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Decolonizing the Study of Religion

Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be familiar with the critique of the category of ‘religion’. Our podcasts with, for example, Naomi Goldenberg, James Cox, and Tim Fitzgerald, demonstrate that ‘religion’ is a distorting anachronism with roots in European colonial exploitation that has been utilized to justify the cultural superiority of Christian Europe, and is at base ‘a citation of Christianity as idealized prototype’ (Goldenberg 2018: 80). But what might it mean to decolonize the study of religion? How can we take this well-rehearsed critique and put it into practice?

In this podcast, Chris is joined by Malory Nye to discuss the decolonizing project. Why is it necessary? Should we speak of decolonizing rather than decolonization? How can the field address its whiteness, and its colonial origins and legacy? What are the theoretical, methodological, historical and pedagogical challenges that this might entail? How can ‘we’ ensure that this is a thorough decolonizing project and not merely a nod to neoliberal higher education agendas? And what can those of us who have limited time and resources at our disposal do to address this urgent and thoroughly pervasive problem with the study of religion? These questions and more animate this broad-ranging discussion with the author of Religion: The Basics, and two key journal articles – “Race and religion: postcolonial formations of power and whiteness” and “Decolonizing the Study of Religion”.

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Decolonising the Study of Religion

Podcast with Malory Nye (30 June 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/decolonising-the-study-of-religion/

Christopher Cotter (CC): Regular Listeners to the Religious Studies Project will probably be quite familiar with the critique that the whole notion of the category of religion, and particularly the development of the world religions paradigm, is tied to a history of colonialism, exploitation and is built upon Western, European, Protestant Christian models, and so on. Though also, possibly, if you’ve listened back in our catalogue to an interview we had with Rudy Busto, you’re familiar with the idea that just as religion is a constructed and problematic category, so too is the notion of race. And joining me today to discuss something which grows out of both of these arguments is Malory Nye. And we’re going to be discussing decolonising the study of religion and what it might mean for us to decolonise the study of religion. And to sort-of own, and build from, and move on from the problematic entanglement of the study of religion with colonialism, racism, and exploitation. Malory Nye is an independent scholar, based in Perth in Scotland, with teaching activities at the Universities of Glasgow and Sterling. And he’s also a research scholar at the Ronin Institute. And he’ll be known to many Listeners through his book, Religion: The Basics, which is now being updated for a third edition; or perhaps, his blogging at Medium.com; his podcasts Religion Bites and History’s Ink; or through his editorship of the journal, Culture and Religion. Of particular relevance to today’s podcast are his 2019 articles, “Race and Religion: Postcolonial Formations of Power and Whiteness“, in Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, and, “Decolonizing the Study of Religion“, in Open Library of Humanities. So that’s the topic of today’s interview. And also his forthcoming book with Bloomsbury, which is due out later this year – entitled Race and Religion: Postcolonial Formations of Power and Difference – which I’m very excited to get my hands on when it comes out. So first off, Malory, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Malory Nye (MN): Well, thanks very much! It’s very good to be here. Thanks for inviting me on.

CC: Not a problem. We’re recording at Edinburgh, just before you’re going to give a paper, in the Religious Studies research seminar, on the topic of today’s interview. But before we get into the meat of it, I suppose there’s a few key things to get out of the way. What does decolonisation mean? Or decolonising? I think you want to make a distinction between those two notions. And then, also –although I said Listeners would be familiar with the entanglement of the categories of religion and race with colonialism etc., it might be good for us to begin with a reiteration of those critiques.

MN: Well, yes. They’re big questions. We could probably spend most of the time just on those, even before we get to the substance of that. Decolonising – I put it in the active, rather than decolonisation. It’s not something that’s going to happen, as a thing, and we can say “Great, we’ve done it! We’ve ticked that off. We’ve achieved the metrics.” Of course decolonisation, or decolonising, has become one of those buzz words on the left of academia. It’s become a word like “intersectionality”. “Let’s decolonise so and so.” And very often this is picked up by the management, by the universities, as an aspiration to show that universities can attract the right sort of students, can show that they’re meeting their so-called “woke” credentials of being fair, being just, showing that they’ve got diversity. Now, for me, decolonisation and a decolonising approach is a lot more profound than that. Of course decolonisation refers to something that happened politically, economically, structurally in the mid-twentieth century. The end of the European empire or the formal European empires, such as the British leaving South Asia, the Malay Peninsula, from Africa, and so on. Newly-formed independent countries becoming de-colonial countries. It happened also with France and other European powers. And so, of course, from that we’ve got the famous French scholar Fanon, also Albert Memmi, writing about the decolonising process (5:00). And emerging from that a wave of African scholars – Mbembe, Ngugi, and so on – talking about, what does it mean to be a decolonised person, to be a decolonised nation, to be a decolonised culture? And those question have not gone away. Now, as I talk about that political process, there is also the rise across political studies, post-colonial studies, of the idea of settled colonialism. The idea . . . the recognition that that’s fundamental to a lot of the political order of today: settler colonialism, European, predominantly British colonialism, that didn’t de-colonise. That so much of the United States, and Canada, and other former British colonies such as Australia, New Zealand/Aortearoa, are the products of that settler colonialism, of people who came and settled, did it through land appropriation, through land theft and usually through displacement and very often genocide of the indigenous peoples. And that is still with us today. And we can only look . . . . Most recently, this week was the week of the Oscars in California. And for the first time, a recipient of an award actually doing a land acknowledgement, acknowledging that the place of the award of the Oscars is on the land of people who were former holders of that land. And still are. Always are, always were. Always were, always will be. That settler colonialism is part and parcel of the current world system, and decolonisation, or decolonising, is also a recognition that the structures of colonialism might have been decolonised formally, but are also very much in place within the world that we live in today: economic colonisation, cultural imperialism. And I follow writers such as Mignolo and Quijano who argue that we’re in a new form of colonial modernity, that’s coloniality modernity, that is not the same as it was, say, a hundred years ago. But the idea of knowledge, of science, of politics, of economics, of world structures being very much about supporting a particular power interest. And that’s very much a sort-of European power interest. So decolonisation is arguing, in many respects, what does a world look like if we challenge that, if we go beyond that? Particularly in the sphere of academia – what we’re doing as academics – whether it be in the study of people in terms of sociology, political science, history, English studies, literature, or within the specific studies of religion. What does decolonising mean, once we recognise the current situation, and the history that got us to where we are now? So that’s not sort-of a simple process. That is a very large process. Understanding the history, understanding the present and understanding the people and things that we’re studying within the context of all that history and all that politics. And – just in this initial introduction – to also recognise that this isn’t just simply a game: it’s not just simply a matter of putting a woke badge on, about putting decolonising on your syllabus, or decolonising your curriculum. It is about recognising it’s not a metaphor – Eve Tuck – this argument that decolonisation is a matter of life and death. It’s something that, as I said, in terms of settlement, in terms of land, in terms of genocide, in terms of the political structures of today, decolonising is recognising the violence, recognising the injustice, recognising the problems of today’s world and trying to think of ways in which we can decolonise the knowledge systems behind that. And that’s sort-of where my work is trying to challenge some of the ways in which we take what we’re doing for granted, in terms of the idea of religion, in terms of studies of religion. And so that sort-of answered your first question.

CC: Yes but you’re linking nicely into, then . . . . So, if we’re going to decolonise our knowledge production and the way in which the whole discipline has been built up, or the whole field has been built up, yes, we need to talk a little bit about what is the history (10:00). So I think, if you could take us through, quite quickly, through the history of these intertwined notions of religion and race as sort-of academic constructs. But then we’ll get onto: so, if we have that critique, and we accept it, and we even teach it – but, what does it mean to teach it? And what does it mean to revise things?

MN: As you said, I think many listeners to the RSP podcasts will be familiar with some of the critiques of the world religions approach. That is so integral to the way the discipline the study of religion is being taught at all levels, from schools, through to universities, and indeed much research. And, particularly, job appointments. World religions is very much the idea that structures how people think about the study of religion: you’re going to be a specialist in a particular topic; you’re going to be in a particular religion, a part of the world, dividing up. And that is part of that history. Of course, Tomoko Masuzawa’s work on the critiquing, or thinking through, how this particular idea of understanding the world – of the pluralism, the diversity, the universalism of nineteenth century European thought – produced that world religions paradigm. And, of course, part-and-parcel with that, the structures of empire, the structures of racism within the empire. And both these evolved, of course, together. They developed together in the nineteenth and twentieth century at the height of the European industrial empire, structural empire. But of course it was slowly forming in the long period from round about the 1500s onwards, following the growth of European colonialism under the Spanish, under the Portuguese, and then under the Dutch. The British, the Germans and the French implemented it in various ways, of course: through industrial chattel enslavement, through the slave trade; through the creation of different people under different rubrics, under racialised rubrics of creating Africans, creating Asians; creating religions or non-religions that go with them; the “primitive” religions – Hinduism, Buddhism – that then became the technology of knowledge, the technology that structured the Empire. Through, too, its systematisation in the nineteenth century, as I said, with the formation of the world religions paradigm, and the slight displacement of the theological centrality of Christianity within the academy – which of course, in the 20th century, became the field of Religious Studies. So it’s got relatively short roots in the crystallisation in the disciplines that we know today, such as Religious Studies, but very long roots in terms of the formation of these ideas of religion and race as somehow separate but intertwined, very much; ways of thinking about difference and ways in which that difference could be managed by the states, by empires, under colonial rule.

CC: And as you pointed out in some of your writing, Religious Studies, as it emerged, whether it’s called Religious Studies, or Study of Religion or whatever, it became the study of the “other”. I guess in the UK context we have Theology – or here we’re in a School of Divinity – and Religious Studies becomes the place where the “other stuff” is studied, under these headings of the different isms. But even things like Philosophy – you pointed out that, well, we’ll have Philosophy departments which are effectively Western European Philosophy departments, and then people who are specialists in philosophies from other regions, or associated with other traditions, find themselves in the Study of Religions department, in some way teaching that philosophy, rather than in Philosophy. So it is sort-of built into the structure of the way disciplines, and fields, and departments work as well.

MN: Yes, I mean these are huge debates, going across much of the Humanities. Is Philosophy just simply white philosophy or European philosophy? And added to that is the question, were the Greeks Europeans? Can we really count the Greek and the classical world? This is a big debate going on in Classics: where does the classical world end? Were the Egyptians part of that classical world? The classical Egyptians, the ancient . . . .

CC: Yes.

MN: And so on. (15:00) But also, in terms of Philosophy, what about the great philosophical systems? How European philosophy has been defined can perhaps include Chinese philosophies, Indian, South Asian philosophies, indigenous African philosophies, and so on. It’s very much about boundary maintenance within all of these fields. Religious Studies has been a little bit more eclectic. And this, perhaps, sort-of is one of the reasons why I was attracted to it as an anthropologist. It hasn’t sought to put the walls around what Religious Studies is doing in the way that Philosophy has, in terms of whiteness, in terms of the great white tradition, or white civilisation tradition, that Philosophy has, and Classics has. Rather it’s sort-of like, as you said, “the other” – and here I’m waving my fingers about – the otherness of South Asians, of other traditions than Europeans. And it has been constructed in that way. It’s not an accident that that’s happened as you said. Thinking through the way in which Sociology became, in a sense, the home of white European society, or the study of white European society – or derived society – in North America. And Anthropology became the study of anything that goes beyond that. So we can go to look at the debates happening in Sociology at the moment, trying to re-find or rediscover the disciplinary history of Sociology, particularly with the writer WEB Du Bois who has been excluded from the history of the telling of the history of Sociology, although his Atlanta school in the late nineteenth century, earlier twentieth century predates many of the founders, such as Robert Park’s in Sociology, in Chicago. He was one of the first sociologists. But because he wrote about black sociology, African American sociology, he has been sort-of left out of that history. Because it doesn’t fit within the idea of the study being about white European society, or however it might be defined. Of course there were structural racism and actual racism involved. He couldn’t be a great sociologist being a person of colour, being an African American. The idea that somehow he couldn’t be one of that canon of the great men because he was perceived to be of the wrong colour, racialised differently. So religious Studies has that as its starting point, studying beyond. And it has revelled, it has celebrated its positon as being about studying people who are different from white Christianity, people who are different from the norms of white European society, of white society. But yet, it has stumbled in its simplicity, I’d say, of trying to deal with that. And particularly it has largely ignored these questions of race and racialisation. The questions up until quite recently – the last few decades of Empire and colonialism – have been left off the table, as they were in anthropology, up until the 1980s and 1990s. And the question of how to understand that, and put that into practice, in terms of the people that Religious Studies has been looking to try and understand, to write about, to empathise with, to engage with – either as insiders or outsiders – and so on within the field of the study of religion. These issues just have not been addressed. And particularly I’d put that, the centrality of whiteness, within the field of Religious Studies. Although up until the eighties there were a few scholars of colour – people of colour doing scholarship in the study of religion – very often on the fringes. In Japan, if we look at the histories of Religious Studies, up until the seventies and eighties, there were small numbers of people of colour, but most of the big questions and the research agendas go back to people such as, of course, in Britain, Ninian Smart and similar white scholars in North America. And that has set the agenda for where we are today. So it’s no surprise that questions of race and colonialism have been sort-of put aside as well. Putting aside, of course, the funding issues, the universities . . . and, as I said, in today’s world perhaps you might get funding for talking about decolonising or decolonisation from a beneficent university. Back in the sixties and seventies, you were less likely to ask the critical race questions of the study of religion (20:00). And these questions of whiteness, there’s been a lot of work being done in Legal Studies, in Sociology, in Political Studies, which is yet to even start to be discussed in the field of Religious Studies. I see it somewhere on the fringes. There are people beginning to put this as a research agenda. There’s certainly no texts. No introductory texts are really taking this history, these research questions, these issues of race and colonialism alongside, of course, an intersectional interest in how this works in terms of gender and other structural issues: gender is created by race, and race is created by gender and colonialism and our history – how all these things go together. The field of Gender Studies is beginning to develop, and it needs to develop in terms of how it works with race and colonialism as well.

CC: That’s excellent, thanks. And what I’ve often discovered, you know, plenty of the studies or books or courses and what-not will pay lip-service to the . . . they’ll say “Religion is a constructed category, bound up in colonial history and referring to Protestant Christianity.” And then, “Let’s just get on with using it, just like we would normally do.” That’s something that we should try and avoid! Also in my own teaching, I’ve got a course here on Atheism, Humanism and Non-religion, I’m aware that everyone I’m looking at is white. I’ve put a week into the course structure where I focus on issues of gender and ethnicity into one week – which isn’t an ideal solution. It’s my first attempt to go “Right, at least raise that this is an issue, and let’s try and think about it.” But I didn’t have the time, or skill, or expertise to properly infuse it throughout the course. So what can we do to avoid simply just pulling up another chair at the table, and saying, “You can have a voice in here, too”? Or just saying, “We’ll nod that to that as an issue. We’ll acknowledge it, but not really do very much with it.” What can we do?

MN: OK, so . . . .

CC: (Laughs) How do we decolonise the Study of Religion?

MN: I’ve been quite mild, I would say, in terms of where I’ve been going so far. Some of things I know have sort-of got quite radical edges. But the idea of decolonising, as I said, is not just simply doing something performative that is seen as being good, and it will add a little bit extra to your syllabus, or your thinking, or your bibliography. And as I put it in my most recent article on decolonisation, it’s not about an extra chair at the table, it’s about changing the whole damn room. It’s about getting rid of the tables, reconstructing the tables, doing whatever you want. But decolonising is saying that what we’re doing at the moment is wrong, is not working. And that, for me, has implications that I’m still trying to work out in terms of . . . like that word “religion”. You know, should we be talking about religion, and faith, and sacredness, and all these things? Even if it is a native . . . even if it is an insider category, it’s got such huge historical and political baggage to it. Should we not just simply say we’re going to try and deconstruct it? I know this is an argument: what do we do after we’ve deconstructed it? What then? Well, we carry on deconstructing. There’s that long discussion we have following one of your earlier interviews with Tim. There’s a lot more to be done in terms of trying to put the idea of religion . . . in terms of these categories of race and religion. So if we’re struggling, I would say, to find a reading – even if we put it in those simplistic terms of: why is my curriculum white? – #whyismycurriculumwhite – the big question in decolonising . . . which is quite a straightforward thing if we’re looking at say the English Studies canon, because there’s plenty of English literature that is written by people racialised as non-white. If we’re doing it there, that might be quite easy. We can even do that in broad terms, if we look hard enough, in terms of the history of the Study of Religion (25:00). And, as I said, the history, the development of the discipline isn’t solely by people who racialise themselves as white European and North American white, and so on. We can do that, but I would say, “Step back further, and ask the question, ‘What are the questions I’m asking here, that lead to this body of knowledge that I’m choosing to teach, or to write about, or to research?’” If there is not this engagement with race theory, intersectional theory, gender theory, queer theory and so on, in what I’m doing, perhaps – and here, as I said, I’m getting quite radical – maybe we’re doing it wrong? I’d say we are doing it wrong, if we’re not doing the race theory, if we’re not doing the intersectional gender theory, and seeing how it works within the contexts. And I don’t mean just simply saying having a week at looking at queer theory and non-belief – I’m sure it can be done – or race theory and non-belief. It’s about saying, “How does that change all the questions I’ve got? And how does it change how the people I want to teach, I want to write for, I want to engage with . . . how does it change all of that? So even if that means us having to take a sabbatical, and reading it up, to try and formulate those questions to our field of research, I’d say that’s time well worth spending. Because otherwise we’re leaving out the big elephant in the room – what I call the white elephant in the room. Or, put it another way: in white club, the first rule of white club is that we don’t talk about whiteness. Because we just assume it’s there. It’s invisible. It’s an empty space. But it is so much feeding into the questions that we’re asking. As I say all this, I’m very conscious: here we are, two white men, sitting in a room talking about whiteness. There’s no celebration here of the fact that two men, after centuries of scholarship, have finally got together and started talking about whiteness. It should have happened two hundred and fifty plus years ago, that this consciousness of how it’s going. . . . But it is also about recognising that the perspectives that I’m bringing, that others are bringing, other white scholars and so on, is only part of a much bigger picture. And it is about recognising that there is a lot of scholarship going on which is directly bearing on whatever we’re doing, and a lot of that is by marginalised people in the academy. Very often people who don’t have fulltime jobs, don’t have job security, because they’re marginalised in terms of their place in the academy, and also because of their race, their racialisation, their colour, their gender, and other issues. It’s a very harsh, hostile environment, I’d say, for people working within the field, within the intersections, between these sorts of areas. And the question is, why aren’t we using their scholarship more? Do we have to go back to the learned professor who’s got there, and we all recognise them and . . . . I’ll take one example, Charles Taylor. If you want to talk about secularism, everybody goes to Taylor. Now he’s a great scholar, he says some great things. I was just recently looking at Vincent Lloyd’s work on secularisms and race, and how the idea of secularity . . . how the idea of the secular state is a thoroughly racialised idea. But there’s nothing in Taylor about that. There is nothing in Taylor that sort-of explores the way secularisation is defined as a white space, as a place for whiteness in America to be expressed. And then how that becomes racialised against other categories such as religion and church, and black churches. It comes down to a particular example of Martin Luther King becoming this folk hero of post-racialisation, where the Martin Luther King monument, in Washington, doesn’t mention his many statements about race and race equality, and doesn’t even mention much of his preaching as a Christian minister. So, going back to what I was saying: look for the scholarship, look for what marginalised voices are saying within a particular sphere, and see how that bears – I mean, whether it be looking in terms of people of colour, women of colour, queer people of colour – how is that challenging what you’re doing? Even if you don’t agree with it (30:00). But how is that challenging? And, of course, pass that on. Amplify it, in terms of scholarship, in terms of teaching. I’m not saying I’ve got all the answers, and I’m not saying “Here’s a white fellow saying that you’ve got to do this,” and whatever. I’m just saying that I see my position as somebody who’s lived with a lot of privilege within the academy, because of being structurally in this particular place of being a white man at the time when it favoured people such as myself. It still does. Stand back and think, “Well, what can I do to challenge those structures, to challenge the thinking that has brought me to where I am?” And engage with that thinking. Engage with how that relates to how you’d like to see your study of religion. And to see the Study of Religion as something that recognises its past, recognises its racialisation, recognises how the very critical concepts that we’ve got are so rooted, so blood-soaked with that colonial history – the violence and, of course, the current politics of today. We’re not detached from it, even if we’re well-meaning enough to put ourselves aside from it.

CC: Absolutely. We’re already coming up on time. But I think, as a final question, I would want to ask you, yeah . . . so you’ve been getting at it there, and I was hinting at it as well. I think we both, in this room, and many of our Listeners will be thinking, “Yes, I want to not just diversify my knowledge-base, but also radically rethink a lot of the assumptions that I’m bringing to my work, and be more conscious of a lot of these issues, and the entanglements of the Study of Religion with racism, exploitation with whiteness, maleness. I want to be that better scholar. I want to do it. But when am I going to find the time? What am I going to do? How can I do that if I don’t have the luxury of having that sabbatical?” Or that sort of thing. I guess, as a final question for people like me who want to do better, but don’t even really know – apart from to go and do a Masters in Gender Studies or Critical Race Theory, or so on – are there any, like, key things – key texts, or key scholars, or key departments that are doing great work in this area – things where you can maybe say, “Well if you’ve not got that much time, this would be a great place to start.” Apart from your book, of course – which is naturally a place people should go to, as well!

MN: I must add a caveat on top of what you said at the beginning. It’s 2020 that we’re talking here, early 2020. We’re not going to see the book out this year, unfortunately. So I was seriously ill last year, and a lot of things have been knocked back. And I’m still working on the revisions for my Religion: The Basics book, which hopefully will be out . . . or at least ready to be out by the end of this year. I’m not saying that my book’s going to be the only place to explore these issues. There is a lot of good scholarship. And I’m trying to put this together. And that’s part of what my blogging is trying to do. Not just simply to say, “Here’s what Malory Nye’s got to say about these things.” But point to the great scholarship that . . . .

CC: That you’re encountering.

MN: Yes, sitting on the shoulders of. And trying to say, “Have you noticed this?” Basically. “This is going on.” So, I won’t give a list here, but there are long bibliographies. I’d also say, ask some basic questions. It’s not just simply “Have you read Du Bois? Or have you read Vincent Lloyd? Or have you read some of these great volumes that are coming out about race and religion? Have you read about this wealth of scholarship about decolonising and decolonisation? But also ask some basic questions about what you’re doing. And this is part of what I did in that paper on “Decolonising the Study of Religion”. I picked up one text that I’ve sort-of dipped into and never taught, thank goodness, but dipped into Daniel Pal’s book, Seven Theories / Nine Theories of Religion. And I was hugely depressed to read one particular part of it. I’ve not gone much further. I’m toying with the idea of doing a more substantial critique (35:00). But his discussion of Durkheim as a theory- Durkheim’s theory of religion. I’ve got nothing against Durkheim and his theory of religion – apart from the gross colonialism and racism of the work, taking this particular group in Central Australia, indigenous people, and saying they are indicative, they are representative of humankind’s early history. That they are the primitive elementary form of the religious life. Now that was Durkheim back in the beginning of the twentieth century, where it was OK to be a racist.

CC: Yes, he could maybe be forgiven for being a product of his time in some way – but we can still know it’s not ok.

MN: This is the time of Du Bois, as well. It’s not to say that he should be given a free pass on that. But my problem is more of Pal’s amplifying that racism, in a book that’s still being published, saying that Durkheim is taking this as representative of the sort-of primitive stage of humankind – these people who were, at that point, being displaced, who were being herded into camps, whose children were being stolen from them in Central Australia, somehow being classified as this great sort-of representation of early humanity – that can tell us about what religion is about. And I would just simply say, “Ask some basic questions. If this seems racist, it is racist.” As simple as that. Is this amplifying, is this demonstrating the racism of colonialism or the colonialism of racism? I use a lot Patrick Wolfe’s phrase, “Race is colonialism speaking”. Whenever we talk about race, there is colonialism. And we see this today in the politics of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, all this. That goes back to what Quijano, and all these others, are saying about colonial modernity. It’s all there. It all being reproduced and it’s being reproduced in scholarship as much as it’s being reproduced in world politics, of policy of Africa. So what I’m saying is, ask these questions. And if you’ve got further questions there is no simple answers. I sort-of thought I should hold this as an idea that I’d like to develop. Nobody’s got the monopoly on these things. I’d like to put together another Seven Theories of Religion which go completely against the grain of Daniel Pal’s: writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, W. Du Bois, and so on. Writers who challenge our concepts of religion, and what religion is, and even the idea that religion is this thing that we can define, and explain, and talk about, and talk about its functions. Ways in which the idea of religion is a historical sort-of product of colonialism – what we talk about as that. And, of course, Tomoko Masuzawa is one of those people who has done that in a very sort-of blinding way, in terms of pushing through a particular understanding of: this is how we got to where we are, in talking about this. So I’d love to sort-of say, “Here’s a great place to start,” whether it was written by me, or written by some other scholar who could probably do it a lot better than I could. But ask these questions. And google is your friend, there! Google scholar is your friend, in terms of finding that scholarship on decolonisation. There is a lot of it out there. But one of the people I take huge inspiration from is the scholar Sarah Ahmed who was previously at Goldsmith’s college, before she resigned over issues of student dealing with sexual harassment and assault. But now has become an independent scholar who blogs very regularly. She’s just recently done a lot of work on complaint in the university. But her most recent book is Living a Feminist Life, based on her feministkilljoy blog, which I would strongly recommend – both the book and the blog. And there’s a particularly good one, on the site, I use about white men saying that it is so easy – going back to what I was saying about Taylor and others: white men cite other white men. And if we go along with that game we’re reproducing not just an event, we’re reproducing the whole structure of white patriarchy, of a colonial modernity within our scholarship. And, as I said, work against the grain of that as much as you can, in terms of the questions that you ask, and the people that you choose to read. That’s not to say it’s an easy task. It’s one . . . I don’t think that there’s a lot of time for any of us to do that.

CC: It’s a life-long task. And one that will probably never be possible to complete (40:00). But Malory, you’ve left us with some . . . a lot of in-depth material, but also a lot of questions that can, and should, be taken to basically everything that anyone who’s listening to this is working on! So, with that, this podcast has served a double purpose, at least – if not more! So, thanks very much.

MN: OK. Well thanks very much, too. I mean look out for my third edition of Religion: The Basics when it comes out. I will be dealing with a lot of these issues, briefly, in that. And that’s part of the problem why it’s taken so long. I was asked to get working on that about eight years ago and it’s still in process. But, yes, my book on Race and Religion – or whatever it may be called in the end – that should be appearing in the next few years, anyway.

CC: Fantastic. We look forward to it.

MN: Thanks very much.

 

 

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What does religious literacy mean in your context?

In San Diego at the 2019 American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting, Dave McConeghy sat down with six early career scholars to discuss religious literacy in the context of the release of the AAR’s Religious Literacy Guidelines. The guidelines were a multi-year project funded by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation, and speak not only to the needs of teachers in higher education like the panelists in this roundtable, but also more broadly to primary school education in the U.S.  The panelists gathered here represent significant voices in the next wave of changes to religious studies programs, where market pressures mean we must think deliberately about how to position religious studies within the academy to advance our field and its work. Among the central questions explored in this episode, perhaps the most fundamental is this: What is the role of our teaching and scholarly contexts on the way we approach religious literacy? If one-size cannot fit all, then what is different about religious literacy when it comes to a public versus a private college? What is the impact of teaching to a regional versus national student body? How do the varied missions expressed by our universities encourage or limit our dialogue with the critical theoretical wings of our discipline? Join us for a lively conversation with Richard Newton, Chris Jones, Rebekka King, Bradley Onishi, Kevin Minister, and Jenna Gray-Hildenbrand.

 

Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.


What Does Religious Literacy Mean in Your Context?

Podcast Roundtable discussion with Richard Newton, Chris Jones,

Rebekka King, Jenna Gray- Hildenbrand, Kevin Minster and Bradley Onishi (25 May 2020).

Interviewed by David McConeghy.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/what-does-religious-literacy-mean-in-your-context/

David McConeghy (DMcC): Hello! I’m David McConeghy, and I’m again at the American Academy of Religion. It’s 2019 and we’re in lovely San Diego. And I have so many people – so many amazing people – to introduce to you today! We are going to be talking about religious literacy, and what that means for my guests, today. They’re going to tell us – we’re going to have a discussion about it – but also in the context of the American Academy of Religion’s newly released religious literacy guidelines for schools, for people that teach religion, for people that teach religion not in Religious Studies departments, for people that are in high schools. And it is a very broad and interesting document. And I’m hoping that we’ll have some interesting geographical, different thematic, different theoretical thoughts about it today. First, I’d like everyone to introduce themselves. And we will start with . . .

Richard Newton (RN): Richard Newton. I teach at the University of Alabama, in the Department of Religious Studies. Most of my courses are on issues of race and social formation, particularly looking at how the idea of text or scriptures are a tool for those kinds of politics.

DMcC: And next?

Chris Jones (CJ): My name is Chris Jones, and I teach at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. We’re a small, municipally operated, public university. We’re the only four-year public university that’s municipal (audio unclear). Fun fact! And I am the only tenure track, the only professor of Religious Studies there. I run the programme – the major and the minor in Religious Studies – and teach a lot of Gen Ed classes, and upper division classes, as my students need them.

DMcC: And next?

Rebekka King (RK): Hi. I’m Rebekka King. I’m Associate Professor at Middle Tennessee State University. I’m here with my colleague, who’ll introduce herself in a minute. But I was hired with her, to found a Religious Studies programme and teach a number of courses on religion in the world.

DMcC: Excellent. Moving round the table – we have so many people, we’re so happy! (Laughter).

Bradley Onishi (BO): My name’s Brad Onishi and I’m Assistant Professor at Skidmore College, up in Upstate New York, Saratoga Springs. And it’s a liberal arts college. And it’s actually . . . I think it’s worth pointing out it’s a very, very secular part of the country. And most of my students identify as non-religious. And so in my teaching that is something that is always on my mind.

Kevin Minister (KM): I’m Kevin Minister. I’m Associate Professor of religion in Shenandoah University, which is a United Methodist school. I’m an hour-and-a-half outside DC, with two thousand undergrads and two thousand grads. We have a very strong professional focus. So the religion programme is small. We only have two lines. But we also have the centre for Islam in the Contemporary World which complements our programme. And our teaching is mostly in Gen Ed. So we have to figure out how to teach Religious Studies with students who identify as pre-Health majors, or Business majors, or Performing Arts majors.

Jenna Gray- Hildenbrand (JG-H): And I promise, dear Listeners, that I am the last person at the table! (Laughter) I am Jenna Gray-Hildebrand, Associate Professor of Religious Studies and, along with Dr Rebekka King, the co-founder of our Religious Studies major at Middle Tennessee State University, which is a public institution in Middle Tennessee. And I teach Religion in the US, but many other religion classes.

DMcC: Excellent. Well, thank you all so much for agreeing to take the time! We all have such busy schedules at conferences! And I’m so thankful to get so many people, all at once. It’s such a treat! Let me throw a question out. For some of you, maybe religious literacy is a thing you think about all the time, and write about, and teach about. When we ask: “Religious literacy, what is that thing?” what are some of the first things that you would say? How would you tell your neighbour about religious literacy, if you happened to meet them while mowing the lawn, or taking out the trash? What would you say to them about religious literacy?

JGH: I’m curious what Brad will say, since he says that he lives in a very secular non-religious area. So what does this conversation look like with your lawn-mowing neighbour?

BO: Well, it’s funny because my neighbours are probably religious, but my students aren’t! (Laughter). So when I’m explaining to my students, who take a Gen. Ed. class and they say, “Oh, maybe I’m interested in a major or minor, but why would I do this?” and “My mum’s going to hate it, and I don’t want to have to have that conversation.”, what I turn to is: “Look, if you sign up with us, and you sort-of dedicate yourself to this project of becoming religiously literate – through a minor, through just a couple of the classes, a major, whatever it is – what we do is, we enter into the world’s communities of religious people, religious actors. And that’s sometimes uncomfortable. (5:00) It’s sometimes difficult. It’s wondrous. It’s heart-breaking. It’s infuriating and it’s inspiring. And, by foregrounding religion, you get to do it all, student.” Right? So we do gender, we do race, we do immigration, we do law, we do philosophy. But by using the prism of religion first, you then get to illuminate all those other aspects of the human condition. To me that makes Religious Studies unique. To me, I’m a Religious Studies scholar. And that’s something else. Because that prism is so expansive that if you want a window into the human condition, this is the great place to start. And if you want to develop the virtues of patience and empathy in a way that will allow you to reckon with the complexity and inconvenient facts of our lifetimes – like the climate apocalypse and so on – this is the great place to start. And so, for me, that is . . . that, to me, is like my go-to speech, my “Hurrah!” speech about religion, literacy and entering into this whole project of becoming religiously literate.

CJ: Hurrah!

RK: Yes!

DMcC: So – you said “Hurrah”, Chris!

CJ: I did say “Hurrah”!

DM: Would you pitch things similarly, to your students? What would you tell your students?

CJ: I would pitch things similarly. I think there’s great intrinsic value in studying religion, because – for the reasons that Brad enumerated – it does give us this window into the human condition. At the same time my students, like Kevin’s students, are very much pre-professionally focussed. Looking at the learning goals that the AAR has outlined, I would have to translate those into résumé-ese. I would have to look at those and figure out how they would connect to LinkedIn, in order to sell this to my Dean, or to my VP.

DMcC: Should we be putting our syllabi through the résumé scanners and see how they scan? Is that where we’re headed?

CJ: Well I’m part of a working group at my university, right now, looking into translating syllabus learning outcomes into things students can put on LinkedIn. So yes, that is where we are. For better and for worse. For worse.

DMcC: But if your students are consumers of education . . . . Not that I would think that everybody at the table here would say that religion [education] is a business. I think there’s many negative, perhaps, feelings at this table about that. But at the end, they are buying a kind-of product from us. And if that product has certain expectations, framing what we do within some of their expectations seems a reasonable compromise to get them into the door. Maybe? I’m seeing Richard’s hedging more, so tell us how that doesn’t work.

RN: So at the University of Alabama we are a large public school in the middle of the Bible Belt. It’s a Research One institution. And I think the idea of religious literacy is tempting: the idea that we can inform you about the way that religious actors work in the world, and the histories attached to it. But the problem, I think, for a department like ours in that case – and also the way that those guidelines become limiting – is that there are a lot of other departments that promise similar things. We share Religious Studies classes – or classes on religion – with History, and Anthropology, and Sociology, and anybody else who wants to talk about religion. And so the thing that we are providing is actually something different. I don’t think it’s really about knowing religion more, and religious people more. And I don’t think that’s the product that we are selling, either. I think the metaphor that I would use is we are providing a skill set, a sort-of toolbox for students to analyse the human, understand how humans work, in light of a history that involves this thing called religion. And I think when you separate religion from culture, you know, religion from general human activities, then you’ve actually created a narrow lane for yourself to operate.

JGH: So that’s where Dr King and I wrote this . . . . I mean, Richard, and all of you, I think this is a great conversation. Thank you for inviting us. There’s an amazing article that was written by Gray – Hildenbrand and King recently, on teaching Theology and Religious Studies, about where we talk about the creation of our program. We talk about this very issue. And it’s something that we contemplated very seriously, because we had this opportunity to create a programme where one didn’t exist. And we realised that we were in that unique situation. And so, similar to what we see here with the literacy guidelines, you see a combination both of religious literacy thinking about it as content, right – memorising the content of that religion – but also certain skills that we use when we’re looking at religion, religious content. And so in our programme we identified three skills – description, analysis and critique – as what would work best in our institutional context (10:00). And we might wrestle you for the heart of the Bible Belt, my friend, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee! But maybe my colleague wants to talk a little more? We can do back and forth like we do, Rebekka! We have a whole thing . . . ! (Laughter).

RK: Thanks, Jenna. I think that one of the nice things about teaching in a place like Middle Tennessee is that we don’t have to convince our student that studying religion matters. A lot of students come into the classroom with a sense that they want to know more about religion, that it’s important in their lives. And a lot of them have grown up in families where they’ve been told a certain story about other religious communities that they know isn’t quite right, that they know might come from a place of sort-of bias or misunderstanding, and they want to know what is right. So they’re really coming in with this question that is drawn out of, I think, a need for religious literacy. So certainly the AAR guidelines, I think, are really coming at building from a ground-up level in that way. For us, what we’re trying to do is think beyond the level of literacy to what we call competency. And in a previous life I spent a lot of time working in higher education. And one of my areas in my portfolio was literacy basic skills. And literacy basic skills are the ability to read menus, to understand how signs work, very basic forms of literacy. And when we translate that into thinking about religious literacy, that’s important – but that is work that I see campuses doing in a number of places. Like Richard mentioned: Anthropology, Sociology, History, a number of different disciplines. And so what we do in Religious Studies is, I hope, a step beyond that towards competencies, building skills, doing something more than content and data-based information.

JGH: And one of the criticisms – I’m sorry – the feedback that we got when we were working on our programme and writing our article was, “Well, anyone can do description, anyone can do analysis, anyone can do critique.” And our argument was, “No.” There is something unique about doing description, analysis and critique – not unique, but takes a certain Religious Studies skill – to do that for the content of Religious Studies, to describe and analyse something. Maybe we can have this conversation? Maybe people around this table disagree, when you’re analysing human beings who . . . . For example, if I go to my serpent handling church and I’m having to describe what is happening when they say they’re anointed by God to drink strychnine, that’s different than describing what’s happening when people are driving a car. Not that it is inherently different, right? I’m not saying that there’s some sui generis category of religion. But it does take a different type of skill to describe and analyse that. So we’re saying that there is something of value that we are adding to Middle Tennessee State University that they can’t get in History, I would argue. We have argued!

DMcC: It’s funny, if we had video you could see that there are nodding heads and there’s thumbs up, and people are smiling and kind-of like, “Is this my moment to say how much I agree?” I think for a long time we have had that conversation about sui generis. And I saw Russell McCutcheon’s post recently on . . . I think it was Facebook, maybe first, or Twitter later, where he had put a google Ngram of “sui generis” vs “lived religion”. And there’s this moment when sui generis appeared and then escalated up to a peak, and then declined extremely rapidly. And what took off was lived religion. And I’m hearing a little bit in the way you describe. . . . There’s something about the thing that we’re describing, there’s something about the analysis we’re doing, there’s something about . . . .What’s the third one? I’m sorry!

JGH: The critique.

DMcC: The critique that we’re doing, that has to do with that object that’s at the end. And that that object has not uniqueness from everything else, but distinctiveness in a certain way that merits our focus. Am I following this?

