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Black Religious Movements and Religio-Racial Identities during the Great Migration

In this podcast, Judith Weisenfeld talks to Brad Stoddard about her new book, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Depression. In this book, Weisenfeld explores several social groups in the early 1900s who combined religious and racial rhetoric to fashion new identities. These groups include the Nation of Islam, the Moorish Science Temple, and Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement, and various Ethiopian Hebrews. These groups are not new to scholars of American religious history; however, Weisenfeld’s original analysis combined with her use of previously overlooked sources combine to tell a new and compelling story about these familiar groups.

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

Black Religious Movements and Religio-Racial Identities during the Great Migration

Podcast with Judith Weisenfeld (26 June 2017).

Interviewed by Brad Stoddard

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Weisenfeld – Black Religious Movements 1.1

Brad Stoddard (BS): Hello, this is Brad Stoddard for the Religious Studies Project. Today I have the pleasure of talking with Judith Weisenfeld, who is the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion at Princeton. And she joins me today to talk about her new book, New World a-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration. Welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Judith Weisenfeld (JW): Thanks, Brad.

BS: You write in this book that,“This book is the study of the theologies, practices, community, formations and politics of early 20th century black religious movements, that fostered novel understandings of the history and racial identity of people conventionally categorised as negro in American society.” Which specific groups do you address, and which story do they collectively tell?

JW: The book is a comparative study of the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation of Islam, Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement and a number of congregations of Black Hebrews. And I pursue this comparative study in order to think about the ways in which they each engage with questions of racial identity through a religious frame. They all emerged at the same time in the early 20th century, founded by migrants from the south to northern cities, or immigrants from the Caribbean to these same northern cities. And I was interested in, again, the ways in which they were all thinking about black racial identity history and doing so in ways that insisted that religion was to be part of these discussions. And so, taken together, we get a sense of a really vibrant conversation going on in black American life, in these groups and beyond these groups, about race and peoplehood – who we are. And I think one of the ways in which people have conventionally approached race and racial identity is to understand race as reality – race exists: people are of this race, that race, another race. With the rise of Critical Race Studies and thinking about race as a social construction, scholars have begun to talk more about race – not as a biological fact, but as socially produced. And in that kind of discussion, which informs much of my work, people who are not white are often presented as the objects of racial construction. So race is a social construction that produces hierarchy. It provides tools for controlling, otherising and so on. And so, people who are so racialised rarely appear as agents in discussion about race. And in looking at these groups together it became clear to me that, again, in these groups and in broader black public culture, people were asking these questions about who we are, racially. And these groups presented a really profound challenge to the conventional category of negro and the ways in which Christianity had become the kind-of assumed “appropriate” religion. And so, taking them together, we see black religious subjects talking about race, producing race, rejecting, changing and so on.

BS: Most of these groups, not all of them, emerged or were founded or created within a relatively short time period. What is significant about this time period in American history and why was it so ripe for the production of so many diverse religio-racial identities?

JW: These groups all come out of the period of the Great Migration, which begins around World War I: the movement of rural southern African-Americans, to urban contexts – the Urban South. And also the largest element of that was a northward migration. And so northern cities see huge increases in the black population over those decades, through . . . and there a various waves of it. I focus from the early ‘20s to the late ‘40s. (5:00) And so, people are moving to cities and on the East Coast in particular, in New York and Newark and Philadelphia, they are also interacting with immigrants from the Caribbean – mostly from the British West Indies but also from Danish, French and so on. And these urban contexts become a laboratory for the production of all sorts of new cultural movements. So we get the Harlem Renaissance and the cultural productions of Chicago, where black films, for example, get produced and exhibited; music and literary productions. And religious transformation is also one of the components of the social changes and the cultural changes of the Great Migration. And while these groups remain in the minority, it’s in these urban laboratories . . . . And there are political changes as well: we see the rising of Socialists and Communists. And Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association is based in Harlem, and it is also a kind of engine for thinking about black peoplehood in new ways. And so, these are people who are moving. They’re born – the members who join, and also the founders – they’re born at the end of Reconstruction, some of them at the beginning. They’re born as Jim Crow segregation really locks down life in the South. And then they’re part of this Great Migration. And I think one of the things that they’re struggling with is, “We’re no longer slaves,” and there was the potential of reconstruction, “but things are not . . . things are different, but things are not different in important ways”. And so [there’s] a kind of questioning of this hopeful trajectory of the Exodus, for example – questioning the degree to which black churches can be agents of liberation. And what’s really so powerful in these groups – for me I found really interesting – is just questioning the very terms of identity, who we are: is this who we are? “If this is who we are”, a lot of them say, “I don’t necessarily want that”. There’s a story of a man, who’s named only as Horace X, and he encounters the Nation of Islam, in Chicago, in the ‘40s. And he had tried out, he had grown up in the Church, he had tried out different . . . all sorts of different groups: political groups that had promised migration to Africa, and other kinds of religious groups that he’s joined – the Freemasons. And in the story he tells to a Sociologist, he heard someone preaching on the street: “This is not who you are. They told you you were a negro; they told you you were a Christian. That’s not true: I have the truth.” And he said, “I was ashamed to have been born a negro before this, and when I heard that, everything changed for me.” And it’s that kind-of rethinking of identity that I found so compelling and wanted to know more about. And I think it’s precisely the convergence of all of these things in the urban context that makes that possible.

BS: When you were describing Horace X it reminded me of what scholars refer to as the “seeker mentality”, but it’s alive and well, in different communities, much earlier – as you’re describing it.

JW: Yes, I found a number of cases like that in all of the groups, where people said, “I tried this, I tried that.” Sometimes they’re doing multiple things at the same time. And, when I started the research, I was revisiting some of the secondary literature and things I had read many times before, but hadn’t thought about it in relation to writing about these groups. And I looked back at a document by Miles Mark Fisher, who was an African-American minister and also a University of Chicago PhD after he wrote this. He wrote a piece called “Organised Religions and the Cults”, and he was advocating for the inclusion of some of these newer movements in the US census of religious bodies that was coming up in 1935, I think it would have been. And he was making the case that these are not numerically powerful groups, but that they spoke about something that was going on in African-American life. And in order to understand religion in American life, the Census Bureau should survey them. (10:00) And he also told a story. He said, “It’s very hard to tell . . . to draw a line between churches and the cults”, as he called them. And he told the story of his Sunday School teacher, who had also been a member of what he characterised as a cult. And he did that and was also a Sunday School teacher, and was buried out of the church. And so, returning to that piece sparked for me this sense that, as he made clear, the line is not that sharp between them; that people are moving sequentially through these or trying them out at the same time. And the other thing that became really important for me was to think about members of these groups, and the kinds of conversations they are engaged in, as part of a broader set of conversations in the black life at the time. So, not to marginalise them as strange people who put on fezzes and rejected all sorts of things to move off on their own – they were boundaried in lots of ways. But the kinds of questions they were asking were not strange, for that period. They were, actually, very much a part of what I call the kind-of public culture of race in black America.

BS: Scholars have discussed all of these groups before. In your book you bring, of course, your unique analytical lens to it, but you also bring new sources and new groups of people. So can you speak – and when I think of new people, you focus a lot on Caribbean people and their impact on these movements – also can you speak to your sources, and the groups of people who are included in your narrative?

JW: Sure. One of the . . . . As you said, scholars have written about these groups, the Moorish Science Temple and its’ founder Noble Drew Ali, the Nation of Islam and W D Fard and Elijah Mohammad, Father Divine and also scholarship on black or Ethiopian Hebrews. And all that . . . . Those are texts that consider these groups individually, and focus primarily on the leaders and the theologies that they promoted. And I was interested in what it would mean to put them together in one study and think about, as I’ve said, the way they talk about race – reimagine race in a religious frame. And I ended up calling that ‘religio-racial identity” because, for them, as all the founders preached, religion and race are inextricably linked.And once you understand your religious identity – be it as an Asiatic Muslim, as the Nation of Islam and Moorish Science Temple would talk about it; or an Ethiopian Hebrew; or for Father Divine’s movement, raceless – once you know that, you know what your religion is supposed to be as well. So Islam, for the Nation of Islam, was created for the Asiatic; you can’t separate those things. And I felt, in reading some of the secondary literature, that people were . . . scholars were really interested in how to talk about the religious transformations that these groups represented, but didn’t really take seriously these claims of Asiatic or Ethiopian identity. And I wanted to know (I see them – in reading the primary sources – for these people, inextricably linked ) and I wanted to know how – if you are Horace X and you hear a minister of the Nation of Islam preaching, “You are not a negro Christian, you are an Asiatic Muslim” – how did Horace X go about being that thing that he came to believe he really was? And so finding what the average members did was really a challenge. (15:00) And this is, I think, why most of the texts really focus on the theologies of the leaders. And so, I ended up benefitting from some recent archival sources. Emory, for example, has a Father Divine collection that has a huge number of letters to and from Father Divine that give the texture of life in the movement – though those are not unconventional. But I ended up using vital records: the census and government documents like draft cards that are, many of them, available at ancestry.com. And reading those kinds of documents – I just kind of stumbled on them as a way into this – showed me how profoundly important it was to members of these groups that they be represented in public, in official documents, with the religio-racial identity they had claimed and, in some cases, the names they had chosen to reflect their true identities. And so we see, in the draft cards of these men going in, there’s a pre-printed category or column of racial categories listed. And it’s white, negro, Asian Filipino, Indian – it says Oriental on the 1942 form. And these men say, “None of those categories fit me.” And so you have to write Moorish American. And they were successful in doing that. And those kinds of documents were, again, a completely unexpected way of finding names of average members, but also an unexpected source for finding out ways to kind-of calibrate the stakes and their investment in it. So, if you’re potentially being drafted into the military, and you’re struggling over how you’re represented racially on this form, it means a lot to you. And I see it on the census and things like that. I learned all kinds of things from the census about residential patterns of these groups. So I spent a lot of time on ancestry.com!

BS: (Laughs) Excellent.

JW: On the topic of both new sources and new social actors, I was interested in the role of immigration from the West Indies from the Caribbean in this story. Because they are there. It is Marcus Garvey’s . . . . He was a Jamaican immigrant who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and proposed a sense of global black identity. He did embrace the label negro, but he really generated a sense of black pride, a connection to Africa, investment in collective political engagement in a ways that was new for the period, and in a lot . . . . He was from Jamaica and a lot of the people in the movement, when it was headquartered in Harlem, were from the Caribbean. And this gets erased a lot – very often, I think, in African-American history – that these were people who come from a very different social and political context, in many ways, to the US – and religious context as well. There are commonalities, but they have cultural differences and they’re negotiating them. And these movements emerge, in part, out of those cultural negotiations across communities. But it also turns out that most of the Ethiopian Hebrews are Caribbean immigrants, the vast majority of people in the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam are African-Americans, and Father Divine’s movement has a mix. And so this project was interesting, to me, to think about, again, black racial identity across not just African-American, but thinking about how these groups were in conversation with one another. I didn’t do as much as I had hoped to attend to the cultural specifity of West Indian immigrants in the story, so I hope somebody else will pick that up.

BS: As I read your book, you’re suggesting that membership in one of these groups required the person to undergo a rather thorough process of reimagining. And I have a couple of questions about that reimagining. How did membership of one of these groups – and I know it varied from group to group – but what were some of the major ways that it involved them reimaging their sense of self and even their bodies? (20:00)

JW: That was one of the ways I tried to answer the question of: if yesterday you thought you were a negro Christian and today you have been persuaded that you are a raceless child of Father Divine, or Ethiopian Hebrew – how do you do that? And so I looked at these practices of self-fashioning that are different, as you said, in each of the groups. But I did find some patterns in that, for many of them, changing their names was important and, in the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam, rejecting the name, the . . . . Well, in the Nation of Islam, rejecting the slave name and reclaiming (what they talked about as) a kind of “tribal” name or “true” name – for both the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam – was an important step of kind-of separating from old self and moving into the new self. And in Father Divine’s Peace Mission they rejected their (what they talked of as) “mortal names” and took spiritual names that reflected their new status. So these processes of separation from the former identity and taking on a new one that reflects your true history, as they talked about it, was important. Some of the groups took on forms of dress that also spoke about that history, that lineage. The Moorish Science Temple were the most notable one with adopting Moorish dress: the fez for men and turbans for women. And, again, the draft cards were really interesting sources for me for thinking about the meaning of that, and the ways in which men who were registering for the draft thought of that fez as, actually, part of their bodies. And it was Nobel Drew Ali who enjoined them to wear the fez at all times. But when you see on the draft cards that they list that as a physical characteristic, by which they can be identified . . . . You know it’s: they have a scar, or a missing digit, or something like that. It revealed, again, how much they saw as kind-of reimagining their body, in a profound way, into this being that could be recognised as its true self, now. Names, dress, some of the group reimagined skin colour, adopted different kind of terminology for talking about the surface of the body. Moorish Science Temple, again, used the term “olive”. They talked about themselves as olive-skinned Moors. And it didn’t matter that there might not be a correspondence between what the beholder might think they looked like, but it was a theological way of talking about skin colour as connected to Allah and scripture, and the catechism explained that. And then practices of diet, again, they kind of separate you from your old self and you take on a true diet that remakes you and keeps you healthy. All of these groups actually had a deep investment in longevity, and thought that – in different ways – the poison diet – the wrong diet of enslavement and negro-ness and Christianity, to a certain extent, had debilitated black people as individuals and black people as a whole. So they developed certain dietary practices: either feasting or fasting, in different cases; certain foods; and also they all had investments in healing, sometimes through medicine, sometimes through diet. And they all, actually, believed that black people could live for a very, very long time, if not – in Father Divine’s group – for ever, and that enslavement in the Americas had made that impossible, but they were being restored to that possibility.

BS: Part of that reimagining also involved them reimagining their sense, not only geographically, but also historically. It seems that the dominant narrative at this time, in African-American communities, was to understand their position in history relative to slavery. And these new religious movements in this period provided a whole new understanding of history. Can you speak to that? (25:00)

JW: That was one of , I think, the great appeals of these movements. And collectively they do the same kind of work. And in some ways saying, “You are not a negro” is saying the same thing: “Your history did not begin with slavery.” The negro is, all of them would argue, a racial category that was produced only in America – or through slavery in the Americas – and that it was a containing trap to imagine yourself that way, and that God didn’t make you that way. So then one has to say, “Well, who are we?” Right? “What is our history?” And so they all insist that, in one way or another, black history began before slavery – which of course we know – and fill that in. And so in some cases they’re arguing that . . . . So, the Moorish Science Temple says: we are actually the descendents of . . . we are Moroccan, born in America. And then [it] also uses the Bible to trace back even further, so that there is a Biblical connection. But the Moorish Science Temple wants to orient people to the geographic space of Morocco, and use that as a way of talking about the beginning of history. Ethiopian Hebrew congregations again use the Bible to talk about Biblical history as African history and African history as Biblical history. They are interested in Ethiopia but there are also other geographic locations in Africa they they’re interested in. And for Father Divine’s Peace Mission and the Nation of Islam, it’s less a geographic connection – although the Nation of Islam is very interested in Mecca. And for the Peace Mission, Father Divine’s kingdom on earth is where . . . he is there and he’s created this Utopia. But their approach to rejecting the history of negros and enslavement involved not geography, but time – is how I came to think about it. So the Nation of Islam, there’s a lot of . . . . In African-American Christians, and also in the Ethiopian Hebrew groups and the Moorish Science Temple, there’s a lot of engagement with the Bible, and looking for where we are, and how to fit our history there. And the Nation of Islam says: “ Lets just throw that away. Because even from the beginning of time, from the moment of creation, that’s where we are. We have to get rid of . . . .The Bible tells us the whole story wrong.” And Father Divine – time approaches to say: “Race is a product of the devil, I’ve returned to usher in a new heaven and new earth. Heaven is not some far-off thing; it’s here now. And so we start from now. You can enter my kingdom if you do all of these things. And you’re not a negro, that’s from the past. And being a negro is why you die. And if you reject all of that you can live with me for ever.” So the Nation of Islam projected back to the moment of creation and Father Divine projected forward into an eternal future. There’s a great . . . . He would send out this Christmas and New year’s card, in the late ‘40s, that had his image and Mother Divine, his wife, and it said : “One eternal Merry Christmas, one eternal Happy New Year!”

BS: Very good! Thank you. Well, I’d like to say that this is a phenomenal book. And I can imagine it finding a home in quite a few Religious Studies courses, actually. So, best of luck with the book, and thank you so much for your time and your insights. I appreciate it.

JW: Thank you.

Citation Info: Weisenfeld, Judith 2017. “Black Religious Movements and Religio-Racial Identities during the Great Migration”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 26 June 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 21 June 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/black-religious-movements-and-religio-racial-identities-during-the-great-migration/

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Religion and American Law

In this interview, Professor Eric Mazur discusses a variety of issues relating to religion and law in the USA, such as the evolving state of First Amendment jurisprudence, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, dominant trends in the study of religion and American law, and controversial legislation such as the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. Dr. Mazur also discusses his efforts to help cultivate a space at the American Academy of Religion that is explicitly devoted to the study of religion and American law. This interview provides an introduction and summary of this increasingly important field.

Minority Religions and the Law, and our general introduction to Religion and the Law with Winnifred F. Sullivan. 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, potpourri, vintage cars, and more.

New Religious Movements and Contemporary Discourses About Religion

As I listened to Susan Palmer’s RSP interview and read about her new co-authored book (with Stuart A. Wright) Storming Zion: Government Raids on Religious Communities (2015), I was reminded why NRMs make such useful case studies in the religious studies classroom. From a pedagogical perspective, the study of NRMs offers a valuable resource for creative teaching and theorizing about religion. In my introductory classes, for example, I use Scientology to illustrate how NRMs have negotiated with the state in their quest for legitimacy. There is plenty of great scholarship to assign, and students are often surprised to learn how seemingly unrelated government agencies–the Food and Drug Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation–helped legitimate Scientology’s “religion” status.

