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Representations of Religious Studies in Popular Culture

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

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


Representations of Religious Studies in Popular Culture

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

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Collins_and_Tobey_-_Representations_of_Religious_Studies_in_Popular_Culture_1.1

 

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

Brian Collins (BC): Thanks for having us.

Kristen Tobey (KT): Thank you.

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

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

BC: Well, shall I answer this one Kristen?

KT: Yes, go first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CC: Yes.

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

KT: Ghostbusters! Sure!

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

CC: Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

BC: Yes, I think so.

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

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

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

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

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

BC: And the bottomless budget that he has!

KT: That, too.

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

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

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

BC: Convert.

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

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

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

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

KT: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BC: Thank you.

KT: Thanks, Chris.


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

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

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The removal and assimilation of NRM Children

A response to Susan Palmer on “Children in New Religious Movements”

by Patricia ‘Iolana

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Higher Education in the Digital Age In response to Simmons and Altman

Merinda Simmons and Michael J Altman’s discussion of their new Masters programme, Religion in Culture, at The University of Alabama left me feeling as if I had just listened to a 30 minute advert for their university rather than a purposeful discussion about the vital and expansive changes essential to advance higher education in the digital age. I had hoped for the latter, but instead, found the former. Perhaps this only reflects upon another difficulty with higher education in the West—turning departments into profitable business commodities. Nevertheless, Simmons and Altman do raise a vital consideration: that we, as academics and scholars, need to change the narrow and disciplinarian approach of graduate and post-graduate religious studies in our universities, and I couldn’t agree more.

What I may not necessarily agree with Simmons and Altman on, however, is their presentation of an academic challenge that appears to be in a vacuum neither discussing these issues as they relate to higher education in America, nor mentioning any other programmes that do so – implicitly implying that the University of Alabama is attempting a radical programme that no other university in the world is attempting, and that may not, in part, be true.

As I listened to Simmons and Altman discuss the importance of “Dorothea Ortmann and my response to her interview. Ortmann also discusses the important of a multidisciplinary approach combined with the use of the social sciences, including empirical data, to assist in the study of religious phenomena in her native Peru.

In my response to Ortmann, I briefly detail why a multidisciplinary approach and the use of social science data was fundamental to my own doctoral research. While I spoke in my response to Ortmann about the struggle to include such supporting data into my final thesis, I didn’t mention why I chose to pursue my doctoral research in Glasgow versus staying in the US.

The answer to that question is simple: I needed a multidisciplinary department that would support my pursuit of the questions raised in my Master’s thesis—questions that were literary, theological, thealogical, psychological, anthropological, cultural, and sociological. Theology and Religious Studies departments across the US have held close the traditional, monocular lens of disciplinary study, and those who wish to combine disciplines are most often encouraged to study subject matter more reductive and intransigent.

There is a level of multidisciplinary approach to academic enquiry that is far more prevalent in the United Kingdom. I chose the University of Glasgow as the centre for my doctoral research based not only on the great city and friendly people, but also on the University’s Centre for Literature, Theology, and the Arts. The Centre, founded by Professor David Jasper, afforded me the opportunity to pursue my queries where they led—through a range of disciplinary material including psychology, history, anthropology, sociological data, and governmental statistics. This multidisciplinary approach afforded me, as researcher, the opportunity to explore not only the original questions from the source material, but also to truly examine the sociological impact these modern faith traditions are having in the US and UK.

I wasn’t locked in a tower of theology and religious studies, I was let loose on the entire geography of academic and scholarly pursuit to roam the map where my queries took me. In the end, and only through such a wonderfully supportive multidisciplinary research programme, I could see results in three dimensions rather than one—living, breathing models rather than flat photographs. Identifying the thealogical and theological implications of these new faith traditions in the flat first dimension led to answers akin to a 3D model of the cultural and sociological impact they continue to have on modern faith traditions, practitioners, and seekers. In my opinion, multidisciplinary departments are vital to academic research and growth.

The new programme, Religion in Culture, does take a welcome and necessary step in this modern, digital age, by including both public and digital humanities to their foundational training alongside Social Theory. Given that social media is not only taking over our daily lives, but also shaping and altering our lives for good and ill, the inclusion of digital humanities and the prominence of social media is a wonderful approach to address and expand religious studies in the digital age.

A variety of universities both in the US and the UK use social media as a tool for effective outreach. The Religious Studies Project in the UK and State of Formation in the US stand out as two exemplary religious studies projects, often, as with these two, in collaboration with other universities, (as opposed to individual departments or programmes) that utilise social media daily to reach and interact with their intended audience.

Moreover, the internet and social media have changed the way academics interact with each other and the outside world. Indeed, conferences are shared in situ with global audiences as participants and attendees share photos and quotes on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Most conference instructions come with suggested hashtags included, and no doubt both interest and future participation are increased through this social interaction through media. You can find a number of prominent scholars and activists on Twitter from second wave feminists such as Carol P Christ to modern thinkers and activists such as Gina Messina, Eboo Patel and Reza Aslan including Simmons and Altman (linked in the opening of this response). Ideas about religious studies, theologies, and modernity are exchanged, criticised, or retweeted daily. Blogs published and shared. Books reviewed and promoted. Therefore, teaching future academics and scholars how to successfully navigate social media in the digital world can only help to extend the reach and impact of our research, queries, and ideas. If only more universities would follow suit.

 

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 24 January 2017

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Calls for papers

Conference: CenSAMM: Climate and Apocalypse

June 29–30, 2017

Bedford, UK

Deadline: February 28, 2017

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Conference: CenSAMM: 500 Years: The Reformation and Its Resonations

September 14–15, 2017

Bedford, UK

Deadline: April 30, 2017

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Conference panel: EASR 2017: The World Religions Paradigm in Educational Contexts

September 18–21, 2017

Leuven, Belgium

Deadline: January 31, 2017

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Conference panel: EASR 2017: “Communicating knowledge about religion in the >extended classroom<“

September 18–21, 2017

Leuven, Belgium

Deadline: January 31, 2017

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Events

Conference: ICSA: Cultic Dynamics and Radicalization

June 29–July 1, 2017

Bordeaux, France

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Reading group: Sanskrit Reading Room

Spring 2017

Cross-departmental: SOAS; University of Oxford, UK

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Summer school: Religion in the World: Beyond the Secular Paradigm

July 3–7, 2017

Utrecht University, The Netherlands

Deadline: June 1, 2017

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Jobs and funding

Associate Professor: Study of Religion with specialization in Islam

University of Bergen, Norway

Deadline: March 1, 2017

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Researcher: INFORM

London School of Economics, UK

Deadline: February 24, 2017

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RUB Research School: SYLFF-Mikrokolleg: “Forced Migration”

Ruhr-Universitat Bochum, Germany

Deadline: February 11, 2017

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Difference or Diversity: Promoting Dialogue of Diversity as Religious Studies Professionals

Prof. Martin Stringer, now of Swansea University, once again lends his expertise in religious diversity to the Religious Studies Project. In this podcast, Prof. Stringer discusses the changes the discourse of religious diversity. After years of studying in different locations in the U.K. – Birmingham, London, Manchester – Stringer began noticing a pattern in the way people identify.  Prof. Stringer states it is important to recognize the significant changes to the discourse on diversity. No longer are people identifying based on countries of origin or their ethnicities, but people often proclaim their religious identity as their marker. This is much different from the conversations of the 1960s and 70s, where the conversation is based on the ethnicities migrating throughout Europe.