JGH: I don’t think it’s the object that has the distinctiveness. I think there’s a distinctiveness in the way we talk about it. So when I talk to colleagues at my institution from History, or from Sociology, who are studying religion, they talk about religion differently than we do. Oftentimes they have what I would say is a more prescriptive stand: religion is a problem to be solved. In Religious Studies we don’t talk about religion as a problem to be solved. It’s something that we try to understand. Am I wrong? Am I wrong Kevin? Help me out! (15:00)

KM: No I think you’re right and, coming from a smaller school that is in the United Methodist tradition, it’s been complicated by the history of the religion programme as a Christian Studies programme before I arrived there six years ago. So the other departments really thought this was something that they should not touch. And they should send students . . . if you want to talk about religion at all, you have to go somewhere else. And we actually saw in our data, for our freshmen as they moved forward – they have to take the global perspectives inventory – that they improved on all of the metrics related to global perspectives except for understanding religious difference, in which they actually declined. And we, fortunately, were able to get a grant from the Wabash Centre to study this, and found, really, that it was our colleagues outside the religion programme who thought that they couldn’t touch religion. So they would bring up issues and then just drop them! And so students for the first time were really seeing, “Oh there are problems related to religion in the world.” And my colleagues were like, “Yep and we’re not going there. So if you want to do that, go take a Religious Studies class.” So I think that was something that we had to deal with across the disciplines.

RN: Yes, and prior to working at the University of Alabama I worked at a small private liberal arts college, Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. And I worked on redesigning the curriculum for our Religious Studies department. And I see a lot of similarities, of course, in what I was doing there and what I’m doing at the University of Alabama, so far as we’re often competing with these other disciplines within the school for the right to talk about and do what we say is our expertise. And I think, I guess, that my argument has been not so much that these other disciplines can’t do it, but that they haven’t done it. And every time we have to win the students over. And I think, at the University of Alabama, what we’ve seen with our students is that they often come into disciplines where they’re more familiar with the term. So they’ve heard of Anthropology, they’ve heard of Psychology and Sociology. We get them in Religious Studies because of our core in General Ed. And then they continue, because they like what we’ve done, and they see that it’s something different than what they’re getting elsewhere. And so their work has to be their proof, their work has to be what they put on LinkedIn. And our graduate students in our Masters programme, similarly, are having to make that case. That they’re using the idea of digital humanities, digital skills and public humanities to articulate what it is that they’re doing differently, seeing, and presenting, that’s not being done elsewhere. And so it sort-of puts their backs against the wall to make the case that what they’re saying matters. But I think it’s from that place that they’re most interesting to people. I think audiences are responding well to what they working on. They’re doing well, in terms of placement and things. And so I think it’s convenient for the Literacy Guidelines to be like, “See, here’s our place.” But if our students, and if our scholarship, doesn’t do that work, then I think we end up in the kind-of trouble that Kevin was referring to.

CJ: Yes. And I want to go back to some of the things that Jenna was saying, and that Rebekka was saying as well, that there is something . . . of a degree in religion. There’s an intensity in religion that other areas of human life don’t necessarily have. And one of the things we contribute is the competency to engage critically, to engage inter-culturally, interpersonally with people around things that matter more to them than anything else, and do that in a way that is productive, respectful, but also critical, and sincere, and that does not simply leave it alone, as Kevin says. We don’t tiptoe lightly around religion, we come right at it. And we have hard conversations. And we give our students a comfort level at having hard conversations. And that is a life skill, that is a citizenship skill, and that’s also a job skill. I mean the ability to . . . . Sorry! Go ahead, Brad.

BO: Yes, I agree. And I think, just coming back to this idea of what do we do that’s distinct, and how does that train students who are then able to explain those distinct skills and training sets? I think what we do is we’re saying, we don’t begin with the idea that religion is compartmentalised. So many of our colleagues begin with “Oh religion’s a component of this community. And once we get that component in place we can put the set together and then we’ll really understand gender, or race, or politics, and whatever’s going on there. We begin with…well, hey – religion is our primary object of study, and we’re betting on the fact – and we’re all sitting round the table and I wonder if we all agree – that if we bet on that thesis then we’ll be able to unlock those other aspects that we’re really interested in that overlap, in ways that would’ve never been possible before, right? And so why do we need Religious Studies? Because it’s a unique way of foregrounding one aspect, religion, that we think pervades every other aspect. And then that unlocks views and approaches and understandings and perspectives that would have been unavailable if we had just sort-of approached this from what we take to be mainstream sociological, anthropological and historical methodologies.

DMcC: So, let me read for just a second from the document. Let’s be textual for a moment! (20:00) “Students in any field, from the Humanities to Political Science, to Business, to the STEM disciplines should learn something about how religion shapes, and is shaped by, the way humans view the world.” I know that some of the criticism that I’ve heard of these guidelines, initially, was that it was giving the field away, right, with the broadness of it? And they describe it in some of the ways that we’ve been doing it. But it says at the top of the executive summary, the first line in the document, “Every college graduate ought to have a basic understanding of religion as a part of the human experience.” So, if we, in the criticism of this document, if we let the historians talk about religion – not that we could ever prevent such a thing – but if Religion departments fold, and History, or Philosophy, or Anthropology becomes the places where religion is talked about, I’m hearing that we lose something that I think everyone at the table thinks is really vital about the perspective here. Jenna phrased it as a perspective.

JGH: What did I say? What was the context?

DMcC: You did. I phrased it as an object of study, and you said, “No, it’s more about how we view . . .”

JGH: How we discuss that. Our discourse.

DMcC: Yes, discourse. Kevin, you seem like you want to chime in?

KM: Yes, the idea of “giving the discipline away”, I think, just doesn’t . . . it rubs me the wrong way. Like, for me, my students, the disciplines are done before they come to the school. They’re not here for Religious Studies. They don’t know why they have to take a Gen Ed class. They don’t actually have to take a Religion class, but that’s one of the frequent classes that they do take. They don’t know why they’re there. They think that’s not relevant to their professional programme and their job. So giving the discipline away is actually how we become relevant again, in my context. How we help students understand – and hopefully their advisors don’t tell them that “This is irrelevant to you”, right, as sometimes they do. So the students show up thinking, “Maybe actually this can be relevant to me.” Or, at least, I have the tools to say, “This actually is going to be relevant to you.” And, in fact, “Here are classes in your professional programme that your department has identified as trying to help with this too. But we’re going to go a lot deeper here.”

DMcC: You described yourself when you opened. Can you say, again, how many people there are in your department?

KM: There are two of us in our department.

DMcC: So I feel similarly. I teach at Salem State College which is a very small Massachusetts State school. And we only have two people: one permanent and one contingent – me! I think that might be the case for a lot of us, where we are teaching in extremely small departments. Chris is raising his hand. He’s a department of . .  . ?

CJ: One.

DMcC: One! Right? Richard might be, and Brad a little bit, but I think Richard even more is the one who’s at the largest department, right? You have a dozen faculty members now? Brad does too.

RN: Thereabouts.

DMcC: Can we talk about, for a second, how religious literacy . . . because I hear a little bit in what Kevin’s saying that in his context, maybe, that doesn’t work. And I wonder if we can speak to that a little bit more?

KM: Well I think one of the interesting Rebekka was talking about, the difference between literacy and competence, is a really helpful distinction. For my department, first selling literacy is a big piece. Yes it’s basic, it doesn’t get us far, but it’s a skill. It’s not simply information and knowledge, it’s a skill that can serve students who are not majoring in religion. Because if we have eight majors in religion our programme is up. So the idea that this basic set of skills that can help them continue to learn and engage with people, not just have knowledge base but apply that in new contexts, learn new situations, learn religious traditions affecting different parts of life, not selling is huge.

RN: So I . . . Rebekka go ahead.

RK: Thank you. I think that building off of that, one of the things that when we think about how literacy works is that in order . . . before one can be literate, one has to understand the language. And one of the things that Jenna did when she first got to MTSU is she built the General Education Religious Studies course. And they really wanted her to do a course that was going to cover world religions, a comparative religions course. But she very intelligently and astutely observed that before we could even begin to think about religious content, our students had to learn how to talk about religion. And so that is what our introductory course is, a course called Religion and Society where the students learn how to speak about religion, how to classify it, how to think about it, before they even get to any of the content-based material (25:00).

JGH: And to build upon that, what I’m hearing about this . . . this interesting thing about giving away the discipline – I think it’s so interesting; it sounds very like it’s a birthday party, or something! (Laughter) – is to also think about how what our students actually want. We talk about packaging up this thing called this Religious Studies major, but we haven’t talked about what actually students want, or what’s working. I mean we talk to students all the time, and our institutional context flavours that, right? And you’ve actually done research, haven’t you, about what students . . . ? I can’t remember what your grant was – but at our institutional context, a lot of times – and Rebekka, you can correct me if I’m wrong – we have right now, I think thirty-two majors in Religious Studies and three faculty members. And we’re growing every year. A lot of times, what happens is they take our classes and they just want a reason to major. I mean, don’t you think? And so we’ll tell them “Religious literacy will help you in any context. Are you going to work with human beings when you graduate? Many human beings are religious. So having a basic . . .” – this is my spiel, right? – “So having that basic religious literacy will help you with your future patients, clients, students, co-workers etc.” Right? Yes, I think that that is true. But a lot of times they’re excited about the content. They’re enthusiastic. In our institutional context it’s Baptist, Church of Christ and Methodist are the predominant religions. And then people who are angry at the Islamic Centre down the road, right? And so that’s our institutional context, they’re very . . . . And those students are excited to be our majors. And it’s about double majoring. We’ve designed our programme specifically so that this is a very strong compliment to a second major. Rebekka and I were both double majors in undergrad, and here we are! (Laughs). And now we have come to the culmination of our careers on this podcast with you all!

KM: I find it really interesting that you mentioned communication about religion as being fundamental to becoming literate about it: knowing how to talk about it, being able to speak about it, being able to ask questions. That’s something I really don’t see in these guidelines is anything about communication skills. Or the interpersonal skills to be able to navigate the discourse, or talk about it in public contexts, whether that be professional, civic, yes? So I think that’s an interesting piece that is not coming through in these guidelines is those communication skills.

RN: I think, in part, to play at the metaphor of gift, I think actually what these guidelines do is buy a space for Religious Studies sort-of as a guild, or as a field, to have a discipline where they can begin to sell whatever they want to sell. And one space where I’ve sort-of been working on – thinking about how that works, and what are the ramifications – are in terms of sort-of the scholarship of teaching and learning. And I mean, that discourse comes out of an interest that is tied to public communication about religion, and the idea that religion needs to be part of the way that good citizens speak: understanding what it is and how that works. My problem with starting there, though, and making that the sort-of be-all-and-end-all of literacy, is that we don’t get to ask about who’s speaking. I see a lot of departments of Religious Studies use the John Kerry line – from a number of his speeches, as part of his stump speech when he was at the state department – about, you know, where he wishes he would’ve taken more comparative religion courses. And so “There we go!-There’s our ad!” But this is the same state secretary who created videos of, like, fake videos about Isis, saying “Look at how crazy Isis is!” – for their beheadings, and all this stuff. Which, of course, leads to an uptick in the kind-of work that Isis was doing. And so it’s that sort-of short sightedness – like, are we going to be in bed with that kind-of discourse, rather than analyse how that works? – that these literacy guidelines make me question. Like, I want to be able to do the types of . . . like present students with the skill sets that Jenna and Rebekka talk about in their article. And what I’m afraid of is that when you have guidelines that are attached to things like rubrics on “teaching properly about religion”, that you limit yourself to speaking about religion in ways that are legible to those kinds of interests, and not in the ways that ask about whose interest this serves: who gets to evaluate how religion works, and works well? (30:00)

CJ: I agree. I was nodding the whole time you were speaking. And to me, that comes back also to what do students want? And so, oftentimes, when we teach to the rubric, we’re looking past our students to our administrators, unfortunately. And when we . . . . My experience has been when my students come into the classroom wanting to understand. . . . I mean, once they take an intro class, just like all of you’ve said, they want to take more classes. And some of that interest is the fact that they’re finding in our department a way to understand like really critical issues in their world. And that could be counter-intuitive. That could be through studying medieval aesthetics. But somehow they’re finding the skills to not only have religious literacy, but that religious literacy is translating into self-literacy and sort-of their own world, and environment literacy. And I think we don’t sell that enough. I’ll be really honest. I think we’re getting better at selling the utility of the Humanities: “Oh, this’ll help you on the (audio unclear). This will help you here or there. Some folks don’t want to sell the soul-searching thing. “Oh, college is . . . not everyone has money for four years of soul-searching. And people need to get jobs.” But we often undersell, I think, the fact that the skills that we might offer, not only in Humanities but in Religious Studies particularly, are the abilities for that kind-of long-term, far-sighted thinking that doesn’t undercut the most critical issues of our time. You know I see Neil deGrasse Tyson on Twitter saying “We have so much knowledge and we don’t have any wisdom.” And I’m thinking “That’s what we do.” We want to give people the skills to sort-of like engage in the world wisely, through studying religion. But it’s often hard to explain that to funding bodies, and to our deans, and everyone else.

RN: Perhaps if I can ask Rebekka, because you’ve been part of the teaching against Islam

RK: Islamophobia! (Laughter)

RN: That’s it! (Laughter) You’ve been part of the teaching against Islamophobia workshop with Wabash that’s distinguishing between what it means to teach about Islam and what it means to teach against Islamophobia. And I don’t see the ability to wrestle with that distinction here. And so I was wondering if you would speak a bit about how you think that relates to religious literacy or religious competence.

RK: Yes. I think that I’ve been very fortunate to be part of that group and I think that part of what – when I first was applying for it – made it seem like . . . I didn’t think I was going to be accepted into this cohort, was partially because I’m a scholar primarily of Christianity. And so, we tend to assume that Islamophobia is an issue around Islam, and that it’s about Muslims. And so for me, being part of that cohort, the majority of Islamophobia is being practised by Christians, right? And so thinking about how Islamophobia works out as a Christian practice. And then, how do we teach these very difficult practices, discourses, rhetorical moves from within religious traditions. So there’s kind-of a number of different layers that are at play there. And when we’re thinking about teaching about, or against, Islamophobia for example, or really anything, what we’re doing is teaching our students to ask the questions. So I’m not standing up and saying, “Islamophobia is bad, and here are all the reasons.” I’m saying “How does this come out of Christianity and out of the discourse, the rhetoric, the foundations of particular Christian traditions, or particular Christian communities?”, and let the students tease it out. And what they do with that at the end is their choice, where they move from there. Because our role of course always, as scholars, is to not kind-of come with these moral or ethical conclusions.

DMcC: So as we end – because everyone has a very busy schedule here – one of the things that I was really struck by in the last few minutes, is how do we translate this to our administrators, right? Because I have learning outcomes, as a contingent faculty, that I cannot change. And one of them, very explicitly, says that my courses are supposed to enhance the spiritual dimension of our students’ lives. That’s written in the course description. So spiritual growth, personal growth is part of the extension of what has been built into the programme and courses, prior to my arrival. Whether I achieve it I will leave for my students to decide! But as we end, one of the important things that I think for all of us – because we all have higher-ups that we answer to within the administration – what would you say, as a final comment about these Religious Literacy Guidelines, and how you might move forward in your own context to dealing with them?

RN: I think the guidelines, perhaps, become a . . . you know, if the administrators interested in the guidelines themselves, then so be it. But I guess what I would punt to . . . the idea of my students are proof positive of the work that the department’s already doing. (35:00) You know, whether it’s the fact that we have students that are working in museums, that we have students who are placed in graduate school, that students are going to law school, medical school, or talking in their communities about these complicated issues. Or just, they recognise that what they were doing in our department was useful. I think that is pleasing to administrators. I think when departments are also sort-of on the forefront of what is going on in the university – largely because we have to prove we exist and we should be there – that’s a space where administrators get to be surprised. So for us, at the University of Alabama, it’s been starting a Master’s programme that involves sort-of digital humanities, public humanities and academic study of religion. It could also be our use of undergraduate research, which I think a lot of programmes – I follow the Twitter feeds of a lot of departments – they’re getting their students out there doing work. And their work, across campuses seem to be super-interesting to people even beyond Religious Studies. And I think that says a lot to administrators.

CJ: One of our learning outcomes, at Wasburn University, for general education is global diversity consciousness: the ability to understand how people are different in different parts of the world. We’re running a programme in the middle of Kansas, as far from other countries as you can get in the United States of America. And so, giving students windows into what it’s like to be human, if I weren’t born where I was, is very important. And these guidelines give me some language to convince my administrators “You need me”. If we want all four year student graduates to have this level of religious competence and religious literacy. Nobody else in this institution has the disciplinary qualifications to do that. So we need a Religious Studies programme. Even though we’re the only school our size in the Midwest that has one – don’t cut that. Because I know it comes up at Trustee meetings. Don’t cut that.

RK: I would say that, it’s easy for us to critique these guidelines. We are all academics and scholars and (audio unclear) critique is one of our core competencies. But my recommendation from this would be that people read these guidelines closely, and find ways that they are going to be helpful in your own institutional context. One of the co-authors, or co-leaders of it, Eugene Gallagher, has been an incredible resource to Jenna and I. He came to MTSU. We had a Wabash grant to bring him to campus. And he sat down with us, when we were in that key point of planning out the curriculum, and really helped us think through major issues. And then also took the time to meet with our university provost and people in upper administrations, to explain what the academic study of religion is, and its importance. So I really think that while it’s fun for us to sort-of criticise and say “They’re not doing enough! They need to do more, and do all the things,” these were written by people who really understand how to speak administrative languages. So we should be using them as is appropriate for our own contexts.

DMcC: And, before Brad next, the other thing to do is to remember how broadly these guidelines are written for. That it is meant to be high school, two-year college, four-year college, four-year small liberal arts, four-year research college – the whole range. And when you speak to a whole range like that, I think some of the criticisms that we have kind-of disappear in the appeal to that broadness. Go ahead.

RN: I was just going to say, to Rebekka’s point, I think one of the wisest pieces in the guidelines is that it’s not supposed to be used as a rubric against which departments are measured. But as the opportunity to have that conversation about, “Here’s how we fit into a national, international conversation about this stuff that’s going on.” And I think if used in that way, it gives space to sort-of show departments how unique they are. Which I think administrators like to see too. Like, how are we doing this differently? I think every school has some slogan about difference – like we are different than everybody else. Yes, all universities! (Laughter). So, to that work . . .

BO: I really loved what Chris said about basically, the practice of students rehearsing playing the roles of other people, or stepping into the shoes of the worlds of the communities of others. As you said, Chris, you’re in a place that is as far from other countries in this country as you can get. I mean that’s a wonderful example: what you’re offering is a set of skills where students rehearse or practice what it would mean to be someone born in South East Asia, into a certain religious community, whatever it may be. I don’t know – I’m sure everyone at the table is not comfortable calling that a spiritual practice. I don’t know what that is, but it is a practice. And I think if we don’t sell that, we overlook a lot of what we have to offer, right? We are saying, if we don’t want a world full of short-sightedness, full of crudity, (40:00) if we want something that avoids, what I’ll just say is sort-of overtaking our sort-of political and civic climates as we speak, then we have to have universities that are more than just pre-professional training. They have to include that kind-of practice – call it spiritual, call it personal growth, call it whatever you want. But if that’s not part of education, that’s not part of teaching and learning, then I don’t know what is. And to me, that’s why I still firmly believe in Religious Studies as something that’s incredibly, incredibly important for the modern research university, the liberal arts university, the two-year college whatever maybe.

DMcC: Kevin, do you want to share now?

KM: Yes. I really appreciate those powerful words, Brad. I think in my context, much like Christopher’s, like this backs up what we’re doing. There’re two of us, right. Our word only goes so far that our discipline isn’t central to, as everyone else is making that argument as well in the Humanities, so that this gives us something to really put forwards. That “No. You need us here as part of your Gen. Ed.” That we have vital things to offer students who are not coming here to major in religion, because that’s not what’s supporting the university and keeping it going. So it helps back us up, it helps us promote the understanding of religion as something that is studied to understand the world that had not previously been popularly understood on campus before we showed up. So I think there’s really a lot of value there for us to continue the sort of work we’re doing, and have something bigger than us, beyond us, that says “Oh no – actually these people are speaking from a disciplinary perspective”

JGH: Yes, and so I think that your original question had something to do with our learning or programme goals, and something like that, and speaking to administrators. And Rebekka and I are in the situation where we wrote the programme goals and learning outcomes. So if we are displeased with them we only have ourselves to blame. (Laughter). But as far as speaking to administrators, I’m going to echo what Richard said, in some ways, which is that our students are our best advocates and advertisement for the necessity of our programmes, and the importance of them. And the more I think that we invest our time in them, and don’t forget that they are the . . . at least in our institutional context – we’re not an R1 – and, I think, for those of us here that they are the reason that we’re here, and remind ourselves of that. And keep celebrating their successes and advertising their successes, like the proud teacher-scholars that we are. We won’t lose sight of our mission as Religious Studies teacher scholars that we are. Because they’re amazing. And I think that part of what you were saying, Brad, too, is that . . . that when Rebekka and I were creating the programme, we always used the word creativity also. And so that there is critical thinking, which is thrown about – and we were very specific about what we meant about what critical thinking meant. But also we always put in that word about creativity. Because we are a creative discipline and that is . . . and creativity and innovation is very important for this generation of students as well. So with that I’ll turn over to you.

DMcC: What a wonderful note to end on (Laughter). Because we have all sat here for forty-five minutes out of our busy schedule, and created something that we’re going to share with everyone. And I’m very thankful for your time today, and very supportive of all of your works in all of your different contexts. I’m so pleased to be able to share this with everyone today, and I hope you all have a wonderful conference.

All: Thank you.

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

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Developing Communities of Practical Wisdom

Developing Communities of Practical Wisdom:

An Exercise in the Synthesis of Memory, Religion and Pragmatism in Religious Studies at GSU

by Holly Nelson-Becker, PhD, LCSW

There is an ancient tension between the values of being and doing, with, at various times, doing garnering the more important position. In truth, both are important and matter. There is reciprocity and rhythm in the cycle of being, learning, doing, and reflection where all dimensions inform the next. Hans Georg Gadamer (1982) wrote similarly that understanding, interpretation and application were in relationship such that the individual components could not be separated. Religious Studies stands as a discipline at the juncture of both being and doing: awareness and appreciation for diverse cultural, spiritual, and value dimensions. It also poses the questions What is the value of religiously or spiritually-informed action in contemporary times? How do memory and tradition inform us, but not keep us constrained in boxes? How can we courageously step away and step out to use all that we know to meet what is yet unknown? The programme at GSU under Molly Barrett’s direction answers these questions in a new way by facilitating the inclusion of master’s certificates in Religion and Aging or Non-profit Management. As it does so, it invites students on a journey of discovery.

Photo by Alexa Gummow, Votivkirche, Vienna Austria

As a social gerontologist and gerontological social worker, I would say this is practical theology at its best. Religion can no longer serve us well if it is treated as merely a distant philosophical subject that does not engage our very beings—heart, mind, body, and soul–and assist us in satisfying our particular place-based needs. Religion and its meanings must be hammered out in the everyday crucible of life’s vexing struggles, crisis-level jolts, and moments that radiate joy deeper than can be expressed or comprehended.

When I was a doctoral student at the University of Chicago in the mid to-late 90s, the Divinity School was my home for coursework alongside the School of Social Service Administration. A course I took with Don Browning (1991) about fundamental practical theology helped me envision a new configuration between spirituality, religion, and social work that framed a key question of my academic career: How do religious and spiritual strengths, spiritual struggle, and spiritual distress affect older people in everyday life and situations of life-limiting illness at life’s end? William James’ phenomenology of human experience along with John Dewey’s perspective on pragmatism both gave form to my work. Practical theology begins in thick description—asking What is happening? and moving eventually to asking what should happen and how do we do it?—in the most inclusive and respectful conversation we can imagine, one that carries compassion as its core. It is part of a critical correlational conversation that uses the implicit/explicit questions of any religion to respond to the needs of the contemporary community.

There are many uncommon couplings of Religious Studies disciplines with community research or practice that led to ground-breaking insight.  I’ll provide one example. I developed and taught loss/grief/dying well classes for seven years at my former university, Loyola University Chicago. During that time, I learned that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed her theory about the five stages of grief due to a collaboration with four University of Chicago theology students (Kübler-Ross, 2000). The students approached her to ask for help with an assignment to research a crisis in human life and they wanted to explore dying.  How do you do it? was the question they discussed.  Together they decided to capture thick descriptions of the experience—What was it like? What was the best and worst of it? What would help or hinder? The immediate problem was that they learned no one was dying in the Chicago hospital they approached. Beyond a natural gatekeeping protective function by nurses, that reluctance to break through our fears and discuss death is still in evidence today, though it is beginning to diminish through concerted efforts by those of us working in palliative and end-of-life care and through death cafes—informal conversations about death—around the world (Nelson-Becker, 2006; 2018). I, together with Hillingdon Palliative Care staff, have hosted a well-attended death café at Brunel University London for students, hospital and university staff, and the public, helping to bridge public need with professional skill.

Photo by Dr. Holly Nelson-Becker, Arthur Sullivan statue, Victoria embankment, London, UK

In listening to this podcast, I was thankful to learn about the approach of the GSU Religious Studies program in links to non-profit management to help students identify problems and then craft solutions to them, such as was done to develop an app for homeless youth to be able to access resources for entering a university without a permanent address. That is real world impact. In the same way, Don Browning, who served on my dissertation committee, helped me shape the “problem” or question that has occupied much of my subsequent career.  It was my question, but it was deeply affected by his influence. I sense in the podcast that Molly Barrett’s approach is likewise to empower her students to create their best contribution to public space, whether that be in assisting the public school to honour religious diversity or helping train hospice/vigil volunteers to sit with dying persons. It is that third thing created from the nexus of the known and the unknown.

Aging is a compelling field of inquiry since it joins the personal dimension—we are all aging through time—with professional research, teaching, and practice. I am pleased that Religion and Aging is one of the combined pathway options for Religious Studies at GSU. Religion is set to remain an important dimension to many older people.  It has been argued that people don’t become more religious as they age and that cohort effects in the developed nations (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD] nations) show decreasing religiosity. This trend has been concomitant with a growth in the “nones,” those people expressing little inclination towards religion, though some may have a spiritual or simply humanistic interest. The nones have grown from 17% of the US population in 2009 to 26% in 2018-19 according to the Pew Center. This trend addresses primarily the Christian religion in the US, as world religion adherent numbers are much smaller in the US. Conclusions were generally agreed that cohorts were becoming less religious through time.

In contrast, a recent study evidences an alternative view . The authors of this study reviewed five waves of data from the World Values Survey between 1981–2014 (Shulgin, Zinkina, & Korotayev, 2019). This is important because it is longitudinal rather than cross sectional data. The sample was over 60,000, and careful analytic details were provided. Findings suggest that people do tend to become more religious with age. This was the case across nine dimensions of religion, so the aging effect appears to be statistically significant and stronger than the cohort effect in these OECD nations. This implies that religion will continue to be important to older people. That, combined with increasing numbers of older people worldwide, suggest that people who can work in the interface of religion and daily life will be in demand now and in the future.

Photo by I. Luca Galuzzi, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1511395

A final point is that interprofessionalism is state-of-the-art practice.  My book, Spirituality, Religion, and Aging: Illuminations for Therapeutic Practice, makes the point that professionals in any field—chaplaincy, nursing, counselling, social work, and psychology—need to rely on each other, using points of commonality, to deepen their practice, that is, their clinical and professional work.  Religious studies professionals, while not explicitly named in the book, would be a strong support in this endeavour. Religion and spirituality need to be integrated with gerontological practice, most urgently in the healthcare fields, where, for various reasons, there is a significant lack of attention to this matter.  The book is a how-to manual about doing spiritual assessment, spiritually-framed interventions, intergenerational ethics, spirituality in health, mental health, end of life, and much, much more.

Religious studies programs that honor a social justice frame learn to speak to common human needs in compelling ways. This podcast interview features an exciting initiative to join an applied religious studies programme with a concentration in Religion and Aging or non-profit management. Those collaborations have the potential to create a new thing in contemporary life. Where the known meets the unknown, something new can be born. Our communities will benefit from this practical theological focus in tangible ways.

 


References

Browning, Don S. (1991). A fundamental practical theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Gadamer, Hans Georg (1982). Truth and Method. New York: Crossroad.

Kubler-Ross, E. (2000). What is it like to be dying? American Journal of Nursing, 100(10), 96AA-96II.

Nelson-Becker, H. (2003). Practical philosophies: Interpretations of religion and spirituality by African-American and Jewish elders. Journal of Religious Gerontology, 14(2/3), 85-99. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1300/J078v14n02_01

Nelson-Becker, H. (2006). Voices of resilience: Older adults in hospice care. Journal of Social Work in End-of-Life and Palliative Care, 2(3), 87-106.  doi:10.1300/J457v02n03_07

Nelson-Becker, H. (2018). Spirituality, religion, and aging: Illuminations for therapeutic practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Press. ISBN: 9781412981361

Shulgin, S., Zinkina, J., & Korotayev, A. (2019). Religiosity and aging: Age and cohort effects and their implications for the future of religious values in High‐Income OECD countries. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 58(3), 591-603. doi:10.1111/jssr.12613

Applied Religious Studies at Georgia State University

In this episode, Professor Molly Bassett, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Georgia State University, speaks about her program’s efforts to develop applied religious studies master’s certificates in “Religion and Aging” and “Nonprofit Management.” Her department’s partnerships with GSU’s Gerontology Institute as well as the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies reveal a progressive approach to professionalization of religious studies degree programs. Within recent conversations about the threat of humanities and liberal arts programs at many universities, the applied approach at GSU offers many benefits, not only in developing inter-university faculty and program partnerships, but also for recruiting majors and successfully showing how the skills of a religious studies degree can be vital for a student’s career aspirations.

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Applied Religious Studies at Georgia State University

Podcast with Molly Bassett (16 December 2019).

Interviewed by David McConeghy

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/applied-religious-studies-at-georgia-state-university or PDF here.

David McConeghy (DMcC): Welcome. My name is David McConeghy. And today it’s my pleasure to be joined by Dr Molly Bassett, Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. She’s an expert on Mesoamerican Religions and the author of The Fate of Earthly Things: Aztec Gods and God-Bodies – as well as a recent participant in an Immanent Frame forum about applied religious studies. Today we welcome her to speak about her department and some of the changes they’re making – and the innovation that they are developing for new degree tracks for their graduate students, as well as setting up undergraduates receiving degrees in Religious Studies for success in a variety of jobs outside of the academic or PhD track. Dr Bassett, thank you so much for joining us here today!

Molly Bassett (MB): Thanks so much for having me, David.

DMcC: So, for those Listeners that may not be familiar with Georgia State, can you describe your university to us and a little bit about the context of your department? Who are your majors, and what’s the department like?

MB: Sure. So Georgia State is located in the heart of Atlanta. If you’ve been to an AAR conference here, the conference happens just a block away from Georgia State. We are the tenth most diverse student body in the country. So our majors come from everywhere. They come from rural Georgia, they come from refugee communities in Clarkston, and so they bring the world’s religions into the classroom in a way that I haven’t seen in many other places. So that makes the department a really vibrant place to think about world religions, and lived religion, and religion on site in Atlanta. Our unit grew out of a combined Philosophy/ Religious Studies department back in 2004, when we established an MA programme too. And so we work closely with lots of other departments on campus. And at this time we’re really focussing on applied religious studies and religious literacy.

DMcC: That’s great. Can you say about how many faculty members, and about how many majors, versus how many students in total, kind-of enroll in your courses? Can you give us a sense of the numbers?

MB: Sure. So we have – depending on how you count us – between five and seven continuing faculty members. Two of my colleagues are in administration and teach sometimes. We’re hiring this year, so we’re a growing department. We have about between forty-five and fifty majors, typically. And then the number of students we serve, though, is much larger. Because we teach, of course, in the core curriculum or general education. So we reach thousands of students through a course that’s called “Introduction to World Religions”, but it’s really a thematic survey. So in that class, for example, just this semester we’ve introduced a new module on Religion and Health. So the topics in that class are changing all the time. And it’s a class that faculty teach, and also our MA students teach.

DMcC: That’s an approach that I hear a lot more departments talking about – a kind-of thematic rather than tradition-based approach to world religion – so that you can “plug and play” new timely modules, and really adjust it for the skills and expertise of the teacher. I heard that you were doing your academic programme review this year – the dreaded . . . (Laughs) chance to review your curriculum. Is that the kind of thing you’re talking about? When your department is thinking about the changes you’re going to make?

MB: Yes, exactly. So we finished APR in the last year. And over the course of that year – so really, beginning about this time last year – we did an intensive review of every aspect of the department. And the focus of the APR was the curriculum. So I’ll talk in a little bit about our graduate programme. Part of what we talked about in APR was how to bring some of the success we’re seeing with some of the applied courses and applied concentrations at the graduate level back into the major and undergraduate curriculum. So that’s part of why we incorporated this new module at 2001 (5:00). We’re hoping that students in our core course, who might not think about religious studies as a potential minor or major or double major – say they’re like pre-nursing major right now – if we can hook them with this religion and health topic, then we offer a 3000 level online course in religion and health, and then an upper level undergraduate course on medical ethics. So part of what we’re trying to do is build pathways thought the undergraduate curriculum, so that we can entice more majors into the programme and help them see how religious studies can complement other fields of study, or it may become their passion.

DMcC: Right. So when you as a department think, “We’d like to make a new partnership with another area within the university.” How do you come to the decision that a new partnership is warranted? How you know that . . . say, for instance, I teach at Salem State and we have a huge nursing programme. And so the nursing programme is a major feeder for a general education curriculum course. So how does it work in your department, when you look for those kinds of partnerships?

MB: That’s a great question. So the first time we partnered with another unit in like an ongoing fashion. Catherine, my colleague was chair of the department at that time. And she and I, as grad director, were seeing our graduate students finish and go on to work in non-profits. And that anecdotal evidence on our part, or observations and connections with alumni, was supported by data from a 2015 study the AAR did of religious studies majors. And a good percentage of undergraduate majors go onto careers in non-profit. And so Catherine knew that our School of Policy Studies offered a graduate certificate in non-profit management. And so we worked with our colleagues there to integrate their certificate into our MA programme, so that students can earn an MA in Religious Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, while also earning a certificate in non-profit management through our concentration. So it’s not . . . . Prior to that, students were sort-of choose-your-own-adventure-style doing these things. But this way, the programmes are integrated so that some of the non-profit classes count toward our degree. And students have a seamless programme, and they graduate with two credentials that are recognisable. So that decision was driven by watching our students go and do things, and us saying, “Oh, wait! We can help them do that.” We can help them really get the skills they need to go onto those careers. And then taking advantage of resources at the university to embed an existing credential in our programme. So we weren’t recreating the wheel.

DMcC: Right. It takes advantages of the strengths of your university. But it also really signals to employers and companies that are looking to hire future Georgia State students, that there’s a credential process for this, that there is a pathway for students, that you have designed a curriculum, you’ve been really intentional about it, it’s not ad hoc, that has learning outcomes. Has the business community of the non-profits kind-of management segment, have they really responded to the presence of a new credential like that? It’s brand new, right? I don’t know that there’s any or perhaps very few other universities that have a credential like that. Are you seeing good traction with that programme?

MB: Yes. I think we are. I mean we’ve had several years of . . . well a few years of graduates now. And part of the programme is . . . toward the end of their second year, toward the end of the programme, they do an internship and then write a paper that integrates their knowledge from both non-profit and religious studies in some fashion. Or the paper can be a project. So our first graduate Emir Mohammed, his paper was “Non-profit Paperwork”. And he established his own non-profit. So that’s like entrepreneurial success rate, off the bat!

DMcC: Right! (10:00).

MB: But since then, several students have found that the internship has either given them opportunities toward a next step, or that the internship has become sort-of a try-before-you-buy for the students, and also for the employer. So recently an alum talked to me about an opportunity she has . . . she’s continued to work with the organisations since she graduated, and she’s done some other work too, including some teaching, And the director of the non-profit is leaving and the director approached her to step into that position. And I think that stories like that . . . . It’s not just that she had the training she needed, or the credentialing that she needed, but that she had the opportunity to see, “Is this a good fit for me?” And for the other people at the non-profit to get to know her. So, yes. I think it’s working out and it’s working well. And students have a lot of flexibility in the programme, either to do their own thing, or to find a place in the non-profit world here in the Atlanta area, to continue the work that they started with us.

DMcC: That kind of applied religious studies approach, seems to me to be so obvious now. But we haven’t really done, or thought about thing, really, in that direction in American Religious Studies for a long time. In the business world you would never complete a four year business degree without doing a variety of internships, right? But we so often in Religious Studies have not taken advantage of helping our students with the business networking that they really need, in order to be employed once they have the degree. And this fills such a need to justify – especially to administrators, who always want to say to parents and potential students and graduating students, “Here is the job that our university, and this major, got this student” Like, they want to take that and draw a direct line between their university and the great job that the student has got. And now, within your non-profit I think I can really see that connection. You have the stories to back up the perception that that networking really does matter a lot.

MB: Yes. I think so. And I feel like the programme’s also attracting students who have had careers or have been working for a while, and they see . . . they’ve identified a real world problem. So I feel like this is the golden opportunity of applied religious studies to identify a real world problem and then take the skills that they learn in our programme and non-profit management . . . . Or we have another concentration, a new one, in Religion and Aging. So they take the skills that they learn from our colleagues in the gerontology institute and apply those to the problem with the subject area expertise of Religious Studies. So recently, another student in our non-profit management concentration, Lavalla Wilson, had a phD, she had a career in resident services at universities, and she moved to Atlanta do our programme because she had recognised a need. And the need was: homeless youth have trouble getting into colleges or community colleges, or even getting high school credentials because they don’t have a physical address, they don’t have a residence.

DMcC: Right.

MB: So starting from that observation, Lavalla went through our programme and her internship was developing a website, and an app, that connects homeless youth in the Atlanta area with existing resources that can help them get into school. So to see that . . . to see someone, you know, who’s been working for a long time, identify a problem and then identity our programme as the place that she can build the solution to the problem, I think it shows how a religious studies department is vital in more than one way.

DMcC: Absolutely. Can you . . . . You raised your Religion and Aging programme. Can you speak a little bit more about that new programme?

MB: Sure. So the Religion and Aging programme is modelled on the non-profit programmes. So it’s another concentration that’s available to our MA students. And we developed it, in part, in response to and in connection with a community partnership we have with Wellstar Health Systems. So Wellstar Health Systems is a big hospital group in Atlanta. They employ twenty-four thousand people. They have a bunch of hospitals, assisted living centres, hospices – you name it. And one of our alumni, Jason Lesandrini, is their chief ethicist. So Jason has been working with us for a long time, and we’ve established a graduate fellowship. So each year we award one fellowship to an incoming Masters student who’s interested in religion and health professions, or religion and ethics and medicine. (15:00) And as I watched those students go through the programme, many of them were doing the non-profit concentration but it didn’t seem like the best fit for the research they were conducting or the careers they wanted to pursue. So we started talking with people in the college and with people in gerontology and felt that opening a concentration in Religion and Aging would be a great opportunity for our Wellstar Fellows. But it also is a great opportunity because of the growing number of aging people in our city and our country. And in Atlanta it’s such a diverse and global city that for students to understand cultural diversity, and to be literate with respect to religions, and then also understand the aging process and have a sense of what gerontologists can do professionally – it seemed like a good and strong partnership moving forward.

