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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 Intersections of Religion and Feminism

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 editor in charge of sales and marketing, Sammy Bishop.

When asked to choose a podcast to flag up as my ‘editor’s pick’, one immediately sprang to mind: Chris Cotter‘s interview with Dawn Llewellyn on ‘Religion and Feminism‘. Starting on a personal note, this podcast was my initial step toward being involved with the RSP, as it was the first one that I provided a response to; and it was a joy to listen to their conversation.

Not only does the discussion provide a great introduction to how feminism, religion, and the academic study of both, might (or indeed, might not) interact; but Llewellyn also does an excellent job of flagging up how future work in these fields could become more productively interdisciplinary. The interview was recorded in October 2016 – so is very new in terms of academic timelines – but even since then, various forms of contemporary feminism have enjoyed a huge rise in prominence. The themes raised in this interview have more relevance than ever, and are worth revisiting in light of recent discussions on the intersections of feminism and religion.

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

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. 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, humidors, curling tongs, and more.

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: Critiquing the Axial Age

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.

Kicking off the ‘series’ is co-editor-in-chief, Chris Cotter.

It only took me a few seconds to decide to flag up Breann Fallon‘s interview with Jack Tsonis on “The “Axial Age”: Problematising Religious History in a Post-Colonial Setting.” Not only did I enjoy the very ‘meta’ nature of this interview – with two long-standing Cusackian RSP team members producing content independent of David and myself – but I also delight to this day in remembering Jack’s fiery and animated presentation on the same topic at IAHR 2015 in Erfurt. I don’t think I have ever seen a scholar ‘go off on one’ quite like he did… and it was brilliant. Would that more scholars were so passionate about their area of study, and so willing to pierce through the established (boring) norms of conference presentations.

In this important interview, Tsonis demonstrates how the term ‘Axial Age’ shares much in common with the notion of ‘World Religions’ in that both – to quote the subtitle to Tomoko Masuzawa‘s seminal work – preserve ‘European universalism […] in the language of pluralism’. Tsonis forcefully argues that many left-wing scholars fail to see the racist ideology encoded in the term, and that critical scholars have a duty to not only cast the terms ‘Axial Age’ and ‘World Religions’ on the scrapheap of history, but starve them of oxygen. This is a difficult argument for some to hear, but one I heartily encourage listeners to engage with and put into practice.

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

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, incense, lava lamps, and more.

 

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

Richard Ascough and Sharday Mosurinjohn

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

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God and Mathematics

What does math have to do with religion? In his interview with Hans van Eyghen, author Chris Ransford discusses his latest book ‘God and the Mathematics of Infinity’. He discusses why mathematics is useful for thinking about religion, covering some of the conclusions he draws in the book.

 

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

God and Mathematics

Podcast with Chris Ransford (12 February 2018).

Interviewed by Hans Van Eyghen

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Ransford_-_God_and_Mathematics_1.1

 

Hans Van Eyghen (HVE): Hello, I’m Hans Van Eyghen, I’m with Chris Ransford to discuss his latest book, God and the Mathematics of Infinity. Welcome, Chris. So, could you tell us a little bit about your project, about the book? What was your motivation behind this?

Chris Ransford (CR): Sure, Good morning, first! And thanks for having me on the show. This book, God and the Mathematics of Infinity, is actually part of a trilogy of books exploring the nature of reality. The motivation of that is because we are in the 21st century, and there is actually zero consensus in society as to what it is, this reality that we live in. So you have, at the one end of the spectrum people who still do believe in what is variously called materialism or physicalism, and at the other end of the spectrum you have fundamentalist religious people. And very often, of course, the truth has got to lie in-between, somewhere. But all my background, educational background, has demonstrated to me that mathematics is an extremely powerful tool to analyse the truth. And I have to immediately qualify this. A very large section of mathematics cannot be used to pronounce anything about external reality, simply because those parts of mathematics are predicated on axioms – which is foundational statements that are accepted at face value, that have not been proven. And on the basis of these axioms whole branches of mathematics are built such as geometry, let’s say. And they are internally consistent, but they cannot express anything about the ultimate truths of reality. On the other hand – the most important in my view and in other mathematicians’ view – part of mathematics is number theory. And numbers are actually not predicated on axioms, but on definition. In other words, one and one is called two. And that’s all there is to it. That’s a definition. And when you define one plus one is two, then very soon you have natural whole numbers, and then you have rational numbers, and then you have irrational numbers, and then you have infinities. And all of a sudden from the mere definition of two lions being two lions as opposed to one lion, a whole menagerie of very powerful numbers is born, out of which you can analyse – meaningfully analyse – reality. And one of my observations about, say, some religions and some atheistic people is that their pronouncements are totally susceptible to mathematical analysis based on numbers. And then you have a number of conclusions that you can draw from that. And, for instance, what religious people maybe do not understand about a mathematical analysis of God, it is actually not a mathematical analysis of God, per se. It’s a mathematical analysis of the consequences that flow from the attributes that are ascribed to Godhood. In other words . . . I’ll give you an example. If you define God as having infinite attributes, then the consequences of those infinite attributes are totally susceptible to analysis through the mathematics of infinity. Then you can conclude certain things. And you can conclude that certain things can possibly be and certain things cannot possibly be at all. And I am observing, in the current world, a debate between let us call them either religious or spiritual types on the one side and the atheistic or materialists on the other side. What I have observed, somewhat unfortunately, is that more and more the materialistic side seems to be winning the argument and they win the argument for a number of reasons and all of these reasons are actually susceptible, once again, to mathematical analysis. And one of the reasons why they win is because they conflate spirituality – the essence of what maybe religions have been trying to talk about for centuries – with the trappings of religions, meaning all the sometimes very silly trappings, such as singing hymns and reliance on ancient texts of literature and everything: all things that are actually epiphenomena of religion, but do not touch the core. And so the analysis by mathematics will enable you, first of all, to avoid things that are frankly quite infuriating in religion, such as the development, on the part of a number of big religions, of leaps of faith. Leaps of faith in this day and age, the 21st century, are not acceptable. And if a demand for such is maintained educated people, intelligent people, and more and more people in the 21st, 22nd, and so-on, centuries are going to leave religion, because in the modern age this is not an acceptable way of doing things. And, especially, leaps of faith are totally amenable to mathematical analysis. And I’ll give you an example. Some leaps of faith will lead to a contradiction in terms – and some have got to give way – and some will not. For instance, let us take the example of an acceptable leap of faith that would be – in totally non-religious terms – that would be the leap of faith of the person who buys a lottery ticket. A lottery ticket would have one chance in some million, you know, odds of gaining the jackpot, but it’s not impossible. So, in that sense, the leap of faith is acceptable. But the leap of faith that says that an infinite entity can be second-guessed by people who have limited IQs, a limited lifetime on earth and everything; the mathematics shows you that it’s a contradiction in terms. It is not possible that something infinite be properly appreciated, properly processed and properly comprehended by a receptacle that is finite. So we have to analyse all these sort of things. And on the other side of the aisle is, exactly likewise, susceptible to mathematical analysis. And I’ll give you an example, and then I’ll give you the floor. The ongoing argument that everything is materialist, and so on, is a bankrupt argument, because theoretical physics demonstrates that matter ultimately doesn’t exist. Matter is the vibrations of the quantum vacuum, of the vacuum. And matter reduces to vibrations of nothingness. And that’s the mathematics, that’s a fact. So people who predicate their reasoning on simply, you know, the fact that what you see is what you get, and that matter is all there is, are demonstrably wrong. And I will illustrate this by telling you about the latest book I’ve read. I’ve just read a book by a well-known philosopher. And one third, one big third of the book is given over to analysing physicalism. And that illustrates to me the absolute necessity to use mathematics. If that philosopher instead of philosophising and looking at the pros and cons and eventually – after one full third of the book – not settling the issue, had actually used mathematics instead, the mathematics is and the theoretical physics is that matter is vibrations of vacuums and that hence, therefore, matter cannot be the fundamental feature of reality or the fundamental trait of reality, and that therefore we have to move beyond matter to try to understand the fundaments of reality. And that, to me, illustrates the absolute necessity to bring mathematics into reasoning. We are in an age where we have on the one hand people like Isis, on the other side of the aisle we have people like Richard Dawkins who heaps scorn on millions and millions of people who say they have experienced something that they couldn’t explain. Both attitudes are not sustainable; both attitudes are not bringing us further into the 21st century and it’s absolutely time for us to have a new approach to the ultimate nature of reality: not use the science of last century, such as physicalism; but also not use the frankly bankrupt arguments that go “I base my worldview on a book of ancient literature written in a pre-scientific age, and my book is better than yours.” That is not sustainable. We’ve got to stop having that kind of argument. And it’s only at the price, or at the cost of stopping those arguments that we’ll be evolving into a discourse on matters of spirituality – maybe religion – and reality, that goes beyond the current debates that frankly are not taking us any further.

