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How Religious Freedom Makes Religion

Religious freedom has emerged in recent years as a pivotal topic for the study of religion. It is also the subject of heated debates within many countries and among human rights advocates globally, where competing groups advance radically different ideas about how religious freedom operates and what it protects. While for marginalized and minority communities, this freedom can provide important avenues of appeal, at the same time, governing regimes of religious freedom have most often served the interests of those in power and opened up new channels of coercion by the state.

This conversation with Tisa Wenger, author of Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal, starts with the question of how religious freedom talk functions to shape the category of religion and to transform what counts as religious in the modern world. Using Wenger’s ethnographic and historical research on the Pueblo Indians, we discuss how local, national, and international regimes of religious freedom have shaped (or even produced) new religious formations, ways of being religious, norms of good vs. bad religion, or distinctions between the religious and the secular. In short, how has religious freedom (re)produced religion and its others in the modern world?

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How Religious Freedom Makes Religion

Podcast with Tisa Wenger (30 September 2019).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/how-religious-freedom-makes-religion/

David Robertson (DR): I’m joined today by Tisa Wenger. We’re here in Hanover at the DVRV conference. However, we’re not going to be talking about the German context. We’re going to be discussing how religious freedom makes religion. Tisa teaches in the Divinity School at Yale, including Religious Studies and American Studies, and is the author of the recent book, Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal. Welcome to the Religious Studies Project, first and foremost!

Tisa Wenger (TW): Thank you so much! It’s good to be with you.

DR: Let’s put the book in a little bit of context, before we get into a couple of case studies. Tell us how you started working on it. How did your early studies lead you to this subject?

TW: Yes. Well I’ll try to keep it relatively brief, instead of giving a full intellectual autobiography! But my first book, which was based on my dissertation, was called We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom. I started that book, not by thinking about religious freedom, but by thinking about race, American colonialism and category of religion. And I wanted to make an intervention into the kind-of Religious Studies conversation about to what extent is the category of religion a colonial imposition in various contexts. And I wanted to talk about that in relation to Native Americans, and for a variety of reasons ended up looking at the American south west and the Pueblo Indians in Mexico. And I argued, in that book, that Pueblo Indians only began really to contextualise their traditions as religion in the 1920s in order to make the argument for religious freedom. So that’s how I got to religious freedom – kind-of-like through the back door, so to speak. And when I finished that book I wanted to put a similar set of questions on a much broader historical stage. So I was asking, “Who’s invoking the idea of religious freedom and what kinds of cultural and political work does it do?” and, in particular, in kind-of imperial contexts, colonial contexts, and in relation to racial formation in the United States. So the set of arguments that you didn’t hear me talk about today had to do with race, and the way race is shaped in America is kind-of co-constituted with religion. And so I have argued in various other examples about how race and religion are co-constituted. But I was interested initially in this question of how religious freedom shapes or produces religion; when different sort-of social and cultural formations come to be conceptualised as religion, and how the category of religion is formed in that process. And so part of what I’m arguing in the book is that religious freedom disputes do important political and cultural work in that way, in shaping what is religion.

DR: Yeah. Right. And that, for me, is a very interesting aspect of your work. We’re very familiar with the kind-of human rights approach to this issue of, “How do we represent religions in the law?” and “How do we deal with religious freedom?” and these kinds of ideas. All of which, of course, sort-of assume this thing which needs to be represented. Whereas your argument is more subtle. So, if I’m understanding, it’s essentially that the category of religion is almost created in these legal negotiations about how we represent and recognise religions in the law – especially in a sort-of colonial context. Is that . . . have I got that correct?

TW: Yes that’s exactly right. But I would say that in most cases, it has not been created out of nothing, right?

DR: Of course, yeah.

TW: (Laughs). In most religious freedom controversies that we see . . . of course, the category of religion already was present and being used by people, but it is recreated and reshaped all the time. And in some cases, I think particularly in colonial contexts, you can see where local people – colonised people – start to use it for themselves for the first time, or pretty much for the first time, right? Because particularly the thing about US imperialism . . . . And religious freedom is such an important concept for Americans, generally – but for colonial officials in particular, who saw themselves as bringing freedom to the people they colonise, right?

DR: Right.

TW: And in some cases, bringing religious freedom was particularly important to them. So I’m interested in how, then, religious freedom served as a tool for kind-of colonial administration. But I’m also interested, then, in how colonised people take that principle and use it to kind-of speak back to empires.

DR: Right. Which is one of the most difficult aspects of post-colonial study of religion, I think, for people to get their heads around. It’s that it’s a process. There’s a two-way process. It’s not simply the baddies making the goodies behave in a certain way. But the category is reshaped, reconstituted and sustained in that dialogue where it is imposed in certain legal contexts. But then it’s also used by the people being colonised.

TW: Yes

DR: As an act of legitimatisation, yes?

TW: Yes. Exactly. So in the Native American case . . . and I can point to lots of specific examples, you know? In my work on the Pueblo Indians, and the piece of my book that you heard me present on today about Ojibwe Indians in Minnesota, in both cases you see US government officials with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) delegitimising indigenous traditions by categorising them as superstitious, heathenish, pagan, right? And indigenous people who really in their own languages and ways of structuring . . . . They had their own ways of structuring their societies, but those ways of structuring their societies didn’t really include anything equivalent to the category of religion as Americans understood it at the time. But they start to conceive of those traditions as religion in order to argue back against the categorisation of themselves as heathen savage, pagan etc., right? So this is why I title my first book We Have a Religion. This was a quote from a Pueblo Indian petition to the superintendent of Indian Affairs, saying “We also have a religion,” You know? “And you can’t ban it, because of the First amendment to the US Constitution.” Right?

DR: Yes. The clearest example that I’m aware of – it’s quite a well-known case, you know – is the way that Indian independence and Hinduism are kind-of coeval. So Hinduism is an administrative category, essentially by the British Empire, which then becomes one of the central motifs in the national identity of India leading directly into the Indian independence movement, and, you know, One Nation Indian political power today.

TW: Yes, that’s exactly right. And the sort-of construction of Hinduism as a “world religion” is happening in conjunction with that colonial history. Both by Indian intellectuals and by British . . .

DR: Absolutely.

TW: . . . for somewhat different ends. But it serves both of their interests to construct Hinduism as a world religion.

DR: Absolutely, yes.

TW: But native indigenous traditions, for Native Americans and elsewhere around the world, never got conceptualised or moved to that level of world religion, which is a different thing, as we know from Tomoko Masuzawa’s work and others.

DR: Absolutely. Let’s dig into one of those examples, then. The Pueblo Indians example is really fascinating. So perhaps you could take the Listeners through some of the details of that?

TW: Sure, so the Pueblo Indians are really a group of culturally related peoples in New Mexico, sort of related to the Hopi in Arizona. Related because . . . well . . . . Now I’m going to ramble! But they’re really four separate language groups that lived close by each other for several centuries and so came to share a lot of cultural characteristics. But they were colonised by Spain early on, as part of the kind-of northern expansion of New Spain up into what is now the south-western United States. And that’s hugely influential in shaping who the Pueblo Indians were by the time that the United States arrived in the region, after the Spanish American War in 1848. And most of the Pueblo communities – although not all of them – became Catholic under Spanish rule, and were pretty bilingual in Spanish and indigenous Tewa and Tiwa languages. And they, in the kind-of Spanish uses of religion, would conceive as Catholicism as their religion. So it’s not that they weren’t familiar with the category of religion. But under Spanish law, let’s just say, and in the kind-of Mexican New Spain, and then independent Mexico, there was no legal advantage because there was no religious freedom guaranteed to conceptualising indigenous practices as religion. So they had come to a kind-of accommodation with the Franciscan priests, who were mostly the clergy in the churches. And the Pueblos came to be named for Catholic saints and had feast days for the patron saint of each Pueblo, where they would practice traditional Pueblo dances as well as have a Catholic mass and a procession through the town. But they had kind-of come to an accommodation with the Catholic priests, the Franciscan priests, where they would . . . They talked about Pueblo kiva ceremonies and Pueblo ways as costumbre: custom, right?

DR: Yes.

TW: And so that really didn’t change under American rule until the 1920s, when there’s a new Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Charles Burke, who puts out this kind-of dance policy in order to enforce older regulations against Indian dances and those that . . . the one from the 1880s that I was actually referring to in my talk today. He, Charles Burke in the 1920s, tries to reinforce those relations.

DR: So, maybe just in a sentence or two, tell us what they are, because the Listener won’t have . . . .

TW: Right, so there was . . . and these are not laws passed by Congress, right? They’re more bureaucratic regulations within the Bureau of Indian Affairs, that’s nested under the Department of the Interior. And the Commissioner of Indian Affairs is in charge of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And he had immense sort-of executive power to regulate. And so this court of Indian offences was created by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs as a way to . . . . I’m sorry, I’m not being very brief here! But it’s relevant . . .

DR: No, this is good!

TW: as a way to, again . . . it’s a kind-of tutelary regime: a way to instruct Indians – and this is done in a very patronising way, so I’m kind-of echoing the patronising language that was used – to instruct Indians in civilisation and in the law. So they would . . . the agents would appoint a kind-of more – quote unquote – “progressive” Indian, to be the judge of the Court of Indian Affairs. But part of what the Court of . . . . There’re also kind-of regulations or there were a list of quote “Indian offences“. And nowhere in the documents extant from the time or in the regulations that were written up by the commissioner, was this referred to as “religion”. But it later came to be called the Religious Crimes Code. But the Indian offences that were listed in this code were “heathenish rites”, “the arts of the conjurer”, “the medicine man” etc., etc., right? And so native people could be, and were, fined and imprisoned for practising the arts of the conjurer, or participating in certain kinds of dances that were specified to be banned. But that had not . . . For various reasons the US control over Pueblo Indians was not nearly so strong in that period in the late 19th century. And it hadn’t really been enforced against the Pueblo Indians ever. And I don’t need to take the time to go into the reasons for that. But in the 1920s, actually – sparked in part by an exposé of Pueblo ceremonies, in which those ceremonies were depicted as sexually lascivious and immoral by missionaries and missionary-minded government agents – who were really, I think it’s safe to say, completely misinterpreting and misreading those ceremonies . . . .

DR: That’s a common way of representing any barbarous religion anyway, isn’t it?

TW: Correct.

DR: It’s a common language.

TW: Correct. So Charles Burke’s new regulations on dances, that were really just trying to re-inforce some of the earlier regulations form the 1880s, were sparked by a controversy of Pueblo Indian dances. So they were very much at the focus of the controversy that ensued. In the meantime, there were kind-of a group of Boasian anthropologists and sort-of modernist artists and writers who had settled in New Mexico, it was in Santa Fe, and who were starting to really romanticise the Pueblos as “ideal primitives” – quote unquote – right? And so some of those people also leapt to the defence of the Pueblos. And the Pueblo leaders themselves resisted the government suppression by saying, you know, “You can’t do this. Our traditions are religion.” But their re-categorising their traditions as religion was aided by the anthropologists and artists who were also starting to do the same thing, right? In a kind of celebration-of-primitive-religion way. So that’s what happened. Then it was a pretty big public controversy, I mean with articles in lots of national magazines and newspapers and such about the Pueblos. And one of the people who was centrally involved was John Collier who at the time had just become the head of a new reform association called the American Indian Defence Association. And he was becoming one of the biggest gadflies against BIA assimilationist policies. And then later under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’ with the New Deal, Collier was appointed as the commissioner of Indian Affairs – which was a huge overturn. And he reversed some of these policies outlawing Native American dances, and he did so on religious freedom grounds. That reform had its own limitations, of course. And most BIA agents, even after that point in the mid-1930s, continued to work closely with Christian missionaries. And even when they formally recognised the right of Native Americans to religious freedom, nonetheless still conceptualised religion with such a Christian model that they often ruled indigenous practices outside of what counted as religion, right? So what was considered religion was always being negotiated and contested on different Indian reservations between native people and government agents.

DR: And so was there also the kind-of opposite side of that? Does the legislation and the control then shape the way that the Indians are practising? Did they begin to think differently about their practices and maybe even emphasise different bits more, and focus on things differently as a result?

TW: Yes absolutely. So when I finished the book on the Pueblos . . . this was the first piece that I did for my new big sort-of broad-scope religious freedom book. My first transitional step I took was to say, “Well I’ve done all of this in-depth work on the Pueblos in New Mexico. Now I wonder how this happened, or can I tell a similar kinds of stories about other Native Americans elsewhere in the United States?” right? And “When did native people start to use religious freedom arguments?” and “How did that shift things for them?” I didn’t get to that part of . . . . I did make that kind of argument in relation to the Pueblos, as well, and talk about how reconceptualising their traditions as religion created new conflicts within Pueblo communities. But I want to talk now about the newer research that appeared in the second book, in the religious freedom book, that resulted from me asking, “Well, what did this look like more broadly?” And initially I was actually thinking, “Well, probably because there was such a concerted government attempt at suppressing these traditions and nobody was thinking of them as religion, that probably religious freedom wasn’t a pertinent category until the twentieth century.” But I found that not to be the case. I found that actually the more I looked, the more I found Native Americans from the beginning of the nineteenth-century really, in some cases, using religious freedom talk. And I would say, broadly speaking, there are at least two different types of ways that that was applied. So one, in relation to the kind-of stages of colonial history, perhaps – in early stages of colonial contact, before native nations were conquered, when you have Christian missionaries coming, where the native nations are not under US control – you often see native people saying something like “We’re not interested in your religion. We have our own religion.” And sometimes that directly becomes language about religious freedom and sometimes it becomes directly language about religious freedom that is also about protecting indigenous sovereignty, in a kind-of collective way: “Our people have our own ways. And you can’t take our land. You can’t take our …” You know? And religious freedom was part of that. But it’s not a religious freedom that is appealing to the US Constitution, because they’re not under the US Constitution. They don’t see themselves as being governed by the United States.

DR: Yes. And there’s maybe less of a . . . It’s maybe not to do with freedom of religion and the role of the secular. They’re more thinking in terms of religion as customs and that kind of idea.

TW: Yes. They using religion-talk, but in a way where it’s very integrated. But then, after Native Americans are conquered essentially, right – and that happens at different times in different parts of the country and for different native nations – but by the late nineteenth century, by the 1880s, really overwhelmingly native Americans have been conquered, and they have been restricted to reservations, and there are now new policies that are being implemented. And the Code of Indian offences that I was describing earlier is part of that period of a kind-of newly heightened effort at administrative control. And that’s when, immediately in that period, you start to see Native Americans on reservations resisting the suppression of indigenous practices. And sometimes native people refer to their “doings”: ceremonies, dances, all kinds of practices – you know, medicines, healing practices – they start to refer to some of them as religion specifically in order to make religious freedom arguments. And that started to happen in the 1880s. It accelerated with the Peyote movement, and the suppression of the Peyote movement. And I trace that history in the book. But you see . . . . And actually, the Peyote movement is a really interesting case with regard to the question you were asking about how that shifts indigenous traditions. Because, I mean, I don’t think the government suppression and the law is the only reason that Peyotists, and people in that tradition, started to talk about it in the language of religion. There were other reasons as well, but this was certainly one of them. But what is very clear is that the Peyote leaders and practitioners . . . structurally, the movement shifts towards a more, what we might call a kind-of Protestant – certainly a Christian – model for what counts as religion, in order to make religious freedom arguments in the courts, and in Congressional hearings, and before state legislators. And that happened in various places. But, you know, there’s the incorporation of the Native American church, right, that happened . . . which there was an anthropologist, James Mooney, who helped with that process. And the Native American church, you know . . . . Again Peyote ceremonies were, for various reasons, borrowing from Christianity. And some of the Peyote movements began to see themselves as Christian. But the fact that being Christian helped with a religious freedom argument meant that those groups had a boost, right? (Laughs). So there’s a kind-of incomplete Christianisation of the Peyote movement and the Native American Church that isn’t entirely caused by the need to resist government suppression and make religious freedom arguments, but is certainly encouraged and accelerated by it. And so, you know, Peyote is called “the sacrament”. Again and again, you see Indians trying to argue, you know, against legislation and suppression. And that is also in the climate of a prohibitionist period, when there’s a huge campaign against drugs and alcohol – and particularly alcohol, right? So there were crusaders who were employed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to stamp out the alcohol trade among Indians. And the Peyote became kind-of classified as a dangerous drug, alongside alcohol

DR: Right, yes.

TW: So the Bureau of Indian Affairs talked about Peyote and the Peyote as a cloak for drug dealers. They just . . .

DR: Right. Similar to the way that cannabis became . . . ?