DMcC: Yes. I was looking at the certificate requirements and I was seeing all of the courses that come from the gerontological side of things. You have “aging policy” and the “sociology of aging”, and “communication in aging”. But then on the religious studies side you have “death and the afterlife”, or “psychology and religion”, or “religious dimensions of the human experience”. And you’re really providing them a second language to speak about aging and to really frame that diversity. What kinds of things have you heard back from the students that are in the programme, whose only kind-of connection, prior to that moment, was “I’m in the same school within Georgia State that houses both departments, but I’m not in both departments until I was in the programme” That kind of . . . new students to your department, let’s say?

MB: Yes. So we have two students in the programme. It opened, officially, just in August. So the feedback is preliminary.

DMcC: Brand new and shiny! (Laughs).

MB: But it’s good! (Laughs.) Very shiny. But I can say, I taught a grad seminar last fall and students in that seminar partnered with another of our community partners, Compassion House for Living and Dying. It’s a non-medicalised hospice. One of the co-founders is an alumnus of our programme, Justin Howell. And we work with them to build an online orientation for their volunteers – the death doulas that work at the hospice – so that they have a better sense of how to approach guests from a variety of religious backgrounds. And so I feel like that gave the students in the course and me a lot of insight into end-of-life care, and what people of different faiths might expect in terms of end-of-life care . . . or resist. And also, how we can again sort-of solve a real world problem by bringing our subject expertise around death in Islam, say, to an organisation that wants to serve Muslim guests.

DMcC: Right.

MB: So end-of-life care is just a tiny piece of what students in the concentration can study. But that’s one example of the work. And then our colleagues from gerontology came and presented in the department, a few weeks ago. And so we got to hear about some of the NIH funded work they’re doing and long-term care facilities, around what are meaningful encounters for people with different forms of dementia (20:00). And, you know, it was really fascinating to talk with them about what . . . like, how do you define “meaningful engagement” or a “meaningful encounter” and what goes into meaning making? And I feel like that is something that a lot of students drawn to the study of religions can . . . . There’s a lot of traction there for us, too. So it’s just getting started, and I’m really excited to see where this partnership goes to. I mean for us as faculty, as well as for the students.

DMcC: I’m really intrigued by the idea that part of the goal of including students within these programmes for non-profit and for aging is that the critical approaches that religious studies has, are applied approaches. That there is a way to translate and move, rather immediately, from the kind-of critical tools of studying discourse, and using comparison, and being religiously literate about the diversity that exists in a community, and understanding all of those elements. But then turning that around the corner and saying “And then now what do we do with that?” I think often, when we have discussions about religious studies there’s a dividing line that some have put between a kind-of critical perspective, and maybe a softer, older literacy approach that simply talks about content. And this is a different kind of conversation, to me. And I think that your programmes are identifying that there’s a new . . . a third way that we can think about it.

MB: Yes. And I feel like I just have so much to learn still, about what it means to negotiate the two conversations that you identify: the critical approach – you know, we need to cover the content, and understand diversity, and be literate – and then how to bring both of those to bear on applied projects. Yes. I have a lot of questions. They come up all the time! (Laughs).

DMcC: Well, great! We love questions! (Laughs). When you have a student that’s . . . let’s say, they are in a programme like the non-profit certificate programme and they have a personal faith, right, that is potentially motivating them towards a particular line of non-profit work. And then you, as a religious studies . . . an academic-oriented view of religious studies, you’re providing them critical tools. That dialogue, right there, is an intersectional space where you’re providing critical tools but they may have their own critical approaches, right? And I can imagine how many questions arise – both on the curricular side, but also just simply negotiating a classroom where you have someone that has a really clear sense of their own personal employment goals, and their own personal religious goals. If you take the charitable compassionate work as part of your core religious values, how do we translate those into the critical terms of religious studies? Is that where those questions really arise from?

MB: Yes. That’s definitely one space the questions arise in. I mean, you know, we do some of the typical things. We talk about bracketing, and we talk about identifying bias, and being self-aware. And we also, then, talk about whether those approaches are really working out in the classroom or outside the classroom. But then the questions also arise in terms of like, understanding the audience for the applied project, and thinking about what’s appropriate given that audience. So one of the things we’re trying to do now is bring the applied approach back into the major. And this semester I’m teaching one of the required courses in our major. It used to be called the Survey Class. And now it’s Traditions of World Religions. So in addition to doing the . . . like, we started in my version of the class with Native American traditions (25:00). And then we turned through the big five. I am bookending that course in conversations about religion and public education. Because, while we’re doing the work of learning the content, students are working in small groups to create some instructional support materials for teachers at a local public school.

DMcC: That’s a fascinating project!

MB: Yes. It’s in process. It is fascinating. And it’s also sometimes anxiety-producing!

DMcC: Is this the first time that you’ve been doing that kind of project?

MB: Yes.

DMcC: The terror and joy of a new big group project, right?

MB: For sure! So the school is my daughter’s elementary school. So, yeah. And I told the students at the beginning of the semester, my daughter came home at the winter break in kindergarten singing “Dreidel Dreidel“ which is just fine, until you’ve heard it 800 million times! And I thought, you know, it’s interesting to me that she learned this in kindergarten at our neighbourhood school. And “I wonder what else she’s learned?” I started talking to the teachers and they’re adopting a new IB curriculum for the school – so, International Baccalaureate. And that’s an inquiry-based learning system which is fantastic. So I’m working with the IB co-ordinator and, at the end of this semester, will hand over a bunch of support materials that my students have created to help the kindergarten teachers be more literate with respect to religions. I mean they themselves identify this as a growing edge for them, and welcome our partnership. So I’m excited to see what comes of it. But we’re all going there in December, during our final exam period. We’re meeting at the school to meet the kindergarteners and read books to them. So I keep focussing on that while we’re ironing out the problems of the actual assignment, and figuring out how to get the work done.

DMcC: Right. But holding the feet to the fire to the fire like that, right? There are actual kindergarteners out there and your students are going to go to them. That level of incentive is the level of incentive all teachers hope for, right? To push, to be compelled to do the work for really valuable reason: there are children that have things that they could learn about religion. I can do that work in this class. That’s a win-win from my perspective.

MB: Man, I hope so! (Laughs).

DMcC: (Laughs).

MB: Yes. I mean that’s the picture I had, right? And the kids in the public school system are in our neighbourhood. You know, so when we talk about community partnerships, they are our community. And it’s a really diverse . . . . Both Georgia State and that elementary school are majority minority schools. So the big kids are going to see the little kids and the little kids are going to see the big kids. And of course many of my students are not kids but . . . . And I feel like the kindergarteners might see too that like, “Oh, one day I could be a Georgia State Panther“ I don’t know. Maybe that’s pushing it? But yeah. I think there’s a lot of good reasons to be giving this a go, and seeing how it works out. And we worked through the AAR’s guidelines for teaching religion in public schools. And we had a forum on that in the department yesterday. So, at the same time, we’re churning through the questions of, like, “Well what about teachers who . . .” you know, like you were just saying, “who have religious perspectives. How can we help them negotiate teaching religion when it’s not appropriate to indoctrinate or you know call on their own personal faith system to explain what’s happening?”

DMcC: Right.

MB: In a book about John Lewis’s upbringing, or whatever it is. Yeah. So, as I said, there are lots of questions!

DMcC: So as we wrap up, I think the one thing that I’d like to offer to all the Listeners of the podcast is, if there are people that are really interested in this kind-of new model of applied religious studies – where you’re making greater partnerships with some of the other departments in the university – to lend a bit of professionalisation to things: what would you recommend that they start with? Should they kind-of take a peek at the students that are in the class?(30:00) Is this “I got to walk down the hall and talk with the other department, first”? What’s a first step that you might recommend, to get someone rolling down this path?

MB: Well that’s a good question. I feel like we lucked-out, because we had some alumni who are really invested in our programme, and then I have just some remarkable colleagues who have a lot of energy around ideas like this. And then it also happened that what we’re doing aligns with our College’s and University’s strategic plans. And some of that is intentional, and some of it is a bit of a luck of the draw. So I feel like it probably depends on what your institutional context is, and who the potential partners could be – either within the university or within the community. But I think the AAR is also a resource. There are going to be a bunch of sessions about applied religious studies at this year’s meeting. And I think that would be a place to meet more people who are doing similar things. I think UCSB is now partnering with the art museum in Santa Barbara; folks at Missouri State, I think it is, just started a Certificate in Medical Humanities in the undergraduate programme; and I know that you have plans to talk to other folks who are doing things like this.

DMcC: Absolutely.

MB: Yeah, I think there are lots of models out there. There’s probably not a bad way to go about it.

DMcC: Right. But the central point, as far as what I’m hearing, is: every university has a context. And so if you’re in the religious studies department and you want to make those kind of connections to your universities network, we really have to take a step back and think about who the students are that are coming to the university, and where they go when they leave the university, and the relationship between the university and the community that exists, to really identify all of those networks that already exist, right? We’re just not tapping into them as well as we could. Would you . . . ?

MB: Yeah. I think that’s a great way to put it. I think, you know, just sort-of being open to opportunities as they come along, too. I mean, I wouldn’t have thought to make this connection with an elementary school until my kid brought home something that, for me, was like . . . “Huh? Mmm.” So yeah. I think I feel like once you get started thinking about, “How can we take our subject area expertise, and the skills that we develop in the study of religions, and use those to improve things for folks outside the academy?” Once you start thinking in that way, then you see all kinds of ways to work with people in other professions and other academic departments, too.

DMcC: Wonderful. Well thank you so much for joining me here today. We really appreciate your time.

MB: Thank you.

DMcC: Have a great day!

MB: You too.

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Straight White American Jesus, the podcast

In this week’s podcast, Skidmore College Professor Bradley Onishi speaks about Straight White American Jesus, a podcast he co-hosts with Dan Miller that blends insider religious experience with academic expertise about American Evangelicalism. “The goal is never reduction,” Onishi argues about the mix of insider/outsider frames. Instead, he shares how the podcast tries to provide better access to complex religious worlds and how careful historical framing and rigorous critical analysis can humanize rather than demonize evangelicals. Looking honestly at religion, warts and all, is worth the effort since it leads us to increased religious literacy outcomes designed to understand the “human condition writ large.”

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


Straight White American Jesus, the Podcast

Podcast with Bradley Onishi (25 November 2019).

Interviewed by David McConeghy

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/straight-white-american-jesus-the-podcast/

PDF at https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Onishi_-_Straight_White_American_Jesus-_the_Podcast_1.1.pdf

David McConeghy (DMcC): Welcome. My name is David McConeghy. And today I’m joined by Dr Bradley Onishi, Associate Professor of Religion at Skidmore College in New York. He’s the co-author of Christian Mysticism: An Introduction to Contemporary Theoretical Approaches; the author of The Sacrality of the Secular, a major work about the philosophy of religion. Today he’s here as the co-host, with Dan Miller, of the really excellent podcast, Straight White American Jesus. Brad, thanks so much for joining us today.

Bradley Onishi (BO): Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.

DMcC: So I’ve been listening to your podcast for a while now, and I know you share it with everyone. But for those that haven’t come across this yet, where did you get the idea for this podcast?

BO: So in the kind-of aftermath of Trump’s election Dan and I got together and talked about wanting to share our stories, and also wanting to share kind-of our scholarship on evangelicalism and American religion. For those who haven’t listened, my story is basically that I converted to evangelicalism when I was fourteen. And by the time I was twenty I was a full-time minister, I was married, and I was really on my way toward a kind-of life in ministry and in the evangelical world. All of that changed, of course. And I’m still in the religion game – as I like to say – but just from a much different perspective. And so, for Dan and I, we wanted to help folks have an insider perspective and understanding of white evangelicalism in this country. We also wanted to provide a kind-of historical and social scientific lens on white evangelicalism. Our major goal is basically this: we want to explain, basically, why Donald Trump appears more like Jesus than any other politician white evangelicals have ever encountered. And so we do that through both the telling of our stories and a kind-of tracing the history of evangelicalism in this country.

DMcC: I found that mix of personal experience blending in to academic rigour, blending into full-on interviews with really important scholar like R. Marie Griffith and Randall Balmer. It’s really compelling. Did you know from the beginning that you had that kind-of really effective dialogue between those two halves? That you and Dan both share, right, share a background?

BO: Yes, you know it all comes so naturally. Because evangelicalism was my world. I mean I was. . . . It’s hard to explain how zealous I was, when I converted. I was that sixteen year-old kid who went from sneaking around the back of movie theatres to do teenage stuff, to standing out in front of the movie theatre, trying to convert people. And so when evangelicalism is that much a part of your life reflecting on it is sometimes painful, but it comes very naturally. So Dan and I knew we could do that. We also knew we had a passion for enabling . . . or creating a platform for scholars to help a wider audience understand, like: how is that more white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump than for George W Bush, or Mitt Romney? How does that happen? Well, we knew there were people out there who could help us understand that. And so we wanted to just provide space for those analytical, historical, critical, sociological perspectives.

DMcC: What I take from the moment that we’re in right now, is that we really have a great opportunity, right, as scholars, as outsiders, to kind-of present some of the research that’s been done, especially into those theoretical perspectives that the public often doesn’t see. Because they’re framed in language or framed in books that are hard to market to public audiences. But the insider approach really gives you that colloquial, fundamental access to an authenticity, when you speak about it, that makes it – when you switch, then, to the academic narrative – so much more alive. When you say it’s hard to convince audiences of how zealous you were, there was the moment when you were describing in the podcast, how you would go, in the high school lunch room, up to students that were your high school peers and evangelise to them at lunch. Because you were convinced that their mortal souls were at risk, and if you did not do everything you could do at that moment that you were going to leave them behind.

BO: Yes. And you know one of the goals is not to soften, or make more palatable the politics and culture of evangelicals in the Trump era. We are not here to sort-of “make nice” in any case. But what I do want to do, by telling stories like the one you just mentioned, I want people to be able to think themselves into the places of the evangelicals, not so that they can agree, not so that they can accept it, but so they can see the human element in it. It’s so easy to reduce those we disagree with – especially those who seem to be harming our public sphere – to just reduce them to something demented, something that’s not right. And just sort-of push them away as hopeless and helpless and whatever. My hope is by sharing my story, and Dan’s too, that we can show folks that this is a very human culture. It’s a very human set of events. It’s a very human community. And if you can get a window into that, maybe it can help you when you’re at a school board meeting, or you’re at your election for the city council, or when you’re dealing with parents on your kids’ soccer team, or having a Thanksgiving dinner. Maybe it can give you a better approach to how to discuss these things with your neighbours, with your fellow citizens, with your colleagues – whoever that may be. And so all that is to say, for me, that the personal element is really, really important. It adds something, I think, that makes it easier for a general audience to identify with. And it also makes it easier for those who are ex-evangelicals, like I am, to feel that they have a way in to understand more of the sort-of academic discourse surrounding the culture that they’re arguing from.

DMcC: Right. And for those perhaps outside of the US, it’s been a very kind-of English language discussion and very much on Twitter with folks like Chris Stroop, and others who #Exevangelical, are talking about their de-conversion experiences. There really is that kind-of two sides to what’s going on, in the sense that there are some folks that worry that perhaps the level of honesty that you’re approaching this topic with is unfair to evangelicals. And I think, all of the folks that I’ve heard from have been really forceful advocates for: “We’re not going to dismiss what’s wrong here, and we’re going to call out things that we see are wrong, and we feel like we have a space to do that.” But on the other hand it is about explaining experience and opening dialogue and trying to find the allies that are there for you. On the other hand, though, do you think . . . ? (Laughs) I’m guessing that maybe there’s been some push-back as well? Can you talk about the kinds of different responses that you’ve received from those that have been very supportive, as ex-evangelical community members, to those that are remaining evangelical, and may have some less than kind words for the work that you’re doing.

BO: Yes, I mean just to go to the beginning of your question there: my goal is not to. . . . I’m a scholar. And even when I’m talking about my own experiences, I want to be able to have an analytical lens. And so on our podcasts and with the work we’re doing, the goal is never reduction; the goal is never demonisation. The goal is always to say: “We want to examine these issues as best as we can.” And that includes returning to sources. That includes returning to documents and facts and histories that have been covered over that people don’t know about. We did this in one of our very first episodes with the abortion myth. Randall Balmer came on and . . . . Let me outline the history for you regarding the formation of the religious right. It was not about abortion. And the idea that it was is revisionist history in service of an evangelical propaganda or mission. In fact it was race. And my response to those who would have a pop at that, I would say “We’re doing historical work here. If you feel like our historical analysis is off in some way, we can talk about that. But just to say that somehow pointing these things out is unfair or not warranted, I just don’t buy that.”

DMcC: That’s such a good response. Because, you know, it allows you the space to say let’s take Darren Dochuk who would place oil, and empire, and commercialism, maybe even above race, at the start of the kind-of consolidation of the religious right. And it gives you that space to say, “Even scholars have disagreements about this. But we can all narrate the problems that we’re seeing at the same time.”

BO: I think that’s exactly right. And it leads to who has kind-of responded to the podcast. I can say that we’ve had two groups respond very positively. One are ex-evangelicals who’ve said “ You’re able to speak my language. You speak the language of evangelicalism that I came out of. And yet what you’re doing is giving me a road into understanding the history and all of the cultural and political factors that shaped that religious community that I’m now emerging from. What it’s doing is helping me kind-of put my world back together, after sort-of coming out of a very strict religious community that most of the time made no sense to me.” We’ve also had many people say, “I’m a secular person in Portland” or “I’m a Reformed Jew in New York City. I have no idea how to understand why white evangelicals are so in love with Donald Trump and why they vote, and act, and think the way they do, so you’re helping me gain a window into a culture that for me is completely alien. It seems so far from my understanding of the world that I just didn’t know where to start in order to understand all of this.” And so those two communities have really reached out over Twitter, and everything else, to say that they’ve really appreciated what we’re doing. There’s been a little bit of pushback, but not much. One of the things that I like to tell students and tell folks I discuss things with is, I am totally open as a scholar to argument, and debate, and dialogue. Those are the things I love. But you’re not going to out evangelical me! I’m like “level expert” at evangelical. So when it comes to theology, and language, and jargon, and colloquialisms, and clichés – I’m fluent in that. And so when you want to discuss those things with me, just know that I’m going to be speaking your language better than you. And so you’re not going to get the upper hand on me! And the last thing is, I’m not going to assume – and I think this is part of the ex-evangelical community online, the work they’re doing is – we need to stop assuming that if you call yourself a Christian that that means you are a good person. Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not calling Christians bad people! Do not come at me on Twitter for that! What I’m saying is there is a privilege in this country that if you’re a straight, white Christian – especially a straight, white Christian male – you’re given a kind-of cover as “Oh, you must be a true, good, old-fashioned patriot.” We just sort-of have this assumption. And part of the work we’re doing – along with many other people – is just saying we need to stop giving that benefit of the doubt, just because someone claims those identities. And we need to just be willing to look very critically, and with an unflinching gaze, on what’s actually happening in those communities. That could be everything from church, too, and sexual misconduct and abuse. That can be authoritarian structures that can be supporting candidates who are authoritarian and abusive – whatever it may be. And so anyway, all of that is part of the work I feel like we’re doing, and will continue to do, and are very proud to do.

DMcC: I’m tempted to ask whether you think you would ever run out of topics. But . . .

BO: (Laughs)

DMcC: since you describe your access to evangelicals as both fluency in a language, but also access to a world that is very closed off, and inaccessible to those that at are not fully immersed in it, it feels like you can just take any aspect of an evangelicals life: how they think about the economy, how they think about death, how they think about marriage, how they think about the value of life. And every issue, right, has to be encapsulated in some way by that worldview. It has to be addressed with fluency by that language. Do you feel that way? That there’s really never . . . this is an eternal wellspring for you?

BO: Well I don’t know about eternal, but what I will say is when you’re in something long enough you have the muscle memory to either know how to do it, or to find the person who does. And so I don’t want to make out that the evangelical community in this country, including the white evangelical community in this country is homogeneous. There’s a lot of difference between small house churches in West Texas and Liberty Baptists with the Falwell Family, there’s a lot of difference between the Vineyards in South California and what’s happening in rural Georgia. With all that said – at least in the Trump era – there is no shortage of need to discuss things related to evangelical culture. And so at least for the moment, it’s not hard to find things that are not only relevant but seem very pressing for our public sphere.

DMcC: It reminds me of the way that people have spoken about Trump’s election as a net gain for the media, even amid its attacks that the constant stream of scandals – or things that sound like scandals to some people – generates that kind-of a gravity of its own. And that we’re lucky, as religion scholars who happen to work on things that are so central to understanding what’s going on in American politics right now. It makes me feel very fortunate. But also it seems to carry a lot of responsibility. Do you feel that weight, as well?

BO: I do. And I know there’ll be people out there in the religious studies world who will say, “You know, Dan and Brad, you are blurring the lines between insider and outsider. You’re blurring the lines between scholar and data.” And I understand that perspective. I don’t necessarily agree with it. So when Dan and I go into any episode we do, we want to make sure that as we tell anecdotes from our past, as we recount what it was like to come home and have your family not be there, and have your first thought be “Maybe the rapture happened?” Where everyone got taken away and I didn’t. As we tell those stories we always want to balance that with very rigorous scholarship. And we want to do our homework. We want to go to the primary sources, we want to go to the data, we want to make sure we have that right, so that we can make sure, as scholars and as people that have a platform, that we are owning up and responding to that responsibility.

DMcC: Right. It also strikes me that it’s kind-of like you have an ethnographic project that you were living. And then you decided that the project was over. And then you realised that you could actually . . . that you had collected all this data that was really valuable. So, from one perspective, you know, is it blurring the line between insider and outsider? Well, it might be. But on the other hand, you were living in the same way that an ethnographer might live, as if they were doing full-immersion field work. And now you’ve pulled back from being within that perspective. And now that you’re not in that perspective you can clearly demarcate your outsider-ness – right? – in relation to your previous insider-ness

BO: And I think that’s right in ways that I think ethnographers experience. You begin . . . if you’re an ethnographer you form relationships within the community. And even when you might find the politics or practices of that community detestable, at that turning point, the relationships you form affect you. And believe me, I still have friends and many family members who are still part of the evangelical world. They are people for whom I have great affection. I love them. And so for me to do this project, again, means I want to avoid reduction and demonisation. But I also want to have the courage and the audacity to point as critical and as unflinching an eye as we can on what’s happening.

DMcC: Right. So, do you think – and feel free to share specific episodes that you’d like to direct people to if they come to mind – are there things that really resonate best with the community where the clarity of that kind-of-like worldview switch that you’ve had, that you’re revealing to everyone, really appears best? Your gold star podcast episodes?

BO: Well the thing we’ve been focussing on this season has been Beyond Belief. And what we want to do is explain not only what evangelicals believe, but what their culture and beliefs do for them. And so let me give you an example. We’ve spoken several times on our podcast about abortion and “cultures of life” – quote unquote – And one of the things we’ve tried really hard to explain is that, yes, there is a focus on abortion. Because many rank and file evangelicals go to bed at night believing that any form of abortion is equivalent to murder. Ok. However there’s whole nother package of goods that come with that belief. I know personally, from my own experience, that every time that I explained to my church elders that I wanted to vote for a Democrat because their emphasis on equality, or social justice, seemed more in line with the gospel of Jesus Christ, they would sort-of say to me “Look, you can do that if you want. But what you’re condoning is the murder of millions of children.” Why do I bring that up? Because that one belief in abortion meant that I could turn off my brain completely when it came to all other issues. So when I went into a voting booth I did not have to consider whether or not all the things related to healthcare reform, education initiatives, tax hikes, immigration, what all of those things meant for who I should vote for. What I was going to vote for was who was “pro-life”, quote unquote: who was against abortion. And so I got to turn off a whole set of moral and ethical decisions. I got to disengage politically, and go to bed at night knowing that I had done the right thing: that I was a good person, because I stood against murder. And that happens all over the place in evangelical culture. I could give you similar examples when it comes to apocalypticism. I could give you similar examples when it comes to God and guns, or gender. And so, what our audience has been really reacting to is unpacking what beliefs do for you more than just simply explaining theological frameworks or evangelical doctrines.

DMcC: And I’m so thrilled to hear you present it in that way. We’ve been having kind-of a religious literacy discussion on Twitter, some of us going around, and that really strikes me as one of the operational moves that religious studies really can take advantage of: that it’s not simply the content that we can present – it’s the critical appraisal of the work that religion does, in particular instances, for particular people. So on abortion, the work that it does is potentially make hard political decisions a lot easier, right? It clarifies what the expectations are for them. And, as an element of religious literacy, presenting religion in that way to the public is a really powerful way to think about it. It’s very different than thinking about religion as simply a collection of beliefs that we hold and then not really much beyond that, right?

BO: It is. And you know that in every Intro to Religion class, most scholars and teachers are not going to ask, you know, “Let’s ask their students to make a list of what Hindus and Muslims and Christians and everyone else believes.” They’re going to ask, “Let’s try to define religion.” and then they’re going to say, “What does religion do for people?” Well I know the question I ask my students on the first day, is “Why do people do religion?” and when I say why do people do religion, they immediately get away from belief and they start raising their hands. And it’s like “Community” “tradition”, “family”, “belonging”, “identity”. And as soon as we start talking about why people do religion instead of what do religious people believe, all of the dimensions of religious studies opens up. And what you see is that when we study religion we’re also studying race, we’re also studying embodiment, we’re also studying gender, and we’re also studying group formation. I always tell kids who want to major in religion, I’m like: “Look, when you sign up with us, you get to study it all. You don’t have to compartmentalise what you’re doing into one domain. Studying religion means studying the human condition writ large.” One of the things I like to say is that, when you study religion you get a window into human conditions. That means communities and worlds that at one time probably seemed indecipherable. And you also get a window into the human condition in a way that I think is really unique. In the humanities, yes, but in religious studies even more so.

DMcC: I’m so pleased to hear you say that. It’s really been quite a pleasure to speak with you today about this. Thank you so much for joining us. And where can people find your podcast online?

BO: Yes, so you can find Straight White American Jesus on Apple Podcast, on Stitcher, on Google, on most places that people find podcasts. You can find me on Twitter @BradleyOnishi. And we still do have a Straight White American Jesus Facebook page as well.

DMcC: Perfect. Thank you so much for joining us.

BO: Thanks for having me.

 

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

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

Reflections on “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith”

Following the “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith” Conference hosted by the Norwegian University for Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway, Aaron W. Hughes, the conference’s keynote speaker, joined the Religious Studies project to discuss some of what was discussed during the conference and primarily the legacy of J.Z. Smith’s work for the field of religious studies.

The conference provided great examples of the application of Smith’s work across sub-fields and for religious studies pedagogy. But this wide application of Smith’s work also raised some questions not only about how scholars read and engage with Smith’s work but also about how we adapt and apply Smith’s work moving forward. Hughes reflects on the impact of Smith’s work while also addressing critiques of his approach. Hughes contends that Smith left scholars of religion with a simple but impossible task of critically engaging and reflecting on one’s work while maintaining a playful, comparative approach.

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Reflections on the “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith” Conference at NTNU

 

Podcast with Aaron W. Hughes (11 November 2019).

Interviewed by Andie Alexander

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/reflections-on-thinking-with-jonathan-z-smith/

PDF of this transcript available for download here.

Andie Alexander: (AA): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. I’m Andie Alexander, a doctoral student at Emory University. And joining me today is Dr Aaron Hughes of the University of Rochester. We are here in Trondheim, Norway, following the “Thinking with Jonathan Z. SmithConference that is hosted at the Norwegian Institute for Science and Technology. And we’re here to talk about the legacy of Smith and his work, his contribution, and ways in which we can move forward in the field. So, Aaron – Hi! Thanks for joining me.

Aaron Hughes (AH): Hi, Andie. How are you doing?

AA: Great. Are you enjoying Norway?

AH: I am. It’s very beautiful.

AA: It’s nice.

AH: The midnight sun reminds me of my childhood in Edmonton, Alberta.

AA: There you go. As long as I’ve been here it’s only been daylight! So, I don’t know if the sun sets. But it’s been nice.

AH: I think it sets at like one, and then gets up at three.

AA: (Laughs) It’s very nice. Well, let’s talk about Smith. Let’s talk about what we’ve discussed, and see what questions we have.

AH: Sounds great. Let’s do it. I think we should probably begin everything by saying that Smith has probably been the most important theoretician over the past fifty years, half century. I think he’s so important . . . so I’ll talk about the past before I talk about what I think. So I think that probably, he more than anyone, was responsible for smashing the Eliadian phenomenological paradigm. The problem is, even though that paradigm should be long dead and buried, it’s still one that our students gravitate towards and still one that a number of our colleagues gravitate towards. I think, it’s what I tried to say a couple of times, we’re in one of these rarefied environments of people who are more critical, who just think we’re all the same and we preach to the converted. Whereas, when we walk the halls of the AAR and look at some of the papers that are given there, they fall back a lot on that old phenomenological model. So I think that’s Smith’s main importance. So Smith – and I think we all fall in this legacy – refused to see religion as special, sui generis, or as unique in the ontological sense. It might be unique to us, but ontologically it’s not unique. And if it’s not unique, you can’t compare it to anything else. And I think that’s the beauty of him, is that he was able to show the incongruous relationship between the quote-unquote “religious” and the quote-unquote “mundane”. So I think that’s where . . . . I mean, and the other thing, I think, that came up a number of times at the conference was the ludic or the playful dimension of Smith. But I mean the flipside of that is that he was so knowledgeable and so comfortable. Whereas when we get undergraduates who are not comfortable and they don’t have nearly the depth of education that he did . . . so there’s a problem of translation. I think the other thing that’s great about Smith is his broad comparative . . . his broad vision. And I think that’s something that a lot of us don’t share, because again that goes against what we’re taught in graduate school. So it’s funny, I think, when I talk to a number of people about this, a lot of the people here who work with Smith . . . . I think I really only began to appreciate Smith after graduate school. Because then you’re afforded the slowness of reading him, and appreciating him.

AA: I can see that. It’s sort-of different, given that I’ve had to read him as an undergrad, because. . . It’s a different sort of introduction . . .

AH: Right. In Alabama. Yes, definitely!

AA: And so, in the same sense, it’s something that I think is important for people to at least have in their repertoire. But something that I find is often not taught in grad school, or is never much, and it’s always highly contested.

AH: Yes. And I think I said in my lecture that I never encountered Smith until graduate school. We just read people like Eliade and Weber, and maybe there was a reason for that. Maybe the person that taught the course thought, “Well you’ll get Smith later, so let’s . . . .” That was good for me, because I read first all the things that Smith would later be critical of. By the time I came to Smith it was like, “Yes, I can see that.”

AA: I think, too, the distinction that you’re making between seeing religion as “unique for us”, and not ontologically unique, is something that is lost, partly in that religions chapter that he wrote (5:00). I suspect, as I read that, he was being provocative – but he probably meant it. But not in the way that I suspect a lot of people want to contend with. And it’s easier to dismiss. Because as you said, he was pushing back against the whole phenomenological paradigm, I suppose. And while, especially given the group here, we are relatively on the same page and think that this should be obvious that this should be something that everyone is doing . . . and that’s something you mention in your keynote: how is this not something that’s just common knowledge across the academy?

AH: I think a lot people still believe in the sacred, or still believe . . . . I think this is where the problem is. We live in a very chaotic world where “religions” quote-unquote don’t seem to like one another particularly. I think this really comes to the fore after 9/11. So a lot of people in Religious Studies think that Religious Studies can be that which facilitates conversation between religions. That’s always . . . I joke to my students: “I didn’t spend ten years in graduate school to be an interfaith dialogue facilitator.” As important as that work is, though, really. So oftentimes I’ll try to get Jews and Muslims to talk together but not under the auspices of the academic classroom. I think, as I’ve said before, religions get along better when they talk to one another as opposed to when they shout at one another. But I do think a lot of people in the Religious Studies academy think that that’s the goal of Religious Studies: to show the similarities between religions. I disagree, and I think Smith would disagree. But I think that . . . I always worry that Smith was . . . . Smith was on point. Smith was edgy. Smith was critical. Smith really encourages us to do that. But the two things that I worry about, as I said in the keynote, are those people that will just write him off as another dead white guy – which as I said is absolutely stupid, given the fact that he wasn’t even white, he was Jewish. But that’s another matter. And the second thing that I think we’ll see is how the field will “inocculise” Smith. So that he’ll just become like a name or a trope. And people can invoke him but they’ll do it in a way that takes off the edge. And I think we see that. I’ve seen it a lot. So everyone can say, “According to Smith blah, blah, blah . . .” But they’ll never quite follow through in what Smith wanted us to do.

AA: I think you’re right. And I think in some ways what he was working against then, with his work and pushing back against the Eliadian model, we have a different version of it that’s sort-of present in the academy now. It’s maybe not as overt. But I think it’s there. So, to me, I suspect there’s still some push that has to happen. There’s still conversations to be had within the discipline. And how it works. And I think part of my concern in those conversations is the dismissal of Smith. It’s reductive – all of those critiques that get applied to his work. And what I find is that there’s very little engagement with it – if one has even read it.

AH: Well, I think just as Smith goes against our traditional ways of reading and thinking about religion, I think the modern academy goes against Smith. So on the one hand, our students come in woefully ignorant about what religion is. So we can’t engage the type of work that Smith wants until much later. You can’t have redescription without description. So I think we spend a lot of time, at least the classes we teach at the freshman and sophomore level, trying to describe to students. But hopefully if they stay for later classes we can begin to redescribe. The other thing is, I think, with the contemporary academy we’re always encouraged to do community engagement. And so job interviews will ask people, “So how will you interact with the community? What will you do with them?” And I think, in interacting with the community, we have certain expectations that go against what Smith (10:00). . . I don’t think Smith ever interacted with the local Jewish community. I don’t think the local communities are really amenable to the type of conversation that Smith had. So I think we have to fight back. And I think that’s what some of us would do. But the key, in moving forward, is how to keep the edge of a Smithian analysis. How to apply it so it just doesn’t become a bromide – which is what I think a lot of people would like it to become.

AA: Developing what Smith was doing, trying to continue to push it forward – especially given the requirements both of the job market, of service for the school, the department, because that’s shifted over the past 20 years alone. And community engagement is something very big, and there’s a huge focus on doing that sort of work. And I think that it can be very productive. But as a discipline we’re still figuring out how to do that successfully, I think, in ways that we can both learn, but also interpret, and translate, and in service of larger concerns and issues both in the community, the discipline, the nation . . .

AH: Yes. Well I think what you’ll never or rarely see a job in just theory and method in the study of religion. I think in the past twenty years I’ve maybe seen three or four of those. So, one always has to be trained in a tradition. And I’m not sure if Smith was trained in a tradition. I mean his thesis was on . . . his dissertation was on The Golden Bough. So Smith was generalist at a time when Religious Studies was particularist. So the question I think becomes: how can you translate a Smithian-type analysis into the particular fields? And that’s difficult, as we saw with some of the papers here that tried to engage Smith from the level of area studies. There had to be a lot of remedial work that they had to do for us, who aren’t in that tradition, in order to get to a small Smithian point. So I think, as we move forward, how to translate Smith into area studies will not be easy. But maybe that’s the point. That was one of the points that came out several times in the conference, was the playful or ludic dimension of Smith. Maybe that’s the method: to show the playfulness or the ludic dimension of what we work on, or how – quote-unquote – “sacred kingship” in Tibet is no more special than any other type of power hierarchy. So maybe that’s it, it’s the playful dimension. Maybe that’s his method. Did he have a method, other than showing that the religious is not qualitatively different than non-religious?

AA: Yeah. I mean, I think . . .

AH: Reflexivity, maybe?

AA: Yes self-reflexivity is certainly something that is required and this came up in many of our conversations. But maybe coupled with that playfulness.

AH: Yes. I think you’re right. I think that Smith’s message on the one hand is very simple. We need to be self-conscious, self-reflexive scholars who don’t treat religion as somehow special different or special from mundane things. And I think that’s where the playfulness comes through. So the question becomes: how do you translate that into particular religions, which in area studies tend to be a lot more serious and not engaged in play? And how do you translate that into a pedagogical idiom or an idiom working with the communities, which are not accustomed to think about religion in a playful way? Because, “this is what the Bible says you’re supposed to do”. Or, “this is what the Qur’an says”. So I think the classroom is easier to translate that than the community. But it still poses its set of problems. From our conversation yesterday, we said that where Smith tried to translate his more theoretical ideas was in the Dictionary. I’m not sure how successful the Dictionary was. I mean, no-one engaged the dictionary here. We rarely talk about that. We talk about the essays in his main publications. But we never talk about the Dictionary (15:00). I haven’t looked at the Dictionary in ages. So maybe I should go back again and look at it. So it’s hard. But maybe the main translation of that is to get students to be playful with religion. That’s how I try to do it, so they can joke about it. Obviously . . . I think it’s easy in the community, too. As we move forward, and I think I said that in the lecture, I mean, we have to absorb Smith’s critique. We have to absorb his wit. And we have to absorb his edge. But create new edges and new wits as a way to move forward. Because if not, we’ll just make him into a name or slogan that doesn’t have any venom. And I think that maybe the way to go with that is to bring him into the study of particular religions, which isn’t easy. The main thing I really like about Smith is that he encourages us to use our imaginations.

AA And I agree. For Smith he does encourage that. He encourages odd comparisons that might not make sense. And tracing historical etymologies and to have a better conception of how we talk about religion. . .

  1. AH. . . in human activity.

AA: . . . in human activity, yes.

AH: It’s hard, because. . . . I agree, and I think that’s the way it should be. But ultimately if you’re in an area, like in Islamic Studies, my work has to be adjudicated by people in Islamic Studies. It might not . .  . The chances are it might not come out of Religious Studies. So you always have to move back and forth between trying to make theoretical contributions to the field of Religious Studies, but with the realisation that people in Religious Studies might not read it, because it’s in Islamic Studies, or Jewish Studies, or Buddhist Studies, or whatever. At the same time, to write in such a way that those people that would naturally read it – people in those area studies – would be able to understand the argument. So that’s always the trick. I think I’ve been able to do it well. But I don’t think it’s easy. And I think, ideally, I’ve tried to pave a path for young scholars in Islamic studies, to try to do that. Whether that’s successful or not, I don’t know. But that . . . I think that’s the main thing as we move forward… that will be one of the issues of how to translate Smith. We talked about that. We talked about Daniel Barbu and Nick Meylan in Geneva in Switzerland have tried to translate Smith into French. I’m not sure to what effect. Part of the project is trying to translate Smith into Italian. And again, I don’t know how you . . . . It came up several times: how you translate Smith for an undergraduate American audience is one thing, but how you translate it for an Italian audience, or a French audience, or a Polish audience, is another thing. And I don’t think that’s easy. But I think Smith should be translated into other languages. Probably maybe not a word-for-word translation, but a more conceptual type of translation. How do we take the playful aspect in English and translate it into Italian? You can’t do it.

AA: You can’t.

AH: You have to be playful in Italian in order to . . . . So it becomes a very difficult process. But all translation is difficult. You can think, do you want a literal translation, or do you want a conceptual translation? And I think it’s the conceptual translation – both at the literal level in other languages and into other fields within Religious Studies – that will be the difficulty moving forward. But I think it can happen. I think it will happen. Most of us here are committed to making that happen.