HVE: Ok, thank you. I want to get into the point of not being able to second-guess God’s intentions, God’s commands. You’re probably aware that that’ll be a far stretch for many religious believers. But I was wondering, doesn’t that exclude the whole concept of revelation, in a way? What do you do with people who claim to have such knowledge?

CR: OK, that’s fair enough. But it does, to a very large extent, and let me tell you why. The issue we have with most religions – virtually all, but this we can qualify – is that they rely for the message – if there is such a thing – the message of the Godhead – not specifying further who that Godhead is – they rely on words, be they oral words, be they texts. And the fundamental issue with that, we have to ask ourselves: is human language a capable vehicle, a possible vehicle to convey the words of a Godhead? And mathematically, as I will just show, there are at least four separate reasons why it is not the proper vehicle. It’s not the proper vehicle for at least four independent mathematical reasons. And the bottom line of those reasons is that human language is so inherently limited. So we could have an ideal human language but it cannot convey God-like thoughts. Because God-like thoughts are, by definition, infinite and they reflect a certain mode of thinking that cannot be expressed by the vehicle of the human language. And let me give you, if that’s ok, let me give you four reasons. The first one is very simple and it’s agreed to by all religions, including religions of the (audio unclear). It is what is called in mathematics Tarski’s theorem or the undefinability theorem, which very simply states that the proof of any statement cannot be possibly made from inside the language that makes the statement. It’s very easy to understand if I tell you, “This car is blue,” I cannot prove from inside the English language that the car is blue. I need external corroboration, which is quite obvious. The second proof is a little bit more subtle, but it’s exactly the same thing as the Mercator projection in map-making. In map-making, if you want to degrade by one dimension, you massively warp and distort the map that you’re trying to convey. If you look at the map of the world on Mercator, or for that matter any other projection, the point which is the pole becomes actually as long as the equator. So something rips. It’s like if you were going to flatten an orange upon a table – something rips, and by the process of ripping you sustain a huge loss of meaning of the data that’s being conveyed. Look at any Mercator map on the wall. Greenland is actually less than 1/4 of the size of Australia. Any map of the world shows Greenland bigger than Australia. And so on and so forth. And that’s just by going down one dimension. And if you go by two dimensions you would have to project onto a segment and all would be lost. Now let me give you an example with language. If you’re going to want to say, for instance, you’re going to want to translate into normal language Einstein’s works that space and time are the same thing; you’re going to write a book about Einsteinian physics and you’re going to entitle the book Space-Time. Now that’s wrong. You have actually prioritised space over time by writing space-time. And now you try the other way round- Time-Space- same problem. And finally you hit upon the solution which is to go up by one dimension and write it in a loop. And when you write space-time in a loop you have no priority; no first and no second element. And by going up two elements you have solved a problem of something that you couldn’t properly express in the English language, because of its linearity. And to demonstrate that this linearity is true, try to tell your publisher over the phone that you write space-time on the front of your book, you can’t. You have to write meta-data, which means you have to explain how to do it, because the language doesn’t allow you to that. And if you are talking of an infinite mind expressing God-like thoughts, you multiply this by infinity. You’re not having 2-d down to 1-d, you’re having infinity-d down to 1-d – which is the language that is used in ancient texts. Now let me give you a third reason. There exists a well-known phenomenon which is called emergence. Emergence is that whenever any constituent element to something becomes very big – not necessarily infinite – then you have all kinds of totally unpredictable phenomena that start happening. And when left alone. When things become infinite then you have a plethora of inherently unpredictable things that start happening. So for an IQ of 100 or 200 or 300, trying to second guess or to understand an IQ equivalent of infinity, simply the simple phenomenon of emergence cannot let you do that. And, really, if you had a . . . I hate the word prophet, but if you had a soothsayer or a translator of what the Godhead says, he or she would fall victim to the dimensional issue that I was talking on earlier. So you cannot get out of it. And the last element – there are more – but the last element I would like to quote here. Apart from the undefinability theorem, apart from the dimensional issue which is un-crackable, apart from the phenomenon of emergence which you cannot possibly predict or foretell, there’s also the phenomenon – very often in human religion – of circular reasoning. In other words, and to caricature it: “It’s true because the Bible says it’s true.” And I’ve seen that in my classes, in my Sunday classes. I have heard a lot of those arguments. And I find it a pity that we are still there in the 21st century because that gives ammunition to the Richard Dawkins set, if you like, who deny any spirituality even though there’s overwhelming proof out there that there is such a thing as spirituality. There is such a thing as higher dimensions and everything. All those things give ammunition to this set of people who cast scorn and aspersion on anybody who has a spiritual component to knock it, scoff at it, say that it’s all delusions, liars and straw that weaker minds are clutching at. And I find it very, very problematic and very regrettable that this be the case. And what I want to say, if we do not move into a rational intelligent type of spirituality, spirituality will lose the debate in the coming decades, let alone the 22nd century. And that will be a huge loss for humankind.

HVE: Ok. I want to get into the conclusions you draw in the book, about God’s attributes. Some are quite classical, some widely accepted, at least if you have a religion, like all-knowingness, almightiness. But some are quite surprising. Could you maybe elaborate on those, the surprising conclusions you draw?

CR: Which one?

HVE: The one, for example, about God being present in everything.

CR: That’s very good. That exactly another, for me, absolutely essential proofs that the use of mathematics is indispensable. The debate between what was called immanence or transcendence has been a debate that has gone on for a very long time. But it has never been settled by theologians. And you have two schools of thought. So in all religions some think that God is everywhere, and some think that, if God exists, that God is in a privileged realm, somewhere, a heaven and only forays into lesser realms or other areas, when needed. The problem is, you can analyse that mathematically and on the basis of theoretical physics. And the analysis is not entirely obvious because you have to analyse time first. How could . . . . If God is not present anywhere, then if God would want to cast an eye on something that happened it would have to go back in time and there are all sorts of issues. But the demonstration that you get from that is that there is a stark mathematical contradiction between saying that a God would be all-powerful and omniscient – in other words all-knowing – and the fact that it would have Godly attributes. So it would actually negate the Godly attributes. So you cannot have it both ways. The possibility of God, of which mathematics itself – for reasons which I’ll go into in a minute – cannot actually determine . . . . If there is a God then that God must, if it is going to be divine – in other words if it’s going to actually have the attributes that are reputed to be its attributes by religions and spirituality, that actually constitute its very essence of being God, its very Godhood – then it must be present everywhere. And if you speculate, there are ways that this is totally compatible with the current world. I believe that the image of a personal God is not possible for all sorts of reasons. It’s not a bearded man in the sky or some equivalent of that. It’s not possible. But what is possible is that it’s a higher dimensional mind that actually moves through space-time in such a way as creating something that is not entirely circumscribed, and there would be reasons for that. Surprisingly – something that very few non-mathematicians appreciate fully – you can actually grow infinity. Infinity per se is not simply infinity. You can actually grow infinity. And if you do have an infinite God, put yourself in its shoes for two minutes and look what happens. You have basically two solutions. You can just soar upon nothingness and everything. The cost of that is that you are going to become a static God, and if that happens you are actually going to lose some of your divinity. Because what you’re going to become is a curator of something that is becoming a museum universe. You know the past, the future, you know the extension of space-time everywhere and nothing ever fundamentally changes. So you are infinite, but you’re an infinite museum curator because nothing changes. So your option out of that, and the thing that will preserve and uphold your divinity, your Godhood, is actually to have a universe that can grow. And the universe that can grow is not a trivial proposition. You will find, if you analyse in certain ways, you will find that you cannot grow it in certain dimensions: you can certainly grow it in a three dimensional space or +1 dimension time, but there are certain dimensions that are closed to you. And that is quite compatible, in some ways, with one of the advances in cosmology. You know that in cosmology a lot of very reputable physicists have tried to understand the Big Bang. And there’s many scenarios that actually give rise to a Big Bang. Many totally different scenarios that would lead to our seeing the Big Bang the way we see it. But it could be quantum fluctuation in a parent universe; it could be colliding super-brains in a 5-d space-time; it could be the existence of time before itself; it could be the bouncing universes and the bouncing universes have different ways of happening – there’s the Penrose way, there are some other ways. But what all of those scenarios have in common, in our quest to understand the Big Bang, is that they all require something to have been there before the Big Bang. So the best minds both in cosmology, in information theory, in many different ways, tried to understand and tried to work out how the Big Bang can happen from absolute nothingness. And the results were extremely interesting. The only plausible scenario was that the Big Bang could happen out of nothingness only if the disembodied laws of mathematics – so at least some disembodied laws of mathematics – existed prior anyway. So you come to a road where even if a Big Bang as we know it didn’t come from something material – such as a false vacuum, such as a prior universe, such as anything – it came from this incarnate mind. Because another way of proving it, with wave functions etc., the mathematical laws in that case would be alive. So you come to a possibility that the whole universe is actually part of . . . . If I may express it that way – it sounds terribly religious – and that’s for lack of a better word . . . . But the whole universe including your cup of coffee, the pen, a galaxy somewhere is part of the body of God. So that leads to a place where what we call God is not somebody personal, is not somebody judgemental, but it’s somebody alive, that has a possibility of disincarnate existence, that lets universes happen for very specific reasons. And those specific reasons are to grow, to grow infinity itself. And then we have a reconcilable of image of spirituality and science. And this is the only way that I see a place, the only proper way where we can reconcile the two. And all of a sudden, all of the sciences that were banished, such as studies – as you may be aware there’s a lot of studies on altered states of consciousness and so on. And all those studies are pooh-poohed by modern science because they are all afraid that it’s going to link them with religions with funny hats, with judgementalisms, with associations with books that were basically the Stephen King novels of 2000 years ago and when there was no understanding of anything, at a time when very, very few people knew how to write and they wrote what they could. They thought that earthquakes were the acts of God, they thought that diseases were the acts of God, etc., etc. And to become associated with that, of course, it’s a sure-fire killer in careers of science – as it should be. But the problem is we are stuck there right now. We are stuck in this rut where we either have the Isis people or we have the Richard Dawkins, and both of them have areas that they call no-go. It is haram – or whatever the word is – in certain regions to ask questions. It’s forbidden in almost all of them. Science does kind-of the same thing. When confronted with things it cannot explain under the current science, scientists sweep it under the rug as well. And take all the conflicts on earth today. They fundamentally all arise from that. And we’re not talking something that is not massive. We have massive conflicts. We have people who suffer immensely, like all those girls subjected to female circumcision because of ancient texts and everything. And we seem to be stuck in this course. And we have very many people who have experienced something that they can’t explain. And the explanations of Richard Dawkins just do not wash with them. So what do they do? They go back to those who say they know better, although they do not, and that perpetuates the cycle and the stand-off where we are stuck right now. The stand-off. And what I’m trying to say, we need to move forward. This is the 21st century. We need to free ourselves from spiritual reliance on ancient texts. And there’s no justification where those ancient texts should be deemed as being the corner-stones of modern-day religions – absolutely not. And you can prove they’re not suitable for the job. But we should also move from where that leads science to, which is wholesale rejection of whole areas of human knowledge. And we’re stuck, we’re not moving, which is the reason why I wrote this book, which is my second book in the understanding of the nature of reality. And, again, if you believe in God you believe in a totally different reality than if you don’t. If you believe in materiality, as in Aristotelian physicalism, then you believe in a form of the universe that other people do not believe in. And the whole point of the book is to say the force and the strength of mathematics is that it can actually analyse that intelligently, and enable progress.