TW: Yes. “They’re pretending to be religious in order to kind-of pedal drugs”, right? And so, in order to combat that kind of suppression and denigration, Peyote leaders would emphasise the kind-of positive moral effects of Peyote practice and Peyote worship, and talk about the sacrament, and talk about the church. So that was very much a necessary strategy for them. And I don’t see it . . . again, I don’t see it only as a strategy, but it was certainly accelerated by that. Yes.

DR: Yes, and on the RSP we’ve talked a few times – we’ve been talking about it over the last week here, as well – that all of these categories – you know, religion, race, the secular, human rights – they’re all part of an interlocking system. So it’s not just the one thing that affects the way that religion is constructed. But it’s part of a larger system in which those are the building blocks we’re working with.

TW: Right. Yes. So you reminded me, in saying that, of the point I was making in the talk I gave earlier today: about how religious/secular distinctions are even produced in some Native American societies in this process. Because what I found was – this was the part I didn’t quite get to in my earlier answer – but what I found was that in many native communities while religious freedom arguments appeared quite early, and many native leaders were making religious freedom arguments, sometimes kind-of strategically, tactically, that wasn’t the most effective way to convince a particular official to allow them to hold dances. Of course, sometimes dances went on, regardless of what the officials said, out of their view. But many Native Americans on many reservations, you’d see dances being held on the Fourth of July, on various kinds of national holidays and Christian holidays – you know, Christmas and Thanksgiving, but especially the Fourth of July – and native people and returned veterans especially after the First World War saying, “We fought for our freedom and we have the right to celebrate our freedom.” And, plus, “These are just social dances, and white communities hold dances too, to celebrate the 4th of July – so why can’t we?” And they, in those cases, would very much downplay any kind of sacred ceremonial. They didn’t conceptualise those traditions as religious for the purposes of these arguments. And so you see, I think, a kind-of differentiation between certain dance or ceremonial traditions that became defended and conceptualised as religion, and came to take on the characteristics associated with religion – which is really modelled after Christianity in the United States – versus those kind-of dance or ceremonial complexes that were defended in different ways and so were not conceptualised as religion. And so there’s a kind of religious/secular distinction that happens where some dances are secularised. But the point I want to make is even beyond that, that the very distinction between a religious dance and a secular dance is emerging in that process.

DR: Right. As a last question, then: what do you think . . . where are we, then, with the religious/ secular distinction in law today? Do you think this is something that we should be seeking to challenge? Or do you think that there is still some value in a religious freedom law?

TW: That’s a really big and hard question for me! (Laughs).

DR: I know it’s something you’re thinking through just now, so maybe it can be just initial . . . .

TW: It is. And I mean I am more comfortable trying to observe and map how it’s happening. Seeing the kind of work that religious freedom is doing. And I think in the contemporary United States certainly religious freedom disputes help shape what people think of as religious and what they don’t think of, you know. And why certain things, again and again, get sort-of coded as a religious issue, as a religious freedom issue, is complex and puzzling. But, you know, it should . . . I’m in two minds about the continued utility of religious freedom. And I have always come down on the side that . . . as kind-of muddled and complicated as its history is, that it’s a tool that has nonetheless been useful to lots of minority groups. And that we can’t just reinvent our world and our categories ex nihilo, right? We don’t have that kind of power as scholars. So is it better to try to eliminate religious freedom law? I mean, I don’t really think so. I might change my mind about this. You know. I think that while seeing how historically constantly negotiated it is – what gets included within the scope of religious freedom and how that shapes what religion even is in our society – that we’re better off pushing for more inclusive, but sometimes also more limited views of religious freedom. In the sense that I don’t think religious freedom should kind-of trump every other value or principle of equality and justice that we have. In the history I trace, I think you can see how that tendency has been a problem and hence served . . . has been weaponised over and over again. And I think it’s still weaponised today. So I think we’re better off trying to kind-of reformulate and reclaim religious freedom. And I have a colleague and friend, Michael McNally who teaches at Carleton College and he has a new book coming out, on Native American religious freedom, which is really grounded in contemporary ethnographic research with . . . . Well, he’s worked with and learned from Native American activists and lawyers, and organisations advocating for religious freedom now. And he says that they’re very . . . these contemporary native leaders are very much aware of sort-of limits and pitfalls of religious freedom. But they nevertheless find it to be a useful tool alongside others. Even though it has failed repeatedly in the courts for Native Americans, contemporary activists would not want it to be gone.

DR: Right, yeah.

TW: Because they see it as way that they can . . . because religious freedom does have such cultural power in the United States that it can be a way to give a certain amount of moral authority to their claims. I mean that’s one of the kinds of arguments that he makes, and I find that very convincing. And so I think that for scholars who see religion as a constructed category and all of that – yes, absolutely. But who are we to say that activists shouldn’t have that tool, right?

DR: Absolutely. It’s been a really interesting conversation. There are a number of big questions that we’re not going to get time for today – so maybe we could have you back one day in the future to go more into the racial stuff,, for instance, which we didn’t really get too much in. But for now, Tisa Wenger, I want to say thank you for taking part in the Religious Studies Project.

TW: Absolutely. Thanks for having me! And I hope to be back, because, yes – there’s so much more to talk about!

DR: Excellent! Thank you.

TW: Thanks very much.

 

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Buddhism in the critical classroom

How do we deal with different cultural languages when teaching an Introduction to Buddhism course? A distinct religious vocabulary reveals itself during early assignments, where students freely deploy terms like “sin,” “atheism,” “afterlife,” and others in their discussions, associating sin with negative karmic action, atheism to their perception of Buddhism as a “godless” religion, the afterlife in reference to rebirth, and so forth. How do these “cultural languages” or “religious language” inform our pedagogical strategies in the classroom. Is cultural familiarity something to be broken immediately and displaced by new concepts and perspectives? Is it to be leveraged as devices for easy onboarding to other, more unfamiliar terms and ideas? Are they to be outright ignored?

To discuss this, David Robertson is joined by Matthew Hayes from UCLA for a wide-ranging and open discussion.

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, sardines, popcorn, and more.


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


Buddhism in the Critical Classroom

Podcast with Matthew Hayes (13 May 2019).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Hayes_-_Buddhism_in_the_Critical_Classroom_1.1

 

David Robertson (DR): Well, I’m pleased to be speaking today to Matthew Hayes, who is a research student at UCLA – that’s the University of California and Los Angeles. Welcome to the RSP, Matthew!

Matthew Hayes (MH): David, thank you very much. I’m very happy to be speaking with you. I appreciate it.

DR: You’re very welcome. You got in contact with what I think is a really interesting topic – something very RSP, combining our love of pedagogy and critical theory. And you wanted to talk about critical pedagogy in teaching non-Western religions. Maybe we could kick off with just a little bit of context as to who you are, and what you do? And maybe then we can get into talking about the course, and the specific kind-of exercises and stuff that you do?

MH: Sure. Yes, so my research kind-of broadly is centred on Buddhist ritual practice during the early modern period in Japan, which runs from 1603-1868. And I’m interested, really, in issues of ritual knowledge production and transmission and the formation and sort-of dissolution, also, of social groups in this context. I focus on a genre of devotional literature called Kōshiki. And my dissertation actually takes a look – a fairly narrow look – at one specific Kōshiki written by a medieval monk named Kakuban. And the research really traces later performative editorial and even pedagogical iterations of this Kōshiki, and really argues that these iterations served as vectors for the transmission of religious knowledge at a specific temple called Chishakuin, in Kyoto, during the seventeenth century or late seventeenth century. So my research is really a kind-of mix, I suppose, of kind-of an institutional study, it’s a textual study, it’s a social study, it’s a ritual study. So it’s a kind-of hybrid project in that way.

DR: Yes, it’s quite a good technique, I think, actually doing that sort of critical reading of text. It could be very enlightening from a critical point of view, as to the way that texts are interpreted and the way – in relation to their context over time of course . . .

MH: Absolutely. I think it’s fairly common to take ritual performance as a performance. So I’m trying to tread a thin line between performance and a textual study: sort-of what happens when we look at a ritual text as a text? Because, in a lot of ways, not only the ritual text but actually commentarial literature surrounding this text was taken up as a kind-of textual study by monks themselves. So it sort-of straddles a thin line between performance and a more cognitive study of a text.

DR: Cool. Now the question always come down to, in the classroom, how do we start? And you had quite an interesting exercise that you started with.

MH: Right, yes. So I teach fairly regularly here at UCLA. I teach an introduction to Buddhism course, which is, you know, a broad survey course, usually fairly highly enrolled: anywhere between sixty and a hundred students. It’s a GE course, which means students are required to take it to graduate. So there’s a fairly heavy writing component to this course. One of the kind-of early assignments that I give students is a . . . it’s almost a throw away assignment, right? It’s way to gauge base-level writing skills. It’s very low-stakes, it’s not worth very much compared to later research projects. But what it really does, I think – for me anyway – is it unearths a lot of assumptions about Buddhism as a religion in the minds of students. So the assignment actually asks students to take a stance, without any prior knowledge of the tradition – this is day one of the course, essentially, week one – and make an argument for Buddhism as either a religion or a philosophy. Right? So this is kind-of a foil for me . . . or kind-of a straw man, to set up assumptions and kind-of pre-existing knowledge, if any, about the tradition, which is either refined or displaced over the weeks as the course goes on. And so that’s essentially the assignment (5:00). It allows students to kind-of express whatever they can, if they can about Buddhism as a kind of template of sorts that will be reworked and reformed as the course goes on, in their writing.

DR: Yes. It’s an interesting . . . I have done similar ones. But I never done that exercise focussed specifically on Buddhism. The fact that you do is interesting. Because I think you would get different answers depending on which tradition you were asking, I think.

MH: Right. Absolutely. So that’s the other kind-of component. And it’s meant to be broad, right? It’s meant to . . . it’s another one of the straw men that I’m setting up for students. The course, of course, culminates after a number of weeks and we discuss this issue of kind-of multiplicity or plural Buddhism that kind-of populate the world. And, of course, to accept this assignment as Buddhism in the singular as if it’s a kind-of monolithic tradition, already is a kind of trap for students, right? So they fall into this idea that there is this uniform practice, right, or uniform doctrine, or uniform engagement by adherents across the world. This is another thing for me to slowly break down across the course. So yes, framing it in that way is kind-of meaningful and utilitarian for me. It’s something that I can sort of leverage across the weeks.

DR: Absolutely. And students don’t go into the classroom . . . I think they have more ideas about . . . . Or, I’ll put it a different way. They’re more likely to have ideas about Buddhism going into Religion 101 than they are about Sikhism or Jainism, or something.

MH: Right.

DR: Buddhism seems to be – and this is certainly the case in the UK context – seems to be the next one that you look at, if you’ve been raised in Christian or post Christian context – I don’t know how it works with Judaism – but it seems to be the one that the teenager will then look at next in their interest in different religions. So I find that students arrive with ideas about Buddhism already.

MH: Absolutely. I find the same to be the case here in the United States – or at least in Los Angeles. A lot of that information, I think, is coming in from sort-of popular culture. Buddhism, in many ways, has found its place in mainstream culture, in popular culture. We have the Zen of —–, fill in the blank, right? All of these transmutations of the tradition for various purposes. So students are exposed to this all the time, whether they sort-of recognise it or not. And so another exercise I do at the very beginning, day one, is just to kind-of poll the class, you know: What is Buddhism? What do you think of when I say the word Buddhism? And of course, you know, the answers kind-of range but predominantly, you see a lot of stuff reflected in that same pop culture, right? A sort of a monk or a mendicant, sitting in a robe doing nothing but meditating all day, giving up possessions and so on, and so forth. Not necessarily incorrect, but it’s a fairly kind-of categorical view of Buddhism, kind-of a monolithic practice. So they do come in with something, right?

DR: And asking students to talk about Buddhism, and I think especially in framing it as a question of religion or philosophy – these kind of questions – this leads you to recognise what you’re calling a sort-of cultural language, a set of ways of talking about these things that the students are bringing into the classrooms. Is that right?

MH: That’s right. So when I poll the class – and certainly in this first writing assignment in which I ask them to take a stance on what Buddhism is, or what they think it is, inevitably – and this of course isn’t across every single student – but predominantly, across the class, I see a sort of common language being used in the classroom, and then of course in their first assignment. So, to talk about, or to get at what they think is a kind-of ethical aspect of Buddhism, right – prior to their understanding that gets worked and developed across the class – they use words like “sin”, right? And in their kind-of conception of Buddhism as a kind of – quote unquote – “godless religion” they might use a kind-of term like atheism to describe this. Similarly in their efforts to get at this idea of rebirth or kind-of cycle of being reborn back into the world, they’ll use word like “afterlife”. There’s maybe ten or twelve or fifteen of these terms that seem to come up during this first week or two of class (10:00). And so this, to me, was very compelling, predominantly because it seemed to be fairly uniform right across a lot of these responses. And so, during the first few years of teaching, just a few short years ago, I began teaching and thinking about what the kind-of implications are here, right? What does it mean to think about this sort-of set of ideas, and ideals, and concepts, and terms that students bring into the classroom, that are kind-of wielded in trying to define something otherwise foreign to them, or unfamiliar to them, or something that is ill-defined, at least from day one? So, yes: cultural language. There could be a better term. There’s probably a theorist out there who’s worked through some of this stuff a bit more accurately than I have. But cultural language or kind-of a cultural location from which they appraise a religion that is unfamiliar. Something like this.

DR: Right, yes. But it will work for our purposes today at least. So the question that you raised is talking about what we do with these, then, in the classroom. And you set a few strategies which I’d quite like you to sort-of describe each of them in turn. Because it’s quite interesting. And I have a few reflections on some of these as well.

MH: Sure.

DR: Whether we start with that now, or whether we go a little bit more into what we’re trying to do in the classroom first and foremost – what do you think?

MH: Yes. Maybe we could talk a little bit about this first. I mean just sort-of what we do with these sets of terms, if that’s ok?

DR: Yes, absolutely. Well, to me it seemed like it came down to the question of what we’re trying to do in the classroom, in this introductory course. You know: are we, as the sort-of early anthropologists were doing, are we translating unfamiliar terms into familiar terms? Or are we doing something that is more destabilising. You know, are we challenging the terms that they’re using? I think it comes down to what it is that we’re trying to do. And I wanted to ask you what you think you’re trying to do. That sounds more aggressive than I meant to, but . . . !

MH: No, No! So, I mean, I don’t want to take a complete position here, but I would say what I tried to do, class to class, is probably somewhere in between those two approaches, right? So, you know, I was an undergrad once of course. And I have been in classrooms that took the approach of kind-of immediately discarding whatever terms or understandings or positions that were brought into the classroom and working to kind-of break bad habits, as it were; trying to kind-of replace these terms with something a bit more “in house”, or something a bit more accurate or specific to the tradition that’s being studied. And I think it’s fair. But from a kind-of practical perspective – and I was one of these students – it can sort-of scare them off a bit. It can be sort-of paralysing, once that sure footing is kind-of removed, or pulled out from underneath the student. And of course there may be some educators out there who’d say, “Well, we must shock them into this mode of critical inquiry by shedding a lot of these bad predispositions and habits, and replacing them with ones that speak more truthfully or accurately to the object under study.” I think that’s fair. But for me, again, I sort-of fall somewhere in between those two poles. So on the one hand, I do not by any means want to simply adopt these terms that students bring into the classroom and sort-of use them interchangeably. That’s very dangerous and risky, and does a real disservice to whatever is trying to be done in the classroom for the educator. But I also don’t think they should be sort-of left at the door, either. And so, allowing students – at least in the initial stages – to kind-of use a familiar footing, or use familiar language in ways that allow them to kind-of get an issue, or speak to a concept, or describe something, some practice or facet of a doctrine, I think, can be very, very helpful. And then, slowly, as the class goes on, you begin to kind-of replace or kind-of supplant those terms with something else. (15:00) So just to give a brief example, you might have students at the beginning of the course using, left and right, this term “sin”, right, describing it, in the context of Buddhism, however they sort-of deem necessary. And slowly, you might – either in paper revisions or in the classroom, verbally – you might begin to introduce a softer term, or kind-of related term like “transgression” – which I think is more kind-of categorical, it’s more broad, it’s not even necessarily Buddhist, right, but it is less Judeo-Christian. It sort of distances itself from that initial position. And then, as things proceed further, you might introduce – a bit more in the realm of Buddhism – something like “unwholesome action”, right? Or an action that sort of accrues karmic retribution. So, a bit more technically Buddhist and certainly a bit more accurate. And so, in a way, by introducing these kind-of in-between terms like transgression, that bridge that initial position to what we hope to kind-of develop as a later position for students – which is really a kind-of clear and accurate view of the Buddhist tradition in ten weeks, as best we can in a survey course – there are, I think, rhetorical strategies in the classroom, and certainly strategies that can be deployed on paper – revising papers and such – that can really kind-of steer students in a more natural way toward proper usage, accurate usage, and sort-of precise usage of these terms.