Stringer mentioned the work of Steven Vertovec, and his concept of “super-diversity.”  According to Vertovec, looking at diversity solely through the lens of ethnicity or country of origin is misleading and one-dimensional (2006, 1). Vertovec’s proposition of “super-diversity” acknowledges that there is a large array of variables that make up the diversity of an area. As researchers, we ought to look into the variables of age, immigration status, languages, gender, and as Stringer mentions, religion.

dividedTo expand upon Vertovec’s theory of super-diversity, Stringer emphasizes the importance for religious studies professionals to develop a language to use when discussing this type of diversity, and be in conversation with our elected officials. According to Stringer, the language used to discuss religion has been secularized so much so that it almost as if we are no longer discussing religion. Cultivating a proper lexicon to discuss religion in public sphere is where religious studies professionals come in. This vocabulary comes in particularly useful when discussing the current atmosphere surrounding immigration and the tension brought on by the refugee crisis. As we start recognizing the differences that make up super-diversity, religion is a key component.

As Stringer points out, discourse is divided along the lines of diversity and difference. When discourse focuses on difference, it divides the subjects along categorical boundaries. These categorical boundaries are socially constructed and further the narrative of “us vs. them”. However, when building discourse surrounding groups that are, yes, different, but focused on the commonalities, that is building a discourse on diversity. Those are the conversations we, as religious studies professionals, need to be having as outreach to the public and to our elected officials. Stringer points out that we must create this lexicon, promote, and make it accessible to the people that do not study religion as in-depth as us. In the case of immigrants and refugees, it is important that we recognize religious differences, and develop that language for the general public and elected officials to use. We can create a discourse of diversity, rather than allowing them to continue with the discourse of difference. If the conversation around migration changes, maybe the culture of suspicion and distrust towards migrants will change to one of welcome and empathy.

At first while listening to this podcast, I was having a difficult time figuring out what angle I wanted to write this response. All of the research Stringer mentions is centered on the U.K. As a student in the United States, I am not familiar with the neighborhoods he mentions nor the discourse he actually observes to draw his conclusions. However, I can relate what Stringer states to a very similar set of issues we are having in the U.S. We have the same issue of correct religious vocabulary to use while discussing religious diversity, the same lack of use of religious studies professionals in the political sphere, heated discussions of immigrants and refugees incited by the discourse of difference, and the division along categorical lines are exacerbated as these conversations persist.

As we have seen over the course of the last few years, the gap between the right and left has increased. Furthering the problematic discourse of difference that Stringer discusses. In agreement with Stringer, I fully believe that religious studies professionals must engage in civic matters more actively. It is not enough that we study the people that make our super-diverse communities. It is not enough that we understand the religious beliefs of the refugees fleeing Syria. In the United States, as in much of Europe, U.S. citizens are divided on whether we should accept more refugees from Syria or bar them and their religious beliefs. My own elected officials have introduced legislation to restrict the flow of refugees from areas with ISIS strongholds, in fear that Muslim radicals would be a part of the admitted refugees. What is my duty as somebody that studies human rights and religion? It is to bring these conversations to light, and lend my expertise to my elected officials. However, we cannot wait to have a seat at this table, but we must create it.

I don’t know if Prof. Stringer had this type of conversation in mind as he sat down with the Religious Studies Project, or throughout his research of super-diversity, but this is a conversation we must also have. We have seen violence increase after the Brexit vote, through a variety of news outlets and perspectives:

In the U.S. we see the vitriol and hate-filled rhetoric expounded by Donald Trump and the far right:

Many of the conversations centered in these situations are focused on the difference between us (citizens of our countries) or them (the migrants). I cannot speak to the discourse that is happening in the U.K., but I can speak to the discourse in the United States. It is one of division, fear, and hate, and one that religious studies professionals can lend their hand to, to calm the discussion and shift the conversation and culture from what makes us different to what our commonalities are to overcome those differences.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 6 September 2016

Dear subscriber,

Do you have a call for papers, an event announcement, a job vacancy, grant or award you would like others to distribute?

How about having your notification posted with the Religious Studies Project’s weekly Opportunities Digest? It’s easy, just forward them to oppsdigest@gmail.com! Please be aware that the old e-mail addressoppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com does not currently work.

You can find previous Opportunities Digests here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/categ…/opportunities/

Calls for papers

Symposium: Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions

April 7–9, 2017

University of Oxford, UK

Deadline: October 31, 2016

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Workshop: Coming of Age: Young Scholars in the Field of Folkloristics, Ethnology, and Anthropology

March 26, 2017

Göttingen, Germany

Deadline: December 18, 2016

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Workshop: The Representation of Religion(s) and the World Religions Paradigm

December 13–14, 2016

University of Tromsø, Norway

Deadline: October 15, 2016

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Events

Lecture: Robert Orsi – Critical Thinkers in Religion, Law and Social Theory

September 29, 2016, 5:00 – 6:30 p.m.

University of Ottawa, Canada

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Seminar: Minority Religions and Extremism in Schools and on Campus

November 5, 2016, 9:30 a.m. – 5.00 p.m.

London School of Economics, UK

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SocRel Response Day 2016: Connecting for Change: Emerging Research and Policy on Religion and Belief in the Public Sphere

October 21, 2016 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

London, UK

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Grant

Understanding Unbelief: Research grant competition

UCL, UK

Deadline: October 14, 2016

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The Expanding Thought Trench: Ivy League Authority in South Korea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geographies of Religion and the Secular in Ireland

The island of Ireland has, over the past weeks and months, become the site for a number of Religious Studies Project events, from our recent podcasts on Religion and Memory and The Emerging Church, to Chris’s recent gig representing the RSP at the European Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Research Network Conference. And there is plenty more to come in the coming weeks as well. But what about the island itself?

