether it was a five or ten-minute paper. But they tried to organise it in a very professional way. And I think the day before there’d been a different conference at New College, and Marian Bowman was in Edinburgh and so she came to the Colloquium. So it was quite nice to have a certain level of professionalism there, only have to present for ten minutes. And it was a really good trial run for future presentations.

MK: But isn’t it strange that we already fulfil all the requirements of a conference and presenting professionally, even if we’re just doing post grad or that kind of meeting and workshops just for us, for our sakes, for our research, just to get into conversation and find other people talking about interesting topics. We could do this in many different ways. We could also just meet for podcasting, for example .Just to bring it up once more! (Laughter). Because I think the format is so different. And this kind of professionalisation . . . of the peer pressure you then feel at these big conferences like EASR, or other conferences. (45:00) It’s strange, I think, that we already assume all that professionalism is, in that way that we experience it later. And there is no change. There is no real . . . I don’t know. There is no real development in presentation style.

CC: Yes. We could probably come up with a lot of optimistic things that . . . and think, “Well, surely we could be doing this networking without endless collaboration, without having to have the big carbon footprint and come to this place and sit through lots of papers?” I don’t know how much we would all . . . actually. The existence of the structure acts as gravitational pull, and people make time for it. But, just another anecdote: I think it’s maybe over 5 years ago now, that Russell McCutcheon added me as a Friend on Facebook. And I remember it happening and being “Wow! He’s added me as a Friend on Facebook!” And I’ve still never met him face to face. And, I don’t know . . . I think he was aware of the Religious Studies Project and was just purposefully setting out to network and create the network

MK: Yes. We think of Russell T. McCutcheon as the kind of RSP Twitter-bot. Because he reads everything you guys Tweet!

CC: Yes. And he engages. But I’ve now collaborated with him on a number of publications; I’ve been to conferences that he has helped organise, even though he didn’t end up going there; we’ll bounce around Facebook messages and Twitter conversations and I’m now part of his Culture On The Edge thing. And all of this has happened without ever needing to go to a conference. And there’s been a lot of productive collaboration there. And I’m not saying that we all need to start Facebook stalking and adding people that we’ve never met before. Because that is just weird, and there are issues with that. (Laughter). But there are other ways perhaps than necessarily coming to a physical space and productive scholarly collaboration can happen. We just maybe need to ignore or think outside the large powerful pull that these things have.

SB: And you do need certain ways of making you and your research visible. Because, obviously, you have the platform that Russell was then able to find you on. So it’s just ways of making that work, as well.

MK: And the reason I brought this up again is because I think that, with podcasting, we have the kind of medium that gets out conversations in a proper way. And make it possible to quote podcasts, as well. And I think that only a few of those established scholars in the discipline already know how many downloads those podcasts get. If they knew, I think they would realise that their papers in their established and beloved journals never ever will find so many readers than those podcasts find downloads.

CC: We have already, in this conversation, had more impact than probably every other scholar . . . !

MK: And more listeners than any dissertation ever written!

SB: Yes. And we briefly touched on it earlier. And you were saying that you go to a conference to present only to then write a paper afterwards. Whereas podcasting occupies that in-between space where you can be quoted on it, you don’t have to produce this written piece afterwards.

CC: Exactly. We’re coming up to 12 O’clock, which is going to be our time for getting out. I’m using my “radio host” thing which Moritz has been railing against the whole time. Moritz, I think, would have us talking for another three hours.

MK: Yes. Definitely. There’s no time limit. There’s always space in the Internet.

CC: There is always space in the Internet. And this is a point to remember. So hopefully, Listeners, you’ve enjoyed this conversation. And it’s, maybe, given you some food for thought about conferencing and maybe alternative ways that you can augment that. And one way would be to participate in the conversation surrounding this podcast. You could record your own podcast and respond in that way; YouTube – there’s all the social media options and website options for writing written responses. Don’t be afraid. Just get out there and say it. A lot of people seem to not really like typing written comments on the website.

MK: But then you should definitely establish a way to get audio comments as well. So it’s very easy to record them with WhatsApp or voice memo apps on smart phones (50:00). So you could send it easily and in a very nice format. And you could include them in the podcasts.

CC: That would be a brilliant idea, Moritz! Thank you for that!

MK: You’re welcome.

CC: So, Listeners, thanks for listening. We should all say that I suppose. So, from all five of us here in Switzerland:

All: Thanks for listening!


Citation Info: Cotter, Christopher, Sammy Bishop, Moritz Klenk, Angela Puca, Tom White. 2018. “What is the Point of Academic Conferences?”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 24 September 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 19 September 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/easr-roundtable-2108-what-is-the-point-of-academic-conferences/

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

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

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

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

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

Exciting new directions for Implicit Religion:

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

Playing the Field: the Logistics of Religion and Video Game Studies

The field of religion and video games is still new and forming. In its struggle to find itself, it simultaneously competes with a university’s traditional understanding of both education and culture, often involving Gregory Price Grieve’s comment that video games are perceived as “low brow” culture. The view of video games as, again to quote Grieve, “just above pornography,” is a misconception that the academic study of video games is constantly fighting against.

That being said, hearing about Grieve’s success in bringing the study of video games to his university is promising. Not only was he able to establish courses for the study of religion and video games, but was also able to work with his library and university in order to establish gaming centres for students to play games. Having digital media pushed across disciplines throughout the university, as well as having a Digital Media Centre in their library, helps to establish video games and other forms of digital media as important and worthy of study in the university.

Grieve did have an understanding university, which is something important to keep in mind. While his approach to getting video games in the classroom is a format presented to be copied, not everyone is lucky enough to be present in a university that is so understanding. This is especially the case in universities rooted in academic tradition, built on older standards which seldom factor in elements of popular culture. This is not even considering the cost of this kind of endeavour. Even with a buy-in from the library, Grieve’s project still needed $10,000. And this is only considering the technicalities of this new media, and not the thought process of people who still believe that video games are not an important element of popular culture today, or who don’t seem to really care about the “popular” at all. In that sense, there are bigger problems facing some people at less understanding universities than a lack of technology.

