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From Static Categories to a River of Theories: “The Myth of Disenchantment”

Dr. Josephson-Storm’s first book, “The Invention of Religion in Japan,” discussed how, after Commodore Perry forcibly opened Japan to Europeans and Americans in 1853, the Meiji intelligentsia and government remade their country along Western lines. This meant inventing a term, shukyo, that was roughly analogous to the Western word “religion.” In other words, an artificial delineation between spiritual practices and other parts of society was introduced to Japan, as part of the quest to be “modern.” Another key aspect of religious modernization was the delineation of “proper” religions from “superstition” and “magic.”

Meanwhile, Japanese intellectuals who visited America and Europe realized that the Westerners were not as objective or rational — that is, disenchanted — as they claimed. In fact, many Americans and Europeans believed in Spiritualism, occultism, Theosophy, mesmerism, magnetism, herbal medicine, and other things that didn’t conform with proper religion (i.e., Christianity). “The Myth of Disenchantment,” Josephson-Storm’s second book, argues that, although Westerners conceived of a philosophical triad — science and Christianity in opposition to magic/Spiritualism/etc. — the triad obscured the ways in which people interacted with each other and blended religion, “magic,” and science. There were, and are, many strands of people with varying approaches to religion and modernity. In our interview, Josephson-Storm and I agree that (based on Josephson-Storm’s research) Western intellectual history is more like a river, with many concepts colliding with each other, than a stable triad or other spatial metaphor. Josephson-Storm argues that it is wrong to assume that the West has progressed beyond myth or magic; it is wrong to assume that religion never influences scientists; and it is wrong to think that major scientific figures avoided occultism, esotericism, Christianity, or other religious traditions.

We also discuss where we go in the study of religion, and in philosophy generally, in the wake of postmodernism. To interrogate categories like “religion” and “magic” and show their intellectual genealogy, as Josephson-Storm does, is to act in the vein of postmodernism, deconstruction, and other forms of critical theory / Continental Philosophy. But where do we go next? How do we frame our lives, since we cannot deconstruct things forever? Josephson-Storm proposes that we admit the constant reconstruction and manipulation of narratives, so that, instead of getting hung up on flawed categories of modernization or ripping apart arguments infinitely (beware fake news), we admit the world is filled with dynamic tension. If the past way of studying “civilized” religion versus “primitive” magic is wrong, and if we are honest about our personal biases and the limits of objectivity, then we might achieve a world that is more tolerant of different religions and a world in which scholars produce unconventional, but more accurate, studies of religion.

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A transcript of this podcast is available as a PDF, and has been pasted below.

For our previous podcast with Prof. Storm on “The Invention of Religion in Japan”, see here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-invention-of-religion-in-japan/

From Static Categories to a River of Theories: “The Myth of Disenchantment” and Framing Religious Studies

Podcast with Jason Ā Josephson-Storm (14 May 2018).

Interviewed by Daniel Gorman Jr.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

 

Daniel Gorman (DG): Good afternoon, Professor!

Jason Josephson-Storm (JJS): Good afternoon, Dan.

DG: So Jason Josephson-Storm is calling in today, from Williamstown, Massachusetts.

JJS: Indeed! The snowy part of the state, yes.

DG: And I’m sitting in my kitchen, and the snow hasn’t reached me yet.

JJS: Oh, right.

DG: Today we will be talking about your new book, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity and the Birth of the Human Sciences, published last May, by the University of Chicago Press. But I think, before we get into that, we should tell our listeners where you’re from, historiographically. Your first book was set across the Pacific: The Invention of Religion in Japan.

JJS: Yes, indeed. My first book was my dissertation – a heavily revised dissertation – called The Invention of Religion in Japan. And it was basically about Japanese intellectuals encountering the category religion for the first time, in a set of trade treaties in the mid nineteenth century, and trying to figure out what the word religion meant. Because there wasn’t necessarily an equivalent translation term for religion in Japanese. And they had no clear idea what – if anything, in Japan – was a religion, or counted as the category religion. And in that book I traced how the category religion was debated and articulated in Japan, and how Japanese thinkers came to see that the term was embedded in a set of contrasts. On the one hand, with religion and science as putative opposites, and the other as religion and superstition, as another imposing term. And to figure out one, you had to figure out the other. At least that’s what Japanese thinkers ended up deciding. And they ended up coining a completely new vocabulary of new terms, in Japanese. For example, like the term shūkyō for religion, or kagaku for science, that didn’t exist before this encounter with European thought. So yes, that was my dissertation. I did both sides of the encounter. Mostly I was looking at Japanese sources – Japanese thinkers looking to the West and then, in some cases in that book, I flipped the encounter and looked at Europeans writing about Japan in the same period. And looked at their mismatch of conceptual ideas and terms.

DG: If I remember correctly in The Invention of Religion in Japan, you talk about a few Japanese intellectuals who spend time studying in the United States?

JJS: Yes, that’s right, including thinkers like Mori Arinori who famously came to the United States – I think it was at Amherst College, actually – which is our arch-rival here, from Williams. [Editorial Note: See author’s correction below, from 18 May 2018 – “One small correction–Mori Arinori didn’t go to Amherst. I misspoke. He went to Brocton, New York, and spent a year living in a religious community established by spiritualist mystic Thomas Lake Harris and loosely based on the teachings of Emmanuel Swedenborg. The nineteenth century Japanese thinker who went to Amherst College, was Uchimura Kanzō. I discuss both men in The Invention of Religion in Japan.”] But I look at a number of Japanese intellectuals who travelled in the United States and wrote about their experiences there, definitely. And they tried to figure out the central edifices of Western thought. And this is a group of Japanese whose writings in the West has been historically less studied, because they studied weird things that don’t fit the story that Europeans like to tell about Europe. So they were considered to have got it wrong. But, actually, I think they had a lot of perceptive, interesting things to say. But that was the first book.

DG: I want to dig into that, a little bit. You were mentioning the story that Western Europeans are telling about themselves. And that’s an essential idea to The Myth of Disenchantment, your next book. What do you see as the story that they’re telling about themselves?

JJS: So, one of the things that the Europeans presented was an equation between their technological civilisation – in other words their guns and their boats and what-have-you – and their either cultural or intellectual traditions. And Europeans tended to tie them together and argue for the superiority and the fundamental connection between the two. So even though gunpowder was invented in China and the print press had its earlier formation, for example, in China (although we can’t see direct transition there) Europeans presented European technology as proof that European civilisation was superior, and they claimed, often, that European civilisation was superior for two competing reasons: either because European civilisation at that time was considered Christian, or they claimed that their civilisation was superior because it was more rational. But Japanese intellectuals encountering British culture were worried about: What is this Christianity? Is it uniform? And, particularly, they questioned the rationality of European thought. Versions of that were questions about the disenchantment narrative. So Europeans often claimed that their particular form of superiority came from the fact that they had disabused themselves of superstitions. But some Japanese thinkers noticed that . . . and this didn’t make it into the first book or the second book, but I’m publishing it elsewhere as an article. A bunch of Japanese thinkers, instead of seeing a disenchanted West, saw a West full of spiritualists, full of people believing in the Occult, full of Pentecostal religious revivals, full of people who believe in charms and the efficacy of talismans. So, in that respect, the presentation of the West – particularly Europe or America – as radically “other”, in terms of its lack of superstitions, didn’t make sense to them. They could see not only a disenchanted West but, in a way, a mystical West (5:00). And they saw a parallel, as they saw it, in European interest in things like x-rays and radioactivity. European science was populating the world with invisible forces and a number of European thinkers equated those . . . talked about spiritualism in terms of radioactivity or in terms of x-rays, or what have you. So one of the things that interested me early on was this interesting reading that Japanese thinkers produced about the West. The other things that they saw, or didn’t see, that I found interesting in that project were distinctions between philosophy and religion that they found to be really problematic. And the idea of a secular state was a construct that was, in many respects, mythical, or what-have-you. So that’s a lot about that book. Yes.

DG: What you’re suggesting is that with these Japanese intellectuals in the late 19th century – they’re looking and saying . . . with their connection between science and religion, they’re anticipating figures like Alfred North Whitehead.

JJS: You mean, who might see those two as having a different relationship?

DG: Yes. So, for instance, Whitehead is a mathematician but he’s talking about universal principals of the spirit. He’s making those connections. William James is using social science but he’s also interested in psychical phenomena. These individuals don’t fit neatly into the philosophical box you’re describing.

JJS: Yes, exactly. And I think they didn’t fit in a box from Japanese scholars, and they don’t fit that opposition. A lot of European scholars have put that opposition today. One of the grand myths that – to sort-of pivot to the next book – that I’m interrogating in The Myth of Disenchantment, is this notion of a necessary conflict between religion and science – which turns out to be a pervasive myth articulated, basically, in the 19th century in Europe and America. And it presumes that religion and science are necessarily in conflict. And there are a lot of interesting things we could say about, for example, Draper who is the first to talk about the conflict model, which he himself already uses as a Protestant anti-Catholic argument. Or we could say something about the number of scientists themselves who have not seen these two things in conflict, or whatever. But what I was really interested in, is how the categories of religion and science got articulated spaces, as terrains – to borrow something Peter Harrison later talked about, he uses that language – but to think how religion and science were defined in opposition. And one of thing that I notice . . . . And I’m sorry, if I get excited I talk too fast! So I’ll try and slow down a little bit. One of the things I noticed is that, conceptually, there was often a third term: not only were religion and science positioned in conflict, as part of this myth of a conflict model, but also often religion was seen as opposed to something – superstition – which was like the pseudo-religion, or the thing that looked like religion but is not religion, often described a superstition or magic. But similarly, science was also positioned in opposition to something called “pseudo-science”, which was also described as superstition or magic. So it seemed like the intellectual edifice that was being formulated in the 19th century was a triadic oppositional structure between, on the one hand, a conversation about the difference between religion and science, but also about religion and magic, or magic and science. And, in particular, areas that religion and science seemed to overlap were the most likely to be policed as illegitimate, as pseudo-science or as magic, or as . . . I’m thinking of things like psychical research, spiritualism, table-turning or what-have-you, that presented itself as a science, as a science of the dead . . .

DG: It satisfies neither group. Something like spiritualism, it satisfies neither the pure modernist, the scientist, and it doesn’t satisfy the Christians either.

JJS: Yes, often. Although there are a range of scientists who love spiritualism and a range of Christians or Quakers, or what-have-you that, as we know, were into spiritualism. But you’re right, that it didn’t fit the clean definitionary lines. But it became an object of attack from both sides. So one of the things that already motivated the transition between the two books was, I got interested in trying to figure out . . . if in Japan, in the 19th century, they were encountering these three categories as if they were already accomplished things: religion, science and magic or superstition. I was interested in how those three got formulated as three distinct categories in thought, and how much boundary work was going on in policing them – and also the ways that boundary work collapsed. And then, the other kind-of insight that motivated this second project is that a lot of the conversation about this third term – magic or spiritualism – connected itself up to a notion of modernity as such. So one of the central myths, that I think is still shared in much of the social sciences, is the notion of some grand periodisation called modernity. And the idea is that at a certain point – everybody disagrees about when, but it may the birth of the printing press, or industrialisation, or the Protestant Reformation, or what-have-you – there’s a rupture, after which we enter a period called modernity, but often modernity is described in terms of something called disenchantment (10:00). And that disenchantment is usually defined as an end of belief in spirit, or an end of belief in magic. But the problem is that, if you look at it – and I have a chapter that looks at the sociological evidence – people didn’t stop believing in spirits. Many Americans, arguably – depending upon how you define the categories – something like 75% of Americans hold onto some kind of paranormal or general belief in spirits, in ghosts, in angels, in demons, demons that possess people etc., psychical powers – all this stuff is really widespread – astrology, for example. So, you know, we might guess that the academy has more sceptics than other, but even then it’s not necessarily clear. It’s just there are different kinds of belief that people have. So it doesn’t look like contemporary America is disenchanted, according to those logics – or contemporary Western Europe. And what’s more, it turns out that the notion of modernity as itself disenchanted, was basically formulated in the 19th century. And this is a period where we hear about revival, about spiritualist séances, about the widespread birth of psychical research, and theosophy, and a whole bunch of other positions. So it turns out that – as I argue in this book, The Myth of Disenchantment –after looking at . . . . I started looking at these founding figures of this narrative of modernity as disenchantment, who are often the founders of many of our disciplines: founders of Sociology, or Psychology, or Psychoanalysis, or Philosophy, or Religious Studies. And I looked through their diaries and their letters, and I was able to locate them in the exact milieu where magic was, itself, being practised or believed. They hung out with spiritualists, or they themselves called their own project theosophy, and talked to these theosophists. So it looked, in a way, that the myth of magic departure was part and parcel of conversations of occultists as well as scholars of religion. So Helena Blavatsky, for example – the founder of the Theosophical Society – she described modernity in terms of the disenchantment, and said that the central feature of the West was that it had lost belief in magic – even as she wanted to return to India, and her hidden masters, to recoup the missing pieces! So it looked like the difference . . . normally disciplines like Sociology and Religious Studies describe themselves as disenchanting or secularising. But that becomes harder to countenance when you know that in the individual lives of a lot of these people – let’s say Sigmund Freud – they find themselves having the beliefs that they are, themselves, describing as archaic! So, what it means is that there is a way in which this very notion of modernity as disenchanted turns out to be a myth. And that turns out to be one of the many things I try to argue in the book. Basically, not only isn’t it true now, but it wasn’t true then. And we can see, if we look at the lives – the private lives – of all these thinkers, that they had all these kind-of, let’s say, heterodox, or complicated, or interesting, or enchanted beliefs themselves. So I think that’s one of the big pay-offs.

DG: Hang on! Sorry I want to get a word in, here!

JJS: Yes, sorry!

DG: So you mentioned that there’s a flood narrative, to say that there’s a triadic opposition of magic, Western Christianity and (science). If that’s a flawed model, and everything’s more fluid and, as you say, you have scientists like Curie and Max Müller who are going to séances, then what is the correct structure? Is there even a structure? Shall we get rid of this triad? Is it the tesseract, and multiple dimensions wrapping around itself, or what is it?

JJS: So, I think we tend to think of this triad as necessary and universal. But I think we’re wrong about that. What I ‘m not saying is that nobody believed in this triad but rather, in the process of constructing this triad, we carved out a much more complex, heterogeneous space and then made a bunch of arbitrary divisions around it. So one of the things I’m trying to do is challenge the presumption of that triad. I would agree that it needs to be unwoven, in a certain way. But that doesn’t mean that we deny that we’ve had this history. So one of the things that I’m really interested in is how we study – just to take a step back to these higher categories. So, we spend a bunch of time sitting in the horizon of these categories. So, let’s say, we spend much time thinking of religion as a universal, and then trying to define the features that religion has. What’s the definition of religion, and how is it in all sides, and in all cultures? I don’t think that . . . . That project has failed. My book isn’t the first to show this. Neither of my books is the first to show this. But there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the category of religion takes its primary relation to a particular period in Euro-American history and then is imposed, in a heavily negotiated and contested way, on the rest of the globe. But what I think we can do, as scholars, is then to not study the category as a universal thing, but study the category as it is articulated and the effects that it’s had. So we can trace this category as a kind of unfolding process or, what I like to call a “higher order assemblage”, and look at how various things are recruited into it. It’s like an unfolding process, like a stream. To take a metaphor, what I’m trying to do is, I’m kind-of . . . instead of a process physics – a process anthropology (15:00). And to look how these categories were historically conditioned and articulated within the implications of doing that. And that means that we have to look at ourselves as scholars within the categories themselves, and kind-of work them out. Anyway, this is stuff I’m working on for the next book. So I shouldn’t monologue any more about it! But I’m working on a book called Absolute Disruption: The Future of Theory after Postmodernism. And that’s exactly about: how do we work with, and study, these higher order categories. And how do we sort-of function without returning to the older discredited modernism, or turning into the word-play of postmodernism. And what I argue for is a kind of pride in “humble science” is one of my phrases. And I kind-of come up with a new philosophy of social science for a post-Kuhnian way of looking at the world as these kind-of aggregated processes. But I should step back, and return to this before I get carried away.

DG: There is a little bit to unpack there. Let’s begin with this idea of . . . I think one of the things we’re dancing around in this conversation is there is a difference between studying something, and there is a difference between practising it. So you mentioned, for instance, three are people in the 19th Century who believe in the triumvirate of magic, spiritualism and science – no excuse me I got the triumvirate wrong, the triumvirate is Christianity, Spiritualism and science: OK, take a step back to the present. . .

JJS: Or religion, science and magic, or whatever. Yes.