HVE: Ok, thank you. We’re running out of time here. Time flies . . . . One last question, because it will be on people’s minds, is the existential question. You refrain from answering it in the book, so you reach a limit there.

CR: Yes. It will be part of my next book. Very quickly, I’ll try to tell you where I come from. Three hundred years ago we didn’t know where earthquakes, where lightening etc. came from. We had no idea, we didn’t understand atoms, electricity, tectonic plates, microbes. We’re still very close to that. The cutting edge of science has to do with wave functions. And things like this are not very well-known now, but that will actually further our understanding. And in the book I’m quoting somebody who’s actually atheistic, who’s a very well-known university professor in the US, who says we must define God in a certain way. And as she explains it – and I explain part of it in the book – the question: “Do you believe in God?” is meaningless. You have to define your terms. You have to define what God is. And my next book will try to answer this in the light of modern science. And we have to shed our preconceptions on everything. And I think we can actually come close to a definition that would be acceptable to most people, and in which we would say, “Well yes. This does exist.” And this can be construed as actually being a Godhead, and it has to be defined. And it’s got nothing to do with the personal God of the Abrahamic regions. But it has to do with the fact that there is something there that we’re not seeing at the moment, and with the fact that to appreciate that, and to begin – to use an old phrase – to touch the face of God, we have to have enhanced our knowledge, not simply to atoms, electricity, tectonic plates and bacteria but a lot more. And this is what science worldwide is in the process of doing. It will take us I believe another 200-300-400 years but we will get there. We shouldn’t jump the gun by saying we know already. No, we’re still in the process of building up our arsenal of knowledge tools that will let us put our arms around the concept.

HVE: Ok. Thank you. I’m afraid that’s all the time we have. Thank you so much.

CR: My pleasure. Thank you for your time.

Citation Info: Ransford, Chris, and Hans Van Eyghen. 2018. “God and Mathematics”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 12 February 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 9 February 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/god-and-mathematics/

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Re-Packaging E.B. Tylor

Reflections on “The Legacy of Edward Tylor – Roundtable”

by Liam Sutherland

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Religion and Feminism

‘Religion’ and ‘Feminism’ are two concepts that have a complex relationship in the popular imaginary. But what do academics mean by these two concepts? And how can we study their interrelationship? What can we say about ‘religion and feminism’, about the academic study of ‘religion and feminism’, or about the ‘academic study of religion’ and feminism? To discuss these basic conceptual issues, and delve deeper into the topic, we are joined by a long-time friend of the RSP, Dr Dawn Llewellyn of the University of Chester.

Along the way we discuss some of the basics of feminism and feminist theory, before thinking about how scholars can or should position themselves in relation to this broad topic, how we might conduct research, and how Dawn herself has done so. In the process we move beyond the problematic ‘wave’ metaphor, and think beyond ‘Christianity’ and ‘the West’ to ask what the study of religion can bring to the study of feminism, and what feminism can bring to the study of religion.

This episode is the second of a series co-produced with introduction to the Sociology of Religion, with Professor Grace Davie. Listeners might also be interested in our previous interviews with Meredith McGuire, Marta Trzebiatowska, Anna Fedele, Mary Jo Neitz and Lizbeth Mikaelsson, and feature essays by Erika Salomon, Claire Miller Skriletz, and George Ioannides.

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, humidors, curling tongs, and more.

Method and Theory in the Cognitive Sciences of Religion

podcast with the Religious Studies Project in 2014, Dr. Robert McCauley gave an overview of some of these processes cognitive scientists appeal to in accounting for religion (e.g., agent detection, theory of mind), as well as a 2015 North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) conference (and thanks to their support), McCauley discusses methodological and theoretical issues within CSR. He begins by tackling the topic of “naturalism” vs. “supernaturalism” in explaining religion, moving on to how these explanations function at different levels of analysis and integration. In closing, McCauley discusses the relationship between the humanities and the sciences, some successful and not so successful CSR theories, and the interplay between explanations emphasizing cognition and culture.

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, video games, indulgences, and more.

SPSP 2016 Report: The state of religion in social and personality psychology

This past January, the Society for Personality and Social Psychology had its biggest turn out to date for its 17th Annual Convention in San Diego, California. Despite religion, as a broad category of research, all to often being missing in action in the psychological sciences, researchers embracing the study of religion were hard to miss throughout SPSP 2016. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Adam Baimel, University of British Columbia.

The Religion and Spirituality Preconference meeting kicked off as Aiyana Willard presented her work on the cognitive foundations of belief. Much ink has been spilled as to what sorts of cognitive processes make supernatural beliefs ‘easy to think’ – Willard’s work demonstrates how we can actually test these theoretical and causal models in the minds of real believers (for more on this, see here). What this type of work demonstrates is that what we need, as psychologists, to understand religion in any sort of systematic way, is access to empirical data.

ARDA database hub.

ARDA Research Hub.

Representatives from the Association of Religion Data Archives (the ARDA) drove this very point home by presenting both the existing (and quite impressive) database that they have built and what sorts of features users can expect from the ARDA in the near future.  The ARDA currently offers researchers a large collection of international and national survey data on the broad topic of religion – and they have recently made mining through these surveys by topic and specific questions of interest all that much easier. Joining in on the benefits of open and transparent science – the ARDA has made a call for researchers to publish their data sets of all varieties (experimental, ethnographic, etc.) on the website in the hopes of the ARDA becoming the premier location of all that is empirical data on religion. Best of all, their databases are open-access – so get digging, I know I will be.