One of the most useful parts of Palmer’s interview, then, is her insistence on paying attention to the words people use to describe NRMs. Winnifred Sullivan, in her recent book, argues that the US government (and the US Supreme Court in particular) increasingly understands “religion” as “being neither particularly threatening nor particularly in need of protection” (17). The trend, as Sullivan and others have noted, is increasingly to see people as religious by default, even (and perhaps especially) those people who do not see themselves as religious. What, then, are we to make of religious groups whose relationship with the state do not fit this mold? How do we explain relationships so contentious that they result in raids and gun battles? At first glance, the events chronicled in Palmer’s Storming Zion seem to be outliers. Yet Palmer and Wright suggest elsewhere that these kinds of raids are more common than one might suspect. Why?

One possible answer is that increased attention to religion by international governments and NGOs has not necessarily resulted in less problematic models of religion being used by these governments and groups. As Elizabeth Shakman Hurd has pointed out in her recent book, what scholars understand as “religion” often makes for unwieldy government use. Hurd demonstrates how government classifications of religion are by necessity rigid and slow to respond to change, leading governments to understand and engage religion in a clumsy–and in Palmer’s studies, dangerous–fashion.

Of course, most of the large-scale government efforts directed at cultivating appropriate forms of religion aren’t directed at the kinds of groups Palmer studies. It boils down to size, as Palmer and Robertson both note: smaller groups can be more easily dismissed or ignored by those in power. This is another example of the way in which governments separate religious groups into what might be called “serious” and “unserious” camps, an approach sometimes replicated by the scholars who study them. Both Palmer and Davidson call for more work to be done to change this status quo. They would like to see groups with little political or social capital treated similarly to “big name” religions–the groups that get chapters devoted to them in World Religions textbooks. They would like to see, to paraphrase JZ Smith, how the “exotic” NRMs are just another example of “what we see in Europe everyday.” Smith notes the difference by explaining it as a tension “between religion imagined as an exotic category of human experience and expression, and religion imagined as an ordinary category of human expression and activity.”[1] (1). Thus, as Palmer points out, even the seemingly “exotic” components of NRMs–things like brainwashing and deprogramming–should be both historicized and theorized.[2]

These considerations are timely ones. Though the interview focuses on what religion scholars might expect to hear on work related to NRMs–Raelians, Scientologists, millennial movements of various stripes–I was struck by how much of what was discussed would apply to Islam. Robertson and Palmer note how the media and popular culture tend to portray NRMs in particularly dismissive or fear-inducing ways. As events of recent weeks have again reminded us, what do we make of the fact that Islam is often discussed using similar language? The same kinds of militarized policing tactics directed at NRMs have, in recent weeks, been endorsed by a number of candidates for U.S. president as a means to control Muslims in the United States and around the world.

There’s a relevant history to this “NRM-ization” of Islam, particularly in the United States. Those interested in Palmer’s work, and in her work on government raids on NRMs, should also make time for Sylvester Johnson’s African-American Religions, 1500-2000, specifically his study of the history of the US government’s surveillance of and violence towards African-American Muslims. Johnson’s work highlights many of the tensions Palmer identifies: how classificatory criticism (“authentic” religion versus “cults”) bolstered state action against the political claims of new and emerging religious groups (in this specific case, the Nation of Islam). As a result, Johnson argues, “US officials increasingly resorted to the specific grammar of terrorism to represent political Islam.”[3] While scholars do not usually place global Islam within the category of new religious movements, Johnson shows how this early racialization of Islam within the United States shapes how global Islam is treated by the US government today.

For someone like myself, interested in questions of law and religion, the tension between emerging religious groups and state authorities is one of particular importance. Susan Palmer’s interview is a great example of why new religious movements make such good tools with which scholars can think about the study of religion.

[1] Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (University Of Chicago Press, 1982), xii.

[2] For one excellent and recent example, see Matthew Dunne, A Cold War State of Mind: Brainwashing and Postwar American Society (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).

[3] Sylvester Johnson, African American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 382.

Surveying the Sacred and Secular

The RSP’s interview with Darren Sherkat arrives at a time when research on religion has caught a bit of the media spotlight. Both The Atlantic and Religion Dispatches recently touched on issues with surveys in their reviews of Robert Wuthnow’s new book, Inventing American Religion. In this book, Wuthnow argues that the turn toward survey research shaped our perceptions of “American” religion by producing some stark generalizations, because religious experiences are simply too complex to reduce to national trends captured by survey questions alone (2015:13). I enjoyed the RSP’s interview in light of these challenges because Sherkat reminds us what goes into good polling, why we still do it, and what important lessons it can provide for both social scientists studying religion and the broader public.

What goes into good survey research?

Sherkat and Wuthnow do agree on some major points. We should ask for fewer, larger, and higher quality survey studies rather than just polling willy-nilly. My dissertation research looks at the political impact of the growing non-religious population in the United States, and so I spend a lot of time between surveys on both religion and politics, which face their own challenges during this pre-election season.

Part of the reason polling gets a bad rap is the valid criticism that survey questions cannot capture the nuances of respondents’ beliefs and values, and they are therefore not a good representation of respondents’ religious lives. Fair enough, and sociological research has long challenged the idea that public opinion is good at reflecting the reality of respondents’ conscious thoughts and beliefs. Sherkat gets at this point when he highlights the differences between identities and identifications—a gap between how people think about their religious experiences and whether they affiliate with institutions or established systems of belief. Rather than claim they can capture the nuances of identity, a lot of research thinks about public opinion as a way to capture bigger cultural styles using a “dual process” theory of cognition. This means it is less interested in figuring out what groups of people consciously believe, think about, or talk about. Instead, this work focuses on finding patterns in how people make quick judgements. With a good representative sample, we can learn about how religion shapes the way people answer new questions, rather than what they believe about the issues alone.

Why does that matter?

As Sherkat discusses in this interview, “nones” make up about 20% of the American population. This group makes a great case study for why survey work still matters despite its challenges. Researchers in my field have done a lot of excellent qualitative work looking at non-religious people in the United States. They find that non-religious experiences are just as complex and diverse as religious experiences. We have spiritual but not religious folks, atheists, agnostics, deists, brights, “nothing in particulars”, post-religious people, six kinds of atheism, four ways of talking about the secular, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Even if the “nones” feel a common affinity toward one another for breaking from religious affiliation, underneath the surface they do not agree on much. From the perspective of this qualitative work, this 20% of the U.S. population is not homogeneous; it has substantial ideological and philosophical diversity.

As Sherkat points out in the interview, however, ethnographic research alone can also skew our picture of what is going on if the sub-groups of interest are quite small. This is not at all to say studying a small group is not important, only that we have to remember to step back and synthesize those lived experiences with a larger structural picture. Survey research so far shows us that Americans who disaffiliate from religion often share one particular cultural style: a preference for personal autonomy over received authority (Hout and Fischer 2014). In their new book, American Secularism, Baker and Smith (2015:92) show that atheists, agnostics, and unaffiliated believers have a variety of personal spiritual practices, but they also share a “relatively uniform disengagement from public religion.” When we design survey questions from the ground up based on qualitative findings, as Marcus Mann (2015) did in his study of political and communal motivations for joining local and national atheist groups, we can test whether those findings hold for a range of people and represent a distinct cultural pattern. 20% of the U.S. population with a unique style of evaluating political information could have a huge impact, but we still need quality survey research to test whether these patterns exist and what they do.

What should we do?

One interpretation of Wuthnow’s valid critique of surveys is that our reliance on polling marginalizes the most meaningful religious experiences. Emma Green, writing in The Atlantic , provides the following take on Wuthnow’s work:

Polling has become the only polite language for talking about religious experience in public life…If you mourn anything, mourn the meaningful Grappling With Existence that has to happen in private spaces, rather than public ones, an experience that’s not well-understood or often taken seriously.

Sherkat’s interview reminds us that a lot of the polls facing this criticism are also not ideal sources for scientific research, and survey work is still an important way to understand the American (non)religious experience. To steal a line from my advisor, for each person “grappling with existence” there’s another making a grocery list in church. If big survey research alone often misses the former, sifting for the interesting personal story alone can risk missing the later. Synthesizing both lets us clearly define what parts of religiosity we want to measure, such as whether we are interested in atheism as non-belief or a label with which respondents identify. This often means going back to the drawing board and critiquing long-standing survey questions, but if we put our efforts into good design grounded in testing the findings from qualitative researchers, we stand to gain a lot more than we do by turning away from surveys altogether.

For work on cultural styles, (non)religion, and public opinion, see:

Baker, Joseph O. and Buster G. Smith. 2015. American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems. New York: NYU Press.

Blankholm, Joseph. 2014. “The Political Advantages of a Polysemous Secular.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 53(4):775–90.

Edgell, Penny. 2012. “A Cultural Sociology of Religion: New Directions.” Annual Review of Sociology 38(1):247–65.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2001. “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment.” Psychological Review 108(4):814–34.

Hout, Michael and Claude Fischer. 2014. “Explaining Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Political Backlash and Generational Succession, 1987-2012.” Sociological Science 1:423–47.

Hout, Michael and Claude S. Fischer. 2002. “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations.” American Sociological Review 67(2):165–90.

Mann, Marcus. 2015. “Triangle Atheists: Stigma, Identity, and Community Among Atheists in North Carolina’s Triangle Region.” Secularism and Nonreligion, 4(11): 1–12 http://dx.doi.org/10.5334/snr.bd

Perrin, Andrew J. and Katherine McFarland. 2011. “Social Theory and Public Opinion.” Annual Review of Sociology 37(1):87–107.

Perrin, Andrew J., J. Micah Roos, and Gordon W. Gauchat. 2014. “From Coalition to Constraint: Modes of Thought in Contemporary American Conservatism.” Sociological Forum 29(2):285–300.

Silver, Christopher F., Thomas J. Coleman III, Ralph W. Hood Jr, and Jenny M. Holcombe. 2014. “The Six Types of Nonbelief: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study of Type and Narrative.” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 17(10):990–1001.

Vaisey, Stephen. 2009. “Motivation and Justification: A Dual‐Process Model of Culture in Action.” American Journal of Sociology 114(6):1675–1715.

2015 Conference on Religion and American Culture Report

The Biennial “Conference on Religion and American Culture” was held June 4 to June 7, 2015 in Indianapolis. The conference is sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture and Religion & American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Jeffrey Wheatley, a PhD student at Northwestern University.

This was my second visit to RAAC, which follows the fishbowl format (one whose physical layout is similar to a UFC cage match, but the audience gets to participate). The format makes RAAC a great venue for assessing current and future trends in the study of religion and the United States. Unfortunately, I cannot relate all of the great perspectives, questions, and arguments in a single blog post. Instead I will focus on two topics that prompted some (not all!) of the liveliest discussion. Interested to know more? Feel free to examine the conference program. I recommend combing through the conversation that took place on Twitter by searching #RAAC2015. You also can look forward to reading the proceedings, which will eventually be published.

We Need Some Space

Two panels focused on how we spatially frame the study of Religion and American Culture: “American Religion and Global Flows” and “’Religion in the Americas’ as an Organizational Paradigm.” Both on some level critiqued the dominance of national boundaries in delineating what we study and how we study it. Scholars, especially those interested in power, have much to gain by looking at transnational networks.

A full room during the panel that included Sylvester Johnson, Thomas Tweed, and Kristy Nabhan-Warren. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

A full room during the panel that included Sylvester Johnson, Thomas Tweed, and Kristy Nabhan-Warren. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

Zareena Grewal discussed her research on Muslim communities in the United States and suggested that we need not lose sight of the importance of ideas in a transnational focus. For example: race, she argued, is intricately connected to theological conversations. For Muslims in the United States, religion and race are negotiated through transnational networks whose main nodes are elsewhere, primarily in the Middle East. Kristy Nabhan-Warren, in a paper that would continue to be referenced throughout the conference, emphasized the importance of story-telling and the need for scholars to listen, both to our subjects of study and our students. Over-reliance on paradigms, she cautioned, can hinder our capacity to let subjects speak. Sylvester Johnson argued we need to highlight the framework of the “Americas” in graduate programs. Such training is useful not for going beyond the nation-state, he suggested, but to understand the importance of settler colonialism in the formation of many nation-states, including the United States. The Americas framework is also conducive for incorporating perspectives beyond (yet not to the exclusion of) the Anglo-American Protestantism that dominates the study of American religions.

Commenting, Stephen Prothero raised an important question: are we arguing that global flows in particular demand more scholarship? Or are we suggesting that the global is one geographical frame out of many (e.g., a single church, a neighborhood, a city or local region, a state, a nation, etc . . .)? And how might we relate these various scales in reference to one another? The question of scale seems to me to be not just about where and who we study, but about what we study and how we study it.

Beginning and Ending with Religion and “Religion”

RAAC began with Robert Orsi commenting on what the study of religion means when religion has become “religion.” The final panel, although technically entitled “Liberalism vs. Pluralism” and inspired by Kathryn Lofton’s comment at RAAC 2013 about the defeat of pluralism, ultimately returned to this question. As Ariel Schwartz noted, the room quickly went beyond what was stated in the printed program. The last panel quickly became a sweeping debate over Foucauldian genealogy, studies of secularism, and the question of what constitutes the proper objects/subjects of the study of religion. (Perhaps we can revisit liberalism and pluralism in 2017?)

Stephen Prothero jump-started the conversation by pointing to John Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America as an example of a rupture in the study of religion away from lived religion, bodies, and historical story-telling towards an emphasis on the construction of categories, especially our own as scholars of religion. The hard-earned fruits of the former, he suggested, might be obscured by the latter. Referencing Sydney Ahlstrom’s classic work, Prothero asked, can we study the religious history of the American people, or must we study the “religious” “history” of the “American” “people”? Prothero asked the audience to picture two doors. The first is genealogical. The second, which he chooses, is the historical ethnographic. Pamela Klassen defended genealogy, pointing to important work that excavates the norms of liberal Protestantism embedded in discourses of pluralism. During the comments, Leigh Schmidt wondered if we can find a middle ground between stories about people in the sense Prothero intended and the importance of categories.

The final panel. From left to right: Stephen Prothero, Leigh Schmidt, and Pamela Klassen. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

The final panel. From left to right: Stephen Prothero, Leigh Schmidt, and Pamela Klassen. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

The conversation brought up a number of questions. Is the door metaphor providing us with a false dichotomy? Is the construction of categories necessarily separate from the intimate lives of real people? Why is Modern’s book the main example of the genealogical method? Is genealogy only about scholarly categories? How might the practices of story-telling, emphasized throughout the weekend, relate to the genealogical method? Is “jargon” a crucial part of our scholarly community or a hindrance to the publicity and relevance of our writing? Cara Burnidge, playing with Prothero’s metaphor, asked the room to consider the following: what framework allows for these two doors? That is: this conversation is not only about our field in the abstract. The conversation is about the field’s institutional future, its relationship with other disciplines, and the job prospects of younger scholars.

Overall, this panel was the closest we got to a UFC match. A number of passionate comments from the panelists and the audience signaled the high stakes of the questions posed. It was an all-around provocative conversation.

Final Thoughts

In my effort to provide a thick account of the conference by focusing on two topics, I am leaving out a number of great panels, papers, and comments that deserve attention. These include but are not limited to: Judith Weisenfeld’s use of the language “religio-racial” and her question of who gets included in the category of “new religious movements”; a lively conversation on the descriptive and prescriptive uses of “civil religion”; and two panels on capitalism that touched on the dominance of neoliberalism, religion’s role in organized labor, and, as Chip Callahan pushed for, a call to attend to how particular practices of work shape and are shaped by particular worldviews. To be honest, most scholars working on religion and the United States (and/or the Americas!) would benefit from reading the proceedings.

Speaking as a graduate student, I want to conclude by noting how RAAC, and similarly organized small-scale conferences that focus on the direction of a particular field, are incredibly useful. Especially for younger scholars, these are energizing conferences that allow you to better contextualize your work in ongoing discussions. We are accustomed to thinking of methodological, theoretical, and historiographical “turns” within a progressive linear timeline. RAAC collapses these turns into a single dynamic space, with contributors of each turn participating. Such a discussion revealed how the pasts and futures of the field are, in fact, very much present and intimate. I look forward to meeting new scholars, visiting and revisiting high-stakes debates, and seeing familiar faces in 2017.

Christian Reconstruction

Rousas John Rushdoony might be one of the most important Christian theologians you’ve never heard of. As the primary architect of a unique version of conservative protestantism referred to as Christian Reconstructionism, Rushdoony worked for several decades to implement Old Testament Biblical law in contemporary America. Though he never realized his vision, and though his movement largely died with him, Rushdoony remains an important figure because his comparably extreme vision for Christian America challenged contemporary conservatives on a number of religious and theological issues and helped pull them farther to the political right

In this interview, Professor Michael McVicar discusses Rushdoony and Christian Reconstruction. McVicar gained unprecedented access to Rushdoony’s personal files, archives, and correspondence, which provided invaluable data for McVicar’s book on Rushdoony.