AA: Yes, I think so. As was mentioned, it doesn’t happen overnight, those changes. But I think that, to me at least, is why having more productive work happening in the classroom early on, and not following the method of just: give information, undo it later. . .

AH: I like to . . . See, because I have to work with Islamic Studies and most people don’t know anything about Islam, I really have to begin by making sure they know the narratives. And ideally know the texts in the languages. Because then, I think, you can learn the theoretical stuff (20:00). I know probably people would disagree with me here, but I’m old fashioned that way. But I think you need the description, I think you need the details and the facts, but later you can say that no facts are facts, they’re simply ideologies going under the guise of whatever. But I think students need that. And then they can play. Because you can’t play unless you know the rules of the game.

AA: That’s true. You have to know the rules. And I think that’s key. But where I think I’m going to push on that, is that most people are not going to play. They’re not going to be here, right? And so, if we’re talking to an undergraduate class of a hundred people, and this is the humanities credit that they get, what then? Because they’re not going to remember the narratives of Islam. They’re not going to remember different facts about any world religions.

AH: Yeah. That’s tough.

AA: And so, is the key, then, that they have all of that data that makes them feel more confident in saying, “Well, I know what true Islam is”, versus being able to weigh those claims of authority and authenticity against one another?

AH: I think you’re right. We always speak out of our own context. And I’m lucky, we don’t have humanities requirements in my university. People are in the class because they want to be in the class. And I think if I’m playful enough in the class then they’ll come into the second and third level classes. So yes. So I’ve never dealt with that. But if I did have to teach a larger class – I teach 18-20 students all of whom want to be there, and who do the reading – so if I had to teach these big . . . . I can’t even imagine doing it. I don’t know what I’d do. I really don’t. I mean I guess you’re right. How do you transmit the information, but in the same way let them know that the information is wafer thin?

AA: It’s contingent.

AH: Yes. So that is . . . That’s a tough question. And I don’t have to think about that too much, which is a cop out! But I know if I taught at a large state university, for sure I’d have to think about that.

AA: And I think that is part of it. The ways in which any discipline is approached varies so drastically across universities.

AH: That’s what Smith said. That’s a great point. Because Smith taught at the type of place that I teach at. So very bright undergraduates – some of the brightest in the country – who probably had some idea of what the religions were. And then he would kind-of work to undermine that. So like where I teach, I teach an Introduction to Jewish History class. And most of the students are Jewish. They’ve come out of, often, Jewish day school in the New York City, Boston area. They know their stuff. They know the data. But I get them in the classroom because they’re very bright, and they think “Well, you know what, maybe my parents . . . maybe it all doesn’t quite make sense.” So at the introductory level I can probably do what people at a large state university can only do at the third or fourth year. And I wonder if Smith probably had something similar to that. Because he must have taught. . . .So I think that every institution is different. And there’s large state universities, there are the colleges and they’re like the elite, private university, Research 1 universities that have these different constituencies. And maybe that would have been a good workshop, translating this myth into the undergraduate classroom? But heck, I don’t think we can translate him . . . . Most people can’t even translate him into their own areas of research. How they translate him into the classroom is not easy. Because I think, to go back to where we began, Smith asks us to do that which is the opposite of what the modern academy encourages us to do. Which is to read quickly read fast, to not have an imagination, and to not take pedagogy seriously (25:00). And I think that all of Smith’s work shows that, no – you have to do those things.

AA: Yes. It absolutely does to me. And I think that’s something that is lost, given the requirements both of grad students and tenure track faculty instructors, of course. There are so many demands on production that there’s not enough time to really investigate something that might not be in your area, or work through how to apply something. And this was a question that I think came up, in terms of applying Smith. Should we be trying to strive for a literal, intentional understanding of Smith as the author, or should we take what we can – whether he’s taught in the classroom explicitly or referenced – and adapt it. And try to apply those ideas in ways that might not be obvious. But, well, if we’re going to talk about “the other”, let’s consider issues of immigration or . . .

AH: Yes.

AA: And that way you can bring it in – even though his e.g.s are not anything that I would use, personally, in a class – or even overlap with the area that I work in – and try to take some sort of nugget or something from his approach, in terms of shaping our own approach. Because, as you mentioned, that’s a key thing for Smith is how he is approaching his own research.

AH: Yes. I think Smith might say, “Forget about me. I’m gone. But take some of the tools that I’ve tried to play with and work with them. You don’t even have to mention my name. You don’t have to say “J.Z Smith said this . . .” Just take the self-reflexivity, take the playful element, take the comparison . . . and, again, when smith says of comparison: “You can’t compare X to Y without having a third term, Z”, like, on the one hand that’s so obvious, but on the other hand it’s so deep. But I think Smith would say “Well, just move forward.” I’d like to think that’s what he would say. “Forget about me. Just keep the creativity, keep the self-reflexivity, realise that the terms you use probably have baggage in them and don’t simply replicate them.” That’s what I’m more interested in. I think for me, one of my main goals is to try and take some of the complicated Smithian and other analysis that we have in Religious Studies – at least in the critical wing of Religious Studies – and translate them into area studies. Which is not easy when you have to do it in a particular way. But I think I’ve done it with a certain amount of success. So I think, like that’s… how you take ninth century Arabic texts and ask certain questions of them – not flatten them by asking certain questions, but how you appreciate the texts on their own terms and at the same time ask questions of them that come out of that which us theory-and-method-people do.

AA: Yes. And I think that is the key. Because when we are at a conference like this, there’s a luxury of working with people who are all sort-of working toward the same goal and are concerned for those issues. But then translating that into our own fields and to others in the academy . . . .

AH: And it’s difficult, as we saw with some of the more technical papers on the second day. I mean some of the . . . I mean there’s a lot of descriptive work where, say, someone working on South Asia or East Asia, in order to bring the rest of us up to speed there has to be a lot of descriptive and informative work, and only then can they get to the questions. And I think, as the papers were so short, that sometimes it was difficult to get to those questions because of all the background work. But that’s good, though. I think that’s good. Because I don’t think Smith would say, “Oh yeah, we should all just give up working in areas or text and just ask these questions.” I think he would say that some of us should do that work.

AA: Yes. I mean we have to engage that. And I think what’s good, too, with the technical papers that we heard, it is hearing from other disciplines and not talking only to your discipline (30:00). That’s exactly what highlights – at least in my way of thinking – Smith’s goal in terms of playing with ideas and asking different questions. Because when you are listening to a paper on East Asia, and I do American religion, then what we have in common is not our area. So if we’re going to talk to each other productively, as I would hope we would, we have to have a way of doing that.

AH: Yes. We have to have common set of questions. I think that’s what Smith really . . . I think that would be his definition of the field, where people who are working with different texts, and different traditions, and different data sets, can learn from one another by asking similar sets of questions. And to me, that’s Religious Studies at its best. But again, for those in area studies like myself, it’s a trade-off being able to do that and at the same time to be able to speak to just those people that work with Arabic texts or other types of Islamic texts. Which isn’t easy. But it can be done.

AA: It can be. And I think the only way to impact area studies in a way that could push it to a more Smithian, potentially Smithian model is to do that, and to bring that work there. And we can’t also just talk to ourselves.

AH: Yes, exactly.

AA: And it’s easy to do – but again, that goes against the whole point. We have to engage across areas and disciplines within Religious Studies.

AH: Yes. And also realise that sometimes area studies have a lot to teach us, too.

AA: Yes.

AH: I think that’s important.

AA: I think so.

AH: And I really think that’ll be Smith’s legacy. I think that that’s . . . . On the one hand, he doesn’t ask too much of us, but on the other hand he asks everything: to rethink ourselves, rethink our own relationship to that which we study – and if it’s found wanting, to transform.

 

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Protected: Reflections on “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith” (Classroom Edit)

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When Religion Is Not Religion: Inside Religious Studies’ Fight for Religious Literacy in the Public Sphere

After wrapping up a Q&A session at a public conference where I presented on the topic of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations to a largely evangelical Christian audience, an older man who was sitting in the back approached me at the podium.

Rather nonchalantly, he asked, “You do know that the Constitution wasn’t written for Muslims, right?”

As we talked, he elaborated on his opinion that the concept of religious freedom does not apply to Islam and Muslims because, he said matter-of-factly, “Islam is not a religion.” At the time, it seemed to me a fringe theory cooked up in the dark corners of the internet or in 6am greasy-spoon breakfast meet-ups.

In short, I could not really believe — given my own biases — that people could actually think that the First Amendment and its promise of religious freedom did not extend to Islam and Muslims in the U.S.

However, far from fringe political theory or radical cultural posturing, this view has found its way into legal briefs, court cases, and political contexts in recent years. In fact, these legal and political perspectives are the fodder for Asma Uddin’s new book When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom.

In this work, Uddin points out that many Americans insist that the religious liberty they so quickly claim for Christianity or Judaism (or other religions beyond the nation’s so-called “Judeo-Christian” heritage) does not extend to Islam and Muslims in the U.S.

Concerned that the loss of liberty for Muslims means a loss of liberties for all, Uddin surveys an alarming amount of politicized legal and social battles over whether or not Islam can be considered a “religion” and whether, by extension, Muslims should be afforded the same human rights and constitutional protections that others claim. Weaving together her legal expertise and personal perspective as an American Muslim, Uddin makes the case that despite today’s fraught culture wars, there is a path forward for defending religious liberty for Muslims in the U.S. that can – and should – appeal to those of multiple faith perspectives or none at all.

As I listened to her interview about the book and its ramifications on the Religious Studies Project, I not only appreciated her balanced and thorough approach to this topic, but found myself wanting to focus on three points that she touched on in the talk: 1) the ways in which “religion” is defined in the public sphere; 2) whether or not we should listen to “fringe” Islamophobes and their rhetoric on religion; and 3) thinking about “when Christianity is not a religion.”

1)  Definitions of “religion” in the public sphere.

Discussing how “religion” is defined in the courts, Uddin referenced how the majority of cases she reviewed contained definitions that reminded her of Paul Tillich’s: religion as “ultimate concern.”

The debate over what constitutes the category of “religion” has been lively in the field of religious studies over the proceeding decades since Tillich’s work and many within the discipline have landed on “definitions” that are highly critical of “religion” as a sui generis phenomenon (a la Jonathan Z. Smith and Russell T. McCutcheon). Others have turned to definitions that seek to address religion in terms of globalization in the late-modern era (Thomas Tweed) or from a materialist perspective (Manuel Vásquez). Suffice it to say, these are not the only definitions of religion – or of the field of religious studies – that are out there right now, but they point to the fact that definitions of religion abound.

Despite the robust conversation about “religion” and its referents in the field of religious studies, the general public’s interpretations of religion remain reified in the past or overly influenced by a Judeo-Christian frame.

Therefore, when public figures make comments about what does or does not constitute a “religion,” the greater populace relies on fairly outdated definitions of religion by which to respond to such claims.

For example, the current head of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and President of the Family Research Council, Tony Perkins wrote:

only 16 percent of Islam is a religion — the rest is a combination of military, judicial, economic, and political system. Christianity, by comparison, isn’t a judicial or economic code — but a faith. So to suggest that we would be imposing some sort of religious test on Muslims is inaccurate. Sharia is not a religion in the context of the First Amendment.

This is exactly the kind of rhetoric Uddin addresses in her work. However, it is concerning that conversations around Islam being “only 16% religion” can gain such steam because of a general religious illiteracy or an overly Judeo-Christian conceptualization of what “religion” is. While Uddin does more than a fair job of deconstructing claims such as Perkins’, there remains a lot more work for those of us in religious studies.

We must humbly admit that we have largely failed in communicating the potent and helpful conversations we have had in the academy over the last decades to a wider public. Our discussions about religion as a construct have not been widely disseminated. While we may feel that such conversations are meant for the academic study of religion proper, I would argue that helping the wider public see that religion is more convention than “thing” would help address the constructions that frame Islam as “only 16% religion.” Furthermore, if we could successfully engage the public in this discussion about definitions, they might well become the best critics of the ways in which the term “religion” is constructed in popular parlance or politics.

Rather than dismiss the various definitions of “religion” that exist in the public sphere – or solely critique them in academic circles, conferences, and publications – scholars of religion should focus our energies in articulating proper responses to the definitions that are at work in the world and invite the wider public into seeing “religion” as a construct rather than a definitively defined category to apply to such things as Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. Uddin’s work helps prod us in such a direction.

2) Do we have to listen to “Islamophobes?” 

Such a move presumes that scholars of religion engage with the mainstream public in broad, but meaningful ways. This also means listening to supposedly “fringe” groups and their ideas about religion.

Uddin makes the provocative point that her research involved taking the claims about Islam not being a religion seriously. We might do well to take up her cue in order to better confront and critique such opinions.

Thus, when an individual such as the man at the conference I referenced earlier claims that “Islam is not a religion, but a political doctrine and form of government” we must take the time to not only listen, but parse out what this means. Where does such a view come from? How has it become operational in the lives of those who claim it? Why is it such a powerful perspective? Where, when, and how did it move from the margins to the putative center of public discourse?

Paying attention to such fringe opinions would help us better apperceive and address how wider publics give rise to the legal opinions, cases, and briefs that Uddin addresses in her work.

For example, in my current research I am aiming to go beyond the legal, state, and extreme social expressions of global Islamophobia to understand its social mechanizations and manifestations in quotidian contexts through an ethnographic study of “everyday Islamophobia.”

Rather than seeking to normalize such behavior, listening to “Islamophobes” can help scholars of religion better critique such perspectives and postures toward the “religious other.”

3) When Christianity is not a religion

While listening to and reading Uddin, I could not help but think about how one could make the argument that the political ideologies among Christians in the U.S. could also – by the very rules that lead to the conclusion that “Islam is not a religion” – be used to make the case that Christianity is not a religion either.

Christianity in the U.S., particularly in its specifically politicized evangelical varieties, could be seen as not only a set of religious beliefs and practices, but explicitly political doctrines that seek to shape social behavior through a combination of laws and penalties, not only by God, but by the state. According to the opinion that frames Islam as not a religion because of these very characteristics, one could argue that Christianity is not a religion either, but a form of government.

Let me be clear: I am not trying to say that Christianity or Islam (or any other “religion” for that matter) is not a “religion.” However, this rumination on whether Christianity should be considered a “religion” in light of the very arguments that make Islam not so in certain circles helps point us back to the very important task before religion scholars presented in this response to Uddin’s work.

First, scholars of religion must do a better job of discussing and addressing the many ways that “religion” is defined as a category in the public sphere. The helpful and powerful debate that we have had over preceding decades can, and should, benefit popular and political disputes over religious freedom and human rights. This is not only important for Muslims, but for people of any religion or no religion in particular. Debates over religious freedom in the U.S. and abroad are not going to go away any time soon. Confusion over what constitutes religion cannot be left to the wayside by scholars of religion or simply as a phenomenon to be studied. Religious studies scholars should insert themselves into the conversation.

Second, entering into these conversations and introducing the wider public to religion as a construct more than a sui generis category will not only require appealing to more progressive circles that might be more supple to our ideas, but also the conservative communities that espouse the very perspectives Uddin addresses in her work and that we might find ourselves highly critical of. While listening does not necessarily mean condoning, it does require a more humble and interpersonal engagement of attitudes we might often avoid or critique from a distance.

Uddin has done a great job in opening up such an avenue for other scholars. We would do well to follow in her footsteps. There remains much work to be done.

Buddhism in the critical classroom

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

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

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


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


Buddhism in the Critical Classroom

Podcast with Matthew Hayes (13 May 2019).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Hayes_-_Buddhism_in_the_Critical_Classroom_1.1

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MH: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

MH: Sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MH: Right, right.

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

MH: Right

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

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

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

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

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

MH: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Demystifying the Study of Religion

In this podcast we have a group discussion about Russell McCutcheon’s new book, Religion in Theory and Practice: Demystifying the Field for Burgeoning Academics. Joining us on the podcast is not only the author himself, but two young scholars who also contributed to the book, Matt Sheedy and Tara Baldrick-Morrone.

This book is of particular interest to the RSP because it is not just another critical theory book on religion, but examines the practical sites where theory gets implemented and challenged at the university. Moreover, it specifically includes the perspective of early career scholars and the struggles they face as they navigate the sparse job market. In this interview we discuss what is included in the book, how it got put together, and some of the broader theoretical and practical issues it deals with. Topics discussed include how to construct an introductory course, the job market, contingent labor, the gap between what we learn as graduate students and what we are expected to teach once we are working in the field, as well as other issues.

 

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


Demystifying the Study of Religion

Podcast with Russell T. McCutcheon, Matt Sheedy and Tara Baldrick- Morrone (29 April 2019).

Interviewed by Tenzan Eaghll.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: McCutcheon_et_al._-_Demystifying_the_Study_of_Religion_1.1

 

Tenzan Eaghll: Hello. We are gathered here today, over the mighty inter-webs to discuss Russell McCutcheon’s latest book,Religion” in Theory and Practice: Demystifying the Field for Burgeoning Academics. Joining me is not only the author himself, Russell McCutcheon, but a couple of young scholars who contributed small pieces to the volume – Matt Sheedy and Tara Baldrick-Morrone. Russell McCutcheon probably needs no introduction to most of our Listeners but just for some of those who may be new, he is Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. Matt Sheedy is visiting Professor of North American Studies at the University of Bonn. And Tara Baldrick-Morrone is a PhD candidate and instructor at the Department of Religion at Florida State University. Now part of what makes this book special, and why I wanted to include Matt and Tara in this podcast, is that it isn’t just another theory book about Religious Studies, but actively engages with questions about what it takes to make it as a scholar in today’s world. And there are about twenty other young scholars, including myself, who wrote short pieces for this book reflecting on some of the concerns and issues that young Religious Studies scholars face in the workplace today, as well as in their scholarship. So what I want to do is start with Russell and get a sense of what this book is all about, and then bring in Matt and Tara to the conversation and talk about their respective contributions and about some of the issues that burgeoning scholars face in the world today. Now, Russell – one of the first things that jumped out at me when I originally initially read the blurb for the book, on the back jacket, is that it is a bit of a follow-up to your previous book, Entanglements. So I was hoping you might start by summarising the general aim of the book for our Listeners, and saying something about how it relates to your previous work and how it differs.

Russell McCutcheon (RM): Sure. Thanks for wanting to talk about this. Entanglements was a collection – also with Equinox – of replies and rejoinders that I’ve been lucky enough to have – interactions with a variety of people – over the years in print. And those things all just sit somewhere and have a life of their own. And nobody knows they happen, if they don’t stumble across it. So I thought I’d pull all this together. But in pulling that together I wrote a fair bit of new material to open every one of the pieces and situate it, contextualise it – when was this given, why was it given. But in writing those, I explicitly tried to think of an earlier career reader who might not yet have had the luxury of doing these sorts of things, of talking to these sorts of people. Because latterly I’ve paid a fair bit of attention to job market issues, things that have been issues for decades in the Humanities, but have certainly hit a peak in the last five, ten years in North America at least – also in Europe now. So it occurred to me that that would be a good audience to write to, whatever anybody else did with it. So that was Entanglements, it certainly wasn’t a “how to” volume or anything. But then a review of Entanglements – and there have been many reviews – but a review of Entanglements written by Travis Cooper – who recently finished his PhD at Indiana, mainly I think in anthropology but also Religious Studies – he wrote a review of it and had some qualms with the book here and there. He said some nice things, he said some critical things. But I open the introduction to this set of pieces quoting his review, where he basically says, “Where’s the other senior career people in the file, writing things? Where are they? Why aren’t they writing things like this?” And that stuck in my head after the press sent me a copy of that review. And for a variety of reasons I’ve become an essayist. I didn’t set out to be an essayist, but I’ve turned into an essayist in my career. And so, periodically, I’ve collected together things that have been published, things that haven’t been published. And that was in my head. And his review line prompted me to think, “Well I have a number of things I’ve written – on the field, on teaching, on the intro course – that have not been pulled together, and a few that have not been published yet. And so that’s how his book came about. Thinking specifically to – in an even more explicit way – address a variety of career and professional issues with the earlier career person in mind. Whether they agree or not with how I study religion they’ll probably at least come across certain departmental or professional issues. So that was the logic of this book.

TE: OK, great. And maybe just to add to that, that the organisation of this book is also quite interesting. It’s divided into three sections: theory, in practice and then in praxis. Is there a particular rational for that division?

RM: Well I finished this book quite a long time ago, to be honest. Well over a year, a year-and-a-half ago. And presses all have their own publishing schedules. And the book originally had two sections. That’s the title: in theory and in practice (5:00). And my logic was, you’re looking for some . . . you know, it’s myth-making, right? You’re looking for some hindsight organisational principle to the pieces you’re pulling together. You think, in your head, that they’re related somehow. And I thought, “Well, a group of these are mainly about my interest in the category of religion, classification interests. But a number of these are a lot more practically concerned. They’re about . . . The Bulletin blog series, I repurposed a piece that I wrote there, and Matt was involved in commissioning that, right? But: “What do you tell people you do, when they ask you, as a scholar of religion?”; a piece that I originally did up at Chicago on practical choices you have to make in designing a curriculum syllabus . . . so there’s your practice. But because the piece was done so long ago and it had not moved to copy editing, that’s when it occurred to me that a whole bunch of these additional pieces where people had replied to something I wrote ten years ago on professionalisation issues, that what a perfect opportunity to get all these people – if they were interested – to get their pieces into print. I liked my theory/practice division and that’s when it occurred to me, “Well, yes: praxis! Why not? There’s the third section.” It’s certainly not praxis in the technical Marxist sense, but giving early career people – ABD people, or at least they were when they wrote this, not all of them still are – reflecting on their own situation in the light of some theses about the profession from a decade ago, seemed to have this very nice integration of theory and practice. This very nice sense of practically applied theory. And thus the structure of the book came about.

TE: One thing that I liked about the book, on reading it, is that it didn’t just say a lot of the familiar stuff that those of us who have read your other books, say, have come to know and expect from your work, such as your critique of the world religion paradigm and, say, tropes like the spiritual-but-not-religious notion. But it also had this really kind-of cool practice section where you almost were thinking through, in some of the essays, your own development as a teacher and scholar, and how you kind-of came to arrive at certain more critical positions, and give a nice reflection on the development of you and academics and Religious Studies in the field today. . . .

RM: Oh that’s very kind. You found some of those useful, then?

TE: Yes, I thought these was an interesting juxtaposition – because we didn’t’ just get the critique but how those critiques formed, and how they formed – particularly in the classroom in some of your reflections on teaching introduction classes. But I have a question on that, so I’ll get to that in a moment.

RM: Well one thing I could say, jumping off that, is that – I’ve written about this – I’ve long been frustrated by the classic division of labour between teaching and research. And, “My teaching gets in the way of my research”, which all kinds of people talk about that. Or on the other side, people will call themselves “teaching specialists”. I’ve never been sure exactly what that means to be honest. In other words, I’ve never met a teaching specialist who teaches more than I do, that teaches more different courses than I would. We all, generally, do about the same. That division of labour, wherever you side yourself, has always been frustrating. Because, at least in my experience, the things that I’ve taught in classes have been deeply consequential to my writing. I don’t know anyone who teaches something in a class that didn’t come from someone’s research, right? We read books, we use books in classes, and we do field work and talk about it in our class. So anything that draws attention to intimate cross-pollination between these, strikes me as an important thing.

RM: That’s one of the similarities between some of your essays and the works of, say, Jonathan Z. Smith, is that he often did the same thing: used essays as an occasion to reflect on the intersection between the two, teaching and theory.

RM: For me it was profoundly evident in my very first job. I was a full-time instructor at the University of Tennessee. I’ve written about this, when they asked me . . . . In a different book that’s come out, I reflect on this quite explicitly, to use Huston Smith’s world religions – The Religions of Man is originally the title – in one of my courses. And I didn’t know much about Huston Smith’s book. I kind-of knew a little bit about it – I’m writing my dissertation and I’m not paying attention to that particular Smith – and I used it. I had to use it. And the kind-of world religions critique someone like me would offer wasn’t present in the field. Then, not many people were thinking much about it. And at least for me, that particular experience – using the book I was told to use in classroom – played a crucial role in helping to cement a real dissatisfaction in the particular model that probably, prior to that, I hadn’t thought too much about (10:00). And thus Manufacturing Religion takes on a new character. There’s new examples used in that – specific things from Smith, used as instances of problems in the field. So it was a frustrating experience for me using the book, but it was only a frustrating experience for me as I used the book. And as I became familiar with that very popular model that a lot of other people were using. So again, that was fortuitous that they asked me to use that.

TE: This might work as a partial springboard to the next question, then. It’s one of the points you make in your introduction that I found interesting: many of the concerns about the current state of the field are not new, but have been of concern to young scholars for a number of years – including yourself, when you were a young scholar. I found this interesting, because it’s something that I hadn’t thought about when I was a grad student and heard everybody complaining about the lack of jobs and the current state of the Humanities. I would always kind-of wonder to what extent these struggles are all new, how new they were? And so I guess I wanted to throw that question out here, and ask you to expand a bit on what you think is new for young scholars in today’s climate and what is similar. Do we face new challenges or is it all the same-old . . .?

RM: I say, I think, a little bit in the introduction and then a little bit in the intro to the third part. Before Matt’s piece, in the third part of the book, I repeat this. I always find it frustrating the manner in which groups – who might otherwise have shared interest – consume each other in their critique. That I often now see conflicts between scholars more senior than myself – and I write about this a little bit in the book – and scholars much more junior to myself. And the two of them are quite critical of each other. On the one side I see almost a view of: “Suck it up! It’s all hard work.” And on the other side I see this view of: “You’re a privileged older person and you don’t really get how hard it is right now.” While I certainly understand that situation – at least from where I sit, being well between those generations. I’m fifty-seven, so I’m not a seventy year-old scholar. I got my PhD in ‘95. I started doing my PhD in about ‘88-‘89. I kind-of forget. So the generation that taught me, as opposed to the generation that are now getting PhDs, so I feel a little between those groups. And they strike me as having dramatically shared interests. They strike me as facing very similar problems, that there’s all kinds of people in their sixties and seventies and eighties – depending on how far back we go – who certainly just walked into jobs. Yes – at times, that happened. But if you ask scholars of those generations more about their own background you easily start to hear stories that are very identifiable with today. Today however, especially, you know, post 2008 budget collapse etc., it’s ramped up dramatically. It’s not just the 2008 budget collapse. At least here, in the United States, state budgets where education is largely funded, have been declining for decades, steadily, right? The proportion of state funds going to higher education. So, none of this just happened overnight. This has been a steady process. But when you add the post-2008 budget collapse it does seem to heighten it pretty dramatically. So I think they’re incredibly similar situations. But the magnitude of the situation now, it’s not difficult to see someone in a situation now thinking, perhaps rightly so, that it’s a change in kind. It is so heightened. So I guess again, the attempt was to try to get a number of people currently in that situation – the pieces in the last section of the book were written a few years ago, so some of those people’s situation has changed – to really get, to have a voice. And I don’t know that we’re here to convince people more senior than myself about anything. They’ll read this, they’re retired perhaps. But as least back to Travis Cooper, to really start thinking of those other senior people in the field. It’s not that like department chairs control universities. They’re largely the victims of funding decisions that happen elsewhere, too! But to think a little more constructively about contingent labour, about PhD programmes across the country: what should they be doing? How do we train students? What are we training them for? Let alone MA programmes? So if that starts a little bit more of a conversation that would be wonderful. It’s a long-overdue conversation, there’s tremendous interest probably against ever really having the conversation. That’s just the standard way. But I’m hopeful.

TE: Alright, that might be a good spot to turn to Matt and Tara. Their contributions were reflecting upon Russell’sTheses on Professionalization, which he originally wrote in 2007. So perhaps, Matt, you could start by saying something about your role as editor of The Bulletin (15:00), and how these responses to the “Theses on Professionalization” came together, and your specific response in the volume?

Matt Sheedy (MS): Yes. Well, thanks very much for this invite and the opportunity to talk about this sort-of interesting collaborative project. I was – past tense – editor for The Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog – that’s the blog portal of The Bulletin for the Study of Religion – from approximately 2012 to this past summer, 2018, as The Bulletin has had some transitions in terms of editor. And I don’t remember exactly how the idea for this came about, but Russ’s piece on professionalisation had circulated for quite some time since it was originally written. And it was something that was widely read and engaged with, and talked about. And so it became this opportunity – possibly seven, eight, nine years after the fact – to revisit some of the questions in the theses that he proposed, with early-career scholars who are trying to sort-of navigate the job market and deal with questions of professionalisation more generally. So, with a few suggestions from Russ and from people that I knew as editor at The Bulletin, I was able to bring together twenty-one early career scholars at various stages in their careers – some who were ABD (all but dissertation), some who had just finished their PhDs, some who were taking on visiting professorships and post-docs, and so forth, to reflect on the different questions from their own experience. So what’s really interesting about these responses is that it reflects a fairly broad range of scholars, dealing with similar sets of questions, in around the same time, with widely different experiences. You know, for me, when I was asked to bring all these together and it became this interesting project, the idea of turning this into a book came about through a variety of conversations. And that never fully took place for a variety of reasons. And the idea of turning these blog responses into a book was temporarily shelved. And then Russ came to me and said that he thought, if I was interested, that a portion of this book would be a good place to include these responses. Not only because they’re obviously theses responding to something that he had written, but because it reflects very much this idea of religion in theory and practice, and engaging the process of professionalisation; engaging young scholars. And it really worked out that way. Everyone was able to rethink their pieces, upwards of two years on from originally writing them, to get that published in this volume. For me, I talk about how – as Russ touched upon earlier – the 2008 economic crisis was really a crucial hinge in how a lot of us, at least, early career scholars had been thinking about this process of professionalisation. And whether or not, and to what extent, these problems were around and persisted in earlier generations. Certainly conversations, narratives about the crisis – not only in the broader economy but also in academia – really started to come to the fore, by my estimation. In the aftermath of things like the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, shortly after that in 2012-2013, one started to see regular articles appear in higher education (publications) and a variety of other forms, talking about younger academics having problems getting jobs, having problems making that transition. And, more generally, this idea that the economic crisis was finally coming to the academy. And the assumption here is that there was a bit of a lag, a bit of a delay, in terms of the impact and the effects on less and less people getting jobs. And for me, one of the things that I mention is the experiences of two scholars in particular, one of whom, Kelly J Baker, has a piece in the 21 pieces on professionalisation. She very publicly made the decision to walk away from academia and yet, at the same time, pursued her writing career that was related to her training in the study of religion, related to a lot of problems of being an academic, getting a job, the current job market, questions of gender and so forth. And she’s a really interesting example of someone who has made lemonade out of the lemons that she was given, so to speak. Another scholar that I mention is Kate Daley-Bailey, who was engaged with academic circles, certainly was working with Russ and Tara and a number of others as well. And she made an announcement as well, I think around 2014 – 2015 that she was leaving academia because there weren’t enough jobs for her as adjunct (20:00). And this sort-of struck me as a somewhat personal, or at least emblematic, instance of someone I knew who seemed to have all the sharps, all the skills, all the motivation to do this job and do it well, but had to walk away because of her own experience with those structural issues. And so those were a few of the things that I gesture to in the introduction. And I also bring together just sort-of an overview of the different themes that are talked about and covered in the 21 theses. As well as the changes that have taken place over the course of about 2 years: seeing certain people succeed, get tenure track positions. In other cases people remaining adjuncts, still working through their PhDs and in some cases scholars having left academia either temporarily or altogether. So it really struck me as microcosm bringing these 21 scholars together, of all of the different sort of experiences that one may encounter in this current academic market specifically related to the study of religion.

TE: That’s definitely one of the most interesting parts, having read them all when they were first initially published on The Bulletin and then reading them now, is kind-of the development of some of the responses over the couple of years. Initially I think, when everybody wrote, there was a lot more morbid tone in some of them – at least mine! Mine was very . . . when I first wrote it, it was very like “Everything’s hopeless!” But now my reflection, a couple of years on, is a little bit more nuanced. Throwing it to Tara, perhaps you could say something about your thesis and your response?

Tara Baldrick Morrone (TB-M): Sure. And thank you for asking about this. I responded to Thesis Number 6. And the general point of this thesis that Russ wrote is that simply getting a doctoral degree is no longer enough to obtain a full-time position in academia. And in my response I discussed how this has related to the hyper-professionalisation that has been occurring in the Humanities. That people like Frank Donoghue have written about The Last Professors. And the idea is that younger scholars, those still in graduate school, are expected to publish, to gain a lot of teaching experience while they are still students and as they are still working on their own coursework, in order to professionalise them so to speak, in order to obtain that tenure track job. And as Matt was talking about, that’s not always the case. You can sort-of fulfil all of these requirements and still not obtain a secure full-time position in academia – as the examples that he mentioned, Kate Daley Bailey and Kelly J Baker. And so I wanted to draw attention to this because this is one of the things that we’re all told. That if we do all of these extra things we can attain that position. And looking at the job numbers from the reports released by the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, the number of tenure track jobs have actually been decreasing. And that just is further evidence, I think, of those positions not being available.

TE: Yes, and the amount of grad students doubling in the process, which is those two colliding: the faculty tenure track positions decreasing and then the PhD applicants doubling and tripling. That creates a quandary. Yeah, definite strategies are needed and it’s so tricky once you get out in the workplace and you’re actually then responsible for even recruiting new MA students, like I am now in my current position. And you kind-of feel this burden. The department is asking you for more students and to promote the department, because they want the revenue from the students. But at the same time you know, like – what’s the end here? It’s just more PhD students on the job market. Now in my response to Russell’s “Theses on Professionalization”, I address the gap between what we study as grad students and what we’re expected to teach once we are working in the field (25:00). And I would like to extend that topic to both of you, Matt and Tara, for consideration. Since both of you are now teaching at the moment, I wonder if you’d be able to offer some reflection on the gap you have experienced between your, say, early dissertation and research topics and the actual content that you have been expected to teach. Have you found any conflict between these areas? And if so, how have you dealt with that? Maybe we could start with Matt?

MS: Well, for me I would say it’s very much a mixed bag. My training is in critical social theory, broadly speaking. I look at religion in the public sphere, focussed on the Frankfurt School and Habermas in particular. Its theories of post-secularism offer what I consider a very strong critique of that position. I have, for example, had to teach fairly generic on-the-books courses like ethics and world religions, among other classes, which – with only one exception, in the case of an online course – required me to follow a standard introductory text book. I’ve been very fortunate, apart from that, to have the opportunity to basically reimagine or redesign those courses when teaching them in person, in any way that I see fit. That’s been, I guess, gratuitous in my case, in my recent position in my second year as a visiting professor in a North American Studies department at the University of Bonn. It might be worth mentioning something briefly about that particular transaction. But getting hired on as a visiting professor there, again, now in my second year I have an opportunity to do a third year next year. I was given a complete autonomy to design whatever courses that I wanted. So I don’t have any a particular complaints in that regard. When I have continued to teach some of these course on-line, that’s when the constraints come in. I on one occasion had to teach text books that reflected the world religions paradigm. And on a personal level it might have some utility in getting you to constantly re-engage those ideas from my own work, moving forward. But pedagogically, it’s very limiting. So I have some issues with that. And the other broader point that I just wanted to mention was that in my current position in a department of North American Studies, I hadn’t really anticipated making that kind-of shift from Religious Studies. A friend sent me an application to this visiting professorship opportunity at the University of Bonn. And I gave it a casual glance and thought to myself, “Well, I’m a scholar of religion, a scholar of critical social theory, cultural studies, and these sort of things. I’m not really sure if that fits.” And my friend replied back, “Well, why not? You focus on North America, for the most part.” West, more generally. And I said, “OK, yeah. That’s a good point,” I sent in an application. And they were thrilled to get someone who focusses on North America and comes at it from the study of religion. So maybe to make a slight shift away from the doom and gloom and the negative stories often associated with these current academic market, for me at least, in this instance, I was able to transfer my skills to a slightly different department. And I came to realise very quickly that their own particular data set in this department of North American Studies may not be “religion” quote-unquote, but we share very similar theoretical backgrounds. So there are, certainly in my experience, and I know in the experience of others, opportunities like that to continue to professionalise, to get a post-doc, to get a visiting professorship and hopefully use that as a springboard to move forward. So I just wanted to put a shiny spin on that, in mentioning my experience.

TE: Shiny spins are always welcome! Tara, what is the gap that you have experienced between your dissertation and research topic, and your teaching experience?

TB-M: I am in the Religions of Western Antiquity track in my department and I have been trained as a historian of early Christianity, translating Greek and Latin and focussing mainly on second to sixth century CE. But there aren’t many courses, besides the intro to the New Testament course, that specifically focus on related issues. And so I’ve been teaching courses that my department needs me to teach. Some of those courses include introduction to world religions, a multicultural film course and gender in religion (30:00). And so I have attempted to make that teaching work for me, in a sense. So some of my earlier work has been on the world religions paradigm, presenting papers for example at NASR meetings about that along with Mike Graziano and Brad Stoddard. And also thinking about how I might teach other courses in similar manners – such as gender and religion which is what I’m doing right now. And so I can’t just focus on those areas that I have been trained in. I have to broaden my own research interest in order to teach my students about something other than the ancient world. So there is a gap there, but I think that I’ve made it work for me by pairing some of my research interests with other topics that I’m either nominally interested in, or that I think my students will be interested in.

TE: Great. Well, thank you very much Russell, and Matt, and Tara for joining us today. It was a great conversation.


Citation Info: McCutcheon, Russell T., Matt Sheedy, Tara Baldrick- Morrone and Tenzan Eaghll. 2019. “Demystifying the Study of Religion”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 29 April 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 23 April 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/demystifying-the-study-of-religion/

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

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

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: The Co-Dependency of Religion and the Secular

In our fifth editors’ pick, Marek Sullivan writes “Few questions are as meta-reflexive as the question ‘Is secularism a world religion?’ It’s now established that secularism and religion are co-constitutive terms: the history of the category ‘religion’ is inseparable from the history of secularisation. But what happens when secularism is rethought as a mode or sub-category of one of its core progenies, ‘world religion’? Donovan Schaefer brings his background in critical theory and material religions to bear on this mind-bending question, leading us through the history of the secularisation thesis, the idea of ‘world religions’, the Protestant genealogy of secularism, and the urgency of parsing the academic study of secularism into historically and culturally differentiated variants. Despite the broad sweep of the interview, I was left wanting more!”

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Continuing the ‘series’ is our new features co-editor, Marek Sullivan.

Few questions are as meta-reflexive as the question ‘Is secularism a world religion?’ It’s now established that secularism and religion are co-constitutive terms: the history of the category ‘religion’ is inseparable from the history of secularisation. But what happens when secularism is rethought as a mode or sub-category of one of its core progenies, ‘world religion’? Donovan Schaefer brings his background in critical theory and material religions to bear on this mind-bending question, leading us through the history of the secularisation thesis, the idea of ‘world religions’, the Protestant genealogy of secularism, and the urgency of parsing the academic study of secularism into historically and culturally differentiated variants. Despite the broad sweep of the interview, I was left wanting more!