The remainder of this year’s Religion and Spirituality Preconference emphasized how (1) the psychological sciences can add to our broader understanding of religion as well as (2) how believers can be an important population of individuals to study in furthering our understanding of more typical social psychological hypotheses. For example, Zhen Cheng and Kimberly Rios presented their work on the how stereotype threat – feeling at risk of confirming a stereotype of one’s social group – might play an important role in keeping religious believers from pursuing interests and performing in scientific domains.  This is important to consider given the demographic majority of liberals, and atheists (or at the very least less-fervently devoted) amongst psychologists. Speaking to the complexity of how ‘religion’ manifests in human psychological processes and behavior, Joni Sasaki presented her lab’s work exploring how interactions between genetic differences in oxytocin receptor genes and social contexts moderate the strength of religious reminders in promoting self-control (full paper here). The theme of this bi-directional interest and value in exploring religion in the psychological sciences persisted throughout the remainder of the conference.

The issue of replicability (and non-replicability) is currently a pressing concern for researchers in psychology, and was a topic of a number of presentations at SPSP 2016 (for more info see here). At the forefront of this ‘crisis’, and of particular interest to those who study religion, is work on priming. Psychological priming, the method of exposing individuals to some stimulus (often done outside of the individual’s awareness) to detect its effects on a later stimulus, is used in all sorts of psychological research. For example, Shariff & Norenzayan (2007), in their now foundational study, had participants complete a sentence unscrambling task that either involved god-related (e.g., blessed, divine), government (e.g., jury, contract), or neutral words. The mere presence of these words serve as a prime, making the concepts of god or government more readily accessible to the minds of their subjects. What they demonstrated is that activating god or government related concepts shifted the norm from being selfish (not giving much at all), to being more fair – as participants, on average, gave up just under half of their allotted windfall of money in a dictator game. These findings have served as the bedrock for continued exploration into the role of religion in sustaining human cooperation.

Despite its varied applications (not just in the study of religion), recent efforts to replicate priming studies have lead psychologists to understand how complicated (finicky) these methods really are. However, as part of a symposium organized to demonstrate important examples of how and when priming is useful – Aiyana Willard presented the results of a meta-analysis (a statistical approach to studying an effect over a number of studies – in this case, 93 studies) that suggests that religious priming is indeed an effective method for studying the effects of activating ‘religion’ on a number psychological processes and behaviors. This effect holds even after statistically correcting for publication bias (the reality that there are many an unpublished study hiding in the physical and virtual file-drawers of researchers around the world).

The psychological sciences face another important problem in understanding religion and more broadly, the psychological foundations of human nature – the over-representation of WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) populations in our studies. Religion is by no means a monolithic phenomenon, and our understanding of religion should reflect the rampant theodiversity that exists across cultures today, and has existed throughout our collective cultural histories. In one symposium session, researchers representing the Cultural Evolution of Religion Consortium (CERC), with its home at the University of British Columbia, demonstrated how the study of religion is an ideal test case for breaking through this boundary.

Michael Muthukrishna introduced the audience to the Database of Religious History and its goals of becoming a premier source for quantified religious history. This database is being built with the help of religious scholars and historians from around the world whose knowledge of diverse religious beliefs and practices is being mapped and quantified in order for history to move off the page and become subject to statistical inquiry. Edward Slingerland spoke to the value of moving beyond the laboratory and seeking answers to our questions about religion in what he called the untapped population of ‘dead minds’ in the process of quantifying and statistically mining the literary corpus at the core of many religions.

Joe Henrich presenting.

Joe Henrich presenting.

Joseph Henrich and Coren Apicella presented results from a cross-cultural study exploring the relationship between big moralizing gods and prosociality in eight diverse societies around the world. Henrich spoke to the broader goals of such a massive undertaking, in that understanding cultural variation is key to understanding anything about human nature. Apicella presented her work on this project with the Hadza – indigenous hunter-gatherers in Tanzania who serve as an interesting case study for questions regarding religion and morality given that previous ethnographies have indicated that they have no religion at all. In (very) brief, this study supports the hypothesis that belief in omniscient, punishing, moralizing gods extends the bounds of prosociality to distant others – and thus may have played an important role in the expansion of human societies. For the complete report of the work presented at SPSP, check out Benjamin Purzycki et al.’s recently published piece in Nature.

The work highlighted here is just beginning to scratch the surface of what was on offer at SPSP 2016 on the study of religion. However, what is clear across the board is that the general interest in religion as a psychological phenomenon is growing – with the countless poster presentations by the next generation of researchers as evidence. Furthermore, there is a growing consensus in the field that religion is not only an interesting phenomenon to study – but an essential one to explore in furthering our understanding of human psychological processes and behaviors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

NAASR 2015 Annual Meeting: A Report from the Field

The North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) held its annual meeting last week in connection with the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and Society for Biblical Literature (SBL) conference in Atlanta, GA. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Matt Sheedy.

The theme for this year’s NAASR panels was “Theory in a Time of Excess,” which aimed to signal a basic problem in the study of religions; that despite increased attention and inclusion of debates on method and theory within the field over the last 30-odd years, it would appear, to quote the description on NAASR’s website, “that few of the many examples of doing theory today involve either meta-reflection on the practical conditions of the field or rigorously explanatory studies of religion’s cause(s) or function(s).” Accordingly, this year’s NAASR panels were designed to re-examine just what we mean by “theory” in the study of religion—e.g., should we follow an inclusive, “big tent” approach, or something more precise?

Be sure to wear your NAASR button! Photo thanks to NAASR.

Be sure to wear your NAASR button! Photo thanks to NAASR.

Four pre-circulated papers were presented on November 20-21, each of which included a panel of respondents:

1 “On the Restraint of Theory,” by Jason N. Blum

2 “What the Cognitive Science of Religion Is (And Is Not),” by Claire White

3 “Of Cognitive Science, Bricolage, and Brandom,” by Matt Bagger

4 “The High Stakes of Identifying (with) One’s Object of Study,” by Merinda Simmons

These panels presented a variety of critical approaches to the study of religion—materialist phenomenology, cognitive science of religion, cognitive science and analytic philosophy, and culture and identity studies—in order to explore some competing ideas of what constitutes “theory” in the study of religion, with responses from a variety of early career scholars who were chosen because of their own distance from the approaches in question.

Some questions and ideas that came out of these well-attended discussions (an average of 40-50 per session, by my count) included:

  • Can we speak about “religious” consciousness and experience without privileging particularistic and ahistorical perspectives?
  • Theory challenges us to realize that we are always fictionalizing our data.
  • What is the role of realism and inter-subjective reasoning in our work? Or, to put it differently, what are the lines between theory and addressing practical concerns as they appear in the social world today?
  • How can we address tensions between “naturally occurring” patterns of human cognition (e.g., the tendency to attribute agency to unknown forces) vs. the role of culture in shaping conceptions of the supernatural in the cognitive science of religion (CSR)?
  • Can religion be explained scientifically, as many CSR scholars would have it, or is the term religion itself too unstable to signify a coherent object of study?
  • Can we still talk about “religious belief” in the study of religion?
  • What is new about the “new materialism” (e.g., the return to questions of the body)? Is it merely repeating the idea of “lived religions” or something else altogether?
  • To what extent does one’s position in the academy (e.g., as a grad student, adjunct, or professor) determine what they can and cannot say in terms of their desire to critique certain aspects of the field?

During the NAASR business meeting, it was announced that Steven Ramey will be joining Aaron Hughes as the new co-editor of the NAASR-affiliated journal Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, and that the panel proceedings from this year’s conference will be turned into a book with Equinox Publishing. Providing opportunities for early career scholars was a constant topic of discussion at the conference, as well as the need to draw in new members—though it was noted that there was a significant spike in membership in 2015.

This year’s Presidential Panel featured two papers:

“Theory is the Best Accessory: Some Thoughts on the Power of Scholarly Compartmentalization,” by Leslie Dorrough Smith (Avila University)

“Compared to What?: Collaboration and Accountability in a Time of Excess,” by Greg Johnson (University of Colorado at Boulder)

Leslie Dorrough Smith and Greg Johnson. Photo thanks to NAASR.

NAASR Presidential Panel: Leslie Dorrough Smith and Greg Johnson. Photo thanks to NAASR.

Both of these presenters, along with those in attendance, were encouraged to read an unpublished essay on NAASR’s history by Don Wiebe and Luther Martin, which was written on the occasion of NAASR’s 20th anniversary, some 10 years ago. The purpose of this panel, now some 30 years after NAASR’s inception, was to explore how the organization can “continue pressing the field in novel, rigorous, and interesting directions,” and “to help us think through where the cutting edges may now be in the field.”

Sunday afternoon included a well attended workshop entitled, “…But What Do You Study?”: A NAASR Workshop on Theory & Method in the Job Market. Here a variety of early career scholars were broken up into groups, each with a more established scholar, to discuss strategies such as crafting a Cover Letter and what to include in one’s CV.