The positive reception Grieve has experienced with his students can hopefully begin to be experienced by researchers and teachers in the study of video games in many universities throughout the world. However, there are many elements that still work against progression in the field. Some of the thoughts and actions impeding the growth of the field are, sadly, still present even among scholars in the field. By studying only video games, we impede ourselves and the progress which can be made; there are many aspects of video games which are affecting other elements of popular culture. An example of this are Let’s Play videos, in which players record themselves playing a video game, with commentary and sometimes even recordings of the player’s face (as the Let’s Player PewDiePie became known for), which are then uploaded on video sharing sites such as YouTube. Unfortunately, the popularity of Let’s Plays have been stereotyped almost as much as video games themselves are, an element that is unfortunately heard even in Grieves interview in which he relegates their popularity and interest almost exclusively to “teenagers”, even though the demographic may not be this concrete, especially for Let’s Players who are older themselves, such as Fun Haus. PewDiePIe has over 41 million subscribers, and it is hard to imagine that all 41 million are only teenagers. Not to mention that the fastest growing demographic for gaming content are women over the age of 25.[1]

What Let’s Plays demonstrate for academics of video games is the creativity enjoyed by Let’s Players. Geoff Ramsey, the founder of the Let’s Play group Achievement Hunter has commented on this creativity: “Any time we can take and use [a game] in a way that it wasn’t necessarily intended by the developers, that’s like the best thing in the world to me.”[2] This out-pouring of creativity allows researchers to have easy access to new narratives being created and the emotions they create and share. These new narratives and emotions are not experienced solely by the Let’s Player, but also by those who watch these videos; these narratives are then shared by the viewer to others, and new narratives are created by the viewer in relation to these new narratives. These videos are then not only relegated to the realm of video games, but also to internet studies and realms of internet discourse, particularly when elements of them become shared as memes.

The field of religion and video games is still emerging, and thus still solidifying its own definition and place. What is most important is for scholars interested in engaging with digital media, like video games, to demonstrate to their students, universities, and themselves that video games are a medium worthy of study.

[1] Gautam Ramdurai, “Think Gaming Content is Niche? Think Again,” Think with Google, December 2014, accessed February 2016, https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/articles/think-gaming-content-is-niche-think-again.html.

[2] Rooster Teeth, Let’s Play Live: The Documentary, Video (2015), ), http://roosterteeth.com/episode/r-t-docs-let-s-play-live-let-s-play-live-the-documentary

Gods and Demons, Scholars and Lawyers: Brief Reflections on American Religion and Law

Talking to lawyers is a real skill, and Eric Mazur is very good at it. In the subfield of traditional American church-state studies, legal historians, lawyers, lobbyists, and religion scholars convene for conservation and debate, mostly about First Amendment jurisprudence. As Mazur explains in his RSP interview, that conversation has in recent years lost its place, at least at the American Academy of Religion, and so he has revived it with a Religion and Law discussion group, which has met concurrently with AAR for each of the last two years (full disclosure: I have participated in both meetings). These conversations—at the AAR meetings and in the field more generally—are lively, rigorous, and fascinating, but sometimes frustrating. Unlike many other fields, the range of topics is actually quite small but the variety of approaches is wide. This self-imposed limitation was, according to Mazur, a primary reason for forming the discussion group. This is a group of people who come from very different backgrounds and perspectives—and with different goals—but can talk about the same things, namely, court cases dealing with the First Amendment’s establishment clause and free exercise clause. This is the opposite of many subfield groups, who are organized by a method (ethnography, for example) and use that same method on vastly different data sets. Here, we have a quite small shared data set but diverse methods. Everyone can speak at length, using shorthand, about certain acts, cases, decisions, and dissents, and everyone in the room can follow it. But why these people care, and, more practically, what they’re trying to do, can result in some talking-past each other. Few people are as good as Mazur at bridging these interests and assembling the components for a productive exchange.

The interview includes a number of interesting exchanges, as Mazur describes the state of the field, the advent of the discussion group, and his own career. I was particularly interested in Mazur’s answer to the question about why there is an increasing interest in religion and law. He noted that some religion scholars got into studying the law through studying New Religious Movements (NRMs) or minority religions, as they tend to be treated differently under the law. One of Mazur’s books, here.) This focus does bring out a possible tension between two approaches. Are we studying the law, the Supreme Court decisions, and legal language, etc., or are we studying religious groups and how their practices and beliefs shape and are shaped by law? Of course, it can be both, but the different emphases can evince different goals among scholars. Mazur highlighted the tension between those who have a “normative notion” of religious freedom and those who do not (at least not so explicitly.) On the normative side are not just lawyers, but also theologians, philosophers, lobbyists, and even clergy members. Others take a more descriptive/analytical approach, seeing the law as an institution with effects on American (religious) life and thus worth studying in historical or sociological ways.

In my view, there are two ways that the field of religion and law should expand. First, I think that “law” has been taken to mean primarily the First Amendment’s religion clauses, and there are many other interactions between religious communities and the law worth studying. Mazur mentions this briefly in the interview. Religion scholars would do well to learn about tax law or tort law or intellectual property. Law is not simply religious freedom. And, furthermore, religious freedom means a lot more than First Amendment law. The discourse of freedom, the various states of freedom and un-freedom under which subjects live, and the processes by which freedom is manufactured and protected are all topics that could be taken up by scholars of religion and law. Second, delimiting our area of focus to the United States can miss the international context for American religious law. On one hand, the limited scope makes sense, since American law does apply, for the most part, to America. However, American religious freedom, understood as a human right, is being naturalized and exported. This has tremendous ramifications for foreign policy, religious nationalism, and diplomacy. Constitutional scholars who focus on religion largely have ignored these important developments.