Statue of the Virgin Mary in Dublin City. Photo by Eoin O'Mahony.

Statue of the Virgin Mary in Dublin City. Photo by Eoin O’Mahony.

Many of us might have some notion of what ‘religion’ might mean in Ireland, but as Chris quickly discovered when speaking with Eoin O’Mahony for this week’s interview, these notions are far from the full picture. In this broad-ranging interview, O’Mahony eruditely demonstrates what geography can bring to the academic study of ‘religion’ and presents Ireland as a fascinating context within which to examine processes of boundary-making between the contested constructs of ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’. After taking listeners through a sweeping history of ‘religion’ in Ireland, O’Mahony then discusses the contextual politics of studying ‘religion’ in Ireland before exploring three different contestations over ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ place-making in Ireland.

Bubble-wrapped statue of the Virgin Mary. Photo by Eoin O'Mahony.

Bubble-wrapped statue of the Virgin Mary. Photo by Eoin O’Mahony.

The first of these case studies concerns the maintenance practices at statues of the Virgin Mary sited on public land in Dublin city. Second, discussion turns to place-making relations at sites of pilgrimage performance. And finally, Eoin focuses upon Catholic primary schools as political sites where children are ‘made’ both as ‘Catholics’ and as ‘citizens’. Through this detailed substantive and theoretical discussion, O’Mahony presents the local and particular as a challenge to dominant  and simplistic sociological narratives of ‘secularization’, problematizes simplistic divides between the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’, ‘public’ and ‘private’, and contributes to a ‘decolonization’ of the ‘secular’ – and the study of ‘religion’ more broadly. We even manage to include a discussion of Father Ted.

Eoin maintains a blog concerning his ongoing academic journey entitled “53 degrees“, and has recently published an article entitled The Problem with Drawing Lines – Theo-geographies of the Catholic Parish in Ireland in the Journal of the Irish Association for the Academic Study of Religions. He is hoping to single-handedly break the hegemony of precarious academic labour by tweeting at @ownohmanny.

If you found this podcast interesting, you might also be interested in our previous interviews with Kim Knott on Religion, Space and Locality, Alex Norman on Spiritual Tourism, and Peter Collins on Religion and the Built Environment. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make, whether it is religious studies related or not. Remember, the holidays are coming…

Pilgrimage in Ireland. Photo by Eoin O'Mahony.

Pilgrimage in Ireland. Photo by Eoin O’Mahony.

Religious Education

For those of us in Britain the question of Religious Education has become an ever-increasing issue of concern. Just last October Ofsted, the regulatory board for all education at school level, reported that over half the schools in Britain were failing to provide students with adequate RE. In the wake of this calls were made for clearer standardisation of the subject and a “national benchmark”. The deterioration of RE is perhaps not all that surprising after it was excluded from the English Baccalaureate in 2011. But the call for improvement raises with it a number of questions. First and foremost, just what exactly should RE entail? Should RE be teaching about religion or teaching religion? Who, even, should be RE teachers? PGCE (teacher training) courses in RE accept candidates with degrees in Religious Studies, Theology, Philosophy or indeed any other topic so long as they can, in the words of one program, show “demonstrable knowledge of the study of religion”. But does a theologian or a philosopher have the same skill sets as an RS scholar? To be sure, they may know the facts of a particular religion but are the facts enough for a satisfactory education? Just what is exactly is it we are teaching students to do in RE classrooms?

In this interview, Jonathan Tuckett speaks with Tim Jensen to try to answer some of these questions and more. Not only has Jensen spoken widely on the topic of RE he has recently headed the EASR working group in Religious Education which has studied the status of RE in Denmark, Sweden and Norway highlighting that the question of RE is of particular concern to any secular state.

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

Young People of ‘No Religion’ and Religious Education Beyond Religious Belief

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 30 October 2013, in response to Abby Day’s interview on Believing, Belonging, and Academic Careers  (28 October 2013).

Divided into two distinct halves, Christopher Cotter’s interview with Abby Day begins with a discussion of her research on the nature of belief and what ordinary people in a modern western society actually believe; and concludes with advice on publishing journal articles and acquiring funding for research projects. In my response, I’ll focus on some of the points raised concerning belief, suggest how Day’s work could benefit youth and education studies and, in particular, explain how I’ve found her approach to the study of belief helpful in my own exploration of the lives of young people who identify as having ‘no religion’.

For Day, the concept of belief has often been taken for granted in the study of religion. Rarely do we ask, what do we mean when we talk about belief? As David Morgan has observed, the academic study of religion in the West has been ‘shaped by the idea that a religion is what someone believes’, and that this amounts to a ‘discrete, subjective experience of assent to propositions concerning the origin of the cosmos, the nature of humanity, the existence of deities, or the purpose of life’ (2010, 1). Although there have been a number of scholars and researchers, particularly within anthropology, who have critiqued this view of religion (Needham 1972; Ruel 2002; Lindquist and Coleman 2008), such an understanding persists and remains prevalent within religious education (RE) in secondary schools. Day’s research not only raises questions about what we mean by belief; she also demonstrates how religious identity is often more complicated than assent to propositions. And both of these insights could be of great value to the study of religion and belief at school, as well as to researchers’, teachers’ and policy-makers’ understandings of the nature of belief within the lives of both religious and ‘non-religious’ young people.

The initial impetus for Day’s interest in what people actually believe came from the 2001 Census in England and Wales, in which 72% of the respondents identified as ‘Christian’. In what appeared to be an increasingly secular society, it seemed puzzling that such a large proportion of the population would self-identify in this way. Day decided to explore more deeply what some of these census respondents meant in their adoption of a Christian identity, by examining what they actually believed. Introducing herself to potential participants as a social sciences researcher rather than a researcher of religion, Day also began her interviews by asking people ‘what do you believe in?’ rather than ‘what is your religion?’ It was only at the very end of her interviews that she raised the topic of religious identity in connection with the 2001 Census. This approach enabled her to focus on belief without asking religious questions. And, by focusing instead on values and meaning, as well as what was important to her participants, Day was able to learn much more about how belief functioned in their lives.