The final NAASR panel, co-sponsored with the SBL, was entitled “When Is the Big Tent too Big?” Following the description on the NAASR website, this panel sought to address the following question: “What are the strengths and weaknesses of the ‘big tent” philosophy that governs much of the disciplines of religious studies and biblical studies as represented in many academic societies, the publishing industry, and many colleges and universities?” Some of the questions/ideas raised by the panelists included:

  • The structural need for a big tent given the relative size of NAASR as compared with the AAR and SBL
  • What counts as reasonable, constructive scholarship and what goes too far (e.g., the “anything goes” approach)?
  • The need to highlight the role of ideology, power, and interests
  • An adequate secondary discourse should be neutral in terms of who can do it (i.e., it should privilege certain insiders and aim for theories that all scholars of religion can apply)
  • When is the tent to big? When it forgets its purpose as scholarship? When it covers up its own history?
  • Proposing the need to declare conflicts of interest when one is claiming academic legitimacy (i.e., where one is receiving funds from, relevant organizations they belong to, etc.).

All in all, the format of this year’s conference was deemed a success, and discussions are currently underway for adopting a similar format for the 2016 conference in San Antonio, TX, including another workshop for early career scholars looking to make their way in a challenging market.

 

 

 

 

 

“Understanding Religious Change” – 2015 ASR Conference Report

77th Annual Meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion (ASR), 20-22 August 2015, in Chicago, Illinois. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Amanda Schutz, PhD student in the School of Sociology, University of Arizona.

The theme of this year’s annual ASR meeting was a familiar one among social science conferences: understanding change. In her presidential address, “Complex Religion: Interrogating Assumptions of Independence in the Study of Religion,” ASR president Melissa Wilde urged sociologists to consider religion a variable of paramount importance, alongside commonly examined ones like race, class, and gender. She stressed that religion remains one of society’s most significant “self-sorting mechanisms” and marveled at its persistent relevance in helping us make sense of the social world. Wilde admitted she chose the theme “Understanding Religious Change” early on in her tenure as ASR president; but as the conference drew nearer, she became “struck by the ways it doesn’t change at all.” Indeed, listening to the many presentations, an alternative conference theme could have easily followed the old adage, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Joint ASR-ASA reception.

Joint ASR-ASA reception.

These two ideas—religious change and religion’s stability—are not as conflicting as they appear on the surface. Sociologists often embrace this contradiction of simultaneous progress and stasis. We set out to explain cases that are worthy of sociological inquiry precisely because they challenge working assumptions in some respect. Yet at the same time, we rely on the stability of patterns and trends to lend credence to new ideas: we set out to prove that what we suspect is happening isn’t just white noise, coincidence, or spurious, but something real and consistent. Sociologists attempt to explain new social occurrences (change) with reliable, reproducible data (stability). Several presentations at the ASR annual meeting demonstrated this alternative conference theme; three of them are discussed here.[i]

One of the most prominent recent changes in the American religious landscape is the rise of the “nones,” or those who claim no particular religious affiliation. Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith explore the emergence of a more visible and actualized form of nonreligion in their recent book Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America. Ryan Cragun, Warren Goldstein, and Jesse Smith participated in an Author Meets Critics session devoted to this book. While these critics pointed out that some of the organizational history was inaccurate, nonreligious labels (e.g., atheist, agnostic, humanist, secularist) are not interchangeable, and the book would have benefited from more direct engagement with social movement literature, the overall reception was warm. As atheists as a collective continue to grow and organize, their place in the social world—and the religious world—is worth examining.

However, as “atheist” becomes an increasingly legitimate and salient social identity and atheists organize into groups that increasingly resemble typical social movements, atheism, in many ways, resembles religion. Indeed, Cimino (who was unaccompanied by his co-author) pointed out that atheists often use religious metaphors, practice secular rituals, and may even refer to their gatherings as “atheist church.” This might not be surprising, as some have argued religious terminology is the best we currently have to describe nonreligious beliefs, practices, and ideologies. The Q&A following the panel ended with a short but lively discussion on whether atheism actually is a religion. The argument goes: if an ideology becomes dogmatic and questioning prevailing wisdom is not tolerated, that ideology has morphed into something akin to religion. In other words, if atheists believe without a doubt that god(s) does not exist, they are, in fact, religious atheists. However, the extent to which atheists as a whole accept such a proposition is debatable.

Another presentation added important details to this discussion of nones, and also demonstrated that reinforcement of the status quo can sometimes accompany change. In his presentation “The Dechurching of America: Why People are Increasingly ‘Done’ with the Church…but not with God” (based on work co-authored with Ashleigh Hope), Josh Packard admitted that the trend toward disaffiliation has been impossible for scholars of religion to ignore, and many have discussed at length how and why people lose their faith. (It is also important to note that next year’s ASR conference theme will explore varieties of nonreligion, continuing these conversations in greater depth.)

However, scholars of religion are quick to point out that “no affiliation” is not synonymous with “no belief,” and that the nones are comprised largely of those who still retain some level of religious or spiritual belief, despite disengagement from organized religion. Packard quoted several respondents emphasizing that although they have left the church, they have not abandoned their faith. Indeed, this movement away from institutionalized religion is becoming a popular area of study, as researchers are looking more closely at the various combinations of believing and belonging, which include groups like the spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNRs) and cultural Christians (e.g. Orestes “Pat” Hastings, who received this year’s McNamara Student Paper Award and presented “Not A Lonely Crowd? Social Connectedness, Religious Attendance, and the Spiritual But Not Religious”).

A third presentation demonstrating this alternative theme, titled “The Rhetoric of Obedience: Gender, Religion, and Family Life in a Modernizing Indonesian City,” took place during the Presidential Panel on religion and gender. Rachel Rinaldo discussed how the rhetoric of submission among Muslim couples is more complex than we might expect. While men remain the head of the family, whose primary obligation is supporting wife and children, it is not unusual for wives work outside the home—though they often must ask permission of their husbands. There are inconsistencies in this worldview, Rinaldo adds: yes, women are by and large considered equal to men, but their utmost responsibility is the home, where they are expected to obey their husbands.

However, Rinaldo points out that as women become more involved in public life, public and private spheres becomes more discrete; consequently, as women become more visibly independent and their roles more varied, the rhetoric of submission in the home becomes stronger. The workplace may be an “escape” where women are increasingly welcomed (or at least tolerated), but the household is the “last bastion” of women; it is not as affected by social change as the public sphere. And if women need to be reminded to obey, Rinaldo suggests, that means there must be contexts where they’re not. Because the culture of many Muslim societies is changing, if people still wish to continue traditions privately, they must use religion as a justification of such arrangements—not culture.

landon schnabel presenting.

landon schnabel presenting.

Though conference themes are intended to encompass the largest possible range of presentations, the meeting included many panels with varying relevance to the theme of religious change. This included panels dedicated to the intersection of religion with topics like health, the environment, gender, sexuality, violence, and politics. This year’s meeting also introduced the ASR’s first attempt at a Graduate Student Mentoring Lunch, which saw a handful of senior scholars discussing their areas of expertise with graduate students. Rhys Williams, a former ASR president, expressed that graduate students today are forging connections with others in outside departments much more than they have in the past, confirming that conferences like ASR have become an integral part in the development of scholars’ early careers.

You can see the program for the 77th Annual Meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion in its entirety here. Next year’s annual meeting will take place 19-21 August 2016 in Seattle, Washington, and the theme will be “Exploring Diversity: Varieties of Religion and Nonreligion.”

[i] Discussion of presentations is based on those sessions I was able to attend. Also, as a researcher of nonreligion myself, I was prone to see these presentations as particularly exemplifying the theme of religious change.

Conference report: Rethinking Boundaries in the Study of Religion and Politics

The postgraduate “Conference on Rethinking Boundaries in the Study of Religion and Politics” was held 11-12 of September 2015 at the University of Aberdeen, in Aberdeen, Scotland. The conference was sponsored by the College of Arts and Social Sciences and Centre for Citizenship, Civil Society and Rule of Law, University of Aberdeen. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Ashlee Quosigk, a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland.

"Rethinking Boundaries" 2015 conference

“Rethinking Boundaries” 2015 conference

The conference included keynote talks from both Timothy Fitzgerald and Abby Day; it also included over 30 postgraduate presentations, workshop sessions offered by Aberdeen staff, and lots of tea breaks that allowed for participants to get to know each other, all within the walls of the historic King’s College. The conference was multidisciplinary and provided a place for participants to engage in dialogue on how to think about boundaries in the study of religion and politics (e.g. religious/secular, private/public, belief/practice and theism/atheism).

