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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.

Is There a Christian Agenda Behind Religious Studies Departments?

[Martin] alludes to a greater problem: the imbalance of power, the greater influence of Christianity in Western academia, compared with other religions, both major and minor.

Is There a Christian Agenda Behind Religious Studies Departments?

By Raphael Lataster, University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 23 January 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Dale Martin on Religious Studies and Biblical Studies (21 January 2013).

Editor’s Note: A version of this post was published earlier today with a couple of minor but important changes made by Chris and mistakenly not communicated to the author. These unauthorised changes have been removed, and the version presented below meets with the approval of both Mr Lataster and the editors. The RSP would like to apologise to Mr Lataster, and to our readers, for any unintended misrepresentation of this important piece.


Around the half-way mark of Jack Tsonis’ interview with Professor Dale Martin, a contention was raised, that if true, is damaging to Religious Studies (and related disciplines), and betrays the value and one of the key initial purposes of the field. It is obvious to many of us that Religious Studies is useful, due in part to the critical, secular, etic approach to religion that it encourages. (Although this does not necessitate that Religious Studies scholars be irreligious, or be forbidden to or encouraged to avoid teaching or researching their own personal faith). Tsonis questions Martin on criticism that many Religious Studies scholars are effectively arguing for the usefulness of religion, demonstrating a pro-religious agenda. Tsonis mentions one academic claiming that Religious Studies scholars “claim the prestige of the university while following the rules of the seminary.” Tsonis wonders if this is a real phenomenon, and what effects this may have on our colleagues’ methodologies, funding, and employment prospects. Martin’s answer is thoughtful, but also damning.

In attempting to deny the claim, Martin acknowledges that many scholars working in Biblical Studies are Christians, and many of them are of the conservative type. He then says that the claim does not align with his experience, citing examples of scholars teaching on Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, without personally practicing or arguing for those faiths. It seems that not only has Martin acknowledged the issue in a roundabout way, but also alludes to a greater problem: the imbalance of power, the greater influence of Christianity in Western academia, compared with other religions, both major and minor. This discussion prompted me to reminisce about my own experiences in my first year of working in the scholarly world, particularly in initiating my Master’s research dissertation.

I faced opposition from within the department to the extent that I had considered abandoning the project. These challenges presented themselves despite the fact that I had not yet decided the angle, or of course, the conclusions. What was the topic that proved so challenging to research? Jesus mythicism, the contention that there may not have been a ‘historical Jesus’. I would eventually pass, with the examiners – themselves scholars of Religious Studies – agreeing that a review of the methods of many Biblical scholars is necessary (for example, the increasingly-maligned Criteria of Authenticity) and that it is entirely rational to be sceptical over the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. Such conclusions should not necessarily be so controversial in a field dedicated to the critical and non-confessional study of religion. More worryingly, there were instances where I felt pressure to alter the direction of the project, in order to allow for more ‘Christian-friendly conclusions’.

But why would such respected scholars wish to interfere with the most fundamental of academic freedoms? It may have had something to do with their personal religious beliefs about Jesus. Interestingly however, such belief is not actually required for such a reaction. One example is provided by noted Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, one of many secular New Testament experts. Professor Ehrman is an outspoken atheist, yet dogmatically defends the historicity of Jesus and the usefulness of his teachings, while harshly and fallaciously (Lataster 2013) criticising those scholars that are audacious enough to be more sceptical than he (Ehrman 2012). Hector Avalos argues that even many non-Christian scholars are influenced by the political power, and finances, of pro-Christian organisations (Avalos 2007). Avalos claims that positive attitudes towards the Bible, Christianity, and religion in general, is often seen as necessary in order to keep these academic disciplines relevant, and funded.