Day’s study of belief beyond ‘religious belief’ encouraged me to adopt a similar methodological approach in my own research with 14- and 15-year-olds who report ‘no religion’, exploring how ticking the ‘no religion’ box related to their wider lives without asking questions about religion. I wanted to learn about the people, places, objects, activities and times – the material cultures – that were significant to these young people, as well as to understand their beliefs and values, their methods of constructing narratives of meaning and purpose, and the influence of family, friends and society on their lives and identities. My primary research method was photo-elicitation interviews, in which the photos taken act as ‘prompts and supports to participant narrative’ (Liebenberg, 2009, 448). But I also wanted to avoid any tendencies to take photos that specifically focused on participants’ ‘non-religiosity’ or illustrated their attitudes towards religion. So I embedded the religion question from the 2011 Census alongside questions that collected other seemingly unconnected data and left explicit discussion of participants’ reasons for self-identifying as having ‘no religion’, as well as of their understandings of ‘religion’, to the end of the interview.

Just as Day discovered, however, where it remains important, interview questions about ‘belief’ or ‘life’ more generally still enable participants to talk freely about religion. But, while Day found that religion and religious beliefs played a relatively unimportant part in the lives of some participants who nonetheless chose ‘Christian’ as their religious identity in the 2001 Census, my research with young people who ticked ‘no religion’ indicates that some who self-identify in this way nonetheless find religion and religious beliefs to be significant in their lives.

Day’s research offers valuable insights into some of the reasons people in a modern western society choose to adopt a ‘Christian’ identity when surveyed. For some, it acts as a ‘social marker’ that helps them to feel secure within their communities, creating a boundary between themselves and others; being Christian is something that they are born into, akin to an ethnic identity. This position is nicely illustrated in her interview with ‘Jordan’, a 14-year-old who she describes as an ‘unbelieving Christian’. Although he states ‘I don’t believe in any religions’, Jordan identifies as ‘Christian’ because ‘on my birth certificate it says I’m Christian’. Day explains that, for him, ‘Christian’ doesn’t mean much, he doesn’t do anything that is typically ‘Christian’, and his understanding of a Christian is ‘someone who believes in God and Jesus and Bible and stuff’. While he does not believe in these things, his grandparents do because they are ‘Irish and really strong Christians’. This understanding of what being a Christian entailed is perhaps not surprising, considering Jordan was ‘reflecting how the term “belief” has become associated with “Christian” over the centuries’ (Day, 2009, 266-7). Day’s research provides a welcome corrective to an understanding of belief as primarily propositional and Christian, illustrating the various ways belief functions in all our everyday lives, cutting across conventional boundaries between the religious and the secular.

Although Jordan differs from my participants in that he identifies as ‘Christian’ rather than as having ‘no religion’, understandings of the Christian religion and of what a Christian identity entails are similar. In many of my interviews, it became clear that participants reduce ‘religion’ to metaphysical, existential and/or ethical belief systems that are either true or false. Since participants do not hold these beliefs, they tick the ‘no religion’ box. For some, in order to identify as Christian it is not only necessary to believe everything within that religion, but to have a strong faith in those beliefs. As one 15-year-old girl told me, ‘I don’t think my belief in God is strong enough for me to tick “Christian”. … If there was a sort of “in between” box, I probably would have ticked that. But to categorise what I believe, I’d say I don’t really have a religion’.

My research interests in the lives of young people who report ‘no religion’ dovetails with the emerging field of Nonreligion and Secularity Studies. Lois Lee has provided a working definition of ‘non-religion’ as ‘anything that is primarily defined in a relationship of difference to religion’ (2012, 131), indicating the necessity of reflexivity not only about specific relationships of ‘difference’ but about understandings of ‘religion’ itself. Day is right to emphasise the importance of clarity in relation to the term ‘belief’, but perhaps she could have spoken more during the interview about what she means by ‘religion’. This would then assist further discussion of her proposal that ‘belief’ crosses conventional boundaries between ‘religion’ and ‘non-religion’, making religion, as she says, ‘a subset of belief’.

For the young people of ‘no religion’ that I interviewed, ‘religion’ is understood as consisting of impossible propositional beliefs that are displaced by scientific knowledge. Religion requires acceptance of all its beliefs and cannot incorporate participants’ diversity of beliefs; as another 15-year-old girl said, ‘there would never be a religion for everything I thought’. Religion demands restrictive ethical beliefs, behaviours and belongings that limit autonomy and authenticity. And even when religious ethics are admirable, participants separate ethics from religion because religion remains reduced to primarily metaphysical beliefs.

Although there were a number of reasons that these young people viewed religion and belief in this way, one influence on their understanding clearly came from what they were taught in school. In state-maintained secondary schools in England, some form of RE is mandatory and one of the ways in which schools meet this requirement is through exam courses at GCSE. ‘Philosophy and Ethics’ is one of the most popular strands of exam RE, with pupils being tested on their knowledge of how religious adherents are supposed to live and act, and on their ability to critique religious truth claims and provide rationale for their own beliefs about what is true. For example, the following questions have been set on recent exam papers:

Explain why some people say that religious revelation is only an illusion (AQA GCSE Religious Studies Short Course Specification A, June 2010)

Explain why most Christians are against euthanasia (Edexcel GCSE Religious Studies Religion and Life, May 2010)

Do you think the universe is designed? Give two reasons for your point of view (Edexcel GCSE Religious Studies Religion and Life, May 2010)

Although this might help pupils develop their critical thinking skills, this approach to the study of religion seems to reinforce the notion that religion is concerned with private, individualized beliefs of an ontological, epistemological and/or moral nature. It does not provide room for pupils to consider how ‘religion’ might be broader than assent to propositional beliefs or to explore further the nature of belief and how it can function in all our everyday lives. As Day writes of Jordan, ‘[He] had many beliefs, although not in God, Jesus, the Bible and “stuff”. He believed in doing well at school, helping at home, being with his friends’ (2009, 267).

In recent years, there has been increased debate about the inclusion of secular philosophies within the RE classroom. As I have argued elsewhere , there seem to be a number of problems with some of the recommendations that have been made in this debate, specifically that it repeats the assumption that belief (whether religious or secular) is tantamount to assent to propositions. But exploring the nature of belief more broadly would seem to be one way in which young people could understand religion ‘beyond belief’ and start to recognise the role that beliefs play in all our lives, rather than viewing belief as solely propositional and peculiar to religion. Space within the curriculum should perhaps be found, therefore, to encourage pupils to explore the nature of belief as not only a marker of religious identity but also of social or relational identities, as Day suggests.

Towards the end of the interview, Day discusses some of the ways in which academics can disseminate project findings, as well as give back to the communities they have involved in their projects. Day’s research into what people actually believe has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of how belief functions in the everyday lives of ordinary people. My research with 14- and 15-year olds suggests that it would be helpful if more of these insights could reach not only researchers of religion but also educationalists and policy makers, in order to benefit young people studying religion and belief at school.