The conference began with a keynote address from Timothy Fitzgerald, Reader in Religion, University of Stirling, entitled “Religion and Politics as Modern Fictions.” Fitzgerald argued that liberal journalists and academics, while attempting to provide factual reportage, tend unconsciously to reproduce ancient “us and them” narratives. Fitzgerald described a basic discourse among journalists that legitimates rational liberal modernity against all perceived forms of backwardness and irrational barbarity (e.g. Fitzgerald offered the example of western views of Islamic countries). In western discourse, he said, the assumption is that faith, unlike nonreligious secularity, has a propensity to irrational violence. Thus western discourse pits rational western civility against the other’s medieval barbarity and western secular logical reasonableness against the other’s inability to settle their differences through negotiation, free market relations, and respect for private property. He drew attention to what he called “myths of the modern,” with one example being the distinction between the religious and the nonreligious secular, and explained how these myths are perpetuated by a range of agencies, including the media, politicians, and academics, but also including constitutions and the courts.  According to Fitzgerald, the problem with these “us and them” narratives is that “nations”, “geopolitics”, and “faith” are used in academic discourse and public rhetoric as if their meanings are self-evident and universal in their application, whereas Fitzgerald feels any claim to universal truth is problematic (for example, Fitzgerald holds that there is no true meaning of the term “God” outside someone’s or some community’s assertion that there is). Fitzgerald argued that the secular/religious binary also needs to be seen as an ideological position (rather than a self-evident truth), as the secular/religious binary is usually argued from a secular perspective (here he critiqued Edward Said, author of the famous Orientalism, on the basis that Said does not deconstruct secular reason and its dichotomous relation to religion and fails to see his secular/religious binary as an ideological position).

Timothy Fitzgerald

Timothy Fitzgerald

The postgraduate presentations were diverse. My presentation on “Intra-Evangelical Conflict on the Topic of Islam” fell within the session entitled “Conceptions of Islam” which also included a thoughtful presentation from the conference organizer Sarah Hynek on “Approaching the Categories of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.” But the conference was certainly not entirely focused on Islam, and it also included sessions on a variety of topics such as “Approaching Atheism and New Atheism” and “Shaping Congregations.”

One of the most controversial postgraduate papers presented at the conference came from Armen Oganessian, who is pursuing a PhD in Divinity at Aberdeen. Oganessian proposed that if we were to view politics, or the public sphere, as a “marketplace of ideas,” that would allow us to move beyond the religious/secular binary that dominates western thought. In this “marketplace of ideas” framework, we should view all ideologies, concepts, or moralities as having a societal value, and politics as a kind of flea market for any given worldview to sell their perspective on how to govern the society. This framework frees religious thought of its unfair stereotype of only being suited for one’s private life, putting it on an even footing with all other worldviews.  This would mean, for example, that the Buddhist would have the right, just like the socialist, to construct a foreign policy based on the beliefs and morals of his worldview and then have that policy be evaluated solely on its potential effects on the society (societal value) rather than on its religious underpinnings. Then any given individual, any given member of the said society, would be able to “purchase” either the Buddhist’s or the socialist’s–or parts of either’s—foreign policy. Then that foreign policy, or the parts of a foreign policy, most frequently purchased would be the ones adopted by the society, whether it be religious or not. Oganessian’s marketplace of ideas was highly criticized during the question and comment period. One critic argued that the “marketplace of ideas” would inherently favor capitalism. Some questioned the individual’s intellectual purchasing capabilities (e.g. people are too stupid to decide for themselves where to shop). Another critic argued that had Europe gone with the popular ideals of the Catholic Church, Europe would still be in the Dark Ages—a point with which Oganessian disagreed, noting that we cannot predict what would have happened with certainty and mentioning the possibility that perhaps we would be more advanced now.

Johan Rasanayagam hosted a workshop on “Approaching the Category of Islam.” Johan undergirded the workshop with readings from Talal Asad on The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam and Samuli Schielke on Second Thoughts About the Anthropology of Islam, or How to Makes Sense of Grand Schemes in Everyday Life. The workshop explored the issue of how to study Islamic communities without making Islam the object. Rasanayagam described his own personal research, which focuses on Muslims in Uzbekistan and what their moral understanding is of what it means to be a Muslim. He found that for some Uzbekistani Muslims, “being Muslim” might involve activities that one would typically think of as religious or Islamic –like going to the mosque, fasting, etc.  But for many it also involves being a good neighbor, marrying their kids off properly, contributing to the community—basically, according to Rasanayagam, just being a good person. So the conclusion Rasanayagam came to at the end was that Islam, if it ever becomes an object at all, only becomes so within the moral self of one particular Muslim and that one Muslim’s “Islam” is different from every other Muslim’s “Islam.” According to Rasanayagam, when one tries to make Islam an object it automatically loses value and distorts reality. Thus, Rasanayagam ended up moving away from “Islam” and looking at the formation of moral selves, who just happen to be Muslim. Rasanayagam argued that rather than looking at the Muslim community or Islam, one should focus on the process by which something comes into being and continues.

Two other workshops were included: ‘Identity and Belief/Non-Belief” led by Marta Trzebiatowska and “Religion and Politics as Categories of the Modern State” led by Trevor Stack.

Abby Day

Abby Day

The conferences ended with a keynote address from Abby Day, Reader in Race, Faith and Culture, Goldsmiths University of London, on “Believing in the Future: The Religious and Non-religious Stories Young Adults Tell.” Day shared her findings from researching “Generation A” (grandmothers of Generation X) and the story of decline of mainstream Protestant Christianity mainly in the UK. Day contrasted these older women and the younger generation that they raised and how Generation A vs. Generation X differ on what they want from religion and what can be learned about religious change. Much of the conference content sympathized with the postmodern distrust of language and sought to deconstruct words/phrases such as “belong to a faith community,” “God,” and “Islam.” The conference left me with questions about how constructive deconstructing is and how far it may distance our research from the everyday reality of those we are researching. Can a distrust of language be solved with more language?

As with all multidisciplinary exchanges, it was refreshing and challenging for scholars to learn from the research of others in different fields.

 

Learning to Unlearn “Religion”: Jason Ānanda Josephson on the Invention of Religion in Japan

One of the first Religious Studies courses in which I enrolled was titled “Japanese Religion.” There were several themes running through the course, but the one that stuck with me as the most important was something the professor asked during the first meeting of the class:

The course is called “Japanese Religion”; over the semester, think about that phrase – would it be better to say “Japanese Religions”? How about “religions of Japan”? Or, is “religion” the best word to use to describe the Japanese traditions we’re studying?1

The implications of the latter question are considered by Jason Ānanda Josephson, scholar of East Asian religions and religious studies theory, in this informative interview with the Religious Studies Project. Josephson and interviewer Brad Stoddard explore how the concept of “religion” was translated, discussed, and applied in 19th Century Japan.

Josephson’s book, The Invention of Religion in Japan (University of Chicago Press, 2012), forms the backbone of the conversation. Josephson explains that he has always had an interest in East Asian religion, as well as the theory of religion and religious studies, and in his doctoral research he put those pieces together. The result is a book that critiques the category of religion using the Japanese situation as a case study. Josephson relates how, in post-1853 Japan, there was a significant discussion taking place among the Japanese elite about what the European idea of “religion” meant, how it fit (or didn’t) with existing traditions in Japan, and also, how the concept of the “secular” applied to Japanese society at the time. Josephson’s primary case study involves Shinto, rather than Buddhism, although Josephson hopes to explore Buddhist traditions in Japan in a future work.

Josephson’s critique of the category “religion” as it relates to Japan is part of an on-going discussion among scholars as to the accuracy, relevance, and necessity of that concept. (Scholars such as Timothy Fitzgerald, Russell T. McCutcheon, Talal Asad, and Tomoku Masuzawa are mentioned in the interview as key figures participating in this critique.) While I would not describe myself as a theorist primarily, or consider my main interest to be theories of religion, I have come to realize that questions about the nature of “religion,” what scholars mean when they write about “religion,” and the categorization of “religious” traditions cannot be overlooked and must be grappled with prior to studying a “religious” tradition.

When I was a student in the Japanese Religion course, I had not yet been introduced in a meaningful way to the critiques of the concept of “religion.” What seemed problematic to my novice eyes was the disjunction between the different implications of the phrases “religion in Japan,” “Japanese religion,” and/or “Japanese religions.” By the end of the course, I decided that the least problematic way to think about the topic was as “religions in Japan.” This didn’t tackle the truly important piece – namely, the category of “religion” – but it did seem to be more neutral and inclusive than any of the other phrases. In my graduate work, these questions of naming and labeling recurred – my interests centered around one of the Buddhisms in Japan, not the monolithic idea of “Japanese Buddhism.” The latter implies that there is one Buddhism that can be described as Japanese. I can think of (at least) two traditions of Buddhism that flourished and took on a “Japanese” approach over time, as well as several of the New/Emergent Religious Movements which originated in Japan and claim a Buddhist lineage. Ultimately, the use of terms like “Buddhism” and “religion” in the singular seem to be neither specific nor descriptive enough to capture the richness and diversity of the actual world. Josephson’s perspective adds that necessary final dimension to anyone studying “religion” in Japan: since it is both an imported and manufactured category, can it be used reliably by scholars to discuss Japanese traditions?