DR: Yes. And the language that is used is so tied up with histories of . . . social histories’ use of terms. It can be a very difficult task to upset associations of say Karma and sin and these kind of ideas. But there is a sort of . . . it’s often tied up with a call to de-colonise the university and things, these days – which is something I have some sympathy with. But I do, also, question the degree to which the university as we know it – the Western tradition of the university – how far we can actually go with, actually, not being there to translate one alien data language into a familiar data language. I think there are ways to start doing it – as you say – to find a middle ground. But I do think that we, more or less always, inevitably end up at doing that, the same . . . you know, the same way as comparative history of religions has always been . . . .

MH: Yes, it’s difficult. Ultimately we’re in a kind-of Western classroom under the guise of Western administration, right, which of course falls underneath this broader kind of category of Western perspective, and – if you want to take a critical view – of Western dominance. So you’re absolutely right. There’s a kind of difficulty, there, in being aware as an educator of where some of this language is coming from, where the predispositions of students are coming from, and certainly where our own predispositions are coming from, as educators trying to kind-of mediate for students. And it’s a real challenge to think that we can solve the problem, or completely do away with some of those underlying – as you say – sort-of colonial values, or issues of dominance, or invasion, and so on, and so forth. And I think you mentioned critical pedagogy at the start: I think someone like Ira Shor who really is championing just a basic awareness of this as educators. Just an awareness of this issue of dominance that kind-of bubbles beneath the surface of learning processes a pedagogical processes, I think is really the key here. So while we may not be able to save the day, right, in the end, or really kind-of play that role to its fullest – especially in a ten week survey course, it’s very, very difficult to have a long-lasting effect on students in that kind-of deep way that I think people like Ira Shor and others are speaking to – a kind-of basic awareness of this problem, I think, can go a long way, for sure.

DR: And I haven’t read Shor’s work, so that’s a great lead for me to follow up (20:00). I’m thinking specifically in the way that Russell McCutcheon teaches at Alabama, for instance. I think there is a deeper issue within the field that no matter what language we use – whether we’re sort-of successfully translating, or we’re using our own categories, or whatever we’re doing there – we are still operating within the Western category of religion. So even if we were able to translate those terms into their own language, we’re still . . . by dint of talking about religion. And it’s not something that we can escape, I don’t think. It’s part and parcel of the way the subject is set up.

MH: Absolutely. That’s the problem with teaching in a discipline that’s so, I think, acutely defined. And, much as we want to talk – especially now – about these issues of fluidity and dynamism, trans-sectarianism, trans-religious dialogue – lots of these kind-of things that tend to sort-of blur the lines between this tradition and that tradition, or sort-of gesture toward some shared similarities between the two – you’re absolutely right: ultimately we are teaching within a discipline, through a discipline and by the guidelines of that discipline. You’re absolutely right to think that that’s a real challenge as well.

DR: I think it’s a deep challenge. And I think it’s . . . I don’t know if it’s unique to Religious Studies. It’s certainly acute in Religious Studies. And in some ways, it seems a bit of a Gordian Knot. So I’m not surprised you’re saying that you position yourself in the middle. I don’t know where else we could really . . . ! And that’s kind-of why I was asking, you know: what is it that we’re doing in that introductory class? Because I’m not entirely sure myself what we’re doing in that introductory class. Except, I mean, I would personally go with a more sort of deconstructive route against . . . . But then, I’m not starting with Buddhism. I start with new religions, usually. And I think that there are some ways in which it’s easier. So my aim is not particularly to get people to understand new religions. It’s more to try and get them to think anew about their own traditions. And what they have taken for granted as being rational, or unexpected. And by showing them people who are very much like them, who do things that are supposedly crazy, or at least stigmatised, you know, that we can start getting them to think about the reasons for their own actions, and their own beliefs and things, and to break down the category a little bit. And start saying, “Oh, actually, this isn’t as straightforward a thing as I thought it was!” But I guess, coming from Buddhism is a completely different ball game.

MH: It’s difficult. You look at a tradition like Buddhism with a much longer socio-cultural history than something like a new religion, right? So, I think some time has to be spent, at least, doing the historical work to kind-of flesh that out. Students need a kind-of broader context, right? So, when I teach this course we begin in India, and we go all the way up to the modern West – which, in ten weeks, is just crazy, you know, to think that we can really do any kind of service to any of those traditions or sub-traditions that grew out across those regions. So, in a way, I do sometimes feel like a slave to that mode of pedagogy, right, having to do a lot of this kind-of early historical background. And, certainly, we spend some time with major figures. And I do my best, certainly, to bring out some of these broader kind-of critical issues: issues of what it means to practice – what is a practice? – what it means to engage with a religion. Some of those ideas that students bring into the classroom are immediately sort-of deconstructed for them, right? We talk at length, in my class, about a lot of scandals that have occupied the Buddhist world – not only in recent times, but in the past as well. So a lot of this kind of confrontational teaching – or teaching that aims to kind-of break students of what might otherwise be kind-of an ideal image of Buddhism in their minds, when they come into the classroom – a lot of that is at work. But just kind-of the age of Buddhism, right? (25:00) It is a very, very old tradition. So there is some responsibility I think I have to take, there, in sort of playing the set-up, right, doing the kind-of long set-up.

DR: Yes. Absolutely. So let’s talk, for the last few minutes then, about how we can sort-of use this assumption of familiar language or cultural language – however we want to call it – how we can use that to our pedagogical advantage. You know different strategies that we can use – to build out a language of familiarity, we’ve already talked about – but how we can use it to really enhance the students learning.

MH: Yes. Again I think this idea from Shor, who really kind-of pushes an awareness – or at least a sort-of attention to one’s biases not in a kind-of self-critical way but in a kind-of positive way, right? We’re meant to kind-of confront these biases, confront our cultural positions or locations, and I think, in his view, ultimately leverage them in the name of transcending them – at least momentarily. Transcending them for ten weeks in a survey course where we might adopt a more accurate set of positions, or set of terms that allow us to speak more kind-of faithfully to the tradition itself. And so, in terms of tactics, I will just confront this predisposition front-and-centre in the classroom. And so, in a way, I’ve always envisioned my job as an educator to be a kind-of collaborative learner, right, and a collaborative teacher. So, rather than taking this kind-of unidirectional approach and keeping this issue of predispositions and dominant culture in my mind, I’ll simply put it out there for the entire class to kind-of wrangle with and deal with. And so, once it’s out there on the table, we can all together be aware, as Shor says, or be kind-of cognisant of our own biases. And that allows us to kind-of use them positively. Use those biases in ways that help to better clarify, or better define, or better utilise terms that are otherwise foreign or murky for students. I think sort-of keeping a lot of those institutional biases, or cultural biases, or religious biases secret as a teacher is kind-of a disservice to students, right? It sounds to me like one of the things you might even be doing in your class in new religions, is building a kind-of awareness of habits, or awareness of preconceptions of what it means to be religious or, you know, do religious practice, or something like this?

DR: Right. Absolutely. I often start the class, actually . . . . I used to have a block that was in a sort of World Religions 101. And I was basically the . . . . You had the five world religions and I was the other stuff. And I used to start by asking them, “Ok, so you’ve had five religions – have you been told what a religion is?”

MH: Right, right.

DR: They, of course, hadn’t been at any point. And you know, I quite often will point out to students, “If you want to know what hegemony is – in terms of religions, what gets counted as a religion – look at the courses you’ve done! And they’ll think back to the first year and go, “Oh right! Yeah – it’s the same five!” The same things over again. And if you get something else, it’s stuck in as an extra, you know, and always with a qualifier – it’s “indigenous religions” or it’s “new religions”, or it’s “religious movements” or there’s some term that distances it . . .

MH: Right

DR: So yes. We talked about this in the book that I edit with Chris Cotter, actually. We called it subversive pedagogies: where you have to work within that particular set up – you know, in the university – world religions, and these kind of things . . .

MH: Yes, and I was just, very quickly . . . . Go ahead.

DR: Yes, I was just finishing to say: you can use it to your advantage.

MH: Yes. The nice thing about this sort of this issue is, it’s not – at least in recent years – it hasn’t been such a kind-of mystery. I mean there’s some scholars out there actually writing on this issue of what it means to do Religious Studies in academia; what it means to try to kind-of de-institutionalise or even, in some cases, de-colonise as you say the university. I’m thinking of Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions (30:00). So she really does a nice job of pointing directly at academia, at the institution itself, as a kind-of – to put it critically – a kind-of culprit in putting together what we now conceive of as – quote-unquote – “world religions”, right? So I thought of that when you said there were the first five, and then you as the sixth. It seems that this inclusive-exclusive grouping model, or this idea that there could be outliers to a – quote-unquote – “pantheon” of religion is not totally disconnected from the work that academics are doing. And in a lot of ways, I think, again people like Shor, and others, are pointing back at instructors and teachers as people who can sort-of re-orient the model or reconceptualise the model as sort-of not so categorical or exclusive or inclusive.

DR: Right, yes. And one of Tomoko’s points, and Russel McCutcheon makes the same point, and Tim Fitzgerald make the same point, is that actually in teaching that way, and presenting these things as facts, we are constructing that model and that worldview that the students then bring into the classroom.

MH: Right.

DR: And so one thing that’s quite interesting, when you described the exercise, “Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy?” it’s that we can use that in a discussion afterwards, “Well – what does it matter? What is at stake if we say that Buddhism is a religion? Or if we say it’s a philosophy, what’s at stake there? What practical effect does that have? You could connect the use of philosophy there with the fact that atheism is coming up, and gain a real insight, there, into the way that the term religion is being mobilised, in the milieu that the students exist in. So you’re no longer talking about, you know, two-and-a-half thousand years of Buddhist tradition and several continents, or whatever. You’re talking about the specific way that religion is being mobilised for students in their own world.

MH: Absolutely. I mean these students will go on to have hopefully a lengthy conversation but, in reality, a thirty-second conversation with their friends about Buddhism. You know, the word comes up, they see something on TV or whatever, and they might spout off a few lines about how they conceive of the tradition after having taken the class. And so, you know, the stakes are there. And it’s sort-of how we position the tradition in relation to students in their own learning process, but also how we position the tradition in relation to the kind-of broader categorical and institutional frameworks that I think have dominated for so long.

DR: Absolutely. It’s a very simple example of how we can flip from the students’ expectations that they’re coming into the classroom to be told facts, and flip it until now we’re talking about how ideas and our own knowledge is constructed. And that’s what I think we’re there in the classroom to do.

MH: Yes. Absolutely. Sort of a reflexive approach, I think, is really, really helpful.

DR: Absolutely. Matthew Hayes, thanks for coming onto RSP. It’s been a really interesting conversation. I’m sorry that we’ve run out of time.

MH: That’s quite alright. Thank you so much, David, I really appreciate it. It’s been very enjoyable.


Citation Info: Hayes, Matthew and David G. Robertson. 2019. “Buddhism in the Critical Classroom”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 13 May 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 9 May 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/buddhism-in-the-critical-classroom/

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.

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Religion as a Tactic of Governance

In this interview recorded at the BASR/ISASR, Naomi Goldenberg considers how ‘religion’ has developed as a separate sphere from ‘governance’. She argues that ‘religion’ has been projected onto the past for strategic purposes, as a management technique, or even alternative to violence. How does viewing religions as “restive once-and-future governments” help us understand the functioning of this category in contemporary discourse?

She takes us through several examples, including Judaism, new religions, Islam and contemporary debates on abortion and circumcision. As well as a clear example of the functioning of the category ‘religion’ in the contemporary world, this gives some real-world applications of critical theory that shows its relevance beyond the academy.

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, candy, bandannas, and more.


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


Religion as a Tactic of Governance

Podcast with Naomi Goldenberg (21 January 2019).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Goldenberg_-_Religion_as_a_Tactic_of_Governance_1.1

DR: We’re still here in Belfast at the BASR conference, in 2018. And I am privileged to be joined today by our keynote speaker from last night, Naomi Goldenberg, of the University of Ottawa. Welcome to the Religious Studies Project – a return visit, Naomi!

NG: Thank you.

DR: So we’re going to pick up where the keynote . . . well, we’re going to pick up where the keynote started, last night, for everybody who couldn’t be here for what was an excellent session. Thinking of where to start a conversation today, then . . . . So the idea was, as I understood it, that religion – and just to clarify, we’re talking religion as a category here – has been projected . . . . The idea of religion as a separate sphere, a separate category, has been projected onto the past for strategic purposes. Tell us what you mean by that and especially this idea of strategic purposes – as a tactic. What are we talking about?

NG: Religion is a modern category, the way I see it. Not just the way I see it – the way many scholars see it. And not just the way we see it. It can be demonstrated that the term as meaning some kind of special separate sphere of human activity is a very, very recent idea. So in the past – “the past” is so big! I’ll maybe try to explain this in terms of probably the most effective sentence that I’ve ever come across to explain it, is that there is no religion in the Bible. And last night I began with a passage from Deuteronomy to illustrate that you might have – you do have – God in the Bible. You have all kinds of people that we identify with the category of religion now. But all of these figures were involved in government, not in anything separate that we could hive off and call religion. God was some kind of . . . conceived as some kind of monarch, some kind of director, someone who human beings could claim to speak for. But we get God as a principal of Government. Now, of course, government is a modern term as well. So I speak about governance with lots of different words. You could say ruling with authority, you could say commanding a polity, and it’s a very loose concept of governance that I’m using. But this governance was, we might say now, theocratic, whatever. So you don’t get something separate. Clergy – that’s another modern term projected onto the past – were involved with ceremonies of government. And anything that gets called religion, translated as religion in various ancient texts, tends to mean ceremonies that are related to governing. OK so if that’s accepted, then when the modern category of religion emerges – and it emerges in fits and starts in different places and slightly different times, in different ways – it emerges as a way for governments to manage displaced populations, according to the theory that I’m putting forward. And it’s a struggle of institutions, usually – always, actually – between males who were running various institutions. And the loser institution evolves as a religion – or can evolve as a religion – instead of being eliminated completely; instead of the polity being banished or murdered. So you have a category that allows for a quasi-government within a larger government. And then that quasi-government derives some sort of authority from seeing itself as, or perhaps truly being, a government of something in the past. And the strength of that vestigial government – (5:00) those displaced people, that displaced sovereignty – gets to fit into the category of religion. And with that, the state grants certain status to a group. I would say to the – it’s not just me who is saying this – the vestigial group is denied certain forms of violence, marshal violence, police violence, violence in waiting. That’s the violence needed to enforce court decisions. The mystification of that vestigial government occurs because of the connection with something in the past, or something with the narrated idea of a government that existed in the past. The sense of religion as a strategy is that it’s a strategy of dominant governments to manage this displaced or marginalised population. However, it can also be a strategy for the displaced population to claim the category, claim the mystification that surrounds the category, and put pressure on the dominant government for more rights. So it’s a double kind of strategy going on there.

DR: Right, yes. There was a great line you used in the keynote: “Religions as resting once and future governments.”

NG: Restive

DR: Restive, right

NG: Restive once and future governments, yes. I like that phrase “once and future” – sort of the “once and future prince.” It’s a sense of the government looking . . . considering itself to have been something more dominant in the past, and something that will be dominant in the future. So you get that double sense of time going on. And always ambitious – even though sometimes there can be long periods when you don’t see the ambition to aggrandise, to get more and more power, to have more and more spheres to be controlled.

DR: When we had . . . well, it wasn’t our conversation, but the previous Religious Studies Project conversation when we talked about religion as vestigial states . . . this seems to build a little bit on that. Or my sense of religion as vestigial states was more of this group of people who consider themselves as sort-of restive once and future government.

NG: I don’t think they . . . Often they don’t consciously think of themselves that way.

DR: Not consciously, but that’s the way it’s working.

NG: Yes. Right

DR: But this seems to broaden it out and, actually, looking at it the other way round as well – in the way that this can be something that’s very useful for the majority state.

NG: Oh yes. Very useful. Because the majority state can claim, sometimes – depending on relationships with the vestigial one – that it is supported by the vestigial older government, more mystified government. And we see that in the United States with slogans such as “In God we Trust;” with having clergy open up governmental ceremonies, the closeness of Government and the church in some places.

DR: And literally, in the UK, you know?

NG: Oh, very literally in the UK. Right!

DR: Literally. Yes and so, you know, mystification: obviously we have . . . if you want to listen to our interview with Tim Fitzgerald on mystification, if you’re unclear on that. Basically, this is a technique by which power relations are obscured and concealed.