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

Psychology of Religion at Its Best…and Less Best

There were a number of excellent talks at the (deep breath) American Psychological Association Division 36 Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality 2015 Mid-Year Conference hosted by Brigham Young University (BYU) at the Marriott Conference Center in Provo, Utah, United States on March 20th and 21st (exhale). In particular, the second keynote address by Dr. Frank Fincham, Director of the Florida State University Family Institute was an excellent model of how research in the psychology of religion and spirituality can have practical use in designing psychological interventions in addition to the acquisition of knowledge. His and his collaborators’ work involved the psychological impacts of partner-directed prayer on the romantic relationships of religious believers, specifically how prayer can bolster relationship quality by increasing the forgiveness ability of the praying partner. Over a series of carefully framed studies he described the process they used to look at the broad effects of partner directed prayer on relationships. After narrowing their focus, they found that increased cooperative behavior was the primary mediator of the effect of prayer on forgiveness. They used these findings to construct and validate a prayer-focused marriage therapy intervention within an African-American, religious population. Throughout his talk, he was careful to make it clear that these studies were done with, and only apply to, religious believers and that the possibility of comparable mechanisms for nonbeliever couples still need to be researched.

Dr. Julie Exline’s Laboratory at Case Western Reserve University: Alex Uzdavines, Julie Exline, Valencia Harriott, Steffany Homolka, Nick Stauner, and Josh Wilt.

At least for my part, this was greatly appreciated. As someone who studies religious nonbelievers (not to mention being one), it can chafe reading or watching a presentation on research which has broadly sweeping conclusions about the benefits of religious belief which go far beyond what the data allow. Often this research implicitly (sometimes explicitly) assumes that the audience is religious themselves and that the research can be generalized to nonbelievers by just flipping the direction of the results. It was refreshing to have religious-oriented research presented in a manner that both framed the results within the context of the beliefs of the people who participated in the research and explicitly acknowledged that the conclusions drawn could not be applied to nonbelievers without further study.

Dr. Fincham’s focus on measurable psychological mechanisms contrasted sharply with the major themes from symposium presented by a number of scholars from BYU the previous day. The presenters answered the title of the symposium, chaired by Shannon Starks, “Does Psychology’s Naturalism Hamper Understanding of Religious Phenomena?” with a resounding “Yes!” Ms. Starks spoke first and her presentation outlined how widely used introductory psychology texts take a strictly naturalistic stance and often reject supernatural hypotheses for psychological phenomena just as resoundingly. Dr. Jeffery S. Reber presented the second talk and gave a number of examples of psychological theories that grew out of the work of famous theologians. However, when the writers most responsible for bringing these theories into psychology (sometimes the theologian themself!) translated them, all references to a god/gods, the divine, or the supernatural were removed.

RSP assistant editor Thomas Coleman, APA Div. 36 President Dr. Kevin Ladd, and Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Dr. Melanie Nyhof

RSP assistant editor Thomas Coleman with Dr. Kevin Ladd and Dr. Melanie Nyhof enjoying the post conference Sundance tour.

The third talk, presented by Dr. Edwinn E. Gantt, built upon the first two presentations but shifted focus examining how psychological research often misses the supernatural reality of an individual’s lived experience, while the majority of researchers hunt for naturalistic mechanisms. He argued that since people qualitatively experience the supernatural as real, psychology is doing a disservice to human experience by saying that the supernatural is just a figment of explainable mechanisms. Finally, Dr. Brent D. Slife discussed a story from his clinical internship where he specifically focused on naturalistic therapeutic approaches at the behest of his supervisor. Over time he began to feel ashamed of how this cognitive-behavioral approach shifted his clients’ focus away from her spirituality and to thoughts and behaviors that seemed to reduce her suffering. In fact, Dr. Slife argued that by focusing on the reduction of suffering, psychologists are doing a disservice to religious clients because God might intend for them to suffer and reducing this risks moving their client away from God’s wishes. This is understandable only as long as a therapist discusses their naturalistic orientation with their client and the client still chooses to continue therapy. Conversely, a religious therapist should discuss their beliefs and intent to bring these beliefs into therapy ahead of time so that if the client does not wish to participate in religious therapy they can find a new therapist.

There were two major themes gleaned from this symposium. The first was one of “religious deletion” which seemed to operate similarly within the psychological community to how “bisexual deletion” works in both gay and straight communities. Aspects of identity, thought, or experience which don’t fit within the dominant culture of the community are either ignored or dismissed as not real, as religious/supernatural ideas and experience are dismissed within the psychological community – according to the speakers (and many other psychologists of religion I have spoken with). Requiring that psychological theories (or psychologists themselves) be stripped of their religious background in order to be taken seriously within the field does a disservice to everyone involved. While the current extent of the anti-religious nature of psychology is open to study, it does seem to be present and working towards a more theologically inclusive field might be a benefit to those who study the psychology of religion and spirituality, regardless of whether or not they are religious themselves.

The second major theme was more questionable, however. The idea that consideration of the supernatural is off-limits to psychological study pervaded all the presentations, with the exception of Dr. Reber’s. Well, off-limits to “naturalistic psychology,” anyways. Ms. Starks even went so far as criticizing studies that looked at Extra Sensory Perception and dreams that could predict future events. Rather than raising any methodological critiques, she simply implied that because the researchers operated within a naturalistic framework the studies were a priori invalid. Despite saying that the supernatural exists and that it impacts the natural world of which psychological processes are a part, the speakers refused to actually discuss any methodology that could be used to study either the supernatural itself or how it impacts naturalistic psychology, even after being directly asked to go into this by a few audience questions. In doing so, the impression I was left with was that it wasn’t psychology’s job to try and peek behind the “wizard’s curtain” of religious experience and if naturalistic scientists can’t prove the non-existence of the supernatural, they should simply acknowledge that it is real since many people experience it as real. The fact that some of us actively experience the supernatural to be imaginary and very much not-real can be safely ignored in the interest of privileging religious experience.

View from the Provo Marriott conference center

View from the Provo Marriott conference center

The implication that Christianity was the religious experience that should be privileged above all others within the field was made painfully clear during the dinner hosted by BYU. In three events (a Christian prayer; a campus ministry capella group which hoped to convert non-Christian division members; and the final dinner talk in which the speaker railed against non-Christian psychologists throughout the twentieth century, non-Christian moral principles in general, and drug use in Europe, which is a clear, unambiguous indicator of a lack of religious belief in a region) there was a very clear message that non-Christians were not welcome. This was actually news to me, as I have been involved with Division 36 since 2012 and this was the third divisional mid-year conference I’d spoken at. Unfortunately, it was the first time I’d felt deeply unwelcome as an Atheist member of the division. Despite the committee organizing the conference making it clear to BYU that this was not a religious conference, the organizers at BYU ignored this and appeared to go out of their way to make the events they did have control over as hostile to non-Christians as possible, while still maintaining a facade of inclusivity.

Overall, this conference highlighted both the good and bad aspects of our sub-field. The keynote from Dr. Fincham and the symposium lead by Ms. Starks displayed the strides being made towards the rigorous study of the impacts religious and spiritual practices may have on psychological functioning and the arguments we need to have within the field to define the border areas of the natural and supernatural for the purpose of further study. Unfortunately, the sectarian aspects of BYU’s dinner events aimed exclusively towards the Christian attendees showed that we still have a long path ahead. For my part, I’m going to continue going to these mid-year conferences and advocating that those of us who study the psychology of (and/or are) religious/spiritual nonbelievers or non-Christians attend as well.

Religious Experience: Understanding and Explaining (Video)

In the academic study of ‘religion’, an organization that is at the forefront of encouraging interdisciplinary dialogue is the Grace Davie and Jay Demerath – were recorded at the SSSR Annual Meeting back in 2011. While SSSR was originally dominated by the field of sociology, there has been a recent shift in attendees toward other disciplines such as psychology, education, religious studies, nursing and others that share an interest in understanding ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ from their respective perspectives. The diversity of presenters is only matched by the diversity of paper topics presented. While SSSR is typically hosted in an US city, SSSR has gained popularity as an international conference as well with the 2014 Annual Meeting hosting the largest number of international scholars to date.

Considering these observations, the RSP collaborated with SSSR at the 2014 Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana to offer an interdisciplinary panel on the study of religion. Each of the papers presented are not only from different fields in the study of religion but also methodologically or theoretically apply an interdisciplinary approach. The authors represent the best in their fields. Some are established scholars with a body of work while others are up-and-coming talent. We hope you enjoy the RSP sponsored panel on an interdisciplinary approach to the study of religion. See below for the abstracts of the papers presented.

Many thanks to Chris SIlver, Tommy Coleman, and all at the SSSR for making this recording possible. This panel recording is somewhat different from our usual weekly podcast – if you enjoyed this, why not check out the podcast, or subscribe on iTunes? And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, knitting needles, Alien Ant Farms, and more.

The Religious Studies Project Panel on Religious Experience: Understanding and Explaining

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJp5DiV3WKc&feature=youtu.be]

Convener: Christopher Silver

W. Paul Williamson,  Poison-Drinking in Obedience to the Faith: A Phenomenological Study of the Experience

Christian serpent handlers of American Appalachia are most noted for handling venomous snakes in obedience to one of five perceived mandates of Christ in Mark 16:17-18: Casting out devils, speaking new tongues, taking up serpents, drinking poison, and laying on hands for healing. Over the past two decades, I have studied several phenomena among this compelling group including their sermons, their music, the anointing, near-death serpent bites, community support (Williamson & Hood, in press), and of course serpent handling (see Hood & Williamson, 2008, for summaries of the above uncited studies). The sign of drinking poison, however, has been largely ignored. To address this neglect, I conducted phenomenological interviews with nine serpent handlers who have practiced poison-drinking. Based on a hermeneutic analysis of these interviews, this paper presents a pattern of themes that describe the structure of meaning in the experience of drinking poison in obedience to the faith.

April Stace Vega, “That’s a Really Real Feeling”: Popular Music and the Sacralization of the Self in Evangelical Worship

“Should Churches Play ‘Highway to Hell’ in order to Reach Unbelievers?” This question is posed on a website catering to evangelical pastors with a link to a video. In the video, several prominent pastors discuss the use of the song (by rock band AC/DC) at a recent Easter morning service. It considered a controversial music choice due to the lyrics of the song and the persona that the band projects, but is also considered a useful tool for evangelism. This project is an ethnographic study on the use of music with no overtly religious lyrics in what sociologist Donald Miller terms “new paradigm” churches in the Washington, D.C. area. I view the use of popular-secular music through the lens of the subjectivization thesis of Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead. In this paper, I focus on one particular meaning ascribed to popular-secular music in these churches: the ability of the music to express “real feeling” in a way traditional sacred music does not.

Tatsushi Hirono, Corroborative Efforts between Social Workers and Religious Leaders in Natural Disaster Relief: A Comparative Analysis among the USA, Philippines and Japan

The United States of America, the Philippines, and Japan, have suffered multiple natural disasters: Typhoon in Philippines (2013), Hurricanes Sandy (2012) and Katrina (2005) in the USA, and the 8.9 Magnitude earthquake (2011) in Japan. Immediately after these natural disasters, victims needed shelter, water, food, and blankets. However, a few weeks after, they needed mental health support. The investigator hypothesizes that religion would reduce the natural disaster victims’ PTSD symptoms and increase their “hope.” He sent 1,500 mailing surveys to Christian and Buddhist clergy in the New Orleans, New York, Manila, Tacloban, Tokyo, and Fukushima areas. He found that cultural differences between Christian and Buddhist religious communities: (a) More Christian clergy thought natural disaster relief efforts are their obligation. (b) Christian clergy focus more on “comfort”, “reducing pain,” and “hope,” while Buddhist clergy focus more on “listening” and “praying” when they talk with family members who lost their loved ones.

Benjamin Bennett-Carpenter, Against Silver Bullet Explanations for Religion: Toward Interdisciplinary Conversations that Allow for Both Consilience and Divergence

Single explanations of religion from within one particular discipline are partial explanations and do not suffice by themselves. As an enterprise, the scientific study of religion will do well to continue to foster conversations across disciplinary boundaries in an overall team effort, moving, on the one hand, toward increased consilience, or a ‘unity of knowledge’ (E.O. Wilson 1998), while also allowing, on the other hand, plenty of freedom for divergence. This presentation briefly highlights key contributions from disciplines such as biology (e.g., Ridley 2004; Feierman 2009), evolutionary anthropology and cognitive psychology (e.g., Barkow, Cosmides, Tooby 1992; Boyer 2001; Atran 2002; Barrett 2004), evolutionary-oriented sociology (e.g., D.S. Wilson 2002; Diamond 2012), and semiotic-oriented communication studies (e.g., Baudrillard 1988; Raschke 2012; Bennett-Carpenter 2014) as touch-points for conversation that move toward consilience, while at the same time remaining open to divergence.

Dressing in Skins of Gods: New Approaches to Aztec Religion

Molly Bassett is an enthusiastic advocate for studying Mesoamerican religion, a welcome new direction in Religious Studies. She credits the critical mentorship of David Carrasco, Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of Latin America Studies at the Harvard Divinity School. Although she does not mention this, his influence makes her an intellectual “granddaughter” of Mircea Eliade, who was Carrasco’s principal advisor at the University of Chicago and to whom Carrasco has paid special homage in Waiting for the Dawn: Mircea Eliade in Perspective (Carrasco and Law 2009). Mostly due to a dearth of qualified teachers, interpretation of Mesoamerican religions has been undertaken by individuals with little or no formal training in religious studies. As a result, many have made their way into this field via an autodidactic approach. On the upside, Bassett emphasizes how Mesoamerican studies push scholars to be interdisciplinary. Her work on the rich Florentine Codex, the Codex Mexicanus, and other 16th century sources builds on prior work by art historians such as Diana Magaloni (a student of Mary Miller at Yale) as well as linguists, ethnohistorians, paleographers, and archaeologists.

Bassett rightly notes the preconceptions and prejudices that students typically bring to studies of the Aztecs, among them notions of human sacrifice (which, given divine reciprocity, might be better understood as “human gifting”), cannibalism (or anthropophagy, both actual and metaphorical), and other forms of ambiguous violence. These have been the subject of a brilliant essay, “Ethics and Ethnocentricity in Interpretation and Critique: Challenges to the Anthropology of Corporeality and Death,” by archaeologist Arthur Demarest (Vanderbilt) in The Taking and Displaying of Human Body Parts as Trophies by Amerindians (Chacon & Dye 2008). He outlines radically different conceptions of blood and bodies among Spanish and Aztecs, noting, for example, that Spanish horror at Aztec rituals was shaped by specific Christian beliefs about the sanctity of the blood and body of Christ, human mortality and corporality, ethnocentric perceptions that condition Western consciousness even today. For the Aztecs, flaying humans and wearing their skin inside-out (as was done with the Culhua princess) represented a profoundly different conception of personhood and corporality. Just as a hardcore vegetarian, vegan, or animal rights activist might recoil at a supermarket meat counter or a leather goods shop, Spanish reactions to Aztec practices were conditioned by distinctly non-universal values and beliefs. As Demarest writes, “Neither ethnocentric revulsion nor ethnocentric purification can substitute for elucidating, as best we can, the nature and meaning of the beliefs and practices of other societies.”

From another perspective, recent scholarship on Mesoamerican religions has been influenced by Mircea Eliade in a persistent fashion that has yet to be critically addressed. For example, discussions of Olmec and Maya religious art and iconography refer routinely to concepts of an axis mundi, a tripartite cosmology, “shamanism,” and archetypes of the World Tree and Cosmic Mountain that come directly from Eliade’s work. However, these often lack direct citations, much less critical analyses based on the history and context of Eliade’s ideas (an example of this would be the 1993 book Maya Cosmos, by Friedel, Schele, and Parker, but a pervasive use of these concepts persists to the present). These and related concepts are often taken for granted by art historians, but their tacit acceptance merits a closer analysis by scholars in Religious Studies, who may be prepared to evaluate the influence of Eliade on fields of study other than their own and to offer alternative models. One recent work relevant to Bassett’s research as well as interdisciplinary methodology is Wearing Culture: Dress and Regalia in Early Mesoamerican and Central America (Orr and Looper 2014), which considers cultures much earlier than the Aztecs, ones contemporary with early Judaism and Christianity, but lacks a Religious Studies approach.

Mesoamericanists and other specialists in pre-Hispanic cultures of Latin America often question Kirchhoff’s original 1943 model of “Mesoamerica” and its utility for understanding broader interaction in the southern U.S., Caribbean basin, southern Central America, and northern South America. Interestingly, in the same article, Kirchhoff also proposed the notion of a “Chibchan” area to the south, one that has now become even more relevant given recent announcements of the “discovery” of a “lost city” or “vanished civilization” in non-Mesoamerican eastern Honduras. Yes, Mesoamerican religion is a fascinating and stimulating area for more Religious Studies scholarship, but I’m sure Bassett would enthusiastically agree that this extends to approaches to religion throughout the Americas. She says, “Puritans pale by comparison to Aztecs,” but they also pale in comparison to Mayas, Chibchas, Taínos, Moches, Tiwanakus, Incas, and many, many others. It would be nice to think that her work is just the beginning of a Renaissance of sorts in the study of indigenous American religions and their deep and complex intersections with Christian, New Age, and other contemporary practices. For example, the rich variety of New Religious Movements (NRMs) in Latin America and the U.S. that assert neo-Aztec, Maya, and other Mesoamerican identities call for evaluation on their own terms.

Xipe Totec (“Our Lord the Flayed One”) wears the flayed skin of a sacrificial victim. “Wearing people’s skins” is powerful imagery, tied to how we understand them by putting “skins” (such as “religion”) on them.

Bassett’s emphasis on questions and methodological toolkits is especially valuable. These should include theoretical toolkits specific to Religious Studies. Mesoamerican religion is fertile ground for a host of new approaches that go well beyond traditional (Eliadean) comparative studies. Public fascination with “ancient” civilizations of Mexico (including ones such as the Aztecs that are no more ancient than Leonardo da Vinci) derive from Romantic notions that can be traced to myths of Lost Tribes and lost continents, recurrent tropes in traditions from Mormons to New Age traditions that have sought to both “other” and to mistakenly identify Native peoples. A detailed knowledge of the history of Mesoamerican studies, both scholarly and vernacular, as well as contemporary scholarship by archaeologists, art historians, and ethnohistorians is essential for approaching these. Bassett refers to how Aztecs may have sought to dress Cortes in order to treat him as a “god”. We must consider the adornments with which we dress pre-Hispanic indigenous religion in special skins in order to make it comprehensible to us. Of course, this includes even the manufactured skin of “religion” itself.