That being said, I think there is a place for the type of “traditional” constitutional conversations Mazur has advocated and facilitated. As I stated above, it is enjoyable and somewhat rare to have a room (or some non-physical space) full of people who speak the same language, who know what Reynolds and Schempp and Boerne v. Flores and RFRA mean. It can lead to productive and detailed conversations. Historians and other scholars contribute to public understanding, but they also can be involved in shaping the law, through an amicus brief or as an expert witness, for example. Many religion scholars (though of course not all) are wary to do anything that smacks of “advocacy.” However, if we are writing about contemporary laws and their impact on religious communities, or about the logic structuring certain laws and cases, our work can have effects even if we do not intend them. So, why not be intentional about it in the first place? Or at least be willing to engage in conversation, if not outright “political” action? If we are going to engage in this type of public work, we need a common language to speak. Working with academics can be an unpleasant experience, and our analytical goals can distract from the winning cases or lobbying for particular causes. But, if lawyers and scholars are going to talk to each other, it has to be at least somewhat on the lawyers’ terms.

References

Gordon, Sarah Barringer. The Spirit of the Law: Religious Voices and the Constitution in Modern America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Mazur, Eric Michael. The Americanization of Religious Minorities: Confronting the Constitutional Order. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Su, Anna. Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Wenger, Tisa. We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Expanding Thought Trench: Ivy League Authority in South Korea

I spent two years as an English teacher in South Korea. I went because they wanted native speakers in their classrooms and promotional photos, particularly young American females, which made the salary tempting due to capitalistic law. Almost everyone I met there was desperate to learn from me, and I taught just about every demographic imaginable. I crawled on the floor with drooling toddlers, sipped Starbucks coffee with black-tie businessmen, gossiped with housewives over kimchi and tea, and kept awake teenagers cramming for exams until nearly midnight on Friday.

For the most part, overlooking several significant outliers, my students’ goals for learning the language was not communication. The goal was advancement within an extremely competitive system. English was the language of authority. It was generally accepted that English-speaking universities were somehow better than their Korean counterparts to the extent that a degree from a brand-name university was claimed to guarantee career success.

As a scholar trained in this university system, I feel the urge now to offer peer-reviewed evidence in support of my claims. The works I have read suggest a link between the demand for English and a mix of economic colonialism and Confucian values.[1] In my experience, this feels true, but these historical forces are expressed in a nuanced way that I have yet to find clearly or comprehensively expressed in literature. But the phenomenon is certainly there, and for my purpose here, its existence is enough.

What is relevant and clear from my experience in relation to the Masuzawa interview, though, is that British and American universities possess significant authority in Korean culture over the accepted way knowledge should be acquired, classified, and acknowledged.

What Masuzawa’s research shows is something both Koreans and Americans often forget: that the university, even the idea of the university as an institution, has a history, and their structures and traditions are less often the products of pure reason and rather products of specific historical circumstances. They are like the humans who made them, creatures of evolution.

More specifically, as Masuzawa chronicles for us, the current knowledge categories of the university were never inevitable nor even are they permanent as they stand. The interview shows us specifically how our current of understanding of religion is particular to our current point in history.

As a student of religious studies raised in the American intellectual tradition, this history, once pointed out, is obvious. Moreover, it is embedded within my language. In English, I can easily think of religion as an abstract concept, and call to mind specific behaviours that I think of as religious. Yet as the history of scholarship on religion shows, defining religion itself is a slippery task and has mostly abandoned.

The ability to be within an institution of knowledge and to still be critical of its foundations and categories is important. We can become aware of the logical fallacies and dialectical reactions within our institutions and work to correct them.

My point, however, is that the history of the university is not well known and perhaps is even willfully ignored in places where a degree from elite universities make significant practical differences. This is not limited to Korea, for these institutions are given similar authority by groups everywhere, even by those who are disenfranchised by that very elitism.[2]

Does it matter that many individuals aspiring so hard to attend these schools do not possess a critical understanding of the unsteady ground upon which disciplines draw their lines? In some senses, perhaps not. In time, and once inside the institutions, these individuals may come to understand their history just as I have.

It’s more likely, though, that in the short term, the authority of the universities will stand in the minds of those sending their children to Ivy Prep Academy.[3] That authority can be good when it sets in place standards and practices which leads to clear thinking. However, it also limits categories of thought by predetermining them.

New ideas begin with critical thinking, which is enhanced by diversity.[4] In Korea, for example, I questioned unfamiliar things, and sometimes the subsequent dialogue hatched new thoughts in myself and my students. The reverse process should occur when Korean students attend elite universities. Unfamiliar with the European cultural traditions and their associated thought trenches, they should question the standards and categories of knowledge. It is likely, though, that because of the status they give to elite universities, such questioning rarely happens. As a result, it is likely that they too will adopt the language of European universalism.

While I respect Masuwaza’s work on many levels, I mostly like it because she reminds me, again and again, to look at my tools of inquiry and see how my tools have shaped what I have found.

[1] A couple of the better titles I have found are the following: 1. Tsui, A. and Tollefson, J. (2007) Language Policy, Culture, and Identity in Asian Contexts. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 2. Sorensen, C. (1994) Success and Education in South Korea. Comparative Education Review. 38(1): 10-35. 3. Lee, S. and Brinton, M. (1996) Elite Education and Social Capital: The Case of South Korea. Sociology of Education. 69(3): 177-192. 4. Seth, M. (2002) Education Fever: Society, Politics, and the Pursuit of Schooling in South Korea. University of Hawaii Press.

[2] Mullen, for example, describes how some high-achieving but less-wealthy students avoid elite schools precisely because of they are elite. Mullen, A. (2009) Elite Destinations: Pathways to Attending an Ivy League University. British Journal of Sociology of Education. 30(1): 15-27.

[3] http://ivyprepacademy.net/pages/team/

[4] The relationship between critical thinking and diversity has often been studied. For example, see Laird, T. (2005). College Students’ Experiences with Diversity and Their Effects on Academic Self-Confidence, Social Agency, and Disposition toward Critical Thinking. Research in Higher Education. 46(4): 365-387.

The Invention of the Secular Academy

The Religious Studies Project, as an academic endeavour studying religion, is of course devoutly secular. In fact, we tend to take the connection between secularity and the academy completely for granted. But was this always the case? If not, how did it become so? And what does secular mean in this context? In this interview recorded at the 2015 IAHR Congress in Erfurt, Tomoko Masuzawa tells David G. Robertson how the medieval university was transformed – first through the introduction of the collegiate system in the 1700s, which gave private donors a say in who could study, and then again in the late 19th Century, with the Berlin model being exported throughout Europe and the colonies. What we discover is not a dialogue between the religious and the secular, but between different Christian sects. What does this say about our present-day academic endeavours?