NG: And also the nature of something, such as religion as a form of government, a form of rules, a form of law, regulation, ritual ceremony that is very like government, like what we’re considering government, is obscured by the mystification. So that’s not seen. It’s supposed to be something mysterious.

DR: There was something that immediately struck me during this conversation. And it’s always been of interest to me. We were talking about the fact that people who study religions in the classical world for instance, don’t really talk to RS people. There isn’t really a great deal of you know, interdisciplinary work on those kind of areas. And it’s always seems to me that what we talk about as being religion in say the Roman empire, or Egypt, or Greece or something, is much more like the kind of statecraft that we do. It’s much more akin to you and the Americans civil religion stuff that you do, (10:00) that Robert Bellah and people like that used to talk about.

NG: I think that goes . . . that approaches what I’m saying.

DR: But, theoretically, it’s the other way round. And that’s what I find very interesting about that.

NG: Yes. Good.

DR: So, rather than saying this modern statecraft is a bit like some kinds of religion, actually we can flip that and we can say, “Well, we don’t think of this as religion.” So why are we imposing that idea on states from 2000 years ago? Why do we use the category religion to talk about the polis, and the Olympic Games, and these kind of things, in Rome? Is this part of this tactic of managing . . . ?

NG: I’m not sure it’s part of the tactic of management – although it might be, because it gives the vestigial government a lot of power, and a lot of mystery, and a lot of emotional valence. And then when the dominant government relies on the vestigial government, hearkens to it, hearkens back to it, it also gains that kind of power. But let’s see. I’m so tired from last night! (Laughs).

DR: Yes!

NG: But the mystification, how that . . . .Where were we? Let’s pick up the thread again.

DR: So we talked briefly about mystification, then I switched to this other thing: this fundamentally, I think, changes that conversation. So we had, you know, in the sort of Sociology of Religion, in the classic 1960s Sociology of Religion, we had this idea of quasi-religion or state religions or civil religion. But this actually changes that conversation. Because now we could actually say, “Well, if that’s religion then, you know, why do we have to call that religion?” We could just not call it religion. We could call it statecraft.

NG: You could call it statecraft, exactly. Yes. There’s a point I wanted to make. I’m sure as we start to talk it will come back. I have to explain to your Listeners that we spoke in a group. And continued speaking. . . . (Laughs).

DR: We’ve been speaking for hours about this!

NG: Hours! (Laughs) in the pub last night!

DR: It’s not uncommon, you know. We sit down to record these and we have to come back to the beginning because, yes . . . The Listeners don’t want to hear our in-jokes, probably!

NG: (Laughs)

DR: Ok. Let’s . . . I think it might be useful for the Listener to have a couple of examples. And there were a few interesting examples.

NG: Oh, I’d like to say one thing about that. I think the mystification of something in the past, that we can say is religion and is eternal, comes from, in some ways, “world religions” discourse.

DR: Right, yes.

NG: And I think it works the way world regions does as a category – although there’s a lot of argument about when that starts, exactly. Some trace it back to mid-1600’s, or whatever, when Christians discovered that there were other peoples in the world who actually didn’t know anything about Christianity. And then, various scholars have shown that when these new-to-the-Europeans areas were discovered, the first . . . one of the first things that explorers say is that, “Oh – there’s no religion here. These people are primitive. There’s nothing.” And then, after the explorers are there for a while, they begin to notice something that might be . . . “Oh, that could be a primitive form of religion.” And, guess what! It is! It’s a beginning. And Christianity is the evolution, the apotheosis, the pinnacle of this development. So the fact that there is this thing we can identify maybe as a thing called religion – it could be anything, could be ancestor reverence, it could be rituals at tables, it could be anything, ghosts, spirits, whatever – gets named religion and then gets projected onto the past as a justification for the presence of Christian religion now.

DR: Yes. Yes.

NG: So I think that some of that is there – but as an inferior form. Or as another form.

DR: Yes. Yes. I think it might be useful for the Listeners to have an example that I think is quite a clear one. I know this isn’t particularly your original work, but I think it’s a very good case study, to look at Judaism, and the way that we see that moving through a number of different ways of being interpreted, until we end up with Judaism as . . .

NG: Or, as some people say, many Judaisms. There are scholars who trace this rather specifically (15:00): that you didn’t have anything that could be called a religion. You just had people, who lived in a given area. And as these people were conquered by a range of . . . a succession of empires, if those who weren’t killed cohered, or were allowed by some governments. You could look at the way Cyrus dealt with what we could call the Jewish people. He allowed them to have certain rituals, certain places, rebuild the temple – but temple in the sense of like a city hall. Because temples in the past weren’t separated with what we would call worship, now. They were places of commercial exchange, they were law courts. There were lots of things going on. So by creating this separate space, or this area, governments at that point were creating what gets to be now called religion. In the case of Judaism . . .

DR: They were also a lot to do with food practices. Now again, this is another example of reading religion into the past. So we go, “Oh they were involved in sacrifices, or ritual preparations of meat.” But the idea that these are religious practices is again, something that we read into the past.

NG: Something that develops later.

DR: But we could think: well, it’s just the reason that, you know. . . . Like, Scottish people like to eat white bread, and would go to a shop that sells the only white bread from Scotland when they go to live in Canada, or something like that.

NG: That’s right. And if you made at certain points, you could make the Scots into a religion. It could be that kind of category. So, whatever the Jewish people did became cohered as Judaism. And as I was speaking last night about how there’s . . . . It’s true, in the case of the Jewish people, that you have a confusion – Is this a religion? Is this an ethnicity? Is this a nation? This is all together . . . . Is it a culture? And I think that underlies, actually, all polities that take on that category. That there’s a lot of ambiguity there. That belief is maybe one factor and not a very important factor at all.

DR: And there are quite strong arguments that Judaism, the idea of a religion, is quite a late development and they were seen, historically, much more often as a race than they were as a religion.

NG: Which is another problematic kind of . . .

DR: Which is a whole other can of worms! But the point is that these different categories . . .

NG: All coming from the idea that to be a Christian you have to believe something. So, gradually, I see a change in Jewish people. Many Jews now think that you have to believe something to be really Jewish. Jews never have to believe anything. You were born of a Jewish mother, or you were part of the community that made you Jewish.

DR: Well . . . and that’s “belief” in a very Christian sense of a credo,

NG: Exactly.

DR: You know, a stated belief: this is what I believe, I know it doesn’t make sense to everyone but I’m committed to it in some way.

NG: Yes. So then you have to worry, if you stop believing that, do you fall out of your Christian-ness in some way? And Jews never had to worry about that.

DR: You also made a really good point, it was quite quick in the presentation, about the way that this – in terms of like “Islamist”, and terms like this – where people seem to be reluctant to use the term religion.

NG: Well, the key factor there is that when a group in contemporary times does something violent –marshal violence or police violence, particularly – that isn’t authorised by the state, then the title of religion becomes problematic. Because the key thing for creating the vestigial government is that it will not have any kind of forms of violence that could challenge the state. So Max Weber said that a long time ago – not about the category of religion, but that legalised violence is the one thing that the state always holds onto for itself. So it’s the one thing that isn’t generally franchised out to religious groups. Of course, when we get to the sphere of sex and gender, those are the kinds of jurisdictions that are sometimes ceded by the dominant state to the vestigial one (20:00). And you would have family courts that are authorised by the state in some countries, family courts run by quote unquote “religious authorities”, who would be able to decide.

DR: And why is that different? Why . . . say, circumcision practices? Why does . . . why is that form of violence allowable, and not others?

NG: For some reason. I think it’s a vestige of male authority over women that both the dominant state and the vestigial one claim. But somehow the state is more willing to give that jurisdiction, which I suppose was not seen as all that important, over to vestigial authorities.

DR: Perhaps it’s a situation where it benefits the state, but it slightly clashes with stated aims. So, by sort of allowing – “We’ll just turn a blind eye to these religions, vestigial states doing it – suits us in the long run.” Because it restates male . . . patriarchy.

NG: Male dominance and . . . supports male dominance that’s another point I was making, that the male dominance of the vestigial state is generally always the case, always male – partly because it’s hearkening back to something in that past which was . . . in recorded history it seems to be male governance all the time. I think you’re right. It reinforces male-dominance. But it’s quite frightening, because women and children become subjects of two governments. The dominant one and the vestigial one.

DR: And male children to some degree, as well.

NG: Male children to the same degree, because we let . . .

DR: Circumcision.

NG: So many countries . . . circumcision and then some oral suction in some Jewish communities. Female circumcision, in some other kinds of communities, is a very contested practice, but there’s a lot of argument that it should be allowed in some degree, and some way. We allow that as a form of violence because it’s supposedly religious violence, or it’s not seen as violent.

DR: And, of course, we do have many cases where the religious nature of a practice, or belief, or some sort of prejudice comes down to whether it is or is not religious – you know, the use of cannabis by Rastafarians. There was a recent case, in Scotland, where a guy who claimed he’d been fired from his job for being a Nationalist. He was campaigning as an SNP. And it was seen to clash with his government job. And in the preliminary ruling the judge said, “Well this is a sincere and worked out belief system about the world. So it’s equivalent to a religion, and therefore it should be protected.”

NG: (Laughs). And that’s an example of how that category can be anything. Anything can get into it. Sometimes I talk about religion as a category in which nothing has ever been excluded. I can’t get anyone to name one thing that hasn’t been included in the category of religion. Impossible to exclude anything from it. And yet it’s supposed to be something unique.

DR: Yes. It’s sui generis and unique to itself, but it’s also everything!

NG: It’s also everything! (Laughs).

DR: It’s just humans, in some way . . .

NG: It show the problematic nature of that category.

DR: Yes. Another interesting example, I think, which shows the edges of this, is how often new religions, new religious movements dream of governments.

NG: Exactly!

DR: They dream of alternative governments, but they’re also the target of government ire. And often violence.

NG: Well, governments are always a little bit edgy about the things they authorise as religions, because they’re worried about takeover. Because there’s a sense of competition, somewhere. And New Religious Movements tend to imagine the better government to come could be something local that they’ll enact in a certain place and a certain way. But it could also be something in the future. It could be after death. Sometimes major dominant religions, or what we call world religions also imagine things like that. Or the government will be on another planet, or it will be after an apocalypse. But it will be better, whatever it is. And it will be something like what already happened a while ago – in that sense of being once and future.

DR: Yes. I’m particularly thinking of the kind of . . . the stuff that Crawford Gribbon was talking about yesterday, of the American Redoubt (25:00) where these Conservative right wing traditionalists, essentially, are attempting to create little states within states where patriarchal theocracy can continue within. . . .

NG: There we go. Because they’re worried, now, about women getting some kind of power, and some kind of dominance.

DR: And atheists, and non-white people, and homosexuals, and everything else . . .

NG: Trans. people.

DR: Everything, yes. And that is clearly harking back to a previous kind of . . .

NG: Or an imagined previous. . . . Often an imagined previous state.

DR: Yes, so. . .

NG: “Make America great again” is that kind of slogan!

DR: (Laughs).

NG: Yes. When?

DR: Well, yes . . . again. Which one are you talking about? The McCarthy era, World War II? What is it? The Civil War?

NG: Exactly! (Laughs).

DR: Yes. But the violence aspect of it is particularly interesting. We were riffing last night about the idea of . . . . My colleague Chris Cotter was talking about how, you know, a child can be raised in a state, and told that he’s working for Queen and country, and then signs up, and goes off to another country and kills people. And because this is for the state, this violence is . . . .And you’ve made this point about violence being the thing that states . . .

NG: Dominant states keep it to themselves.

DR: The one thing they keep to themselves. Now, you have. . . there was another line in the keynote, which I want you to unpick a bit for me. And it’s religion, the category religion, as an alternative to genocide.

NG: I was suggesting, taken from Deuteronomy 20 verses16 through 18, in which the Lord God commands a complete eradication of every living thing: people, livestock, everything in an area that has been given as an inheritance to a population. And I was thinking that if the category of religion had been invented – this is hypothetical, very much almost like a game to imagine that this could have been an alternative for that warrior God, that dominant tyrant. So that he wouldn’t have to kill everybody there. He could create a religion in which all forms of violence would be forbidden to that group. And perhaps the group could endure. So I was thinking of it as . . . I think of its function that way, as an alternative to genocide. Cyrus, for example, didn’t eliminate the Jews who were in his area of jurisdiction. He allowed them a space – a bounded space. That’s a two-edged sword in a way. Because, by creating a special group with some kinds of status, sometimes that group can also then be targeted for genocide.

DR: Mmm.

NG: Later on. The way Jews have been, the way many minorities have. So it’s a double-edged thing. It’s the creation of a polity with a certain kind of regulatory apparatus internal to that polity that can also make it a target.

DR: I’d like to wrap up then with. . . . We – any of us who are working in the critical religion paradigm, broadly stated – will eventually be angrily demanded of us what the practical application of what we’re doing is. And how does it matter to real to real people? And there are some quite clear practical examples here. You mentioned the journalistic covering of the abortion debate, for instance.

NG: Right. In Ireland. I thought that was an example – at least the newspapers I read – I was collecting articles from The New York Times and The Washington Post, and The Guardian, about the abortion referendum in Ireland – the recent one. And what was done in most of those articles is that the Catholic Church was spoken about, not religion as a general category. Sometimes it was mentioned, but it was clear that this was a specific institution with specific ideologies. Someone mentioned last night that Evangelical Christians were also involved. But then there’s a specificity about who exactly is advocating what, and for what purpose? And who exactly wins and loses in these various debates. And I think that’s an important demystification of issues (30:00). So I would urge scholars in Religious Studies to be as specific as possible, to name the groups as specifically as you can. Are you talking about Jews, are you talking about Muslims, Are you talking about Christians, maybe? Which kind of Christians? Buddhists? Not this blanket category. That’s already a step forward. I also think that a practical application – and this is where my heart is – is in the pushing the project forward. It’s to demystify the category of religion, so that governments can’t use it to fudge so much; that it doesn’t get to be such a vague category that anything can be claimed as a right within it; and that restrictions can’t be put on it; and that special male privilege can’t be so easily granted. These vestigial governments have just as much contingency, just as much conflict within polities as any other kinds of government. So often they’ve tended to be seen as monolithic, as homogeneous, and the men – who claim to represent them – are given a lot of power. So because religion as a category is put into constitutions, it’s put into Law, and because no-one knows what it is – courts don’t know how to interpret it in a kind of consistent manner – I think it’s particularly ripe for deconstruction, and I think that some very interesting clarity can be put to these debates. That would be an example of one of the practical applications.

DR: You’ve brought a lot of clarity to the conversation here, I think. I think people are going to be very intrigued to read more of your work. But, unfortunately, I have the real privilege, today, of ending the interview!

NG: (Laughs).

DR: But I just want to say, thanks so much for joining us!

NG: And thank you, David.

DR: Thank you.


Citation Info: Goldenberg, Naomi and David G. Robertson. 2019. “’Religion as a Tactic of Governance”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 21 January 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 11 January 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/religion-as-a-tactic-of-governance/

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 Blog Assignment: Confronting “Spirituality” in Teaching Religious Studies

Richard Ascough and Sharday Mosurinjohn

In this second of a two-part series, Richard Ascough adds his voice to Sharday Mosurinjohn’s reflections on a new blog post assignment used in a course on Spirituality, Secularity, and Nonreligion taught through the School of Religion at Queen’s University. In the earlier post, Sharday noted that she learned two key lessons: that students are concerned about what it means to be “critical” in a public posting and that they do not have a level of digital literacy that one might expect in a generation that grew up fully immersed in digital technologies. In this follow-up post, Sharday and Richard discuss strengths and weaknesses in students’ digital literacy and explore how understanding one of the weaknesses might actually help us understand a particularly troublesome religious studies concept – what they consider a “threshold concept.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Venetia Robertson ready for the conference!

Venetia Robertson ready for the conference!

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

 

 

Social Constructionism

What is social constructionism, and how is it important to the study of religion? In this interview, Titus Hjelm tells David Robertson about social constructionism – that is, a set of approaches which see social realities as built from language, rather than reflecting ontological realities. Hjelm outlines how these approaches emerged as part of the ‘linguistic turn’ in the social sciences more broadly, as well as pointing to some different interpretations of how these constructivist, discursive or critical approaches operate. Their importance, he suggests, is in challenging how we think about ontology, epistemology and power.

sui generis thing-in-itself, rather than a product of human culture. Despite – or because – of this, constructionism has not been broadly adopted as a theoretical approach in the field.

For much more on the subject, see Hjelm’s recent book Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religions. 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, Finnish metal CDs, fishing tackle, and more.