The Fate of Earthly Things

Aztec religion at the time of its encounter with the Spaniards in the early 16th century was a sophisticated mix of ritual and symbolic imagination. In this interview with Molly H. Bassett, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia, listeners are treated to a glimpse of a society where human sacrifice was a tool for encountering the divine, priests turned into gods and goddesses, and death held radical meanings for religious agents.

At the beginning of the interview, Dr. Bassett shares how she became involved in Mesoamerican studies thanks to her mentor, Davíd Carrasco. “Hardly anybody… in religious studies” works in this area, she says, instead they are in allied fields such as anthropology or history. Stressing the power of mentors on her career, Bassett reminds all scholars of the role a devoted teacher can have on one’s life. And, as the interview unfolds, the value of this disciplinarity is on display as Bassett is able to ask different questions of the Aztec sources than previous scholars have been.

After providing an overview of the many shared features of pre-Columbian cultures from Southern Texas all the way to Honduras that became known as Mesoamerican thanks to the work of ethnologist Paul Kirchhoff. Stepped pyramids, pictographic writing, ballgames, sacrifice, and common linguistic families are just a few of the traits that reveal the roots of this cultural area. Bassett’s work has included a focus on linguistics and especially through the study of texts employing pictograms (sound and symbols) as in the Florentine Codex and Codex Mexicanus. The Florentine Codex was composed by spanish speaker missionaries who encountered Aztecs, and then learned and translated Nahuatl into Spanish with the help of tri-lingual scribes into volumes that contained both text and commentary.

One of the most fascinating elements of these early codices is its portrayal of Spanish conquistador Cortez’ encounter with Aztec leader Montezuma. Bassett’s work on this encounter, especially in her recently published The Fate of Earthly Things, argues that the codices present this ritual occasion as one where the Spanish were presented as “teotl” or gods. For scholars this has been a challenging interpretative moment. Did the Aztecs really think the Spaniards were gods? No, says Bassett, and by asking what the Aztecs meant by “teotl” she reveals the potency of teixiptla or local embodiments of god(s). Montezuma, she claims, may have used the gift exchange with the Spaniards as a way to prepare Cortez for sacrifice and transformation into a teixiptla.

By the end of the interview, Bassett comes to articulate the value of Mesoamerican studies for undergraduate and graduate students. Her own experiences coming to establish material from a religious studies’ perspective suggest the importance of discipline and method in defining the questions we can ask and therefore the answers our subjects can provide. In the classroom her graduate students–often not even Americanists and rarely Mesoamericanists–are challenged by this material, especially by primary materials that have been approached by methods from different disciplines. For many scholars who teach method or theory courses, Bassett’s presentation of a primary source and the way different disciplines’ methods can limit or expand our inquiries is an excellent model for teachers in all areas and subjects.

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

Baby Boomers, Quest Culture, and Spiritual Seeking

Wade Clark Roof is Emeritus Professor of Religion and Society in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the director of the Walter H. Capps Center for the Study of Ethics, Religion and Public Life. He has published many books and articles on religion in the United States, especially focusing on developments within liberal Protestantism and American mainline congregations, the spiritual journeys of the Baby Boom generation and their effect on the spiritual marketplace, and religious pluralism and civil religion. These investigations have traced the contours of post-WWII American religious and social life, revealing the protean fluidity of “religion” and “spirituality” as scholarly and popular categories.

In this interview with Dusty Hoesly, discussion focuses on Roof’s work on the Baby Boom generation and beyond, particularly as expressed in his books A Generation of Seekers (1993) and Spiritual Marketplace (1999). In these books, Roof combined survey data with panel studies and interviews across a broad spectrum of Americans to describe the “quest culture” and “spiritual seeking” at the heart of America’s changing religious landscape, one which prizes “reflexive spirituality” amidst an increasingly pluralistic and evolving spiritual marketplace.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make – particularly as the season known by many in certain contexts as “Christmas” is just around the corner, and this might have some impact upon the buying habits of visitors to our website in contexts where this term has particular “meaning” invested in it, due to the particular histories and power structures of those contexts.

The Emerging Church

What do you get when you mix a dash of pub culture, a splash of irreverence, a healthy dose of conversation, a smattering of postmodernist critique, a drizzle of discourse on problematic concepts such as ‘religion’ and ‘the secular’, and a host of other eclectic and idiosyncratic ingredients to taste? Depending upon the measures, one possible outcome could be an ideal-typical podcast from your friends at The Religious Studies Project. Prepare in a slightly different manner and your culinary exploits could produce a manifestation of the Emerging Church. However, in the case of the latter, similar results might be obtained from a completely different set of ingredients.

The Emerging Church Movement (ECM) is notoriously difficult to define. What are scholars of ‘religion’ to do with a trend seemingly emerging both within and without many contemporary manifestations of (Western) Christianity, that is both anti-institutional and ecumenical, aims to avoid hierarchies and power structures, embraces creativity, deconstruction and experimentation, and actively promotes a ‘neutral’ and ‘non-judgmental religious space’ where almost anything goes? In this week’s podcast, Chris is joined by Dr Gladys Ganiel to discuss this ‘problematic’, important and boundary-pushing phenomenon.

In The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (Oxford, 2014), Ganiel and co-author Gerardo Marti write:

“We define Emerging Christians in terms of sharing a religious orientation built on a continual practice of deconstruction. We characterize the ECM as an institutionalizing structure, made up of a package of beliefs, practices, and identities that are continually deconstructed and reframed by the religious institutional entrepreneurs who drive the movement and seek to resist its institutionalization. As such, the ECM is best seen as a mix of both reactive and proactive elements, vying for the passion and attention of Christians and nonbelievers. Emerging Christians react primarily against conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist Protestantism but also against other forms of traditional Christianity that they have experienced as inauthentic. At the same time, they proactively appropriate practices from a range of Christian traditions […] to nourish their individual spirituality and to enhance their life together as communities.” (25-26)

What is it that makes this movement ‘Christian’? What does it do to traditional understandings of ‘religion’ and ‘secularization’? How does one research such a seemingly diffuse and unbounded phenomenon? Is it only a matter of time before this movement undergoes a process of systematization? These questions and more form the basis of a discussion which took place in May 2014, at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin in Belfast, a couple of days after the 3rd Annual Conference of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religion.

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

 

Conference Report: North American Patristics Society (NAPS) May 2014

Conference report by Nathaniel J. Morehouse, PhD, University of Manitoba

Between Thursday May 22 through Saturday May 24, the North American Patristics Society held its annual conference in Chicago. Attendance this year was an all-time high with nearly 400 members attending, and roughly 300 paper presentations over 75 sessions. It was also the first time that I had attended this conference.

Included in the sessions were two plenary lectures, the Preseditial address, and an after dinner address. The first of the plenary lectures was given by Christoph Markschies, Professor of Ancient History and Patristics at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Professor Markschies’ lecture, “God’s Body: A Neglected Dimension of Ancient Christian Religion and Theology,” reminded his audience that while much of Christian theology supports the notion that God is formless this was far from universal in ancient Christianity.

David Brakke, the Joe R. Engle Chair in the History of Christianity and Professor of History at Ohio State University, will be stepping down as the editor of the Journal of Early Christian Studies, the journal for NAPS. Dr. Brakke also gave the second plenary lecture: “The Gospel of Judas: The Beginning and End of Sethian Gnosticism.” This presentation convincingly argued that the presence of the Gospel of Judas may require scholars of “the phenomenon formerly known as Gnosticism” to rethink what is commonly known as “Sethian Gnosticism.” The Gospel of Judas seems to fit into that group, however where it fits is a matter of considerable debate; is it early or late? Brakke, suggests that rather than attempting to shoehorn the text into the construct of Sethian Gnosticism we remember that it is precisely as construct based on the textual evidence. Consequently when we have new textual evidence that doesn’t fit into that construct, rather than attempting to make the evidence fit the reified construct, we should rethink the construct.

Robin Jensen, Luce Chancellor’s Professor of the History of Christian Art and Worship at Vanderbilt University, and outgoing President of NAPS, gave the Prudential Address. Dr. Jensen’s address, “Compiling Narratives: The Visual Strategies of Early Christian Art,” sought to demonstrate the was that early Christian art – especially sarcophagal art – differed from other contemporaneous art. In essence rather than depicting a large scene with deep relief on the sarcophagus, Christian sarcophagi tended to be much shallower in relief and was made up of a series of individual images (often in two layers as the image here depicts) which stood in for a much larger narrative. This became a sort of meta-narrative through the visual short hand of these unrelated images.

After the banquet conference attendees were treated to a presentation by Philip Rousseau, the Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Professor at Catholic University of America. Professor Rousseau’s talk, “Intentio and memoria: Looking Ahead and Looking Back,” was a reflection on NAPS as a whole. While, he observed, “we are no longer North American or Patristics,” as there were attendees and presenters from beyond the geographical limits of North America, and there were sessions covering topics that have not traditionally been considered Patristics (as is my own work on martyrs), “we are still NAPS.” This is a commonality shared by all present and Rousseau urged the assembled scholars to remember that connection and take the time to meet each other informally.

Next year there will be no NAPS conference as members are encouraged to attend the XVII Conference on Patristic Studies in Oxford, U.K. which takes place August 10-14 2015. The North American Patristics Society will reconvene their annual conference May 26-28 the following year (2016) in Chicago.

Demons, possessions, and exorcisms: Sean McCloud on “Spiritual Warfare”

How should one approach the study of demons and spiritual warfare? In this conversation with University of North Carolina, Charlotte professor Sean McCloud, demons, possessions, and exorcisms that might have once been considered fringe or marginal elements of the American religious scene are now part of a robust “haunted” or supernatural landscape.

Today the spiritual warfare movement that began in mission fields in South America and Africa is now institutionalized in the charismatic New Apostolic Reformation churches as well as popularized in film and cinema. Where should we place haunted objects in the world of religious studies? What do we do with figures like Peter Wagner who led the supernatural movement and then found himself attacked by his allies?

What we find is a transnational interest with demons that has yet to be fully charted or explained. McCloud argues that rising supernatural interest coincides with consumerism and neoliberal capitalism. In the spiritual warfare manuals that serve as his primary data, capitalist and even therapeutic language seems to mark this as a product that borrows from a wide range of 20th century themes. Even perceived enemies of evangelicalism—like the soft metaphysical stylings of The Secret—become fodder for incorporation into the spiritual warfare paradigm. Welcome to the supernatural turn!

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

Religion, Secularism and the Chaplaincy

As Sullivan and other religious studies scholars complicate terms like religion and secularism, reducing these terms to near incoherence, and insist on the constant intermingling of the sacred and the secular, they leave jurists and legislators in a predicament with important practical consequences.

Religion, Secularism, and the Chaplaincy

By Dusty Hoesly, University of California, Santa Barbara

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 24 April 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Winnifred F. Sullivan on Religion and the Law (22 April 2013)

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Professor and Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Indiana University, Bloomington, may be the supreme interpreter of the intersection of law and religion in American society today.  Each of her three books—Paying the Words Extra, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, and Prison Religion—treats individual legal cases both textually and anthropologically, examining their particular cultural and legal contexts as well as their wider import for discourse in American law and society generally.  Her work is attuned equally to debates within the field of religious studies, especially to how scholars of religion constitute the object of their study.

In this interview for The Religious Studies Project, Sullivan focuses on her latest project, which examines chaplaincy in secular settings, as well as on her larger body of work.  Her recent presentation, “Ministries of Presence: Chaplains as Priests of the Secular,” uses chaplaincy as a lens for thinking beyond her previous work in critiquing constitutional and legal protections for religious freedom, and arguing for the instability and incoherence of the category of religion as a basis for legal regulation.  Putting aside her study of the management of religion in constitutional settings, in this project Sullivan examines how religion and law shape each other on the ground.  She concludes that chaplains have come to serve a role of ministering to what is increasingly understood as a universal spiritual need, which she labels a “naturalization of religion.”

For Sullivan, the figure of the chaplain in Western Christendom has always been an ambiguous figure, a minister whose duties lie away from church authority or congregational demands.  In modern secular institutions such as hospitals, prisons, and the military, the chaplain’s role remains ambiguous since, unlike doctors, guards, or soldiers, the chaplain is an explicit broker between the sacred and the secular.  The chaplain is paid by secular institutions and beholden to secular authorities, despite the religious character of the chaplain’s work or the chaplain’s religious allegiance.  Chaplains may find themselves obliged to endorse secular missions, such as nationalism or militarism, that run contrary to the chaplain’s religious mission.

The role of the chaplain and the social perception of chaplaincy in America have both changed significantly since World War II, Sullivan argues.  In the mid-twentieth century, patients, inmates, and soldiers imagined that chaplains had specific ministerial resources that were particular to each denomination, such that Catholic priests, for example, could offer services that no other denomination’s chaplains could.  Today, however, chaplaincy is far more generalized and less identified with any particular tradition.  Contemporary chaplains practice a “ministry of presence,” a stripped-down form of witness (to use a Christian word) that is a “suffering with” those seeking spiritual guidance.  Chaplains are trained to de-emphasize their individual religious identities so that they can provide a non-imposing, non-coercive presence, letting clients instead take the lead in terms of any religious specificity.

In her presentation, Sullivan observes the rise of credentialing as a major shift in chaplaincies during the 20th century.   Credentialing, rather than mere religious training, is now required in order to serve as a chaplain.  Would-be chaplains must earn a Master of Divinity degree, intern with a clinical pastoral education program, and obtain an ecclesiastical endorsement, all of which must be accredited or recognized by the government.  These cooperative efforts between state and religion have resulted in the standardization and professionalization of the chaplaincy.  Anyone can be a chaplain today, Sullivan argues.  It becomes a white collar job, one requiring expensive educational training and a lengthy apprenticeship.  As Randall Collins has argued, the credential becomes symbolic of one’s ability to do the actual work.

For chaplains who must serve a diverse clientele, including Roman Catholics, Wiccans, Southern Baptists, and atheists, specific denominational beliefs and practices, as well as religion itself, become “cultural resources” (to use James Beckford’s term).  Religion loses its claim to be sui generis, instead revealing itself to be socially constructed according to the practical needs of the moment when a client requests the services of a chaplain.  This offering of non-denominational spiritual advice to any and all seekers is illustrative of the secularization and commoditization of the chaplaincy.

But the process is not complete and, therefore, neither is Sullivan’s analysis.  Atheists and secular humanists may be consumers of chaplaincy services, but they are not yet permitted by the government to serve as chaplains in hospitals, prisons, or the military.  Even if the credentialing process in theory is open to any person, from whatever background, as Sullivan claims, this does not mean that anyone can become a chaplain in actual practice.  Groups such as the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers are seeking recognition by the Armed Forces Chaplains Board, but they have been unsuccessful so far.  That said, many prisons now include yoga and meditation groups, blurring the boundary between secular and religious practices and challenging the role of prison chaplains as exclusive brokers between the sacred and the secular.  And some higher education institutions, including Harvard, Rutgers, Stanford, Columbia, and American University, now incorporate humanist chaplaincies, responding to a growing call for guidance that is explicitly secular.

How might these humanist movements complicate Sullivan’s analysis?  Sullivan argues that in contemporary American jurisprudence religion has become a universal human phenomenon, albeit one that takes many forms.  But in the instances noted above, we see people who reject religion and yet who desire counseling and meaningful ritual during difficult times in their lives.  These people feel that they are not being best served by the supposedly secularized chaplains which Sullivan describes.  They want a chaplain with a particularly secular worldview rather than a naturalized non-denominational Protestantism which they perceive as coercive and not representative of their beliefs.  While Sullivan maintains that today’s chaplains are priests of the secular, actual secular people are excluded from the chaplaincy.

As Sullivan and other religious studies scholars complicate terms like religion and secularism, reducing these terms to near incoherence, and insist on the constant intermingling of the sacred and the secular, they leave jurists and legislators in a predicament with important practical consequences.  If religion and secularism are unstable and interpenetrating categories in American law, as Sullivan has argued, how can bureaucratic functionaries or judges justify excluding secular humanists from the chaplaincy?  Despite Sullivan’s claims about the naturalization of religion and the homogenization of the chaplaincy, American law still recognizes distinctions between what is religious and what is secular, and so do the people who consume and seek to provide chaplaincy services.

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

About the Author

Dusty Hoesly is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in Religions of North America.  His research focuses on religion and irreligion in the American West, specifically the values held by people who self-describe as not religious, how those values developed, how they translate into social or political action, and how irreligious people interpret experiences that stand apart from ordinary life.  Incorporating fieldwork, surveys, and historical and material culture research, this project will help explain the growth of religious “nones” in the U.S. and reexamine the categories of sacred and secular in contemporary society.  Other research interests include religion in the American West, comparative secularisms, liberal evangelicalism, and religion and politics. He has previously published The Last Best Hope of Earth? Bron Taylor and the Limits of Dark Green Religion for the Religious Studies Project.