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World Religions in Academia and the Loci of Tradition in Irish Paganism(s)

In her interview with the Religious Studies Project, Dr. Jenny Butler spoke with Christopher Cotter about the specificities of the object of her doctoral research at University College Cork (2012), contemporary Irish Paganism, and about the field of Pagan studies in the context of Irish academia. Butler’s research encompasses very diverse aspects of contemporary Paganism in general, from Wicca to Pagan Witchcraft, through Heathenism and Druidry, without forgetting to pay attention to solitary practitioners who revolve around groups like Wiccan covens and Druidic groves. Nevertheless, what started as an overview of Butler’s work in Ireland quickly turned into a much-needed critique of the context surrounding academia and religious studies. Her own ethnographic research raises questions about important categories and paradigms in religious studies today.

The first element of interest in Butler’s work is her use of “Paganism”, a somewhat monolithic term, to describe the Pagan movement. It is most interesting to see how her use of the term “Paganism” instead of “Paganisms” pertains to the current hesitation in academia to talk about “Christianisms,” for example, as an array of different traditions included in Christianity. Some scholars of Pagan studies prefer the use of “Paganisms,” easily recognizing that it is more appropriate to talk about it in a way that reflects its inner diversity and lack of cohesion in regards to beliefs, practices and ethics. We can only deduct that Butler’s move to speak of her object of study in the singular form must be due in part to the fact that the study of Pagans and Paganism in Ireland is still nascent. For that reason, it would probably have been harder for her to have her object recognized by the academic institution if she didn’t comply with the same convention that usually applies to the major religious traditions of this world, i.e. world religions. Does it have anything to do with the possibility that a confessional approach of religion still lingers within religious studies in the Republic of Ireland? Compared to the context of Butler’s research, it seems that American and Canadian scholars of religion show much less hesitation to talk about “Christianisms” or “Hinduisms,” for example, as a series of several sub-traditions, rather than as uniform religions. Butler specifies that this decision derives from her ethnographic methods of research, and, in that sense, that her use of the term “Paganism” as a whole stems from her fieldwork. In this manner, she gracefully avoids some of the methodological and theoretical problems that would come out of an ethnocentered perception of religion.

In light of this, one can wonder how expeditious is the common assumption that most Pagans, or at least a majority of them are well read (Davy, 2007). First, let’s not forget that it is not unusual at all that members or adepts of a religion, be it new or old, take upon themselves to be well aware of the literature, academic or confessional, surrounding their religion. In my experience, Pagans are certainly well read in particular areas, like mythology, folklore and sometimes history, but they seem much less informed when the time comes to compare “world religions” to their own religiosities or to compare their own religious categories to those produced and accepted in academic circles in religious studies, anthropology, and history, among others. This is not to say that Pagans are particularly less well-read than individuals who belong to other institutionalized or formal religious traditions. Many adepts of Neo-Druidry do indeed dig deep into historical and archaeological material to reconstruct parts of their worldviews, practices, and social organisations. It is also possible that for a great number of individuals who identify themselves against religions, like some atheists for example, being informed by scholarly works might be an important aspect of their “non-religion.”

As far as I am concerned, this idea that Pagans are more informed about scholarly works in religious studies is questionable only because most Pagans, as Butler indicates, do not interrogate the origins of their religiosities beyond their romanticized interpretation of geographical locations and historical or mythological influences. In fact, one can wonder why it has never been articulated anywhere so far within Pagan studies that Wicca, the only “religion” stemming out of Britain (Hutton, 1999), is rooted in elements often associated with Irish Celtic myths or figures. What about the veneration of deities such as the popular Ceridwen and Cernunnos? What changes did those figures go through by leaving English soil, going around the Western world through the popularization of Wicca, contemporary Paganism, New Age, and Goddess spiritualities, before coming back to Ireland, decades later? Is it just that Pagan studies in Ireland haven’t made the connection yet? Probably not. Is it that these figures did not undergo any kind of transformation? That would, of course, be quite surprising. Or, maybe is it that these distinctions do not matter for Pagans and scholars who study them? Paganism, being a religion without dogma, without a “proper” institution standardizing discourse and practice, in the face of globalization, might not have what it takes to conceive these divergences as significant issues to deal with.

In my eye, the most interesting aspect of Butler’s study is that it shows just how locations and spiritual nexuses in Ireland are at the heart of Irish Pagan religiosities. Certainly akin to what happens in Britain at Stonehenge or Glastonbury, this phenomenon invokes issues of authenticity and “nativeness.” These locations point to a long gone past, which then comprised very different worldviews from those at play today that have inevitably been marked by what Butler qualifies as a “Christian veneer.” This brings up and interrogates the basic distinction between Christianity and paganism[1], or rather the issue of identification of paganism by agents of Christianity. Would a certain paganism occurring today not be paganism anymore after being marked by centuries of Christian proselytism? This forces researchers to work outside of these ever-reproduced categories to focus on more current issues, giving more space to collective and individual stories rather than written texts that prescribe modes of practice.

In the last couple of years, scholarship in Pagan studies has begun to slow down. The main source cited by Butler, The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, is struggling more and more as the years go by to find new approaches to Paganisms and Earth-centered or nature-based religions that would give them some sort of undisputable recognition within universities. In fact, it seems that as soon as students and scholars of Pagan Studies step out of the United States or Britain (mostly), they still face an ever-present normative push that won’t accept Paganisms as legitimate religious objects of study or Pagan studies as a legitimate field of study. We can only hope that Butler’s work, quite unique in itself, can revive this pull towards understanding the originality and specificities of contemporary Paganism as it spreads in different ways throughout the globe.

Reference

Davy, B. J. (2007). Introduction to Pagan Studies. New York/Toronto: Altamira Press.

Hutton, R. (1999). The Triumph of the Moon. A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. New York: Oxford University Press.