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

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The Blog Assignment: Confronting “Spirituality” in Teaching Religious Studies

Richard Ascough and Sharday Mosurinjohn

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

Read more

Podcasts

Decolonizing the Study of Religion

Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be familiar with the critique of the category of ‘religion’. Our podcasts with, for example, Naomi Goldenberg, James Cox, and Tim Fitzgerald, demonstrate that ‘religion’ is a distorting anachronism with roots in European colonial exploitation that has been utilized to justify the cultural superiority of Christian Europe, and is at base ‘a citation of Christianity as idealized prototype’ (Goldenberg 2018: 80). But what might it mean to decolonize the study of religion? How can we take this well-rehearsed critique and put it into practice?

In this podcast, Chris is joined by Malory Nye to discuss the decolonizing project. Why is it necessary? Should we speak of decolonizing rather than decolonization? How can the field address its whiteness, and its colonial origins and legacy? What are the theoretical, methodological, historical and pedagogical challenges that this might entail? How can ‘we’ ensure that this is a thorough decolonizing project and not merely a nod to neoliberal higher education agendas? And what can those of us who have limited time and resources at our disposal do to address this urgent and thoroughly pervasive problem with the study of religion? These questions and more animate this broad-ranging discussion with the author of Religion: The Basics, and two key journal articles – “Race and religion: postcolonial formations of power and whiteness” and “Decolonizing the Study of Religion”.

Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.


Decolonising the Study of Religion

Podcast with Malory Nye (30 June 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/decolonising-the-study-of-religion/

Christopher Cotter (CC): Regular Listeners to the Religious Studies Project will probably be quite familiar with the critique that the whole notion of the category of religion, and particularly the development of the world religions paradigm, is tied to a history of colonialism, exploitation and is built upon Western, European, Protestant Christian models, and so on. Though also, possibly, if you’ve listened back in our catalogue to an interview we had with Rudy Busto, you’re familiar with the idea that just as religion is a constructed and problematic category, so too is the notion of race. And joining me today to discuss something which grows out of both of these arguments is Malory Nye. And we’re going to be discussing decolonising the study of religion and what it might mean for us to decolonise the study of religion. And to sort-of own, and build from, and move on from the problematic entanglement of the study of religion with colonialism, racism, and exploitation. Malory Nye is an independent scholar, based in Perth in Scotland, with teaching activities at the Universities of Glasgow and Sterling. And he’s also a research scholar at the Ronin Institute. And he’ll be known to many Listeners through his book, Religion: The Basics, which is now being updated for a third edition; or perhaps, his blogging at Medium.com; his podcasts Religion Bites and History’s Ink; or through his editorship of the journal, Culture and Religion. Of particular relevance to today’s podcast are his 2019 articles, “Race and Religion: Postcolonial Formations of Power and Whiteness“, in Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, and, “Decolonizing the Study of Religion“, in Open Library of Humanities. So that’s the topic of today’s interview. And also his forthcoming book with Bloomsbury, which is due out later this year – entitled Race and Religion: Postcolonial Formations of Power and Difference – which I’m very excited to get my hands on when it comes out. So first off, Malory, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Malory Nye (MN): Well, thanks very much! It’s very good to be here. Thanks for inviting me on.

CC: Not a problem. We’re recording at Edinburgh, just before you’re going to give a paper, in the Religious Studies research seminar, on the topic of today’s interview. But before we get into the meat of it, I suppose there’s a few key things to get out of the way. What does decolonisation mean? Or decolonising? I think you want to make a distinction between those two notions. And then, also –although I said Listeners would be familiar with the entanglement of the categories of religion and race with colonialism etc., it might be good for us to begin with a reiteration of those critiques.

MN: Well, yes. They’re big questions. We could probably spend most of the time just on those, even before we get to the substance of that. Decolonising – I put it in the active, rather than decolonisation. It’s not something that’s going to happen, as a thing, and we can say “Great, we’ve done it! We’ve ticked that off. We’ve achieved the metrics.” Of course decolonisation, or decolonising, has become one of those buzz words on the left of academia. It’s become a word like “intersectionality”. “Let’s decolonise so and so.” And very often this is picked up by the management, by the universities, as an aspiration to show that universities can attract the right sort of students, can show that they’re meeting their so-called “woke” credentials of being fair, being just, showing that they’ve got diversity. Now, for me, decolonisation and a decolonising approach is a lot more profound than that. Of course decolonisation refers to something that happened politically, economically, structurally in the mid-twentieth century. The end of the European empire or the formal European empires, such as the British leaving South Asia, the Malay Peninsula, from Africa, and so on. Newly-formed independent countries becoming de-colonial countries. It happened also with France and other European powers. And so, of course, from that we’ve got the famous French scholar Fanon, also Albert Memmi, writing about the decolonising process (5:00). And emerging from that a wave of African scholars – Mbembe, Ngugi, and so on – talking about, what does it mean to be a decolonised person, to be a decolonised nation, to be a decolonised culture? And those question have not gone away. Now, as I talk about that political process, there is also the rise across political studies, post-colonial studies, of the idea of settled colonialism. The idea . . . the recognition that that’s fundamental to a lot of the political order of today: settler colonialism, European, predominantly British colonialism, that didn’t de-colonise. That so much of the United States, and Canada, and other former British colonies such as Australia, New Zealand/Aortearoa, are the products of that settler colonialism, of people who came and settled, did it through land appropriation, through land theft and usually through displacement and very often genocide of the indigenous peoples. And that is still with us today. And we can only look . . . . Most recently, this week was the week of the Oscars in California. And for the first time, a recipient of an award actually doing a land acknowledgement, acknowledging that the place of the award of the Oscars is on the land of people who were former holders of that land. And still are. Always are, always were. Always were, always will be. That settler colonialism is part and parcel of the current world system, and decolonisation, or decolonising, is also a recognition that the structures of colonialism might have been decolonised formally, but are also very much in place within the world that we live in today: economic colonisation, cultural imperialism. And I follow writers such as Mignolo and Quijano who argue that we’re in a new form of colonial modernity, that’s coloniality modernity, that is not the same as it was, say, a hundred years ago. But the idea of knowledge, of science, of politics, of economics, of world structures being very much about supporting a particular power interest. And that’s very much a sort-of European power interest. So decolonisation is arguing, in many respects, what does a world look like if we challenge that, if we go beyond that? Particularly in the sphere of academia – what we’re doing as academics – whether it be in the study of people in terms of sociology, political science, history, English studies, literature, or within the specific studies of religion. What does decolonising mean, once we recognise the current situation, and the history that got us to where we are now? So that’s not sort-of a simple process. That is a very large process. Understanding the history, understanding the present and understanding the people and things that we’re studying within the context of all that history and all that politics. And – just in this initial introduction – to also recognise that this isn’t just simply a game: it’s not just simply a matter of putting a woke badge on, about putting decolonising on your syllabus, or decolonising your curriculum. It is about recognising it’s not a metaphor – Eve Tuck – this argument that decolonisation is a matter of life and death. It’s something that, as I said, in terms of settlement, in terms of land, in terms of genocide, in terms of the political structures of today, decolonising is recognising the violence, recognising the injustice, recognising the problems of today’s world and trying to think of ways in which we can decolonise the knowledge systems behind that. And that’s sort-of where my work is trying to challenge some of the ways in which we take what we’re doing for granted, in terms of the idea of religion, in terms of studies of religion. And so that sort-of answered your first question.

CC: Yes but you’re linking nicely into, then . . . . So, if we’re going to decolonise our knowledge production and the way in which the whole discipline has been built up, or the whole field has been built up, yes, we need to talk a little bit about what is the history (10:00). So I think, if you could take us through, quite quickly, through the history of these intertwined notions of religion and race as sort-of academic constructs. But then we’ll get onto: so, if we have that critique, and we accept it, and we even teach it – but, what does it mean to teach it? And what does it mean to revise things?

MN: As you said, I think many listeners to the RSP podcasts will be familiar with some of the critiques of the world religions approach. That is so integral to the way the discipline the study of religion is being taught at all levels, from schools, through to universities, and indeed much research. And, particularly, job appointments. World religions is very much the idea that structures how people think about the study of religion: you’re going to be a specialist in a particular topic; you’re going to be in a particular religion, a part of the world, dividing up. And that is part of that history. Of course, Tomoko Masuzawa’s work on the critiquing, or thinking through, how this particular idea of understanding the world – of the pluralism, the diversity, the universalism of nineteenth century European thought – produced that world religions paradigm. And, of course, part-and-parcel with that, the structures of empire, the structures of racism within the empire. And both these evolved, of course, together. They developed together in the nineteenth and twentieth century at the height of the European industrial empire, structural empire. But of course it was slowly forming in the long period from round about the 1500s onwards, following the growth of European colonialism under the Spanish, under the Portuguese, and then under the Dutch. The British, the Germans and the French implemented it in various ways, of course: through industrial chattel enslavement, through the slave trade; through the creation of different people under different rubrics, under racialised rubrics of creating Africans, creating Asians; creating religions or non-religions that go with them; the “primitive” religions – Hinduism, Buddhism – that then became the technology of knowledge, the technology that structured the Empire. Through, too, its systematisation in the nineteenth century, as I said, with the formation of the world religions paradigm, and the slight displacement of the theological centrality of Christianity within the academy – which of course, in the 20th century, became the field of Religious Studies. So it’s got relatively short roots in the crystallisation in the disciplines that we know today, such as Religious Studies, but very long roots in terms of the formation of these ideas of religion and race as somehow separate but intertwined, very much; ways of thinking about difference and ways in which that difference could be managed by the states, by empires, under colonial rule.

CC: And as you pointed out in some of your writing, Religious Studies, as it emerged, whether it’s called Religious Studies, or Study of Religion or whatever, it became the study of the “other”. I guess in the UK context we have Theology – or here we’re in a School of Divinity – and Religious Studies becomes the place where the “other stuff” is studied, under these headings of the different isms. But even things like Philosophy – you pointed out that, well, we’ll have Philosophy departments which are effectively Western European Philosophy departments, and then people who are specialists in philosophies from other regions, or associated with other traditions, find themselves in the Study of Religions department, in some way teaching that philosophy, rather than in Philosophy. So it is sort-of built into the structure of the way disciplines, and fields, and departments work as well.

MN: Yes, I mean these are huge debates, going across much of the Humanities. Is Philosophy just simply white philosophy or European philosophy? And added to that is the question, were the Greeks Europeans? Can we really count the Greek and the classical world? This is a big debate going on in Classics: where does the classical world end? Were the Egyptians part of that classical world? The classical Egyptians, the ancient . . . .

CC: Yes.

MN: And so on. (15:00) But also, in terms of Philosophy, what about the great philosophical systems? How European philosophy has been defined can perhaps include Chinese philosophies, Indian, South Asian philosophies, indigenous African philosophies, and so on. It’s very much about boundary maintenance within all of these fields. Religious Studies has been a little bit more eclectic. And this, perhaps, sort-of is one of the reasons why I was attracted to it as an anthropologist. It hasn’t sought to put the walls around what Religious Studies is doing in the way that Philosophy has, in terms of whiteness, in terms of the great white tradition, or white civilisation tradition, that Philosophy has, and Classics has. Rather it’s sort-of like, as you said, “the other” – and here I’m waving my fingers about – the otherness of South Asians, of other traditions than Europeans. And it has been constructed in that way. It’s not an accident that that’s happened as you said. Thinking through the way in which Sociology became, in a sense, the home of white European society, or the study of white European society – or derived society – in North America. And Anthropology became the study of anything that goes beyond that. So we can go to look at the debates happening in Sociology at the moment, trying to re-find or rediscover the disciplinary history of Sociology, particularly with the writer WEB Du Bois who has been excluded from the history of the telling of the history of Sociology, although his Atlanta school in the late nineteenth century, earlier twentieth century predates many of the founders, such as Robert Park’s in Sociology, in Chicago. He was one of the first sociologists. But because he wrote about black sociology, African American sociology, he has been sort-of left out of that history. Because it doesn’t fit within the idea of the study being about white European society, or however it might be defined. Of course there were structural racism and actual racism involved. He couldn’t be a great sociologist being a person of colour, being an African American. The idea that somehow he couldn’t be one of that canon of the great men because he was perceived to be of the wrong colour, racialised differently. So religious Studies has that as its starting point, studying beyond. And it has revelled, it has celebrated its positon as being about studying people who are different from white Christianity, people who are different from the norms of white European society, of white society. But yet, it has stumbled in its simplicity, I’d say, of trying to deal with that. And particularly it has largely ignored these questions of race and racialisation. The questions up until quite recently – the last few decades of Empire and colonialism – have been left off the table, as they were in anthropology, up until the 1980s and 1990s. And the question of how to understand that, and put that into practice, in terms of the people that Religious Studies has been looking to try and understand, to write about, to empathise with, to engage with – either as insiders or outsiders – and so on within the field of the study of religion. These issues just have not been addressed. And particularly I’d put that, the centrality of whiteness, within the field of Religious Studies. Although up until the eighties there were a few scholars of colour – people of colour doing scholarship in the study of religion – very often on the fringes. In Japan, if we look at the histories of Religious Studies, up until the seventies and eighties, there were small numbers of people of colour, but most of the big questions and the research agendas go back to people such as, of course, in Britain, Ninian Smart and similar white scholars in North America. And that has set the agenda for where we are today. So it’s no surprise that questions of race and colonialism have been sort-of put aside as well. Putting aside, of course, the funding issues, the universities . . . and, as I said, in today’s world perhaps you might get funding for talking about decolonising or decolonisation from a beneficent university. Back in the sixties and seventies, you were less likely to ask the critical race questions of the study of religion (20:00). And these questions of whiteness, there’s been a lot of work being done in Legal Studies, in Sociology, in Political Studies, which is yet to even start to be discussed in the field of Religious Studies. I see it somewhere on the fringes. There are people beginning to put this as a research agenda. There’s certainly no texts. No introductory texts are really taking this history, these research questions, these issues of race and colonialism alongside, of course, an intersectional interest in how this works in terms of gender and other structural issues: gender is created by race, and race is created by gender and colonialism and our history – how all these things go together. The field of Gender Studies is beginning to develop, and it needs to develop in terms of how it works with race and colonialism as well.

CC: That’s excellent, thanks. And what I’ve often discovered, you know, plenty of the studies or books or courses and what-not will pay lip-service to the . . . they’ll say “Religion is a constructed category, bound up in colonial history and referring to Protestant Christianity.” And then, “Let’s just get on with using it, just like we would normally do.” That’s something that we should try and avoid! Also in my own teaching, I’ve got a course here on Atheism, Humanism and Non-religion, I’m aware that everyone I’m looking at is white. I’ve put a week into the course structure where I focus on issues of gender and ethnicity into one week – which isn’t an ideal solution. It’s my first attempt to go “Right, at least raise that this is an issue, and let’s try and think about it.” But I didn’t have the time, or skill, or expertise to properly infuse it throughout the course. So what can we do to avoid simply just pulling up another chair at the table, and saying, “You can have a voice in here, too”? Or just saying, “We’ll nod that to that as an issue. We’ll acknowledge it, but not really do very much with it.” What can we do?

MN: OK, so . . . .

CC: (Laughs) How do we decolonise the Study of Religion?

MN: I’ve been quite mild, I would say, in terms of where I’ve been going so far. Some of things I know have sort-of got quite radical edges. But the idea of decolonising, as I said, is not just simply doing something performative that is seen as being good, and it will add a little bit extra to your syllabus, or your thinking, or your bibliography. And as I put it in my most recent article on decolonisation, it’s not about an extra chair at the table, it’s about changing the whole damn room. It’s about getting rid of the tables, reconstructing the tables, doing whatever you want. But decolonising is saying that what we’re doing at the moment is wrong, is not working. And that, for me, has implications that I’m still trying to work out in terms of . . . like that word “religion”. You know, should we be talking about religion, and faith, and sacredness, and all these things? Even if it is a native . . . even if it is an insider category, it’s got such huge historical and political baggage to it. Should we not just simply say we’re going to try and deconstruct it? I know this is an argument: what do we do after we’ve deconstructed it? What then? Well, we carry on deconstructing. There’s that long discussion we have following one of your earlier interviews with Tim. There’s a lot more to be done in terms of trying to put the idea of religion . . . in terms of these categories of race and religion. So if we’re struggling, I would say, to find a reading – even if we put it in those simplistic terms of: why is my curriculum white? – #whyismycurriculumwhite – the big question in decolonising . . . which is quite a straightforward thing if we’re looking at say the English Studies canon, because there’s plenty of English literature that is written by people racialised as non-white. If we’re doing it there, that might be quite easy. We can even do that in broad terms, if we look hard enough, in terms of the history of the Study of Religion (25:00). And, as I said, the history, the development of the discipline isn’t solely by people who racialise themselves as white European and North American white, and so on. We can do that, but I would say, “Step back further, and ask the question, ‘What are the questions I’m asking here, that lead to this body of knowledge that I’m choosing to teach, or to write about, or to research?’” If there is not this engagement with race theory, intersectional theory, gender theory, queer theory and so on, in what I’m doing, perhaps – and here, as I said, I’m getting quite radical – maybe we’re doing it wrong? I’d say we are doing it wrong, if we’re not doing the race theory, if we’re not doing the intersectional gender theory, and seeing how it works within the contexts. And I don’t mean just simply saying having a week at looking at queer theory and non-belief – I’m sure it can be done – or race theory and non-belief. It’s about saying, “How does that change all the questions I’ve got? And how does it change how the people I want to teach, I want to write for, I want to engage with . . . how does it change all of that? So even if that means us having to take a sabbatical, and reading it up, to try and formulate those questions to our field of research, I’d say that’s time well worth spending. Because otherwise we’re leaving out the big elephant in the room – what I call the white elephant in the room. Or, put it another way: in white club, the first rule of white club is that we don’t talk about whiteness. Because we just assume it’s there. It’s invisible. It’s an empty space. But it is so much feeding into the questions that we’re asking. As I say all this, I’m very conscious: here we are, two white men, sitting in a room talking about whiteness. There’s no celebration here of the fact that two men, after centuries of scholarship, have finally got together and started talking about whiteness. It should have happened two hundred and fifty plus years ago, that this consciousness of how it’s going. . . . But it is also about recognising that the perspectives that I’m bringing, that others are bringing, other white scholars and so on, is only part of a much bigger picture. And it is about recognising that there is a lot of scholarship going on which is directly bearing on whatever we’re doing, and a lot of that is by marginalised people in the academy. Very often people who don’t have fulltime jobs, don’t have job security, because they’re marginalised in terms of their place in the academy, and also because of their race, their racialisation, their colour, their gender, and other issues. It’s a very harsh, hostile environment, I’d say, for people working within the field, within the intersections, between these sorts of areas. And the question is, why aren’t we using their scholarship more? Do we have to go back to the learned professor who’s got there, and we all recognise them and . . . . I’ll take one example, Charles Taylor. If you want to talk about secularism, everybody goes to Taylor. Now he’s a great scholar, he says some great things. I was just recently looking at Vincent Lloyd’s work on secularisms and race, and how the idea of secularity . . . how the idea of the secular state is a thoroughly racialised idea. But there’s nothing in Taylor about that. There is nothing in Taylor that sort-of explores the way secularisation is defined as a white space, as a place for whiteness in America to be expressed. And then how that becomes racialised against other categories such as religion and church, and black churches. It comes down to a particular example of Martin Luther King becoming this folk hero of post-racialisation, where the Martin Luther King monument, in Washington, doesn’t mention his many statements about race and race equality, and doesn’t even mention much of his preaching as a Christian minister. So, going back to what I was saying: look for the scholarship, look for what marginalised voices are saying within a particular sphere, and see how that bears – I mean, whether it be looking in terms of people of colour, women of colour, queer people of colour – how is that challenging what you’re doing? Even if you don’t agree with it (30:00). But how is that challenging? And, of course, pass that on. Amplify it, in terms of scholarship, in terms of teaching. I’m not saying I’ve got all the answers, and I’m not saying “Here’s a white fellow saying that you’ve got to do this,” and whatever. I’m just saying that I see my position as somebody who’s lived with a lot of privilege within the academy, because of being structurally in this particular place of being a white man at the time when it favoured people such as myself. It still does. Stand back and think, “Well, what can I do to challenge those structures, to challenge the thinking that has brought me to where I am?” And engage with that thinking. Engage with how that relates to how you’d like to see your study of religion. And to see the Study of Religion as something that recognises its past, recognises its racialisation, recognises how the very critical concepts that we’ve got are so rooted, so blood-soaked with that colonial history – the violence and, of course, the current politics of today. We’re not detached from it, even if we’re well-meaning enough to put ourselves aside from it.

CC: Absolutely. We’re already coming up on time. But I think, as a final question, I would want to ask you, yeah . . . so you’ve been getting at it there, and I was hinting at it as well. I think we both, in this room, and many of our Listeners will be thinking, “Yes, I want to not just diversify my knowledge-base, but also radically rethink a lot of the assumptions that I’m bringing to my work, and be more conscious of a lot of these issues, and the entanglements of the Study of Religion with racism, exploitation with whiteness, maleness. I want to be that better scholar. I want to do it. But when am I going to find the time? What am I going to do? How can I do that if I don’t have the luxury of having that sabbatical?” Or that sort of thing. I guess, as a final question for people like me who want to do better, but don’t even really know – apart from to go and do a Masters in Gender Studies or Critical Race Theory, or so on – are there any, like, key things – key texts, or key scholars, or key departments that are doing great work in this area – things where you can maybe say, “Well if you’ve not got that much time, this would be a great place to start.” Apart from your book, of course – which is naturally a place people should go to, as well!

MN: I must add a caveat on top of what you said at the beginning. It’s 2020 that we’re talking here, early 2020. We’re not going to see the book out this year, unfortunately. So I was seriously ill last year, and a lot of things have been knocked back. And I’m still working on the revisions for my Religion: The Basics book, which hopefully will be out . . . or at least ready to be out by the end of this year. I’m not saying that my book’s going to be the only place to explore these issues. There is a lot of good scholarship. And I’m trying to put this together. And that’s part of what my blogging is trying to do. Not just simply to say, “Here’s what Malory Nye’s got to say about these things.” But point to the great scholarship that . . . .

CC: That you’re encountering.

MN: Yes, sitting on the shoulders of. And trying to say, “Have you noticed this?” Basically. “This is going on.” So, I won’t give a list here, but there are long bibliographies. I’d also say, ask some basic questions. It’s not just simply “Have you read Du Bois? Or have you read Vincent Lloyd? Or have you read some of these great volumes that are coming out about race and religion? Have you read about this wealth of scholarship about decolonising and decolonisation? But also ask some basic questions about what you’re doing. And this is part of what I did in that paper on “Decolonising the Study of Religion”. I picked up one text that I’ve sort-of dipped into and never taught, thank goodness, but dipped into Daniel Pal’s book, Seven Theories / Nine Theories of Religion. And I was hugely depressed to read one particular part of it. I’ve not gone much further. I’m toying with the idea of doing a more substantial critique (35:00). But his discussion of Durkheim as a theory- Durkheim’s theory of religion. I’ve got nothing against Durkheim and his theory of religion – apart from the gross colonialism and racism of the work, taking this particular group in Central Australia, indigenous people, and saying they are indicative, they are representative of humankind’s early history. That they are the primitive elementary form of the religious life. Now that was Durkheim back in the beginning of the twentieth century, where it was OK to be a racist.

CC: Yes, he could maybe be forgiven for being a product of his time in some way – but we can still know it’s not ok.

MN: This is the time of Du Bois, as well. It’s not to say that he should be given a free pass on that. But my problem is more of Pal’s amplifying that racism, in a book that’s still being published, saying that Durkheim is taking this as representative of the sort-of primitive stage of humankind – these people who were, at that point, being displaced, who were being herded into camps, whose children were being stolen from them in Central Australia, somehow being classified as this great sort-of representation of early humanity – that can tell us about what religion is about. And I would just simply say, “Ask some basic questions. If this seems racist, it is racist.” As simple as that. Is this amplifying, is this demonstrating the racism of colonialism or the colonialism of racism? I use a lot Patrick Wolfe’s phrase, “Race is colonialism speaking”. Whenever we talk about race, there is colonialism. And we see this today in the politics of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, all this. That goes back to what Quijano, and all these others, are saying about colonial modernity. It’s all there. It all being reproduced and it’s being reproduced in scholarship as much as it’s being reproduced in world politics, of policy of Africa. So what I’m saying is, ask these questions. And if you’ve got further questions there is no simple answers. I sort-of thought I should hold this as an idea that I’d like to develop. Nobody’s got the monopoly on these things. I’d like to put together another Seven Theories of Religion which go completely against the grain of Daniel Pal’s: writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, W. Du Bois, and so on. Writers who challenge our concepts of religion, and what religion is, and even the idea that religion is this thing that we can define, and explain, and talk about, and talk about its functions. Ways in which the idea of religion is a historical sort-of product of colonialism – what we talk about as that. And, of course, Tomoko Masuzawa is one of those people who has done that in a very sort-of blinding way, in terms of pushing through a particular understanding of: this is how we got to where we are, in talking about this. So I’d love to sort-of say, “Here’s a great place to start,” whether it was written by me, or written by some other scholar who could probably do it a lot better than I could. But ask these questions. And google is your friend, there! Google scholar is your friend, in terms of finding that scholarship on decolonisation. There is a lot of it out there. But one of the people I take huge inspiration from is the scholar Sarah Ahmed who was previously at Goldsmith’s college, before she resigned over issues of student dealing with sexual harassment and assault. But now has become an independent scholar who blogs very regularly. She’s just recently done a lot of work on complaint in the university. But her most recent book is Living a Feminist Life, based on her feministkilljoy blog, which I would strongly recommend – both the book and the blog. And there’s a particularly good one, on the site, I use about white men saying that it is so easy – going back to what I was saying about Taylor and others: white men cite other white men. And if we go along with that game we’re reproducing not just an event, we’re reproducing the whole structure of white patriarchy, of a colonial modernity within our scholarship. And, as I said, work against the grain of that as much as you can, in terms of the questions that you ask, and the people that you choose to read. That’s not to say it’s an easy task. It’s one . . . I don’t think that there’s a lot of time for any of us to do that.

CC: It’s a life-long task. And one that will probably never be possible to complete (40:00). But Malory, you’ve left us with some . . . a lot of in-depth material, but also a lot of questions that can, and should, be taken to basically everything that anyone who’s listening to this is working on! So, with that, this podcast has served a double purpose, at least – if not more! So, thanks very much.

MN: OK. Well thanks very much, too. I mean look out for my third edition of Religion: The Basics when it comes out. I will be dealing with a lot of these issues, briefly, in that. And that’s part of the problem why it’s taken so long. I was asked to get working on that about eight years ago and it’s still in process. But, yes, my book on Race and Religion – or whatever it may be called in the end – that should be appearing in the next few years, anyway.

CC: Fantastic. We look forward to it.

MN: Thanks very much.

 

 

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What does religious literacy mean in your context?

In San Diego at the 2019 American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting, Dave McConeghy sat down with six early career scholars to discuss religious literacy in the context of the release of the AAR’s Religious Literacy Guidelines. The guidelines were a multi-year project funded by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation, and speak not only to the needs of teachers in higher education like the panelists in this roundtable, but also more broadly to primary school education in the U.S.  The panelists gathered here represent significant voices in the next wave of changes to religious studies programs, where market pressures mean we must think deliberately about how to position religious studies within the academy to advance our field and its work. Among the central questions explored in this episode, perhaps the most fundamental is this: What is the role of our teaching and scholarly contexts on the way we approach religious literacy? If one-size cannot fit all, then what is different about religious literacy when it comes to a public versus a private college? What is the impact of teaching to a regional versus national student body? How do the varied missions expressed by our universities encourage or limit our dialogue with the critical theoretical wings of our discipline? Join us for a lively conversation with Richard Newton, Chris Jones, Rebekka King, Bradley Onishi, Kevin Minister, and Jenna Gray-Hildenbrand.

 

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What Does Religious Literacy Mean in Your Context?

Podcast Roundtable discussion with Richard Newton, Chris Jones,

Rebekka King, Jenna Gray- Hildenbrand, Kevin Minster and Bradley Onishi (25 May 2020).

Interviewed by David McConeghy.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/what-does-religious-literacy-mean-in-your-context/

David McConeghy (DMcC): Hello! I’m David McConeghy, and I’m again at the American Academy of Religion. It’s 2019 and we’re in lovely San Diego. And I have so many people – so many amazing people – to introduce to you today! We are going to be talking about religious literacy, and what that means for my guests, today. They’re going to tell us – we’re going to have a discussion about it – but also in the context of the American Academy of Religion’s newly released religious literacy guidelines for schools, for people that teach religion, for people that teach religion not in Religious Studies departments, for people that are in high schools. And it is a very broad and interesting document. And I’m hoping that we’ll have some interesting geographical, different thematic, different theoretical thoughts about it today. First, I’d like everyone to introduce themselves. And we will start with . . .

Richard Newton (RN): Richard Newton. I teach at the University of Alabama, in the Department of Religious Studies. Most of my courses are on issues of race and social formation, particularly looking at how the idea of text or scriptures are a tool for those kinds of politics.

DMcC: And next?

Chris Jones (CJ): My name is Chris Jones, and I teach at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. We’re a small, municipally operated, public university. We’re the only four-year public university that’s municipal (audio unclear). Fun fact! And I am the only tenure track, the only professor of Religious Studies there. I run the programme – the major and the minor in Religious Studies – and teach a lot of Gen Ed classes, and upper division classes, as my students need them.

DMcC: And next?

Rebekka King (RK): Hi. I’m Rebekka King. I’m Associate Professor at Middle Tennessee State University. I’m here with my colleague, who’ll introduce herself in a minute. But I was hired with her, to found a Religious Studies programme and teach a number of courses on religion in the world.

DMcC: Excellent. Moving round the table – we have so many people, we’re so happy! (Laughter).

Bradley Onishi (BO): My name’s Brad Onishi and I’m Assistant Professor at Skidmore College, up in Upstate New York, Saratoga Springs. And it’s a liberal arts college. And it’s actually . . . I think it’s worth pointing out it’s a very, very secular part of the country. And most of my students identify as non-religious. And so in my teaching that is something that is always on my mind.

Kevin Minister (KM): I’m Kevin Minister. I’m Associate Professor of religion in Shenandoah University, which is a United Methodist school. I’m an hour-and-a-half outside DC, with two thousand undergrads and two thousand grads. We have a very strong professional focus. So the religion programme is small. We only have two lines. But we also have the centre for Islam in the Contemporary World which complements our programme. And our teaching is mostly in Gen Ed. So we have to figure out how to teach Religious Studies with students who identify as pre-Health majors, or Business majors, or Performing Arts majors.

Jenna Gray- Hildenbrand (JG-H): And I promise, dear Listeners, that I am the last person at the table! (Laughter) I am Jenna Gray-Hildebrand, Associate Professor of Religious Studies and, along with Dr Rebekka King, the co-founder of our Religious Studies major at Middle Tennessee State University, which is a public institution in Middle Tennessee. And I teach Religion in the US, but many other religion classes.

DMcC: Excellent. Well, thank you all so much for agreeing to take the time! We all have such busy schedules at conferences! And I’m so thankful to get so many people, all at once. It’s such a treat! Let me throw a question out. For some of you, maybe religious literacy is a thing you think about all the time, and write about, and teach about. When we ask: “Religious literacy, what is that thing?” what are some of the first things that you would say? How would you tell your neighbour about religious literacy, if you happened to meet them while mowing the lawn, or taking out the trash? What would you say to them about religious literacy?

JGH: I’m curious what Brad will say, since he says that he lives in a very secular non-religious area. So what does this conversation look like with your lawn-mowing neighbour?

BO: Well, it’s funny because my neighbours are probably religious, but my students aren’t! (Laughter). So when I’m explaining to my students, who take a Gen. Ed. class and they say, “Oh, maybe I’m interested in a major or minor, but why would I do this?” and “My mum’s going to hate it, and I don’t want to have to have that conversation.”, what I turn to is: “Look, if you sign up with us, and you sort-of dedicate yourself to this project of becoming religiously literate – through a minor, through just a couple of the classes, a major, whatever it is – what we do is, we enter into the world’s communities of religious people, religious actors. And that’s sometimes uncomfortable. (5:00) It’s sometimes difficult. It’s wondrous. It’s heart-breaking. It’s infuriating and it’s inspiring. And, by foregrounding religion, you get to do it all, student.” Right? So we do gender, we do race, we do immigration, we do law, we do philosophy. But by using the prism of religion first, you then get to illuminate all those other aspects of the human condition. To me that makes Religious Studies unique. To me, I’m a Religious Studies scholar. And that’s something else. Because that prism is so expansive that if you want a window into the human condition, this is the great place to start. And if you want to develop the virtues of patience and empathy in a way that will allow you to reckon with the complexity and inconvenient facts of our lifetimes – like the climate apocalypse and so on – this is the great place to start. And so, for me, that is . . . that, to me, is like my go-to speech, my “Hurrah!” speech about religion, literacy and entering into this whole project of becoming religiously literate.

CJ: Hurrah!

RK: Yes!

DMcC: So – you said “Hurrah”, Chris!

CJ: I did say “Hurrah”!

DM: Would you pitch things similarly, to your students? What would you tell your students?

CJ: I would pitch things similarly. I think there’s great intrinsic value in studying religion, because – for the reasons that Brad enumerated – it does give us this window into the human condition. At the same time my students, like Kevin’s students, are very much pre-professionally focussed. Looking at the learning goals that the AAR has outlined, I would have to translate those into résumé-ese. I would have to look at those and figure out how they would connect to LinkedIn, in order to sell this to my Dean, or to my VP.

DMcC: Should we be putting our syllabi through the résumé scanners and see how they scan? Is that where we’re headed?

CJ: Well I’m part of a working group at my university, right now, looking into translating syllabus learning outcomes into things students can put on LinkedIn. So yes, that is where we are. For better and for worse. For worse.

DMcC: But if your students are consumers of education . . . . Not that I would think that everybody at the table here would say that religion [education] is a business. I think there’s many negative, perhaps, feelings at this table about that. But at the end, they are buying a kind-of product from us. And if that product has certain expectations, framing what we do within some of their expectations seems a reasonable compromise to get them into the door. Maybe? I’m seeing Richard’s hedging more, so tell us how that doesn’t work.

RN: So at the University of Alabama we are a large public school in the middle of the Bible Belt. It’s a Research One institution. And I think the idea of religious literacy is tempting: the idea that we can inform you about the way that religious actors work in the world, and the histories attached to it. But the problem, I think, for a department like ours in that case – and also the way that those guidelines become limiting – is that there are a lot of other departments that promise similar things. We share Religious Studies classes – or classes on religion – with History, and Anthropology, and Sociology, and anybody else who wants to talk about religion. And so the thing that we are providing is actually something different. I don’t think it’s really about knowing religion more, and religious people more. And I don’t think that’s the product that we are selling, either. I think the metaphor that I would use is we are providing a skill set, a sort-of toolbox for students to analyse the human, understand how humans work, in light of a history that involves this thing called religion. And I think when you separate religion from culture, you know, religion from general human activities, then you’ve actually created a narrow lane for yourself to operate.

JGH: So that’s where Dr King and I wrote this . . . . I mean, Richard, and all of you, I think this is a great conversation. Thank you for inviting us. There’s an amazing article that was written by Gray – Hildenbrand and King recently, on teaching Theology and Religious Studies, about where we talk about the creation of our program. We talk about this very issue. And it’s something that we contemplated very seriously, because we had this opportunity to create a programme where one didn’t exist. And we realised that we were in that unique situation. And so, similar to what we see here with the literacy guidelines, you see a combination both of religious literacy thinking about it as content, right – memorising the content of that religion – but also certain skills that we use when we’re looking at religion, religious content. And so in our programme we identified three skills – description, analysis and critique – as what would work best in our institutional context (10:00). And we might wrestle you for the heart of the Bible Belt, my friend, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee! But maybe my colleague wants to talk a little more? We can do back and forth like we do, Rebekka! We have a whole thing . . . ! (Laughter).

RK: Thanks, Jenna. I think that one of the nice things about teaching in a place like Middle Tennessee is that we don’t have to convince our student that studying religion matters. A lot of students come into the classroom with a sense that they want to know more about religion, that it’s important in their lives. And a lot of them have grown up in families where they’ve been told a certain story about other religious communities that they know isn’t quite right, that they know might come from a place of sort-of bias or misunderstanding, and they want to know what is right. So they’re really coming in with this question that is drawn out of, I think, a need for religious literacy. So certainly the AAR guidelines, I think, are really coming at building from a ground-up level in that way. For us, what we’re trying to do is think beyond the level of literacy to what we call competency. And in a previous life I spent a lot of time working in higher education. And one of my areas in my portfolio was literacy basic skills. And literacy basic skills are the ability to read menus, to understand how signs work, very basic forms of literacy. And when we translate that into thinking about religious literacy, that’s important – but that is work that I see campuses doing in a number of places. Like Richard mentioned: Anthropology, Sociology, History, a number of different disciplines. And so what we do in Religious Studies is, I hope, a step beyond that towards competencies, building skills, doing something more than content and data-based information.

JGH: And one of the criticisms – I’m sorry – the feedback that we got when we were working on our programme and writing our article was, “Well, anyone can do description, anyone can do analysis, anyone can do critique.” And our argument was, “No.” There is something unique about doing description, analysis and critique – not unique, but takes a certain Religious Studies skill – to do that for the content of Religious Studies, to describe and analyse something. Maybe we can have this conversation? Maybe people around this table disagree, when you’re analysing human beings who . . . . For example, if I go to my serpent handling church and I’m having to describe what is happening when they say they’re anointed by God to drink strychnine, that’s different than describing what’s happening when people are driving a car. Not that it is inherently different, right? I’m not saying that there’s some sui generis category of religion. But it does take a different type of skill to describe and analyse that. So we’re saying that there is something of value that we are adding to Middle Tennessee State University that they can’t get in History, I would argue. We have argued!

DMcC: It’s funny, if we had video you could see that there are nodding heads and there’s thumbs up, and people are smiling and kind-of like, “Is this my moment to say how much I agree?” I think for a long time we have had that conversation about sui generis. And I saw Russell McCutcheon’s post recently on . . . I think it was Facebook, maybe first, or Twitter later, where he had put a google Ngram of “sui generis” vs “lived religion”. And there’s this moment when sui generis appeared and then escalated up to a peak, and then declined extremely rapidly. And what took off was lived religion. And I’m hearing a little bit in the way you describe. . . . There’s something about the thing that we’re describing, there’s something about the analysis we’re doing, there’s something about . . . .What’s the third one? I’m sorry!

JGH: The critique.

DMcC: The critique that we’re doing, that has to do with that object that’s at the end. And that that object has not uniqueness from everything else, but distinctiveness in a certain way that merits our focus. Am I following this?