In the interview, Josephson mentions in passing that the title of his work (The Invention of Religion in Japan) could have just as easily been either The Invention of Superstition in Japan or The Invention of Secularism in Japan. I find this a particularly fascinating comment, as those three words – religion, superstition, secularism – each have a distinct implication. However, as Josephson demonstrates throughout the interview, Japanese society had to come to terms with those three ideas as a package. Was Shinto a religion or superstition? What about Buddhism? Is Japan a secular nation? Is Japan a modern nation? Since one could not be both “modern” and “superstitious,” that meant that Shinto could not be a superstition if Japan wished to take its “place” among the nations of the modern world. However, Josephson also points out that while colonialism often imposed categories upon a colonized people, that was not entirely the case in Japan. Japanese scholars involved in the (literal and cultural) translation of the concepts of religion, superstition, and secularism investigated what these terms meant to Europeans and then negotiated the idea within Japanese society, demonstrating a degree of agency not often seen during interactions between Western and Asian societies in the 19th century.

Not only am I eager to read The Invention of Religion in Japan, but I am also looking forward to Josephson’s next project, discussed at the end of the interview. The project is currently titled “Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences”; Josephson describes this as a project to analyze European society, specifically those parts of Europe that did not match up to the claims of modernity made by European scholars. Josephson’s novel approach analyzes these claims of modernity – and the disjunction between scholarly claims and reality – through the lens of postcolonial theory, using the world outside of Europe to analyze Europe.

 

1 Or at least, that’s my recollection of the instructor’s remarks! I am paraphrasing, not quoting directly.

 

References

Asad, Talal. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

Ellwood, Robert S. Introducing Japanese Religion. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Fitzgerald, Timothy. The Ideology of Religious Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Josephson, Jason Ānanda. The Invention of Religion in Japan. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Masuzawa, Tomoku. The Invention of World Religions: or, How European Universalism was

Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

McCutcheon, Russell T. [See Dr. McCutcheon’s website for a list of his work]

Tanabe, George J. (ed). Religions Of Japan in Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

The Invention of Religion in Japan

Scholars interested in Asian religions have often noted that European colonialism simultaneously disrupted native societies and to various degrees created the modern social identities commonly referred to as “Buddhism,” “Confucianism,” “Taoism,” “Shinto,” etc. Inspired by Edward Said and others, these scholars recognize the change and adaptation that resulted from colonial encounters, specifically as they relate to the natives’ appropriation of the modern category of religion.

In this interview, Jason Josephson discusses these issues and more, specifically as they relate to Japan and the formation of Shinto. Josephson first describes how Shinto is typically represented in EuroAmerican religious studies courses. He then describes the various actors and processes (both European and native) that were involved in the Japanese appropriation of the modern category of religion, paying particular attention to the material and economic interests embedded in these larger processes.

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

Podcasts

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.

 

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, doughnuts, kale, and more.


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 Intersections of Religion and Feminism

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 editor in charge of sales and marketing, Sammy Bishop.

When asked to choose a podcast to flag up as my ‘editor’s pick’, one immediately sprang to mind: Chris Cotter‘s interview with Dawn Llewellyn on ‘Religion and Feminism‘. Starting on a personal note, this podcast was my initial step toward being involved with the RSP, as it was the first one that I provided a response to; and it was a joy to listen to their conversation.

Not only does the discussion provide a great introduction to how feminism, religion, and the academic study of both, might (or indeed, might not) interact; but Llewellyn also does an excellent job of flagging up how future work in these fields could become more productively interdisciplinary. The interview was recorded in October 2016 – so is very new in terms of academic timelines – but even since then, various forms of contemporary feminism have enjoyed a huge rise in prominence. The themes raised in this interview have more relevance than ever, and are worth revisiting in light of recent discussions on the intersections of feminism and religion.

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

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. 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, humidors, curling tongs, and more.

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: Critiquing the Axial Age

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.

Kicking off the ‘series’ is co-editor-in-chief, Chris Cotter.

It only took me a few seconds to decide to flag up Breann Fallon‘s interview with Jack Tsonis on “The “Axial Age”: Problematising Religious History in a Post-Colonial Setting.” Not only did I enjoy the very ‘meta’ nature of this interview – with two long-standing Cusackian RSP team members producing content independent of David and myself – but I also delight to this day in remembering Jack’s fiery and animated presentation on the same topic at IAHR 2015 in Erfurt. I don’t think I have ever seen a scholar ‘go off on one’ quite like he did… and it was brilliant. Would that more scholars were so passionate about their area of study, and so willing to pierce through the established (boring) norms of conference presentations.

In this important interview, Tsonis demonstrates how the term ‘Axial Age’ shares much in common with the notion of ‘World Religions’ in that both – to quote the subtitle to Tomoko Masuzawa‘s seminal work – preserve ‘European universalism […] in the language of pluralism’. Tsonis forcefully argues that many left-wing scholars fail to see the racist ideology encoded in the term, and that critical scholars have a duty to not only cast the terms ‘Axial Age’ and ‘World Religions’ on the scrapheap of history, but starve them of oxygen. This is a difficult argument for some to hear, but one I heartily encourage listeners to engage with and put into practice.

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

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, incense, lava lamps, and more.

 

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

Richard Ascough and Sharday Mosurinjohn

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

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God and Mathematics

What does math have to do with religion? In his interview with Hans van Eyghen, author Chris Ransford discusses his latest book ‘God and the Mathematics of Infinity’. He discusses why mathematics is useful for thinking about religion, covering some of the conclusions he draws in the book.

 

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, Wu-Tang CD’s, Ramen, and more.

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

God and Mathematics

Podcast with Chris Ransford (12 February 2018).

Interviewed by Hans Van Eyghen

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Ransford_-_God_and_Mathematics_1.1

 

Hans Van Eyghen (HVE): Hello, I’m Hans Van Eyghen, I’m with Chris Ransford to discuss his latest book, God and the Mathematics of Infinity. Welcome, Chris. So, could you tell us a little bit about your project, about the book? What was your motivation behind this?