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

References

  • Day, A. (2009) ‘Believing in Belonging: An Ethnography of Young People’s Constructions of Belief.’ Culture and Religion 10 (3) 263-278
  • – (2011) Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Lee, L. (2012) ‘Research Note: Talking about a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies’ Journal of Contemporary Religion 27(1):129-139.
  • Liebenberg, L. (2009) ‘The visual image as discussion point: increasing validity in boundary crossing research’. Qualitative Research 9:441-67.
  • Lindquist, G. and Coleman, S. (2008) ‘Introduction: Against Belief?’ Social Analysis 52 (1) 1-18
  • Morgan, D. (ed.) (2010) Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief. London: Routledge.
  • Needham, R. (1972) Belief, Language and Experience. Oxford: Blackwell
  • Ruel, M. (2002) ‘Christians as Believers’ in Lambek, M. (ed.) (2002) A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Podcasts

Representations of Religious Studies in Popular Culture

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

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


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


Representations of Religious Studies in Popular Culture

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

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Collins_and_Tobey_-_Representations_of_Religious_Studies_in_Popular_Culture_1.1

 

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

Brian Collins (BC): Thanks for having us.

Kristen Tobey (KT): Thank you.

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

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

BC: Well, shall I answer this one Kristen?

KT: Yes, go first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CC: Yes.

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

KT: Ghostbusters! Sure!

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

CC: Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

BC: Yes, I think so.

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

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

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

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

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

BC: And the bottomless budget that he has!

KT: That, too.

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

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

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

BC: Convert.

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

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

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

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

KT: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BC: Thank you.

KT: Thanks, Chris.


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

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

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The removal and assimilation of NRM Children

A response to Susan Palmer on “Children in New Religious Movements”

by Patricia ‘Iolana

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Higher Education in the Digital Age In response to Simmons and Altman

Merinda Simmons and Michael J Altman’s discussion of their new Masters programme, Religion in Culture, at The University of Alabama left me feeling as if I had just listened to a 30 minute advert for their university rather than a purposeful discussion about the vital and expansive changes essential to advance higher education in the digital age. I had hoped for the latter, but instead, found the former. Perhaps this only reflects upon another difficulty with higher education in the West—turning departments into profitable business commodities. Nevertheless, Simmons and Altman do raise a vital consideration: that we, as academics and scholars, need to change the narrow and disciplinarian approach of graduate and post-graduate religious studies in our universities, and I couldn’t agree more.

What I may not necessarily agree with Simmons and Altman on, however, is their presentation of an academic challenge that appears to be in a vacuum neither discussing these issues as they relate to higher education in America, nor mentioning any other programmes that do so – implicitly implying that the University of Alabama is attempting a radical programme that no other university in the world is attempting, and that may not, in part, be true.

As I listened to Simmons and Altman discuss the importance of “Dorothea Ortmann and my response to her interview. Ortmann also discusses the important of a multidisciplinary approach combined with the use of the social sciences, including empirical data, to assist in the study of religious phenomena in her native Peru.

In my response to Ortmann, I briefly detail why a multidisciplinary approach and the use of social science data was fundamental to my own doctoral research. While I spoke in my response to Ortmann about the struggle to include such supporting data into my final thesis, I didn’t mention why I chose to pursue my doctoral research in Glasgow versus staying in the US.

The answer to that question is simple: I needed a multidisciplinary department that would support my pursuit of the questions raised in my Master’s thesis—questions that were literary, theological, thealogical, psychological, anthropological, cultural, and sociological. Theology and Religious Studies departments across the US have held close the traditional, monocular lens of disciplinary study, and those who wish to combine disciplines are most often encouraged to study subject matter more reductive and intransigent.

There is a level of multidisciplinary approach to academic enquiry that is far more prevalent in the United Kingdom. I chose the University of Glasgow as the centre for my doctoral research based not only on the great city and friendly people, but also on the University’s Centre for Literature, Theology, and the Arts. The Centre, founded by Professor David Jasper, afforded me the opportunity to pursue my queries where they led—through a range of disciplinary material including psychology, history, anthropology, sociological data, and governmental statistics. This multidisciplinary approach afforded me, as researcher, the opportunity to explore not only the original questions from the source material, but also to truly examine the sociological impact these modern faith traditions are having in the US and UK.

I wasn’t locked in a tower of theology and religious studies, I was let loose on the entire geography of academic and scholarly pursuit to roam the map where my queries took me. In the end, and only through such a wonderfully supportive multidisciplinary research programme, I could see results in three dimensions rather than one—living, breathing models rather than flat photographs. Identifying the thealogical and theological implications of these new faith traditions in the flat first dimension led to answers akin to a 3D model of the cultural and sociological impact they continue to have on modern faith traditions, practitioners, and seekers. In my opinion, multidisciplinary departments are vital to academic research and growth.

The new programme, Religion in Culture, does take a welcome and necessary step in this modern, digital age, by including both public and digital humanities to their foundational training alongside Social Theory. Given that social media is not only taking over our daily lives, but also shaping and altering our lives for good and ill, the inclusion of digital humanities and the prominence of social media is a wonderful approach to address and expand religious studies in the digital age.

A variety of universities both in the US and the UK use social media as a tool for effective outreach. The Religious Studies Project in the UK and State of Formation in the US stand out as two exemplary religious studies projects, often, as with these two, in collaboration with other universities, (as opposed to individual departments or programmes) that utilise social media daily to reach and interact with their intended audience.

Moreover, the internet and social media have changed the way academics interact with each other and the outside world. Indeed, conferences are shared in situ with global audiences as participants and attendees share photos and quotes on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Most conference instructions come with suggested hashtags included, and no doubt both interest and future participation are increased through this social interaction through media. You can find a number of prominent scholars and activists on Twitter from second wave feminists such as Carol P Christ to modern thinkers and activists such as Gina Messina, Eboo Patel and Reza Aslan including Simmons and Altman (linked in the opening of this response). Ideas about religious studies, theologies, and modernity are exchanged, criticised, or retweeted daily. Blogs published and shared. Books reviewed and promoted. Therefore, teaching future academics and scholars how to successfully navigate social media in the digital world can only help to extend the reach and impact of our research, queries, and ideas. If only more universities would follow suit.