DG: So then, as a scholar looking back, you’re seeing the flowing river where it’s all intertwined and there is no simple static thing. So then let’s go to another level, ok? You’ve got the people in the past with the triad; you’ve got the people today, studying, saying, “No. I see a stream in which these people were functioning.” So what’s the next step? Where do we go if we’re saying that our narrative of modernity and postmodernity is flawed? What’s the next step for building a framework to understand this stuff? Because we still have to live with it in the present day.

JJS: So what I’m saying is, to locate ourselves within the horizon of temporality. So I mean, in that respect, one of the things that we have to do is recognise the limitedness of our own conceptual categories. I mean, now we’re really onto my third book stuff – so this is fun! But one of the things that we do is we have to recognise . . . . I should take a step back, and talk about the history of modernism and postmodernism, and then tell you . . . . So, one of the things that many academic disciplines were predicated on was the notion of concepts. That was essentially Aristotelian in its basic function. This is a notion of concepts as having necessary and sufficient conditions for membership. And what’s more, we thought that our concepts mapped on the world – that they cut up what the Greeks had called the “joints of nature” – in other words, looked at where nature divided things up. So that made natural kinds of distinctions. This is often called “natural kinds”. And we thought that if you could find necessary and sufficient conditions for membership in a given category, that you could identify its essence. And if you could say something about its essence you could begin to discover and develop, let’s say, robust or scientific knowledge about a subject. In the hard sciences we’ve already begun to challenge that notion of essences. And I think a lot of philosophy of science has already moved past the way that those conceptions or categories are articulated. But in the humanities we also had a crisis around this, because we discovered that many of our concepts no longer worked. The capacity to produce necessary and sufficient conditions for the category of religion turns out to have been a flawed process, etc. So the question then becomes . . . . Instead of thinking about nature as jointed, in the old fashioned way, we have to think of it in the way of a disjointed nature. And this is at least true. Even if you think that there is a distinction between natural kinds and human kinds, in which nature itself has joints, it’s pretty clear that human concepts don’t have the kinds of joints that we would like to project upon them. The joints that we have are historically contingent. So part of what we end up doing in studying is locating ourselves within our study – so this is a kind of reflexivity – and then focussing on how these conceptual categories were themselves constructed. But I’m aware that we’re getting away from . . .

DG: Yes. I feel like we’re moving beyond The Myth of Disenchantment to what comes after. We realised that the myth of disenchantment is flawed. And we’re also running out of time. So, we sketched out the theoretical terrain. But what struck me with this book is that, as much as we talk about the critical theory and the flawed basis of modernity, you’re showing an incredible range of material in, let’s see: German, French, English – you’re doing comparative linguistic work here, also.

SSJ: Yes.

DG: What is your . . . I mean, it almost sounds like a Larry King softball question, but I’m curious! What is your language training, to be able to do a book like this? Because it’s almost like you were doing the work of four books in one. You’re talking about German intellectual history, you talk about the Renaissance, you talk about Occultism, and Britain and America in the ’50s.

JJS: Yes, so I grew up bilingual with French and English, and I went to a French and English Educational school until I went to High School. And having basically tested out of High School French, I started Japanese in High School (20:00). And my mother was born in Germany. So I grew up also with sharing a lot of German. So I had, basically, those four – German is my weakest of those languages. I also spent some time in Barcelona, studying Spanish. And then I lived in France for a couple for years, and I lived in Japan and I lived in Germany. And when I was in Japan I studied Classical Chinese. So, basically, I have English, French, Spanish, German, Japanese and Classical Chinese. And then from Romance languages and Germanic languages you can get to other Romance and Germanic languages easily. And then, when I was here a few years ago at Williams, I did tutoring- I took and received tutoring from a classicist here, in Latin. So I was working on building my Latin. At the moment I’ve just started – I love languages – I’ve just started Biblical Hebrew. So in fact, what I’m going to go to in thirty minutes is my Hebrew lesson. But I just love languages! I mean, I just love them. I read in languages more than I speak with languages. I talk quickly and I like to be grammatical, and then I get tongue-tied if I try to speak. I speak all my languages better drunk, for example! But I love puzzling things out philologically. So that’s the kind of stuff that was in the background of this book. Yes.

DG: You also mentioned, in our conversation, the idea that there are moments in history – as you see it – sort-of these explosive junctures, that upset our models for understanding the world. You know, you can look at Japan: the arrival of the Westerners unsettles their way of not seeing a division between spirituality and nature. For Westerners: the atomic bomb, the discovery of the germ, the DNA – these sort of explosive moments. And I find it interesting that you started writing The Myth of Disenchantment after an explosive moment: the Fukishima disaster. So we’re talking about reflexivity, so I’m trying to situate you, Josephson-Storm, in the fields that you’re talking about. Where are you in the stream?

JJS: Oh well, that’s a big question! Do you want to know why I came to this particular project, when? Or do you want to hear about how I shifted from Japan to the Western European thing? Or I could go in so many different directions. That’s a good one.

DG: Well, let’s focus . . . . Since we’re talking about historical moments that upset the stream, that upset the models, for you I want to talk about the Fukishima thing. And how does that effect the way you conceive of religion?

JJS:I mean for me, as I mentioned at the beginning of this book, after I’d finished The Invention of Religion in Japan, before it had come to press, I was starting research on another project that was going to be called “Ghosts and Resurrections in Contemporary Japan”. And it was about the history of the notion of spirits, and about contemporary belief in talismans. And I was already making the argument that 19th and 20th century Japan wasn’t disenchanted. But then the incident . . . . You know, I’d already done a lot of research towards that project. And one of the things that tipped me the other way, just by chance of timing, was in Kyoto – I was on an early tenure sabbatical doing research. And I was actually at a tattoo parlour getting some tattoo work done, when the Fukishima incident happened. It was actually- the earthquake off at Tohuku. We didn’t know it was Fukishima, yet. And earthquakes aren’t uncommon in Japan. They’re pretty common. And we didn’t, right away, know how huge the effects were going to be. So, a lot of people in the tattoo parlour would just stop what we doing, and we were just watching the television screens. And I remember seeing the images of the tsunami, but not yet being aware of how tragic and disastrous it was going to be in terms of loss of human life. And one of the guys in the tattoo parlour was asking me about my research, and I started talking about, you know, asking people about their belief in talismans and ghosts and spirits and talking about that kind of thing. And there was one other non-Japanese person there. And when we were having this conversation this guy, who I think probably was from either Norway or Sweden or something like that, was like: “Oh, of course Japanese people believe in all these magical things. But that’s because Japan is a kind-of like mystical Asia, where people still believe in magic. But in the West people don’t believe in anything like that.” And I thought, the binary that was drawn – it was flawed. And, in particular – in part, we could say, autobiographically – it’s because my grandmother was a famous anthropologist, Felicitas Goodman, who herself went kind of . . . the term people used to describe her was “went native”. On a reservation in New Mexico, she started believing in the existence of spirits. And I remember, from growing up, her offering cornmeal to the ghosts when the sunrise came up, to the spirits and the ancestors and what have you – the spirits of the land (25:00). And I knew that a lot of people came from all over the world to attend these sessions that she gave on the reservation. So some of those famous sociologist, anthropologists and artists from Germany, from Mexico, from the Unites States. And so I was always . . . I felt a bit of an outsider to that community. But I greatly admired my grandmother who was one of my intellectual heroes, and one of the reasons I study religion. And so I knew, at least, she was strange – but she wasn’t that strange. And so this reinforced my sense that this binary between an enchanted Asia and disenchanted West, was itself a kind of mythical distinction. So that’s one of the things that gave birth to this project: to kind of look at Europe with the eyes of an outsider anthropologist – or look at Europe and America from this semi-outsider vantage point. And there’s where I think I saw a lot of things that I didn’t expect, perhaps. But clearly there was disaster. I was planning to go to Tokyo and it looked like Tokyo was . . . . You couldn’t get food, they were having to ship stuff into the city. I was looking online at radiation levels that were spiking, and I just thought it was probably . . . I wasn’t going to be able to get the kind of research that I was going to get done, done in Tokyo. So I went to Germany, where I was intending to go at some point after that, anyway. So the disaster, in a way, uprooted me. And I made sure that my Japanese friends were safe, and I tried to keep tabs on things. But I knew, you know like it wasn’t going to be conducive to. . . .You know – an American, rooting around in the archives, wasn’t going to be conducive to what was happening in Fukishima and Tokyo in that particular moment. So I went to Germany and then went through the German archives, basically. I was trying to beef up my German, so I started reading a lot of stuff in German then.

DG: We’ve gone around the world I think, three times at this point. I think the fact is that the stuff we’re talking about – we could go on about this for hours. But our listeners only have about half an hour. So, to wrap up: I think what I see as the contribution of your book, is that it’s identifying . . . instead of this singular, “us versus them”, science or Christian scientists (that’s two separate words, that’s Christian scientists not Christian Scientists, the religion) versus the spiritualist, by showing the fact that it’s more complicated. I saw a couple of different strands in your book. And I want you to critique me if you think I’ve got the wrong strands. You’ve got Christians who are scientist and spiritualist. You have scientists who are spiritualists. You have spiritualists who aren’t scientists but reject Christianity. So my point is: every single part of the triad, you could flip that a couple of different ways. And so, suddenly, you’ve got six or seven – I don’t know. . . . How many strands would you see, in the book, of how many different boxes people can fall into?

JJS: Yes, I didn’t organise it that way, but I did organise it around the birth of these different disciplines. So, I mean I think you’re right, even looking at the birth of these different disciplines, what I was interested in is the different ways that people navigated those categories. And you’re right, there are like a plurality. You could be pro-science, pro-magic; anti -science, anti-magic; pro-Christianity, pro-magic: anti Christianity, pro-magic. All of the possible options, and a much more pluralistic way than you would get if you bought the story that suggested that the central feature of modernity is that people no longer believed in spirits or magic.

DG: But what you’re talking about is also a more interesting story.

JJS: Yes. Thank you. Yes, I hope I highlight some interesting complexities and interesting figures. And I found a lot of stuff. I was surprised, you know, the amount of stuff that I found that was in diaries, or letters, or things that were lesser known works of a range of figures that really doesn’t fit our received impression of these people. But then, I look not just at the founders of academic disciplines but – for the sake of your readers – I look at a number of famous magicians and occultists and show how they were in dialogue with the academic world, more than people often supposed. So Aleister Crowley and Helena Blavatsky, for example, are two key examples. And then I do five hundred years of history. So, you know, basically it’s Francis Bacon, to the Vienna Positivists. So maybe not quite 500 years, but more like 400 years of history. It was a lot of stuff. It was a lot of fun. I had to leave out a lot.

DG: Yes. And I’ve seen some of those articles you published the one called, what’s it? “God’s Shadow” – the one about the founders of the study of religion who were also obsessed with ghosts.

JJS: Yes, totally. Indeed. So the book . . . there are lot of pieces that I had to cut out. Some of it has appeared in articles, and I have a bunch more of book chapters that will look at different pieces. But I’m trying to move off of that. But I just had so much and I had to cut it down for publishing purposes. So it’s a little bit tight in terms of the prose. But there’s a lot of evidence there, yes (30:00).

DG: So thank you, Dr Josephson-Storm. It’s been a very lively conversation!

JJS: Good to speak to you, too.

DG: And having gone from the triad, which is flawed, to the stream, which is interesting, I am interested to see what your theoretical book will say next. Because once you explode the streams – and living in an age of fake news where anything goes, I’m very interested in where the study of religion, and how we understand it, goes next.

JJS: Thank you. Yes, that’s what I’m working on, yes.

DG: If you come up with a good answer, let me know!

JJS: Yes, you’ll have to read the book, or interview me when the next one comes out. It’s under contract and I’m claiming I’m going to have it to the press by the end of 2019. So I have to come up with an answer by then, anyway! We’ll hope it’s a good one!

DG: Go test it on your undergrads!

JJS: Yes, totally.

DG: Thank you very much.

JJS: Good to speak to you. Thank you.

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

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

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A Responses to “Why do we believe? Evolution, Primates, and the Human Niche”

by Tenzan  Eaghll

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Reinventing Graduate Education in the Study of Religion

Education_Apple-prvWe spend a lot of time on the Religious Studies Project discussing Religious Studies as a discipline or field of study, what it means to study ‘religion’ with or without quotation marks, and what exactly it is that the critical, scholarly study of societal discourses surrounding ‘religion’ might have to offer. However, up until today we have never tackled head-on the institutional location of Religious Studies within a higher education environment that is becoming increasingly stretched, and dominated by market forces and political whims. In particular, how might this situation affect graduate education it the study of ‘religion’? What can scholars of ‘religion’ do about this situation? Are we powerless? Must we simply sit on the sidelines and stick to our guns, or are there constructive alternative ways forward? To discuss these questions, and and an exciting new graduate programme looking at Religion in Culture.I am joined today by Drs Merinda Simmons and Michael Altman, both of the University of Alabama.

Blog post about the course: https://religion.ua.edu/blog/2016/12/theres-a-new-m-a-in-town/

Details of the course: http://religion.ua.edu/MA.html

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


Podcast with K. Merinda Simmons and Michael J. Altman.

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Chris Cotter (CC): We spend quite a lot of time on the Religious Studies Project discussing Religious Studies as a discipline or a field of study, what it means to study religion with or without quotation marks, and what exactly it is that the critical study of societal discourses surrounding religion might have to offer. However, up until today, we’ve never tackled the institutional location of Religious Studies within a higher education environment that is becoming increasingly stretched and dominated by market forces and political whims. In particular, how might this situation affect graduate education in the study of religion? What can scholars of religion do about this situation? Are we powerless? Must we simply sit on the sidelines and stick to our guns? Or are there constructive, alternative ways forward? To discuss these questions and an exciting new graduate programme looking at religion in culture, I’m joined today by Drs Merinda Simmons and Michael Altman, who are both Associate Professors of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. Merinda’s books include Changing the subject: Writing women across the African Diaspora, and two co-edited volumes: The Trouble with Post-Blackness and  Race and Displacement. She’s the editor of the book series, Concepts in the Study of Religion: Critical Primers and is a member of the collaborative research group: Culture on the Edge. Mike’s research ranges from American Religious History to Critical Theory and his first book, Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu: American Representations of India, 1721- 1893, will be published by OUP in 2017. He’s also published an article in the journal Religion, entitled “Podcasting Religious Studies, that features the Religious Studies Project. And we might even discuss that later on, who knows? First of all, Merinda, Mike, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Merinda Simmons (MS): Thank you

Michael Altman (MA): Thanks. You gave me a free promotion there, Chris! I’m only an Assistant Professor.

CC: Oh no!

MS: Congratulations

MA: It’s ok. I’ll take it! That’s how good the book is!

CC: That you get instant promotion with it. Excellent. Well on that note, that’s an institutional dynamic that we don’t quite know here in the UK, the associate/ assistant thing. But we’re talking today about reinventing graduate education in the study of religion. Why are we even talking about that? What’s the context?

MS: One of the conversations that we’ve been having over the past handful of years has been about what a lot of people call the “crisis in the Humanities”. So that’s really what began the conversation here, departmentally. We have a Humanities speaker series that our chair is on the committee for planning, we’ve been doing some things within the department to try to talk about that issue. And we also have been – in the last handful of years especially – on the front end of social media in the department, making videos, doing things to promote the department. Because a lot of people don’t come into their undergraduate programmes, anyway, knowing what the academic study of religions is. So we have to do a lot of self-promotion and just getting the word out about what it is to even get a degree in Religious Studies. So with those two things in mind, with our social media presence and with the conversations that have been going on about the so-called crisis of the Humanities, that’s really what began the conversation of : What would it look like if we don’t. . . We don’t want to think about the Humanities as “Crisis-ville”. We all have jobs in this space of perceived crisis, so maybe we should be thinking about that, or doing something about that? Or what does it mean to re-conceive that? So that’s the background for where the conversation initially began.

CC: And just for the benefit of our listeners who could be at any level. . .

MS: What is that crisis?

CC: Yes.In broad brush strokes.

MA: I don’t know. I think it’s a combination of a lot of things.(5:00) It’s a shift. I was introduced to this crisis through the 2008 financial crisis. That’s when I snuck into graduate school just before Emory University’s endowment tanked in September 2008. And you can just look around over the next two years and watch all the free lunches on campus literally go away. And I think that moment of. . . that financial moment, and the impact it had on jobs in the US, kind of created a bit of a panic about, “Well, if I’m going to spend money on a degree, if I’m going to spend time on a degree” – especially at under graduate level , where you had a financial crisis happening as a bubble was growing around higher ed and higher ed prices were going up, everyone taking out theses student loans –  “ I ‘d better damn well be able to get a job when it’s over.” And I think, the idea that Humanities – because they were not very vocational – didn’t prepare one for that, that has been a longstanding discussion-point and problem-point I think since the ’70s, became even more acute. So students came in, I think. . . . As I transitioned out of grad school into teaching, in the last four years, I’ve seen all these undergraduate students who went through who were in high school or middle school when this happened, and they don’t know a world that wasn’t in financial crisis, or where financial anxiety wasn’t dominant. I grew up in a world dominated by terrorism fear, they grew up in a world dominated by banking and stock market fear.