Bibliography

  • Collins, Randall. The Credential Society: A Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification. New York: Academic Press, 1979.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. Paying the Words Extra: Religious Discourse in the Supreme Court of the United States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. Princeton, NJ: Princeton             University Press, 2009.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. “We Are All Religious Now. Again.” Social Research 76.4 (2009): 1181-1198.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. Prison Religion: Faith-Based Reform and the Constitution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Podcasts

Black Religious Movements and Religio-Racial Identities during the Great Migration

In this podcast, Judith Weisenfeld talks to Brad Stoddard about her new book, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Depression. In this book, Weisenfeld explores several social groups in the early 1900s who combined religious and racial rhetoric to fashion new identities. These groups include the Nation of Islam, the Moorish Science Temple, and Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement, and various Ethiopian Hebrews. These groups are not new to scholars of American religious history; however, Weisenfeld’s original analysis combined with her use of previously overlooked sources combine to tell a new and compelling story about these familiar groups.

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, Silly Putty, and more.

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

Black Religious Movements and Religio-Racial Identities during the Great Migration

Podcast with Judith Weisenfeld (26 June 2017).

Interviewed by Brad Stoddard

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Weisenfeld – Black Religious Movements 1.1

Brad Stoddard (BS): Hello, this is Brad Stoddard for the Religious Studies Project. Today I have the pleasure of talking with Judith Weisenfeld, who is the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion at Princeton. And she joins me today to talk about her new book, New World a-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration. Welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Judith Weisenfeld (JW): Thanks, Brad.

BS: You write in this book that,“This book is the study of the theologies, practices, community, formations and politics of early 20th century black religious movements, that fostered novel understandings of the history and racial identity of people conventionally categorised as negro in American society.” Which specific groups do you address, and which story do they collectively tell?

JW: The book is a comparative study of the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation of Islam, Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement and a number of congregations of Black Hebrews. And I pursue this comparative study in order to think about the ways in which they each engage with questions of racial identity through a religious frame. They all emerged at the same time in the early 20th century, founded by migrants from the south to northern cities, or immigrants from the Caribbean to these same northern cities. And I was interested in, again, the ways in which they were all thinking about black racial identity history and doing so in ways that insisted that religion was to be part of these discussions. And so, taken together, we get a sense of a really vibrant conversation going on in black American life, in these groups and beyond these groups, about race and peoplehood – who we are. And I think one of the ways in which people have conventionally approached race and racial identity is to understand race as reality – race exists: people are of this race, that race, another race. With the rise of Critical Race Studies and thinking about race as a social construction, scholars have begun to talk more about race – not as a biological fact, but as socially produced. And in that kind of discussion, which informs much of my work, people who are not white are often presented as the objects of racial construction. So race is a social construction that produces hierarchy. It provides tools for controlling, otherising and so on. And so, people who are so racialised rarely appear as agents in discussion about race. And in looking at these groups together it became clear to me that, again, in these groups and in broader black public culture, people were asking these questions about who we are, racially. And these groups presented a really profound challenge to the conventional category of negro and the ways in which Christianity had become the kind-of assumed “appropriate” religion. And so, taking them together, we see black religious subjects talking about race, producing race, rejecting, changing and so on.

BS: Most of these groups, not all of them, emerged or were founded or created within a relatively short time period. What is significant about this time period in American history and why was it so ripe for the production of so many diverse religio-racial identities?

JW: These groups all come out of the period of the Great Migration, which begins around World War I: the movement of rural southern African-Americans, to urban contexts – the Urban South. And also the largest element of that was a northward migration. And so northern cities see huge increases in the black population over those decades, through . . . and there a various waves of it. I focus from the early ‘20s to the late ‘40s. (5:00) And so, people are moving to cities and on the East Coast in particular, in New York and Newark and Philadelphia, they are also interacting with immigrants from the Caribbean – mostly from the British West Indies but also from Danish, French and so on. And these urban contexts become a laboratory for the production of all sorts of new cultural movements. So we get the Harlem Renaissance and the cultural productions of Chicago, where black films, for example, get produced and exhibited; music and literary productions. And religious transformation is also one of the components of the social changes and the cultural changes of the Great Migration. And while these groups remain in the minority, it’s in these urban laboratories . . . . And there are political changes as well: we see the rising of Socialists and Communists. And Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association is based in Harlem, and it is also a kind of engine for thinking about black peoplehood in new ways. And so, these are people who are moving. They’re born – the members who join, and also the founders – they’re born at the end of Reconstruction, some of them at the beginning. They’re born as Jim Crow segregation really locks down life in the South. And then they’re part of this Great Migration. And I think one of the things that they’re struggling with is, “We’re no longer slaves,” and there was the potential of reconstruction, “but things are not . . . things are different, but things are not different in important ways”. And so [there’s] a kind of questioning of this hopeful trajectory of the Exodus, for example – questioning the degree to which black churches can be agents of liberation. And what’s really so powerful in these groups – for me I found really interesting – is just questioning the very terms of identity, who we are: is this who we are? “If this is who we are”, a lot of them say, “I don’t necessarily want that”. There’s a story of a man, who’s named only as Horace X, and he encounters the Nation of Islam, in Chicago, in the ‘40s. And he had tried out, he had grown up in the Church, he had tried out different . . . all sorts of different groups: political groups that had promised migration to Africa, and other kinds of religious groups that he’s joined – the Freemasons. And in the story he tells to a Sociologist, he heard someone preaching on the street: “This is not who you are. They told you you were a negro; they told you you were a Christian. That’s not true: I have the truth.” And he said, “I was ashamed to have been born a negro before this, and when I heard that, everything changed for me.” And it’s that kind-of rethinking of identity that I found so compelling and wanted to know more about. And I think it’s precisely the convergence of all of these things in the urban context that makes that possible.

BS: When you were describing Horace X it reminded me of what scholars refer to as the “seeker mentality”, but it’s alive and well, in different communities, much earlier – as you’re describing it.

JW: Yes, I found a number of cases like that in all of the groups, where people said, “I tried this, I tried that.” Sometimes they’re doing multiple things at the same time. And, when I started the research, I was revisiting some of the secondary literature and things I had read many times before, but hadn’t thought about it in relation to writing about these groups. And I looked back at a document by Miles Mark Fisher, who was an African-American minister and also a University of Chicago PhD after he wrote this. He wrote a piece called “Organised Religions and the Cults”, and he was advocating for the inclusion of some of these newer movements in the US census of religious bodies that was coming up in 1935, I think it would have been. And he was making the case that these are not numerically powerful groups, but that they spoke about something that was going on in African-American life. And in order to understand religion in American life, the Census Bureau should survey them. (10:00) And he also told a story. He said, “It’s very hard to tell . . . to draw a line between churches and the cults”, as he called them. And he told the story of his Sunday School teacher, who had also been a member of what he characterised as a cult. And he did that and was also a Sunday School teacher, and was buried out of the church. And so, returning to that piece sparked for me this sense that, as he made clear, the line is not that sharp between them; that people are moving sequentially through these or trying them out at the same time. And the other thing that became really important for me was to think about members of these groups, and the kinds of conversations they are engaged in, as part of a broader set of conversations in the black life at the time. So, not to marginalise them as strange people who put on fezzes and rejected all sorts of things to move off on their own – they were boundaried in lots of ways. But the kinds of questions they were asking were not strange, for that period. They were, actually, very much a part of what I call the kind-of public culture of race in black America.

BS: Scholars have discussed all of these groups before. In your book you bring, of course, your unique analytical lens to it, but you also bring new sources and new groups of people. So can you speak – and when I think of new people, you focus a lot on Caribbean people and their impact on these movements – also can you speak to your sources, and the groups of people who are included in your narrative?

JW: Sure. One of the . . . . As you said, scholars have written about these groups, the Moorish Science Temple and its’ founder Noble Drew Ali, the Nation of Islam and W D Fard and Elijah Mohammad, Father Divine and also scholarship on black or Ethiopian Hebrews. And all that . . . . Those are texts that consider these groups individually, and focus primarily on the leaders and the theologies that they promoted. And I was interested in what it would mean to put them together in one study and think about, as I’ve said, the way they talk about race – reimagine race in a religious frame. And I ended up calling that ‘religio-racial identity” because, for them, as all the founders preached, religion and race are inextricably linked.And once you understand your religious identity – be it as an Asiatic Muslim, as the Nation of Islam and Moorish Science Temple would talk about it; or an Ethiopian Hebrew; or for Father Divine’s movement, raceless – once you know that, you know what your religion is supposed to be as well. So Islam, for the Nation of Islam, was created for the Asiatic; you can’t separate those things. And I felt, in reading some of the secondary literature, that people were . . . scholars were really interested in how to talk about the religious transformations that these groups represented, but didn’t really take seriously these claims of Asiatic or Ethiopian identity. And I wanted to know (I see them – in reading the primary sources – for these people, inextricably linked ) and I wanted to know how – if you are Horace X and you hear a minister of the Nation of Islam preaching, “You are not a negro Christian, you are an Asiatic Muslim” – how did Horace X go about being that thing that he came to believe he really was? And so finding what the average members did was really a challenge. (15:00) And this is, I think, why most of the texts really focus on the theologies of the leaders. And so, I ended up benefitting from some recent archival sources. Emory, for example, has a Father Divine collection that has a huge number of letters to and from Father Divine that give the texture of life in the movement – though those are not unconventional. But I ended up using vital records: the census and government documents like draft cards that are, many of them, available at ancestry.com. And reading those kinds of documents – I just kind of stumbled on them as a way into this – showed me how profoundly important it was to members of these groups that they be represented in public, in official documents, with the religio-racial identity they had claimed and, in some cases, the names they had chosen to reflect their true identities. And so we see, in the draft cards of these men going in, there’s a pre-printed category or column of racial categories listed. And it’s white, negro, Asian Filipino, Indian – it says Oriental on the 1942 form. And these men say, “None of those categories fit me.” And so you have to write Moorish American. And they were successful in doing that. And those kinds of documents were, again, a completely unexpected way of finding names of average members, but also an unexpected source for finding out ways to kind-of calibrate the stakes and their investment in it. So, if you’re potentially being drafted into the military, and you’re struggling over how you’re represented racially on this form, it means a lot to you. And I see it on the census and things like that. I learned all kinds of things from the census about residential patterns of these groups. So I spent a lot of time on ancestry.com!

BS: (Laughs) Excellent.

JW: On the topic of both new sources and new social actors, I was interested in the role of immigration from the West Indies from the Caribbean in this story. Because they are there. It is Marcus Garvey’s . . . . He was a Jamaican immigrant who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and proposed a sense of global black identity. He did embrace the label negro, but he really generated a sense of black pride, a connection to Africa, investment in collective political engagement in a ways that was new for the period, and in a lot . . . . He was from Jamaica and a lot of the people in the movement, when it was headquartered in Harlem, were from the Caribbean. And this gets erased a lot – very often, I think, in African-American history – that these were people who come from a very different social and political context, in many ways, to the US – and religious context as well. There are commonalities, but they have cultural differences and they’re negotiating them. And these movements emerge, in part, out of those cultural negotiations across communities. But it also turns out that most of the Ethiopian Hebrews are Caribbean immigrants, the vast majority of people in the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam are African-Americans, and Father Divine’s movement has a mix. And so this project was interesting, to me, to think about, again, black racial identity across not just African-American, but thinking about how these groups were in conversation with one another. I didn’t do as much as I had hoped to attend to the cultural specifity of West Indian immigrants in the story, so I hope somebody else will pick that up.

BS: As I read your book, you’re suggesting that membership in one of these groups required the person to undergo a rather thorough process of reimagining. And I have a couple of questions about that reimagining. How did membership of one of these groups – and I know it varied from group to group – but what were some of the major ways that it involved them reimaging their sense of self and even their bodies? (20:00)

JW: That was one of the ways I tried to answer the question of: if yesterday you thought you were a negro Christian and today you have been persuaded that you are a raceless child of Father Divine, or Ethiopian Hebrew – how do you do that? And so I looked at these practices of self-fashioning that are different, as you said, in each of the groups. But I did find some patterns in that, for many of them, changing their names was important and, in the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam, rejecting the name, the . . . . Well, in the Nation of Islam, rejecting the slave name and reclaiming (what they talked about as) a kind of “tribal” name or “true” name – for both the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam – was an important step of kind-of separating from old self and moving into the new self. And in Father Divine’s Peace Mission they rejected their (what they talked of as) “mortal names” and took spiritual names that reflected their new status. So these processes of separation from the former identity and taking on a new one that reflects your true history, as they talked about it, was important. Some of the groups took on forms of dress that also spoke about that history, that lineage. The Moorish Science Temple were the most notable one with adopting Moorish dress: the fez for men and turbans for women. And, again, the draft cards were really interesting sources for me for thinking about the meaning of that, and the ways in which men who were registering for the draft thought of that fez as, actually, part of their bodies. And it was Nobel Drew Ali who enjoined them to wear the fez at all times. But when you see on the draft cards that they list that as a physical characteristic, by which they can be identified . . . . You know it’s: they have a scar, or a missing digit, or something like that. It revealed, again, how much they saw as kind-of reimagining their body, in a profound way, into this being that could be recognised as its true self, now. Names, dress, some of the group reimagined skin colour, adopted different kind of terminology for talking about the surface of the body. Moorish Science Temple, again, used the term “olive”. They talked about themselves as olive-skinned Moors. And it didn’t matter that there might not be a correspondence between what the beholder might think they looked like, but it was a theological way of talking about skin colour as connected to Allah and scripture, and the catechism explained that. And then practices of diet, again, they kind of separate you from your old self and you take on a true diet that remakes you and keeps you healthy. All of these groups actually had a deep investment in longevity, and thought that – in different ways – the poison diet – the wrong diet of enslavement and negro-ness and Christianity, to a certain extent, had debilitated black people as individuals and black people as a whole. So they developed certain dietary practices: either feasting or fasting, in different cases; certain foods; and also they all had investments in healing, sometimes through medicine, sometimes through diet. And they all, actually, believed that black people could live for a very, very long time, if not – in Father Divine’s group – for ever, and that enslavement in the Americas had made that impossible, but they were being restored to that possibility.

BS: Part of that reimagining also involved them reimagining their sense, not only geographically, but also historically. It seems that the dominant narrative at this time, in African-American communities, was to understand their position in history relative to slavery. And these new religious movements in this period provided a whole new understanding of history. Can you speak to that? (25:00)

JW: That was one of , I think, the great appeals of these movements. And collectively they do the same kind of work. And in some ways saying, “You are not a negro” is saying the same thing: “Your history did not begin with slavery.” The negro is, all of them would argue, a racial category that was produced only in America – or through slavery in the Americas – and that it was a containing trap to imagine yourself that way, and that God didn’t make you that way. So then one has to say, “Well, who are we?” Right? “What is our history?” And so they all insist that, in one way or another, black history began before slavery – which of course we know – and fill that in. And so in some cases they’re arguing that . . . . So, the Moorish Science Temple says: we are actually the descendents of . . . we are Moroccan, born in America. And then [it] also uses the Bible to trace back even further, so that there is a Biblical connection. But the Moorish Science Temple wants to orient people to the geographic space of Morocco, and use that as a way of talking about the beginning of history. Ethiopian Hebrew congregations again use the Bible to talk about Biblical history as African history and African history as Biblical history. They are interested in Ethiopia but there are also other geographic locations in Africa they they’re interested in. And for Father Divine’s Peace Mission and the Nation of Islam, it’s less a geographic connection – although the Nation of Islam is very interested in Mecca. And for the Peace Mission, Father Divine’s kingdom on earth is where . . . he is there and he’s created this Utopia. But their approach to rejecting the history of negros and enslavement involved not geography, but time – is how I came to think about it. So the Nation of Islam, there’s a lot of . . . . In African-American Christians, and also in the Ethiopian Hebrew groups and the Moorish Science Temple, there’s a lot of engagement with the Bible, and looking for where we are, and how to fit our history there. And the Nation of Islam says: “ Lets just throw that away. Because even from the beginning of time, from the moment of creation, that’s where we are. We have to get rid of . . . .The Bible tells us the whole story wrong.” And Father Divine – time approaches to say: “Race is a product of the devil, I’ve returned to usher in a new heaven and new earth. Heaven is not some far-off thing; it’s here now. And so we start from now. You can enter my kingdom if you do all of these things. And you’re not a negro, that’s from the past. And being a negro is why you die. And if you reject all of that you can live with me for ever.” So the Nation of Islam projected back to the moment of creation and Father Divine projected forward into an eternal future. There’s a great . . . . He would send out this Christmas and New year’s card, in the late ‘40s, that had his image and Mother Divine, his wife, and it said : “One eternal Merry Christmas, one eternal Happy New Year!”

BS: Very good! Thank you. Well, I’d like to say that this is a phenomenal book. And I can imagine it finding a home in quite a few Religious Studies courses, actually. So, best of luck with the book, and thank you so much for your time and your insights. I appreciate it.

JW: Thank you.

Citation Info: Weisenfeld, Judith 2017. “Black Religious Movements and Religio-Racial Identities during the Great Migration”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 26 June 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 21 June 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/black-religious-movements-and-religio-racial-identities-during-the-great-migration/

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Religion and American Law

In this interview, Professor Eric Mazur discusses a variety of issues relating to religion and law in the USA, such as the evolving state of First Amendment jurisprudence, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, dominant trends in the study of religion and American law, and controversial legislation such as the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. Dr. Mazur also discusses his efforts to help cultivate a space at the American Academy of Religion that is explicitly devoted to the study of religion and American law. This interview provides an introduction and summary of this increasingly important field.

Minority Religions and the Law, and our general introduction to Religion and the Law with Winnifred F. Sullivan. 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, potpourri, vintage cars, and more.

New Religious Movements and Contemporary Discourses About Religion

As I listened to Susan Palmer’s RSP interview and read about her new co-authored book (with Stuart A. Wright) Storming Zion: Government Raids on Religious Communities (2015), I was reminded why NRMs make such useful case studies in the religious studies classroom. From a pedagogical perspective, the study of NRMs offers a valuable resource for creative teaching and theorizing about religion. In my introductory classes, for example, I use Scientology to illustrate how NRMs have negotiated with the state in their quest for legitimacy. There is plenty of great scholarship to assign, and students are often surprised to learn how seemingly unrelated government agencies–the Food and Drug Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation–helped legitimate Scientology’s “religion” status.