York, M. (2005). Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion. New York: NYU Press.

[1] The term “paganism” refers to what Michael York calls a spontaneous religiosity linked to the land (2005), found in Native and aboriginal cultures for example, as opposed to “Paganism”, capitalized to refer to the contemporary revival of pre-Christian mythologies.

Conference Report (and rant): Fandom and Religion, Leicester, 2015

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by our very own Venetia Robertson, RSP Editor and a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney.

The University of Leicester hosted the Fandom and Religion conference this July 28-30 in affiliation with the Theology, Religion and Popular Culture network. A reasonably small conference with just over 30 presenters and 50 attendees, organisers Clive Marshall and Isobel Woodcliffe of Leicester’s Lifelong Learning Centre ran the event smoothly with the help of attentive session chairs and the professional staff at the clean and comfortable College Court conference centre. The Court was truly the home of the conference—with all of the sessions, meals, drinks, and most of our accommodation being there (and with little to do in the surrounding area)—one could be excused for experiencing a bit of cabin fever by end of the week. Still, when tomorrow morning’s keynote speaker is ordering another pint at midnight, we’re probably all glad that bed is just a few steps away from the bar. I want to talk about the papers I saw, and those I wish I’d caught, because that’s primarily what a conference review should be, but I’m also going to take this opportunity to give the study of fandom and religion in general some evaluation, as this conference both pointed out to me the breadth and the dearth of this relatively new academic field.

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One of the main draws of this conference for me, and why I was willing to endure the very long plane trip to get there, was the keynote line-up. I heard of this event at last year’s Media, Religion, and Culture Conference, and was excited to see that it would be featuring excellent speakers like Kathryn Lofton (who sadly had to pull out), and scholars whose work my own is intimately connected to, like Chris Partridge and Matt Hills. The way these thinkers combine innovative thinking with the analysis of meaning-making and popular culture highlights, and inspiringly so, the importance of this area of investigation. Partridge and Hill’s plenary papers, ‘Fandom, Pop Devotion, and the Transfiguration of Dead Celebrities’ and ‘Revisiting the “Affective Spaces” of Fan Conventions: Sites of Pilgrimage, Sacredness, and Enchantment… or Non-Places?’ respectively, were both illustrative of the fruitful amalgamation of approaches from media, cultural, and religious studies when examining these developments. I brought together Partridge’s concept of occulture with Hill’s hyperdiegesis in my own paper on how medieval female mystics and modern fangirls use relational narratives with their ‘gods’ to reify sacred subjectivities from within the patriarchal cultures of Christendom and geek culture. On the whole, the conference represented multi- and inter-disciplinary methods, with scholars of anthropology, psychology, music, digital cultures, and literature alongside those of religion. There was, however, in the overall makeup and theme of Fandom and Religion, an unmistakeably strong theological bent—but more on that in a moment.

Though it meant having to miss out on what I heard was a great session on fan experiences in Bob Dylan, indie, and Israeli popular music scenes, and a session on comics and hero narratives that I would have no doubt enjoyed, I felt very satisfied with the methodological offerings from Rhiannon Grant and Emanuelle Burton that dealt with the tensions of canon and fanon, interpretation and creativity, group consensus and personal gnosis, that affect religious and fan communities alike. With a mix of midrashic, pagan, and Quaker approaches to truth and authority, this panel had my mind whirring. Papers on the commercial and the communal aspects of the Hillsong and the role of music in the Pentecostal mega church system provided fascinating insights (and stay tuned for more on this from Tom Wagner). Offerings from Bex Lewis on the Keep Calm and meme on trend and Andrew Crome on My Little Pony fandom, Bronies, and Christianity, proffered some intriguing ways in which viral cultures enable believers to remix media for religious purposes and find the sacred within the secular. Film and television were well represented with talks on American Horror Story, the Alien franchise, small screen vampires, children’s programming, and anime, though I unfortunately could not get to those sessions. Sport, fiction, and celebrity were of course popular topics, with a Harry Potter themed session, and talks on football and faith and evangelism amongst skaters and surfers. Two talks I again missed but would have liked to have caught were the inimitably odd Ian Vincent on tulpas and tulpamancy and François Bauduin’s talk on the Raelians, for what I’m sure would have been a robust discussion of how these esoteric movements translate into the online sphere, and how this affects notions of authenticity and creativity.

11222652_10156115964950413_6985333271960933871_oWhile this program certainly presents a swathe of relevant subjects in the field of fandom and religion, there were several key moments that made me realise that some central issues had gone by the wayside. It struck me that this was a very “white” conference: there were, even for a small number of papers, strikingly none that I could see on non-Western peoples or traditions. A tiny fraction looked at non-Western media and non-Abrahamic religious beliefs. Searching the abstract booklet I found Islam mentioned once, Buddhism only in passing, and no references to countries with historical, pertinent, and I would say seminal engagements with religious fandoms (Japan, India, Vanuatu are just a few examples). When pointed out during the ‘feedback session’ that concluded the conference two responses were offered: one, that there was no one writing on these topics, and two, that it’s a shame that it looks like the conference lacked diversity but that the organizing body does have one Jewish member… In her keynote, Tracy Trothen remarked on the subject of religion and sport that when we say ‘religion’ we usually mean ‘Christianity’, which I had initially interpreted as a reflexive moment on the ‘god problem’ the academy continues to have, that is, the perpetuation of “the myth of Christian uniqueness” despite the reality of pluralism and secularization, but unfortunately it merely signaled the habitual preferential treatment of this one theological outlook. The suggestion that “no one is writing on these topics” is patently false, but is indicative of the core issue I had with this event: it wasn’t just saturated with a Christo-theological focus in material and approach because that’s representative of the academy, but rather it seemed it was primarily interested in representing that viewpoint—and this is something I don’t think was made clear from the outset.