MS: At the same time, when I came to grad school, which was like in 2001- 2002, I was exposed to a kind of generational shift from the faculty perspective, where. . . . I think the reason that this so-called crisis is resonating for academics themselves, is that there was also a kind of sea-change from a faculty perspective and from an academic perspective about what it meant to study the Humanities. Suddenly – in response to these kinds of economic factors and the sorts of anxieties about job markets that our students were grappling with – suddenly it didn’t make as much sense to approach one’s teaching and one’s research in quite the same classic model of:  “I know all. I will tell all. Come learn at my feet and then take this knowledge to do whatever, but that’s your thing to process later, and it’s not really so much my jam as your faculty advisor.” So in response to that shifting landscape, too, I think there’s been, within people who already have jobs and are trying to get a sense of what they’re doing as faculty within the Humanities, and scholars in the Humanities, what it is that their job is – because it doesn’t seem like it’s quite so much the same sort of: receptacles of knowledge that we dispense nebulously to people and then just take that as self-evidently important as some kind of service that we’re doing them.

MA: Yes, for better or worse, the self-evidence of the value of Humanities research isn’t taken for granted any more.

MS: Right. And so that’s a thing that students, who want to go get jobs, have to grapple with. And it’s also a thing for those of us doing research in the Humanities to also kind-of start re-conceiving as well. So, into that space, enter cutting-edge new grad programme!

CC: Wonderful! And that scans quite well with my impression of things here in the UK. Here we certainly don’t have college fees to quite the same level as you have in the States, but when I started as an undergrad you were talking just about £1,000 a year. And now its gone up to £9,000 a year.

MS: Wow.

CC: . . .in that length of time. So there’s a real sense of: “What am I going to get out of this?”, students as consumers, and also the perceived value of,“Well, a degree in study of religion, that’s kind of near the bottom of the pile in terms of monetisation, isn’t it?” But need it all be doom and gloom?

MS: Not necessarily.

CC: Well, first of all, before we talk about your graduate programme, graduate students are going to be slightly different to undergraduate students. (10:00) So, again, maybe if you just tell us a little bit about that dynamic and then let’s see what you’ve been doing.

MS: You mean: what do we conceive of as our student cohort, coming in?

CC: Yes. The general purposes of graduate school.

MA: Oh yeah, that’s a whole bees’ nest of questions! There’s a whole argument going on in the US about graduate school. There was an article yesterday in the Chronicle, or this week, basically wagging its figure at literature professors around the country, saying: “Your entire career is built on the exploitation of graduate students!” And yet, at the same time – I’ve become such a reactionary old man at he age of 32 – I’m like: “You’re getting paid to go to school” in lots of cases! So there’s a whole back-and-forth about graduate school. And there’s a whole conflation of different programmes and the way they rely on graduate student labour to teach large classes, which keeps costs down, and buttresses the explosion of administrations and administrative costs. So there’s a whole big argument about the value, the importance, the ethics of graduate education in the US that I think we’re trying to navigate. We’ve thought hard about it. I want people to know that the committee who’s been working on this – from the proposal all the way down to the implementation – take those concerns very seriously. But they’re very real and they’re very thorny, I think.

MS: Mike and I were just talking about this earlier. I think, before the economy changed so dramatically, there was a sense that education and more of it was just a net gain. You know, education is an end in itself: it is always a good. The more you get of it, the more it will enrich your life, or pay you back monetarily, or just be this net gain to pursue. And I do think that – as we’ve already been discussing – those dynamics have shifted a bit. But I don’t think that means that, just because students are interested in making sure that they try to at least stack the odds for some kind of professional return on their investment, they leave their BA programmes without still this kind of sense of: “I don’t know, necessarily, if I have this very specific career path set out ahead of me. I’m still interested in all of these ideas that I’ve only just barely been exposed to. What do I want to do with those? Is there a space for me to continue to think about things in more depth?” So I don’t want there to be a kind of mutually exclusive, sort-of antagonistic relationship between professional security or job sensibility on one hand and intellectual curiosity on the other. And so one approach from academia I think, in a lot of ways, has been to sort of stake its flag, and sort of double-down and say, “No! What we study is super important! Did you hear? I’ll say it louder for the kids in the back – it is SUPER IMPORTANT!” Or on the other side, they just turn into a kind of profit machine, which I think results in . . . and maybe those things work together – I don’t know that those are two sides of the same coin – maybe they’re the same thing. So there’s this kind of exploitative factory of grad student labour on one hand and contingent adjunct labour that even spreads into the faculty arena. But there’s also, I think three’s been an ongoing failure – which I think is not too strong a word – on behalf of academicians to rethink and retool why it is that what we study matters, and why that should translate to student interest and to the lives that they’re living.(15:00) Because their interest does not live and die with their intellectual pursuits inside of that classroom. It’s also about the lives that they want to live, it’s also about the jobs they want to have, the places they want to live. It’s geographical concerns, its family concerns, it’s all sorts of different kinds of things. And so to try to think seriously about all of these issues, yes, is the job for people in Humanities in the 21st century now.

CC: Excellent. So that’s set a really good scene. So your department. . .Is your department called “Religion in Culture” or is it..I know that that’s quite a thing at Alabama.

MA: Yes, with the italics on the in.

MS: We have a webpage explaining our approach to that.

MA: The department is the Department of Religious Studies but when we came up with the Master’s – I don’t know who came up with the idea.Maybe it was on an email?

MS: We went back and forth about it.

MA: We decided to just call it the MA in Religion and Culture.

MS: It’s not quite. . . . You know, my PhD is from an English department, another colleague’s PhD is from an Anthropology department: we come at the study of religion from a lot of different disciplinary angles and we knew that this wasn’t going to be a traditional Religious Studies degree, as it’s popularly conceived still in the academy. But we also wanted to establish it as an intervention into that field, where a lot of us still have a great deal of a stake. But it’s not quite Cultural Studies, we didn’t want to go completely off the grid. So it’s our attempt at, kind of, charting out a specific path within a field that we all still have a great deal of stock in.

CC: And so you’re approaching it with two broad stands then: social theory and Digital Humanities. Why those choices?

MS: I’ll pitch this one to Mike with a little bit of background, because he’s one of our resident Digital Humanities gurus. But from me – with a background and training in literary theory – the reason I’m in a Religious Studies department is because of a commitment to social theory and questions about identity studies, and a kind of critical theory analytic that’s operative in my work. So the department has a longstanding commitment to thinking broadly about why it is that we study what we study, rather than just landing upon the self-evidency of  “what we do matters”. So in that sense, social theory has been something that we’ve been already flexing our muscles with for quite a number of years. And again, we also just got into the social media thing. It started with just advertising events on campus through Facebook and then having a Facebook page for our student association. But then our students started writing blog posts and then: “Well, maybe we should have a blog?” So the grad degree is emphasising two strengths that we already had. We’re not inventing anything new in either of these two platforms, but it is – especially for me who still is relatively new to the Digital Humanities scene – taking it to a kind of new and more substantive direction, especially with the Public Humanities bit.

MA: Yes, I think of it as really the two strengths of the department. And I think for a long time, because of Merinda’s work and Steven Ramey’s work and Russell McCutcheon’s work, our department has been known for its theoretical rigour. Theoretical swagger, I like to think of it as! So I think that’s manifest in this programme. So if you’re a student and you don’t want to be hemmed in by the same school of religious theorists, or if you’re not even thinking about religious theorists but you don’t want to be hemmed in by a content area, then what we’ve envisioned beginning with. . . . One of the first classes students take in this programme is a foundation course in social theory. And they’re introduced to a whole bunch of social theorists. This is something Merinda’s helped develop with Steven Ramey, and she can say more about that. But on the other side I think people have known less, until the last couple of years – it’s sort-of blossomed. (20:00) It’s like, we were one of the first departments to really utilise a website and to do all sorts of things. I mean back in the day, before cell phone cameras (I wasn’t here, I don’t know what I was doing, I was in high school) but they were taking photographs at events and scanning them, putting them up on the webpage. I say “they”, it was Russell and the faculty that were there then: Russell McCutcheon. And so that website predates Facebook. There was no Facebook but we had this website – and it’s actually about to get a facelift, soon – but you can go look at the archives of all this old stuff that we have buried, if you’re interested.

MS: And so much of that is this sense of trying to tell students what it is that we do in this department. Because so often they come out of high school without a sense of what Religious Studies, as a kind of academics base, is. And so I think that there is this hard work of just self-awareness, but then self-promotion and advertising that a department like ours had to do. And so, since we’ve been doing that for so long already, and since we have this analytical approach, by and large, how do we make the most of both of those two things?

MA: And so the website gave way to Facebook, gave way to the blog, that came in under . . . that was invented by Ted Trost, that began as a promotion of a Humanities series on campus, but then became this blog that is now read internationally. And people send us guest posts. And I think it’s become a pretty interesting space in the field. I mean, I’m a little biased, but. . . . And now our Twitter feed is doing really well, and we have an Instagram, and we’ve done all sorts of videos, and so I look at this as the next step in both those aspects of the department that have been going for the past ten-twelve years. And actually we have a podcast coming up soon, of our own, that I was just talking to Russell McCutcheon on as I was recording that. And there’s a great interview with him where he talks about this. And actually, the two are more connected than you think. We posit them as: there’s going to be a foundation class in social theory and a foundation class in Public Humanities and digital methods (that I’m putting together with Nathan Loewen) but they work together. Because really, all the stuff that we’ve begun to do in a social media space on the website is just applying social theory to our own environment,. Like: Why do we have a blog? Because getting students to write little pieces and see them creates a sense of. . . . It’s Durkheim!

MS: Right.

MA: We ought to know. . . . Academics who study religion from a social theory/social science/ human science perspective ought to be really good at understanding how to form a tight social group. That’s what we’re studying. That’s what we’re talking about. And we’ve kind of taken that seriously in a way. And so there’s the way these two things kind of feed off of each other, and have done in the life of department, and now we’re sending that momentum spinning forward into this graduate programme.

MS: It also means that their culminating thesis project can be a traditional publishable academic work that will send them to a PhD programme of their choice, or into a different kind of academic arena. But they can also, for their thesis requirement, do a digital project of equal substantive weight and value. So [we’re] thinking seriously about what that looks like and what that means, how to make them marketable. And not just in relation to how they can talk about themselves and their own skill sets – which I think is just such a thing that grad students could use – because I think that a lot of them with all of these kinds of critical skills, writing skills, argumentative skills, can only really talk about themselves of think about themselves in relation to the professoriate. Which I think is a shame, because those skills are super-marketable and very much in demand across a lot of different kinds of jobs sectors. (25:00) So, not only will they be able to talk abut themselves and think about their skills differently, but will also have a thing in hand that they can go to a museum with, or to a non-profit with, or to academic publishing, or. . .

MA: A start-up

MS: Or a start-up, or whatever kind of. . . and to help them get creative about where they can take those skills and equipped with something that isn’t just: “I have this killer essay, that’s an amazing, critical intervention.” They can do both.

CC: We’ve been nattering away here and time is already running away with us. This sounds fantastic and it sounds right in the same ballpark as why we started the Religious Studies Project five years ago: to try and find a way to get academia out there in a more accessible form.

MS: Right.

CC: But two questions just to maybe finish with, one would be: so, you know, stereotypical student wants to come and do a Master’s in the study of religion and they find themselves getting social theory and Digital Humanities. I can well imagine, based on some of the experiences that I’ve encountered , a jarring sense of: “Where’s the religion here? I just wanted to study some Buddhists!” So that’s one, and then the other question is: it sounds like you’ve got a really supportive department and university there. I can imagine in a perhaps more. . . I’ll use the word straight-laced or more traditional university, you might meet some resistance to proposing a course of this nature. So what advice might you have for scholars of religion who are working within the same context as you and are trying to instil the same sense of excitement and career development into their students, but maybe can’t quite found this innovative course? So on the one hand there’s the “Where’s the religion?” and two, advice for others in different contexts.

MS: Well, I mean to the first – at the end of the day we are still a department of Religious Studies and can still call ourselves that. So whatever kind of nominal traction we have to make ourselves legible in a field called Religious Studies is still present in the kinds of faculty areas and research that we do. Our approach is different, though, in relation to how it is that we think about the importance of [for example] the question of Hindus and American religion or a colleague who studies the spread of global Christianities in the global south, and Japan migration. So we have areas of the world and traditions that we use as data sets. There are still levels of study that people can kind-of come into and get that sort of traction if they want to do that. Especially if they want to go on to have an even more focussed approach with that, with their PhD. They have the opportunity to do language study while they’re here within the Master’s programme. But, you know, yes it is right that someone who is coming into our programme is probably not satisfied with thinking about a specific group of ritual practitioners in the 18th century, from this space, and then leave their enquiry to live and die inside of that space. So. . .

CC: And given that what you’re already saying about your social media presence etc, it’s going to be quite unlikely that a grad student’s going to turn up at the door not knowing what goes on.

MS: Right!

MA: They should certainly know what they’re getting themselves into!

MS: But I do think it needs to be said that this is still for those people who are really still diehard, interested in getting a PhD in Religious Studies, as long as they think of that approach as kind of cool, this is still something that will still put them in a really nice position and I think, if anything, make their application stand out. Because they do have this other little edge to it.

MA: I think, to be completely honest, that our students coming out of here will be better prepared for a more traditional PhD programme. Because our programme will require them to go back to first questions.(30:00) Like we said earlier, that taking it for granted that your study of Vedic sacrifice is valuable just because it’s about something really old, that it is inherently valuable, that’s not. . . You’re going to be pushed to be able to articulate what is it about your study of Ancient Vedic sacrifice that has purchase for  larger theories about social formation, ritual, the way communities work, the way people think, the way texts are passed down, like. . . whatever: something bigger. And that emphasis will allow you, when you get to a PhD programme and beyond when you’re on the job market later, to talk to people outside of your super-small speciality in a way that will make you a better scholar.

MS: And that’s exactly the answer, too, that I would suggest for the second part of your question, Chris, about what this suggests to scholars implicitly in their field. Because I think that there is a way in which the field itself, as a disciplinary phenomenon, can also be taken for granted as a self-evidently important thing.

MA: Of course religion’s important!

MS: Right, and “because we’ve been studying it in these ways for this many years, this is what we should continue or because the field is so dominated by area studies, and continues by area studies, and descriptive ethnographies, that that’s how we should continue to approach our work”. And I think that our programme is an experiment in thinking otherwise about that, and really putting our programmatic money where our mouths are, in terms of thinking differently about how we can conceive this field. Because there are a lot of different directions it can take. And why do we need to think in classic terms about area studies? Because then, why should we win the battle over how to get grad students who would otherwise go into a History grad programme, or a Cultural Studies programme, or in Anthropology? You know, why go into Religious Studies? So I think this is also a way for scholars and faculty members and administrators to think about how to organise differently around the kinds of area studies that they have, and how to make more marketable students coming out of those programmes in the process.

MA: And I’ll underline . . . .You asked the second question about how are we able to do this, and the support. At the risk of sounding too parochial, I think we have had a lot of support from the College of Arts and Sciences here at the university. And I think that’s because we’ve shown that the approaches we’ve chosen work in other settings. We’ve been out in front of other departments in a lot of ways, with the blog and social media. And a number of different projects that we’ve done have pushed everyone in the college, in a way, and so that’s given us a certain amount of institutional capital that has opened the door for this. And I think part of that is because we haven’t taken for granted that we’re valuable. And on the flip side of that: I think we’re the hardest working department in the country, we’re incredibly productive pound for pound and – I mean, that’s enough bragging!

MS: I’ll also say our Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences is a mathematician who is, nonetheless, deeply invested in the Humanities, and that’s just so, so nice. It’s really nice.

CC: So, effectively: get out there, embody what you want the field to be! If you want to be relevant, get out there and make yourselves relevant! That’s probably a good rallying call.

MA: Yes. The entrepreneurism we want in our Master’s students has been modelled by this department for the past 10-12 years.