JGH: I don’t think it’s the object that has the distinctiveness. I think there’s a distinctiveness in the way we talk about it. So when I talk to colleagues at my institution from History, or from Sociology, who are studying religion, they talk about religion differently than we do. Oftentimes they have what I would say is a more prescriptive stand: religion is a problem to be solved. In Religious Studies we don’t talk about religion as a problem to be solved. It’s something that we try to understand. Am I wrong? Am I wrong Kevin? Help me out! (15:00)

KM: No I think you’re right and, coming from a smaller school that is in the United Methodist tradition, it’s been complicated by the history of the religion programme as a Christian Studies programme before I arrived there six years ago. So the other departments really thought this was something that they should not touch. And they should send students . . . if you want to talk about religion at all, you have to go somewhere else. And we actually saw in our data, for our freshmen as they moved forward – they have to take the global perspectives inventory – that they improved on all of the metrics related to global perspectives except for understanding religious difference, in which they actually declined. And we, fortunately, were able to get a grant from the Wabash Centre to study this, and found, really, that it was our colleagues outside the religion programme who thought that they couldn’t touch religion. So they would bring up issues and then just drop them! And so students for the first time were really seeing, “Oh there are problems related to religion in the world.” And my colleagues were like, “Yep and we’re not going there. So if you want to do that, go take a Religious Studies class.” So I think that was something that we had to deal with across the disciplines.

RN: Yes, and prior to working at the University of Alabama I worked at a small private liberal arts college, Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. And I worked on redesigning the curriculum for our Religious Studies department. And I see a lot of similarities, of course, in what I was doing there and what I’m doing at the University of Alabama, so far as we’re often competing with these other disciplines within the school for the right to talk about and do what we say is our expertise. And I think, I guess, that my argument has been not so much that these other disciplines can’t do it, but that they haven’t done it. And every time we have to win the students over. And I think, at the University of Alabama, what we’ve seen with our students is that they often come into disciplines where they’re more familiar with the term. So they’ve heard of Anthropology, they’ve heard of Psychology and Sociology. We get them in Religious Studies because of our core in General Ed. And then they continue, because they like what we’ve done, and they see that it’s something different than what they’re getting elsewhere. And so their work has to be their proof, their work has to be what they put on LinkedIn. And our graduate students in our Masters programme, similarly, are having to make that case. That they’re using the idea of digital humanities, digital skills and public humanities to articulate what it is that they’re doing differently, seeing, and presenting, that’s not being done elsewhere. And so it sort-of puts their backs against the wall to make the case that what they’re saying matters. But I think it’s from that place that they’re most interesting to people. I think audiences are responding well to what they working on. They’re doing well, in terms of placement and things. And so I think it’s convenient for the Literacy Guidelines to be like, “See, here’s our place.” But if our students, and if our scholarship, doesn’t do that work, then I think we end up in the kind-of trouble that Kevin was referring to.

CJ: Yes. And I want to go back to some of the things that Jenna was saying, and that Rebekka was saying as well, that there is something . . . of a degree in religion. There’s an intensity in religion that other areas of human life don’t necessarily have. And one of the things we contribute is the competency to engage critically, to engage inter-culturally, interpersonally with people around things that matter more to them than anything else, and do that in a way that is productive, respectful, but also critical, and sincere, and that does not simply leave it alone, as Kevin says. We don’t tiptoe lightly around religion, we come right at it. And we have hard conversations. And we give our students a comfort level at having hard conversations. And that is a life skill, that is a citizenship skill, and that’s also a job skill. I mean the ability to . . . . Sorry! Go ahead, Brad.

BO: Yes, I agree. And I think, just coming back to this idea of what do we do that’s distinct, and how does that train students who are then able to explain those distinct skills and training sets? I think what we do is we’re saying, we don’t begin with the idea that religion is compartmentalised. So many of our colleagues begin with “Oh religion’s a component of this community. And once we get that component in place we can put the set together and then we’ll really understand gender, or race, or politics, and whatever’s going on there. We begin with…well, hey – religion is our primary object of study, and we’re betting on the fact – and we’re all sitting round the table and I wonder if we all agree – that if we bet on that thesis then we’ll be able to unlock those other aspects that we’re really interested in that overlap, in ways that would’ve never been possible before, right? And so why do we need Religious Studies? Because it’s a unique way of foregrounding one aspect, religion, that we think pervades every other aspect. And then that unlocks views and approaches and understandings and perspectives that would have been unavailable if we had just sort-of approached this from what we take to be mainstream sociological, anthropological and historical methodologies.

DMcC: So, let me read for just a second from the document. Let’s be textual for a moment! (20:00) “Students in any field, from the Humanities to Political Science, to Business, to the STEM disciplines should learn something about how religion shapes, and is shaped by, the way humans view the world.” I know that some of the criticism that I’ve heard of these guidelines, initially, was that it was giving the field away, right, with the broadness of it? And they describe it in some of the ways that we’ve been doing it. But it says at the top of the executive summary, the first line in the document, “Every college graduate ought to have a basic understanding of religion as a part of the human experience.” So, if we, in the criticism of this document, if we let the historians talk about religion – not that we could ever prevent such a thing – but if Religion departments fold, and History, or Philosophy, or Anthropology becomes the places where religion is talked about, I’m hearing that we lose something that I think everyone at the table thinks is really vital about the perspective here. Jenna phrased it as a perspective.

JGH: What did I say? What was the context?

DMcC: You did. I phrased it as an object of study, and you said, “No, it’s more about how we view . . .”

JGH: How we discuss that. Our discourse.

DMcC: Yes, discourse. Kevin, you seem like you want to chime in?

KM: Yes, the idea of “giving the discipline away”, I think, just doesn’t . . . it rubs me the wrong way. Like, for me, my students, the disciplines are done before they come to the school. They’re not here for Religious Studies. They don’t know why they have to take a Gen Ed class. They don’t actually have to take a Religion class, but that’s one of the frequent classes that they do take. They don’t know why they’re there. They think that’s not relevant to their professional programme and their job. So giving the discipline away is actually how we become relevant again, in my context. How we help students understand – and hopefully their advisors don’t tell them that “This is irrelevant to you”, right, as sometimes they do. So the students show up thinking, “Maybe actually this can be relevant to me.” Or, at least, I have the tools to say, “This actually is going to be relevant to you.” And, in fact, “Here are classes in your professional programme that your department has identified as trying to help with this too. But we’re going to go a lot deeper here.”

DMcC: You described yourself when you opened. Can you say, again, how many people there are in your department?

KM: There are two of us in our department.

DMcC: So I feel similarly. I teach at Salem State College which is a very small Massachusetts State school. And we only have two people: one permanent and one contingent – me! I think that might be the case for a lot of us, where we are teaching in extremely small departments. Chris is raising his hand. He’s a department of . .  . ?

CJ: One.

DMcC: One! Right? Richard might be, and Brad a little bit, but I think Richard even more is the one who’s at the largest department, right? You have a dozen faculty members now? Brad does too.

RN: Thereabouts.

DMcC: Can we talk about, for a second, how religious literacy . . . because I hear a little bit in what Kevin’s saying that in his context, maybe, that doesn’t work. And I wonder if we can speak to that a little bit more?

KM: Well I think one of the interesting Rebekka was talking about, the difference between literacy and competence, is a really helpful distinction. For my department, first selling literacy is a big piece. Yes it’s basic, it doesn’t get us far, but it’s a skill. It’s not simply information and knowledge, it’s a skill that can serve students who are not majoring in religion. Because if we have eight majors in religion our programme is up. So the idea that this basic set of skills that can help them continue to learn and engage with people, not just have knowledge base but apply that in new contexts, learn new situations, learn religious traditions affecting different parts of life, not selling is huge.

RN: So I . . . Rebekka go ahead.

RK: Thank you. I think that building off of that, one of the things that when we think about how literacy works is that in order . . . before one can be literate, one has to understand the language. And one of the things that Jenna did when she first got to MTSU is she built the General Education Religious Studies course. And they really wanted her to do a course that was going to cover world religions, a comparative religions course. But she very intelligently and astutely observed that before we could even begin to think about religious content, our students had to learn how to talk about religion. And so that is what our introductory course is, a course called Religion and Society where the students learn how to speak about religion, how to classify it, how to think about it, before they even get to any of the content-based material (25:00).

JGH: And to build upon that, what I’m hearing about this . . . this interesting thing about giving away the discipline – I think it’s so interesting; it sounds very like it’s a birthday party, or something! (Laughter) – is to also think about how what our students actually want. We talk about packaging up this thing called this Religious Studies major, but we haven’t talked about what actually students want, or what’s working. I mean we talk to students all the time, and our institutional context flavours that, right? And you’ve actually done research, haven’t you, about what students . . . ? I can’t remember what your grant was – but at our institutional context, a lot of times – and Rebekka, you can correct me if I’m wrong – we have right now, I think thirty-two majors in Religious Studies and three faculty members. And we’re growing every year. A lot of times, what happens is they take our classes and they just want a reason to major. I mean, don’t you think? And so we’ll tell them “Religious literacy will help you in any context. Are you going to work with human beings when you graduate? Many human beings are religious. So having a basic . . .” – this is my spiel, right? – “So having that basic religious literacy will help you with your future patients, clients, students, co-workers etc.” Right? Yes, I think that that is true. But a lot of times they’re excited about the content. They’re enthusiastic. In our institutional context it’s Baptist, Church of Christ and Methodist are the predominant religions. And then people who are angry at the Islamic Centre down the road, right? And so that’s our institutional context, they’re very . . . . And those students are excited to be our majors. And it’s about double majoring. We’ve designed our programme specifically so that this is a very strong compliment to a second major. Rebekka and I were both double majors in undergrad, and here we are! (Laughs). And now we have come to the culmination of our careers on this podcast with you all!

KM: I find it really interesting that you mentioned communication about religion as being fundamental to becoming literate about it: knowing how to talk about it, being able to speak about it, being able to ask questions. That’s something I really don’t see in these guidelines is anything about communication skills. Or the interpersonal skills to be able to navigate the discourse, or talk about it in public contexts, whether that be professional, civic, yes? So I think that’s an interesting piece that is not coming through in these guidelines is those communication skills.

RN: I think, in part, to play at the metaphor of gift, I think actually what these guidelines do is buy a space for Religious Studies sort-of as a guild, or as a field, to have a discipline where they can begin to sell whatever they want to sell. And one space where I’ve sort-of been working on – thinking about how that works, and what are the ramifications – are in terms of sort-of the scholarship of teaching and learning. And I mean, that discourse comes out of an interest that is tied to public communication about religion, and the idea that religion needs to be part of the way that good citizens speak: understanding what it is and how that works. My problem with starting there, though, and making that the sort-of be-all-and-end-all of literacy, is that we don’t get to ask about who’s speaking. I see a lot of departments of Religious Studies use the John Kerry line – from a number of his speeches, as part of his stump speech when he was at the state department – about, you know, where he wishes he would’ve taken more comparative religion courses. And so “There we go!-There’s our ad!” But this is the same state secretary who created videos of, like, fake videos about Isis, saying “Look at how crazy Isis is!” – for their beheadings, and all this stuff. Which, of course, leads to an uptick in the kind-of work that Isis was doing. And so it’s that sort-of short sightedness – like, are we going to be in bed with that kind-of discourse, rather than analyse how that works? – that these literacy guidelines make me question. Like, I want to be able to do the types of . . . like present students with the skill sets that Jenna and Rebekka talk about in their article. And what I’m afraid of is that when you have guidelines that are attached to things like rubrics on “teaching properly about religion”, that you limit yourself to speaking about religion in ways that are legible to those kinds of interests, and not in the ways that ask about whose interest this serves: who gets to evaluate how religion works, and works well? (30:00)

CJ: I agree. I was nodding the whole time you were speaking. And to me, that comes back also to what do students want? And so, oftentimes, when we teach to the rubric, we’re looking past our students to our administrators, unfortunately. And when we . . . . My experience has been when my students come into the classroom wanting to understand. . . . I mean, once they take an intro class, just like all of you’ve said, they want to take more classes. And some of that interest is the fact that they’re finding in our department a way to understand like really critical issues in their world. And that could be counter-intuitive. That could be through studying medieval aesthetics. But somehow they’re finding the skills to not only have religious literacy, but that religious literacy is translating into self-literacy and sort-of their own world, and environment literacy. And I think we don’t sell that enough. I’ll be really honest. I think we’re getting better at selling the utility of the Humanities: “Oh, this’ll help you on the (audio unclear). This will help you here or there. Some folks don’t want to sell the soul-searching thing. “Oh, college is . . . not everyone has money for four years of soul-searching. And people need to get jobs.” But we often undersell, I think, the fact that the skills that we might offer, not only in Humanities but in Religious Studies particularly, are the abilities for that kind-of long-term, far-sighted thinking that doesn’t undercut the most critical issues of our time. You know I see Neil deGrasse Tyson on Twitter saying “We have so much knowledge and we don’t have any wisdom.” And I’m thinking “That’s what we do.” We want to give people the skills to sort-of like engage in the world wisely, through studying religion. But it’s often hard to explain that to funding bodies, and to our deans, and everyone else.

RN: Perhaps if I can ask Rebekka, because you’ve been part of the teaching against Islam

RK: Islamophobia! (Laughter)

RN: That’s it! (Laughter) You’ve been part of the teaching against Islamophobia workshop with Wabash that’s distinguishing between what it means to teach about Islam and what it means to teach against Islamophobia. And I don’t see the ability to wrestle with that distinction here. And so I was wondering if you would speak a bit about how you think that relates to religious literacy or religious competence.

RK: Yes. I think that I’ve been very fortunate to be part of that group and I think that part of what – when I first was applying for it – made it seem like . . . I didn’t think I was going to be accepted into this cohort, was partially because I’m a scholar primarily of Christianity. And so, we tend to assume that Islamophobia is an issue around Islam, and that it’s about Muslims. And so for me, being part of that cohort, the majority of Islamophobia is being practised by Christians, right? And so thinking about how Islamophobia works out as a Christian practice. And then, how do we teach these very difficult practices, discourses, rhetorical moves from within religious traditions. So there’s kind-of a number of different layers that are at play there. And when we’re thinking about teaching about, or against, Islamophobia for example, or really anything, what we’re doing is teaching our students to ask the questions. So I’m not standing up and saying, “Islamophobia is bad, and here are all the reasons.” I’m saying “How does this come out of Christianity and out of the discourse, the rhetoric, the foundations of particular Christian traditions, or particular Christian communities?”, and let the students tease it out. And what they do with that at the end is their choice, where they move from there. Because our role of course always, as scholars, is to not kind-of come with these moral or ethical conclusions.

DMcC: So as we end – because everyone has a very busy schedule here – one of the things that I was really struck by in the last few minutes, is how do we translate this to our administrators, right? Because I have learning outcomes, as a contingent faculty, that I cannot change. And one of them, very explicitly, says that my courses are supposed to enhance the spiritual dimension of our students’ lives. That’s written in the course description. So spiritual growth, personal growth is part of the extension of what has been built into the programme and courses, prior to my arrival. Whether I achieve it I will leave for my students to decide! But as we end, one of the important things that I think for all of us – because we all have higher-ups that we answer to within the administration – what would you say, as a final comment about these Religious Literacy Guidelines, and how you might move forward in your own context to dealing with them?

RN: I think the guidelines, perhaps, become a . . . you know, if the administrators interested in the guidelines themselves, then so be it. But I guess what I would punt to . . . the idea of my students are proof positive of the work that the department’s already doing. (35:00) You know, whether it’s the fact that we have students that are working in museums, that we have students who are placed in graduate school, that students are going to law school, medical school, or talking in their communities about these complicated issues. Or just, they recognise that what they were doing in our department was useful. I think that is pleasing to administrators. I think when departments are also sort-of on the forefront of what is going on in the university – largely because we have to prove we exist and we should be there – that’s a space where administrators get to be surprised. So for us, at the University of Alabama, it’s been starting a Master’s programme that involves sort-of digital humanities, public humanities and academic study of religion. It could also be our use of undergraduate research, which I think a lot of programmes – I follow the Twitter feeds of a lot of departments – they’re getting their students out there doing work. And their work, across campuses seem to be super-interesting to people even beyond Religious Studies. And I think that says a lot to administrators.

CJ: One of our learning outcomes, at Wasburn University, for general education is global diversity consciousness: the ability to understand how people are different in different parts of the world. We’re running a programme in the middle of Kansas, as far from other countries as you can get in the United States of America. And so, giving students windows into what it’s like to be human, if I weren’t born where I was, is very important. And these guidelines give me some language to convince my administrators “You need me”. If we want all four year student graduates to have this level of religious competence and religious literacy. Nobody else in this institution has the disciplinary qualifications to do that. So we need a Religious Studies programme. Even though we’re the only school our size in the Midwest that has one – don’t cut that. Because I know it comes up at Trustee meetings. Don’t cut that.

RK: I would say that, it’s easy for us to critique these guidelines. We are all academics and scholars and (audio unclear) critique is one of our core competencies. But my recommendation from this would be that people read these guidelines closely, and find ways that they are going to be helpful in your own institutional context. One of the co-authors, or co-leaders of it, Eugene Gallagher, has been an incredible resource to Jenna and I. He came to MTSU. We had a Wabash grant to bring him to campus. And he sat down with us, when we were in that key point of planning out the curriculum, and really helped us think through major issues. And then also took the time to meet with our university provost and people in upper administrations, to explain what the academic study of religion is, and its importance. So I really think that while it’s fun for us to sort-of criticise and say “They’re not doing enough! They need to do more, and do all the things,” these were written by people who really understand how to speak administrative languages. So we should be using them as is appropriate for our own contexts.

DMcC: And, before Brad next, the other thing to do is to remember how broadly these guidelines are written for. That it is meant to be high school, two-year college, four-year college, four-year small liberal arts, four-year research college – the whole range. And when you speak to a whole range like that, I think some of the criticisms that we have kind-of disappear in the appeal to that broadness. Go ahead.

RN: I was just going to say, to Rebekka’s point, I think one of the wisest pieces in the guidelines is that it’s not supposed to be used as a rubric against which departments are measured. But as the opportunity to have that conversation about, “Here’s how we fit into a national, international conversation about this stuff that’s going on.” And I think if used in that way, it gives space to sort-of show departments how unique they are. Which I think administrators like to see too. Like, how are we doing this differently? I think every school has some slogan about difference – like we are different than everybody else. Yes, all universities! (Laughter). So, to that work . . .

BO: I really loved what Chris said about basically, the practice of students rehearsing playing the roles of other people, or stepping into the shoes of the worlds of the communities of others. As you said, Chris, you’re in a place that is as far from other countries in this country as you can get. I mean that’s a wonderful example: what you’re offering is a set of skills where students rehearse or practice what it would mean to be someone born in South East Asia, into a certain religious community, whatever it may be. I don’t know – I’m sure everyone at the table is not comfortable calling that a spiritual practice. I don’t know what that is, but it is a practice. And I think if we don’t sell that, we overlook a lot of what we have to offer, right? We are saying, if we don’t want a world full of short-sightedness, full of crudity, (40:00) if we want something that avoids, what I’ll just say is sort-of overtaking our sort-of political and civic climates as we speak, then we have to have universities that are more than just pre-professional training. They have to include that kind-of practice – call it spiritual, call it personal growth, call it whatever you want. But if that’s not part of education, that’s not part of teaching and learning, then I don’t know what is. And to me, that’s why I still firmly believe in Religious Studies as something that’s incredibly, incredibly important for the modern research university, the liberal arts university, the two-year college whatever maybe.

DMcC: Kevin, do you want to share now?

KM: Yes. I really appreciate those powerful words, Brad. I think in my context, much like Christopher’s, like this backs up what we’re doing. There’re two of us, right. Our word only goes so far that our discipline isn’t central to, as everyone else is making that argument as well in the Humanities, so that this gives us something to really put forwards. That “No. You need us here as part of your Gen. Ed.” That we have vital things to offer students who are not coming here to major in religion, because that’s not what’s supporting the university and keeping it going. So it helps back us up, it helps us promote the understanding of religion as something that is studied to understand the world that had not previously been popularly understood on campus before we showed up. So I think there’s really a lot of value there for us to continue the sort of work we’re doing, and have something bigger than us, beyond us, that says “Oh no – actually these people are speaking from a disciplinary perspective”

JGH: Yes, and so I think that your original question had something to do with our learning or programme goals, and something like that, and speaking to administrators. And Rebekka and I are in the situation where we wrote the programme goals and learning outcomes. So if we are displeased with them we only have ourselves to blame. (Laughter). But as far as speaking to administrators, I’m going to echo what Richard said, in some ways, which is that our students are our best advocates and advertisement for the necessity of our programmes, and the importance of them. And the more I think that we invest our time in them, and don’t forget that they are the . . . at least in our institutional context – we’re not an R1 – and, I think, for those of us here that they are the reason that we’re here, and remind ourselves of that. And keep celebrating their successes and advertising their successes, like the proud teacher-scholars that we are. We won’t lose sight of our mission as Religious Studies teacher scholars that we are. Because they’re amazing. And I think that part of what you were saying, Brad, too, is that . . . that when Rebekka and I were creating the programme, we always used the word creativity also. And so that there is critical thinking, which is thrown about – and we were very specific about what we meant about what critical thinking meant. But also we always put in that word about creativity. Because we are a creative discipline and that is . . . and creativity and innovation is very important for this generation of students as well. So with that I’ll turn over to you.

DMcC: What a wonderful note to end on (Laughter). Because we have all sat here for forty-five minutes out of our busy schedule, and created something that we’re going to share with everyone. And I’m very thankful for your time today, and very supportive of all of your works in all of your different contexts. I’m so pleased to be able to share this with everyone today, and I hope you all have a wonderful conference.

All: Thank you.

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

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


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Developing Communities of Practical Wisdom

Developing Communities of Practical Wisdom:

An Exercise in the Synthesis of Memory, Religion and Pragmatism in Religious Studies at GSU

by Holly Nelson-Becker, PhD, LCSW

There is an ancient tension between the values of being and doing, with, at various times, doing garnering the more important position. In truth, both are important and matter. There is reciprocity and rhythm in the cycle of being, learning, doing, and reflection where all dimensions inform the next. Hans Georg Gadamer (1982) wrote similarly that understanding, interpretation and application were in relationship such that the individual components could not be separated. Religious Studies stands as a discipline at the juncture of both being and doing: awareness and appreciation for diverse cultural, spiritual, and value dimensions. It also poses the questions What is the value of religiously or spiritually-informed action in contemporary times? How do memory and tradition inform us, but not keep us constrained in boxes? How can we courageously step away and step out to use all that we know to meet what is yet unknown? The programme at GSU under Molly Barrett’s direction answers these questions in a new way by facilitating the inclusion of master’s certificates in Religion and Aging or Non-profit Management. As it does so, it invites students on a journey of discovery.

Photo by Alexa Gummow, Votivkirche, Vienna Austria

As a social gerontologist and gerontological social worker, I would say this is practical theology at its best. Religion can no longer serve us well if it is treated as merely a distant philosophical subject that does not engage our very beings—heart, mind, body, and soul–and assist us in satisfying our particular place-based needs. Religion and its meanings must be hammered out in the everyday crucible of life’s vexing struggles, crisis-level jolts, and moments that radiate joy deeper than can be expressed or comprehended.

When I was a doctoral student at the University of Chicago in the mid to-late 90s, the Divinity School was my home for coursework alongside the School of Social Service Administration. A course I took with Don Browning (1991) about fundamental practical theology helped me envision a new configuration between spirituality, religion, and social work that framed a key question of my academic career: How do religious and spiritual strengths, spiritual struggle, and spiritual distress affect older people in everyday life and situations of life-limiting illness at life’s end? William James’ phenomenology of human experience along with John Dewey’s perspective on pragmatism both gave form to my work. Practical theology begins in thick description—asking What is happening? and moving eventually to asking what should happen and how do we do it?—in the most inclusive and respectful conversation we can imagine, one that carries compassion as its core. It is part of a critical correlational conversation that uses the implicit/explicit questions of any religion to respond to the needs of the contemporary community.

There are many uncommon couplings of Religious Studies disciplines with community research or practice that led to ground-breaking insight.  I’ll provide one example. I developed and taught loss/grief/dying well classes for seven years at my former university, Loyola University Chicago. During that time, I learned that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed her theory about the five stages of grief due to a collaboration with four University of Chicago theology students (Kübler-Ross, 2000). The students approached her to ask for help with an assignment to research a crisis in human life and they wanted to explore dying.  How do you do it? was the question they discussed.  Together they decided to capture thick descriptions of the experience—What was it like? What was the best and worst of it? What would help or hinder? The immediate problem was that they learned no one was dying in the Chicago hospital they approached. Beyond a natural gatekeeping protective function by nurses, that reluctance to break through our fears and discuss death is still in evidence today, though it is beginning to diminish through concerted efforts by those of us working in palliative and end-of-life care and through death cafes—informal conversations about death—around the world (Nelson-Becker, 2006; 2018). I, together with Hillingdon Palliative Care staff, have hosted a well-attended death café at Brunel University London for students, hospital and university staff, and the public, helping to bridge public need with professional skill.

Photo by Dr. Holly Nelson-Becker, Arthur Sullivan statue, Victoria embankment, London, UK

In listening to this podcast, I was thankful to learn about the approach of the GSU Religious Studies program in links to non-profit management to help students identify problems and then craft solutions to them, such as was done to develop an app for homeless youth to be able to access resources for entering a university without a permanent address. That is real world impact. In the same way, Don Browning, who served on my dissertation committee, helped me shape the “problem” or question that has occupied much of my subsequent career.  It was my question, but it was deeply affected by his influence. I sense in the podcast that Molly Barrett’s approach is likewise to empower her students to create their best contribution to public space, whether that be in assisting the public school to honour religious diversity or helping train hospice/vigil volunteers to sit with dying persons. It is that third thing created from the nexus of the known and the unknown.

Aging is a compelling field of inquiry since it joins the personal dimension—we are all aging through time—with professional research, teaching, and practice. I am pleased that Religion and Aging is one of the combined pathway options for Religious Studies at GSU. Religion is set to remain an important dimension to many older people.  It has been argued that people don’t become more religious as they age and that cohort effects in the developed nations (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD] nations) show decreasing religiosity. This trend has been concomitant with a growth in the “nones,” those people expressing little inclination towards religion, though some may have a spiritual or simply humanistic interest. The nones have grown from 17% of the US population in 2009 to 26% in 2018-19 according to the Pew Center. This trend addresses primarily the Christian religion in the US, as world religion adherent numbers are much smaller in the US. Conclusions were generally agreed that cohorts were becoming less religious through time.

In contrast, a recent study evidences an alternative view . The authors of this study reviewed five waves of data from the World Values Survey between 1981–2014 (Shulgin, Zinkina, & Korotayev, 2019). This is important because it is longitudinal rather than cross sectional data. The sample was over 60,000, and careful analytic details were provided. Findings suggest that people do tend to become more religious with age. This was the case across nine dimensions of religion, so the aging effect appears to be statistically significant and stronger than the cohort effect in these OECD nations. This implies that religion will continue to be important to older people. That, combined with increasing numbers of older people worldwide, suggest that people who can work in the interface of religion and daily life will be in demand now and in the future.

Photo by I. Luca Galuzzi, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1511395

A final point is that interprofessionalism is state-of-the-art practice.  My book, Spirituality, Religion, and Aging: Illuminations for Therapeutic Practice, makes the point that professionals in any field—chaplaincy, nursing, counselling, social work, and psychology—need to rely on each other, using points of commonality, to deepen their practice, that is, their clinical and professional work.  Religious studies professionals, while not explicitly named in the book, would be a strong support in this endeavour. Religion and spirituality need to be integrated with gerontological practice, most urgently in the healthcare fields, where, for various reasons, there is a significant lack of attention to this matter.  The book is a how-to manual about doing spiritual assessment, spiritually-framed interventions, intergenerational ethics, spirituality in health, mental health, end of life, and much, much more.

Religious studies programs that honor a social justice frame learn to speak to common human needs in compelling ways. This podcast interview features an exciting initiative to join an applied religious studies programme with a concentration in Religion and Aging or non-profit management. Those collaborations have the potential to create a new thing in contemporary life. Where the known meets the unknown, something new can be born. Our communities will benefit from this practical theological focus in tangible ways.

 


References

Browning, Don S. (1991). A fundamental practical theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Gadamer, Hans Georg (1982). Truth and Method. New York: Crossroad.

Kubler-Ross, E. (2000). What is it like to be dying? American Journal of Nursing, 100(10), 96AA-96II.

Nelson-Becker, H. (2003). Practical philosophies: Interpretations of religion and spirituality by African-American and Jewish elders. Journal of Religious Gerontology, 14(2/3), 85-99. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1300/J078v14n02_01

Nelson-Becker, H. (2006). Voices of resilience: Older adults in hospice care. Journal of Social Work in End-of-Life and Palliative Care, 2(3), 87-106.  doi:10.1300/J457v02n03_07

Nelson-Becker, H. (2018). Spirituality, religion, and aging: Illuminations for therapeutic practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Press. ISBN: 9781412981361

Shulgin, S., Zinkina, J., & Korotayev, A. (2019). Religiosity and aging: Age and cohort effects and their implications for the future of religious values in High‐Income OECD countries. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 58(3), 591-603. doi:10.1111/jssr.12613

Applied Religious Studies at Georgia State University

In this episode, Professor Molly Bassett, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Georgia State University, speaks about her program’s efforts to develop applied religious studies master’s certificates in “Religion and Aging” and “Nonprofit Management.” Her department’s partnerships with GSU’s Gerontology Institute as well as the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies reveal a progressive approach to professionalization of religious studies degree programs. Within recent conversations about the threat of humanities and liberal arts programs at many universities, the applied approach at GSU offers many benefits, not only in developing inter-university faculty and program partnerships, but also for recruiting majors and successfully showing how the skills of a religious studies degree can be vital for a student’s career aspirations.

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Applied Religious Studies at Georgia State University

Podcast with Molly Bassett (16 December 2019).

Interviewed by David McConeghy

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/applied-religious-studies-at-georgia-state-university or PDF here.

David McConeghy (DMcC): Welcome. My name is David McConeghy. And today it’s my pleasure to be joined by Dr Molly Bassett, Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. She’s an expert on Mesoamerican Religions and the author of The Fate of Earthly Things: Aztec Gods and God-Bodies – as well as a recent participant in an Immanent Frame forum about applied religious studies. Today we welcome her to speak about her department and some of the changes they’re making – and the innovation that they are developing for new degree tracks for their graduate students, as well as setting up undergraduates receiving degrees in Religious Studies for success in a variety of jobs outside of the academic or PhD track. Dr Bassett, thank you so much for joining us here today!

Molly Bassett (MB): Thanks so much for having me, David.

DMcC: So, for those Listeners that may not be familiar with Georgia State, can you describe your university to us and a little bit about the context of your department? Who are your majors, and what’s the department like?

MB: Sure. So Georgia State is located in the heart of Atlanta. If you’ve been to an AAR conference here, the conference happens just a block away from Georgia State. We are the tenth most diverse student body in the country. So our majors come from everywhere. They come from rural Georgia, they come from refugee communities in Clarkston, and so they bring the world’s religions into the classroom in a way that I haven’t seen in many other places. So that makes the department a really vibrant place to think about world religions, and lived religion, and religion on site in Atlanta. Our unit grew out of a combined Philosophy/ Religious Studies department back in 2004, when we established an MA programme too. And so we work closely with lots of other departments on campus. And at this time we’re really focussing on applied religious studies and religious literacy.

DMcC: That’s great. Can you say about how many faculty members, and about how many majors, versus how many students in total, kind-of enroll in your courses? Can you give us a sense of the numbers?

MB: Sure. So we have – depending on how you count us – between five and seven continuing faculty members. Two of my colleagues are in administration and teach sometimes. We’re hiring this year, so we’re a growing department. We have about between forty-five and fifty majors, typically. And then the number of students we serve, though, is much larger. Because we teach, of course, in the core curriculum or general education. So we reach thousands of students through a course that’s called “Introduction to World Religions”, but it’s really a thematic survey. So in that class, for example, just this semester we’ve introduced a new module on Religion and Health. So the topics in that class are changing all the time. And it’s a class that faculty teach, and also our MA students teach.

DMcC: That’s an approach that I hear a lot more departments talking about – a kind-of thematic rather than tradition-based approach to world religion – so that you can “plug and play” new timely modules, and really adjust it for the skills and expertise of the teacher. I heard that you were doing your academic programme review this year – the dreaded . . . (Laughs) chance to review your curriculum. Is that the kind of thing you’re talking about? When your department is thinking about the changes you’re going to make?

MB: Yes, exactly. So we finished APR in the last year. And over the course of that year – so really, beginning about this time last year – we did an intensive review of every aspect of the department. And the focus of the APR was the curriculum. So I’ll talk in a little bit about our graduate programme. Part of what we talked about in APR was how to bring some of the success we’re seeing with some of the applied courses and applied concentrations at the graduate level back into the major and undergraduate curriculum. So that’s part of why we incorporated this new module at 2001 (5:00). We’re hoping that students in our core course, who might not think about religious studies as a potential minor or major or double major – say they’re like pre-nursing major right now – if we can hook them with this religion and health topic, then we offer a 3000 level online course in religion and health, and then an upper level undergraduate course on medical ethics. So part of what we’re trying to do is build pathways thought the undergraduate curriculum, so that we can entice more majors into the programme and help them see how religious studies can complement other fields of study, or it may become their passion.

DMcC: Right. So when you as a department think, “We’d like to make a new partnership with another area within the university.” How do you come to the decision that a new partnership is warranted? How you know that . . . say, for instance, I teach at Salem State and we have a huge nursing programme. And so the nursing programme is a major feeder for a general education curriculum course. So how does it work in your department, when you look for those kinds of partnerships?

MB: That’s a great question. So the first time we partnered with another unit in like an ongoing fashion. Catherine, my colleague was chair of the department at that time. And she and I, as grad director, were seeing our graduate students finish and go on to work in non-profits. And that anecdotal evidence on our part, or observations and connections with alumni, was supported by data from a 2015 study the AAR did of religious studies majors. And a good percentage of undergraduate majors go onto careers in non-profit. And so Catherine knew that our School of Policy Studies offered a graduate certificate in non-profit management. And so we worked with our colleagues there to integrate their certificate into our MA programme, so that students can earn an MA in Religious Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, while also earning a certificate in non-profit management through our concentration. So it’s not . . . . Prior to that, students were sort-of choose-your-own-adventure-style doing these things. But this way, the programmes are integrated so that some of the non-profit classes count toward our degree. And students have a seamless programme, and they graduate with two credentials that are recognisable. So that decision was driven by watching our students go and do things, and us saying, “Oh, wait! We can help them do that.” We can help them really get the skills they need to go onto those careers. And then taking advantage of resources at the university to embed an existing credential in our programme. So we weren’t recreating the wheel.

DMcC: Right. It takes advantages of the strengths of your university. But it also really signals to employers and companies that are looking to hire future Georgia State students, that there’s a credential process for this, that there is a pathway for students, that you have designed a curriculum, you’ve been really intentional about it, it’s not ad hoc, that has learning outcomes. Has the business community of the non-profits kind-of management segment, have they really responded to the presence of a new credential like that? It’s brand new, right? I don’t know that there’s any or perhaps very few other universities that have a credential like that. Are you seeing good traction with that programme?

MB: Yes. I think we are. I mean we’ve had several years of . . . well a few years of graduates now. And part of the programme is . . . toward the end of their second year, toward the end of the programme, they do an internship and then write a paper that integrates their knowledge from both non-profit and religious studies in some fashion. Or the paper can be a project. So our first graduate Emir Mohammed, his paper was “Non-profit Paperwork”. And he established his own non-profit. So that’s like entrepreneurial success rate, off the bat!

DMcC: Right! (10:00).

MB: But since then, several students have found that the internship has either given them opportunities toward a next step, or that the internship has become sort-of a try-before-you-buy for the students, and also for the employer. So recently an alum talked to me about an opportunity she has . . . she’s continued to work with the organisations since she graduated, and she’s done some other work too, including some teaching, And the director of the non-profit is leaving and the director approached her to step into that position. And I think that stories like that . . . . It’s not just that she had the training she needed, or the credentialing that she needed, but that she had the opportunity to see, “Is this a good fit for me?” And for the other people at the non-profit to get to know her. So, yes. I think it’s working out and it’s working well. And students have a lot of flexibility in the programme, either to do their own thing, or to find a place in the non-profit world here in the Atlanta area, to continue the work that they started with us.

DMcC: That kind of applied religious studies approach, seems to me to be so obvious now. But we haven’t really done, or thought about thing, really, in that direction in American Religious Studies for a long time. In the business world you would never complete a four year business degree without doing a variety of internships, right? But we so often in Religious Studies have not taken advantage of helping our students with the business networking that they really need, in order to be employed once they have the degree. And this fills such a need to justify – especially to administrators, who always want to say to parents and potential students and graduating students, “Here is the job that our university, and this major, got this student” Like, they want to take that and draw a direct line between their university and the great job that the student has got. And now, within your non-profit I think I can really see that connection. You have the stories to back up the perception that that networking really does matter a lot.

MB: Yes. I think so. And I feel like the programme’s also attracting students who have had careers or have been working for a while, and they see . . . they’ve identified a real world problem. So I feel like this is the golden opportunity of applied religious studies to identify a real world problem and then take the skills that they learn in our programme and non-profit management . . . . Or we have another concentration, a new one, in Religion and Aging. So they take the skills that they learn from our colleagues in the gerontology institute and apply those to the problem with the subject area expertise of Religious Studies. So recently, another student in our non-profit management concentration, Lavalla Wilson, had a phD, she had a career in resident services at universities, and she moved to Atlanta do our programme because she had recognised a need. And the need was: homeless youth have trouble getting into colleges or community colleges, or even getting high school credentials because they don’t have a physical address, they don’t have a residence.

DMcC: Right.

MB: So starting from that observation, Lavalla went through our programme and her internship was developing a website, and an app, that connects homeless youth in the Atlanta area with existing resources that can help them get into school. So to see that . . . to see someone, you know, who’s been working for a long time, identify a problem and then identity our programme as the place that she can build the solution to the problem, I think it shows how a religious studies department is vital in more than one way.

DMcC: Absolutely. Can you . . . . You raised your Religion and Aging programme. Can you speak a little bit more about that new programme?

MB: Sure. So the Religion and Aging programme is modelled on the non-profit programmes. So it’s another concentration that’s available to our MA students. And we developed it, in part, in response to and in connection with a community partnership we have with Wellstar Health Systems. So Wellstar Health Systems is a big hospital group in Atlanta. They employ twenty-four thousand people. They have a bunch of hospitals, assisted living centres, hospices – you name it. And one of our alumni, Jason Lesandrini, is their chief ethicist. So Jason has been working with us for a long time, and we’ve established a graduate fellowship. So each year we award one fellowship to an incoming Masters student who’s interested in religion and health professions, or religion and ethics and medicine. (15:00) And as I watched those students go through the programme, many of them were doing the non-profit concentration but it didn’t seem like the best fit for the research they were conducting or the careers they wanted to pursue. So we started talking with people in the college and with people in gerontology and felt that opening a concentration in Religion and Aging would be a great opportunity for our Wellstar Fellows. But it also is a great opportunity because of the growing number of aging people in our city and our country. And in Atlanta it’s such a diverse and global city that for students to understand cultural diversity, and to be literate with respect to religions, and then also understand the aging process and have a sense of what gerontologists can do professionally – it seemed like a good and strong partnership moving forward.