Podcasts

How Religious Freedom Makes Religion

Religious freedom has emerged in recent years as a pivotal topic for the study of religion. It is also the subject of heated debates within many countries and among human rights advocates globally, where competing groups advance radically different ideas about how religious freedom operates and what it protects. While for marginalized and minority communities, this freedom can provide important avenues of appeal, at the same time, governing regimes of religious freedom have most often served the interests of those in power and opened up new channels of coercion by the state.

This conversation with Tisa Wenger, author of Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal, starts with the question of how religious freedom talk functions to shape the category of religion and to transform what counts as religious in the modern world. Using Wenger’s ethnographic and historical research on the Pueblo Indians, we discuss how local, national, and international regimes of religious freedom have shaped (or even produced) new religious formations, ways of being religious, norms of good vs. bad religion, or distinctions between the religious and the secular. In short, how has religious freedom (re)produced religion and its others in the modern world?

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How Religious Freedom Makes Religion

Podcast with Tisa Wenger (30 September 2019).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/how-religious-freedom-makes-religion/

David Robertson (DR): I’m joined today by Tisa Wenger. We’re here in Hanover at the DVRV conference. However, we’re not going to be talking about the German context. We’re going to be discussing how religious freedom makes religion. Tisa teaches in the Divinity School at Yale, including Religious Studies and American Studies, and is the author of the recent book, Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal. Welcome to the Religious Studies Project, first and foremost!

Tisa Wenger (TW): Thank you so much! It’s good to be with you.

DR: Let’s put the book in a little bit of context, before we get into a couple of case studies. Tell us how you started working on it. How did your early studies lead you to this subject?

TW: Yes. Well I’ll try to keep it relatively brief, instead of giving a full intellectual autobiography! But my first book, which was based on my dissertation, was called We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom. I started that book, not by thinking about religious freedom, but by thinking about race, American colonialism and category of religion. And I wanted to make an intervention into the kind-of Religious Studies conversation about to what extent is the category of religion a colonial imposition in various contexts. And I wanted to talk about that in relation to Native Americans, and for a variety of reasons ended up looking at the American south west and the Pueblo Indians in Mexico. And I argued, in that book, that Pueblo Indians only began really to contextualise their traditions as religion in the 1920s in order to make the argument for religious freedom. So that’s how I got to religious freedom – kind-of-like through the back door, so to speak. And when I finished that book I wanted to put a similar set of questions on a much broader historical stage. So I was asking, “Who’s invoking the idea of religious freedom and what kinds of cultural and political work does it do?” and, in particular, in kind-of imperial contexts, colonial contexts, and in relation to racial formation in the United States. So the set of arguments that you didn’t hear me talk about today had to do with race, and the way race is shaped in America is kind-of co-constituted with religion. And so I have argued in various other examples about how race and religion are co-constituted. But I was interested initially in this question of how religious freedom shapes or produces religion; when different sort-of social and cultural formations come to be conceptualised as religion, and how the category of religion is formed in that process. And so part of what I’m arguing in the book is that religious freedom disputes do important political and cultural work in that way, in shaping what is religion.

DR: Yeah. Right. And that, for me, is a very interesting aspect of your work. We’re very familiar with the kind-of human rights approach to this issue of, “How do we represent religions in the law?” and “How do we deal with religious freedom?” and these kinds of ideas. All of which, of course, sort-of assume this thing which needs to be represented. Whereas your argument is more subtle. So, if I’m understanding, it’s essentially that the category of religion is almost created in these legal negotiations about how we represent and recognise religions in the law – especially in a sort-of colonial context. Is that . . . have I got that correct?

TW: Yes that’s exactly right. But I would say that in most cases, it has not been created out of nothing, right?

DR: Of course, yeah.

TW: (Laughs). In most religious freedom controversies that we see . . . of course, the category of religion already was present and being used by people, but it is recreated and reshaped all the time. And in some cases, I think particularly in colonial contexts, you can see where local people – colonised people – start to use it for themselves for the first time, or pretty much for the first time, right? Because particularly the thing about US imperialism . . . . And religious freedom is such an important concept for Americans, generally – but for colonial officials in particular, who saw themselves as bringing freedom to the people they colonise, right?

DR: Right.

TW: And in some cases, bringing religious freedom was particularly important to them. So I’m interested in how, then, religious freedom served as a tool for kind-of colonial administration. But I’m also interested, then, in how colonised people take that principle and use it to kind-of speak back to empires.

DR: Right. Which is one of the most difficult aspects of post-colonial study of religion, I think, for people to get their heads around. It’s that it’s a process. There’s a two-way process. It’s not simply the baddies making the goodies behave in a certain way. But the category is reshaped, reconstituted and sustained in that dialogue where it is imposed in certain legal contexts. But then it’s also used by the people being colonised.

TW: Yes

DR: As an act of legitimatisation, yes?

TW: Yes. Exactly. So in the Native American case . . . and I can point to lots of specific examples, you know? In my work on the Pueblo Indians, and the piece of my book that you heard me present on today about Ojibwe Indians in Minnesota, in both cases you see US government officials with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) delegitimising indigenous traditions by categorising them as superstitious, heathenish, pagan, right? And indigenous people who really in their own languages and ways of structuring . . . . They had their own ways of structuring their societies, but those ways of structuring their societies didn’t really include anything equivalent to the category of religion as Americans understood it at the time. But they start to conceive of those traditions as religion in order to argue back against the categorisation of themselves as heathen savage, pagan etc., right? So this is why I title my first book We Have a Religion. This was a quote from a Pueblo Indian petition to the superintendent of Indian Affairs, saying “We also have a religion,” You know? “And you can’t ban it, because of the First amendment to the US Constitution.” Right?

DR: Yes. The clearest example that I’m aware of – it’s quite a well-known case, you know – is the way that Indian independence and Hinduism are kind-of coeval. So Hinduism is an administrative category, essentially by the British Empire, which then becomes one of the central motifs in the national identity of India leading directly into the Indian independence movement, and, you know, One Nation Indian political power today.

TW: Yes, that’s exactly right. And the sort-of construction of Hinduism as a “world religion” is happening in conjunction with that colonial history. Both by Indian intellectuals and by British . . .

DR: Absolutely.

TW: . . . for somewhat different ends. But it serves both of their interests to construct Hinduism as a world religion.

DR: Absolutely, yes.

TW: But native indigenous traditions, for Native Americans and elsewhere around the world, never got conceptualised or moved to that level of world religion, which is a different thing, as we know from Tomoko Masuzawa’s work and others.

DR: Absolutely. Let’s dig into one of those examples, then. The Pueblo Indians example is really fascinating. So perhaps you could take the Listeners through some of the details of that?

TW: Sure, so the Pueblo Indians are really a group of culturally related peoples in New Mexico, sort of related to the Hopi in Arizona. Related because . . . well . . . . Now I’m going to ramble! But they’re really four separate language groups that lived close by each other for several centuries and so came to share a lot of cultural characteristics. But they were colonised by Spain early on, as part of the kind-of northern expansion of New Spain up into what is now the south-western United States. And that’s hugely influential in shaping who the Pueblo Indians were by the time that the United States arrived in the region, after the Spanish American War in 1848. And most of the Pueblo communities – although not all of them – became Catholic under Spanish rule, and were pretty bilingual in Spanish and indigenous Tewa and Tiwa languages. And they, in the kind-of Spanish uses of religion, would conceive as Catholicism as their religion. So it’s not that they weren’t familiar with the category of religion. But under Spanish law, let’s just say, and in the kind-of Mexican New Spain, and then independent Mexico, there was no legal advantage because there was no religious freedom guaranteed to conceptualising indigenous practices as religion. So they had come to a kind-of accommodation with the Franciscan priests, who were mostly the clergy in the churches. And the Pueblos came to be named for Catholic saints and had feast days for the patron saint of each Pueblo, where they would practice traditional Pueblo dances as well as have a Catholic mass and a procession through the town. But they had kind-of come to an accommodation with the Catholic priests, the Franciscan priests, where they would . . . They talked about Pueblo kiva ceremonies and Pueblo ways as costumbre: custom, right?

DR: Yes.

TW: And so that really didn’t change under American rule until the 1920s, when there’s a new Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Charles Burke, who puts out this kind-of dance policy in order to enforce older regulations against Indian dances and those that . . . the one from the 1880s that I was actually referring to in my talk today. He, Charles Burke in the 1920s, tries to reinforce those relations.

DR: So, maybe just in a sentence or two, tell us what they are, because the Listener won’t have . . . .

TW: Right, so there was . . . and these are not laws passed by Congress, right? They’re more bureaucratic regulations within the Bureau of Indian Affairs, that’s nested under the Department of the Interior. And the Commissioner of Indian Affairs is in charge of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And he had immense sort-of executive power to regulate. And so this court of Indian offences was created by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs as a way to . . . . I’m sorry, I’m not being very brief here! But it’s relevant . . .

DR: No, this is good!

TW: as a way to, again . . . it’s a kind-of tutelary regime: a way to instruct Indians – and this is done in a very patronising way, so I’m kind-of echoing the patronising language that was used – to instruct Indians in civilisation and in the law. So they would . . . the agents would appoint a kind-of more – quote unquote – “progressive” Indian, to be the judge of the Court of Indian Affairs. But part of what the Court of . . . . There’re also kind-of regulations or there were a list of quote “Indian offences“. And nowhere in the documents extant from the time or in the regulations that were written up by the commissioner, was this referred to as “religion”. But it later came to be called the Religious Crimes Code. But the Indian offences that were listed in this code were “heathenish rites”, “the arts of the conjurer”, “the medicine man” etc., etc., right? And so native people could be, and were, fined and imprisoned for practising the arts of the conjurer, or participating in certain kinds of dances that were specified to be banned. But that had not . . . For various reasons the US control over Pueblo Indians was not nearly so strong in that period in the late 19th century. And it hadn’t really been enforced against the Pueblo Indians ever. And I don’t need to take the time to go into the reasons for that. But in the 1920s, actually – sparked in part by an exposé of Pueblo ceremonies, in which those ceremonies were depicted as sexually lascivious and immoral by missionaries and missionary-minded government agents – who were really, I think it’s safe to say, completely misinterpreting and misreading those ceremonies . . . .

DR: That’s a common way of representing any barbarous religion anyway, isn’t it?

TW: Correct.

DR: It’s a common language.

TW: Correct. So Charles Burke’s new regulations on dances, that were really just trying to re-inforce some of the earlier regulations form the 1880s, were sparked by a controversy of Pueblo Indian dances. So they were very much at the focus of the controversy that ensued. In the meantime, there were kind-of a group of Boasian anthropologists and sort-of modernist artists and writers who had settled in New Mexico, it was in Santa Fe, and who were starting to really romanticise the Pueblos as “ideal primitives” – quote unquote – right? And so some of those people also leapt to the defence of the Pueblos. And the Pueblo leaders themselves resisted the government suppression by saying, you know, “You can’t do this. Our traditions are religion.” But their re-categorising their traditions as religion was aided by the anthropologists and artists who were also starting to do the same thing, right? In a kind of celebration-of-primitive-religion way. So that’s what happened. Then it was a pretty big public controversy, I mean with articles in lots of national magazines and newspapers and such about the Pueblos. And one of the people who was centrally involved was John Collier who at the time had just become the head of a new reform association called the American Indian Defence Association. And he was becoming one of the biggest gadflies against BIA assimilationist policies. And then later under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’ with the New Deal, Collier was appointed as the commissioner of Indian Affairs – which was a huge overturn. And he reversed some of these policies outlawing Native American dances, and he did so on religious freedom grounds. That reform had its own limitations, of course. And most BIA agents, even after that point in the mid-1930s, continued to work closely with Christian missionaries. And even when they formally recognised the right of Native Americans to religious freedom, nonetheless still conceptualised religion with such a Christian model that they often ruled indigenous practices outside of what counted as religion, right? So what was considered religion was always being negotiated and contested on different Indian reservations between native people and government agents.

DR: And so was there also the kind-of opposite side of that? Does the legislation and the control then shape the way that the Indians are practising? Did they begin to think differently about their practices and maybe even emphasise different bits more, and focus on things differently as a result?

TW: Yes absolutely. So when I finished the book on the Pueblos . . . this was the first piece that I did for my new big sort-of broad-scope religious freedom book. My first transitional step I took was to say, “Well I’ve done all of this in-depth work on the Pueblos in New Mexico. Now I wonder how this happened, or can I tell a similar kinds of stories about other Native Americans elsewhere in the United States?” right? And “When did native people start to use religious freedom arguments?” and “How did that shift things for them?” I didn’t get to that part of . . . . I did make that kind of argument in relation to the Pueblos, as well, and talk about how reconceptualising their traditions as religion created new conflicts within Pueblo communities. But I want to talk now about the newer research that appeared in the second book, in the religious freedom book, that resulted from me asking, “Well, what did this look like more broadly?” And initially I was actually thinking, “Well, probably because there was such a concerted government attempt at suppressing these traditions and nobody was thinking of them as religion, that probably religious freedom wasn’t a pertinent category until the twentieth century.” But I found that not to be the case. I found that actually the more I looked, the more I found Native Americans from the beginning of the nineteenth-century really, in some cases, using religious freedom talk. And I would say, broadly speaking, there are at least two different types of ways that that was applied. So one, in relation to the kind-of stages of colonial history, perhaps – in early stages of colonial contact, before native nations were conquered, when you have Christian missionaries coming, where the native nations are not under US control – you often see native people saying something like “We’re not interested in your religion. We have our own religion.” And sometimes that directly becomes language about religious freedom and sometimes it becomes directly language about religious freedom that is also about protecting indigenous sovereignty, in a kind-of collective way: “Our people have our own ways. And you can’t take our land. You can’t take our …” You know? And religious freedom was part of that. But it’s not a religious freedom that is appealing to the US Constitution, because they’re not under the US Constitution. They don’t see themselves as being governed by the United States.

DR: Yes. And there’s maybe less of a . . . It’s maybe not to do with freedom of religion and the role of the secular. They’re more thinking in terms of religion as customs and that kind of idea.

TW: Yes. They using religion-talk, but in a way where it’s very integrated. But then, after Native Americans are conquered essentially, right – and that happens at different times in different parts of the country and for different native nations – but by the late nineteenth century, by the 1880s, really overwhelmingly native Americans have been conquered, and they have been restricted to reservations, and there are now new policies that are being implemented. And the Code of Indian offences that I was describing earlier is part of that period of a kind-of newly heightened effort at administrative control. And that’s when, immediately in that period, you start to see Native Americans on reservations resisting the suppression of indigenous practices. And sometimes native people refer to their “doings”: ceremonies, dances, all kinds of practices – you know, medicines, healing practices – they start to refer to some of them as religion specifically in order to make religious freedom arguments. And that started to happen in the 1880s. It accelerated with the Peyote movement, and the suppression of the Peyote movement. And I trace that history in the book. But you see . . . . And actually, the Peyote movement is a really interesting case with regard to the question you were asking about how that shifts indigenous traditions. Because, I mean, I don’t think the government suppression and the law is the only reason that Peyotists, and people in that tradition, started to talk about it in the language of religion. There were other reasons as well, but this was certainly one of them. But what is very clear is that the Peyote leaders and practitioners . . . structurally, the movement shifts towards a more, what we might call a kind-of Protestant – certainly a Christian – model for what counts as religion, in order to make religious freedom arguments in the courts, and in Congressional hearings, and before state legislators. And that happened in various places. But, you know, there’s the incorporation of the Native American church, right, that happened . . . which there was an anthropologist, James Mooney, who helped with that process. And the Native American church, you know . . . . Again Peyote ceremonies were, for various reasons, borrowing from Christianity. And some of the Peyote movements began to see themselves as Christian. But the fact that being Christian helped with a religious freedom argument meant that those groups had a boost, right? (Laughs). So there’s a kind-of incomplete Christianisation of the Peyote movement and the Native American Church that isn’t entirely caused by the need to resist government suppression and make religious freedom arguments, but is certainly encouraged and accelerated by it. And so, you know, Peyote is called “the sacrament”. Again and again, you see Indians trying to argue, you know, against legislation and suppression. And that is also in the climate of a prohibitionist period, when there’s a huge campaign against drugs and alcohol – and particularly alcohol, right? So there were crusaders who were employed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to stamp out the alcohol trade among Indians. And the Peyote became kind-of classified as a dangerous drug, alongside alcohol

DR: Right, yes.

TW: So the Bureau of Indian Affairs talked about Peyote and the Peyote as a cloak for drug dealers. They just . . .

DR: Right. Similar to the way that cannabis became . . . ?