MS: And interestingly – I know you’re probably trying to close this down because it sounded like a nice [ending], but only very quickly – this is why social theory is so useful too, to make that entrepreneurial vein of professional emphasis, not become some super-problematic, “Pull yourselves up by your bootstraps kiddos! And if you just try hard enough you’ll get that job in blah blah blah”. Like, No! We’re thinking really seriously about structural dynamics, about power dynamics, about the kinds of economic underpinnings that create certain sorts of environments that allow you to take various modes of agency in different kinds of spaces. And I think that that’s also super-important, because I think it can be really disheartening as a grad student to hear the equation of, “If you just try hard, and if you just publish enough, you’ll get that job.” Because that’s just so not any more the case.

MA: No. Scholars of large institutions and large social formations ought to be really good at navigating university bureaucracy.

CC: (35:00) Well, on that note, thanks so much Merinda Simmons and Mike Altman for joining us, and hopefully you will both get some sign-ups for this course.

MA: Applications are open now!

CC: You’ve also given our listeners a lot of food for thought and a lot of inspiration, and hopefully we’ll have a couple of interesting responses to this – fingers crossed!

MS: Thanks so much for talking to us.

MA: Thank you.

CC: Thanks so much for joining us.


Citation:  Simmons, K. Merinda, and Michael J. Altman  2017. “Reinventing Graduate Education in the Study of Religion”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 3 April 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 4 April 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/reinventing-graduate-education-in-the-study-of-religion/

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

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

 

UFOs, Conspiracy Theories… and Religion?

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

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

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

Historicism, Reflexivity, and Our Discourses on Theory: Or, Why Lacan Is Not a Garnish

In this interview, Adam Miller speaks with Kathryn Lofton and John Modern about their new book series with University of Chicago Press, titled Class 200: New Studies in Religion. According to the series description, Lofton and Modern invite proposals by authors who understand that “descriptions of religion [are] always bound up in explanations for it.” As Lofton notes in the interview, even a scholar such as Clifford Geertz, who presented himself as merely describing rituals he’s observed, for instance, was—as is clear in retrospect—situated in certain relations of power that shaped how he represented the colonial subjects he studied. Our “mere” descriptions are always invested in power relations and unstated assumptions or explanations about how the world works, about which we, as scholars, must be ceaselessly reflexive. We must relentlessly historicize our subjectivity, our scholarly production, and their relation to our object of study. Without that reflexivity, we risk producing the sort of self-serving narratives that orientalist scholars constructed about the “others” of western empire.

I concur with Lofton and Modern: without theoretical sophistication and reflexivity, we risk—at best—falling into naïve empiricism, or—at worst—contributing to the reproduction of hegemonic discourses that reproduce systematic asymmetrical power relations (in the spirit of reflexivity, I should note that of course what I take to be “best” or “worse” hinges on my autobiography, my interests, and the sympathies I’ve been socialized with—your “best” and “worst” may diverge radically).

I suspect that the way we sometimes talk about “theory” contributes to mystifying the complex relations that obtain between scholar, the scholar’s theoretical apparatus, and the object (or subjects) of study. In particular, it is the “add theory and stir” approach to the use of theory in our scholarship, which K. Merinda Simmons rightly criticized on a NAASR panel last November in Atlanta.[1] On this view, theory is something that’s added to our recipe in order to spice up our work. We could do without theory altogether on this view: all that we know about our object of study could be known without theory, although theory makes for a nice finishing touch. Reading all that sociology, anthropology, and literary theory is nice, but at bottom they are just garnishes: you can throw a little parsley and Lacan next to the steak and potatoes to make the presentation more colorful, but the steak and potatoes would taste the same without it.

I often find that those who use this sort of “add theory and stir” approach talk about theory as a “lens” that invites a certain perspective on the subject. The metaphor of the lens is problematic in at least two ways. First, it suggests a metaphysical dualism: the thing in itself is “out there,” and theory gets in between our vision and the thing in itself. The naïve empiricist thus despises theory: wouldn’t we see more clearly if we took the colored glasses off and looked directly at our objects of study? Theory distorts true vision!

The second problem with the “lens” metaphor is that it invites us to consider objects of study as existing “out there” in the world, independently of our vision. On this view, things exist independently of our construction of them, and different theoretical lenses permit differently useful perspectives on those things. Religions just exist, although a Marxist lens might help focus our attention on the class related elements. Religions just exist, although a feminist lens might help focus our attention on gender related elements.

By contrast, as a post-structuralist I’m persuaded that the world does not exist independently of our vision. On this view, scholarship on religion creates religious phenomena (if, indeed, we find “religions” to be useful things to construct). The application of a discursive apparatus is a condition of manifesting the “things” we study in the first place. Theory, from this perspective, is not something that’s added to a world that is already fully present to us; on the contrary, the things are after-effects of the theory. Hence: Freudians find repression and penis envy, Marxists find ideology and exploitation, feminists find constructed genders and patriarchy. Change your discourse and you’ll find different “objects” in front of you, in just the same way that gerrymandered space literally produces different political spaces simply by renaming them. “Language does not enter into a world of completed objective perceptions, simply to add to objects—already given and clearly delimited from one another—‘names’ that would be purely exterior and arbitrary signs; rather, [language] is itself a mediator in the formation of objects.”[2]

If we stopped referring to theory as a “lens” that colors our vision of the things-in-themselves that exist independently of our discourse, we might find we’re more open to seeing the constitutive role of theory in producing the visions we create, or the prior role of explanation in our “mere” descriptions.

In any case, I look forward to the volumes in Lofton and Modern’s series, and I hope the contributing authors rise to meet the demand for reflexivity called for by the series editors.

[1] Simmons’ paper was titled “The High Stakes of Identifying (with) One’s Object of Study.”

[2] Ernst Cassirer, quoted by Marshall Sahlins in Islands of History (University of Chicago Press, 1985).

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 1 March 2016

Calls for papers

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

September 8–11, 2016

Oxford, UK

Deadline: March 31, 2016

More information

Public Religions and Their Secrets, Secret Religions and Their Publics

October 27–28, 2016

University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Deadline: April 1, 2016

More information: Conference, Master Class

CHAOS-symposium: Religion og materialitet

April 29–30, 2016

University of Bergen, Norway

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information (Norwegian)

AAR panel: Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group

November 19–22, 2016

San Antonio, TX, USA

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

AAR panel: Religion, Media, and Culture Group

Deadline: March 1, 2016

November 19–22, 2016

San Antonio, TX, USA

More information

Events

Religious Diversity and Cultural Change in Scotland: Modern Perspectives

April 19, 2016

University of Edinburgh, UK

More information

Les Politiques du Blasphème: Perspectives Comparées

March 7, 2016

Paris, France

More information

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

August 29–September 2, 2016

University of Erfurt, Germany

Deadline: May 31, 2016

More information

Open Access

Open Theology: Cognitive Science of Religion

Available here

Jobs and funding

Postdoctoral teaching fellowship

Kenyon College, OH, USA

Deadline: March 25, 2016

More information

Lecturer in Hebrew

University of California, Santa Barbara, USA

Deadline: April 30, 2016

More information

University Lectureship in Anthropology and Islamic Studies

Leiden University, The Netherlands

Deadline: May 18, 2016

More information

Editor: Shambhala and Snow Lion Publications

Boulder, CO, USA

Deadline: May 17, 2016

More information

Assistant professor of Religious Studies

Utrecht University, the Netherlands

Deadline: March 11, 2016

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Instructor in Religion and Culture

Virginia Tech, VA, USA

Deadline: March 14, 2016

More information

AAR-Luce Fellowships in Religion and International Affairs

Deadline: March 31, 2016

DC, USA

More information

Dean of Graduate Jewish Studies

Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership

Deadline: May 22, 2016

More information

Postdoctoral Fellow in Judaic Studies

Virginia Tech, VA, USA

March 14, 2016

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Funding

CSA Research Fellowship

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

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

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

University College Cork, Ireland

Deadline: April 22, 2016

More information: PhDs, Postdoc

 

Getting to Know the North American Association for the Study of Religion

In this interview, Russell McCutcheon and Aaron Hughes discuss the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR), an international organization dedicated to historical, critical, and social scientific approaches to the study of religion. McCutcheon and Hughes (the president and vice president of NAASR, respectively) discuss the history of NAASR, their attempt to help return NAASR to its original mission, various publications associated with NAASR, and the philosophy or motivations that guided their annual conference this year.

In January 2016, we welcomed the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) as an additional sponsor. We are indebted to NAASR for their generosity, and we look forward to working with them in the years to come to continue what we do, and to bring about some important and long-planned innovations.

The North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) was initially formed in 1985 by E. Thomas Lawson, Luther H. Martin, and Donald Wiebe, to encourage the historical, comparative, structural, theoretical, and cognitive approaches to the study of religion among North American scholars; to represent North American scholars of religion at the international level; and to sustain communication between North American scholars and their international colleagues engaged in the study of religion.

Please see their website for more information on their activities, and for membership details. NAASR is incorporated as a nonprofit in the state of Vermont. A brief history of NAASR, written by Luther H. Martin and Donald Wiebe, can be found here.

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

What is ‘Buddhism in the West’?

There appears to be much debate regarding what defines Buddhism in the West. Particularly, when I attend Social Science of Religion conferences, Buddhism is presented as a new or exotic social cultural influential phenomenon. I often see “Buddhism in the West” lumped in with new religious movements (NRMs) or more interestingly as sources of therapeutic influence for new styles of mental health treatment such as those seen in the field of Psychology. The compulsion to lump Buddhism with new religious movements may derive from a variety of influences. For example, the mass exodus of Tibetan Buddhists following the Chinese occupation of 1949 may give scholars the impression of newness due to the large migratory movement of Tibetans to the west. This coupled with the popularity of the Dalai Lama and religious converts such as Richard Gere give credence to Buddhism as a “Western” new religious movement (Cantwell & Kawanami, 2002). Another theory could be the fascination of Buddhism for the late 19th century Transcendentalists. The Transcendentalists saw value in Buddhist philosophy for understanding a suffering western society (McMahan, 2008). Such thinkers and their use of Buddhist philosophy could have led to more individual forms of belief such as “spirituality” and “universalism.” To be considered new, some scholars may see the past 100 years as “recent” where the turn of the century serves as a new chapter in religious pluralism in the West. Better still could be the free love movement of the 1960s or the fascination with alternative states of consciousness. Many people were seeking something beyond the old interpretations of transcendence (Kent, 2001). All of these are examples of competing paradigms in terms of juxtaposing a belief system called “Buddhism” within the geographic and cultural center of the “West”.

The boundaries of what defines the West are also circumspect. Some perceive the West to be North America while other scholars speak to first world cultures (including North America but also Western Europe, and Australia). Such boundaries of what defines the West are unclear but there is proximate agreement related to the cultural center of what we term the “West” (McMahan, 2008). Here, there is proximate agreement as a Euro-American center of learning. In other words, we are speaking of centers of academic discourse and authority known as the university system. One could argue that such exchanges are colonial in nature (indicating a British or American dominance of cultural norms and language) and yet these implicit assumptions reinforce the very system, which assert categorical authority. Further, using terms such as “the West” and its interaction with other traditions are synonymous with speaking from an in-group perspective of privilege.

Given these challenges related to defining Buddhism in the West, Dr. Cox’s approach is refreshing. Rather than attempting to describe Buddhism’s introduction into the West as a socio-historical event, he approaches the exchange of culture from the perspective of a historically reconstructed narrative through the story of Laurence Carroll, an Irish immigrant to Burma by way of the United States. Laurence Carroll led an adventurous life from an immigrant, to a homeless person in the US, to a seaman, and eventually taking vows as a Buddhist monk. Mr. Carroll’s experience resulted in his ordination by becoming Bhikkhu U Dhammaloka. Dr. Cox provides an interesting look by way of Dhammaloka’s narrative, at the layers of national, social, ethnic, and religious identity. For Cox, identities are tied together as one but also relational in terms of the concept of the “other.” Dr. Cox shows that Carroll’s transitions between geographies were continually met with adversity in terms of his identity. For example, the conflict of his Irish identity in Ireland in relation to British colonial influence, then his Irish identity in relation to blacks/African Americans in New York, and eventually his Irish identity in relation to the dominant Asian culture of Burma. His concept of self becomes even more complex when he converts to Buddhism, as he is no longer centered within his Irish or Caucasian identity. Such boundaries of self were not only confusing but also empowering as Dhammaloka could challenge others who attempted to proselytize the local populations in Burma.

According to Cox, Dhammaloka had social influence on the local population to defend Buddhism from what he may have seen as colonial missionary dominance reminiscent his own experience with the British in Ireland. Dr Cox’s podcast leaves me with additional derivative themes of interest. To speak in terms of cultural or social influence is to implicitly infer a social shift in the individual definition of self. As noted by Cox, deconversion was no small transition in self-identification. With one’s exit from their own enculturated tradition to an exotic, lesser-known faith came perceptions of racial as well as moral defection. Scholarly inquiry into Buddhism for the time was surely appropriate but only in as much as these faith traditions were contrasted with Christianity. The Dhammaloka case study serves as an excellent example of where the religious and cultural landscape is moderated within the domain of academic discourse. Only at this time were such intellectual pursuits blatantly colonial in agenda. Furthermore, such lively exchanges with missionaries highlight the overt assumptions of intellectual and cultural dominance but also the subversive influence on Buddhism to compete in a soon to be global spiritual marketplace. I would challenge Dr. Cox to think of Dhammaloka not in terms of his authenticity of being one of the earliest converts to Buddhism, but rather to see him as a mediating influence in what Buddhism would come to be for the West. Dare I say that Dhammaloka’s own cultural baggage and his Western approach to Buddhism might well have helped repackage Buddhist philosophy, making such transitions more salient.

In conclusion, I would like to challenge the overall paradigm of “Buddhism in the West.” The lack of synergy among scholarly inquiry coupled with the assumption of the specialness of Buddhism within the cultural or geographic context of the West lends further need for the application of critical theory. Such theory should be able to describe the specialness of the former and latter without relying on the old colonial tools of academia. While there is value in theories of sociology and religious studies, my concern is that such assumptions assume Buddhism is/was something different or special, dare I say sui generis (McCutcheon, 1997). The West’s fascination with the East goes well beyond a simple proselytizing motive or – it could be argued – colonial influence. Buddhism’s symbols, rituals, and practices seem mystical almost otherworldly from the flowing robes of monks, to the symbolism of the simplistic humble request of a monk with a begging bowl, to the teachings of the dasa pāramiyo or the ten perfections in defining one’s potential for Buddha nature. Yet given the plethora of possibilities in exploring the grand narrative of Western (European and American) Buddhism, such inquiries make some false assumptions about how Buddhism in the West is defined.

References

Cantwell, C. & Kawanami, H. (2002) Buddhism in Elisabeth Arweck’s New religious movements. Religions in the modern world: traditions and transformations, pp. 47-82.

Goldberg, E. (2006). Buddhism in the west In S. C. Berkwitz Berkwitz, S. C. (Ed.). Buddhism in world cultures: comparative perspectives. Abc-clio.

Kent, S. A. (2001). From slogans to mantras: Social protest and religious conversion in the late Vietnam war era. Syracuse University Press.

McCutcheon, R. T. (1997). Manufacturing religion: The discourse on sui generis religion and the politics of nostalgia. Oxford University Press.

McMahan, D. L. (2008). The making of Buddhist modernism. Oxford University Press.

The Critical Study of Religion

In this interview, Professor Bruce Lincoln from the University of Chicago Divinity School discusses a variety of topics including werewolves, critical theory, pedagogy, and his self-imposed estrangement from the academic study of religion. Dr. Lincoln is a well-known and influential scholar of religion who completed his doctorate from the University of Chicago where he studied with Mircea Eliade. He then taught for many years at the University of Minnesota before he returned to the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, where he is the Caroline E. Haskell Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions. According to his biography on the University of Chicago’s website, “His research tends to focus on the religions of pre-Christian Europe and pre-Islamic Iran, but he has a notoriously short attention span and has also written on a bewildering variety of topics, including Guatemalan curanderismo, Lakota sun dances, Melanesian funerary rituals, Swazi kingship, the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre, Marco Polo, professional wrestling, Persian imperialism, the theology of George W. Bush, and comparative demonology.” What underlying theme or methodology holds together this diverse body of work?

As Dr. Lincoln discusses in this interview, he is interested in the constructed nature of society. “I think society is a project,” he said, “rather than an entity that exists by nature.” From this foundation, Lincoln isolates a variety of specific instances in multiple places and times where people appeal to religious discourse to legitimate their local interests. Religion, for Lincoln, is a thoroughly human phenomenon. To demonstrate this, it requires the type of critically-informed analysis that Lincoln seldom finds in 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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, professional wrestling DVDs, werewolves, and more.