DMcC: Yes. I was looking at the certificate requirements and I was seeing all of the courses that come from the gerontological side of things. You have “aging policy” and the “sociology of aging”, and “communication in aging”. But then on the religious studies side you have “death and the afterlife”, or “psychology and religion”, or “religious dimensions of the human experience”. And you’re really providing them a second language to speak about aging and to really frame that diversity. What kinds of things have you heard back from the students that are in the programme, whose only kind-of connection, prior to that moment, was “I’m in the same school within Georgia State that houses both departments, but I’m not in both departments until I was in the programme” That kind of . . . new students to your department, let’s say?

MB: Yes. So we have two students in the programme. It opened, officially, just in August. So the feedback is preliminary.

DMcC: Brand new and shiny! (Laughs).

MB: But it’s good! (Laughs.) Very shiny. But I can say, I taught a grad seminar last fall and students in that seminar partnered with another of our community partners, Compassion House for Living and Dying. It’s a non-medicalised hospice. One of the co-founders is an alumnus of our programme, Justin Howell. And we work with them to build an online orientation for their volunteers – the death doulas that work at the hospice – so that they have a better sense of how to approach guests from a variety of religious backgrounds. And so I feel like that gave the students in the course and me a lot of insight into end-of-life care, and what people of different faiths might expect in terms of end-of-life care . . . or resist. And also, how we can again sort-of solve a real world problem by bringing our subject expertise around death in Islam, say, to an organisation that wants to serve Muslim guests.

DMcC: Right.

MB: So end-of-life care is just a tiny piece of what students in the concentration can study. But that’s one example of the work. And then our colleagues from gerontology came and presented in the department, a few weeks ago. And so we got to hear about some of the NIH funded work they’re doing and long-term care facilities, around what are meaningful encounters for people with different forms of dementia (20:00). And, you know, it was really fascinating to talk with them about what . . . like, how do you define “meaningful engagement” or a “meaningful encounter” and what goes into meaning making? And I feel like that is something that a lot of students drawn to the study of religions can . . . . There’s a lot of traction there for us, too. So it’s just getting started, and I’m really excited to see where this partnership goes to. I mean for us as faculty, as well as for the students.

DMcC: I’m really intrigued by the idea that part of the goal of including students within these programmes for non-profit and for aging is that the critical approaches that religious studies has, are applied approaches. That there is a way to translate and move, rather immediately, from the kind-of critical tools of studying discourse, and using comparison, and being religiously literate about the diversity that exists in a community, and understanding all of those elements. But then turning that around the corner and saying “And then now what do we do with that?” I think often, when we have discussions about religious studies there’s a dividing line that some have put between a kind-of critical perspective, and maybe a softer, older literacy approach that simply talks about content. And this is a different kind of conversation, to me. And I think that your programmes are identifying that there’s a new . . . a third way that we can think about it.

MB: Yes. And I feel like I just have so much to learn still, about what it means to negotiate the two conversations that you identify: the critical approach – you know, we need to cover the content, and understand diversity, and be literate – and then how to bring both of those to bear on applied projects. Yes. I have a lot of questions. They come up all the time! (Laughs).

DMcC: Well, great! We love questions! (Laughs). When you have a student that’s . . . let’s say, they are in a programme like the non-profit certificate programme and they have a personal faith, right, that is potentially motivating them towards a particular line of non-profit work. And then you, as a religious studies . . . an academic-oriented view of religious studies, you’re providing them critical tools. That dialogue, right there, is an intersectional space where you’re providing critical tools but they may have their own critical approaches, right? And I can imagine how many questions arise – both on the curricular side, but also just simply negotiating a classroom where you have someone that has a really clear sense of their own personal employment goals, and their own personal religious goals. If you take the charitable compassionate work as part of your core religious values, how do we translate those into the critical terms of religious studies? Is that where those questions really arise from?

MB: Yes. That’s definitely one space the questions arise in. I mean, you know, we do some of the typical things. We talk about bracketing, and we talk about identifying bias, and being self-aware. And we also, then, talk about whether those approaches are really working out in the classroom or outside the classroom. But then the questions also arise in terms of like, understanding the audience for the applied project, and thinking about what’s appropriate given that audience. So one of the things we’re trying to do now is bring the applied approach back into the major. And this semester I’m teaching one of the required courses in our major. It used to be called the Survey Class. And now it’s Traditions of World Religions. So in addition to doing the . . . like, we started in my version of the class with Native American traditions (25:00). And then we turned through the big five. I am bookending that course in conversations about religion and public education. Because, while we’re doing the work of learning the content, students are working in small groups to create some instructional support materials for teachers at a local public school.

DMcC: That’s a fascinating project!

MB: Yes. It’s in process. It is fascinating. And it’s also sometimes anxiety-producing!

DMcC: Is this the first time that you’ve been doing that kind of project?

MB: Yes.

DMcC: The terror and joy of a new big group project, right?

MB: For sure! So the school is my daughter’s elementary school. So, yeah. And I told the students at the beginning of the semester, my daughter came home at the winter break in kindergarten singing “Dreidel Dreidel“ which is just fine, until you’ve heard it 800 million times! And I thought, you know, it’s interesting to me that she learned this in kindergarten at our neighbourhood school. And “I wonder what else she’s learned?” I started talking to the teachers and they’re adopting a new IB curriculum for the school – so, International Baccalaureate. And that’s an inquiry-based learning system which is fantastic. So I’m working with the IB co-ordinator and, at the end of this semester, will hand over a bunch of support materials that my students have created to help the kindergarten teachers be more literate with respect to religions. I mean they themselves identify this as a growing edge for them, and welcome our partnership. So I’m excited to see what comes of it. But we’re all going there in December, during our final exam period. We’re meeting at the school to meet the kindergarteners and read books to them. So I keep focussing on that while we’re ironing out the problems of the actual assignment, and figuring out how to get the work done.

DMcC: Right. But holding the feet to the fire to the fire like that, right? There are actual kindergarteners out there and your students are going to go to them. That level of incentive is the level of incentive all teachers hope for, right? To push, to be compelled to do the work for really valuable reason: there are children that have things that they could learn about religion. I can do that work in this class. That’s a win-win from my perspective.

MB: Man, I hope so! (Laughs).

DMcC: (Laughs).

MB: Yes. I mean that’s the picture I had, right? And the kids in the public school system are in our neighbourhood. You know, so when we talk about community partnerships, they are our community. And it’s a really diverse . . . . Both Georgia State and that elementary school are majority minority schools. So the big kids are going to see the little kids and the little kids are going to see the big kids. And of course many of my students are not kids but . . . . And I feel like the kindergarteners might see too that like, “Oh, one day I could be a Georgia State Panther“ I don’t know. Maybe that’s pushing it? But yeah. I think there’s a lot of good reasons to be giving this a go, and seeing how it works out. And we worked through the AAR’s guidelines for teaching religion in public schools. And we had a forum on that in the department yesterday. So, at the same time, we’re churning through the questions of, like, “Well what about teachers who . . .” you know, like you were just saying, “who have religious perspectives. How can we help them negotiate teaching religion when it’s not appropriate to indoctrinate or you know call on their own personal faith system to explain what’s happening?”

DMcC: Right.

MB: In a book about John Lewis’s upbringing, or whatever it is. Yeah. So, as I said, there are lots of questions!

DMcC: So as we wrap up, I think the one thing that I’d like to offer to all the Listeners of the podcast is, if there are people that are really interested in this kind-of new model of applied religious studies – where you’re making greater partnerships with some of the other departments in the university – to lend a bit of professionalisation to things: what would you recommend that they start with? Should they kind-of take a peek at the students that are in the class?(30:00) Is this “I got to walk down the hall and talk with the other department, first”? What’s a first step that you might recommend, to get someone rolling down this path?

MB: Well that’s a good question. I feel like we lucked-out, because we had some alumni who are really invested in our programme, and then I have just some remarkable colleagues who have a lot of energy around ideas like this. And then it also happened that what we’re doing aligns with our College’s and University’s strategic plans. And some of that is intentional, and some of it is a bit of a luck of the draw. So I feel like it probably depends on what your institutional context is, and who the potential partners could be – either within the university or within the community. But I think the AAR is also a resource. There are going to be a bunch of sessions about applied religious studies at this year’s meeting. And I think that would be a place to meet more people who are doing similar things. I think UCSB is now partnering with the art museum in Santa Barbara; folks at Missouri State, I think it is, just started a Certificate in Medical Humanities in the undergraduate programme; and I know that you have plans to talk to other folks who are doing things like this.

DMcC: Absolutely.

MB: Yeah, I think there are lots of models out there. There’s probably not a bad way to go about it.

DMcC: Right. But the central point, as far as what I’m hearing, is: every university has a context. And so if you’re in the religious studies department and you want to make those kind of connections to your universities network, we really have to take a step back and think about who the students are that are coming to the university, and where they go when they leave the university, and the relationship between the university and the community that exists, to really identify all of those networks that already exist, right? We’re just not tapping into them as well as we could. Would you . . . ?

MB: Yeah. I think that’s a great way to put it. I think, you know, just sort-of being open to opportunities as they come along, too. I mean, I wouldn’t have thought to make this connection with an elementary school until my kid brought home something that, for me, was like . . . “Huh? Mmm.” So yeah. I think I feel like once you get started thinking about, “How can we take our subject area expertise, and the skills that we develop in the study of religions, and use those to improve things for folks outside the academy?” Once you start thinking in that way, then you see all kinds of ways to work with people in other professions and other academic departments, too.

DMcC: Wonderful. Well thank you so much for joining me here today. We really appreciate your time.

MB: Thank you.

DMcC: Have a great day!

MB: You too.

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

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Straight White American Jesus, the podcast

In this week’s podcast, Skidmore College Professor Bradley Onishi speaks about Straight White American Jesus, a podcast he co-hosts with Dan Miller that blends insider religious experience with academic expertise about American Evangelicalism. “The goal is never reduction,” Onishi argues about the mix of insider/outsider frames. Instead, he shares how the podcast tries to provide better access to complex religious worlds and how careful historical framing and rigorous critical analysis can humanize rather than demonize evangelicals. Looking honestly at religion, warts and all, is worth the effort since it leads us to increased religious literacy outcomes designed to understand the “human condition writ large.”

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Straight White American Jesus, the Podcast

Podcast with Bradley Onishi (25 November 2019).

Interviewed by David McConeghy

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/straight-white-american-jesus-the-podcast/

PDF at https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Onishi_-_Straight_White_American_Jesus-_the_Podcast_1.1.pdf

David McConeghy (DMcC): Welcome. My name is David McConeghy. And today I’m joined by Dr Bradley Onishi, Associate Professor of Religion at Skidmore College in New York. He’s the co-author of Christian Mysticism: An Introduction to Contemporary Theoretical Approaches; the author of The Sacrality of the Secular, a major work about the philosophy of religion. Today he’s here as the co-host, with Dan Miller, of the really excellent podcast, Straight White American Jesus. Brad, thanks so much for joining us today.

Bradley Onishi (BO): Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.

DMcC: So I’ve been listening to your podcast for a while now, and I know you share it with everyone. But for those that haven’t come across this yet, where did you get the idea for this podcast?

BO: So in the kind-of aftermath of Trump’s election Dan and I got together and talked about wanting to share our stories, and also wanting to share kind-of our scholarship on evangelicalism and American religion. For those who haven’t listened, my story is basically that I converted to evangelicalism when I was fourteen. And by the time I was twenty I was a full-time minister, I was married, and I was really on my way toward a kind-of life in ministry and in the evangelical world. All of that changed, of course. And I’m still in the religion game – as I like to say – but just from a much different perspective. And so, for Dan and I, we wanted to help folks have an insider perspective and understanding of white evangelicalism in this country. We also wanted to provide a kind-of historical and social scientific lens on white evangelicalism. Our major goal is basically this: we want to explain, basically, why Donald Trump appears more like Jesus than any other politician white evangelicals have ever encountered. And so we do that through both the telling of our stories and a kind-of tracing the history of evangelicalism in this country.

DMcC: I found that mix of personal experience blending in to academic rigour, blending into full-on interviews with really important scholar like R. Marie Griffith and Randall Balmer. It’s really compelling. Did you know from the beginning that you had that kind-of really effective dialogue between those two halves? That you and Dan both share, right, share a background?

BO: Yes, you know it all comes so naturally. Because evangelicalism was my world. I mean I was. . . . It’s hard to explain how zealous I was, when I converted. I was that sixteen year-old kid who went from sneaking around the back of movie theatres to do teenage stuff, to standing out in front of the movie theatre, trying to convert people. And so when evangelicalism is that much a part of your life reflecting on it is sometimes painful, but it comes very naturally. So Dan and I knew we could do that. We also knew we had a passion for enabling . . . or creating a platform for scholars to help a wider audience understand, like: how is that more white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump than for George W Bush, or Mitt Romney? How does that happen? Well, we knew there were people out there who could help us understand that. And so we wanted to just provide space for those analytical, historical, critical, sociological perspectives.

DMcC: What I take from the moment that we’re in right now, is that we really have a great opportunity, right, as scholars, as outsiders, to kind-of present some of the research that’s been done, especially into those theoretical perspectives that the public often doesn’t see. Because they’re framed in language or framed in books that are hard to market to public audiences. But the insider approach really gives you that colloquial, fundamental access to an authenticity, when you speak about it, that makes it – when you switch, then, to the academic narrative – so much more alive. When you say it’s hard to convince audiences of how zealous you were, there was the moment when you were describing in the podcast, how you would go, in the high school lunch room, up to students that were your high school peers and evangelise to them at lunch. Because you were convinced that their mortal souls were at risk, and if you did not do everything you could do at that moment that you were going to leave them behind.

BO: Yes. And you know one of the goals is not to soften, or make more palatable the politics and culture of evangelicals in the Trump era. We are not here to sort-of “make nice” in any case. But what I do want to do, by telling stories like the one you just mentioned, I want people to be able to think themselves into the places of the evangelicals, not so that they can agree, not so that they can accept it, but so they can see the human element in it. It’s so easy to reduce those we disagree with – especially those who seem to be harming our public sphere – to just reduce them to something demented, something that’s not right. And just sort-of push them away as hopeless and helpless and whatever. My hope is by sharing my story, and Dan’s too, that we can show folks that this is a very human culture. It’s a very human set of events. It’s a very human community. And if you can get a window into that, maybe it can help you when you’re at a school board meeting, or you’re at your election for the city council, or when you’re dealing with parents on your kids’ soccer team, or having a Thanksgiving dinner. Maybe it can give you a better approach to how to discuss these things with your neighbours, with your fellow citizens, with your colleagues – whoever that may be. And so all that is to say, for me, that the personal element is really, really important. It adds something, I think, that makes it easier for a general audience to identify with. And it also makes it easier for those who are ex-evangelicals, like I am, to feel that they have a way in to understand more of the sort-of academic discourse surrounding the culture that they’re arguing from.

DMcC: Right. And for those perhaps outside of the US, it’s been a very kind-of English language discussion and very much on Twitter with folks like Chris Stroop, and others who #Exevangelical, are talking about their de-conversion experiences. There really is that kind-of two sides to what’s going on, in the sense that there are some folks that worry that perhaps the level of honesty that you’re approaching this topic with is unfair to evangelicals. And I think, all of the folks that I’ve heard from have been really forceful advocates for: “We’re not going to dismiss what’s wrong here, and we’re going to call out things that we see are wrong, and we feel like we have a space to do that.” But on the other hand it is about explaining experience and opening dialogue and trying to find the allies that are there for you. On the other hand, though, do you think . . . ? (Laughs) I’m guessing that maybe there’s been some push-back as well? Can you talk about the kinds of different responses that you’ve received from those that have been very supportive, as ex-evangelical community members, to those that are remaining evangelical, and may have some less than kind words for the work that you’re doing.

BO: Yes, I mean just to go to the beginning of your question there: my goal is not to. . . . I’m a scholar. And even when I’m talking about my own experiences, I want to be able to have an analytical lens. And so on our podcasts and with the work we’re doing, the goal is never reduction; the goal is never demonisation. The goal is always to say: “We want to examine these issues as best as we can.” And that includes returning to sources. That includes returning to documents and facts and histories that have been covered over that people don’t know about. We did this in one of our very first episodes with the abortion myth. Randall Balmer came on and . . . . Let me outline the history for you regarding the formation of the religious right. It was not about abortion. And the idea that it was is revisionist history in service of an evangelical propaganda or mission. In fact it was race. And my response to those who would have a pop at that, I would say “We’re doing historical work here. If you feel like our historical analysis is off in some way, we can talk about that. But just to say that somehow pointing these things out is unfair or not warranted, I just don’t buy that.”

DMcC: That’s such a good response. Because, you know, it allows you the space to say let’s take Darren Dochuk who would place oil, and empire, and commercialism, maybe even above race, at the start of the kind-of consolidation of the religious right. And it gives you that space to say, “Even scholars have disagreements about this. But we can all narrate the problems that we’re seeing at the same time.”

BO: I think that’s exactly right. And it leads to who has kind-of responded to the podcast. I can say that we’ve had two groups respond very positively. One are ex-evangelicals who’ve said “ You’re able to speak my language. You speak the language of evangelicalism that I came out of. And yet what you’re doing is giving me a road into understanding the history and all of the cultural and political factors that shaped that religious community that I’m now emerging from. What it’s doing is helping me kind-of put my world back together, after sort-of coming out of a very strict religious community that most of the time made no sense to me.” We’ve also had many people say, “I’m a secular person in Portland” or “I’m a Reformed Jew in New York City. I have no idea how to understand why white evangelicals are so in love with Donald Trump and why they vote, and act, and think the way they do, so you’re helping me gain a window into a culture that for me is completely alien. It seems so far from my understanding of the world that I just didn’t know where to start in order to understand all of this.” And so those two communities have really reached out over Twitter, and everything else, to say that they’ve really appreciated what we’re doing. There’s been a little bit of pushback, but not much. One of the things that I like to tell students and tell folks I discuss things with is, I am totally open as a scholar to argument, and debate, and dialogue. Those are the things I love. But you’re not going to out evangelical me! I’m like “level expert” at evangelical. So when it comes to theology, and language, and jargon, and colloquialisms, and clichés – I’m fluent in that. And so when you want to discuss those things with me, just know that I’m going to be speaking your language better than you. And so you’re not going to get the upper hand on me! And the last thing is, I’m not going to assume – and I think this is part of the ex-evangelical community online, the work they’re doing is – we need to stop assuming that if you call yourself a Christian that that means you are a good person. Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not calling Christians bad people! Do not come at me on Twitter for that! What I’m saying is there is a privilege in this country that if you’re a straight, white Christian – especially a straight, white Christian male – you’re given a kind-of cover as “Oh, you must be a true, good, old-fashioned patriot.” We just sort-of have this assumption. And part of the work we’re doing – along with many other people – is just saying we need to stop giving that benefit of the doubt, just because someone claims those identities. And we need to just be willing to look very critically, and with an unflinching gaze, on what’s actually happening in those communities. That could be everything from church, too, and sexual misconduct and abuse. That can be authoritarian structures that can be supporting candidates who are authoritarian and abusive – whatever it may be. And so anyway, all of that is part of the work I feel like we’re doing, and will continue to do, and are very proud to do.

DMcC: I’m tempted to ask whether you think you would ever run out of topics. But . . .

BO: (Laughs)

DMcC: since you describe your access to evangelicals as both fluency in a language, but also access to a world that is very closed off, and inaccessible to those that at are not fully immersed in it, it feels like you can just take any aspect of an evangelicals life: how they think about the economy, how they think about death, how they think about marriage, how they think about the value of life. And every issue, right, has to be encapsulated in some way by that worldview. It has to be addressed with fluency by that language. Do you feel that way? That there’s really never . . . this is an eternal wellspring for you?

BO: Well I don’t know about eternal, but what I will say is when you’re in something long enough you have the muscle memory to either know how to do it, or to find the person who does. And so I don’t want to make out that the evangelical community in this country, including the white evangelical community in this country is homogeneous. There’s a lot of difference between small house churches in West Texas and Liberty Baptists with the Falwell Family, there’s a lot of difference between the Vineyards in South California and what’s happening in rural Georgia. With all that said – at least in the Trump era – there is no shortage of need to discuss things related to evangelical culture. And so at least for the moment, it’s not hard to find things that are not only relevant but seem very pressing for our public sphere.

DMcC: It reminds me of the way that people have spoken about Trump’s election as a net gain for the media, even amid its attacks that the constant stream of scandals – or things that sound like scandals to some people – generates that kind-of a gravity of its own. And that we’re lucky, as religion scholars who happen to work on things that are so central to understanding what’s going on in American politics right now. It makes me feel very fortunate. But also it seems to carry a lot of responsibility. Do you feel that weight, as well?

BO: I do. And I know there’ll be people out there in the religious studies world who will say, “You know, Dan and Brad, you are blurring the lines between insider and outsider. You’re blurring the lines between scholar and data.” And I understand that perspective. I don’t necessarily agree with it. So when Dan and I go into any episode we do, we want to make sure that as we tell anecdotes from our past, as we recount what it was like to come home and have your family not be there, and have your first thought be “Maybe the rapture happened?” Where everyone got taken away and I didn’t. As we tell those stories we always want to balance that with very rigorous scholarship. And we want to do our homework. We want to go to the primary sources, we want to go to the data, we want to make sure we have that right, so that we can make sure, as scholars and as people that have a platform, that we are owning up and responding to that responsibility.

DMcC: Right. It also strikes me that it’s kind-of like you have an ethnographic project that you were living. And then you decided that the project was over. And then you realised that you could actually . . . that you had collected all this data that was really valuable. So, from one perspective, you know, is it blurring the line between insider and outsider? Well, it might be. But on the other hand, you were living in the same way that an ethnographer might live, as if they were doing full-immersion field work. And now you’ve pulled back from being within that perspective. And now that you’re not in that perspective you can clearly demarcate your outsider-ness – right? – in relation to your previous insider-ness

BO: And I think that’s right in ways that I think ethnographers experience. You begin . . . if you’re an ethnographer you form relationships within the community. And even when you might find the politics or practices of that community detestable, at that turning point, the relationships you form affect you. And believe me, I still have friends and many family members who are still part of the evangelical world. They are people for whom I have great affection. I love them. And so for me to do this project, again, means I want to avoid reduction and demonisation. But I also want to have the courage and the audacity to point as critical and as unflinching an eye as we can on what’s happening.

DMcC: Right. So, do you think – and feel free to share specific episodes that you’d like to direct people to if they come to mind – are there things that really resonate best with the community where the clarity of that kind-of-like worldview switch that you’ve had, that you’re revealing to everyone, really appears best? Your gold star podcast episodes?

BO: Well the thing we’ve been focussing on this season has been Beyond Belief. And what we want to do is explain not only what evangelicals believe, but what their culture and beliefs do for them. And so let me give you an example. We’ve spoken several times on our podcast about abortion and “cultures of life” – quote unquote – And one of the things we’ve tried really hard to explain is that, yes, there is a focus on abortion. Because many rank and file evangelicals go to bed at night believing that any form of abortion is equivalent to murder. Ok. However there’s whole nother package of goods that come with that belief. I know personally, from my own experience, that every time that I explained to my church elders that I wanted to vote for a Democrat because their emphasis on equality, or social justice, seemed more in line with the gospel of Jesus Christ, they would sort-of say to me “Look, you can do that if you want. But what you’re condoning is the murder of millions of children.” Why do I bring that up? Because that one belief in abortion meant that I could turn off my brain completely when it came to all other issues. So when I went into a voting booth I did not have to consider whether or not all the things related to healthcare reform, education initiatives, tax hikes, immigration, what all of those things meant for who I should vote for. What I was going to vote for was who was “pro-life”, quote unquote: who was against abortion. And so I got to turn off a whole set of moral and ethical decisions. I got to disengage politically, and go to bed at night knowing that I had done the right thing: that I was a good person, because I stood against murder. And that happens all over the place in evangelical culture. I could give you similar examples when it comes to apocalypticism. I could give you similar examples when it comes to God and guns, or gender. And so, what our audience has been really reacting to is unpacking what beliefs do for you more than just simply explaining theological frameworks or evangelical doctrines.

DMcC: And I’m so thrilled to hear you present it in that way. We’ve been having kind-of a religious literacy discussion on Twitter, some of us going around, and that really strikes me as one of the operational moves that religious studies really can take advantage of: that it’s not simply the content that we can present – it’s the critical appraisal of the work that religion does, in particular instances, for particular people. So on abortion, the work that it does is potentially make hard political decisions a lot easier, right? It clarifies what the expectations are for them. And, as an element of religious literacy, presenting religion in that way to the public is a really powerful way to think about it. It’s very different than thinking about religion as simply a collection of beliefs that we hold and then not really much beyond that, right?

BO: It is. And you know that in every Intro to Religion class, most scholars and teachers are not going to ask, you know, “Let’s ask their students to make a list of what Hindus and Muslims and Christians and everyone else believes.” They’re going to ask, “Let’s try to define religion.” and then they’re going to say, “What does religion do for people?” Well I know the question I ask my students on the first day, is “Why do people do religion?” and when I say why do people do religion, they immediately get away from belief and they start raising their hands. And it’s like “Community” “tradition”, “family”, “belonging”, “identity”. And as soon as we start talking about why people do religion instead of what do religious people believe, all of the dimensions of religious studies opens up. And what you see is that when we study religion we’re also studying race, we’re also studying embodiment, we’re also studying gender, and we’re also studying group formation. I always tell kids who want to major in religion, I’m like: “Look, when you sign up with us, you get to study it all. You don’t have to compartmentalise what you’re doing into one domain. Studying religion means studying the human condition writ large.” One of the things I like to say is that, when you study religion you get a window into human conditions. That means communities and worlds that at one time probably seemed indecipherable. And you also get a window into the human condition in a way that I think is really unique. In the humanities, yes, but in religious studies even more so.

DMcC: I’m so pleased to hear you say that. It’s really been quite a pleasure to speak with you today about this. Thank you so much for joining us. And where can people find your podcast online?

BO: Yes, so you can find Straight White American Jesus on Apple Podcast, on Stitcher, on Google, on most places that people find podcasts. You can find me on Twitter @BradleyOnishi. And we still do have a Straight White American Jesus Facebook page as well.

DMcC: Perfect. Thank you so much for joining us.

BO: Thanks for having me.

 

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

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

Reflections on “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith”

Following the “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith” Conference hosted by the Norwegian University for Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway, Aaron W. Hughes, the conference’s keynote speaker, joined the Religious Studies project to discuss some of what was discussed during the conference and primarily the legacy of J.Z. Smith’s work for the field of religious studies.

The conference provided great examples of the application of Smith’s work across sub-fields and for religious studies pedagogy. But this wide application of Smith’s work also raised some questions not only about how scholars read and engage with Smith’s work but also about how we adapt and apply Smith’s work moving forward. Hughes reflects on the impact of Smith’s work while also addressing critiques of his approach. Hughes contends that Smith left scholars of religion with a simple but impossible task of critically engaging and reflecting on one’s work while maintaining a playful, comparative approach.

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Reflections on the “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith” Conference at NTNU

 

Podcast with Aaron W. Hughes (11 November 2019).

Interviewed by Andie Alexander

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/reflections-on-thinking-with-jonathan-z-smith/

PDF of this transcript available for download here.

Andie Alexander: (AA): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. I’m Andie Alexander, a doctoral student at Emory University. And joining me today is Dr Aaron Hughes of the University of Rochester. We are here in Trondheim, Norway, following the “Thinking with Jonathan Z. SmithConference that is hosted at the Norwegian Institute for Science and Technology. And we’re here to talk about the legacy of Smith and his work, his contribution, and ways in which we can move forward in the field. So, Aaron – Hi! Thanks for joining me.

Aaron Hughes (AH): Hi, Andie. How are you doing?

AA: Great. Are you enjoying Norway?

AH: I am. It’s very beautiful.

AA: It’s nice.

AH: The midnight sun reminds me of my childhood in Edmonton, Alberta.

AA: There you go. As long as I’ve been here it’s only been daylight! So, I don’t know if the sun sets. But it’s been nice.

AH: I think it sets at like one, and then gets up at three.

AA: (Laughs) It’s very nice. Well, let’s talk about Smith. Let’s talk about what we’ve discussed, and see what questions we have.

AH: Sounds great. Let’s do it. I think we should probably begin everything by saying that Smith has probably been the most important theoretician over the past fifty years, half century. I think he’s so important . . . so I’ll talk about the past before I talk about what I think. So I think that probably, he more than anyone, was responsible for smashing the Eliadian phenomenological paradigm. The problem is, even though that paradigm should be long dead and buried, it’s still one that our students gravitate towards and still one that a number of our colleagues gravitate towards. I think, it’s what I tried to say a couple of times, we’re in one of these rarefied environments of people who are more critical, who just think we’re all the same and we preach to the converted. Whereas, when we walk the halls of the AAR and look at some of the papers that are given there, they fall back a lot on that old phenomenological model. So I think that’s Smith’s main importance. So Smith – and I think we all fall in this legacy – refused to see religion as special, sui generis, or as unique in the ontological sense. It might be unique to us, but ontologically it’s not unique. And if it’s not unique, you can’t compare it to anything else. And I think that’s the beauty of him, is that he was able to show the incongruous relationship between the quote-unquote “religious” and the quote-unquote “mundane”. So I think that’s where . . . . I mean, and the other thing, I think, that came up a number of times at the conference was the ludic or the playful dimension of Smith. But I mean the flipside of that is that he was so knowledgeable and so comfortable. Whereas when we get undergraduates who are not comfortable and they don’t have nearly the depth of education that he did . . . so there’s a problem of translation. I think the other thing that’s great about Smith is his broad comparative . . . his broad vision. And I think that’s something that a lot of us don’t share, because again that goes against what we’re taught in graduate school. So it’s funny, I think, when I talk to a number of people about this, a lot of the people here who work with Smith . . . . I think I really only began to appreciate Smith after graduate school. Because then you’re afforded the slowness of reading him, and appreciating him.

AA: I can see that. It’s sort-of different, given that I’ve had to read him as an undergrad, because. . . It’s a different sort of introduction . . .

AH: Right. In Alabama. Yes, definitely!

AA: And so, in the same sense, it’s something that I think is important for people to at least have in their repertoire. But something that I find is often not taught in grad school, or is never much, and it’s always highly contested.

AH: Yes. And I think I said in my lecture that I never encountered Smith until graduate school. We just read people like Eliade and Weber, and maybe there was a reason for that. Maybe the person that taught the course thought, “Well you’ll get Smith later, so let’s . . . .” That was good for me, because I read first all the things that Smith would later be critical of. By the time I came to Smith it was like, “Yes, I can see that.”

AA: I think, too, the distinction that you’re making between seeing religion as “unique for us”, and not ontologically unique, is something that is lost, partly in that religions chapter that he wrote (5:00). I suspect, as I read that, he was being provocative – but he probably meant it. But not in the way that I suspect a lot of people want to contend with. And it’s easier to dismiss. Because as you said, he was pushing back against the whole phenomenological paradigm, I suppose. And while, especially given the group here, we are relatively on the same page and think that this should be obvious that this should be something that everyone is doing . . . and that’s something you mention in your keynote: how is this not something that’s just common knowledge across the academy?

AH: I think a lot people still believe in the sacred, or still believe . . . . I think this is where the problem is. We live in a very chaotic world where “religions” quote-unquote don’t seem to like one another particularly. I think this really comes to the fore after 9/11. So a lot of people in Religious Studies think that Religious Studies can be that which facilitates conversation between religions. That’s always . . . I joke to my students: “I didn’t spend ten years in graduate school to be an interfaith dialogue facilitator.” As important as that work is, though, really. So oftentimes I’ll try to get Jews and Muslims to talk together but not under the auspices of the academic classroom. I think, as I’ve said before, religions get along better when they talk to one another as opposed to when they shout at one another. But I do think a lot of people in the Religious Studies academy think that that’s the goal of Religious Studies: to show the similarities between religions. I disagree, and I think Smith would disagree. But I think that . . . I always worry that Smith was . . . . Smith was on point. Smith was edgy. Smith was critical. Smith really encourages us to do that. But the two things that I worry about, as I said in the keynote, are those people that will just write him off as another dead white guy – which as I said is absolutely stupid, given the fact that he wasn’t even white, he was Jewish. But that’s another matter. And the second thing that I think we’ll see is how the field will “inocculise” Smith. So that he’ll just become like a name or a trope. And people can invoke him but they’ll do it in a way that takes off the edge. And I think we see that. I’ve seen it a lot. So everyone can say, “According to Smith blah, blah, blah . . .” But they’ll never quite follow through in what Smith wanted us to do.

AA: I think you’re right. And I think in some ways what he was working against then, with his work and pushing back against the Eliadian model, we have a different version of it that’s sort-of present in the academy now. It’s maybe not as overt. But I think it’s there. So, to me, I suspect there’s still some push that has to happen. There’s still conversations to be had within the discipline. And how it works. And I think part of my concern in those conversations is the dismissal of Smith. It’s reductive – all of those critiques that get applied to his work. And what I find is that there’s very little engagement with it – if one has even read it.

AH: Well, I think just as Smith goes against our traditional ways of reading and thinking about religion, I think the modern academy goes against Smith. So on the one hand, our students come in woefully ignorant about what religion is. So we can’t engage the type of work that Smith wants until much later. You can’t have redescription without description. So I think we spend a lot of time, at least the classes we teach at the freshman and sophomore level, trying to describe to students. But hopefully if they stay for later classes we can begin to redescribe. The other thing is, I think, with the contemporary academy we’re always encouraged to do community engagement. And so job interviews will ask people, “So how will you interact with the community? What will you do with them?” And I think, in interacting with the community, we have certain expectations that go against what Smith (10:00). . . I don’t think Smith ever interacted with the local Jewish community. I don’t think the local communities are really amenable to the type of conversation that Smith had. So I think we have to fight back. And I think that’s what some of us would do. But the key, in moving forward, is how to keep the edge of a Smithian analysis. How to apply it so it just doesn’t become a bromide – which is what I think a lot of people would like it to become.

AA: Developing what Smith was doing, trying to continue to push it forward – especially given the requirements both of the job market, of service for the school, the department, because that’s shifted over the past 20 years alone. And community engagement is something very big, and there’s a huge focus on doing that sort of work. And I think that it can be very productive. But as a discipline we’re still figuring out how to do that successfully, I think, in ways that we can both learn, but also interpret, and translate, and in service of larger concerns and issues both in the community, the discipline, the nation . . .

AH: Yes. Well I think what you’ll never or rarely see a job in just theory and method in the study of religion. I think in the past twenty years I’ve maybe seen three or four of those. So, one always has to be trained in a tradition. And I’m not sure if Smith was trained in a tradition. I mean his thesis was on . . . his dissertation was on The Golden Bough. So Smith was generalist at a time when Religious Studies was particularist. So the question I think becomes: how can you translate a Smithian-type analysis into the particular fields? And that’s difficult, as we saw with some of the papers here that tried to engage Smith from the level of area studies. There had to be a lot of remedial work that they had to do for us, who aren’t in that tradition, in order to get to a small Smithian point. So I think, as we move forward, how to translate Smith into area studies will not be easy. But maybe that’s the point. That was one of the points that came out several times in the conference, was the playful or ludic dimension of Smith. Maybe that’s the method: to show the playfulness or the ludic dimension of what we work on, or how – quote-unquote – “sacred kingship” in Tibet is no more special than any other type of power hierarchy. So maybe that’s it, it’s the playful dimension. Maybe that’s his method. Did he have a method, other than showing that the religious is not qualitatively different than non-religious?

AA: Yeah. I mean, I think . . .

AH: Reflexivity, maybe?

AA: Yes self-reflexivity is certainly something that is required and this came up in many of our conversations. But maybe coupled with that playfulness.

AH: Yes. I think you’re right. I think that Smith’s message on the one hand is very simple. We need to be self-conscious, self-reflexive scholars who don’t treat religion as somehow special different or special from mundane things. And I think that’s where the playfulness comes through. So the question becomes: how do you translate that into particular religions, which in area studies tend to be a lot more serious and not engaged in play? And how do you translate that into a pedagogical idiom or an idiom working with the communities, which are not accustomed to think about religion in a playful way? Because, “this is what the Bible says you’re supposed to do”. Or, “this is what the Qur’an says”. So I think the classroom is easier to translate that than the community. But it still poses its set of problems. From our conversation yesterday, we said that where Smith tried to translate his more theoretical ideas was in the Dictionary. I’m not sure how successful the Dictionary was. I mean, no-one engaged the dictionary here. We rarely talk about that. We talk about the essays in his main publications. But we never talk about the Dictionary (15:00). I haven’t looked at the Dictionary in ages. So maybe I should go back again and look at it. So it’s hard. But maybe the main translation of that is to get students to be playful with religion. That’s how I try to do it, so they can joke about it. Obviously . . . I think it’s easy in the community, too. As we move forward, and I think I said that in the lecture, I mean, we have to absorb Smith’s critique. We have to absorb his wit. And we have to absorb his edge. But create new edges and new wits as a way to move forward. Because if not, we’ll just make him into a name or slogan that doesn’t have any venom. And I think that maybe the way to go with that is to bring him into the study of particular religions, which isn’t easy. The main thing I really like about Smith is that he encourages us to use our imaginations.

AA And I agree. For Smith he does encourage that. He encourages odd comparisons that might not make sense. And tracing historical etymologies and to have a better conception of how we talk about religion. . .

  1. AH. . . in human activity.

AA: . . . in human activity, yes.

AH: It’s hard, because. . . . I agree, and I think that’s the way it should be. But ultimately if you’re in an area, like in Islamic Studies, my work has to be adjudicated by people in Islamic Studies. It might not . .  . The chances are it might not come out of Religious Studies. So you always have to move back and forth between trying to make theoretical contributions to the field of Religious Studies, but with the realisation that people in Religious Studies might not read it, because it’s in Islamic Studies, or Jewish Studies, or Buddhist Studies, or whatever. At the same time, to write in such a way that those people that would naturally read it – people in those area studies – would be able to understand the argument. So that’s always the trick. I think I’ve been able to do it well. But I don’t think it’s easy. And I think, ideally, I’ve tried to pave a path for young scholars in Islamic studies, to try to do that. Whether that’s successful or not, I don’t know. But that . . . I think that’s the main thing as we move forward… that will be one of the issues of how to translate Smith. We talked about that. We talked about Daniel Barbu and Nick Meylan in Geneva in Switzerland have tried to translate Smith into French. I’m not sure to what effect. Part of the project is trying to translate Smith into Italian. And again, I don’t know how you . . . . It came up several times: how you translate Smith for an undergraduate American audience is one thing, but how you translate it for an Italian audience, or a French audience, or a Polish audience, is another thing. And I don’t think that’s easy. But I think Smith should be translated into other languages. Probably maybe not a word-for-word translation, but a more conceptual type of translation. How do we take the playful aspect in English and translate it into Italian? You can’t do it.

AA: You can’t.

AH: You have to be playful in Italian in order to . . . . So it becomes a very difficult process. But all translation is difficult. You can think, do you want a literal translation, or do you want a conceptual translation? And I think it’s the conceptual translation – both at the literal level in other languages and into other fields within Religious Studies – that will be the difficulty moving forward. But I think it can happen. I think it will happen. Most of us here are committed to making that happen.