TW: Yes. “They’re pretending to be religious in order to kind-of pedal drugs”, right? And so, in order to combat that kind of suppression and denigration, Peyote leaders would emphasise the kind-of positive moral effects of Peyote practice and Peyote worship, and talk about the sacrament, and talk about the church. So that was very much a necessary strategy for them. And I don’t see it . . . again, I don’t see it only as a strategy, but it was certainly accelerated by that. Yes.

DR: Yes, and on the RSP we’ve talked a few times – we’ve been talking about it over the last week here, as well – that all of these categories – you know, religion, race, the secular, human rights – they’re all part of an interlocking system. So it’s not just the one thing that affects the way that religion is constructed. But it’s part of a larger system in which those are the building blocks we’re working with.

TW: Right. Yes. So you reminded me, in saying that, of the point I was making in the talk I gave earlier today: about how religious/secular distinctions are even produced in some Native American societies in this process. Because what I found was – this was the part I didn’t quite get to in my earlier answer – but what I found was that in many native communities while religious freedom arguments appeared quite early, and many native leaders were making religious freedom arguments, sometimes kind-of strategically, tactically, that wasn’t the most effective way to convince a particular official to allow them to hold dances. Of course, sometimes dances went on, regardless of what the officials said, out of their view. But many Native Americans on many reservations, you’d see dances being held on the Fourth of July, on various kinds of national holidays and Christian holidays – you know, Christmas and Thanksgiving, but especially the Fourth of July – and native people and returned veterans especially after the First World War saying, “We fought for our freedom and we have the right to celebrate our freedom.” And, plus, “These are just social dances, and white communities hold dances too, to celebrate the 4th of July – so why can’t we?” And they, in those cases, would very much downplay any kind of sacred ceremonial. They didn’t conceptualise those traditions as religious for the purposes of these arguments. And so you see, I think, a kind-of differentiation between certain dance or ceremonial traditions that became defended and conceptualised as religion, and came to take on the characteristics associated with religion – which is really modelled after Christianity in the United States – versus those kind-of dance or ceremonial complexes that were defended in different ways and so were not conceptualised as religion. And so there’s a kind of religious/secular distinction that happens where some dances are secularised. But the point I want to make is even beyond that, that the very distinction between a religious dance and a secular dance is emerging in that process.

DR: Right. As a last question, then: what do you think . . . where are we, then, with the religious/ secular distinction in law today? Do you think this is something that we should be seeking to challenge? Or do you think that there is still some value in a religious freedom law?

TW: That’s a really big and hard question for me! (Laughs).

DR: I know it’s something you’re thinking through just now, so maybe it can be just initial . . . .

TW: It is. And I mean I am more comfortable trying to observe and map how it’s happening. Seeing the kind of work that religious freedom is doing. And I think in the contemporary United States certainly religious freedom disputes help shape what people think of as religious and what they don’t think of, you know. And why certain things, again and again, get sort-of coded as a religious issue, as a religious freedom issue, is complex and puzzling. But, you know, it should . . . I’m in two minds about the continued utility of religious freedom. And I have always come down on the side that . . . as kind-of muddled and complicated as its history is, that it’s a tool that has nonetheless been useful to lots of minority groups. And that we can’t just reinvent our world and our categories ex nihilo, right? We don’t have that kind of power as scholars. So is it better to try to eliminate religious freedom law? I mean, I don’t really think so. I might change my mind about this. You know. I think that while seeing how historically constantly negotiated it is – what gets included within the scope of religious freedom and how that shapes what religion even is in our society – that we’re better off pushing for more inclusive, but sometimes also more limited views of religious freedom. In the sense that I don’t think religious freedom should kind-of trump every other value or principle of equality and justice that we have. In the history I trace, I think you can see how that tendency has been a problem and hence served . . . has been weaponised over and over again. And I think it’s still weaponised today. So I think we’re better off trying to kind-of reformulate and reclaim religious freedom. And I have a colleague and friend, Michael McNally who teaches at Carleton College and he has a new book coming out, on Native American religious freedom, which is really grounded in contemporary ethnographic research with . . . . Well, he’s worked with and learned from Native American activists and lawyers, and organisations advocating for religious freedom now. And he says that they’re very . . . these contemporary native leaders are very much aware of sort-of limits and pitfalls of religious freedom. But they nevertheless find it to be a useful tool alongside others. Even though it has failed repeatedly in the courts for Native Americans, contemporary activists would not want it to be gone.

DR: Right, yeah.

TW: Because they see it as way that they can . . . because religious freedom does have such cultural power in the United States that it can be a way to give a certain amount of moral authority to their claims. I mean that’s one of the kinds of arguments that he makes, and I find that very convincing. And so I think that for scholars who see religion as a constructed category and all of that – yes, absolutely. But who are we to say that activists shouldn’t have that tool, right?

DR: Absolutely. It’s been a really interesting conversation. There are a number of big questions that we’re not going to get time for today – so maybe we could have you back one day in the future to go more into the racial stuff,, for instance, which we didn’t really get too much in. But for now, Tisa Wenger, I want to say thank you for taking part in the Religious Studies Project.

TW: Absolutely. Thanks for having me! And I hope to be back, because, yes – there’s so much more to talk about!

DR: Excellent! Thank you.

TW: Thanks very much.

 

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Buddhism in the critical classroom

How do we deal with different cultural languages when teaching an Introduction to Buddhism course? A distinct religious vocabulary reveals itself during early assignments, where students freely deploy terms like “sin,” “atheism,” “afterlife,” and others in their discussions, associating sin with negative karmic action, atheism to their perception of Buddhism as a “godless” religion, the afterlife in reference to rebirth, and so forth. How do these “cultural languages” or “religious language” inform our pedagogical strategies in the classroom. Is cultural familiarity something to be broken immediately and displaced by new concepts and perspectives? Is it to be leveraged as devices for easy onboarding to other, more unfamiliar terms and ideas? Are they to be outright ignored?

To discuss this, David Robertson is joined by Matthew Hayes from UCLA for a wide-ranging and open discussion.

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, sardines, popcorn, and more.


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


Buddhism in the Critical Classroom

Podcast with Matthew Hayes (13 May 2019).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Hayes_-_Buddhism_in_the_Critical_Classroom_1.1

 

David Robertson (DR): Well, I’m pleased to be speaking today to Matthew Hayes, who is a research student at UCLA – that’s the University of California and Los Angeles. Welcome to the RSP, Matthew!

Matthew Hayes (MH): David, thank you very much. I’m very happy to be speaking with you. I appreciate it.

DR: You’re very welcome. You got in contact with what I think is a really interesting topic – something very RSP, combining our love of pedagogy and critical theory. And you wanted to talk about critical pedagogy in teaching non-Western religions. Maybe we could kick off with just a little bit of context as to who you are, and what you do? And maybe then we can get into talking about the course, and the specific kind-of exercises and stuff that you do?

MH: Sure. Yes, so my research kind-of broadly is centred on Buddhist ritual practice during the early modern period in Japan, which runs from 1603-1868. And I’m interested, really, in issues of ritual knowledge production and transmission and the formation and sort-of dissolution, also, of social groups in this context. I focus on a genre of devotional literature called Kōshiki. And my dissertation actually takes a look – a fairly narrow look – at one specific Kōshiki written by a medieval monk named Kakuban. And the research really traces later performative editorial and even pedagogical iterations of this Kōshiki, and really argues that these iterations served as vectors for the transmission of religious knowledge at a specific temple called Chishakuin, in Kyoto, during the seventeenth century or late seventeenth century. So my research is really a kind-of mix, I suppose, of kind-of an institutional study, it’s a textual study, it’s a social study, it’s a ritual study. So it’s a kind-of hybrid project in that way.

DR: Yes, it’s quite a good technique, I think, actually doing that sort of critical reading of text. It could be very enlightening from a critical point of view, as to the way that texts are interpreted and the way – in relation to their context over time of course . . .

MH: Absolutely. I think it’s fairly common to take ritual performance as a performance. So I’m trying to tread a thin line between performance and a textual study: sort-of what happens when we look at a ritual text as a text? Because, in a lot of ways, not only the ritual text but actually commentarial literature surrounding this text was taken up as a kind-of textual study by monks themselves. So it sort-of straddles a thin line between performance and a more cognitive study of a text.

DR: Cool. Now the question always come down to, in the classroom, how do we start? And you had quite an interesting exercise that you started with.

MH: Right, yes. So I teach fairly regularly here at UCLA. I teach an introduction to Buddhism course, which is, you know, a broad survey course, usually fairly highly enrolled: anywhere between sixty and a hundred students. It’s a GE course, which means students are required to take it to graduate. So there’s a fairly heavy writing component to this course. One of the kind-of early assignments that I give students is a . . . it’s almost a throw away assignment, right? It’s way to gauge base-level writing skills. It’s very low-stakes, it’s not worth very much compared to later research projects. But what it really does, I think – for me anyway – is it unearths a lot of assumptions about Buddhism as a religion in the minds of students. So the assignment actually asks students to take a stance, without any prior knowledge of the tradition – this is day one of the course, essentially, week one – and make an argument for Buddhism as either a religion or a philosophy. Right? So this is kind-of a foil for me . . . or kind-of a straw man, to set up assumptions and kind-of pre-existing knowledge, if any, about the tradition, which is either refined or displaced over the weeks as the course goes on. And so that’s essentially the assignment (5:00). It allows students to kind-of express whatever they can, if they can about Buddhism as a kind of template of sorts that will be reworked and reformed as the course goes on, in their writing.

DR: Yes. It’s an interesting . . . I have done similar ones. But I never done that exercise focussed specifically on Buddhism. The fact that you do is interesting. Because I think you would get different answers depending on which tradition you were asking, I think.

MH: Right. Absolutely. So that’s the other kind-of component. And it’s meant to be broad, right? It’s meant to . . . it’s another one of the straw men that I’m setting up for students. The course, of course, culminates after a number of weeks and we discuss this issue of kind-of multiplicity or plural Buddhism that kind-of populate the world. And, of course, to accept this assignment as Buddhism in the singular as if it’s a kind-of monolithic tradition, already is a kind of trap for students, right? So they fall into this idea that there is this uniform practice, right, or uniform doctrine, or uniform engagement by adherents across the world. This is another thing for me to slowly break down across the course. So yes, framing it in that way is kind-of meaningful and utilitarian for me. It’s something that I can sort of leverage across the weeks.

DR: Absolutely. And students don’t go into the classroom . . . I think they have more ideas about . . . . Or, I’ll put it a different way. They’re more likely to have ideas about Buddhism going into Religion 101 than they are about Sikhism or Jainism, or something.

MH: Right.

DR: Buddhism seems to be – and this is certainly the case in the UK context – seems to be the next one that you look at, if you’ve been raised in Christian or post Christian context – I don’t know how it works with Judaism – but it seems to be the one that the teenager will then look at next in their interest in different religions. So I find that students arrive with ideas about Buddhism already.

MH: Absolutely. I find the same to be the case here in the United States – or at least in Los Angeles. A lot of that information, I think, is coming in from sort-of popular culture. Buddhism, in many ways, has found its place in mainstream culture, in popular culture. We have the Zen of —–, fill in the blank, right? All of these transmutations of the tradition for various purposes. So students are exposed to this all the time, whether they sort-of recognise it or not. And so another exercise I do at the very beginning, day one, is just to kind-of poll the class, you know: What is Buddhism? What do you think of when I say the word Buddhism? And of course, you know, the answers kind-of range but predominantly, you see a lot of stuff reflected in that same pop culture, right? A sort of a monk or a mendicant, sitting in a robe doing nothing but meditating all day, giving up possessions and so on, and so forth. Not necessarily incorrect, but it’s a fairly kind-of categorical view of Buddhism, kind-of a monolithic practice. So they do come in with something, right?

DR: And asking students to talk about Buddhism, and I think especially in framing it as a question of religion or philosophy – these kind of questions – this leads you to recognise what you’re calling a sort-of cultural language, a set of ways of talking about these things that the students are bringing into the classrooms. Is that right?

MH: That’s right. So when I poll the class – and certainly in this first writing assignment in which I ask them to take a stance on what Buddhism is, or what they think it is, inevitably – and this of course isn’t across every single student – but predominantly, across the class, I see a sort of common language being used in the classroom, and then of course in their first assignment. So, to talk about, or to get at what they think is a kind-of ethical aspect of Buddhism, right – prior to their understanding that gets worked and developed across the class – they use words like “sin”, right? And in their kind-of conception of Buddhism as a kind of – quote unquote – “godless religion” they might use a kind-of term like atheism to describe this. Similarly in their efforts to get at this idea of rebirth or kind-of cycle of being reborn back into the world, they’ll use word like “afterlife”. There’s maybe ten or twelve or fifteen of these terms that seem to come up during this first week or two of class (10:00). And so this, to me, was very compelling, predominantly because it seemed to be fairly uniform right across a lot of these responses. And so, during the first few years of teaching, just a few short years ago, I began teaching and thinking about what the kind-of implications are here, right? What does it mean to think about this sort-of set of ideas, and ideals, and concepts, and terms that students bring into the classroom, that are kind-of wielded in trying to define something otherwise foreign to them, or unfamiliar to them, or something that is ill-defined, at least from day one? So, yes: cultural language. There could be a better term. There’s probably a theorist out there who’s worked through some of this stuff a bit more accurately than I have. But cultural language or kind-of a cultural location from which they appraise a religion that is unfamiliar. Something like this.

DR: Right, yes. But it will work for our purposes today at least. So the question that you raised is talking about what we do with these, then, in the classroom. And you set a few strategies which I’d quite like you to sort-of describe each of them in turn. Because it’s quite interesting. And I have a few reflections on some of these as well.

MH: Sure.

DR: Whether we start with that now, or whether we go a little bit more into what we’re trying to do in the classroom first and foremost – what do you think?

MH: Yes. Maybe we could talk a little bit about this first. I mean just sort-of what we do with these sets of terms, if that’s ok?

DR: Yes, absolutely. Well, to me it seemed like it came down to the question of what we’re trying to do in the classroom, in this introductory course. You know: are we, as the sort-of early anthropologists were doing, are we translating unfamiliar terms into familiar terms? Or are we doing something that is more destabilising. You know, are we challenging the terms that they’re using? I think it comes down to what it is that we’re trying to do. And I wanted to ask you what you think you’re trying to do. That sounds more aggressive than I meant to, but . . . !

MH: No, No! So, I mean, I don’t want to take a complete position here, but I would say what I tried to do, class to class, is probably somewhere in between those two approaches, right? So, you know, I was an undergrad once of course. And I have been in classrooms that took the approach of kind-of immediately discarding whatever terms or understandings or positions that were brought into the classroom and working to kind-of break bad habits, as it were; trying to kind-of replace these terms with something a bit more “in house”, or something a bit more accurate or specific to the tradition that’s being studied. And I think it’s fair. But from a kind-of practical perspective – and I was one of these students – it can sort-of scare them off a bit. It can be sort-of paralysing, once that sure footing is kind-of removed, or pulled out from underneath the student. And of course there may be some educators out there who’d say, “Well, we must shock them into this mode of critical inquiry by shedding a lot of these bad predispositions and habits, and replacing them with ones that speak more truthfully or accurately to the object under study.” I think that’s fair. But for me, again, I sort-of fall somewhere in between those two poles. So on the one hand, I do not by any means want to simply adopt these terms that students bring into the classroom and sort-of use them interchangeably. That’s very dangerous and risky, and does a real disservice to whatever is trying to be done in the classroom for the educator. But I also don’t think they should be sort-of left at the door, either. And so, allowing students – at least in the initial stages – to kind-of use a familiar footing, or use familiar language in ways that allow them to kind-of get an issue, or speak to a concept, or describe something, some practice or facet of a doctrine, I think, can be very, very helpful. And then, slowly, as the class goes on, you begin to kind-of replace or kind-of supplant those terms with something else. (15:00) So just to give a brief example, you might have students at the beginning of the course using, left and right, this term “sin”, right, describing it, in the context of Buddhism, however they sort-of deem necessary. And slowly, you might – either in paper revisions or in the classroom, verbally – you might begin to introduce a softer term, or kind-of related term like “transgression” – which I think is more kind-of categorical, it’s more broad, it’s not even necessarily Buddhist, right, but it is less Judeo-Christian. It sort of distances itself from that initial position. And then, as things proceed further, you might introduce – a bit more in the realm of Buddhism – something like “unwholesome action”, right? Or an action that sort of accrues karmic retribution. So, a bit more technically Buddhist and certainly a bit more accurate. And so, in a way, by introducing these kind-of in-between terms like transgression, that bridge that initial position to what we hope to kind-of develop as a later position for students – which is really a kind-of clear and accurate view of the Buddhist tradition in ten weeks, as best we can in a survey course – there are, I think, rhetorical strategies in the classroom, and certainly strategies that can be deployed on paper – revising papers and such – that can really kind-of steer students in a more natural way toward proper usage, accurate usage, and sort-of precise usage of these terms.