Podcasts

From Static Categories to a River of Theories: “The Myth of Disenchantment”

Dr. Josephson-Storm’s first book, “The Invention of Religion in Japan,” discussed how, after Commodore Perry forcibly opened Japan to Europeans and Americans in 1853, the Meiji intelligentsia and government remade their country along Western lines. This meant inventing a term, shukyo, that was roughly analogous to the Western word “religion.” In other words, an artificial delineation between spiritual practices and other parts of society was introduced to Japan, as part of the quest to be “modern.” Another key aspect of religious modernization was the delineation of “proper” religions from “superstition” and “magic.”

Meanwhile, Japanese intellectuals who visited America and Europe realized that the Westerners were not as objective or rational — that is, disenchanted — as they claimed. In fact, many Americans and Europeans believed in Spiritualism, occultism, Theosophy, mesmerism, magnetism, herbal medicine, and other things that didn’t conform with proper religion (i.e., Christianity). “The Myth of Disenchantment,” Josephson-Storm’s second book, argues that, although Westerners conceived of a philosophical triad — science and Christianity in opposition to magic/Spiritualism/etc. — the triad obscured the ways in which people interacted with each other and blended religion, “magic,” and science. There were, and are, many strands of people with varying approaches to religion and modernity. In our interview, Josephson-Storm and I agree that (based on Josephson-Storm’s research) Western intellectual history is more like a river, with many concepts colliding with each other, than a stable triad or other spatial metaphor. Josephson-Storm argues that it is wrong to assume that the West has progressed beyond myth or magic; it is wrong to assume that religion never influences scientists; and it is wrong to think that major scientific figures avoided occultism, esotericism, Christianity, or other religious traditions.

We also discuss where we go in the study of religion, and in philosophy generally, in the wake of postmodernism. To interrogate categories like “religion” and “magic” and show their intellectual genealogy, as Josephson-Storm does, is to act in the vein of postmodernism, deconstruction, and other forms of critical theory / Continental Philosophy. But where do we go next? How do we frame our lives, since we cannot deconstruct things forever? Josephson-Storm proposes that we admit the constant reconstruction and manipulation of narratives, so that, instead of getting hung up on flawed categories of modernization or ripping apart arguments infinitely (beware fake news), we admit the world is filled with dynamic tension. If the past way of studying “civilized” religion versus “primitive” magic is wrong, and if we are honest about our personal biases and the limits of objectivity, then we might achieve a world that is more tolerant of different religions and a world in which scholars produce unconventional, but more accurate, studies of religion.

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

A transcript of this podcast is available as a PDF, and has been pasted below.

For our previous podcast with Prof. Storm on “The Invention of Religion in Japan”, see here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-invention-of-religion-in-japan/

From Static Categories to a River of Theories: “The Myth of Disenchantment” and Framing Religious Studies

Podcast with Jason Ā Josephson-Storm (14 May 2018).

Interviewed by Daniel Gorman Jr.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

 

Daniel Gorman (DG): Good afternoon, Professor!

Jason Josephson-Storm (JJS): Good afternoon, Dan.

DG: So Jason Josephson-Storm is calling in today, from Williamstown, Massachusetts.

JJS: Indeed! The snowy part of the state, yes.

DG: And I’m sitting in my kitchen, and the snow hasn’t reached me yet.

JJS: Oh, right.

DG: Today we will be talking about your new book, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity and the Birth of the Human Sciences, published last May, by the University of Chicago Press. But I think, before we get into that, we should tell our listeners where you’re from, historiographically. Your first book was set across the Pacific: The Invention of Religion in Japan.

JJS: Yes, indeed. My first book was my dissertation – a heavily revised dissertation – called The Invention of Religion in Japan. And it was basically about Japanese intellectuals encountering the category religion for the first time, in a set of trade treaties in the mid nineteenth century, and trying to figure out what the word religion meant. Because there wasn’t necessarily an equivalent translation term for religion in Japanese. And they had no clear idea what – if anything, in Japan – was a religion, or counted as the category religion. And in that book I traced how the category religion was debated and articulated in Japan, and how Japanese thinkers came to see that the term was embedded in a set of contrasts. On the one hand, with religion and science as putative opposites, and the other as religion and superstition, as another imposing term. And to figure out one, you had to figure out the other. At least that’s what Japanese thinkers ended up deciding. And they ended up coining a completely new vocabulary of new terms, in Japanese. For example, like the term shūkyō for religion, or kagaku for science, that didn’t exist before this encounter with European thought. So yes, that was my dissertation. I did both sides of the encounter. Mostly I was looking at Japanese sources – Japanese thinkers looking to the West and then, in some cases in that book, I flipped the encounter and looked at Europeans writing about Japan in the same period. And looked at their mismatch of conceptual ideas and terms.

DG: If I remember correctly in The Invention of Religion in Japan, you talk about a few Japanese intellectuals who spend time studying in the United States?

JJS: Yes, that’s right, including thinkers like Mori Arinori who famously came to the United States – I think it was at Amherst College, actually – which is our arch-rival here, from Williams. [Editorial Note: See author’s correction below, from 18 May 2018 – “One small correction–Mori Arinori didn’t go to Amherst. I misspoke. He went to Brocton, New York, and spent a year living in a religious community established by spiritualist mystic Thomas Lake Harris and loosely based on the teachings of Emmanuel Swedenborg. The nineteenth century Japanese thinker who went to Amherst College, was Uchimura Kanzō. I discuss both men in The Invention of Religion in Japan.”] But I look at a number of Japanese intellectuals who travelled in the United States and wrote about their experiences there, definitely. And they tried to figure out the central edifices of Western thought. And this is a group of Japanese whose writings in the West has been historically less studied, because they studied weird things that don’t fit the story that Europeans like to tell about Europe. So they were considered to have got it wrong. But, actually, I think they had a lot of perceptive, interesting things to say. But that was the first book.

DG: I want to dig into that, a little bit. You were mentioning the story that Western Europeans are telling about themselves. And that’s an essential idea to The Myth of Disenchantment, your next book. What do you see as the story that they’re telling about themselves?

JJS: So, one of the things that the Europeans presented was an equation between their technological civilisation – in other words their guns and their boats and what-have-you – and their either cultural or intellectual traditions. And Europeans tended to tie them together and argue for the superiority and the fundamental connection between the two. So even though gunpowder was invented in China and the print press had its earlier formation, for example, in China (although we can’t see direct transition there) Europeans presented European technology as proof that European civilisation was superior, and they claimed, often, that European civilisation was superior for two competing reasons: either because European civilisation at that time was considered Christian, or they claimed that their civilisation was superior because it was more rational. But Japanese intellectuals encountering British culture were worried about: What is this Christianity? Is it uniform? And, particularly, they questioned the rationality of European thought. Versions of that were questions about the disenchantment narrative. So Europeans often claimed that their particular form of superiority came from the fact that they had disabused themselves of superstitions. But some Japanese thinkers noticed that . . . and this didn’t make it into the first book or the second book, but I’m publishing it elsewhere as an article. A bunch of Japanese thinkers, instead of seeing a disenchanted West, saw a West full of spiritualists, full of people believing in the Occult, full of Pentecostal religious revivals, full of people who believe in charms and the efficacy of talismans. So, in that respect, the presentation of the West – particularly Europe or America – as radically “other”, in terms of its lack of superstitions, didn’t make sense to them. They could see not only a disenchanted West but, in a way, a mystical West (5:00). And they saw a parallel, as they saw it, in European interest in things like x-rays and radioactivity. European science was populating the world with invisible forces and a number of European thinkers equated those . . . talked about spiritualism in terms of radioactivity or in terms of x-rays, or what have you. So one of the things that interested me early on was this interesting reading that Japanese thinkers produced about the West. The other things that they saw, or didn’t see, that I found interesting in that project were distinctions between philosophy and religion that they found to be really problematic. And the idea of a secular state was a construct that was, in many respects, mythical, or what-have-you. So that’s a lot about that book. Yes.

DG: What you’re suggesting is that with these Japanese intellectuals in the late 19th century – they’re looking and saying . . . with their connection between science and religion, they’re anticipating figures like Alfred North Whitehead.

JJS: You mean, who might see those two as having a different relationship?

DG: Yes. So, for instance, Whitehead is a mathematician but he’s talking about universal principals of the spirit. He’s making those connections. William James is using social science but he’s also interested in psychical phenomena. These individuals don’t fit neatly into the philosophical box you’re describing.

JJS: Yes, exactly. And I think they didn’t fit in a box from Japanese scholars, and they don’t fit that opposition. A lot of European scholars have put that opposition today. One of the grand myths that – to sort-of pivot to the next book – that I’m interrogating in The Myth of Disenchantment, is this notion of a necessary conflict between religion and science – which turns out to be a pervasive myth articulated, basically, in the 19th century in Europe and America. And it presumes that religion and science are necessarily in conflict. And there are a lot of interesting things we could say about, for example, Draper who is the first to talk about the conflict model, which he himself already uses as a Protestant anti-Catholic argument. Or we could say something about the number of scientists themselves who have not seen these two things in conflict, or whatever. But what I was really interested in, is how the categories of religion and science got articulated spaces, as terrains – to borrow something Peter Harrison later talked about, he uses that language – but to think how religion and science were defined in opposition. And one of thing that I notice . . . . And I’m sorry, if I get excited I talk too fast! So I’ll try and slow down a little bit. One of the things I noticed is that, conceptually, there was often a third term: not only were religion and science positioned in conflict, as part of this myth of a conflict model, but also often religion was seen as opposed to something – superstition – which was like the pseudo-religion, or the thing that looked like religion but is not religion, often described a superstition or magic. But similarly, science was also positioned in opposition to something called “pseudo-science”, which was also described as superstition or magic. So it seemed like the intellectual edifice that was being formulated in the 19th century was a triadic oppositional structure between, on the one hand, a conversation about the difference between religion and science, but also about religion and magic, or magic and science. And, in particular, areas that religion and science seemed to overlap were the most likely to be policed as illegitimate, as pseudo-science or as magic, or as . . . I’m thinking of things like psychical research, spiritualism, table-turning or what-have-you, that presented itself as a science, as a science of the dead . . .

DG: It satisfies neither group. Something like spiritualism, it satisfies neither the pure modernist, the scientist, and it doesn’t satisfy the Christians either.

JJS: Yes, often. Although there are a range of scientists who love spiritualism and a range of Christians or Quakers, or what-have-you that, as we know, were into spiritualism. But you’re right, that it didn’t fit the clean definitionary lines. But it became an object of attack from both sides. So one of the things that already motivated the transition between the two books was, I got interested in trying to figure out . . . if in Japan, in the 19th century, they were encountering these three categories as if they were already accomplished things: religion, science and magic or superstition. I was interested in how those three got formulated as three distinct categories in thought, and how much boundary work was going on in policing them – and also the ways that boundary work collapsed. And then, the other kind-of insight that motivated this second project is that a lot of the conversation about this third term – magic or spiritualism – connected itself up to a notion of modernity as such. So one of the central myths, that I think is still shared in much of the social sciences, is the notion of some grand periodisation called modernity. And the idea is that at a certain point – everybody disagrees about when, but it may the birth of the printing press, or industrialisation, or the Protestant Reformation, or what-have-you – there’s a rupture, after which we enter a period called modernity, but often modernity is described in terms of something called disenchantment (10:00). And that disenchantment is usually defined as an end of belief in spirit, or an end of belief in magic. But the problem is that, if you look at it – and I have a chapter that looks at the sociological evidence – people didn’t stop believing in spirits. Many Americans, arguably – depending upon how you define the categories – something like 75% of Americans hold onto some kind of paranormal or general belief in spirits, in ghosts, in angels, in demons, demons that possess people etc., psychical powers – all this stuff is really widespread – astrology, for example. So, you know, we might guess that the academy has more sceptics than other, but even then it’s not necessarily clear. It’s just there are different kinds of belief that people have. So it doesn’t look like contemporary America is disenchanted, according to those logics – or contemporary Western Europe. And what’s more, it turns out that the notion of modernity as itself disenchanted, was basically formulated in the 19th century. And this is a period where we hear about revival, about spiritualist séances, about the widespread birth of psychical research, and theosophy, and a whole bunch of other positions. So it turns out that – as I argue in this book, The Myth of Disenchantment –after looking at . . . . I started looking at these founding figures of this narrative of modernity as disenchantment, who are often the founders of many of our disciplines: founders of Sociology, or Psychology, or Psychoanalysis, or Philosophy, or Religious Studies. And I looked through their diaries and their letters, and I was able to locate them in the exact milieu where magic was, itself, being practised or believed. They hung out with spiritualists, or they themselves called their own project theosophy, and talked to these theosophists. So it looked, in a way, that the myth of magic departure was part and parcel of conversations of occultists as well as scholars of religion. So Helena Blavatsky, for example – the founder of the Theosophical Society – she described modernity in terms of the disenchantment, and said that the central feature of the West was that it had lost belief in magic – even as she wanted to return to India, and her hidden masters, to recoup the missing pieces! So it looked like the difference . . . normally disciplines like Sociology and Religious Studies describe themselves as disenchanting or secularising. But that becomes harder to countenance when you know that in the individual lives of a lot of these people – let’s say Sigmund Freud – they find themselves having the beliefs that they are, themselves, describing as archaic! So, what it means is that there is a way in which this very notion of modernity as disenchanted turns out to be a myth. And that turns out to be one of the many things I try to argue in the book. Basically, not only isn’t it true now, but it wasn’t true then. And we can see, if we look at the lives – the private lives – of all these thinkers, that they had all these kind-of, let’s say, heterodox, or complicated, or interesting, or enchanted beliefs themselves. So I think that’s one of the big pay-offs.

DG: Hang on! Sorry I want to get a word in, here!

JJS: Yes, sorry!

DG: So you mentioned that there’s a flood narrative, to say that there’s a triadic opposition of magic, Western Christianity and (science). If that’s a flawed model, and everything’s more fluid and, as you say, you have scientists like Curie and Max Müller who are going to séances, then what is the correct structure? Is there even a structure? Shall we get rid of this triad? Is it the tesseract, and multiple dimensions wrapping around itself, or what is it?

JJS: So, I think we tend to think of this triad as necessary and universal. But I think we’re wrong about that. What I ‘m not saying is that nobody believed in this triad but rather, in the process of constructing this triad, we carved out a much more complex, heterogeneous space and then made a bunch of arbitrary divisions around it. So one of the things I’m trying to do is challenge the presumption of that triad. I would agree that it needs to be unwoven, in a certain way. But that doesn’t mean that we deny that we’ve had this history. So one of the things that I’m really interested in is how we study – just to take a step back to these higher categories. So, we spend a bunch of time sitting in the horizon of these categories. So, let’s say, we spend much time thinking of religion as a universal, and then trying to define the features that religion has. What’s the definition of religion, and how is it in all sides, and in all cultures? I don’t think that . . . . That project has failed. My book isn’t the first to show this. Neither of my books is the first to show this. But there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the category of religion takes its primary relation to a particular period in Euro-American history and then is imposed, in a heavily negotiated and contested way, on the rest of the globe. But what I think we can do, as scholars, is then to not study the category as a universal thing, but study the category as it is articulated and the effects that it’s had. So we can trace this category as a kind of unfolding process or, what I like to call a “higher order assemblage”, and look at how various things are recruited into it. It’s like an unfolding process, like a stream. To take a metaphor, what I’m trying to do is, I’m kind-of . . . instead of a process physics – a process anthropology (15:00). And to look how these categories were historically conditioned and articulated within the implications of doing that. And that means that we have to look at ourselves as scholars within the categories themselves, and kind-of work them out. Anyway, this is stuff I’m working on for the next book. So I shouldn’t monologue any more about it! But I’m working on a book called Absolute Disruption: The Future of Theory after Postmodernism. And that’s exactly about: how do we work with, and study, these higher order categories. And how do we sort-of function without returning to the older discredited modernism, or turning into the word-play of postmodernism. And what I argue for is a kind of pride in “humble science” is one of my phrases. And I kind-of come up with a new philosophy of social science for a post-Kuhnian way of looking at the world as these kind-of aggregated processes. But I should step back, and return to this before I get carried away.

DG: There is a little bit to unpack there. Let’s begin with this idea of . . . I think one of the things we’re dancing around in this conversation is there is a difference between studying something, and there is a difference between practising it. So you mentioned, for instance, three are people in the 19th Century who believe in the triumvirate of magic, spiritualism and science – no excuse me I got the triumvirate wrong, the triumvirate is Christianity, Spiritualism and science: OK, take a step back to the present. . .

JJS: Or religion, science and magic, or whatever. Yes.