One of the most useful parts of Palmer’s interview, then, is her insistence on paying attention to the words people use to describe NRMs. Winnifred Sullivan, in her recent book, argues that the US government (and the US Supreme Court in particular) increasingly understands “religion” as “being neither particularly threatening nor particularly in need of protection” (17). The trend, as Sullivan and others have noted, is increasingly to see people as religious by default, even (and perhaps especially) those people who do not see themselves as religious. What, then, are we to make of religious groups whose relationship with the state do not fit this mold? How do we explain relationships so contentious that they result in raids and gun battles? At first glance, the events chronicled in Palmer’s Storming Zion seem to be outliers. Yet Palmer and Wright suggest elsewhere that these kinds of raids are more common than one might suspect. Why?

One possible answer is that increased attention to religion by international governments and NGOs has not necessarily resulted in less problematic models of religion being used by these governments and groups. As Elizabeth Shakman Hurd has pointed out in her recent book, what scholars understand as “religion” often makes for unwieldy government use. Hurd demonstrates how government classifications of religion are by necessity rigid and slow to respond to change, leading governments to understand and engage religion in a clumsy–and in Palmer’s studies, dangerous–fashion.

Of course, most of the large-scale government efforts directed at cultivating appropriate forms of religion aren’t directed at the kinds of groups Palmer studies. It boils down to size, as Palmer and Robertson both note: smaller groups can be more easily dismissed or ignored by those in power. This is another example of the way in which governments separate religious groups into what might be called “serious” and “unserious” camps, an approach sometimes replicated by the scholars who study them. Both Palmer and Davidson call for more work to be done to change this status quo. They would like to see groups with little political or social capital treated similarly to “big name” religions–the groups that get chapters devoted to them in World Religions textbooks. They would like to see, to paraphrase JZ Smith, how the “exotic” NRMs are just another example of “what we see in Europe everyday.” Smith notes the difference by explaining it as a tension “between religion imagined as an exotic category of human experience and expression, and religion imagined as an ordinary category of human expression and activity.”[1] (1). Thus, as Palmer points out, even the seemingly “exotic” components of NRMs–things like brainwashing and deprogramming–should be both historicized and theorized.[2]

These considerations are timely ones. Though the interview focuses on what religion scholars might expect to hear on work related to NRMs–Raelians, Scientologists, millennial movements of various stripes–I was struck by how much of what was discussed would apply to Islam. Robertson and Palmer note how the media and popular culture tend to portray NRMs in particularly dismissive or fear-inducing ways. As events of recent weeks have again reminded us, what do we make of the fact that Islam is often discussed using similar language? The same kinds of militarized policing tactics directed at NRMs have, in recent weeks, been endorsed by a number of candidates for U.S. president as a means to control Muslims in the United States and around the world.

There’s a relevant history to this “NRM-ization” of Islam, particularly in the United States. Those interested in Palmer’s work, and in her work on government raids on NRMs, should also make time for Sylvester Johnson’s African-American Religions, 1500-2000, specifically his study of the history of the US government’s surveillance of and violence towards African-American Muslims. Johnson’s work highlights many of the tensions Palmer identifies: how classificatory criticism (“authentic” religion versus “cults”) bolstered state action against the political claims of new and emerging religious groups (in this specific case, the Nation of Islam). As a result, Johnson argues, “US officials increasingly resorted to the specific grammar of terrorism to represent political Islam.”[3] While scholars do not usually place global Islam within the category of new religious movements, Johnson shows how this early racialization of Islam within the United States shapes how global Islam is treated by the US government today.

For someone like myself, interested in questions of law and religion, the tension between emerging religious groups and state authorities is one of particular importance. Susan Palmer’s interview is a great example of why new religious movements make such good tools with which scholars can think about the study of religion.

[1] Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (University Of Chicago Press, 1982), xii.

[2] For one excellent and recent example, see Matthew Dunne, A Cold War State of Mind: Brainwashing and Postwar American Society (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).

[3] Sylvester Johnson, African American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 382.

Surveying the Sacred and Secular

The RSP’s interview with Darren Sherkat arrives at a time when research on religion has caught a bit of the media spotlight. Both The Atlantic and Religion Dispatches recently touched on issues with surveys in their reviews of Robert Wuthnow’s new book, Inventing American Religion. In this book, Wuthnow argues that the turn toward survey research shaped our perceptions of “American” religion by producing some stark generalizations, because religious experiences are simply too complex to reduce to national trends captured by survey questions alone (2015:13). I enjoyed the RSP’s interview in light of these challenges because Sherkat reminds us what goes into good polling, why we still do it, and what important lessons it can provide for both social scientists studying religion and the broader public.

What goes into good survey research?

Sherkat and Wuthnow do agree on some major points. We should ask for fewer, larger, and higher quality survey studies rather than just polling willy-nilly. My dissertation research looks at the political impact of the growing non-religious population in the United States, and so I spend a lot of time between surveys on both religion and politics, which face their own challenges during this pre-election season.

Part of the reason polling gets a bad rap is the valid criticism that survey questions cannot capture the nuances of respondents’ beliefs and values, and they are therefore not a good representation of respondents’ religious lives. Fair enough, and sociological research has long challenged the idea that public opinion is good at reflecting the reality of respondents’ conscious thoughts and beliefs. Sherkat gets at this point when he highlights the differences between identities and identifications—a gap between how people think about their religious experiences and whether they affiliate with institutions or established systems of belief. Rather than claim they can capture the nuances of identity, a lot of research thinks about public opinion as a way to capture bigger cultural styles using a “dual process” theory of cognition. This means it is less interested in figuring out what groups of people consciously believe, think about, or talk about. Instead, this work focuses on finding patterns in how people make quick judgements. With a good representative sample, we can learn about how religion shapes the way people answer new questions, rather than what they believe about the issues alone.

Why does that matter?

As Sherkat discusses in this interview, “nones” make up about 20% of the American population. This group makes a great case study for why survey work still matters despite its challenges. Researchers in my field have done a lot of excellent qualitative work looking at non-religious people in the United States. They find that non-religious experiences are just as complex and diverse as religious experiences. We have spiritual but not religious folks, atheists, agnostics, deists, brights, “nothing in particulars”, post-religious people, six kinds of atheism, four ways of talking about the secular, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Even if the “nones” feel a common affinity toward one another for breaking from religious affiliation, underneath the surface they do not agree on much. From the perspective of this qualitative work, this 20% of the U.S. population is not homogeneous; it has substantial ideological and philosophical diversity.

As Sherkat points out in the interview, however, ethnographic research alone can also skew our picture of what is going on if the sub-groups of interest are quite small. This is not at all to say studying a small group is not important, only that we have to remember to step back and synthesize those lived experiences with a larger structural picture. Survey research so far shows us that Americans who disaffiliate from religion often share one particular cultural style: a preference for personal autonomy over received authority (Hout and Fischer 2014). In their new book, American Secularism, Baker and Smith (2015:92) show that atheists, agnostics, and unaffiliated believers have a variety of personal spiritual practices, but they also share a “relatively uniform disengagement from public religion.” When we design survey questions from the ground up based on qualitative findings, as Marcus Mann (2015) did in his study of political and communal motivations for joining local and national atheist groups, we can test whether those findings hold for a range of people and represent a distinct cultural pattern. 20% of the U.S. population with a unique style of evaluating political information could have a huge impact, but we still need quality survey research to test whether these patterns exist and what they do.

What should we do?

One interpretation of Wuthnow’s valid critique of surveys is that our reliance on polling marginalizes the most meaningful religious experiences. Emma Green, writing in The Atlantic , provides the following take on Wuthnow’s work:

Polling has become the only polite language for talking about religious experience in public life…If you mourn anything, mourn the meaningful Grappling With Existence that has to happen in private spaces, rather than public ones, an experience that’s not well-understood or often taken seriously.

Sherkat’s interview reminds us that a lot of the polls facing this criticism are also not ideal sources for scientific research, and survey work is still an important way to understand the American (non)religious experience. To steal a line from my advisor, for each person “grappling with existence” there’s another making a grocery list in church. If big survey research alone often misses the former, sifting for the interesting personal story alone can risk missing the later. Synthesizing both lets us clearly define what parts of religiosity we want to measure, such as whether we are interested in atheism as non-belief or a label with which respondents identify. This often means going back to the drawing board and critiquing long-standing survey questions, but if we put our efforts into good design grounded in testing the findings from qualitative researchers, we stand to gain a lot more than we do by turning away from surveys altogether.

For work on cultural styles, (non)religion, and public opinion, see:

Baker, Joseph O. and Buster G. Smith. 2015. American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems. New York: NYU Press.

Blankholm, Joseph. 2014. “The Political Advantages of a Polysemous Secular.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 53(4):775–90.

Edgell, Penny. 2012. “A Cultural Sociology of Religion: New Directions.” Annual Review of Sociology 38(1):247–65.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2001. “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment.” Psychological Review 108(4):814–34.

Hout, Michael and Claude Fischer. 2014. “Explaining Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Political Backlash and Generational Succession, 1987-2012.” Sociological Science 1:423–47.

Hout, Michael and Claude S. Fischer. 2002. “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations.” American Sociological Review 67(2):165–90.

Mann, Marcus. 2015. “Triangle Atheists: Stigma, Identity, and Community Among Atheists in North Carolina’s Triangle Region.” Secularism and Nonreligion, 4(11): 1–12 http://dx.doi.org/10.5334/snr.bd

Perrin, Andrew J. and Katherine McFarland. 2011. “Social Theory and Public Opinion.” Annual Review of Sociology 37(1):87–107.

Perrin, Andrew J., J. Micah Roos, and Gordon W. Gauchat. 2014. “From Coalition to Constraint: Modes of Thought in Contemporary American Conservatism.” Sociological Forum 29(2):285–300.

Silver, Christopher F., Thomas J. Coleman III, Ralph W. Hood Jr, and Jenny M. Holcombe. 2014. “The Six Types of Nonbelief: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study of Type and Narrative.” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 17(10):990–1001.

Vaisey, Stephen. 2009. “Motivation and Justification: A Dual‐Process Model of Culture in Action.” American Journal of Sociology 114(6):1675–1715.

2015 Conference on Religion and American Culture Report

The Biennial “Conference on Religion and American Culture” was held June 4 to June 7, 2015 in Indianapolis. The conference is sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture and Religion & American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Jeffrey Wheatley, a PhD student at Northwestern University.

This was my second visit to RAAC, which follows the fishbowl format (one whose physical layout is similar to a UFC cage match, but the audience gets to participate). The format makes RAAC a great venue for assessing current and future trends in the study of religion and the United States. Unfortunately, I cannot relate all of the great perspectives, questions, and arguments in a single blog post. Instead I will focus on two topics that prompted some (not all!) of the liveliest discussion. Interested to know more? Feel free to examine the conference program. I recommend combing through the conversation that took place on Twitter by searching #RAAC2015. You also can look forward to reading the proceedings, which will eventually be published.

We Need Some Space

Two panels focused on how we spatially frame the study of Religion and American Culture: “American Religion and Global Flows” and “’Religion in the Americas’ as an Organizational Paradigm.” Both on some level critiqued the dominance of national boundaries in delineating what we study and how we study it. Scholars, especially those interested in power, have much to gain by looking at transnational networks.

A full room during the panel that included Sylvester Johnson, Thomas Tweed, and Kristy Nabhan-Warren. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

A full room during the panel that included Sylvester Johnson, Thomas Tweed, and Kristy Nabhan-Warren. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

Zareena Grewal discussed her research on Muslim communities in the United States and suggested that we need not lose sight of the importance of ideas in a transnational focus. For example: race, she argued, is intricately connected to theological conversations. For Muslims in the United States, religion and race are negotiated through transnational networks whose main nodes are elsewhere, primarily in the Middle East. Kristy Nabhan-Warren, in a paper that would continue to be referenced throughout the conference, emphasized the importance of story-telling and the need for scholars to listen, both to our subjects of study and our students. Over-reliance on paradigms, she cautioned, can hinder our capacity to let subjects speak. Sylvester Johnson argued we need to highlight the framework of the “Americas” in graduate programs. Such training is useful not for going beyond the nation-state, he suggested, but to understand the importance of settler colonialism in the formation of many nation-states, including the United States. The Americas framework is also conducive for incorporating perspectives beyond (yet not to the exclusion of) the Anglo-American Protestantism that dominates the study of American religions.

Commenting, Stephen Prothero raised an important question: are we arguing that global flows in particular demand more scholarship? Or are we suggesting that the global is one geographical frame out of many (e.g., a single church, a neighborhood, a city or local region, a state, a nation, etc . . .)? And how might we relate these various scales in reference to one another? The question of scale seems to me to be not just about where and who we study, but about what we study and how we study it.

Beginning and Ending with Religion and “Religion”

RAAC began with Robert Orsi commenting on what the study of religion means when religion has become “religion.” The final panel, although technically entitled “Liberalism vs. Pluralism” and inspired by Kathryn Lofton’s comment at RAAC 2013 about the defeat of pluralism, ultimately returned to this question. As Ariel Schwartz noted, the room quickly went beyond what was stated in the printed program. The last panel quickly became a sweeping debate over Foucauldian genealogy, studies of secularism, and the question of what constitutes the proper objects/subjects of the study of religion. (Perhaps we can revisit liberalism and pluralism in 2017?)

Stephen Prothero jump-started the conversation by pointing to John Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America as an example of a rupture in the study of religion away from lived religion, bodies, and historical story-telling towards an emphasis on the construction of categories, especially our own as scholars of religion. The hard-earned fruits of the former, he suggested, might be obscured by the latter. Referencing Sydney Ahlstrom’s classic work, Prothero asked, can we study the religious history of the American people, or must we study the “religious” “history” of the “American” “people”? Prothero asked the audience to picture two doors. The first is genealogical. The second, which he chooses, is the historical ethnographic. Pamela Klassen defended genealogy, pointing to important work that excavates the norms of liberal Protestantism embedded in discourses of pluralism. During the comments, Leigh Schmidt wondered if we can find a middle ground between stories about people in the sense Prothero intended and the importance of categories.

The final panel. From left to right: Stephen Prothero, Leigh Schmidt, and Pamela Klassen. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

The final panel. From left to right: Stephen Prothero, Leigh Schmidt, and Pamela Klassen. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

The conversation brought up a number of questions. Is the door metaphor providing us with a false dichotomy? Is the construction of categories necessarily separate from the intimate lives of real people? Why is Modern’s book the main example of the genealogical method? Is genealogy only about scholarly categories? How might the practices of story-telling, emphasized throughout the weekend, relate to the genealogical method? Is “jargon” a crucial part of our scholarly community or a hindrance to the publicity and relevance of our writing? Cara Burnidge, playing with Prothero’s metaphor, asked the room to consider the following: what framework allows for these two doors? That is: this conversation is not only about our field in the abstract. The conversation is about the field’s institutional future, its relationship with other disciplines, and the job prospects of younger scholars.

Overall, this panel was the closest we got to a UFC match. A number of passionate comments from the panelists and the audience signaled the high stakes of the questions posed. It was an all-around provocative conversation.

Final Thoughts

In my effort to provide a thick account of the conference by focusing on two topics, I am leaving out a number of great panels, papers, and comments that deserve attention. These include but are not limited to: Judith Weisenfeld’s use of the language “religio-racial” and her question of who gets included in the category of “new religious movements”; a lively conversation on the descriptive and prescriptive uses of “civil religion”; and two panels on capitalism that touched on the dominance of neoliberalism, religion’s role in organized labor, and, as Chip Callahan pushed for, a call to attend to how particular practices of work shape and are shaped by particular worldviews. To be honest, most scholars working on religion and the United States (and/or the Americas!) would benefit from reading the proceedings.

Speaking as a graduate student, I want to conclude by noting how RAAC, and similarly organized small-scale conferences that focus on the direction of a particular field, are incredibly useful. Especially for younger scholars, these are energizing conferences that allow you to better contextualize your work in ongoing discussions. We are accustomed to thinking of methodological, theoretical, and historiographical “turns” within a progressive linear timeline. RAAC collapses these turns into a single dynamic space, with contributors of each turn participating. Such a discussion revealed how the pasts and futures of the field are, in fact, very much present and intimate. I look forward to meeting new scholars, visiting and revisiting high-stakes debates, and seeing familiar faces in 2017.

Christian Reconstruction

Rousas John Rushdoony might be one of the most important Christian theologians you’ve never heard of. As the primary architect of a unique version of conservative protestantism referred to as Christian Reconstructionism, Rushdoony worked for several decades to implement Old Testament Biblical law in contemporary America. Though he never realized his vision, and though his movement largely died with him, Rushdoony remains an important figure because his comparably extreme vision for Christian America challenged contemporary conservatives on a number of religious and theological issues and helped pull them farther to the political right

In this interview, Professor Michael McVicar discusses Rushdoony and Christian Reconstruction. McVicar gained unprecedented access to Rushdoony’s personal files, archives, and correspondence, which provided invaluable data for McVicar’s book on Rushdoony.