DR: Yes. And the language that is used is so tied up with histories of . . . social histories’ use of terms. It can be a very difficult task to upset associations of say Karma and sin and these kind of ideas. But there is a sort of . . . it’s often tied up with a call to de-colonise the university and things, these days – which is something I have some sympathy with. But I do, also, question the degree to which the university as we know it – the Western tradition of the university – how far we can actually go with, actually, not being there to translate one alien data language into a familiar data language. I think there are ways to start doing it – as you say – to find a middle ground. But I do think that we, more or less always, inevitably end up at doing that, the same . . . you know, the same way as comparative history of religions has always been . . . .

MH: Yes, it’s difficult. Ultimately we’re in a kind-of Western classroom under the guise of Western administration, right, which of course falls underneath this broader kind of category of Western perspective, and – if you want to take a critical view – of Western dominance. So you’re absolutely right. There’s a kind of difficulty, there, in being aware as an educator of where some of this language is coming from, where the predispositions of students are coming from, and certainly where our own predispositions are coming from, as educators trying to kind-of mediate for students. And it’s a real challenge to think that we can solve the problem, or completely do away with some of those underlying – as you say – sort-of colonial values, or issues of dominance, or invasion, and so on, and so forth. And I think you mentioned critical pedagogy at the start: I think someone like Ira Shor who really is championing just a basic awareness of this as educators. Just an awareness of this issue of dominance that kind-of bubbles beneath the surface of learning processes a pedagogical processes, I think is really the key here. So while we may not be able to save the day, right, in the end, or really kind-of play that role to its fullest – especially in a ten week survey course, it’s very, very difficult to have a long-lasting effect on students in that kind-of deep way that I think people like Ira Shor and others are speaking to – a kind-of basic awareness of this problem, I think, can go a long way, for sure.

DR: And I haven’t read Shor’s work, so that’s a great lead for me to follow up (20:00). I’m thinking specifically in the way that Russell McCutcheon teaches at Alabama, for instance. I think there is a deeper issue within the field that no matter what language we use – whether we’re sort-of successfully translating, or we’re using our own categories, or whatever we’re doing there – we are still operating within the Western category of religion. So even if we were able to translate those terms into their own language, we’re still . . . by dint of talking about religion. And it’s not something that we can escape, I don’t think. It’s part and parcel of the way the subject is set up.

MH: Absolutely. That’s the problem with teaching in a discipline that’s so, I think, acutely defined. And, much as we want to talk – especially now – about these issues of fluidity and dynamism, trans-sectarianism, trans-religious dialogue – lots of these kind-of things that tend to sort-of blur the lines between this tradition and that tradition, or sort-of gesture toward some shared similarities between the two – you’re absolutely right: ultimately we are teaching within a discipline, through a discipline and by the guidelines of that discipline. You’re absolutely right to think that that’s a real challenge as well.

DR: I think it’s a deep challenge. And I think it’s . . . I don’t know if it’s unique to Religious Studies. It’s certainly acute in Religious Studies. And in some ways, it seems a bit of a Gordian Knot. So I’m not surprised you’re saying that you position yourself in the middle. I don’t know where else we could really . . . ! And that’s kind-of why I was asking, you know: what is it that we’re doing in that introductory class? Because I’m not entirely sure myself what we’re doing in that introductory class. Except, I mean, I would personally go with a more sort of deconstructive route against . . . . But then, I’m not starting with Buddhism. I start with new religions, usually. And I think that there are some ways in which it’s easier. So my aim is not particularly to get people to understand new religions. It’s more to try and get them to think anew about their own traditions. And what they have taken for granted as being rational, or unexpected. And by showing them people who are very much like them, who do things that are supposedly crazy, or at least stigmatised, you know, that we can start getting them to think about the reasons for their own actions, and their own beliefs and things, and to break down the category a little bit. And start saying, “Oh, actually, this isn’t as straightforward a thing as I thought it was!” But I guess, coming from Buddhism is a completely different ball game.

MH: It’s difficult. You look at a tradition like Buddhism with a much longer socio-cultural history than something like a new religion, right? So, I think some time has to be spent, at least, doing the historical work to kind-of flesh that out. Students need a kind-of broader context, right? So, when I teach this course we begin in India, and we go all the way up to the modern West – which, in ten weeks, is just crazy, you know, to think that we can really do any kind of service to any of those traditions or sub-traditions that grew out across those regions. So, in a way, I do sometimes feel like a slave to that mode of pedagogy, right, having to do a lot of this kind-of early historical background. And, certainly, we spend some time with major figures. And I do my best, certainly, to bring out some of these broader kind-of critical issues: issues of what it means to practice – what is a practice? – what it means to engage with a religion. Some of those ideas that students bring into the classroom are immediately sort-of deconstructed for them, right? We talk at length, in my class, about a lot of scandals that have occupied the Buddhist world – not only in recent times, but in the past as well. So a lot of this kind of confrontational teaching – or teaching that aims to kind-of break students of what might otherwise be kind-of an ideal image of Buddhism in their minds, when they come into the classroom – a lot of that is at work. But just kind-of the age of Buddhism, right? (25:00) It is a very, very old tradition. So there is some responsibility I think I have to take, there, in sort of playing the set-up, right, doing the kind-of long set-up.

DR: Yes. Absolutely. So let’s talk, for the last few minutes then, about how we can sort-of use this assumption of familiar language or cultural language – however we want to call it – how we can use that to our pedagogical advantage. You know different strategies that we can use – to build out a language of familiarity, we’ve already talked about – but how we can use it to really enhance the students learning.

MH: Yes. Again I think this idea from Shor, who really kind-of pushes an awareness – or at least a sort-of attention to one’s biases not in a kind-of self-critical way but in a kind-of positive way, right? We’re meant to kind-of confront these biases, confront our cultural positions or locations, and I think, in his view, ultimately leverage them in the name of transcending them – at least momentarily. Transcending them for ten weeks in a survey course where we might adopt a more accurate set of positions, or set of terms that allow us to speak more kind-of faithfully to the tradition itself. And so, in terms of tactics, I will just confront this predisposition front-and-centre in the classroom. And so, in a way, I’ve always envisioned my job as an educator to be a kind-of collaborative learner, right, and a collaborative teacher. So, rather than taking this kind-of unidirectional approach and keeping this issue of predispositions and dominant culture in my mind, I’ll simply put it out there for the entire class to kind-of wrangle with and deal with. And so, once it’s out there on the table, we can all together be aware, as Shor says, or be kind-of cognisant of our own biases. And that allows us to kind-of use them positively. Use those biases in ways that help to better clarify, or better define, or better utilise terms that are otherwise foreign or murky for students. I think sort-of keeping a lot of those institutional biases, or cultural biases, or religious biases secret as a teacher is kind-of a disservice to students, right? It sounds to me like one of the things you might even be doing in your class in new religions, is building a kind-of awareness of habits, or awareness of preconceptions of what it means to be religious or, you know, do religious practice, or something like this?

DR: Right. Absolutely. I often start the class, actually . . . . I used to have a block that was in a sort of World Religions 101. And I was basically the . . . . You had the five world religions and I was the other stuff. And I used to start by asking them, “Ok, so you’ve had five religions – have you been told what a religion is?”

MH: Right, right.

DR: They, of course, hadn’t been at any point. And you know, I quite often will point out to students, “If you want to know what hegemony is – in terms of religions, what gets counted as a religion – look at the courses you’ve done! And they’ll think back to the first year and go, “Oh right! Yeah – it’s the same five!” The same things over again. And if you get something else, it’s stuck in as an extra, you know, and always with a qualifier – it’s “indigenous religions” or it’s “new religions”, or it’s “religious movements” or there’s some term that distances it . . .

MH: Right

DR: So yes. We talked about this in the book that I edit with Chris Cotter, actually. We called it subversive pedagogies: where you have to work within that particular set up – you know, in the university – world religions, and these kind of things . . .

MH: Yes, and I was just, very quickly . . . . Go ahead.

DR: Yes, I was just finishing to say: you can use it to your advantage.

MH: Yes. The nice thing about this sort of this issue is, it’s not – at least in recent years – it hasn’t been such a kind-of mystery. I mean there’s some scholars out there actually writing on this issue of what it means to do Religious Studies in academia; what it means to try to kind-of de-institutionalise or even, in some cases, de-colonise as you say the university. I’m thinking of Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions (30:00). So she really does a nice job of pointing directly at academia, at the institution itself, as a kind-of – to put it critically – a kind-of culprit in putting together what we now conceive of as – quote-unquote – “world religions”, right? So I thought of that when you said there were the first five, and then you as the sixth. It seems that this inclusive-exclusive grouping model, or this idea that there could be outliers to a – quote-unquote – “pantheon” of religion is not totally disconnected from the work that academics are doing. And in a lot of ways, I think, again people like Shor, and others, are pointing back at instructors and teachers as people who can sort-of re-orient the model or reconceptualise the model as sort-of not so categorical or exclusive or inclusive.

DR: Right, yes. And one of Tomoko’s points, and Russel McCutcheon makes the same point, and Tim Fitzgerald make the same point, is that actually in teaching that way, and presenting these things as facts, we are constructing that model and that worldview that the students then bring into the classroom.

MH: Right.

DR: And so one thing that’s quite interesting, when you described the exercise, “Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy?” it’s that we can use that in a discussion afterwards, “Well – what does it matter? What is at stake if we say that Buddhism is a religion? Or if we say it’s a philosophy, what’s at stake there? What practical effect does that have? You could connect the use of philosophy there with the fact that atheism is coming up, and gain a real insight, there, into the way that the term religion is being mobilised, in the milieu that the students exist in. So you’re no longer talking about, you know, two-and-a-half thousand years of Buddhist tradition and several continents, or whatever. You’re talking about the specific way that religion is being mobilised for students in their own world.

MH: Absolutely. I mean these students will go on to have hopefully a lengthy conversation but, in reality, a thirty-second conversation with their friends about Buddhism. You know, the word comes up, they see something on TV or whatever, and they might spout off a few lines about how they conceive of the tradition after having taken the class. And so, you know, the stakes are there. And it’s sort-of how we position the tradition in relation to students in their own learning process, but also how we position the tradition in relation to the kind-of broader categorical and institutional frameworks that I think have dominated for so long.

DR: Absolutely. It’s a very simple example of how we can flip from the students’ expectations that they’re coming into the classroom to be told facts, and flip it until now we’re talking about how ideas and our own knowledge is constructed. And that’s what I think we’re there in the classroom to do.

MH: Yes. Absolutely. Sort of a reflexive approach, I think, is really, really helpful.

DR: Absolutely. Matthew Hayes, thanks for coming onto RSP. It’s been a really interesting conversation. I’m sorry that we’ve run out of time.

MH: That’s quite alright. Thank you so much, David, I really appreciate it. It’s been very enjoyable.


Citation Info: Hayes, Matthew and David G. Robertson. 2019. “Buddhism in the Critical Classroom”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 13 May 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 9 May 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/buddhism-in-the-critical-classroom/

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.

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Religion as a Tactic of Governance

In this interview recorded at the BASR/ISASR, Naomi Goldenberg considers how ‘religion’ has developed as a separate sphere from ‘governance’. She argues that ‘religion’ has been projected onto the past for strategic purposes, as a management technique, or even alternative to violence. How does viewing religions as “restive once-and-future governments” help us understand the functioning of this category in contemporary discourse?

She takes us through several examples, including Judaism, new religions, Islam and contemporary debates on abortion and circumcision. As well as a clear example of the functioning of the category ‘religion’ in the contemporary world, this gives some real-world applications of critical theory that shows its relevance beyond the academy.

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, candy, bandannas, and more.


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


Religion as a Tactic of Governance

Podcast with Naomi Goldenberg (21 January 2019).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Goldenberg_-_Religion_as_a_Tactic_of_Governance_1.1

DR: We’re still here in Belfast at the BASR conference, in 2018. And I am privileged to be joined today by our keynote speaker from last night, Naomi Goldenberg, of the University of Ottawa. Welcome to the Religious Studies Project – a return visit, Naomi!

NG: Thank you.

DR: So we’re going to pick up where the keynote . . . well, we’re going to pick up where the keynote started, last night, for everybody who couldn’t be here for what was an excellent session. Thinking of where to start a conversation today, then . . . . So the idea was, as I understood it, that religion – and just to clarify, we’re talking religion as a category here – has been projected . . . . The idea of religion as a separate sphere, a separate category, has been projected onto the past for strategic purposes. Tell us what you mean by that and especially this idea of strategic purposes – as a tactic. What are we talking about?

NG: Religion is a modern category, the way I see it. Not just the way I see it – the way many scholars see it. And not just the way we see it. It can be demonstrated that the term as meaning some kind of special separate sphere of human activity is a very, very recent idea. So in the past – “the past” is so big! I’ll maybe try to explain this in terms of probably the most effective sentence that I’ve ever come across to explain it, is that there is no religion in the Bible. And last night I began with a passage from Deuteronomy to illustrate that you might have – you do have – God in the Bible. You have all kinds of people that we identify with the category of religion now. But all of these figures were involved in government, not in anything separate that we could hive off and call religion. God was some kind of . . . conceived as some kind of monarch, some kind of director, someone who human beings could claim to speak for. But we get God as a principal of Government. Now, of course, government is a modern term as well. So I speak about governance with lots of different words. You could say ruling with authority, you could say commanding a polity, and it’s a very loose concept of governance that I’m using. But this governance was, we might say now, theocratic, whatever. So you don’t get something separate. Clergy – that’s another modern term projected onto the past – were involved with ceremonies of government. And anything that gets called religion, translated as religion in various ancient texts, tends to mean ceremonies that are related to governing. OK so if that’s accepted, then when the modern category of religion emerges – and it emerges in fits and starts in different places and slightly different times, in different ways – it emerges as a way for governments to manage displaced populations, according to the theory that I’m putting forward. And it’s a struggle of institutions, usually – always, actually – between males who were running various institutions. And the loser institution evolves as a religion – or can evolve as a religion – instead of being eliminated completely; instead of the polity being banished or murdered. So you have a category that allows for a quasi-government within a larger government. And then that quasi-government derives some sort of authority from seeing itself as, or perhaps truly being, a government of something in the past. And the strength of that vestigial government – (5:00) those displaced people, that displaced sovereignty – gets to fit into the category of religion. And with that, the state grants certain status to a group. I would say to the – it’s not just me who is saying this – the vestigial group is denied certain forms of violence, marshal violence, police violence, violence in waiting. That’s the violence needed to enforce court decisions. The mystification of that vestigial government occurs because of the connection with something in the past, or something with the narrated idea of a government that existed in the past. The sense of religion as a strategy is that it’s a strategy of dominant governments to manage this displaced or marginalised population. However, it can also be a strategy for the displaced population to claim the category, claim the mystification that surrounds the category, and put pressure on the dominant government for more rights. So it’s a double kind of strategy going on there.

DR: Right, yes. There was a great line you used in the keynote: “Religions as resting once and future governments.”

NG: Restive

DR: Restive, right

NG: Restive once and future governments, yes. I like that phrase “once and future” – sort of the “once and future prince.” It’s a sense of the government looking . . . considering itself to have been something more dominant in the past, and something that will be dominant in the future. So you get that double sense of time going on. And always ambitious – even though sometimes there can be long periods when you don’t see the ambition to aggrandise, to get more and more power, to have more and more spheres to be controlled.

DR: When we had . . . well, it wasn’t our conversation, but the previous Religious Studies Project conversation when we talked about religion as vestigial states . . . this seems to build a little bit on that. Or my sense of religion as vestigial states was more of this group of people who consider themselves as sort-of restive once and future government.

NG: I don’t think they . . . Often they don’t consciously think of themselves that way.

DR: Not consciously, but that’s the way it’s working.

NG: Yes. Right

DR: But this seems to broaden it out and, actually, looking at it the other way round as well – in the way that this can be something that’s very useful for the majority state.

NG: Oh yes. Very useful. Because the majority state can claim, sometimes – depending on relationships with the vestigial one – that it is supported by the vestigial older government, more mystified government. And we see that in the United States with slogans such as “In God we Trust;” with having clergy open up governmental ceremonies, the closeness of Government and the church in some places.

DR: And literally, in the UK, you know?

NG: Oh, very literally in the UK. Right!

DR: Literally. Yes and so, you know, mystification: obviously we have . . . if you want to listen to our interview with Tim Fitzgerald on mystification, if you’re unclear on that. Basically, this is a technique by which power relations are obscured and concealed.