DG: So then, as a scholar looking back, you’re seeing the flowing river where it’s all intertwined and there is no simple static thing. So then let’s go to another level, ok? You’ve got the people in the past with the triad; you’ve got the people today, studying, saying, “No. I see a stream in which these people were functioning.” So what’s the next step? Where do we go if we’re saying that our narrative of modernity and postmodernity is flawed? What’s the next step for building a framework to understand this stuff? Because we still have to live with it in the present day.

JJS: So what I’m saying is, to locate ourselves within the horizon of temporality. So I mean, in that respect, one of the things that we have to do is recognise the limitedness of our own conceptual categories. I mean, now we’re really onto my third book stuff – so this is fun! But one of the things that we do is we have to recognise . . . . I should take a step back, and talk about the history of modernism and postmodernism, and then tell you . . . . So, one of the things that many academic disciplines were predicated on was the notion of concepts. That was essentially Aristotelian in its basic function. This is a notion of concepts as having necessary and sufficient conditions for membership. And what’s more, we thought that our concepts mapped on the world – that they cut up what the Greeks had called the “joints of nature” – in other words, looked at where nature divided things up. So that made natural kinds of distinctions. This is often called “natural kinds”. And we thought that if you could find necessary and sufficient conditions for membership in a given category, that you could identify its essence. And if you could say something about its essence you could begin to discover and develop, let’s say, robust or scientific knowledge about a subject. In the hard sciences we’ve already begun to challenge that notion of essences. And I think a lot of philosophy of science has already moved past the way that those conceptions or categories are articulated. But in the humanities we also had a crisis around this, because we discovered that many of our concepts no longer worked. The capacity to produce necessary and sufficient conditions for the category of religion turns out to have been a flawed process, etc. So the question then becomes . . . . Instead of thinking about nature as jointed, in the old fashioned way, we have to think of it in the way of a disjointed nature. And this is at least true. Even if you think that there is a distinction between natural kinds and human kinds, in which nature itself has joints, it’s pretty clear that human concepts don’t have the kinds of joints that we would like to project upon them. The joints that we have are historically contingent. So part of what we end up doing in studying is locating ourselves within our study – so this is a kind of reflexivity – and then focussing on how these conceptual categories were themselves constructed. But I’m aware that we’re getting away from . . .

DG: Yes. I feel like we’re moving beyond The Myth of Disenchantment to what comes after. We realised that the myth of disenchantment is flawed. And we’re also running out of time. So, we sketched out the theoretical terrain. But what struck me with this book is that, as much as we talk about the critical theory and the flawed basis of modernity, you’re showing an incredible range of material in, let’s see: German, French, English – you’re doing comparative linguistic work here, also.

SSJ: Yes.

DG: What is your . . . I mean, it almost sounds like a Larry King softball question, but I’m curious! What is your language training, to be able to do a book like this? Because it’s almost like you were doing the work of four books in one. You’re talking about German intellectual history, you talk about the Renaissance, you talk about Occultism, and Britain and America in the ’50s.

JJS: Yes, so I grew up bilingual with French and English, and I went to a French and English Educational school until I went to High School. And having basically tested out of High School French, I started Japanese in High School (20:00). And my mother was born in Germany. So I grew up also with sharing a lot of German. So I had, basically, those four – German is my weakest of those languages. I also spent some time in Barcelona, studying Spanish. And then I lived in France for a couple for years, and I lived in Japan and I lived in Germany. And when I was in Japan I studied Classical Chinese. So, basically, I have English, French, Spanish, German, Japanese and Classical Chinese. And then from Romance languages and Germanic languages you can get to other Romance and Germanic languages easily. And then, when I was here a few years ago at Williams, I did tutoring- I took and received tutoring from a classicist here, in Latin. So I was working on building my Latin. At the moment I’ve just started – I love languages – I’ve just started Biblical Hebrew. So in fact, what I’m going to go to in thirty minutes is my Hebrew lesson. But I just love languages! I mean, I just love them. I read in languages more than I speak with languages. I talk quickly and I like to be grammatical, and then I get tongue-tied if I try to speak. I speak all my languages better drunk, for example! But I love puzzling things out philologically. So that’s the kind of stuff that was in the background of this book. Yes.

DG: You also mentioned, in our conversation, the idea that there are moments in history – as you see it – sort-of these explosive junctures, that upset our models for understanding the world. You know, you can look at Japan: the arrival of the Westerners unsettles their way of not seeing a division between spirituality and nature. For Westerners: the atomic bomb, the discovery of the germ, the DNA – these sort of explosive moments. And I find it interesting that you started writing The Myth of Disenchantment after an explosive moment: the Fukishima disaster. So we’re talking about reflexivity, so I’m trying to situate you, Josephson-Storm, in the fields that you’re talking about. Where are you in the stream?

JJS: Oh well, that’s a big question! Do you want to know why I came to this particular project, when? Or do you want to hear about how I shifted from Japan to the Western European thing? Or I could go in so many different directions. That’s a good one.

DG: Well, let’s focus . . . . Since we’re talking about historical moments that upset the stream, that upset the models, for you I want to talk about the Fukishima thing. And how does that effect the way you conceive of religion?

JJS:I mean for me, as I mentioned at the beginning of this book, after I’d finished The Invention of Religion in Japan, before it had come to press, I was starting research on another project that was going to be called “Ghosts and Resurrections in Contemporary Japan”. And it was about the history of the notion of spirits, and about contemporary belief in talismans. And I was already making the argument that 19th and 20th century Japan wasn’t disenchanted. But then the incident . . . . You know, I’d already done a lot of research towards that project. And one of the things that tipped me the other way, just by chance of timing, was in Kyoto – I was on an early tenure sabbatical doing research. And I was actually at a tattoo parlour getting some tattoo work done, when the Fukishima incident happened. It was actually- the earthquake off at Tohuku. We didn’t know it was Fukishima, yet. And earthquakes aren’t uncommon in Japan. They’re pretty common. And we didn’t, right away, know how huge the effects were going to be. So, a lot of people in the tattoo parlour would just stop what we doing, and we were just watching the television screens. And I remember seeing the images of the tsunami, but not yet being aware of how tragic and disastrous it was going to be in terms of loss of human life. And one of the guys in the tattoo parlour was asking me about my research, and I started talking about, you know, asking people about their belief in talismans and ghosts and spirits and talking about that kind of thing. And there was one other non-Japanese person there. And when we were having this conversation this guy, who I think probably was from either Norway or Sweden or something like that, was like: “Oh, of course Japanese people believe in all these magical things. But that’s because Japan is a kind-of like mystical Asia, where people still believe in magic. But in the West people don’t believe in anything like that.” And I thought, the binary that was drawn – it was flawed. And, in particular – in part, we could say, autobiographically – it’s because my grandmother was a famous anthropologist, Felicitas Goodman, who herself went kind of . . . the term people used to describe her was “went native”. On a reservation in New Mexico, she started believing in the existence of spirits. And I remember, from growing up, her offering cornmeal to the ghosts when the sunrise came up, to the spirits and the ancestors and what have you – the spirits of the land (25:00). And I knew that a lot of people came from all over the world to attend these sessions that she gave on the reservation. So some of those famous sociologist, anthropologists and artists from Germany, from Mexico, from the Unites States. And so I was always . . . I felt a bit of an outsider to that community. But I greatly admired my grandmother who was one of my intellectual heroes, and one of the reasons I study religion. And so I knew, at least, she was strange – but she wasn’t that strange. And so this reinforced my sense that this binary between an enchanted Asia and disenchanted West, was itself a kind of mythical distinction. So that’s one of the things that gave birth to this project: to kind of look at Europe with the eyes of an outsider anthropologist – or look at Europe and America from this semi-outsider vantage point. And there’s where I think I saw a lot of things that I didn’t expect, perhaps. But clearly there was disaster. I was planning to go to Tokyo and it looked like Tokyo was . . . . You couldn’t get food, they were having to ship stuff into the city. I was looking online at radiation levels that were spiking, and I just thought it was probably . . . I wasn’t going to be able to get the kind of research that I was going to get done, done in Tokyo. So I went to Germany, where I was intending to go at some point after that, anyway. So the disaster, in a way, uprooted me. And I made sure that my Japanese friends were safe, and I tried to keep tabs on things. But I knew, you know like it wasn’t going to be conducive to. . . .You know – an American, rooting around in the archives, wasn’t going to be conducive to what was happening in Fukishima and Tokyo in that particular moment. So I went to Germany and then went through the German archives, basically. I was trying to beef up my German, so I started reading a lot of stuff in German then.

DG: We’ve gone around the world I think, three times at this point. I think the fact is that the stuff we’re talking about – we could go on about this for hours. But our listeners only have about half an hour. So, to wrap up: I think what I see as the contribution of your book, is that it’s identifying . . . instead of this singular, “us versus them”, science or Christian scientists (that’s two separate words, that’s Christian scientists not Christian Scientists, the religion) versus the spiritualist, by showing the fact that it’s more complicated. I saw a couple of different strands in your book. And I want you to critique me if you think I’ve got the wrong strands. You’ve got Christians who are scientist and spiritualist. You have scientists who are spiritualists. You have spiritualists who aren’t scientists but reject Christianity. So my point is: every single part of the triad, you could flip that a couple of different ways. And so, suddenly, you’ve got six or seven – I don’t know. . . . How many strands would you see, in the book, of how many different boxes people can fall into?

JJS: Yes, I didn’t organise it that way, but I did organise it around the birth of these different disciplines. So, I mean I think you’re right, even looking at the birth of these different disciplines, what I was interested in is the different ways that people navigated those categories. And you’re right, there are like a plurality. You could be pro-science, pro-magic; anti -science, anti-magic; pro-Christianity, pro-magic: anti Christianity, pro-magic. All of the possible options, and a much more pluralistic way than you would get if you bought the story that suggested that the central feature of modernity is that people no longer believed in spirits or magic.

DG: But what you’re talking about is also a more interesting story.

JJS: Yes. Thank you. Yes, I hope I highlight some interesting complexities and interesting figures. And I found a lot of stuff. I was surprised, you know, the amount of stuff that I found that was in diaries, or letters, or things that were lesser known works of a range of figures that really doesn’t fit our received impression of these people. But then, I look not just at the founders of academic disciplines but – for the sake of your readers – I look at a number of famous magicians and occultists and show how they were in dialogue with the academic world, more than people often supposed. So Aleister Crowley and Helena Blavatsky, for example, are two key examples. And then I do five hundred years of history. So, you know, basically it’s Francis Bacon, to the Vienna Positivists. So maybe not quite 500 years, but more like 400 years of history. It was a lot of stuff. It was a lot of fun. I had to leave out a lot.

DG: Yes. And I’ve seen some of those articles you published the one called, what’s it? “God’s Shadow” – the one about the founders of the study of religion who were also obsessed with ghosts.

JJS: Yes, totally. Indeed. So the book . . . there are lot of pieces that I had to cut out. Some of it has appeared in articles, and I have a bunch more of book chapters that will look at different pieces. But I’m trying to move off of that. But I just had so much and I had to cut it down for publishing purposes. So it’s a little bit tight in terms of the prose. But there’s a lot of evidence there, yes (30:00).

DG: So thank you, Dr Josephson-Storm. It’s been a very lively conversation!

JJS: Good to speak to you, too.

DG: And having gone from the triad, which is flawed, to the stream, which is interesting, I am interested to see what your theoretical book will say next. Because once you explode the streams – and living in an age of fake news where anything goes, I’m very interested in where the study of religion, and how we understand it, goes next.

JJS: Thank you. Yes, that’s what I’m working on, yes.

DG: If you come up with a good answer, let me know!

JJS: Yes, you’ll have to read the book, or interview me when the next one comes out. It’s under contract and I’m claiming I’m going to have it to the press by the end of 2019. So I have to come up with an answer by then, anyway! We’ll hope it’s a good one!

DG: Go test it on your undergrads!

JJS: Yes, totally.

DG: Thank you very much.

JJS: Good to speak to you. Thank you.

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

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

The Return of Homo Religiosus

A Responses to “Why do we believe? Evolution, Primates, and the Human Niche”

by Tenzan  Eaghll

Read more

Reinventing Graduate Education in the Study of Religion

Education_Apple-prvWe spend a lot of time on the Religious Studies Project discussing Religious Studies as a discipline or field of study, what it means to study ‘religion’ with or without quotation marks, and what exactly it is that the critical, scholarly study of societal discourses surrounding ‘religion’ might have to offer. However, up until today we have never tackled head-on the institutional location of Religious Studies within a higher education environment that is becoming increasingly stretched, and dominated by market forces and political whims. In particular, how might this situation affect graduate education it the study of ‘religion’? What can scholars of ‘religion’ do about this situation? Are we powerless? Must we simply sit on the sidelines and stick to our guns, or are there constructive alternative ways forward? To discuss these questions, and and an exciting new graduate programme looking at Religion in Culture.I am joined today by Drs Merinda Simmons and Michael Altman, both of the University of Alabama.

Blog post about the course: https://religion.ua.edu/blog/2016/12/theres-a-new-m-a-in-town/

Details of the course: http://religion.ua.edu/MA.html

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


Podcast with K. Merinda Simmons and Michael J. Altman.

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Chris Cotter (CC): We spend quite a lot of time on the Religious Studies Project discussing Religious Studies as a discipline or a field of study, what it means to study religion with or without quotation marks, and what exactly it is that the critical study of societal discourses surrounding religion might have to offer. However, up until today, we’ve never tackled the institutional location of Religious Studies within a higher education environment that is becoming increasingly stretched and dominated by market forces and political whims. In particular, how might this situation affect graduate education in the study of religion? What can scholars of religion do about this situation? Are we powerless? Must we simply sit on the sidelines and stick to our guns? Or are there constructive, alternative ways forward? To discuss these questions and an exciting new graduate programme looking at religion in culture, I’m joined today by Drs Merinda Simmons and Michael Altman, who are both Associate Professors of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. Merinda’s books include Changing the subject: Writing women across the African Diaspora, and two co-edited volumes: The Trouble with Post-Blackness and  Race and Displacement. She’s the editor of the book series, Concepts in the Study of Religion: Critical Primers and is a member of the collaborative research group: Culture on the Edge. Mike’s research ranges from American Religious History to Critical Theory and his first book, Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu: American Representations of India, 1721- 1893, will be published by OUP in 2017. He’s also published an article in the journal Religion, entitled “Podcasting Religious Studies, that features the Religious Studies Project. And we might even discuss that later on, who knows? First of all, Merinda, Mike, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Merinda Simmons (MS): Thank you

Michael Altman (MA): Thanks. You gave me a free promotion there, Chris! I’m only an Assistant Professor.

CC: Oh no!

MS: Congratulations

MA: It’s ok. I’ll take it! That’s how good the book is!

CC: That you get instant promotion with it. Excellent. Well on that note, that’s an institutional dynamic that we don’t quite know here in the UK, the associate/ assistant thing. But we’re talking today about reinventing graduate education in the study of religion. Why are we even talking about that? What’s the context?

MS: One of the conversations that we’ve been having over the past handful of years has been about what a lot of people call the “crisis in the Humanities”. So that’s really what began the conversation here, departmentally. We have a Humanities speaker series that our chair is on the committee for planning, we’ve been doing some things within the department to try to talk about that issue. And we also have been – in the last handful of years especially – on the front end of social media in the department, making videos, doing things to promote the department. Because a lot of people don’t come into their undergraduate programmes, anyway, knowing what the academic study of religions is. So we have to do a lot of self-promotion and just getting the word out about what it is to even get a degree in Religious Studies. So with those two things in mind, with our social media presence and with the conversations that have been going on about the so-called crisis of the Humanities, that’s really what began the conversation of : What would it look like if we don’t. . . We don’t want to think about the Humanities as “Crisis-ville”. We all have jobs in this space of perceived crisis, so maybe we should be thinking about that, or doing something about that? Or what does it mean to re-conceive that? So that’s the background for where the conversation initially began.

CC: And just for the benefit of our listeners who could be at any level. . .

MS: What is that crisis?

CC: Yes.In broad brush strokes.

MA: I don’t know. I think it’s a combination of a lot of things.(5:00) It’s a shift. I was introduced to this crisis through the 2008 financial crisis. That’s when I snuck into graduate school just before Emory University’s endowment tanked in September 2008. And you can just look around over the next two years and watch all the free lunches on campus literally go away. And I think that moment of. . . that financial moment, and the impact it had on jobs in the US, kind of created a bit of a panic about, “Well, if I’m going to spend money on a degree, if I’m going to spend time on a degree” – especially at under graduate level , where you had a financial crisis happening as a bubble was growing around higher ed and higher ed prices were going up, everyone taking out theses student loans –  “ I ‘d better damn well be able to get a job when it’s over.” And I think, the idea that Humanities – because they were not very vocational – didn’t prepare one for that, that has been a longstanding discussion-point and problem-point I think since the ’70s, became even more acute. So students came in, I think. . . . As I transitioned out of grad school into teaching, in the last four years, I’ve seen all these undergraduate students who went through who were in high school or middle school when this happened, and they don’t know a world that wasn’t in financial crisis, or where financial anxiety wasn’t dominant. I grew up in a world dominated by terrorism fear, they grew up in a world dominated by banking and stock market fear.