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

Psychology of Religion at Its Best…and Less Best

There were a number of excellent talks at the (deep breath) American Psychological Association Division 36 Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality 2015 Mid-Year Conference hosted by Brigham Young University (BYU) at the Marriott Conference Center in Provo, Utah, United States on March 20th and 21st (exhale). In particular, the second keynote address by Dr. Frank Fincham, Director of the Florida State University Family Institute was an excellent model of how research in the psychology of religion and spirituality can have practical use in designing psychological interventions in addition to the acquisition of knowledge. His and his collaborators’ work involved the psychological impacts of partner-directed prayer on the romantic relationships of religious believers, specifically how prayer can bolster relationship quality by increasing the forgiveness ability of the praying partner. Over a series of carefully framed studies he described the process they used to look at the broad effects of partner directed prayer on relationships. After narrowing their focus, they found that increased cooperative behavior was the primary mediator of the effect of prayer on forgiveness. They used these findings to construct and validate a prayer-focused marriage therapy intervention within an African-American, religious population. Throughout his talk, he was careful to make it clear that these studies were done with, and only apply to, religious believers and that the possibility of comparable mechanisms for nonbeliever couples still need to be researched.

Dr. Julie Exline’s Laboratory at Case Western Reserve University: Alex Uzdavines, Julie Exline, Valencia Harriott, Steffany Homolka, Nick Stauner, and Josh Wilt.

At least for my part, this was greatly appreciated. As someone who studies religious nonbelievers (not to mention being one), it can chafe reading or watching a presentation on research which has broadly sweeping conclusions about the benefits of religious belief which go far beyond what the data allow. Often this research implicitly (sometimes explicitly) assumes that the audience is religious themselves and that the research can be generalized to nonbelievers by just flipping the direction of the results. It was refreshing to have religious-oriented research presented in a manner that both framed the results within the context of the beliefs of the people who participated in the research and explicitly acknowledged that the conclusions drawn could not be applied to nonbelievers without further study.

Dr. Fincham’s focus on measurable psychological mechanisms contrasted sharply with the major themes from symposium presented by a number of scholars from BYU the previous day. The presenters answered the title of the symposium, chaired by Shannon Starks, “Does Psychology’s Naturalism Hamper Understanding of Religious Phenomena?” with a resounding “Yes!” Ms. Starks spoke first and her presentation outlined how widely used introductory psychology texts take a strictly naturalistic stance and often reject supernatural hypotheses for psychological phenomena just as resoundingly. Dr. Jeffery S. Reber presented the second talk and gave a number of examples of psychological theories that grew out of the work of famous theologians. However, when the writers most responsible for bringing these theories into psychology (sometimes the theologian themself!) translated them, all references to a god/gods, the divine, or the supernatural were removed.

RSP assistant editor Thomas Coleman, APA Div. 36 President Dr. Kevin Ladd, and Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Dr. Melanie Nyhof

RSP assistant editor Thomas Coleman with Dr. Kevin Ladd and Dr. Melanie Nyhof enjoying the post conference Sundance tour.

The third talk, presented by Dr. Edwinn E. Gantt, built upon the first two presentations but shifted focus examining how psychological research often misses the supernatural reality of an individual’s lived experience, while the majority of researchers hunt for naturalistic mechanisms. He argued that since people qualitatively experience the supernatural as real, psychology is doing a disservice to human experience by saying that the supernatural is just a figment of explainable mechanisms. Finally, Dr. Brent D. Slife discussed a story from his clinical internship where he specifically focused on naturalistic therapeutic approaches at the behest of his supervisor. Over time he began to feel ashamed of how this cognitive-behavioral approach shifted his clients’ focus away from her spirituality and to thoughts and behaviors that seemed to reduce her suffering. In fact, Dr. Slife argued that by focusing on the reduction of suffering, psychologists are doing a disservice to religious clients because God might intend for them to suffer and reducing this risks moving their client away from God’s wishes. This is understandable only as long as a therapist discusses their naturalistic orientation with their client and the client still chooses to continue therapy. Conversely, a religious therapist should discuss their beliefs and intent to bring these beliefs into therapy ahead of time so that if the client does not wish to participate in religious therapy they can find a new therapist.

There were two major themes gleaned from this symposium. The first was one of “religious deletion” which seemed to operate similarly within the psychological community to how “bisexual deletion” works in both gay and straight communities. Aspects of identity, thought, or experience which don’t fit within the dominant culture of the community are either ignored or dismissed as not real, as religious/supernatural ideas and experience are dismissed within the psychological community – according to the speakers (and many other psychologists of religion I have spoken with). Requiring that psychological theories (or psychologists themselves) be stripped of their religious background in order to be taken seriously within the field does a disservice to everyone involved. While the current extent of the anti-religious nature of psychology is open to study, it does seem to be present and working towards a more theologically inclusive field might be a benefit to those who study the psychology of religion and spirituality, regardless of whether or not they are religious themselves.

The second major theme was more questionable, however. The idea that consideration of the supernatural is off-limits to psychological study pervaded all the presentations, with the exception of Dr. Reber’s. Well, off-limits to “naturalistic psychology,” anyways. Ms. Starks even went so far as criticizing studies that looked at Extra Sensory Perception and dreams that could predict future events. Rather than raising any methodological critiques, she simply implied that because the researchers operated within a naturalistic framework the studies were a priori invalid. Despite saying that the supernatural exists and that it impacts the natural world of which psychological processes are a part, the speakers refused to actually discuss any methodology that could be used to study either the supernatural itself or how it impacts naturalistic psychology, even after being directly asked to go into this by a few audience questions. In doing so, the impression I was left with was that it wasn’t psychology’s job to try and peek behind the “wizard’s curtain” of religious experience and if naturalistic scientists can’t prove the non-existence of the supernatural, they should simply acknowledge that it is real since many people experience it as real. The fact that some of us actively experience the supernatural to be imaginary and very much not-real can be safely ignored in the interest of privileging religious experience.

View from the Provo Marriott conference center

View from the Provo Marriott conference center

The implication that Christianity was the religious experience that should be privileged above all others within the field was made painfully clear during the dinner hosted by BYU. In three events (a Christian prayer; a campus ministry capella group which hoped to convert non-Christian division members; and the final dinner talk in which the speaker railed against non-Christian psychologists throughout the twentieth century, non-Christian moral principles in general, and drug use in Europe, which is a clear, unambiguous indicator of a lack of religious belief in a region) there was a very clear message that non-Christians were not welcome. This was actually news to me, as I have been involved with Division 36 since 2012 and this was the third divisional mid-year conference I’d spoken at. Unfortunately, it was the first time I’d felt deeply unwelcome as an Atheist member of the division. Despite the committee organizing the conference making it clear to BYU that this was not a religious conference, the organizers at BYU ignored this and appeared to go out of their way to make the events they did have control over as hostile to non-Christians as possible, while still maintaining a facade of inclusivity.

Overall, this conference highlighted both the good and bad aspects of our sub-field. The keynote from Dr. Fincham and the symposium lead by Ms. Starks displayed the strides being made towards the rigorous study of the impacts religious and spiritual practices may have on psychological functioning and the arguments we need to have within the field to define the border areas of the natural and supernatural for the purpose of further study. Unfortunately, the sectarian aspects of BYU’s dinner events aimed exclusively towards the Christian attendees showed that we still have a long path ahead. For my part, I’m going to continue going to these mid-year conferences and advocating that those of us who study the psychology of (and/or are) religious/spiritual nonbelievers or non-Christians attend as well.

Religious Experience: Understanding and Explaining (Video)

In the academic study of ‘religion’, an organization that is at the forefront of encouraging interdisciplinary dialogue is the Grace Davie and Jay Demerath – were recorded at the SSSR Annual Meeting back in 2011. While SSSR was originally dominated by the field of sociology, there has been a recent shift in attendees toward other disciplines such as psychology, education, religious studies, nursing and others that share an interest in understanding ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ from their respective perspectives. The diversity of presenters is only matched by the diversity of paper topics presented. While SSSR is typically hosted in an US city, SSSR has gained popularity as an international conference as well with the 2014 Annual Meeting hosting the largest number of international scholars to date.

Considering these observations, the RSP collaborated with SSSR at the 2014 Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana to offer an interdisciplinary panel on the study of religion. Each of the papers presented are not only from different fields in the study of religion but also methodologically or theoretically apply an interdisciplinary approach. The authors represent the best in their fields. Some are established scholars with a body of work while others are up-and-coming talent. We hope you enjoy the RSP sponsored panel on an interdisciplinary approach to the study of religion. See below for the abstracts of the papers presented.

Many thanks to Chris SIlver, Tommy Coleman, and all at the SSSR for making this recording possible. This panel recording is somewhat different from our usual weekly podcast – if you enjoyed this, why not check out the podcast, or subscribe on iTunes? And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, knitting needles, Alien Ant Farms, and more.

The Religious Studies Project Panel on Religious Experience: Understanding and Explaining

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJp5DiV3WKc&feature=youtu.be]

Convener: Christopher Silver

W. Paul Williamson,  Poison-Drinking in Obedience to the Faith: A Phenomenological Study of the Experience

Christian serpent handlers of American Appalachia are most noted for handling venomous snakes in obedience to one of five perceived mandates of Christ in Mark 16:17-18: Casting out devils, speaking new tongues, taking up serpents, drinking poison, and laying on hands for healing. Over the past two decades, I have studied several phenomena among this compelling group including their sermons, their music, the anointing, near-death serpent bites, community support (Williamson & Hood, in press), and of course serpent handling (see Hood & Williamson, 2008, for summaries of the above uncited studies). The sign of drinking poison, however, has been largely ignored. To address this neglect, I conducted phenomenological interviews with nine serpent handlers who have practiced poison-drinking. Based on a hermeneutic analysis of these interviews, this paper presents a pattern of themes that describe the structure of meaning in the experience of drinking poison in obedience to the faith.

April Stace Vega, “That’s a Really Real Feeling”: Popular Music and the Sacralization of the Self in Evangelical Worship

“Should Churches Play ‘Highway to Hell’ in order to Reach Unbelievers?” This question is posed on a website catering to evangelical pastors with a link to a video. In the video, several prominent pastors discuss the use of the song (by rock band AC/DC) at a recent Easter morning service. It considered a controversial music choice due to the lyrics of the song and the persona that the band projects, but is also considered a useful tool for evangelism. This project is an ethnographic study on the use of music with no overtly religious lyrics in what sociologist Donald Miller terms “new paradigm” churches in the Washington, D.C. area. I view the use of popular-secular music through the lens of the subjectivization thesis of Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead. In this paper, I focus on one particular meaning ascribed to popular-secular music in these churches: the ability of the music to express “real feeling” in a way traditional sacred music does not.

Tatsushi Hirono, Corroborative Efforts between Social Workers and Religious Leaders in Natural Disaster Relief: A Comparative Analysis among the USA, Philippines and Japan

The United States of America, the Philippines, and Japan, have suffered multiple natural disasters: Typhoon in Philippines (2013), Hurricanes Sandy (2012) and Katrina (2005) in the USA, and the 8.9 Magnitude earthquake (2011) in Japan. Immediately after these natural disasters, victims needed shelter, water, food, and blankets. However, a few weeks after, they needed mental health support. The investigator hypothesizes that religion would reduce the natural disaster victims’ PTSD symptoms and increase their “hope.” He sent 1,500 mailing surveys to Christian and Buddhist clergy in the New Orleans, New York, Manila, Tacloban, Tokyo, and Fukushima areas. He found that cultural differences between Christian and Buddhist religious communities: (a) More Christian clergy thought natural disaster relief efforts are their obligation. (b) Christian clergy focus more on “comfort”, “reducing pain,” and “hope,” while Buddhist clergy focus more on “listening” and “praying” when they talk with family members who lost their loved ones.

Benjamin Bennett-Carpenter, Against Silver Bullet Explanations for Religion: Toward Interdisciplinary Conversations that Allow for Both Consilience and Divergence

Single explanations of religion from within one particular discipline are partial explanations and do not suffice by themselves. As an enterprise, the scientific study of religion will do well to continue to foster conversations across disciplinary boundaries in an overall team effort, moving, on the one hand, toward increased consilience, or a ‘unity of knowledge’ (E.O. Wilson 1998), while also allowing, on the other hand, plenty of freedom for divergence. This presentation briefly highlights key contributions from disciplines such as biology (e.g., Ridley 2004; Feierman 2009), evolutionary anthropology and cognitive psychology (e.g., Barkow, Cosmides, Tooby 1992; Boyer 2001; Atran 2002; Barrett 2004), evolutionary-oriented sociology (e.g., D.S. Wilson 2002; Diamond 2012), and semiotic-oriented communication studies (e.g., Baudrillard 1988; Raschke 2012; Bennett-Carpenter 2014) as touch-points for conversation that move toward consilience, while at the same time remaining open to divergence.

Dressing in Skins of Gods: New Approaches to Aztec Religion

Molly Bassett is an enthusiastic advocate for studying Mesoamerican religion, a welcome new direction in Religious Studies. She credits the critical mentorship of David Carrasco, Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of Latin America Studies at the Harvard Divinity School. Although she does not mention this, his influence makes her an intellectual “granddaughter” of Mircea Eliade, who was Carrasco’s principal advisor at the University of Chicago and to whom Carrasco has paid special homage in Waiting for the Dawn: Mircea Eliade in Perspective (Carrasco and Law 2009). Mostly due to a dearth of qualified teachers, interpretation of Mesoamerican religions has been undertaken by individuals with little or no formal training in religious studies. As a result, many have made their way into this field via an autodidactic approach. On the upside, Bassett emphasizes how Mesoamerican studies push scholars to be interdisciplinary. Her work on the rich Florentine Codex, the Codex Mexicanus, and other 16th century sources builds on prior work by art historians such as Diana Magaloni (a student of Mary Miller at Yale) as well as linguists, ethnohistorians, paleographers, and archaeologists.

Bassett rightly notes the preconceptions and prejudices that students typically bring to studies of the Aztecs, among them notions of human sacrifice (which, given divine reciprocity, might be better understood as “human gifting”), cannibalism (or anthropophagy, both actual and metaphorical), and other forms of ambiguous violence. These have been the subject of a brilliant essay, “Ethics and Ethnocentricity in Interpretation and Critique: Challenges to the Anthropology of Corporeality and Death,” by archaeologist Arthur Demarest (Vanderbilt) in The Taking and Displaying of Human Body Parts as Trophies by Amerindians (Chacon & Dye 2008). He outlines radically different conceptions of blood and bodies among Spanish and Aztecs, noting, for example, that Spanish horror at Aztec rituals was shaped by specific Christian beliefs about the sanctity of the blood and body of Christ, human mortality and corporality, ethnocentric perceptions that condition Western consciousness even today. For the Aztecs, flaying humans and wearing their skin inside-out (as was done with the Culhua princess) represented a profoundly different conception of personhood and corporality. Just as a hardcore vegetarian, vegan, or animal rights activist might recoil at a supermarket meat counter or a leather goods shop, Spanish reactions to Aztec practices were conditioned by distinctly non-universal values and beliefs. As Demarest writes, “Neither ethnocentric revulsion nor ethnocentric purification can substitute for elucidating, as best we can, the nature and meaning of the beliefs and practices of other societies.”

From another perspective, recent scholarship on Mesoamerican religions has been influenced by Mircea Eliade in a persistent fashion that has yet to be critically addressed. For example, discussions of Olmec and Maya religious art and iconography refer routinely to concepts of an axis mundi, a tripartite cosmology, “shamanism,” and archetypes of the World Tree and Cosmic Mountain that come directly from Eliade’s work. However, these often lack direct citations, much less critical analyses based on the history and context of Eliade’s ideas (an example of this would be the 1993 book Maya Cosmos, by Friedel, Schele, and Parker, but a pervasive use of these concepts persists to the present). These and related concepts are often taken for granted by art historians, but their tacit acceptance merits a closer analysis by scholars in Religious Studies, who may be prepared to evaluate the influence of Eliade on fields of study other than their own and to offer alternative models. One recent work relevant to Bassett’s research as well as interdisciplinary methodology is Wearing Culture: Dress and Regalia in Early Mesoamerican and Central America (Orr and Looper 2014), which considers cultures much earlier than the Aztecs, ones contemporary with early Judaism and Christianity, but lacks a Religious Studies approach.

Mesoamericanists and other specialists in pre-Hispanic cultures of Latin America often question Kirchhoff’s original 1943 model of “Mesoamerica” and its utility for understanding broader interaction in the southern U.S., Caribbean basin, southern Central America, and northern South America. Interestingly, in the same article, Kirchhoff also proposed the notion of a “Chibchan” area to the south, one that has now become even more relevant given recent announcements of the “discovery” of a “lost city” or “vanished civilization” in non-Mesoamerican eastern Honduras. Yes, Mesoamerican religion is a fascinating and stimulating area for more Religious Studies scholarship, but I’m sure Bassett would enthusiastically agree that this extends to approaches to religion throughout the Americas. She says, “Puritans pale by comparison to Aztecs,” but they also pale in comparison to Mayas, Chibchas, Taínos, Moches, Tiwanakus, Incas, and many, many others. It would be nice to think that her work is just the beginning of a Renaissance of sorts in the study of indigenous American religions and their deep and complex intersections with Christian, New Age, and other contemporary practices. For example, the rich variety of New Religious Movements (NRMs) in Latin America and the U.S. that assert neo-Aztec, Maya, and other Mesoamerican identities call for evaluation on their own terms.

Xipe Totec (“Our Lord the Flayed One”) wears the flayed skin of a sacrificial victim. “Wearing people’s skins” is powerful imagery, tied to how we understand them by putting “skins” (such as “religion”) on them.

Bassett’s emphasis on questions and methodological toolkits is especially valuable. These should include theoretical toolkits specific to Religious Studies. Mesoamerican religion is fertile ground for a host of new approaches that go well beyond traditional (Eliadean) comparative studies. Public fascination with “ancient” civilizations of Mexico (including ones such as the Aztecs that are no more ancient than Leonardo da Vinci) derive from Romantic notions that can be traced to myths of Lost Tribes and lost continents, recurrent tropes in traditions from Mormons to New Age traditions that have sought to both “other” and to mistakenly identify Native peoples. A detailed knowledge of the history of Mesoamerican studies, both scholarly and vernacular, as well as contemporary scholarship by archaeologists, art historians, and ethnohistorians is essential for approaching these. Bassett refers to how Aztecs may have sought to dress Cortes in order to treat him as a “god”. We must consider the adornments with which we dress pre-Hispanic indigenous religion in special skins in order to make it comprehensible to us. Of course, this includes even the manufactured skin of “religion” itself.