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For example, the website for this conference followed on from the flyer that had first alerted me to the “international, inter-disciplinary conference,” and stated that its purpose was to “explore interactions between religion and popular culture” which sounded great. “What is happening to fans as they express their enthusiasms and allegiances? Has fandom replaced or become a form of religion?”—cool, interesting questions, I thought. Compare with this description from a CFP I, after the fact, found elsewhere: “A Major Conference for Faith Community Practitioners and Academics,” “including a session solely for faith community practitioners.” There were actually several ‘practitioner’ sessions, and it seemed clear after a while that ‘faith community’ meant Christian worship. It became explicit from the first day with our welcome that in part this event was for not just religious people but those active in their Churches to learn not so much about, but from fandoms. I am used to attending academic conferences with a notable number of ‘practitioners’ present, they may even present non-academic papers. I am also used to having to define religious studies as a separate disciplinary enterprise to theology. But what I wasn’t expecting in Leicester, and I don’t think I was alone here, was to be at a conference where religion, theology, and Christianity were so automatically synonymous that it didn’t seem to occur to the organisers that major non-Christian themes in religion and fandom had been overlooked in their selection of papers, or even that such themes were major. I wasn’t expecting to feel like such an outsider, as a religious studies academic at what I had thought was an academic religious studies affair.

To be fair, now that I have delved deeper into the faith-based networks that organised this event (Donald Wiebe). However, this issue goes beyond the academy, and this became obvious when a reporter for a religion-themed program on BBC4 interviewed some of the conference’s speakers. What thankfully doesn’t make it into our few minutes of fame in this radio segment is the interviewer’s clear discomfort with the idea of converging ‘obsessive’ fans and their ‘low brow’ media with ‘devoted’ believers and their ‘respectable’ forms of the divine. “Are they [typical othering language] just crazy?” he asks me of fans, and makes me repeat my answer several times in order to get something “more quippy, less academic”, and, I suppose, more damning to confirm his perception that there are right and wrong forms of meaning-making. Journalists from The Daily Mail also tried (but failed) to get a talking head, so I guess things could have been worse.

Venetia Robertson ready for the conference!

Venetia Robertson ready for the conference!

I certainly don’t mean to detract from the importance of making niche areas like fandom and religion studies visible on an international and interdisciplinary scale, or the much-appreciated effort that went in to the organisation and contribution of this conference and its participants: there was indeed a wealth of interesting, useful, and high-quality papers. Nonetheless, as a reflection on the state of popular culture and its integration into multi­-religious studies (not to mention the relevant spheres of civil/quasi/alternative/implicit religion etc.) I feel these criticisms need timely evaluation. And I have some heartening thoughts to that effect: there is a blossoming field of intersectional work on these topics at the moment if one takes the time to look! The promotional material available at Leicester, interestingly, confirmed this, and I include some pictures of it here. I think it’s telling that Joss Whedon studies has had its own journal, Slayage, for over ten years, but to find more journal articles on a vast panoply of religion and fandom junctures you can try the Journal Of Religion And Popular Culture, the classic Journal Of Popular Culture or the newer Transformative Works And Cultures and the Journal of Fandom Studies, whose book reviews keep on top of the most recent additions to this field. This conference also saw the launch of the comprehensive volume, The Routledge Companion to Religion and Popular Culture (which ranges in price between $277 AUD on BookDepository to a whopping $405 at Angus and Robertson), edited by John Lyden and Eric Mazur, as yet another example of the popularity of this topic in contemporary scholarship. I’m also pleased to say that my paper will be a chapter in the forthcoming volume for INFORM/Ashgate, Fiction, Invention, and Hyper-reality: From Popular Culture to Religion (edited by Carole Cusack and Pavol Kosnáč) alongside some brilliant minds exploring the relationship of spirituality to conspiracy theories, Tolkein’s legendarium, Discordianism, with a handful of, yes, practitioner’s accounts, this time from Pagans, Jedis and Dudeists—it’s sure to be a vibrant, diverse, and illuminating contribution to the discussion on fandom and religion.

 

 

2015 APA Convention Report (Religion and Spirituality Research)

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by David Bradley, a PhD student at Case Western Reserve University.

The American Psychological Association’s 123rd Annual Convention was held in Toronto, Ontario from August 6 through August 9, 2015.  Conferences often have an organizing theme, but the APA Convention is simply too big to be focused on one or two themes.  To give you a sense of scale, here is what was happening at 1 PM on Thursday of the convention: 46 symposia or paper sessions, 3 invited talks, and 119 posters.  And that’s just official APA programming – many of APA’s 54 divisions, including Division 36 (the Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality), offer informal programming in hotel suites.  The atmosphere for the APA conference this year was a bit strange, and reminders of the recently released Hoffman Report, which detailed the relationship between the APA leadership and support for enhanced interrogation/torture by the U.S. government.  Several people could be seen wearing t-shirts or pins bearing the statement “First, do no harm,” and the Hoffman Report was often referenced in Q&A portions of talks, even when only tangentially related to the topic at hand (as is standard for post-talk Q&As).

David Bradley with "Super" Phil Zimbardo. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

David Bradley with “Super” Philip Zimbardo. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

Despite the thousands of offerings, there were only three or four sessions across the entire convention that hit at the truly important topics (i.e., my own area of research).  I have tried to expand my coverage of the conference to address matters of secondary importance, but I apologize in advance for giving such a limited view of the large, diverse convention.

At any large conference, it’s often the poster sessions that are most engaging, and this was true here as well.  The poster format is well-suited for conversations about the details of a study, and in a large conference like APA, there are enough posters that a handful will be interesting and at least one will be important (see above regarding the definition of important).  Namele Gutierrez (Pepperdine University, abstract available here) conducted a study of friendships at a Christian college.  Participants were asked about their own religiosity, their best friend’s religiosity, and the strength of their relationship.  Students with low self-reported religiosity (below a median-split) reported having friendships that were stronger (deeper and more supportive) if the student reported that the best friend was highly religious (above a median-split).  This relationship was not seen among students with above-the-median self-reported religiosity.  Effect sizes were small but significant.  The reasons for this effect could not be addressed by the data, but I wonder if the context – a Christian university – is important here.  Perhaps the religious nature of the university prevents individuals with low religiosity from being as open and supportive, even with close friends.