NG: And also the nature of something, such as religion as a form of government, a form of rules, a form of law, regulation, ritual ceremony that is very like government, like what we’re considering government, is obscured by the mystification. So that’s not seen. It’s supposed to be something mysterious.

DR: There was something that immediately struck me during this conversation. And it’s always been of interest to me. We were talking about the fact that people who study religions in the classical world for instance, don’t really talk to RS people. There isn’t really a great deal of you know, interdisciplinary work on those kind of areas. And it’s always seems to me that what we talk about as being religion in say the Roman empire, or Egypt, or Greece or something, is much more like the kind of statecraft that we do. It’s much more akin to you and the Americans civil religion stuff that you do, (10:00) that Robert Bellah and people like that used to talk about.

NG: I think that goes . . . that approaches what I’m saying.

DR: But, theoretically, it’s the other way round. And that’s what I find very interesting about that.

NG: Yes. Good.

DR: So, rather than saying this modern statecraft is a bit like some kinds of religion, actually we can flip that and we can say, “Well, we don’t think of this as religion.” So why are we imposing that idea on states from 2000 years ago? Why do we use the category religion to talk about the polis, and the Olympic Games, and these kind of things, in Rome? Is this part of this tactic of managing . . . ?

NG: I’m not sure it’s part of the tactic of management – although it might be, because it gives the vestigial government a lot of power, and a lot of mystery, and a lot of emotional valence. And then when the dominant government relies on the vestigial government, hearkens to it, hearkens back to it, it also gains that kind of power. But let’s see. I’m so tired from last night! (Laughs).

DR: Yes!

NG: But the mystification, how that . . . .Where were we? Let’s pick up the thread again.

DR: So we talked briefly about mystification, then I switched to this other thing: this fundamentally, I think, changes that conversation. So we had, you know, in the sort of Sociology of Religion, in the classic 1960s Sociology of Religion, we had this idea of quasi-religion or state religions or civil religion. But this actually changes that conversation. Because now we could actually say, “Well, if that’s religion then, you know, why do we have to call that religion?” We could just not call it religion. We could call it statecraft.

NG: You could call it statecraft, exactly. Yes. There’s a point I wanted to make. I’m sure as we start to talk it will come back. I have to explain to your Listeners that we spoke in a group. And continued speaking. . . . (Laughs).

DR: We’ve been speaking for hours about this!

NG: Hours! (Laughs) in the pub last night!

DR: It’s not uncommon, you know. We sit down to record these and we have to come back to the beginning because, yes . . . The Listeners don’t want to hear our in-jokes, probably!

NG: (Laughs)

DR: Ok. Let’s . . . I think it might be useful for the Listener to have a couple of examples. And there were a few interesting examples.

NG: Oh, I’d like to say one thing about that. I think the mystification of something in the past, that we can say is religion and is eternal, comes from, in some ways, “world religions” discourse.

DR: Right, yes.

NG: And I think it works the way world regions does as a category – although there’s a lot of argument about when that starts, exactly. Some trace it back to mid-1600’s, or whatever, when Christians discovered that there were other peoples in the world who actually didn’t know anything about Christianity. And then, various scholars have shown that when these new-to-the-Europeans areas were discovered, the first . . . one of the first things that explorers say is that, “Oh – there’s no religion here. These people are primitive. There’s nothing.” And then, after the explorers are there for a while, they begin to notice something that might be . . . “Oh, that could be a primitive form of religion.” And, guess what! It is! It’s a beginning. And Christianity is the evolution, the apotheosis, the pinnacle of this development. So the fact that there is this thing we can identify maybe as a thing called religion – it could be anything, could be ancestor reverence, it could be rituals at tables, it could be anything, ghosts, spirits, whatever – gets named religion and then gets projected onto the past as a justification for the presence of Christian religion now.

DR: Yes. Yes.

NG: So I think that some of that is there – but as an inferior form. Or as another form.

DR: Yes. Yes. I think it might be useful for the Listeners to have an example that I think is quite a clear one. I know this isn’t particularly your original work, but I think it’s a very good case study, to look at Judaism, and the way that we see that moving through a number of different ways of being interpreted, until we end up with Judaism as . . .

NG: Or, as some people say, many Judaisms. There are scholars who trace this rather specifically (15:00): that you didn’t have anything that could be called a religion. You just had people, who lived in a given area. And as these people were conquered by a range of . . . a succession of empires, if those who weren’t killed cohered, or were allowed by some governments. You could look at the way Cyrus dealt with what we could call the Jewish people. He allowed them to have certain rituals, certain places, rebuild the temple – but temple in the sense of like a city hall. Because temples in the past weren’t separated with what we would call worship, now. They were places of commercial exchange, they were law courts. There were lots of things going on. So by creating this separate space, or this area, governments at that point were creating what gets to be now called religion. In the case of Judaism . . .

DR: They were also a lot to do with food practices. Now again, this is another example of reading religion into the past. So we go, “Oh they were involved in sacrifices, or ritual preparations of meat.” But the idea that these are religious practices is again, something that we read into the past.

NG: Something that develops later.

DR: But we could think: well, it’s just the reason that, you know. . . . Like, Scottish people like to eat white bread, and would go to a shop that sells the only white bread from Scotland when they go to live in Canada, or something like that.

NG: That’s right. And if you made at certain points, you could make the Scots into a religion. It could be that kind of category. So, whatever the Jewish people did became cohered as Judaism. And as I was speaking last night about how there’s . . . . It’s true, in the case of the Jewish people, that you have a confusion – Is this a religion? Is this an ethnicity? Is this a nation? This is all together . . . . Is it a culture? And I think that underlies, actually, all polities that take on that category. That there’s a lot of ambiguity there. That belief is maybe one factor and not a very important factor at all.

DR: And there are quite strong arguments that Judaism, the idea of a religion, is quite a late development and they were seen, historically, much more often as a race than they were as a religion.

NG: Which is another problematic kind of . . .

DR: Which is a whole other can of worms! But the point is that these different categories . . .

NG: All coming from the idea that to be a Christian you have to believe something. So, gradually, I see a change in Jewish people. Many Jews now think that you have to believe something to be really Jewish. Jews never have to believe anything. You were born of a Jewish mother, or you were part of the community that made you Jewish.

DR: Well . . . and that’s “belief” in a very Christian sense of a credo,

NG: Exactly.

DR: You know, a stated belief: this is what I believe, I know it doesn’t make sense to everyone but I’m committed to it in some way.

NG: Yes. So then you have to worry, if you stop believing that, do you fall out of your Christian-ness in some way? And Jews never had to worry about that.

DR: You also made a really good point, it was quite quick in the presentation, about the way that this – in terms of like “Islamist”, and terms like this – where people seem to be reluctant to use the term religion.

NG: Well, the key factor there is that when a group in contemporary times does something violent –marshal violence or police violence, particularly – that isn’t authorised by the state, then the title of religion becomes problematic. Because the key thing for creating the vestigial government is that it will not have any kind of forms of violence that could challenge the state. So Max Weber said that a long time ago – not about the category of religion, but that legalised violence is the one thing that the state always holds onto for itself. So it’s the one thing that isn’t generally franchised out to religious groups. Of course, when we get to the sphere of sex and gender, those are the kinds of jurisdictions that are sometimes ceded by the dominant state to the vestigial one (20:00). And you would have family courts that are authorised by the state in some countries, family courts run by quote unquote “religious authorities”, who would be able to decide.

DR: And why is that different? Why . . . say, circumcision practices? Why does . . . why is that form of violence allowable, and not others?

NG: For some reason. I think it’s a vestige of male authority over women that both the dominant state and the vestigial one claim. But somehow the state is more willing to give that jurisdiction, which I suppose was not seen as all that important, over to vestigial authorities.

DR: Perhaps it’s a situation where it benefits the state, but it slightly clashes with stated aims. So, by sort of allowing – “We’ll just turn a blind eye to these religions, vestigial states doing it – suits us in the long run.” Because it restates male . . . patriarchy.

NG: Male dominance and . . . supports male dominance that’s another point I was making, that the male dominance of the vestigial state is generally always the case, always male – partly because it’s hearkening back to something in that past which was . . . in recorded history it seems to be male governance all the time. I think you’re right. It reinforces male-dominance. But it’s quite frightening, because women and children become subjects of two governments. The dominant one and the vestigial one.

DR: And male children to some degree, as well.

NG: Male children to the same degree, because we let . . .

DR: Circumcision.

NG: So many countries . . . circumcision and then some oral suction in some Jewish communities. Female circumcision, in some other kinds of communities, is a very contested practice, but there’s a lot of argument that it should be allowed in some degree, and some way. We allow that as a form of violence because it’s supposedly religious violence, or it’s not seen as violent.

DR: And, of course, we do have many cases where the religious nature of a practice, or belief, or some sort of prejudice comes down to whether it is or is not religious – you know, the use of cannabis by Rastafarians. There was a recent case, in Scotland, where a guy who claimed he’d been fired from his job for being a Nationalist. He was campaigning as an SNP. And it was seen to clash with his government job. And in the preliminary ruling the judge said, “Well this is a sincere and worked out belief system about the world. So it’s equivalent to a religion, and therefore it should be protected.”

NG: (Laughs). And that’s an example of how that category can be anything. Anything can get into it. Sometimes I talk about religion as a category in which nothing has ever been excluded. I can’t get anyone to name one thing that hasn’t been included in the category of religion. Impossible to exclude anything from it. And yet it’s supposed to be something unique.

DR: Yes. It’s sui generis and unique to itself, but it’s also everything!

NG: It’s also everything! (Laughs).

DR: It’s just humans, in some way . . .

NG: It show the problematic nature of that category.

DR: Yes. Another interesting example, I think, which shows the edges of this, is how often new religions, new religious movements dream of governments.

NG: Exactly!

DR: They dream of alternative governments, but they’re also the target of government ire. And often violence.

NG: Well, governments are always a little bit edgy about the things they authorise as religions, because they’re worried about takeover. Because there’s a sense of competition, somewhere. And New Religious Movements tend to imagine the better government to come could be something local that they’ll enact in a certain place and a certain way. But it could also be something in the future. It could be after death. Sometimes major dominant religions, or what we call world religions also imagine things like that. Or the government will be on another planet, or it will be after an apocalypse. But it will be better, whatever it is. And it will be something like what already happened a while ago – in that sense of being once and future.

DR: Yes. I’m particularly thinking of the kind of . . . the stuff that Crawford Gribbon was talking about yesterday, of the American Redoubt (25:00) where these Conservative right wing traditionalists, essentially, are attempting to create little states within states where patriarchal theocracy can continue within. . . .

NG: There we go. Because they’re worried, now, about women getting some kind of power, and some kind of dominance.

DR: And atheists, and non-white people, and homosexuals, and everything else . . .

NG: Trans. people.

DR: Everything, yes. And that is clearly harking back to a previous kind of . . .

NG: Or an imagined previous. . . . Often an imagined previous state.

DR: Yes, so. . .

NG: “Make America great again” is that kind of slogan!

DR: (Laughs).

NG: Yes. When?

DR: Well, yes . . . again. Which one are you talking about? The McCarthy era, World War II? What is it? The Civil War?

NG: Exactly! (Laughs).

DR: Yes. But the violence aspect of it is particularly interesting. We were riffing last night about the idea of . . . . My colleague Chris Cotter was talking about how, you know, a child can be raised in a state, and told that he’s working for Queen and country, and then signs up, and goes off to another country and kills people. And because this is for the state, this violence is . . . .And you’ve made this point about violence being the thing that states . . .

NG: Dominant states keep it to themselves.

DR: The one thing they keep to themselves. Now, you have. . . there was another line in the keynote, which I want you to unpick a bit for me. And it’s religion, the category religion, as an alternative to genocide.

NG: I was suggesting, taken from Deuteronomy 20 verses16 through 18, in which the Lord God commands a complete eradication of every living thing: people, livestock, everything in an area that has been given as an inheritance to a population. And I was thinking that if the category of religion had been invented – this is hypothetical, very much almost like a game to imagine that this could have been an alternative for that warrior God, that dominant tyrant. So that he wouldn’t have to kill everybody there. He could create a religion in which all forms of violence would be forbidden to that group. And perhaps the group could endure. So I was thinking of it as . . . I think of its function that way, as an alternative to genocide. Cyrus, for example, didn’t eliminate the Jews who were in his area of jurisdiction. He allowed them a space – a bounded space. That’s a two-edged sword in a way. Because, by creating a special group with some kinds of status, sometimes that group can also then be targeted for genocide.

DR: Mmm.

NG: Later on. The way Jews have been, the way many minorities have. So it’s a double-edged thing. It’s the creation of a polity with a certain kind of regulatory apparatus internal to that polity that can also make it a target.

DR: I’d like to wrap up then with. . . . We – any of us who are working in the critical religion paradigm, broadly stated – will eventually be angrily demanded of us what the practical application of what we’re doing is. And how does it matter to real to real people? And there are some quite clear practical examples here. You mentioned the journalistic covering of the abortion debate, for instance.

NG: Right. In Ireland. I thought that was an example – at least the newspapers I read – I was collecting articles from The New York Times and The Washington Post, and The Guardian, about the abortion referendum in Ireland – the recent one. And what was done in most of those articles is that the Catholic Church was spoken about, not religion as a general category. Sometimes it was mentioned, but it was clear that this was a specific institution with specific ideologies. Someone mentioned last night that Evangelical Christians were also involved. But then there’s a specificity about who exactly is advocating what, and for what purpose? And who exactly wins and loses in these various debates. And I think that’s an important demystification of issues (30:00). So I would urge scholars in Religious Studies to be as specific as possible, to name the groups as specifically as you can. Are you talking about Jews, are you talking about Muslims, Are you talking about Christians, maybe? Which kind of Christians? Buddhists? Not this blanket category. That’s already a step forward. I also think that a practical application – and this is where my heart is – is in the pushing the project forward. It’s to demystify the category of religion, so that governments can’t use it to fudge so much; that it doesn’t get to be such a vague category that anything can be claimed as a right within it; and that restrictions can’t be put on it; and that special male privilege can’t be so easily granted. These vestigial governments have just as much contingency, just as much conflict within polities as any other kinds of government. So often they’ve tended to be seen as monolithic, as homogeneous, and the men – who claim to represent them – are given a lot of power. So because religion as a category is put into constitutions, it’s put into Law, and because no-one knows what it is – courts don’t know how to interpret it in a kind of consistent manner – I think it’s particularly ripe for deconstruction, and I think that some very interesting clarity can be put to these debates. That would be an example of one of the practical applications.

DR: You’ve brought a lot of clarity to the conversation here, I think. I think people are going to be very intrigued to read more of your work. But, unfortunately, I have the real privilege, today, of ending the interview!

NG: (Laughs).

DR: But I just want to say, thanks so much for joining us!

NG: And thank you, David.

DR: Thank you.


Citation Info: Goldenberg, Naomi and David G. Robertson. 2019. “’Religion as a Tactic of Governance”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 21 January 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 11 January 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/religion-as-a-tactic-of-governance/

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 Blog Assignment: Confronting “Spirituality” in Teaching Religious Studies

Richard Ascough and Sharday Mosurinjohn

In this second of a two-part series, Richard Ascough adds his voice to Sharday Mosurinjohn’s reflections on a new blog post assignment used in a course on Spirituality, Secularity, and Nonreligion taught through the School of Religion at Queen’s University. In the earlier post, Sharday noted that she learned two key lessons: that students are concerned about what it means to be “critical” in a public posting and that they do not have a level of digital literacy that one might expect in a generation that grew up fully immersed in digital technologies. In this follow-up post, Sharday and Richard discuss strengths and weaknesses in students’ digital literacy and explore how understanding one of the weaknesses might actually help us understand a particularly troublesome religious studies concept – what they consider a “threshold concept.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Venetia Robertson ready for the conference!

Venetia Robertson ready for the conference!

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

 

 

Social Constructionism

What is social constructionism, and how is it important to the study of religion? In this interview, Titus Hjelm tells David Robertson about social constructionism – that is, a set of approaches which see social realities as built from language, rather than reflecting ontological realities. Hjelm outlines how these approaches emerged as part of the ‘linguistic turn’ in the social sciences more broadly, as well as pointing to some different interpretations of how these constructivist, discursive or critical approaches operate. Their importance, he suggests, is in challenging how we think about ontology, epistemology and power.

sui generis thing-in-itself, rather than a product of human culture. Despite – or because – of this, constructionism has not been broadly adopted as a theoretical approach in the field.

For much more on the subject, see Hjelm’s recent book Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religions. 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, Finnish metal CDs, fishing tackle, and more.