The Fate of Earthly Things

Aztec religion at the time of its encounter with the Spaniards in the early 16th century was a sophisticated mix of ritual and symbolic imagination. In this interview with Molly H. Bassett, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia, listeners are treated to a glimpse of a society where human sacrifice was a tool for encountering the divine, priests turned into gods and goddesses, and death held radical meanings for religious agents.

At the beginning of the interview, Dr. Bassett shares how she became involved in Mesoamerican studies thanks to her mentor, Davíd Carrasco. “Hardly anybody… in religious studies” works in this area, she says, instead they are in allied fields such as anthropology or history. Stressing the power of mentors on her career, Bassett reminds all scholars of the role a devoted teacher can have on one’s life. And, as the interview unfolds, the value of this disciplinarity is on display as Bassett is able to ask different questions of the Aztec sources than previous scholars have been.

After providing an overview of the many shared features of pre-Columbian cultures from Southern Texas all the way to Honduras that became known as Mesoamerican thanks to the work of ethnologist Paul Kirchhoff. Stepped pyramids, pictographic writing, ballgames, sacrifice, and common linguistic families are just a few of the traits that reveal the roots of this cultural area. Bassett’s work has included a focus on linguistics and especially through the study of texts employing pictograms (sound and symbols) as in the Florentine Codex and Codex Mexicanus. The Florentine Codex was composed by spanish speaker missionaries who encountered Aztecs, and then learned and translated Nahuatl into Spanish with the help of tri-lingual scribes into volumes that contained both text and commentary.

One of the most fascinating elements of these early codices is its portrayal of Spanish conquistador Cortez’ encounter with Aztec leader Montezuma. Bassett’s work on this encounter, especially in her recently published The Fate of Earthly Things, argues that the codices present this ritual occasion as one where the Spanish were presented as “teotl” or gods. For scholars this has been a challenging interpretative moment. Did the Aztecs really think the Spaniards were gods? No, says Bassett, and by asking what the Aztecs meant by “teotl” she reveals the potency of teixiptla or local embodiments of god(s). Montezuma, she claims, may have used the gift exchange with the Spaniards as a way to prepare Cortez for sacrifice and transformation into a teixiptla.

By the end of the interview, Bassett comes to articulate the value of Mesoamerican studies for undergraduate and graduate students. Her own experiences coming to establish material from a religious studies’ perspective suggest the importance of discipline and method in defining the questions we can ask and therefore the answers our subjects can provide. In the classroom her graduate students–often not even Americanists and rarely Mesoamericanists–are challenged by this material, especially by primary materials that have been approached by methods from different disciplines. For many scholars who teach method or theory courses, Bassett’s presentation of a primary source and the way different disciplines’ methods can limit or expand our inquiries is an excellent model for teachers in all areas and subjects.

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

Baby Boomers, Quest Culture, and Spiritual Seeking

Wade Clark Roof is Emeritus Professor of Religion and Society in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the director of the Walter H. Capps Center for the Study of Ethics, Religion and Public Life. He has published many books and articles on religion in the United States, especially focusing on developments within liberal Protestantism and American mainline congregations, the spiritual journeys of the Baby Boom generation and their effect on the spiritual marketplace, and religious pluralism and civil religion. These investigations have traced the contours of post-WWII American religious and social life, revealing the protean fluidity of “religion” and “spirituality” as scholarly and popular categories.

In this interview with Dusty Hoesly, discussion focuses on Roof’s work on the Baby Boom generation and beyond, particularly as expressed in his books A Generation of Seekers (1993) and Spiritual Marketplace (1999). In these books, Roof combined survey data with panel studies and interviews across a broad spectrum of Americans to describe the “quest culture” and “spiritual seeking” at the heart of America’s changing religious landscape, one which prizes “reflexive spirituality” amidst an increasingly pluralistic and evolving spiritual marketplace.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make – particularly as the season known by many in certain contexts as “Christmas” is just around the corner, and this might have some impact upon the buying habits of visitors to our website in contexts where this term has particular “meaning” invested in it, due to the particular histories and power structures of those contexts.

The Emerging Church

What do you get when you mix a dash of pub culture, a splash of irreverence, a healthy dose of conversation, a smattering of postmodernist critique, a drizzle of discourse on problematic concepts such as ‘religion’ and ‘the secular’, and a host of other eclectic and idiosyncratic ingredients to taste? Depending upon the measures, one possible outcome could be an ideal-typical podcast from your friends at The Religious Studies Project. Prepare in a slightly different manner and your culinary exploits could produce a manifestation of the Emerging Church. However, in the case of the latter, similar results might be obtained from a completely different set of ingredients.

The Emerging Church Movement (ECM) is notoriously difficult to define. What are scholars of ‘religion’ to do with a trend seemingly emerging both within and without many contemporary manifestations of (Western) Christianity, that is both anti-institutional and ecumenical, aims to avoid hierarchies and power structures, embraces creativity, deconstruction and experimentation, and actively promotes a ‘neutral’ and ‘non-judgmental religious space’ where almost anything goes? In this week’s podcast, Chris is joined by Dr Gladys Ganiel to discuss this ‘problematic’, important and boundary-pushing phenomenon.

In The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (Oxford, 2014), Ganiel and co-author Gerardo Marti write:

“We define Emerging Christians in terms of sharing a religious orientation built on a continual practice of deconstruction. We characterize the ECM as an institutionalizing structure, made up of a package of beliefs, practices, and identities that are continually deconstructed and reframed by the religious institutional entrepreneurs who drive the movement and seek to resist its institutionalization. As such, the ECM is best seen as a mix of both reactive and proactive elements, vying for the passion and attention of Christians and nonbelievers. Emerging Christians react primarily against conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist Protestantism but also against other forms of traditional Christianity that they have experienced as inauthentic. At the same time, they proactively appropriate practices from a range of Christian traditions […] to nourish their individual spirituality and to enhance their life together as communities.” (25-26)

What is it that makes this movement ‘Christian’? What does it do to traditional understandings of ‘religion’ and ‘secularization’? How does one research such a seemingly diffuse and unbounded phenomenon? Is it only a matter of time before this movement undergoes a process of systematization? These questions and more form the basis of a discussion which took place in May 2014, at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin in Belfast, a couple of days after the 3rd Annual Conference of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religion.

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

 

Conference Report: North American Patristics Society (NAPS) May 2014

Conference report by Nathaniel J. Morehouse, PhD, University of Manitoba

Between Thursday May 22 through Saturday May 24, the North American Patristics Society held its annual conference in Chicago. Attendance this year was an all-time high with nearly 400 members attending, and roughly 300 paper presentations over 75 sessions. It was also the first time that I had attended this conference.

Included in the sessions were two plenary lectures, the Preseditial address, and an after dinner address. The first of the plenary lectures was given by Christoph Markschies, Professor of Ancient History and Patristics at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Professor Markschies’ lecture, “God’s Body: A Neglected Dimension of Ancient Christian Religion and Theology,” reminded his audience that while much of Christian theology supports the notion that God is formless this was far from universal in ancient Christianity.

David Brakke, the Joe R. Engle Chair in the History of Christianity and Professor of History at Ohio State University, will be stepping down as the editor of the Journal of Early Christian Studies, the journal for NAPS. Dr. Brakke also gave the second plenary lecture: “The Gospel of Judas: The Beginning and End of Sethian Gnosticism.” This presentation convincingly argued that the presence of the Gospel of Judas may require scholars of “the phenomenon formerly known as Gnosticism” to rethink what is commonly known as “Sethian Gnosticism.” The Gospel of Judas seems to fit into that group, however where it fits is a matter of considerable debate; is it early or late? Brakke, suggests that rather than attempting to shoehorn the text into the construct of Sethian Gnosticism we remember that it is precisely as construct based on the textual evidence. Consequently when we have new textual evidence that doesn’t fit into that construct, rather than attempting to make the evidence fit the reified construct, we should rethink the construct.

Robin Jensen, Luce Chancellor’s Professor of the History of Christian Art and Worship at Vanderbilt University, and outgoing President of NAPS, gave the Prudential Address. Dr. Jensen’s address, “Compiling Narratives: The Visual Strategies of Early Christian Art,” sought to demonstrate the was that early Christian art – especially sarcophagal art – differed from other contemporaneous art. In essence rather than depicting a large scene with deep relief on the sarcophagus, Christian sarcophagi tended to be much shallower in relief and was made up of a series of individual images (often in two layers as the image here depicts) which stood in for a much larger narrative. This became a sort of meta-narrative through the visual short hand of these unrelated images.

After the banquet conference attendees were treated to a presentation by Philip Rousseau, the Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Professor at Catholic University of America. Professor Rousseau’s talk, “Intentio and memoria: Looking Ahead and Looking Back,” was a reflection on NAPS as a whole. While, he observed, “we are no longer North American or Patristics,” as there were attendees and presenters from beyond the geographical limits of North America, and there were sessions covering topics that have not traditionally been considered Patristics (as is my own work on martyrs), “we are still NAPS.” This is a commonality shared by all present and Rousseau urged the assembled scholars to remember that connection and take the time to meet each other informally.

Next year there will be no NAPS conference as members are encouraged to attend the XVII Conference on Patristic Studies in Oxford, U.K. which takes place August 10-14 2015. The North American Patristics Society will reconvene their annual conference May 26-28 the following year (2016) in Chicago.

Demons, possessions, and exorcisms: Sean McCloud on “Spiritual Warfare”

How should one approach the study of demons and spiritual warfare? In this conversation with University of North Carolina, Charlotte professor Sean McCloud, demons, possessions, and exorcisms that might have once been considered fringe or marginal elements of the American religious scene are now part of a robust “haunted” or supernatural landscape.

Today the spiritual warfare movement that began in mission fields in South America and Africa is now institutionalized in the charismatic New Apostolic Reformation churches as well as popularized in film and cinema. Where should we place haunted objects in the world of religious studies? What do we do with figures like Peter Wagner who led the supernatural movement and then found himself attacked by his allies?

What we find is a transnational interest with demons that has yet to be fully charted or explained. McCloud argues that rising supernatural interest coincides with consumerism and neoliberal capitalism. In the spiritual warfare manuals that serve as his primary data, capitalist and even therapeutic language seems to mark this as a product that borrows from a wide range of 20th century themes. Even perceived enemies of evangelicalism—like the soft metaphysical stylings of The Secret—become fodder for incorporation into the spiritual warfare paradigm. Welcome to the supernatural turn!

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Religion, Secularism and the Chaplaincy

As Sullivan and other religious studies scholars complicate terms like religion and secularism, reducing these terms to near incoherence, and insist on the constant intermingling of the sacred and the secular, they leave jurists and legislators in a predicament with important practical consequences.

Religion, Secularism, and the Chaplaincy

By Dusty Hoesly, University of California, Santa Barbara

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 24 April 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Winnifred F. Sullivan on Religion and the Law (22 April 2013)

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Professor and Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Indiana University, Bloomington, may be the supreme interpreter of the intersection of law and religion in American society today.  Each of her three books—Paying the Words Extra, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, and Prison Religion—treats individual legal cases both textually and anthropologically, examining their particular cultural and legal contexts as well as their wider import for discourse in American law and society generally.  Her work is attuned equally to debates within the field of religious studies, especially to how scholars of religion constitute the object of their study.

In this interview for The Religious Studies Project, Sullivan focuses on her latest project, which examines chaplaincy in secular settings, as well as on her larger body of work.  Her recent presentation, “Ministries of Presence: Chaplains as Priests of the Secular,” uses chaplaincy as a lens for thinking beyond her previous work in critiquing constitutional and legal protections for religious freedom, and arguing for the instability and incoherence of the category of religion as a basis for legal regulation.  Putting aside her study of the management of religion in constitutional settings, in this project Sullivan examines how religion and law shape each other on the ground.  She concludes that chaplains have come to serve a role of ministering to what is increasingly understood as a universal spiritual need, which she labels a “naturalization of religion.”

For Sullivan, the figure of the chaplain in Western Christendom has always been an ambiguous figure, a minister whose duties lie away from church authority or congregational demands.  In modern secular institutions such as hospitals, prisons, and the military, the chaplain’s role remains ambiguous since, unlike doctors, guards, or soldiers, the chaplain is an explicit broker between the sacred and the secular.  The chaplain is paid by secular institutions and beholden to secular authorities, despite the religious character of the chaplain’s work or the chaplain’s religious allegiance.  Chaplains may find themselves obliged to endorse secular missions, such as nationalism or militarism, that run contrary to the chaplain’s religious mission.

The role of the chaplain and the social perception of chaplaincy in America have both changed significantly since World War II, Sullivan argues.  In the mid-twentieth century, patients, inmates, and soldiers imagined that chaplains had specific ministerial resources that were particular to each denomination, such that Catholic priests, for example, could offer services that no other denomination’s chaplains could.  Today, however, chaplaincy is far more generalized and less identified with any particular tradition.  Contemporary chaplains practice a “ministry of presence,” a stripped-down form of witness (to use a Christian word) that is a “suffering with” those seeking spiritual guidance.  Chaplains are trained to de-emphasize their individual religious identities so that they can provide a non-imposing, non-coercive presence, letting clients instead take the lead in terms of any religious specificity.

In her presentation, Sullivan observes the rise of credentialing as a major shift in chaplaincies during the 20th century.   Credentialing, rather than mere religious training, is now required in order to serve as a chaplain.  Would-be chaplains must earn a Master of Divinity degree, intern with a clinical pastoral education program, and obtain an ecclesiastical endorsement, all of which must be accredited or recognized by the government.  These cooperative efforts between state and religion have resulted in the standardization and professionalization of the chaplaincy.  Anyone can be a chaplain today, Sullivan argues.  It becomes a white collar job, one requiring expensive educational training and a lengthy apprenticeship.  As Randall Collins has argued, the credential becomes symbolic of one’s ability to do the actual work.

For chaplains who must serve a diverse clientele, including Roman Catholics, Wiccans, Southern Baptists, and atheists, specific denominational beliefs and practices, as well as religion itself, become “cultural resources” (to use James Beckford’s term).  Religion loses its claim to be sui generis, instead revealing itself to be socially constructed according to the practical needs of the moment when a client requests the services of a chaplain.  This offering of non-denominational spiritual advice to any and all seekers is illustrative of the secularization and commoditization of the chaplaincy.

But the process is not complete and, therefore, neither is Sullivan’s analysis.  Atheists and secular humanists may be consumers of chaplaincy services, but they are not yet permitted by the government to serve as chaplains in hospitals, prisons, or the military.  Even if the credentialing process in theory is open to any person, from whatever background, as Sullivan claims, this does not mean that anyone can become a chaplain in actual practice.  Groups such as the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers are seeking recognition by the Armed Forces Chaplains Board, but they have been unsuccessful so far.  That said, many prisons now include yoga and meditation groups, blurring the boundary between secular and religious practices and challenging the role of prison chaplains as exclusive brokers between the sacred and the secular.  And some higher education institutions, including Harvard, Rutgers, Stanford, Columbia, and American University, now incorporate humanist chaplaincies, responding to a growing call for guidance that is explicitly secular.

How might these humanist movements complicate Sullivan’s analysis?  Sullivan argues that in contemporary American jurisprudence religion has become a universal human phenomenon, albeit one that takes many forms.  But in the instances noted above, we see people who reject religion and yet who desire counseling and meaningful ritual during difficult times in their lives.  These people feel that they are not being best served by the supposedly secularized chaplains which Sullivan describes.  They want a chaplain with a particularly secular worldview rather than a naturalized non-denominational Protestantism which they perceive as coercive and not representative of their beliefs.  While Sullivan maintains that today’s chaplains are priests of the secular, actual secular people are excluded from the chaplaincy.

As Sullivan and other religious studies scholars complicate terms like religion and secularism, reducing these terms to near incoherence, and insist on the constant intermingling of the sacred and the secular, they leave jurists and legislators in a predicament with important practical consequences.  If religion and secularism are unstable and interpenetrating categories in American law, as Sullivan has argued, how can bureaucratic functionaries or judges justify excluding secular humanists from the chaplaincy?  Despite Sullivan’s claims about the naturalization of religion and the homogenization of the chaplaincy, American law still recognizes distinctions between what is religious and what is secular, and so do the people who consume and seek to provide chaplaincy services.

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About the Author

Dusty Hoesly is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in Religions of North America.  His research focuses on religion and irreligion in the American West, specifically the values held by people who self-describe as not religious, how those values developed, how they translate into social or political action, and how irreligious people interpret experiences that stand apart from ordinary life.  Incorporating fieldwork, surveys, and historical and material culture research, this project will help explain the growth of religious “nones” in the U.S. and reexamine the categories of sacred and secular in contemporary society.  Other research interests include religion in the American West, comparative secularisms, liberal evangelicalism, and religion and politics. He has previously published The Last Best Hope of Earth? Bron Taylor and the Limits of Dark Green Religion for the Religious Studies Project.

Bibliography

  • Collins, Randall. The Credential Society: A Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification. New York: Academic Press, 1979.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. Paying the Words Extra: Religious Discourse in the Supreme Court of the United States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. Princeton, NJ: Princeton             University Press, 2009.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. “We Are All Religious Now. Again.” Social Research 76.4 (2009): 1181-1198.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. Prison Religion: Faith-Based Reform and the Constitution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.