MS: At the same time, when I came to grad school, which was like in 2001- 2002, I was exposed to a kind of generational shift from the faculty perspective, where. . . . I think the reason that this so-called crisis is resonating for academics themselves, is that there was also a kind of sea-change from a faculty perspective and from an academic perspective about what it meant to study the Humanities. Suddenly – in response to these kinds of economic factors and the sorts of anxieties about job markets that our students were grappling with – suddenly it didn’t make as much sense to approach one’s teaching and one’s research in quite the same classic model of:  “I know all. I will tell all. Come learn at my feet and then take this knowledge to do whatever, but that’s your thing to process later, and it’s not really so much my jam as your faculty advisor.” So in response to that shifting landscape, too, I think there’s been, within people who already have jobs and are trying to get a sense of what they’re doing as faculty within the Humanities, and scholars in the Humanities, what it is that their job is – because it doesn’t seem like it’s quite so much the same sort of: receptacles of knowledge that we dispense nebulously to people and then just take that as self-evidently important as some kind of service that we’re doing them.

MA: Yes, for better or worse, the self-evidence of the value of Humanities research isn’t taken for granted any more.

MS: Right. And so that’s a thing that students, who want to go get jobs, have to grapple with. And it’s also a thing for those of us doing research in the Humanities to also kind-of start re-conceiving as well. So, into that space, enter cutting-edge new grad programme!

CC: Wonderful! And that scans quite well with my impression of things here in the UK. Here we certainly don’t have college fees to quite the same level as you have in the States, but when I started as an undergrad you were talking just about £1,000 a year. And now its gone up to £9,000 a year.

MS: Wow.

CC: . . .in that length of time. So there’s a real sense of: “What am I going to get out of this?”, students as consumers, and also the perceived value of,“Well, a degree in study of religion, that’s kind of near the bottom of the pile in terms of monetisation, isn’t it?” But need it all be doom and gloom?

MS: Not necessarily.

CC: Well, first of all, before we talk about your graduate programme, graduate students are going to be slightly different to undergraduate students. (10:00) So, again, maybe if you just tell us a little bit about that dynamic and then let’s see what you’ve been doing.

MS: You mean: what do we conceive of as our student cohort, coming in?

CC: Yes. The general purposes of graduate school.

MA: Oh yeah, that’s a whole bees’ nest of questions! There’s a whole argument going on in the US about graduate school. There was an article yesterday in the Chronicle, or this week, basically wagging its figure at literature professors around the country, saying: “Your entire career is built on the exploitation of graduate students!” And yet, at the same time – I’ve become such a reactionary old man at he age of 32 – I’m like: “You’re getting paid to go to school” in lots of cases! So there’s a whole back-and-forth about graduate school. And there’s a whole conflation of different programmes and the way they rely on graduate student labour to teach large classes, which keeps costs down, and buttresses the explosion of administrations and administrative costs. So there’s a whole big argument about the value, the importance, the ethics of graduate education in the US that I think we’re trying to navigate. We’ve thought hard about it. I want people to know that the committee who’s been working on this – from the proposal all the way down to the implementation – take those concerns very seriously. But they’re very real and they’re very thorny, I think.

MS: Mike and I were just talking about this earlier. I think, before the economy changed so dramatically, there was a sense that education and more of it was just a net gain. You know, education is an end in itself: it is always a good. The more you get of it, the more it will enrich your life, or pay you back monetarily, or just be this net gain to pursue. And I do think that – as we’ve already been discussing – those dynamics have shifted a bit. But I don’t think that means that, just because students are interested in making sure that they try to at least stack the odds for some kind of professional return on their investment, they leave their BA programmes without still this kind of sense of: “I don’t know, necessarily, if I have this very specific career path set out ahead of me. I’m still interested in all of these ideas that I’ve only just barely been exposed to. What do I want to do with those? Is there a space for me to continue to think about things in more depth?” So I don’t want there to be a kind of mutually exclusive, sort-of antagonistic relationship between professional security or job sensibility on one hand and intellectual curiosity on the other. And so one approach from academia I think, in a lot of ways, has been to sort of stake its flag, and sort of double-down and say, “No! What we study is super important! Did you hear? I’ll say it louder for the kids in the back – it is SUPER IMPORTANT!” Or on the other side, they just turn into a kind of profit machine, which I think results in . . . and maybe those things work together – I don’t know that those are two sides of the same coin – maybe they’re the same thing. So there’s this kind of exploitative factory of grad student labour on one hand and contingent adjunct labour that even spreads into the faculty arena. But there’s also, I think three’s been an ongoing failure – which I think is not too strong a word – on behalf of academicians to rethink and retool why it is that what we study matters, and why that should translate to student interest and to the lives that they’re living.(15:00) Because their interest does not live and die with their intellectual pursuits inside of that classroom. It’s also about the lives that they want to live, it’s also about the jobs they want to have, the places they want to live. It’s geographical concerns, its family concerns, it’s all sorts of different kinds of things. And so to try to think seriously about all of these issues, yes, is the job for people in Humanities in the 21st century now.

CC: Excellent. So that’s set a really good scene. So your department. . .Is your department called “Religion in Culture” or is it..I know that that’s quite a thing at Alabama.

MA: Yes, with the italics on the in.

MS: We have a webpage explaining our approach to that.

MA: The department is the Department of Religious Studies but when we came up with the Master’s – I don’t know who came up with the idea.Maybe it was on an email?

MS: We went back and forth about it.

MA: We decided to just call it the MA in Religion and Culture.

MS: It’s not quite. . . . You know, my PhD is from an English department, another colleague’s PhD is from an Anthropology department: we come at the study of religion from a lot of different disciplinary angles and we knew that this wasn’t going to be a traditional Religious Studies degree, as it’s popularly conceived still in the academy. But we also wanted to establish it as an intervention into that field, where a lot of us still have a great deal of a stake. But it’s not quite Cultural Studies, we didn’t want to go completely off the grid. So it’s our attempt at, kind of, charting out a specific path within a field that we all still have a great deal of stock in.

CC: And so you’re approaching it with two broad stands then: social theory and Digital Humanities. Why those choices?

MS: I’ll pitch this one to Mike with a little bit of background, because he’s one of our resident Digital Humanities gurus. But from me – with a background and training in literary theory – the reason I’m in a Religious Studies department is because of a commitment to social theory and questions about identity studies, and a kind of critical theory analytic that’s operative in my work. So the department has a longstanding commitment to thinking broadly about why it is that we study what we study, rather than just landing upon the self-evidency of  “what we do matters”. So in that sense, social theory has been something that we’ve been already flexing our muscles with for quite a number of years. And again, we also just got into the social media thing. It started with just advertising events on campus through Facebook and then having a Facebook page for our student association. But then our students started writing blog posts and then: “Well, maybe we should have a blog?” So the grad degree is emphasising two strengths that we already had. We’re not inventing anything new in either of these two platforms, but it is – especially for me who still is relatively new to the Digital Humanities scene – taking it to a kind of new and more substantive direction, especially with the Public Humanities bit.

MA: Yes, I think of it as really the two strengths of the department. And I think for a long time, because of Merinda’s work and Steven Ramey’s work and Russell McCutcheon’s work, our department has been known for its theoretical rigour. Theoretical swagger, I like to think of it as! So I think that’s manifest in this programme. So if you’re a student and you don’t want to be hemmed in by the same school of religious theorists, or if you’re not even thinking about religious theorists but you don’t want to be hemmed in by a content area, then what we’ve envisioned beginning with. . . . One of the first classes students take in this programme is a foundation course in social theory. And they’re introduced to a whole bunch of social theorists. This is something Merinda’s helped develop with Steven Ramey, and she can say more about that. But on the other side I think people have known less, until the last couple of years – it’s sort-of blossomed. (20:00) It’s like, we were one of the first departments to really utilise a website and to do all sorts of things. I mean back in the day, before cell phone cameras (I wasn’t here, I don’t know what I was doing, I was in high school) but they were taking photographs at events and scanning them, putting them up on the webpage. I say “they”, it was Russell and the faculty that were there then: Russell McCutcheon. And so that website predates Facebook. There was no Facebook but we had this website – and it’s actually about to get a facelift, soon – but you can go look at the archives of all this old stuff that we have buried, if you’re interested.

MS: And so much of that is this sense of trying to tell students what it is that we do in this department. Because so often they come out of high school without a sense of what Religious Studies, as a kind of academics base, is. And so I think that there is this hard work of just self-awareness, but then self-promotion and advertising that a department like ours had to do. And so, since we’ve been doing that for so long already, and since we have this analytical approach, by and large, how do we make the most of both of those two things?

MA: And so the website gave way to Facebook, gave way to the blog, that came in under . . . that was invented by Ted Trost, that began as a promotion of a Humanities series on campus, but then became this blog that is now read internationally. And people send us guest posts. And I think it’s become a pretty interesting space in the field. I mean, I’m a little biased, but. . . . And now our Twitter feed is doing really well, and we have an Instagram, and we’ve done all sorts of videos, and so I look at this as the next step in both those aspects of the department that have been going for the past ten-twelve years. And actually we have a podcast coming up soon, of our own, that I was just talking to Russell McCutcheon on as I was recording that. And there’s a great interview with him where he talks about this. And actually, the two are more connected than you think. We posit them as: there’s going to be a foundation class in social theory and a foundation class in Public Humanities and digital methods (that I’m putting together with Nathan Loewen) but they work together. Because really, all the stuff that we’ve begun to do in a social media space on the website is just applying social theory to our own environment,. Like: Why do we have a blog? Because getting students to write little pieces and see them creates a sense of. . . . It’s Durkheim!

MS: Right.

MA: We ought to know. . . . Academics who study religion from a social theory/social science/ human science perspective ought to be really good at understanding how to form a tight social group. That’s what we’re studying. That’s what we’re talking about. And we’ve kind of taken that seriously in a way. And so there’s the way these two things kind of feed off of each other, and have done in the life of department, and now we’re sending that momentum spinning forward into this graduate programme.

MS: It also means that their culminating thesis project can be a traditional publishable academic work that will send them to a PhD programme of their choice, or into a different kind of academic arena. But they can also, for their thesis requirement, do a digital project of equal substantive weight and value. So [we’re] thinking seriously about what that looks like and what that means, how to make them marketable. And not just in relation to how they can talk about themselves and their own skill sets – which I think is just such a thing that grad students could use – because I think that a lot of them with all of these kinds of critical skills, writing skills, argumentative skills, can only really talk about themselves of think about themselves in relation to the professoriate. Which I think is a shame, because those skills are super-marketable and very much in demand across a lot of different kinds of jobs sectors. (25:00) So, not only will they be able to talk abut themselves and think about their skills differently, but will also have a thing in hand that they can go to a museum with, or to a non-profit with, or to academic publishing, or. . .

MA: A start-up

MS: Or a start-up, or whatever kind of. . . and to help them get creative about where they can take those skills and equipped with something that isn’t just: “I have this killer essay, that’s an amazing, critical intervention.” They can do both.

CC: We’ve been nattering away here and time is already running away with us. This sounds fantastic and it sounds right in the same ballpark as why we started the Religious Studies Project five years ago: to try and find a way to get academia out there in a more accessible form.

MS: Right.

CC: But two questions just to maybe finish with, one would be: so, you know, stereotypical student wants to come and do a Master’s in the study of religion and they find themselves getting social theory and Digital Humanities. I can well imagine, based on some of the experiences that I’ve encountered , a jarring sense of: “Where’s the religion here? I just wanted to study some Buddhists!” So that’s one, and then the other question is: it sounds like you’ve got a really supportive department and university there. I can imagine in a perhaps more. . . I’ll use the word straight-laced or more traditional university, you might meet some resistance to proposing a course of this nature. So what advice might you have for scholars of religion who are working within the same context as you and are trying to instil the same sense of excitement and career development into their students, but maybe can’t quite found this innovative course? So on the one hand there’s the “Where’s the religion?” and two, advice for others in different contexts.

MS: Well, I mean to the first – at the end of the day we are still a department of Religious Studies and can still call ourselves that. So whatever kind of nominal traction we have to make ourselves legible in a field called Religious Studies is still present in the kinds of faculty areas and research that we do. Our approach is different, though, in relation to how it is that we think about the importance of [for example] the question of Hindus and American religion or a colleague who studies the spread of global Christianities in the global south, and Japan migration. So we have areas of the world and traditions that we use as data sets. There are still levels of study that people can kind-of come into and get that sort of traction if they want to do that. Especially if they want to go on to have an even more focussed approach with that, with their PhD. They have the opportunity to do language study while they’re here within the Master’s programme. But, you know, yes it is right that someone who is coming into our programme is probably not satisfied with thinking about a specific group of ritual practitioners in the 18th century, from this space, and then leave their enquiry to live and die inside of that space. So. . .

CC: And given that what you’re already saying about your social media presence etc, it’s going to be quite unlikely that a grad student’s going to turn up at the door not knowing what goes on.

MS: Right!

MA: They should certainly know what they’re getting themselves into!

MS: But I do think it needs to be said that this is still for those people who are really still diehard, interested in getting a PhD in Religious Studies, as long as they think of that approach as kind of cool, this is still something that will still put them in a really nice position and I think, if anything, make their application stand out. Because they do have this other little edge to it.

MA: I think, to be completely honest, that our students coming out of here will be better prepared for a more traditional PhD programme. Because our programme will require them to go back to first questions.(30:00) Like we said earlier, that taking it for granted that your study of Vedic sacrifice is valuable just because it’s about something really old, that it is inherently valuable, that’s not. . . You’re going to be pushed to be able to articulate what is it about your study of Ancient Vedic sacrifice that has purchase for  larger theories about social formation, ritual, the way communities work, the way people think, the way texts are passed down, like. . . whatever: something bigger. And that emphasis will allow you, when you get to a PhD programme and beyond when you’re on the job market later, to talk to people outside of your super-small speciality in a way that will make you a better scholar.

MS: And that’s exactly the answer, too, that I would suggest for the second part of your question, Chris, about what this suggests to scholars implicitly in their field. Because I think that there is a way in which the field itself, as a disciplinary phenomenon, can also be taken for granted as a self-evidently important thing.

MA: Of course religion’s important!

MS: Right, and “because we’ve been studying it in these ways for this many years, this is what we should continue or because the field is so dominated by area studies, and continues by area studies, and descriptive ethnographies, that that’s how we should continue to approach our work”. And I think that our programme is an experiment in thinking otherwise about that, and really putting our programmatic money where our mouths are, in terms of thinking differently about how we can conceive this field. Because there are a lot of different directions it can take. And why do we need to think in classic terms about area studies? Because then, why should we win the battle over how to get grad students who would otherwise go into a History grad programme, or a Cultural Studies programme, or in Anthropology? You know, why go into Religious Studies? So I think this is also a way for scholars and faculty members and administrators to think about how to organise differently around the kinds of area studies that they have, and how to make more marketable students coming out of those programmes in the process.

MA: And I’ll underline . . . .You asked the second question about how are we able to do this, and the support. At the risk of sounding too parochial, I think we have had a lot of support from the College of Arts and Sciences here at the university. And I think that’s because we’ve shown that the approaches we’ve chosen work in other settings. We’ve been out in front of other departments in a lot of ways, with the blog and social media. And a number of different projects that we’ve done have pushed everyone in the college, in a way, and so that’s given us a certain amount of institutional capital that has opened the door for this. And I think part of that is because we haven’t taken for granted that we’re valuable. And on the flip side of that: I think we’re the hardest working department in the country, we’re incredibly productive pound for pound and – I mean, that’s enough bragging!

MS: I’ll also say our Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences is a mathematician who is, nonetheless, deeply invested in the Humanities, and that’s just so, so nice. It’s really nice.

CC: So, effectively: get out there, embody what you want the field to be! If you want to be relevant, get out there and make yourselves relevant! That’s probably a good rallying call.

MA: Yes. The entrepreneurism we want in our Master’s students has been modelled by this department for the past 10-12 years.