Also at the poster session, Courtney Nelson (Texas A&M, abstract available here) reported findings from a study on the relationship between religious vs. nonreligious psychologists’ self-reported ability to do treatment planning for client problems with vs. without religious content.  Predictably, the primary finding was that nonreligious psychologists were more hesitant regarding their ability to accurately conduct treatment planning for religious clients.  The author concluded that this study implied the need for increased training on religious/spiritual matters in graduate schools.  That may be useful for a number of reasons, but since this study included no measure of accuracy of treatment planning, it seems that an equally valid route would be to spend time in training programs reassuring nonreligious therapists of their ability to work with people who are not like them, which would likely increase their self-reported ability to conduct treatment planning.  Or, perhaps, the confidence of religious therapists should be reduced: perhaps religious therapists are too confident in their ability to conceptualize religious material, simply because they themselves are religious, though the meaning of religion in the client’s life may be quite different from the psychologist’s.

Regretfully, I had to pull myself away from the poster session before I could plumb its full wonders to attend another paper session.  The abstracts for the rest of the poster session can be found here.

The next session I attended was the Division 36 Data Blitz featuring six five-minute presentations from graduate students, including your correspondent.  All of the presentations were excellent, but I would like to single out the presentation John Jones (University of Detroit Mercy, abstract available here).  Much has been made about the discrepancies in religiosity between academic psychologists and the general public.  However, this presentation presented data to the effect that while academic psychologists have rates of religious identification much lower than the general U.S. public, their rates of belief in “God or something divine” were close to (though still lower than) the general public.  This might point to psychologists having a more individualistic notion of religion and spirituality, separate from the notions of traditional organized religion.  Whereas before, the conflict appeared to be between nonreligious psychology and religious public, perhaps the conflict is more between liberal notions of supernatural spirituality (popular in academia) and traditional conceptions of religion (popular in the general public, though perhaps less now than in the past).

Downtown Toronto, APA Convention. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

Downtown Toronto, APA Convention. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

One Division 36 symposium featured four talks relying on religious priming.  Three of the talks used contextual priming (conducting a study in a church vs. a classroom, or in front of a chapel vs. in front of a science center, or in front of a cathedral vs. in a secular civic square) and one study used websites (asking participants to evaluate the design of one of two websites created by the researcher, identical except for religious content).  Priming religiosity was found to: reduce the need for dissonance reduction and increase decision certainty; increase prejudice toward LGB individuals; and increase prosociality. I find priming fascinating as an increasingly controversial method in psychology, but remain skeptical of its importance, though this may be because all of my priming studies have failed so far.

Division 36 also hosted a symposium on the experiences of nonreligious and LGBTQ individuals, featuring three talks.  Two of the talks, by Zhen Cheng (University of Oregon) and Jacob Sawyer (Columbia University), introduced new measures of microaggressions against nonreligious people and experiences of anti-atheist discrimination, respectively.  Both talks linked experiences of anti-nonbeliever sentiment to lower scores on several measures of psychological well-being.  The existence of anti-atheist/anti-nonreligious sentiment has been well-documented, and I’m glad that the psychological impact of these experiences are finally being explored.  The third talk, by Kimberly Applewhite (Yeshiva University), used excellent qualitative, grounded theory methodology to explore the experiences of individuals who currently identified as members of the LDS Church (Mormon) and were LGB identified.  These participants often struggled to progress through the stages of faith development and LGB development simultaneously – indeed, the title of the talk, taken from a quotation from a participant, was “The Conflict is Constant.”  More high-quality qualitative work, please!

11863297_10205742746822141_4995918497479033784_nFinally, my time with Division 36 at APA concluded with a talk by Will Gervais (University of Kentucky), who was given the Margaret Gorman Early Career Award.  His talk was an overview of his research on the psychological underpinnings of belief in God, and therefore nonbelief in God.  For a good overview of his approach, see his article in Trends in Cognitive Science and the RSP interview with Will Gervais.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 30 June 2015

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We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest!

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Calls for papers

Conference: EASR 2016

June 28–July 1, 2016

Helsinki, Finland

Deadlines: Multiple

More information

Conference: Ways of Knowing

October 22–24, 2015

Harvard Divinity School, MA, US

Deadline: July 17, 2015

More information

Conference: Race, Religion and Migration: Spaces, Practices, Representations

January 13–15, 2016

Newcastle University, UK

Deadline: September 10, 2015

More information

Events

Colloquium: BABEL: In search of the origins of religions

September 11–12, 2015

Ghent, Belgium

More information (French, Dutch, English)

Conference: SGEM Social Sciences and Arts

August 24–September 2, 2015

Albena, Bulgaria

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Jobs

PhD studentship

Lancaster University, UK

Deadline: September 8, 2015

More information

Assistant/Associate Professorship

San Diego, CA, US

Deadline: N/A

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“The Study of Religions in Ireland: People, Places, Projects” – 2015 ISASR Conference Report

“The Study of Religions in Ireland: People, Places, Projects” Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions (ISASR), Trinity College Dublin, May 11th 2015. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Dr. Eoin O’Mahony, Department of Geography, St Patrick’s College DCU

The fourth annual conference of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions took place at Trinity College Dublin on May 11th. It was organised in association with the Trinity Long Room Hub Art & Humanities Institute and sponsored by the Department of Religions & Theology, TCD. This year, it took a novel turn. In place of an event over two or three days, it was in the form of a research slam, a format set to test the garrulous nature of the academic. This was to take account of the IAHR Congress in Erfurt later this summer. Following an opening address from the outgoing president of the Association, Dr. Patrick Claffey, the slam began in earnest. The Society has a relatively small number of members but we had twelve presentations, seven minutes and one carefully monitored countdown clock.

Chris Heinhold (University of Chester) told us about his theory-building approach to investigating modern British Shia identity. Chris is about to embark on intensive fieldwork but has already noted how being part of a diaspora is performative. As a researcher and migrant himself, he has made attempts to build a flexible theory based on data collection. How culture is remembered and mythologised formed the centre of the contribution by Deirdre Nuttall (independent researcher). The stories we tell ourselves influence the way we act and the story of Ireland has been told largely through Roman Catholic action. She has found that the lives of a working class Protestant minority are largely absent from the folklore archives. Early attempts at nation building in Ireland reinforced a Catholic retelling of the myths at the expense of a shrinking Protestant minority.