 

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 24 January 2017

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June 29–30, 2017

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September 18–21, 2017

Leuven, Belgium

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September 18–21, 2017

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Conference: ICSA: Cultic Dynamics and Radicalization

June 29–July 1, 2017

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Spring 2017

Cross-departmental: SOAS; University of Oxford, UK

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Difference or Diversity: Promoting Dialogue of Diversity as Religious Studies Professionals

Prof. Martin Stringer, now of Swansea University, once again lends his expertise in religious diversity to the Religious Studies Project. In this podcast, Prof. Stringer discusses the changes the discourse of religious diversity. After years of studying in different locations in the U.K. – Birmingham, London, Manchester – Stringer began noticing a pattern in the way people identify.  Prof. Stringer states it is important to recognize the significant changes to the discourse on diversity. No longer are people identifying based on countries of origin or their ethnicities, but people often proclaim their religious identity as their marker. This is much different from the conversations of the 1960s and 70s, where the conversation is based on the ethnicities migrating throughout Europe.

Stringer mentioned the work of Steven Vertovec, and his concept of “super-diversity.”  According to Vertovec, looking at diversity solely through the lens of ethnicity or country of origin is misleading and one-dimensional (2006, 1). Vertovec’s proposition of “super-diversity” acknowledges that there is a large array of variables that make up the diversity of an area. As researchers, we ought to look into the variables of age, immigration status, languages, gender, and as Stringer mentions, religion.

dividedTo expand upon Vertovec’s theory of super-diversity, Stringer emphasizes the importance for religious studies professionals to develop a language to use when discussing this type of diversity, and be in conversation with our elected officials. According to Stringer, the language used to discuss religion has been secularized so much so that it almost as if we are no longer discussing religion. Cultivating a proper lexicon to discuss religion in public sphere is where religious studies professionals come in. This vocabulary comes in particularly useful when discussing the current atmosphere surrounding immigration and the tension brought on by the refugee crisis. As we start recognizing the differences that make up super-diversity, religion is a key component.

As Stringer points out, discourse is divided along the lines of diversity and difference. When discourse focuses on difference, it divides the subjects along categorical boundaries. These categorical boundaries are socially constructed and further the narrative of “us vs. them”. However, when building discourse surrounding groups that are, yes, different, but focused on the commonalities, that is building a discourse on diversity. Those are the conversations we, as religious studies professionals, need to be having as outreach to the public and to our elected officials. Stringer points out that we must create this lexicon, promote, and make it accessible to the people that do not study religion as in-depth as us. In the case of immigrants and refugees, it is important that we recognize religious differences, and develop that language for the general public and elected officials to use. We can create a discourse of diversity, rather than allowing them to continue with the discourse of difference. If the conversation around migration changes, maybe the culture of suspicion and distrust towards migrants will change to one of welcome and empathy.

At first while listening to this podcast, I was having a difficult time figuring out what angle I wanted to write this response. All of the research Stringer mentions is centered on the U.K. As a student in the United States, I am not familiar with the neighborhoods he mentions nor the discourse he actually observes to draw his conclusions. However, I can relate what Stringer states to a very similar set of issues we are having in the U.S. We have the same issue of correct religious vocabulary to use while discussing religious diversity, the same lack of use of religious studies professionals in the political sphere, heated discussions of immigrants and refugees incited by the discourse of difference, and the division along categorical lines are exacerbated as these conversations persist.

As we have seen over the course of the last few years, the gap between the right and left has increased. Furthering the problematic discourse of difference that Stringer discusses. In agreement with Stringer, I fully believe that religious studies professionals must engage in civic matters more actively. It is not enough that we study the people that make our super-diverse communities. It is not enough that we understand the religious beliefs of the refugees fleeing Syria. In the United States, as in much of Europe, U.S. citizens are divided on whether we should accept more refugees from Syria or bar them and their religious beliefs. My own elected officials have introduced legislation to restrict the flow of refugees from areas with ISIS strongholds, in fear that Muslim radicals would be a part of the admitted refugees. What is my duty as somebody that studies human rights and religion? It is to bring these conversations to light, and lend my expertise to my elected officials. However, we cannot wait to have a seat at this table, but we must create it.

I don’t know if Prof. Stringer had this type of conversation in mind as he sat down with the Religious Studies Project, or throughout his research of super-diversity, but this is a conversation we must also have. We have seen violence increase after the Brexit vote, through a variety of news outlets and perspectives:

In the U.S. we see the vitriol and hate-filled rhetoric expounded by Donald Trump and the far right:

Many of the conversations centered in these situations are focused on the difference between us (citizens of our countries) or them (the migrants). I cannot speak to the discourse that is happening in the U.K., but I can speak to the discourse in the United States. It is one of division, fear, and hate, and one that religious studies professionals can lend their hand to, to calm the discussion and shift the conversation and culture from what makes us different to what our commonalities are to overcome those differences.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 6 September 2016

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Symposium: Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions

April 7–9, 2017

University of Oxford, UK

Deadline: October 31, 2016

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Workshop: Coming of Age: Young Scholars in the Field of Folkloristics, Ethnology, and Anthropology

March 26, 2017

Göttingen, Germany

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Workshop: The Representation of Religion(s) and the World Religions Paradigm

December 13–14, 2016

University of Tromsø, Norway

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Lecture: Robert Orsi – Critical Thinkers in Religion, Law and Social Theory

September 29, 2016, 5:00 – 6:30 p.m.

University of Ottawa, Canada

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November 5, 2016, 9:30 a.m. – 5.00 p.m.

London School of Economics, UK

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SocRel Response Day 2016: Connecting for Change: Emerging Research and Policy on Religion and Belief in the Public Sphere

October 21, 2016 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

London, UK

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Understanding Unbelief: Research grant competition

UCL, UK

Deadline: October 14, 2016

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The Expanding Thought Trench: Ivy League Authority in South Korea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geographies of Religion and the Secular in Ireland

The island of Ireland has, over the past weeks and months, become the site for a number of Religious Studies Project events, from our recent podcasts on Religion and Memory and The Emerging Church, to Chris’s recent gig representing the RSP at the European Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Research Network Conference. And there is plenty more to come in the coming weeks as well. But what about the island itself?

Statue of the Virgin Mary in Dublin City. Photo by Eoin O'Mahony.

Statue of the Virgin Mary in Dublin City. Photo by Eoin O’Mahony.

Many of us might have some notion of what ‘religion’ might mean in Ireland, but as Chris quickly discovered when speaking with Eoin O’Mahony for this week’s interview, these notions are far from the full picture. In this broad-ranging interview, O’Mahony eruditely demonstrates what geography can bring to the academic study of ‘religion’ and presents Ireland as a fascinating context within which to examine processes of boundary-making between the contested constructs of ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’. After taking listeners through a sweeping history of ‘religion’ in Ireland, O’Mahony then discusses the contextual politics of studying ‘religion’ in Ireland before exploring three different contestations over ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ place-making in Ireland.