MS: And interestingly – I know you’re probably trying to close this down because it sounded like a nice [ending], but only very quickly – this is why social theory is so useful too, to make that entrepreneurial vein of professional emphasis, not become some super-problematic, “Pull yourselves up by your bootstraps kiddos! And if you just try hard enough you’ll get that job in blah blah blah”. Like, No! We’re thinking really seriously about structural dynamics, about power dynamics, about the kinds of economic underpinnings that create certain sorts of environments that allow you to take various modes of agency in different kinds of spaces. And I think that that’s also super-important, because I think it can be really disheartening as a grad student to hear the equation of, “If you just try hard, and if you just publish enough, you’ll get that job.” Because that’s just so not any more the case.

MA: No. Scholars of large institutions and large social formations ought to be really good at navigating university bureaucracy.

CC: (35:00) Well, on that note, thanks so much Merinda Simmons and Mike Altman for joining us, and hopefully you will both get some sign-ups for this course.

MA: Applications are open now!

CC: You’ve also given our listeners a lot of food for thought and a lot of inspiration, and hopefully we’ll have a couple of interesting responses to this – fingers crossed!

MS: Thanks so much for talking to us.

MA: Thank you.

CC: Thanks so much for joining us.


Citation:  Simmons, K. Merinda, and Michael J. Altman  2017. “Reinventing Graduate Education in the Study of Religion”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 3 April 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 4 April 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/reinventing-graduate-education-in-the-study-of-religion/

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

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

 

UFOs, Conspiracy Theories… and Religion?

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

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

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

Historicism, Reflexivity, and Our Discourses on Theory: Or, Why Lacan Is Not a Garnish

In this interview, Adam Miller speaks with Kathryn Lofton and John Modern about their new book series with University of Chicago Press, titled Class 200: New Studies in Religion. According to the series description, Lofton and Modern invite proposals by authors who understand that “descriptions of religion [are] always bound up in explanations for it.” As Lofton notes in the interview, even a scholar such as Clifford Geertz, who presented himself as merely describing rituals he’s observed, for instance, was—as is clear in retrospect—situated in certain relations of power that shaped how he represented the colonial subjects he studied. Our “mere” descriptions are always invested in power relations and unstated assumptions or explanations about how the world works, about which we, as scholars, must be ceaselessly reflexive. We must relentlessly historicize our subjectivity, our scholarly production, and their relation to our object of study. Without that reflexivity, we risk producing the sort of self-serving narratives that orientalist scholars constructed about the “others” of western empire.

I concur with Lofton and Modern: without theoretical sophistication and reflexivity, we risk—at best—falling into naïve empiricism, or—at worst—contributing to the reproduction of hegemonic discourses that reproduce systematic asymmetrical power relations (in the spirit of reflexivity, I should note that of course what I take to be “best” or “worse” hinges on my autobiography, my interests, and the sympathies I’ve been socialized with—your “best” and “worst” may diverge radically).

I suspect that the way we sometimes talk about “theory” contributes to mystifying the complex relations that obtain between scholar, the scholar’s theoretical apparatus, and the object (or subjects) of study. In particular, it is the “add theory and stir” approach to the use of theory in our scholarship, which K. Merinda Simmons rightly criticized on a NAASR panel last November in Atlanta.[1] On this view, theory is something that’s added to our recipe in order to spice up our work. We could do without theory altogether on this view: all that we know about our object of study could be known without theory, although theory makes for a nice finishing touch. Reading all that sociology, anthropology, and literary theory is nice, but at bottom they are just garnishes: you can throw a little parsley and Lacan next to the steak and potatoes to make the presentation more colorful, but the steak and potatoes would taste the same without it.

I often find that those who use this sort of “add theory and stir” approach talk about theory as a “lens” that invites a certain perspective on the subject. The metaphor of the lens is problematic in at least two ways. First, it suggests a metaphysical dualism: the thing in itself is “out there,” and theory gets in between our vision and the thing in itself. The naïve empiricist thus despises theory: wouldn’t we see more clearly if we took the colored glasses off and looked directly at our objects of study? Theory distorts true vision!

The second problem with the “lens” metaphor is that it invites us to consider objects of study as existing “out there” in the world, independently of our vision. On this view, things exist independently of our construction of them, and different theoretical lenses permit differently useful perspectives on those things. Religions just exist, although a Marxist lens might help focus our attention on the class related elements. Religions just exist, although a feminist lens might help focus our attention on gender related elements.

By contrast, as a post-structuralist I’m persuaded that the world does not exist independently of our vision. On this view, scholarship on religion creates religious phenomena (if, indeed, we find “religions” to be useful things to construct). The application of a discursive apparatus is a condition of manifesting the “things” we study in the first place. Theory, from this perspective, is not something that’s added to a world that is already fully present to us; on the contrary, the things are after-effects of the theory. Hence: Freudians find repression and penis envy, Marxists find ideology and exploitation, feminists find constructed genders and patriarchy. Change your discourse and you’ll find different “objects” in front of you, in just the same way that gerrymandered space literally produces different political spaces simply by renaming them. “Language does not enter into a world of completed objective perceptions, simply to add to objects—already given and clearly delimited from one another—‘names’ that would be purely exterior and arbitrary signs; rather, [language] is itself a mediator in the formation of objects.”[2]

If we stopped referring to theory as a “lens” that colors our vision of the things-in-themselves that exist independently of our discourse, we might find we’re more open to seeing the constitutive role of theory in producing the visions we create, or the prior role of explanation in our “mere” descriptions.

In any case, I look forward to the volumes in Lofton and Modern’s series, and I hope the contributing authors rise to meet the demand for reflexivity called for by the series editors.

[1] Simmons’ paper was titled “The High Stakes of Identifying (with) One’s Object of Study.”

[2] Ernst Cassirer, quoted by Marshall Sahlins in Islands of History (University of Chicago Press, 1985).

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 1 March 2016

Calls for papers

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

September 8–11, 2016

Oxford, UK

Deadline: March 31, 2016

More information

Public Religions and Their Secrets, Secret Religions and Their Publics

October 27–28, 2016

University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Deadline: April 1, 2016

More information: Conference, Master Class

CHAOS-symposium: Religion og materialitet

April 29–30, 2016

University of Bergen, Norway

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information (Norwegian)

AAR panel: Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group

November 19–22, 2016

San Antonio, TX, USA

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

AAR panel: Religion, Media, and Culture Group

Deadline: March 1, 2016

November 19–22, 2016

San Antonio, TX, USA

More information

Events

Religious Diversity and Cultural Change in Scotland: Modern Perspectives

April 19, 2016

University of Edinburgh, UK

More information

Les Politiques du Blasphème: Perspectives Comparées

March 7, 2016

Paris, France

More information

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

August 29–September 2, 2016

University of Erfurt, Germany

Deadline: May 31, 2016

More information

Open Access

Open Theology: Cognitive Science of Religion

Available here

Jobs and funding

Postdoctoral teaching fellowship

Kenyon College, OH, USA

Deadline: March 25, 2016

More information

Lecturer in Hebrew

University of California, Santa Barbara, USA

Deadline: April 30, 2016

More information

University Lectureship in Anthropology and Islamic Studies

Leiden University, The Netherlands

Deadline: May 18, 2016

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Editor: Shambhala and Snow Lion Publications

Boulder, CO, USA

Deadline: May 17, 2016

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Assistant professor of Religious Studies

Utrecht University, the Netherlands

Deadline: March 11, 2016

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Instructor in Religion and Culture

Virginia Tech, VA, USA

Deadline: March 14, 2016

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AAR-Luce Fellowships in Religion and International Affairs

Deadline: March 31, 2016

DC, USA

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Dean of Graduate Jewish Studies

Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership

Deadline: May 22, 2016

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Postdoctoral Fellow in Judaic Studies

Virginia Tech, VA, USA

March 14, 2016

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Funding

CSA Research Fellowship

Deadline: March 1, 2016

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

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

University College Cork, Ireland

Deadline: April 22, 2016

More information: PhDs, Postdoc

 

Getting to Know the North American Association for the Study of Religion

In this interview, Russell McCutcheon and Aaron Hughes discuss the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR), an international organization dedicated to historical, critical, and social scientific approaches to the study of religion. McCutcheon and Hughes (the president and vice president of NAASR, respectively) discuss the history of NAASR, their attempt to help return NAASR to its original mission, various publications associated with NAASR, and the philosophy or motivations that guided their annual conference this year.

In January 2016, we welcomed the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) as an additional sponsor. We are indebted to NAASR for their generosity, and we look forward to working with them in the years to come to continue what we do, and to bring about some important and long-planned innovations.

The North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) was initially formed in 1985 by E. Thomas Lawson, Luther H. Martin, and Donald Wiebe, to encourage the historical, comparative, structural, theoretical, and cognitive approaches to the study of religion among North American scholars; to represent North American scholars of religion at the international level; and to sustain communication between North American scholars and their international colleagues engaged in the study of religion.

Please see their website for more information on their activities, and for membership details. NAASR is incorporated as a nonprofit in the state of Vermont. A brief history of NAASR, written by Luther H. Martin and Donald Wiebe, can be found here.

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

What is ‘Buddhism in the West’?

There appears to be much debate regarding what defines Buddhism in the West. Particularly, when I attend Social Science of Religion conferences, Buddhism is presented as a new or exotic social cultural influential phenomenon. I often see “Buddhism in the West” lumped in with new religious movements (NRMs) or more interestingly as sources of therapeutic influence for new styles of mental health treatment such as those seen in the field of Psychology. The compulsion to lump Buddhism with new religious movements may derive from a variety of influences. For example, the mass exodus of Tibetan Buddhists following the Chinese occupation of 1949 may give scholars the impression of newness due to the large migratory movement of Tibetans to the west. This coupled with the popularity of the Dalai Lama and religious converts such as Richard Gere give credence to Buddhism as a “Western” new religious movement (Cantwell & Kawanami, 2002). Another theory could be the fascination of Buddhism for the late 19th century Transcendentalists. The Transcendentalists saw value in Buddhist philosophy for understanding a suffering western society (McMahan, 2008). Such thinkers and their use of Buddhist philosophy could have led to more individual forms of belief such as “spirituality” and “universalism.” To be considered new, some scholars may see the past 100 years as “recent” where the turn of the century serves as a new chapter in religious pluralism in the West. Better still could be the free love movement of the 1960s or the fascination with alternative states of consciousness. Many people were seeking something beyond the old interpretations of transcendence (Kent, 2001). All of these are examples of competing paradigms in terms of juxtaposing a belief system called “Buddhism” within the geographic and cultural center of the “West”.

The boundaries of what defines the West are also circumspect. Some perceive the West to be North America while other scholars speak to first world cultures (including North America but also Western Europe, and Australia). Such boundaries of what defines the West are unclear but there is proximate agreement related to the cultural center of what we term the “West” (McMahan, 2008). Here, there is proximate agreement as a Euro-American center of learning. In other words, we are speaking of centers of academic discourse and authority known as the university system. One could argue that such exchanges are colonial in nature (indicating a British or American dominance of cultural norms and language) and yet these implicit assumptions reinforce the very system, which assert categorical authority. Further, using terms such as “the West” and its interaction with other traditions are synonymous with speaking from an in-group perspective of privilege.

Given these challenges related to defining Buddhism in the West, Dr. Cox’s approach is refreshing. Rather than attempting to describe Buddhism’s introduction into the West as a socio-historical event, he approaches the exchange of culture from the perspective of a historically reconstructed narrative through the story of Laurence Carroll, an Irish immigrant to Burma by way of the United States. Laurence Carroll led an adventurous life from an immigrant, to a homeless person in the US, to a seaman, and eventually taking vows as a Buddhist monk. Mr. Carroll’s experience resulted in his ordination by becoming Bhikkhu U Dhammaloka. Dr. Cox provides an interesting look by way of Dhammaloka’s narrative, at the layers of national, social, ethnic, and religious identity. For Cox, identities are tied together as one but also relational in terms of the concept of the “other.” Dr. Cox shows that Carroll’s transitions between geographies were continually met with adversity in terms of his identity. For example, the conflict of his Irish identity in Ireland in relation to British colonial influence, then his Irish identity in relation to blacks/African Americans in New York, and eventually his Irish identity in relation to the dominant Asian culture of Burma. His concept of self becomes even more complex when he converts to Buddhism, as he is no longer centered within his Irish or Caucasian identity. Such boundaries of self were not only confusing but also empowering as Dhammaloka could challenge others who attempted to proselytize the local populations in Burma.

According to Cox, Dhammaloka had social influence on the local population to defend Buddhism from what he may have seen as colonial missionary dominance reminiscent his own experience with the British in Ireland. Dr Cox’s podcast leaves me with additional derivative themes of interest. To speak in terms of cultural or social influence is to implicitly infer a social shift in the individual definition of self. As noted by Cox, deconversion was no small transition in self-identification. With one’s exit from their own enculturated tradition to an exotic, lesser-known faith came perceptions of racial as well as moral defection. Scholarly inquiry into Buddhism for the time was surely appropriate but only in as much as these faith traditions were contrasted with Christianity. The Dhammaloka case study serves as an excellent example of where the religious and cultural landscape is moderated within the domain of academic discourse. Only at this time were such intellectual pursuits blatantly colonial in agenda. Furthermore, such lively exchanges with missionaries highlight the overt assumptions of intellectual and cultural dominance but also the subversive influence on Buddhism to compete in a soon to be global spiritual marketplace. I would challenge Dr. Cox to think of Dhammaloka not in terms of his authenticity of being one of the earliest converts to Buddhism, but rather to see him as a mediating influence in what Buddhism would come to be for the West. Dare I say that Dhammaloka’s own cultural baggage and his Western approach to Buddhism might well have helped repackage Buddhist philosophy, making such transitions more salient.

In conclusion, I would like to challenge the overall paradigm of “Buddhism in the West.” The lack of synergy among scholarly inquiry coupled with the assumption of the specialness of Buddhism within the cultural or geographic context of the West lends further need for the application of critical theory. Such theory should be able to describe the specialness of the former and latter without relying on the old colonial tools of academia. While there is value in theories of sociology and religious studies, my concern is that such assumptions assume Buddhism is/was something different or special, dare I say sui generis (McCutcheon, 1997). The West’s fascination with the East goes well beyond a simple proselytizing motive or – it could be argued – colonial influence. Buddhism’s symbols, rituals, and practices seem mystical almost otherworldly from the flowing robes of monks, to the symbolism of the simplistic humble request of a monk with a begging bowl, to the teachings of the dasa pāramiyo or the ten perfections in defining one’s potential for Buddha nature. Yet given the plethora of possibilities in exploring the grand narrative of Western (European and American) Buddhism, such inquiries make some false assumptions about how Buddhism in the West is defined.

References

Cantwell, C. & Kawanami, H. (2002) Buddhism in Elisabeth Arweck’s New religious movements. Religions in the modern world: traditions and transformations, pp. 47-82.

Goldberg, E. (2006). Buddhism in the west In S. C. Berkwitz Berkwitz, S. C. (Ed.). Buddhism in world cultures: comparative perspectives. Abc-clio.

Kent, S. A. (2001). From slogans to mantras: Social protest and religious conversion in the late Vietnam war era. Syracuse University Press.

McCutcheon, R. T. (1997). Manufacturing religion: The discourse on sui generis religion and the politics of nostalgia. Oxford University Press.

McMahan, D. L. (2008). The making of Buddhist modernism. Oxford University Press.

The Critical Study of Religion

In this interview, Professor Bruce Lincoln from the University of Chicago Divinity School discusses a variety of topics including werewolves, critical theory, pedagogy, and his self-imposed estrangement from the academic study of religion. Dr. Lincoln is a well-known and influential scholar of religion who completed his doctorate from the University of Chicago where he studied with Mircea Eliade. He then taught for many years at the University of Minnesota before he returned to the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, where he is the Caroline E. Haskell Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions. According to his biography on the University of Chicago’s website, “His research tends to focus on the religions of pre-Christian Europe and pre-Islamic Iran, but he has a notoriously short attention span and has also written on a bewildering variety of topics, including Guatemalan curanderismo, Lakota sun dances, Melanesian funerary rituals, Swazi kingship, the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre, Marco Polo, professional wrestling, Persian imperialism, the theology of George W. Bush, and comparative demonology.” What underlying theme or methodology holds together this diverse body of work?

As Dr. Lincoln discusses in this interview, he is interested in the constructed nature of society. “I think society is a project,” he said, “rather than an entity that exists by nature.” From this foundation, Lincoln isolates a variety of specific instances in multiple places and times where people appeal to religious discourse to legitimate their local interests. Religion, for Lincoln, is a thoroughly human phenomenon. To demonstrate this, it requires the type of critically-informed analysis that Lincoln seldom finds in 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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, professional wrestling DVDs, werewolves, and more.