Hoping that Avalos’ gloomy conclusions were wrong, and that experiences such as my own are rare, I would then discover a powerful Christian undercurrent in a related – and perhaps more esteemed – field; ancient history. While studying the historical Jesus under one of Tsonis’ colleagues from the Ancient History department of Macquarie University, I ‘learnt’ that there is a “resurrection-shaped dent in the historical record.” I would then participate in a public debate against one of my own Religious Studies postgraduate colleagues, and another Ancient Historian from Macquarie University, where my (Christian) opponents used their authority as subject-matter experts in attempting to convince the audience that it is perfectly rational to believe that a miracle-man was brought back from the dead by an unproven deity. It didn’t matter to this ancient historian that his resurrection claim is burdened by a crippling prior probability, is supported by extremely poor sources, or that there are far more probabilistic – and naturalistic – explanations, despite his agreeing with my reasonable claim that history is probabilistic. Christian influences can even be found in Philosophy departments, once great bastions of rationalism and scepticism, via Philosophy of Religion (Quadrio 2009).

Back to the interview, Martin further addresses the contention that Religious Studies scholars border on being crypto-theologians, and defends his ‘insider’ status. He argues that his Biblical criticisms ought to be given more weight (compared with a non-believer’s criticisms) as he is a Christian, and might be expected to aggressively defend his faith and agree more with his fellow adherents. As with the speculative criterion of embarrassment, Martin’s criticisms are partly interesting due to their counter-intuitive nature. These relatively small criticisms however, must be weighed against the fact that Martin still believes the unsubstantiated and question-begging claim that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, by God. Fortunately, in a recent debate, he correctly acknowledges that Jesus’ resurrection cannot be established historically, though this belief does form a part of his worldview (Licona et al. 2012), his values, and ultimately, would be expected to directly or indirectly affect his researching and teaching on Christianity. Martin might indeed offer the occasional criticism here or there, resulting in minor conflict with his fellow believers, but he stops short of, and would not be expected to, criticising and renouncing Christianity and Christian beliefs as a whole.

Further commenting on what became the dominant theme of the interview, Martin offered a surprising and seemingly unreasonable counter to the claim that Religious Studies scholars are apologising for religion. Instead of denying this claim, he accuses English, History, and Political Science scholars as being apologists for modern liberalism. Rather than outright denying or acknowledging what may be a vitally important issue in education, Martin offers a tu quoque justification. i.e. “Everyone else does it.” With the discussion drawing to a close, Martin demonstrates an example of my claim that what he offers is only relatively benign pseudo-criticism of his faith. He criticises researchers who attempt to show the similarities of Christianity to other religions and myths (an important and historical foundation of Religious Studies), while asking scholars to be more open-minded to the potential truth of supernatural events and experiences. I am not arguing that the perspectives of ‘insiders’ are not valuable, that religious believers are unwelcome in Religious Studies departments, and related fields, or that religion is not a force for good in the world. I merely wish to share my own experiences on the matter, and to encourage scholars to leave their personal beliefs at the door, as they enter the sacred grounds of the University.

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

About the Author

With a background in pharmacy, medicine, and finance, Raphael Lataster is a hopeful PhD candidate, having recently passed his Master of Arts (Research), undertaken in the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, with Distinction. His main research interests include Christian origins, logic, epistemology, justifications and social impacts of secularism, Taoism, overpopulation and sustainability concerns, pantheism, and pandeism. Raphael wrote his Master’s thesis on Jesus mythicism, concluding that historical and Bayesian reasoning justifies a sceptical attitude towards the ‘historical Jesus’. For his doctoral work, Raphael will analyse the major philosophical arguments for God’s existence (as argued by William Lane Craig, Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga and Thomas Aquinas), attempt to demonstrate the logical impossibility of the monotheistic concept, explore the theological tendencies of Philosophy of Religion, and formulate a conditional logical argument for a pantheistic weltanschauung. Raphael is currently writing and attempting to publish numerous articles summarising his Master’s dissertation, and exploring the themes of his proposed doctoral project. Raphael is always open to – and encourages – feedback and advice, especially regarding the politics and processes of academia and publishing, and alternative worldviews.

References

Avalos, Hector. The End of Biblical Studies. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007.

Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, 2012.

Lataster, Raphael. Jesus scepticism: An examination of the arguments for various ‘Jesus as a myth’ theories. Master’s thesis, Sydney University, 2013.

Licona, Michael, and Dale Martin. Did Jesus Rise Physically from the Dead? Arva, ON: The Navigators, 2012. Video recording.

Quadrio, Philip A. Kant and Rousseau on the critique of philosophical theology: The primacy of practical reason. Sophia 48, no. 2 (2009): 179-193.