Bubble-wrapped statue of the Virgin Mary. Photo by Eoin O'Mahony.

Bubble-wrapped statue of the Virgin Mary. Photo by Eoin O’Mahony.

The first of these case studies concerns the maintenance practices at statues of the Virgin Mary sited on public land in Dublin city. Second, discussion turns to place-making relations at sites of pilgrimage performance. And finally, Eoin focuses upon Catholic primary schools as political sites where children are ‘made’ both as ‘Catholics’ and as ‘citizens’. Through this detailed substantive and theoretical discussion, O’Mahony presents the local and particular as a challenge to dominant  and simplistic sociological narratives of ‘secularization’, problematizes simplistic divides between the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’, ‘public’ and ‘private’, and contributes to a ‘decolonization’ of the ‘secular’ – and the study of ‘religion’ more broadly. We even manage to include a discussion of Father Ted.

Eoin maintains a blog concerning his ongoing academic journey entitled “53 degrees“, and has recently published an article entitled The Problem with Drawing Lines – Theo-geographies of the Catholic Parish in Ireland in the Journal of the Irish Association for the Academic Study of Religions. He is hoping to single-handedly break the hegemony of precarious academic labour by tweeting at @ownohmanny.

If you found this podcast interesting, you might also be interested in our previous interviews with Kim Knott on Religion, Space and Locality, Alex Norman on Spiritual Tourism, and Peter Collins on Religion and the Built Environment. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make, whether it is religious studies related or not. Remember, the holidays are coming…

Pilgrimage in Ireland. Photo by Eoin O'Mahony.

Pilgrimage in Ireland. Photo by Eoin O’Mahony.

Religious Education

For those of us in Britain the question of Religious Education has become an ever-increasing issue of concern. Just last October Ofsted, the regulatory board for all education at school level, reported that over half the schools in Britain were failing to provide students with adequate RE. In the wake of this calls were made for clearer standardisation of the subject and a “national benchmark”. The deterioration of RE is perhaps not all that surprising after it was excluded from the English Baccalaureate in 2011. But the call for improvement raises with it a number of questions. First and foremost, just what exactly should RE entail? Should RE be teaching about religion or teaching religion? Who, even, should be RE teachers? PGCE (teacher training) courses in RE accept candidates with degrees in Religious Studies, Theology, Philosophy or indeed any other topic so long as they can, in the words of one program, show “demonstrable knowledge of the study of religion”. But does a theologian or a philosopher have the same skill sets as an RS scholar? To be sure, they may know the facts of a particular religion but are the facts enough for a satisfactory education? Just what is exactly is it we are teaching students to do in RE classrooms?

In this interview, Jonathan Tuckett speaks with Tim Jensen to try to answer some of these questions and more. Not only has Jensen spoken widely on the topic of RE he has recently headed the EASR working group in Religious Education which has studied the status of RE in Denmark, Sweden and Norway highlighting that the question of RE is of particular concern to any secular state.

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

Young People of ‘No Religion’ and Religious Education Beyond Religious Belief

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 30 October 2013, in response to Abby Day’s interview on Believing, Belonging, and Academic Careers  (28 October 2013).

Divided into two distinct halves, Christopher Cotter’s interview with Abby Day begins with a discussion of her research on the nature of belief and what ordinary people in a modern western society actually believe; and concludes with advice on publishing journal articles and acquiring funding for research projects. In my response, I’ll focus on some of the points raised concerning belief, suggest how Day’s work could benefit youth and education studies and, in particular, explain how I’ve found her approach to the study of belief helpful in my own exploration of the lives of young people who identify as having ‘no religion’.

For Day, the concept of belief has often been taken for granted in the study of religion. Rarely do we ask, what do we mean when we talk about belief? As David Morgan has observed, the academic study of religion in the West has been ‘shaped by the idea that a religion is what someone believes’, and that this amounts to a ‘discrete, subjective experience of assent to propositions concerning the origin of the cosmos, the nature of humanity, the existence of deities, or the purpose of life’ (2010, 1). Although there have been a number of scholars and researchers, particularly within anthropology, who have critiqued this view of religion (Needham 1972; Ruel 2002; Lindquist and Coleman 2008), such an understanding persists and remains prevalent within religious education (RE) in secondary schools. Day’s research not only raises questions about what we mean by belief; she also demonstrates how religious identity is often more complicated than assent to propositions. And both of these insights could be of great value to the study of religion and belief at school, as well as to researchers’, teachers’ and policy-makers’ understandings of the nature of belief within the lives of both religious and ‘non-religious’ young people.

The initial impetus for Day’s interest in what people actually believe came from the 2001 Census in England and Wales, in which 72% of the respondents identified as ‘Christian’. In what appeared to be an increasingly secular society, it seemed puzzling that such a large proportion of the population would self-identify in this way. Day decided to explore more deeply what some of these census respondents meant in their adoption of a Christian identity, by examining what they actually believed. Introducing herself to potential participants as a social sciences researcher rather than a researcher of religion, Day also began her interviews by asking people ‘what do you believe in?’ rather than ‘what is your religion?’ It was only at the very end of her interviews that she raised the topic of religious identity in connection with the 2001 Census. This approach enabled her to focus on belief without asking religious questions. And, by focusing instead on values and meaning, as well as what was important to her participants, Day was able to learn much more about how belief functioned in their lives.

Day’s study of belief beyond ‘religious belief’ encouraged me to adopt a similar methodological approach in my own research with 14- and 15-year-olds who report ‘no religion’, exploring how ticking the ‘no religion’ box related to their wider lives without asking questions about religion. I wanted to learn about the people, places, objects, activities and times – the material cultures – that were significant to these young people, as well as to understand their beliefs and values, their methods of constructing narratives of meaning and purpose, and the influence of family, friends and society on their lives and identities. My primary research method was photo-elicitation interviews, in which the photos taken act as ‘prompts and supports to participant narrative’ (Liebenberg, 2009, 448). But I also wanted to avoid any tendencies to take photos that specifically focused on participants’ ‘non-religiosity’ or illustrated their attitudes towards religion. So I embedded the religion question from the 2011 Census alongside questions that collected other seemingly unconnected data and left explicit discussion of participants’ reasons for self-identifying as having ‘no religion’, as well as of their understandings of ‘religion’, to the end of the interview.

Just as Day discovered, however, where it remains important, interview questions about ‘belief’ or ‘life’ more generally still enable participants to talk freely about religion. But, while Day found that religion and religious beliefs played a relatively unimportant part in the lives of some participants who nonetheless chose ‘Christian’ as their religious identity in the 2001 Census, my research with young people who ticked ‘no religion’ indicates that some who self-identify in this way nonetheless find religion and religious beliefs to be significant in their lives.