Dr. Jenny Butler presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

Dr. Jenny Butler presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

In further tales of cultural erasure, Jenny Butler (University College Cork) told us about Irish fairy beliefs. She is trying to address the academic deficit in this subject. In most academic studies of Irish culture, the focus is on fairy beliefs as “explaining away” rather than as an animistic worldview; for example, there is a focus on folk stories in which fairies are blamed mostly for the ill-effects of human interaction with nature and fairies were often said to be the cause of infant loss or disability and even bad harvests. Her dialogical and anthropological approach is making an attempt to plait strands of research that currently run in parallel.

Lawrence Cox (Maynooth University) brought us on a lyrical journey of the lives of Buddhist monks from Ireland to Asia. He narrated these accounts through the letters sent by these monks in a poetic stroll through space and time. Tadhg Foley (NUI Galway) told us about the wanderings of Max Arthur McAuliffe. McAuliffe’s efforts to avoid responsibility for his progeny was bested only by his commitment to translating Sikh holy texts. Christopher Cotter (Lancaster University) brought us on a technical journey across continents. Christopher walked us through the process by which the Religious Studies Project manages content and podcasts across time zones and continents using online collaborative software.

RSP Editor Christopher Cotter presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

RSP Editor Christopher Cotter presenting. Photo by James Kapalo.

Ireland’s missionary past was recalled in a presentation by (UCC’s) Yuwu Shan. His new research on the Columban missions to China over the course of 150 years shows us that globalisation is not necessarily a recent phenomenon. Through the archive available to him in Dalgan Park, the Columban order’s world headquarters based in Kildare, Ireland, Shan brought their long history in China to life. He is working with photographs and other material to reconstruct the efforts of the holy order navigating turbulent political revolution. Colette Colfer (WIT) and I outlined our initial data from a new project mapping the warehouse worship spaces of Dublin and Waterford, two very different cities. Our work is focused on the ways that warehouses form community around Pentecostal churches and mosques, often defying a visible centrality usually reserved for religious space in Ireland, a majority Catholic country. We are planning a lot more fieldwork. Alexandra Greiser (Trinity College Dublin) told us about transhumanism and how it may be developing into a new universalism through a scientific discourse. This forms part of a larger project she is working on that will take a comparative perspective and a possible account of multiple modernities. Bringing the universal to the local, Vlad Kmec (UCD) told us about his research on the formation of religious identity among migrants to Ireland. He is conducting focus groups with young people and adults among the Czech and Polish communities to examine the functional and substantive roles of religion in migrant lives.

Eoin O'Mahony and Colette Colfer. Photo by James Kapalo.

Dr. Eoin O’Mahony and Colette Colfer. Photo by James Kapalo.

Olivia Wilkinson (TCD) is interested in the role of faith based organisations in disaster relief efforts. She has conducted extensive participatory methods in her fieldwork in the Philippines as a way to examine what is counted as faith based in the post-Haiyan aid process. What gets prioritised and, perhaps more importantly, what does not is of central concern to her research. James Kapaló (UCC) told us about a relatively new network called the Marginalised and Endangered Worldviews Study Centre. Its main work is to build comparative perspectives on these endangered of marginalised worldviews and their cultural expressions. The projects here are engaged forms of research and encouraging of a counter-hegemonical perspective for these forms of knowledge. Some were running to the seven minute bell, others seemed to have timed it perfectly to 6 minutes and 57 seconds.

Our slamming over, Brian Bocking (outgoing secretary) recalled for us how far the academic study of religions in Ireland had come in a few short years. Brian has been instrumental in founding and developing the ISASR, as well as the Department of Study of Religions at UCC (the only department of its kind in Ireland) and in his short lecture, summarised for us why the academic study of religions remains vital. He drew a crucial distinction using an analogy between astrology and astronomy. For astrologers, a cosmological system of belief in the power of star alignment forms the basis for earthly action. Among astronomers, the gathering of evidence about the composition of star systems helps us to understand our place in the universe. Both are concerned with the stars but equally both observe from a position of relative powerlessness over their object of study. The academic study of religions, in this way, is just as bound by tradition and human agency as their confessional co-researchers in Theology.

The day’s proceedings were rounded off with a book launch. The book, Muslims in Ireland: Past and Present (Edinburgh UP), is the first complete study of a little known Muslim presence in Europe. Two of its five editors, Oliver Scharbrodt (Univ. of Chester, formerly UCC) and Tuula Sakaranaho (Univ. of Helsinki) spoke about the purpose of the book, its meaning to the academic study of religions in Ireland. Its remaining editors, Adil Hussain Khan (Loyola University, New Orleans), Vivian Ibrahim (Univ. of Mississippi) and Yafa Shanneik (Univ. of Chester, formerly UCC) were acknowledged. Edinburgh University Press sponsored the reception that followed and the Silk Road Café provided wonderful food. The conference as a whole points to a secure future for the small and yet vital academic study of religions in a country with a long tradition of theological investigation. It is not that one pushes the other out of the light of investigation. Rather, it is the academy investing itself with a way to specify the meaning, location and features of religious culture.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 31 March 2015

Calls for papers

CISSR Annual Meeting on Christian Origins

October 1–4, 2015

Bertinoro, Italy

Deadline: April 25, 2015

More information

Women negotiating secularism and multiculturalism through civil society organisations

June 30–July 1, 2015

Coventry University, UK

Deadline: April 10, 2015

More information

Making Sense of Religious Texts: Patterns of Agency, Synergy and Identity

October 27–29, 2015

University of Groningen, The Netherlands

Deadline: April 15, 2015

More information

Religion, Art, and Creativity in the Global City

November 18–22, 2015

Denver, Colorado, USA

More information

JASR book reviews

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Events

Textual Diversity in Context

October 30, 2015, 9:00–14:00

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

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Grants and awards

ISSA Shinto Essay Competition

Deadline: July 31, 2015

More information