AA: Yes, I think so. As was mentioned, it doesn’t happen overnight, those changes. But I think that, to me at least, is why having more productive work happening in the classroom early on, and not following the method of just: give information, undo it later. . .

AH: I like to . . . See, because I have to work with Islamic Studies and most people don’t know anything about Islam, I really have to begin by making sure they know the narratives. And ideally know the texts in the languages. Because then, I think, you can learn the theoretical stuff (20:00). I know probably people would disagree with me here, but I’m old fashioned that way. But I think you need the description, I think you need the details and the facts, but later you can say that no facts are facts, they’re simply ideologies going under the guise of whatever. But I think students need that. And then they can play. Because you can’t play unless you know the rules of the game.

AA: That’s true. You have to know the rules. And I think that’s key. But where I think I’m going to push on that, is that most people are not going to play. They’re not going to be here, right? And so, if we’re talking to an undergraduate class of a hundred people, and this is the humanities credit that they get, what then? Because they’re not going to remember the narratives of Islam. They’re not going to remember different facts about any world religions.

AH: Yeah. That’s tough.

AA: And so, is the key, then, that they have all of that data that makes them feel more confident in saying, “Well, I know what true Islam is”, versus being able to weigh those claims of authority and authenticity against one another?

AH: I think you’re right. We always speak out of our own context. And I’m lucky, we don’t have humanities requirements in my university. People are in the class because they want to be in the class. And I think if I’m playful enough in the class then they’ll come into the second and third level classes. So yes. So I’ve never dealt with that. But if I did have to teach a larger class – I teach 18-20 students all of whom want to be there, and who do the reading – so if I had to teach these big . . . . I can’t even imagine doing it. I don’t know what I’d do. I really don’t. I mean I guess you’re right. How do you transmit the information, but in the same way let them know that the information is wafer thin?

AA: It’s contingent.

AH: Yes. So that is . . . That’s a tough question. And I don’t have to think about that too much, which is a cop out! But I know if I taught at a large state university, for sure I’d have to think about that.

AA: And I think that is part of it. The ways in which any discipline is approached varies so drastically across universities.

AH: That’s what Smith said. That’s a great point. Because Smith taught at the type of place that I teach at. So very bright undergraduates – some of the brightest in the country – who probably had some idea of what the religions were. And then he would kind-of work to undermine that. So like where I teach, I teach an Introduction to Jewish History class. And most of the students are Jewish. They’ve come out of, often, Jewish day school in the New York City, Boston area. They know their stuff. They know the data. But I get them in the classroom because they’re very bright, and they think “Well, you know what, maybe my parents . . . maybe it all doesn’t quite make sense.” So at the introductory level I can probably do what people at a large state university can only do at the third or fourth year. And I wonder if Smith probably had something similar to that. Because he must have taught. . . .So I think that every institution is different. And there’s large state universities, there are the colleges and they’re like the elite, private university, Research 1 universities that have these different constituencies. And maybe that would have been a good workshop, translating this myth into the undergraduate classroom? But heck, I don’t think we can translate him . . . . Most people can’t even translate him into their own areas of research. How they translate him into the classroom is not easy. Because I think, to go back to where we began, Smith asks us to do that which is the opposite of what the modern academy encourages us to do. Which is to read quickly read fast, to not have an imagination, and to not take pedagogy seriously (25:00). And I think that all of Smith’s work shows that, no – you have to do those things.

AA: Yes. It absolutely does to me. And I think that’s something that is lost, given the requirements both of grad students and tenure track faculty instructors, of course. There are so many demands on production that there’s not enough time to really investigate something that might not be in your area, or work through how to apply something. And this was a question that I think came up, in terms of applying Smith. Should we be trying to strive for a literal, intentional understanding of Smith as the author, or should we take what we can – whether he’s taught in the classroom explicitly or referenced – and adapt it. And try to apply those ideas in ways that might not be obvious. But, well, if we’re going to talk about “the other”, let’s consider issues of immigration or . . .

AH: Yes.

AA: And that way you can bring it in – even though his e.g.s are not anything that I would use, personally, in a class – or even overlap with the area that I work in – and try to take some sort of nugget or something from his approach, in terms of shaping our own approach. Because, as you mentioned, that’s a key thing for Smith is how he is approaching his own research.

AH: Yes. I think Smith might say, “Forget about me. I’m gone. But take some of the tools that I’ve tried to play with and work with them. You don’t even have to mention my name. You don’t have to say “J.Z Smith said this . . .” Just take the self-reflexivity, take the playful element, take the comparison . . . and, again, when smith says of comparison: “You can’t compare X to Y without having a third term, Z”, like, on the one hand that’s so obvious, but on the other hand it’s so deep. But I think Smith would say “Well, just move forward.” I’d like to think that’s what he would say. “Forget about me. Just keep the creativity, keep the self-reflexivity, realise that the terms you use probably have baggage in them and don’t simply replicate them.” That’s what I’m more interested in. I think for me, one of my main goals is to try and take some of the complicated Smithian and other analysis that we have in Religious Studies – at least in the critical wing of Religious Studies – and translate them into area studies. Which is not easy when you have to do it in a particular way. But I think I’ve done it with a certain amount of success. So I think, like that’s… how you take ninth century Arabic texts and ask certain questions of them – not flatten them by asking certain questions, but how you appreciate the texts on their own terms and at the same time ask questions of them that come out of that which us theory-and-method-people do.

AA: Yes. And I think that is the key. Because when we are at a conference like this, there’s a luxury of working with people who are all sort-of working toward the same goal and are concerned for those issues. But then translating that into our own fields and to others in the academy . . . .

AH: And it’s difficult, as we saw with some of the more technical papers on the second day. I mean some of the . . . I mean there’s a lot of descriptive work where, say, someone working on South Asia or East Asia, in order to bring the rest of us up to speed there has to be a lot of descriptive and informative work, and only then can they get to the questions. And I think, as the papers were so short, that sometimes it was difficult to get to those questions because of all the background work. But that’s good, though. I think that’s good. Because I don’t think Smith would say, “Oh yeah, we should all just give up working in areas or text and just ask these questions.” I think he would say that some of us should do that work.

AA: Yes. I mean we have to engage that. And I think what’s good, too, with the technical papers that we heard, it is hearing from other disciplines and not talking only to your discipline (30:00). That’s exactly what highlights – at least in my way of thinking – Smith’s goal in terms of playing with ideas and asking different questions. Because when you are listening to a paper on East Asia, and I do American religion, then what we have in common is not our area. So if we’re going to talk to each other productively, as I would hope we would, we have to have a way of doing that.

AH: Yes. We have to have common set of questions. I think that’s what Smith really . . . I think that would be his definition of the field, where people who are working with different texts, and different traditions, and different data sets, can learn from one another by asking similar sets of questions. And to me, that’s Religious Studies at its best. But again, for those in area studies like myself, it’s a trade-off being able to do that and at the same time to be able to speak to just those people that work with Arabic texts or other types of Islamic texts. Which isn’t easy. But it can be done.

AA: It can be. And I think the only way to impact area studies in a way that could push it to a more Smithian, potentially Smithian model is to do that, and to bring that work there. And we can’t also just talk to ourselves.

AH: Yes, exactly.

AA: And it’s easy to do – but again, that goes against the whole point. We have to engage across areas and disciplines within Religious Studies.

AH: Yes. And also realise that sometimes area studies have a lot to teach us, too.

AA: Yes.

AH: I think that’s important.

AA: I think so.

AH: And I really think that’ll be Smith’s legacy. I think that that’s . . . . On the one hand, he doesn’t ask too much of us, but on the other hand he asks everything: to rethink ourselves, rethink our own relationship to that which we study – and if it’s found wanting, to transform.

 

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When Religion Is Not Religion: Inside Religious Studies’ Fight for Religious Literacy in the Public Sphere

After wrapping up a Q&A session at a public conference where I presented on the topic of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations to a largely evangelical Christian audience, an older man who was sitting in the back approached me at the podium.

Rather nonchalantly, he asked, “You do know that the Constitution wasn’t written for Muslims, right?”

As we talked, he elaborated on his opinion that the concept of religious freedom does not apply to Islam and Muslims because, he said matter-of-factly, “Islam is not a religion.” At the time, it seemed to me a fringe theory cooked up in the dark corners of the internet or in 6am greasy-spoon breakfast meet-ups.

In short, I could not really believe — given my own biases — that people could actually think that the First Amendment and its promise of religious freedom did not extend to Islam and Muslims in the U.S.

However, far from fringe political theory or radical cultural posturing, this view has found its way into legal briefs, court cases, and political contexts in recent years. In fact, these legal and political perspectives are the fodder for Asma Uddin’s new book When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom.

In this work, Uddin points out that many Americans insist that the religious liberty they so quickly claim for Christianity or Judaism (or other religions beyond the nation’s so-called “Judeo-Christian” heritage) does not extend to Islam and Muslims in the U.S.

Concerned that the loss of liberty for Muslims means a loss of liberties for all, Uddin surveys an alarming amount of politicized legal and social battles over whether or not Islam can be considered a “religion” and whether, by extension, Muslims should be afforded the same human rights and constitutional protections that others claim. Weaving together her legal expertise and personal perspective as an American Muslim, Uddin makes the case that despite today’s fraught culture wars, there is a path forward for defending religious liberty for Muslims in the U.S. that can – and should – appeal to those of multiple faith perspectives or none at all.

As I listened to her interview about the book and its ramifications on the Religious Studies Project, I not only appreciated her balanced and thorough approach to this topic, but found myself wanting to focus on three points that she touched on in the talk: 1) the ways in which “religion” is defined in the public sphere; 2) whether or not we should listen to “fringe” Islamophobes and their rhetoric on religion; and 3) thinking about “when Christianity is not a religion.”

1)  Definitions of “religion” in the public sphere.

Discussing how “religion” is defined in the courts, Uddin referenced how the majority of cases she reviewed contained definitions that reminded her of Paul Tillich’s: religion as “ultimate concern.”

The debate over what constitutes the category of “religion” has been lively in the field of religious studies over the proceeding decades since Tillich’s work and many within the discipline have landed on “definitions” that are highly critical of “religion” as a sui generis phenomenon (a la Jonathan Z. Smith and Russell T. McCutcheon). Others have turned to definitions that seek to address religion in terms of globalization in the late-modern era (Thomas Tweed) or from a materialist perspective (Manuel Vásquez). Suffice it to say, these are not the only definitions of religion – or of the field of religious studies – that are out there right now, but they point to the fact that definitions of religion abound.

Despite the robust conversation about “religion” and its referents in the field of religious studies, the general public’s interpretations of religion remain reified in the past or overly influenced by a Judeo-Christian frame.

Therefore, when public figures make comments about what does or does not constitute a “religion,” the greater populace relies on fairly outdated definitions of religion by which to respond to such claims.

For example, the current head of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and President of the Family Research Council, Tony Perkins wrote:

only 16 percent of Islam is a religion — the rest is a combination of military, judicial, economic, and political system. Christianity, by comparison, isn’t a judicial or economic code — but a faith. So to suggest that we would be imposing some sort of religious test on Muslims is inaccurate. Sharia is not a religion in the context of the First Amendment.

This is exactly the kind of rhetoric Uddin addresses in her work. However, it is concerning that conversations around Islam being “only 16% religion” can gain such steam because of a general religious illiteracy or an overly Judeo-Christian conceptualization of what “religion” is. While Uddin does more than a fair job of deconstructing claims such as Perkins’, there remains a lot more work for those of us in religious studies.

We must humbly admit that we have largely failed in communicating the potent and helpful conversations we have had in the academy over the last decades to a wider public. Our discussions about religion as a construct have not been widely disseminated. While we may feel that such conversations are meant for the academic study of religion proper, I would argue that helping the wider public see that religion is more convention than “thing” would help address the constructions that frame Islam as “only 16% religion.” Furthermore, if we could successfully engage the public in this discussion about definitions, they might well become the best critics of the ways in which the term “religion” is constructed in popular parlance or politics.

Rather than dismiss the various definitions of “religion” that exist in the public sphere – or solely critique them in academic circles, conferences, and publications – scholars of religion should focus our energies in articulating proper responses to the definitions that are at work in the world and invite the wider public into seeing “religion” as a construct rather than a definitively defined category to apply to such things as Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. Uddin’s work helps prod us in such a direction.

2) Do we have to listen to “Islamophobes?” 

Such a move presumes that scholars of religion engage with the mainstream public in broad, but meaningful ways. This also means listening to supposedly “fringe” groups and their ideas about religion.

Uddin makes the provocative point that her research involved taking the claims about Islam not being a religion seriously. We might do well to take up her cue in order to better confront and critique such opinions.

Thus, when an individual such as the man at the conference I referenced earlier claims that “Islam is not a religion, but a political doctrine and form of government” we must take the time to not only listen, but parse out what this means. Where does such a view come from? How has it become operational in the lives of those who claim it? Why is it such a powerful perspective? Where, when, and how did it move from the margins to the putative center of public discourse?

Paying attention to such fringe opinions would help us better apperceive and address how wider publics give rise to the legal opinions, cases, and briefs that Uddin addresses in her work.

For example, in my current research I am aiming to go beyond the legal, state, and extreme social expressions of global Islamophobia to understand its social mechanizations and manifestations in quotidian contexts through an ethnographic study of “everyday Islamophobia.”

Rather than seeking to normalize such behavior, listening to “Islamophobes” can help scholars of religion better critique such perspectives and postures toward the “religious other.”

3) When Christianity is not a religion

While listening to and reading Uddin, I could not help but think about how one could make the argument that the political ideologies among Christians in the U.S. could also – by the very rules that lead to the conclusion that “Islam is not a religion” – be used to make the case that Christianity is not a religion either.

Christianity in the U.S., particularly in its specifically politicized evangelical varieties, could be seen as not only a set of religious beliefs and practices, but explicitly political doctrines that seek to shape social behavior through a combination of laws and penalties, not only by God, but by the state. According to the opinion that frames Islam as not a religion because of these very characteristics, one could argue that Christianity is not a religion either, but a form of government.

Let me be clear: I am not trying to say that Christianity or Islam (or any other “religion” for that matter) is not a “religion.” However, this rumination on whether Christianity should be considered a “religion” in light of the very arguments that make Islam not so in certain circles helps point us back to the very important task before religion scholars presented in this response to Uddin’s work.

First, scholars of religion must do a better job of discussing and addressing the many ways that “religion” is defined as a category in the public sphere. The helpful and powerful debate that we have had over preceding decades can, and should, benefit popular and political disputes over religious freedom and human rights. This is not only important for Muslims, but for people of any religion or no religion in particular. Debates over religious freedom in the U.S. and abroad are not going to go away any time soon. Confusion over what constitutes religion cannot be left to the wayside by scholars of religion or simply as a phenomenon to be studied. Religious studies scholars should insert themselves into the conversation.

Second, entering into these conversations and introducing the wider public to religion as a construct more than a sui generis category will not only require appealing to more progressive circles that might be more supple to our ideas, but also the conservative communities that espouse the very perspectives Uddin addresses in her work and that we might find ourselves highly critical of. While listening does not necessarily mean condoning, it does require a more humble and interpersonal engagement of attitudes we might often avoid or critique from a distance.

Uddin has done a great job in opening up such an avenue for other scholars. We would do well to follow in her footsteps. There remains much work to be done.

Buddhism in the critical classroom

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

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

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


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


Buddhism in the Critical Classroom

Podcast with Matthew Hayes (13 May 2019).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Hayes_-_Buddhism_in_the_Critical_Classroom_1.1

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MH: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

MH: Sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MH: Right, right.

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

MH: Right

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

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

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

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

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

MH: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Demystifying the Study of Religion

In this podcast we have a group discussion about Russell McCutcheon’s new book, Religion in Theory and Practice: Demystifying the Field for Burgeoning Academics. Joining us on the podcast is not only the author himself, but two young scholars who also contributed to the book, Matt Sheedy and Tara Baldrick-Morrone.

This book is of particular interest to the RSP because it is not just another critical theory book on religion, but examines the practical sites where theory gets implemented and challenged at the university. Moreover, it specifically includes the perspective of early career scholars and the struggles they face as they navigate the sparse job market. In this interview we discuss what is included in the book, how it got put together, and some of the broader theoretical and practical issues it deals with. Topics discussed include how to construct an introductory course, the job market, contingent labor, the gap between what we learn as graduate students and what we are expected to teach once we are working in the field, as well as other issues.

 

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


Demystifying the Study of Religion

Podcast with Russell T. McCutcheon, Matt Sheedy and Tara Baldrick- Morrone (29 April 2019).

Interviewed by Tenzan Eaghll.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: McCutcheon_et_al._-_Demystifying_the_Study_of_Religion_1.1

 

Tenzan Eaghll: Hello. We are gathered here today, over the mighty inter-webs to discuss Russell McCutcheon’s latest book,Religion” in Theory and Practice: Demystifying the Field for Burgeoning Academics. Joining me is not only the author himself, Russell McCutcheon, but a couple of young scholars who contributed small pieces to the volume – Matt Sheedy and Tara Baldrick-Morrone. Russell McCutcheon probably needs no introduction to most of our Listeners but just for some of those who may be new, he is Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. Matt Sheedy is visiting Professor of North American Studies at the University of Bonn. And Tara Baldrick-Morrone is a PhD candidate and instructor at the Department of Religion at Florida State University. Now part of what makes this book special, and why I wanted to include Matt and Tara in this podcast, is that it isn’t just another theory book about Religious Studies, but actively engages with questions about what it takes to make it as a scholar in today’s world. And there are about twenty other young scholars, including myself, who wrote short pieces for this book reflecting on some of the concerns and issues that young Religious Studies scholars face in the workplace today, as well as in their scholarship. So what I want to do is start with Russell and get a sense of what this book is all about, and then bring in Matt and Tara to the conversation and talk about their respective contributions and about some of the issues that burgeoning scholars face in the world today. Now, Russell – one of the first things that jumped out at me when I originally initially read the blurb for the book, on the back jacket, is that it is a bit of a follow-up to your previous book, Entanglements. So I was hoping you might start by summarising the general aim of the book for our Listeners, and saying something about how it relates to your previous work and how it differs.

Russell McCutcheon (RM): Sure. Thanks for wanting to talk about this. Entanglements was a collection – also with Equinox – of replies and rejoinders that I’ve been lucky enough to have – interactions with a variety of people – over the years in print. And those things all just sit somewhere and have a life of their own. And nobody knows they happen, if they don’t stumble across it. So I thought I’d pull all this together. But in pulling that together I wrote a fair bit of new material to open every one of the pieces and situate it, contextualise it – when was this given, why was it given. But in writing those, I explicitly tried to think of an earlier career reader who might not yet have had the luxury of doing these sorts of things, of talking to these sorts of people. Because latterly I’ve paid a fair bit of attention to job market issues, things that have been issues for decades in the Humanities, but have certainly hit a peak in the last five, ten years in North America at least – also in Europe now. So it occurred to me that that would be a good audience to write to, whatever anybody else did with it. So that was Entanglements, it certainly wasn’t a “how to” volume or anything. But then a review of Entanglements – and there have been many reviews – but a review of Entanglements written by Travis Cooper – who recently finished his PhD at Indiana, mainly I think in anthropology but also Religious Studies – he wrote a review of it and had some qualms with the book here and there. He said some nice things, he said some critical things. But I open the introduction to this set of pieces quoting his review, where he basically says, “Where’s the other senior career people in the file, writing things? Where are they? Why aren’t they writing things like this?” And that stuck in my head after the press sent me a copy of that review. And for a variety of reasons I’ve become an essayist. I didn’t set out to be an essayist, but I’ve turned into an essayist in my career. And so, periodically, I’ve collected together things that have been published, things that haven’t been published. And that was in my head. And his review line prompted me to think, “Well I have a number of things I’ve written – on the field, on teaching, on the intro course – that have not been pulled together, and a few that have not been published yet. And so that’s how his book came about. Thinking specifically to – in an even more explicit way – address a variety of career and professional issues with the earlier career person in mind. Whether they agree or not with how I study religion they’ll probably at least come across certain departmental or professional issues. So that was the logic of this book.

TE: OK, great. And maybe just to add to that, that the organisation of this book is also quite interesting. It’s divided into three sections: theory, in practice and then in praxis. Is there a particular rational for that division?

RM: Well I finished this book quite a long time ago, to be honest. Well over a year, a year-and-a-half ago. And presses all have their own publishing schedules. And the book originally had two sections. That’s the title: in theory and in practice (5:00). And my logic was, you’re looking for some . . . you know, it’s myth-making, right? You’re looking for some hindsight organisational principle to the pieces you’re pulling together. You think, in your head, that they’re related somehow. And I thought, “Well, a group of these are mainly about my interest in the category of religion, classification interests. But a number of these are a lot more practically concerned. They’re about . . . The Bulletin blog series, I repurposed a piece that I wrote there, and Matt was involved in commissioning that, right? But: “What do you tell people you do, when they ask you, as a scholar of religion?”; a piece that I originally did up at Chicago on practical choices you have to make in designing a curriculum syllabus . . . so there’s your practice. But because the piece was done so long ago and it had not moved to copy editing, that’s when it occurred to me that a whole bunch of these additional pieces where people had replied to something I wrote ten years ago on professionalisation issues, that what a perfect opportunity to get all these people – if they were interested – to get their pieces into print. I liked my theory/practice division and that’s when it occurred to me, “Well, yes: praxis! Why not? There’s the third section.” It’s certainly not praxis in the technical Marxist sense, but giving early career people – ABD people, or at least they were when they wrote this, not all of them still are – reflecting on their own situation in the light of some theses about the profession from a decade ago, seemed to have this very nice integration of theory and practice. This very nice sense of practically applied theory. And thus the structure of the book came about.

TE: One thing that I liked about the book, on reading it, is that it didn’t just say a lot of the familiar stuff that those of us who have read your other books, say, have come to know and expect from your work, such as your critique of the world religion paradigm and, say, tropes like the spiritual-but-not-religious notion. But it also had this really kind-of cool practice section where you almost were thinking through, in some of the essays, your own development as a teacher and scholar, and how you kind-of came to arrive at certain more critical positions, and give a nice reflection on the development of you and academics and Religious Studies in the field today. . . .

RM: Oh that’s very kind. You found some of those useful, then?

TE: Yes, I thought these was an interesting juxtaposition – because we didn’t’ just get the critique but how those critiques formed, and how they formed – particularly in the classroom in some of your reflections on teaching introduction classes. But I have a question on that, so I’ll get to that in a moment.

RM: Well one thing I could say, jumping off that, is that – I’ve written about this – I’ve long been frustrated by the classic division of labour between teaching and research. And, “My teaching gets in the way of my research”, which all kinds of people talk about that. Or on the other side, people will call themselves “teaching specialists”. I’ve never been sure exactly what that means to be honest. In other words, I’ve never met a teaching specialist who teaches more than I do, that teaches more different courses than I would. We all, generally, do about the same. That division of labour, wherever you side yourself, has always been frustrating. Because, at least in my experience, the things that I’ve taught in classes have been deeply consequential to my writing. I don’t know anyone who teaches something in a class that didn’t come from someone’s research, right? We read books, we use books in classes, and we do field work and talk about it in our class. So anything that draws attention to intimate cross-pollination between these, strikes me as an important thing.

RM: That’s one of the similarities between some of your essays and the works of, say, Jonathan Z. Smith, is that he often did the same thing: used essays as an occasion to reflect on the intersection between the two, teaching and theory.

RM: For me it was profoundly evident in my very first job. I was a full-time instructor at the University of Tennessee. I’ve written about this, when they asked me . . . . In a different book that’s come out, I reflect on this quite explicitly, to use Huston Smith’s world religions – The Religions of Man is originally the title – in one of my courses. And I didn’t know much about Huston Smith’s book. I kind-of knew a little bit about it – I’m writing my dissertation and I’m not paying attention to that particular Smith – and I used it. I had to use it. And the kind-of world religions critique someone like me would offer wasn’t present in the field. Then, not many people were thinking much about it. And at least for me, that particular experience – using the book I was told to use in classroom – played a crucial role in helping to cement a real dissatisfaction in the particular model that probably, prior to that, I hadn’t thought too much about (10:00). And thus Manufacturing Religion takes on a new character. There’s new examples used in that – specific things from Smith, used as instances of problems in the field. So it was a frustrating experience for me using the book, but it was only a frustrating experience for me as I used the book. And as I became familiar with that very popular model that a lot of other people were using. So again, that was fortuitous that they asked me to use that.

TE: This might work as a partial springboard to the next question, then. It’s one of the points you make in your introduction that I found interesting: many of the concerns about the current state of the field are not new, but have been of concern to young scholars for a number of years – including yourself, when you were a young scholar. I found this interesting, because it’s something that I hadn’t thought about when I was a grad student and heard everybody complaining about the lack of jobs and the current state of the Humanities. I would always kind-of wonder to what extent these struggles are all new, how new they were? And so I guess I wanted to throw that question out here, and ask you to expand a bit on what you think is new for young scholars in today’s climate and what is similar. Do we face new challenges or is it all the same-old . . .?

RM: I say, I think, a little bit in the introduction and then a little bit in the intro to the third part. Before Matt’s piece, in the third part of the book, I repeat this. I always find it frustrating the manner in which groups – who might otherwise have shared interest – consume each other in their critique. That I often now see conflicts between scholars more senior than myself – and I write about this a little bit in the book – and scholars much more junior to myself. And the two of them are quite critical of each other. On the one side I see almost a view of: “Suck it up! It’s all hard work.” And on the other side I see this view of: “You’re a privileged older person and you don’t really get how hard it is right now.” While I certainly understand that situation – at least from where I sit, being well between those generations. I’m fifty-seven, so I’m not a seventy year-old scholar. I got my PhD in ‘95. I started doing my PhD in about ‘88-‘89. I kind-of forget. So the generation that taught me, as opposed to the generation that are now getting PhDs, so I feel a little between those groups. And they strike me as having dramatically shared interests. They strike me as facing very similar problems, that there’s all kinds of people in their sixties and seventies and eighties – depending on how far back we go – who certainly just walked into jobs. Yes – at times, that happened. But if you ask scholars of those generations more about their own background you easily start to hear stories that are very identifiable with today. Today however, especially, you know, post 2008 budget collapse etc., it’s ramped up dramatically. It’s not just the 2008 budget collapse. At least here, in the United States, state budgets where education is largely funded, have been declining for decades, steadily, right? The proportion of state funds going to higher education. So, none of this just happened overnight. This has been a steady process. But when you add the post-2008 budget collapse it does seem to heighten it pretty dramatically. So I think they’re incredibly similar situations. But the magnitude of the situation now, it’s not difficult to see someone in a situation now thinking, perhaps rightly so, that it’s a change in kind. It is so heightened. So I guess again, the attempt was to try to get a number of people currently in that situation – the pieces in the last section of the book were written a few years ago, so some of those people’s situation has changed – to really get, to have a voice. And I don’t know that we’re here to convince people more senior than myself about anything. They’ll read this, they’re retired perhaps. But as least back to Travis Cooper, to really start thinking of those other senior people in the field. It’s not that like department chairs control universities. They’re largely the victims of funding decisions that happen elsewhere, too! But to think a little more constructively about contingent labour, about PhD programmes across the country: what should they be doing? How do we train students? What are we training them for? Let alone MA programmes? So if that starts a little bit more of a conversation that would be wonderful. It’s a long-overdue conversation, there’s tremendous interest probably against ever really having the conversation. That’s just the standard way. But I’m hopeful.

TE: Alright, that might be a good spot to turn to Matt and Tara. Their contributions were reflecting upon Russell’sTheses on Professionalization, which he originally wrote in 2007. So perhaps, Matt, you could start by saying something about your role as editor of The Bulletin (15:00), and how these responses to the “Theses on Professionalization” came together, and your specific response in the volume?

Matt Sheedy (MS): Yes. Well, thanks very much for this invite and the opportunity to talk about this sort-of interesting collaborative project. I was – past tense – editor for The Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog – that’s the blog portal of The Bulletin for the Study of Religion – from approximately 2012 to this past summer, 2018, as The Bulletin has had some transitions in terms of editor. And I don’t remember exactly how the idea for this came about, but Russ’s piece on professionalisation had circulated for quite some time since it was originally written. And it was something that was widely read and engaged with, and talked about. And so it became this opportunity – possibly seven, eight, nine years after the fact – to revisit some of the questions in the theses that he proposed, with early-career scholars who are trying to sort-of navigate the job market and deal with questions of professionalisation more generally. So, with a few suggestions from Russ and from people that I knew as editor at The Bulletin, I was able to bring together twenty-one early career scholars at various stages in their careers – some who were ABD (all but dissertation), some who had just finished their PhDs, some who were taking on visiting professorships and post-docs, and so forth, to reflect on the different questions from their own experience. So what’s really interesting about these responses is that it reflects a fairly broad range of scholars, dealing with similar sets of questions, in around the same time, with widely different experiences. You know, for me, when I was asked to bring all these together and it became this interesting project, the idea of turning this into a book came about through a variety of conversations. And that never fully took place for a variety of reasons. And the idea of turning these blog responses into a book was temporarily shelved. And then Russ came to me and said that he thought, if I was interested, that a portion of this book would be a good place to include these responses. Not only because they’re obviously theses responding to something that he had written, but because it reflects very much this idea of religion in theory and practice, and engaging the process of professionalisation; engaging young scholars. And it really worked out that way. Everyone was able to rethink their pieces, upwards of two years on from originally writing them, to get that published in this volume. For me, I talk about how – as Russ touched upon earlier – the 2008 economic crisis was really a crucial hinge in how a lot of us, at least, early career scholars had been thinking about this process of professionalisation. And whether or not, and to what extent, these problems were around and persisted in earlier generations. Certainly conversations, narratives about the crisis – not only in the broader economy but also in academia – really started to come to the fore, by my estimation. In the aftermath of things like the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, shortly after that in 2012-2013, one started to see regular articles appear in higher education (publications) and a variety of other forms, talking about younger academics having problems getting jobs, having problems making that transition. And, more generally, this idea that the economic crisis was finally coming to the academy. And the assumption here is that there was a bit of a lag, a bit of a delay, in terms of the impact and the effects on less and less people getting jobs. And for me, one of the things that I mention is the experiences of two scholars in particular, one of whom, Kelly J Baker, has a piece in the 21 pieces on professionalisation. She very publicly made the decision to walk away from academia and yet, at the same time, pursued her writing career that was related to her training in the study of religion, related to a lot of problems of being an academic, getting a job, the current job market, questions of gender and so forth. And she’s a really interesting example of someone who has made lemonade out of the lemons that she was given, so to speak. Another scholar that I mention is Kate Daley-Bailey, who was engaged with academic circles, certainly was working with Russ and Tara and a number of others as well. And she made an announcement as well, I think around 2014 – 2015 that she was leaving academia because there weren’t enough jobs for her as adjunct (20:00). And this sort-of struck me as a somewhat personal, or at least emblematic, instance of someone I knew who seemed to have all the sharps, all the skills, all the motivation to do this job and do it well, but had to walk away because of her own experience with those structural issues. And so those were a few of the things that I gesture to in the introduction. And I also bring together just sort-of an overview of the different themes that are talked about and covered in the 21 theses. As well as the changes that have taken place over the course of about 2 years: seeing certain people succeed, get tenure track positions. In other cases people remaining adjuncts, still working through their PhDs and in some cases scholars having left academia either temporarily or altogether. So it really struck me as microcosm bringing these 21 scholars together, of all of the different sort of experiences that one may encounter in this current academic market specifically related to the study of religion.

TE: That’s definitely one of the most interesting parts, having read them all when they were first initially published on The Bulletin and then reading them now, is kind-of the development of some of the responses over the couple of years. Initially I think, when everybody wrote, there was a lot more morbid tone in some of them – at least mine! Mine was very . . . when I first wrote it, it was very like “Everything’s hopeless!” But now my reflection, a couple of years on, is a little bit more nuanced. Throwing it to Tara, perhaps you could say something about your thesis and your response?

Tara Baldrick Morrone (TB-M): Sure. And thank you for asking about this. I responded to Thesis Number 6. And the general point of this thesis that Russ wrote is that simply getting a doctoral degree is no longer enough to obtain a full-time position in academia. And in my response I discussed how this has related to the hyper-professionalisation that has been occurring in the Humanities. That people like Frank Donoghue have written about The Last Professors. And the idea is that younger scholars, those still in graduate school, are expected to publish, to gain a lot of teaching experience while they are still students and as they are still working on their own coursework, in order to professionalise them so to speak, in order to obtain that tenure track job. And as Matt was talking about, that’s not always the case. You can sort-of fulfil all of these requirements and still not obtain a secure full-time position in academia – as the examples that he mentioned, Kate Daley Bailey and Kelly J Baker. And so I wanted to draw attention to this because this is one of the things that we’re all told. That if we do all of these extra things we can attain that position. And looking at the job numbers from the reports released by the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, the number of tenure track jobs have actually been decreasing. And that just is further evidence, I think, of those positions not being available.

TE: Yes, and the amount of grad students doubling in the process, which is those two colliding: the faculty tenure track positions decreasing and then the PhD applicants doubling and tripling. That creates a quandary. Yeah, definite strategies are needed and it’s so tricky once you get out in the workplace and you’re actually then responsible for even recruiting new MA students, like I am now in my current position. And you kind-of feel this burden. The department is asking you for more students and to promote the department, because they want the revenue from the students. But at the same time you know, like – what’s the end here? It’s just more PhD students on the job market. Now in my response to Russell’s “Theses on Professionalization”, I address the gap between what we study as grad students and what we’re expected to teach once we are working in the field (25:00). And I would like to extend that topic to both of you, Matt and Tara, for consideration. Since both of you are now teaching at the moment, I wonder if you’d be able to offer some reflection on the gap you have experienced between your, say, early dissertation and research topics and the actual content that you have been expected to teach. Have you found any conflict between these areas? And if so, how have you dealt with that? Maybe we could start with Matt?

MS: Well, for me I would say it’s very much a mixed bag. My training is in critical social theory, broadly speaking. I look at religion in the public sphere, focussed on the Frankfurt School and Habermas in particular. Its theories of post-secularism offer what I consider a very strong critique of that position. I have, for example, had to teach fairly generic on-the-books courses like ethics and world religions, among other classes, which – with only one exception, in the case of an online course – required me to follow a standard introductory text book. I’ve been very fortunate, apart from that, to have the opportunity to basically reimagine or redesign those courses when teaching them in person, in any way that I see fit. That’s been, I guess, gratuitous in my case, in my recent position in my second year as a visiting professor in a North American Studies department at the University of Bonn. It might be worth mentioning something briefly about that particular transaction. But getting hired on as a visiting professor there, again, now in my second year I have an opportunity to do a third year next year. I was given a complete autonomy to design whatever courses that I wanted. So I don’t have any a particular complaints in that regard. When I have continued to teach some of these course on-line, that’s when the constraints come in. I on one occasion had to teach text books that reflected the world religions paradigm. And on a personal level it might have some utility in getting you to constantly re-engage those ideas from my own work, moving forward. But pedagogically, it’s very limiting. So I have some issues with that. And the other broader point that I just wanted to mention was that in my current position in a department of North American Studies, I hadn’t really anticipated making that kind-of shift from Religious Studies. A friend sent me an application to this visiting professorship opportunity at the University of Bonn. And I gave it a casual glance and thought to myself, “Well, I’m a scholar of religion, a scholar of critical social theory, cultural studies, and these sort of things. I’m not really sure if that fits.” And my friend replied back, “Well, why not? You focus on North America, for the most part.” West, more generally. And I said, “OK, yeah. That’s a good point,” I sent in an application. And they were thrilled to get someone who focusses on North America and comes at it from the study of religion. So maybe to make a slight shift away from the doom and gloom and the negative stories often associated with these current academic market, for me at least, in this instance, I was able to transfer my skills to a slightly different department. And I came to realise very quickly that their own particular data set in this department of North American Studies may not be “religion” quote-unquote, but we share very similar theoretical backgrounds. So there are, certainly in my experience, and I know in the experience of others, opportunities like that to continue to professionalise, to get a post-doc, to get a visiting professorship and hopefully use that as a springboard to move forward. So I just wanted to put a shiny spin on that, in mentioning my experience.

TE: Shiny spins are always welcome! Tara, what is the gap that you have experienced between your dissertation and research topic, and your teaching experience?

TB-M: I am in the Religions of Western Antiquity track in my department and I have been trained as a historian of early Christianity, translating Greek and Latin and focussing mainly on second to sixth century CE. But there aren’t many courses, besides the intro to the New Testament course, that specifically focus on related issues. And so I’ve been teaching courses that my department needs me to teach. Some of those courses include introduction to world religions, a multicultural film course and gender in religion (30:00). And so I have attempted to make that teaching work for me, in a sense. So some of my earlier work has been on the world religions paradigm, presenting papers for example at NASR meetings about that along with Mike Graziano and Brad Stoddard. And also thinking about how I might teach other courses in similar manners – such as gender and religion which is what I’m doing right now. And so I can’t just focus on those areas that I have been trained in. I have to broaden my own research interest in order to teach my students about something other than the ancient world. So there is a gap there, but I think that I’ve made it work for me by pairing some of my research interests with other topics that I’m either nominally interested in, or that I think my students will be interested in.

TE: Great. Well, thank you very much Russell, and Matt, and Tara for joining us today. It was a great conversation.


Citation Info: McCutcheon, Russell T., Matt Sheedy, Tara Baldrick- Morrone and Tenzan Eaghll. 2019. “Demystifying the Study of Religion”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 29 April 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 23 April 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/demystifying-the-study-of-religion/

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

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

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: The Co-Dependency of Religion and the Secular

In our fifth editors’ pick, Marek Sullivan writes “Few questions are as meta-reflexive as the question ‘Is secularism a world religion?’ It’s now established that secularism and religion are co-constitutive terms: the history of the category ‘religion’ is inseparable from the history of secularisation. But what happens when secularism is rethought as a mode or sub-category of one of its core progenies, ‘world religion’? Donovan Schaefer brings his background in critical theory and material religions to bear on this mind-bending question, leading us through the history of the secularisation thesis, the idea of ‘world religions’, the Protestant genealogy of secularism, and the urgency of parsing the academic study of secularism into historically and culturally differentiated variants. Despite the broad sweep of the interview, I was left wanting more!”

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Continuing the ‘series’ is our new features co-editor, Marek Sullivan.

Few questions are as meta-reflexive as the question ‘Is secularism a world religion?’ It’s now established that secularism and religion are co-constitutive terms: the history of the category ‘religion’ is inseparable from the history of secularisation. But what happens when secularism is rethought as a mode or sub-category of one of its core progenies, ‘world religion’? Donovan Schaefer brings his background in critical theory and material religions to bear on this mind-bending question, leading us through the history of the secularisation thesis, the idea of ‘world religions’, the Protestant genealogy of secularism, and the urgency of parsing the academic study of secularism into historically and culturally differentiated variants. Despite the broad sweep of the interview, I was left wanting more!

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

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The Blog Assignment: Confronting “Spirituality” in Teaching Religious Studies

Richard Ascough and Sharday Mosurinjohn

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

Read more