Day’s research offers valuable insights into some of the reasons people in a modern western society choose to adopt a ‘Christian’ identity when surveyed. For some, it acts as a ‘social marker’ that helps them to feel secure within their communities, creating a boundary between themselves and others; being Christian is something that they are born into, akin to an ethnic identity. This position is nicely illustrated in her interview with ‘Jordan’, a 14-year-old who she describes as an ‘unbelieving Christian’. Although he states ‘I don’t believe in any religions’, Jordan identifies as ‘Christian’ because ‘on my birth certificate it says I’m Christian’. Day explains that, for him, ‘Christian’ doesn’t mean much, he doesn’t do anything that is typically ‘Christian’, and his understanding of a Christian is ‘someone who believes in God and Jesus and Bible and stuff’. While he does not believe in these things, his grandparents do because they are ‘Irish and really strong Christians’. This understanding of what being a Christian entailed is perhaps not surprising, considering Jordan was ‘reflecting how the term “belief” has become associated with “Christian” over the centuries’ (Day, 2009, 266-7). Day’s research provides a welcome corrective to an understanding of belief as primarily propositional and Christian, illustrating the various ways belief functions in all our everyday lives, cutting across conventional boundaries between the religious and the secular.

Although Jordan differs from my participants in that he identifies as ‘Christian’ rather than as having ‘no religion’, understandings of the Christian religion and of what a Christian identity entails are similar. In many of my interviews, it became clear that participants reduce ‘religion’ to metaphysical, existential and/or ethical belief systems that are either true or false. Since participants do not hold these beliefs, they tick the ‘no religion’ box. For some, in order to identify as Christian it is not only necessary to believe everything within that religion, but to have a strong faith in those beliefs. As one 15-year-old girl told me, ‘I don’t think my belief in God is strong enough for me to tick “Christian”. … If there was a sort of “in between” box, I probably would have ticked that. But to categorise what I believe, I’d say I don’t really have a religion’.

My research interests in the lives of young people who report ‘no religion’ dovetails with the emerging field of Nonreligion and Secularity Studies. Lois Lee has provided a working definition of ‘non-religion’ as ‘anything that is primarily defined in a relationship of difference to religion’ (2012, 131), indicating the necessity of reflexivity not only about specific relationships of ‘difference’ but about understandings of ‘religion’ itself. Day is right to emphasise the importance of clarity in relation to the term ‘belief’, but perhaps she could have spoken more during the interview about what she means by ‘religion’. This would then assist further discussion of her proposal that ‘belief’ crosses conventional boundaries between ‘religion’ and ‘non-religion’, making religion, as she says, ‘a subset of belief’.

For the young people of ‘no religion’ that I interviewed, ‘religion’ is understood as consisting of impossible propositional beliefs that are displaced by scientific knowledge. Religion requires acceptance of all its beliefs and cannot incorporate participants’ diversity of beliefs; as another 15-year-old girl said, ‘there would never be a religion for everything I thought’. Religion demands restrictive ethical beliefs, behaviours and belongings that limit autonomy and authenticity. And even when religious ethics are admirable, participants separate ethics from religion because religion remains reduced to primarily metaphysical beliefs.

Although there were a number of reasons that these young people viewed religion and belief in this way, one influence on their understanding clearly came from what they were taught in school. In state-maintained secondary schools in England, some form of RE is mandatory and one of the ways in which schools meet this requirement is through exam courses at GCSE. ‘Philosophy and Ethics’ is one of the most popular strands of exam RE, with pupils being tested on their knowledge of how religious adherents are supposed to live and act, and on their ability to critique religious truth claims and provide rationale for their own beliefs about what is true. For example, the following questions have been set on recent exam papers:

Explain why some people say that religious revelation is only an illusion (AQA GCSE Religious Studies Short Course Specification A, June 2010)

Explain why most Christians are against euthanasia (Edexcel GCSE Religious Studies Religion and Life, May 2010)

Do you think the universe is designed? Give two reasons for your point of view (Edexcel GCSE Religious Studies Religion and Life, May 2010)

Although this might help pupils develop their critical thinking skills, this approach to the study of religion seems to reinforce the notion that religion is concerned with private, individualized beliefs of an ontological, epistemological and/or moral nature. It does not provide room for pupils to consider how ‘religion’ might be broader than assent to propositional beliefs or to explore further the nature of belief and how it can function in all our everyday lives. As Day writes of Jordan, ‘[He] had many beliefs, although not in God, Jesus, the Bible and “stuff”. He believed in doing well at school, helping at home, being with his friends’ (2009, 267).

In recent years, there has been increased debate about the inclusion of secular philosophies within the RE classroom. As I have argued elsewhere , there seem to be a number of problems with some of the recommendations that have been made in this debate, specifically that it repeats the assumption that belief (whether religious or secular) is tantamount to assent to propositions. But exploring the nature of belief more broadly would seem to be one way in which young people could understand religion ‘beyond belief’ and start to recognise the role that beliefs play in all our lives, rather than viewing belief as solely propositional and peculiar to religion. Space within the curriculum should perhaps be found, therefore, to encourage pupils to explore the nature of belief as not only a marker of religious identity but also of social or relational identities, as Day suggests.

Towards the end of the interview, Day discusses some of the ways in which academics can disseminate project findings, as well as give back to the communities they have involved in their projects. Day’s research into what people actually believe has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of how belief functions in the everyday lives of ordinary people. My research with 14- and 15-year olds suggests that it would be helpful if more of these insights could reach not only researchers of religion but also educationalists and policy makers, in order to benefit young people studying religion and belief at school.

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

References

  • Day, A. (2009) ‘Believing in Belonging: An Ethnography of Young People’s Constructions of Belief.’ Culture and Religion 10 (3) 263-278
  • – (2011) Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Lee, L. (2012) ‘Research Note: Talking about a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies’ Journal of Contemporary Religion 27(1):129-139.
  • Liebenberg, L. (2009) ‘The visual image as discussion point: increasing validity in boundary crossing research’. Qualitative Research 9:441-67.
  • Lindquist, G. and Coleman, S. (2008) ‘Introduction: Against Belief?’ Social Analysis 52 (1) 1-18
  • Morgan, D. (ed.) (2010) Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief. London: Routledge.
  • Needham, R. (1972) Belief, Language and Experience. Oxford: Blackwell
  • Ruel, M. (2002) ‘Christians as Believers’ in Lambek, M. (ed.) (2002) A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.