Chris Ransford (CR): Sure, Good morning, first! And thanks for having me on the show. This book, God and the Mathematics of Infinity, is actually part of a trilogy of books exploring the nature of reality. The motivation of that is because we are in the 21st century, and there is actually zero consensus in society as to what it is, this reality that we live in. So you have, at the one end of the spectrum people who still do believe in what is variously called materialism or physicalism, and at the other end of the spectrum you have fundamentalist religious people. And very often, of course, the truth has got to lie in-between, somewhere. But all my background, educational background, has demonstrated to me that mathematics is an extremely powerful tool to analyse the truth. And I have to immediately qualify this. A very large section of mathematics cannot be used to pronounce anything about external reality, simply because those parts of mathematics are predicated on axioms – which is foundational statements that are accepted at face value, that have not been proven. And on the basis of these axioms whole branches of mathematics are built such as geometry, let’s say. And they are internally consistent, but they cannot express anything about the ultimate truths of reality. On the other hand – the most important in my view and in other mathematicians’ view – part of mathematics is number theory. And numbers are actually not predicated on axioms, but on definition. In other words, one and one is called two. And that’s all there is to it. That’s a definition. And when you define one plus one is two, then very soon you have natural whole numbers, and then you have rational numbers, and then you have irrational numbers, and then you have infinities. And all of a sudden from the mere definition of two lions being two lions as opposed to one lion, a whole menagerie of very powerful numbers is born, out of which you can analyse – meaningfully analyse – reality. And one of my observations about, say, some religions and some atheistic people is that their pronouncements are totally susceptible to mathematical analysis based on numbers. And then you have a number of conclusions that you can draw from that. And, for instance, what religious people maybe do not understand about a mathematical analysis of God, it is actually not a mathematical analysis of God, per se. It’s a mathematical analysis of the consequences that flow from the attributes that are ascribed to Godhood. In other words . . . I’ll give you an example. If you define God as having infinite attributes, then the consequences of those infinite attributes are totally susceptible to analysis through the mathematics of infinity. Then you can conclude certain things. And you can conclude that certain things can possibly be and certain things cannot possibly be at all. And I am observing, in the current world, a debate between let us call them either religious or spiritual types on the one side and the atheistic or materialists on the other side. What I have observed, somewhat unfortunately, is that more and more the materialistic side seems to be winning the argument and they win the argument for a number of reasons and all of these reasons are actually susceptible, once again, to mathematical analysis. And one of the reasons why they win is because they conflate spirituality – the essence of what maybe religions have been trying to talk about for centuries – with the trappings of religions, meaning all the sometimes very silly trappings, such as singing hymns and reliance on ancient texts of literature and everything: all things that are actually epiphenomena of religion, but do not touch the core. And so the analysis by mathematics will enable you, first of all, to avoid things that are frankly quite infuriating in religion, such as the development, on the part of a number of big religions, of leaps of faith. Leaps of faith in this day and age, the 21st century, are not acceptable. And if a demand for such is maintained educated people, intelligent people, and more and more people in the 21st, 22nd, and so-on, centuries are going to leave religion, because in the modern age this is not an acceptable way of doing things. And, especially, leaps of faith are totally amenable to mathematical analysis. And I’ll give you an example. Some leaps of faith will lead to a contradiction in terms – and some have got to give way – and some will not. For instance, let us take the example of an acceptable leap of faith that would be – in totally non-religious terms – that would be the leap of faith of the person who buys a lottery ticket. A lottery ticket would have one chance in some million, you know, odds of gaining the jackpot, but it’s not impossible. So, in that sense, the leap of faith is acceptable. But the leap of faith that says that an infinite entity can be second-guessed by people who have limited IQs, a limited lifetime on earth and everything; the mathematics shows you that it’s a contradiction in terms. It is not possible that something infinite be properly appreciated, properly processed and properly comprehended by a receptacle that is finite. So we have to analyse all these sort of things. And on the other side of the aisle is, exactly likewise, susceptible to mathematical analysis. And I’ll give you an example, and then I’ll give you the floor. The ongoing argument that everything is materialist, and so on, is a bankrupt argument, because theoretical physics demonstrates that matter ultimately doesn’t exist. Matter is the vibrations of the quantum vacuum, of the vacuum. And matter reduces to vibrations of nothingness. And that’s the mathematics, that’s a fact. So people who predicate their reasoning on simply, you know, the fact that what you see is what you get, and that matter is all there is, are demonstrably wrong. And I will illustrate this by telling you about the latest book I’ve read. I’ve just read a book by a well-known philosopher. And one third, one big third of the book is given over to analysing physicalism. And that illustrates to me the absolute necessity to use mathematics. If that philosopher instead of philosophising and looking at the pros and cons and eventually – after one full third of the book – not settling the issue, had actually used mathematics instead, the mathematics is and the theoretical physics is that matter is vibrations of vacuums and that hence, therefore, matter cannot be the fundamental feature of reality or the fundamental trait of reality, and that therefore we have to move beyond matter to try to understand the fundaments of reality. And that, to me, illustrates the absolute necessity to bring mathematics into reasoning. We are in an age where we have on the one hand people like Isis, on the other side of the aisle we have people like Richard Dawkins who heaps scorn on millions and millions of people who say they have experienced something that they couldn’t explain. Both attitudes are not sustainable; both attitudes are not bringing us further into the 21st century and it’s absolutely time for us to have a new approach to the ultimate nature of reality: not use the science of last century, such as physicalism; but also not use the frankly bankrupt arguments that go “I base my worldview on a book of ancient literature written in a pre-scientific age, and my book is better than yours.” That is not sustainable. We’ve got to stop having that kind of argument. And it’s only at the price, or at the cost of stopping those arguments that we’ll be evolving into a discourse on matters of spirituality – maybe religion – and reality, that goes beyond the current debates that frankly are not taking us any further.

HVE: Ok, thank you. I want to get into the point of not being able to second-guess God’s intentions, God’s commands. You’re probably aware that that’ll be a far stretch for many religious believers. But I was wondering, doesn’t that exclude the whole concept of revelation, in a way? What do you do with people who claim to have such knowledge?

CR: OK, that’s fair enough. But it does, to a very large extent, and let me tell you why. The issue we have with most religions – virtually all, but this we can qualify – is that they rely for the message – if there is such a thing – the message of the Godhead – not specifying further who that Godhead is – they rely on words, be they oral words, be they texts. And the fundamental issue with that, we have to ask ourselves: is human language a capable vehicle, a possible vehicle to convey the words of a Godhead? And mathematically, as I will just show, there are at least four separate reasons why it is not the proper vehicle. It’s not the proper vehicle for at least four independent mathematical reasons. And the bottom line of those reasons is that human language is so inherently limited. So we could have an ideal human language but it cannot convey God-like thoughts. Because God-like thoughts are, by definition, infinite and they reflect a certain mode of thinking that cannot be expressed by the vehicle of the human language. And let me give you, if that’s ok, let me give you four reasons. The first one is very simple and it’s agreed to by all religions, including religions of the (audio unclear). It is what is called in mathematics Tarski’s theorem or the undefinability theorem, which very simply states that the proof of any statement cannot be possibly made from inside the language that makes the statement. It’s very easy to understand if I tell you, “This car is blue,” I cannot prove from inside the English language that the car is blue. I need external corroboration, which is quite obvious. The second proof is a little bit more subtle, but it’s exactly the same thing as the Mercator projection in map-making. In map-making, if you want to degrade by one dimension, you massively warp and distort the map that you’re trying to convey. If you look at the map of the world on Mercator, or for that matter any other projection, the point which is the pole becomes actually as long as the equator. So something rips. It’s like if you were going to flatten an orange upon a table – something rips, and by the process of ripping you sustain a huge loss of meaning of the data that’s being conveyed. Look at any Mercator map on the wall. Greenland is actually less than 1/4 of the size of Australia. Any map of the world shows Greenland bigger than Australia. And so on and so forth. And that’s just by going down one dimension. And if you go by two dimensions you would have to project onto a segment and all would be lost. Now let me give you an example with language. If you’re going to want to say, for instance, you’re going to want to translate into normal language Einstein’s works that space and time are the same thing; you’re going to write a book about Einsteinian physics and you’re going to entitle the book Space-Time. Now that’s wrong. You have actually prioritised space over time by writing space-time. And now you try the other way round- Time-Space- same problem. And finally you hit upon the solution which is to go up by one dimension and write it in a loop. And when you write space-time in a loop you have no priority; no first and no second element. And by going up two elements you have solved a problem of something that you couldn’t properly express in the English language, because of its linearity. And to demonstrate that this linearity is true, try to tell your publisher over the phone that you write space-time on the front of your book, you can’t. You have to write meta-data, which means you have to explain how to do it, because the language doesn’t allow you to that. And if you are talking of an infinite mind expressing God-like thoughts, you multiply this by infinity. You’re not having 2-d down to 1-d, you’re having infinity-d down to 1-d – which is the language that is used in ancient texts. Now let me give you a third reason. There exists a well-known phenomenon which is called emergence. Emergence is that whenever any constituent element to something becomes very big – not necessarily infinite – then you have all kinds of totally unpredictable phenomena that start happening. And when left alone. When things become infinite then you have a plethora of inherently unpredictable things that start happening. So for an IQ of 100 or 200 or 300, trying to second guess or to understand an IQ equivalent of infinity, simply the simple phenomenon of emergence cannot let you do that. And, really, if you had a . . . I hate the word prophet, but if you had a soothsayer or a translator of what the Godhead says, he or she would fall victim to the dimensional issue that I was talking on earlier. So you cannot get out of it. And the last element – there are more – but the last element I would like to quote here. Apart from the undefinability theorem, apart from the dimensional issue which is un-crackable, apart from the phenomenon of emergence which you cannot possibly predict or foretell, there’s also the phenomenon – very often in human religion – of circular reasoning. In other words, and to caricature it: “It’s true because the Bible says it’s true.” And I’ve seen that in my classes, in my Sunday classes. I have heard a lot of those arguments. And I find it a pity that we are still there in the 21st century because that gives ammunition to the Richard Dawkins set, if you like, who deny any spirituality even though there’s overwhelming proof out there that there is such a thing as spirituality. There is such a thing as higher dimensions and everything. All those things give ammunition to this set of people who cast scorn and aspersion on anybody who has a spiritual component to knock it, scoff at it, say that it’s all delusions, liars and straw that weaker minds are clutching at. And I find it very, very problematic and very regrettable that this be the case. And what I want to say, if we do not move into a rational intelligent type of spirituality, spirituality will lose the debate in the coming decades, let alone the 22nd century. And that will be a huge loss for humankind.

HVE: Ok. I want to get into the conclusions you draw in the book, about God’s attributes. Some are quite classical, some widely accepted, at least if you have a religion, like all-knowingness, almightiness. But some are quite surprising. Could you maybe elaborate on those, the surprising conclusions you draw?

CR: Which one?

HVE: The one, for example, about God being present in everything.

CR: That’s very good. That exactly another, for me, absolutely essential proofs that the use of mathematics is indispensable. The debate between what was called immanence or transcendence has been a debate that has gone on for a very long time. But it has never been settled by theologians. And you have two schools of thought. So in all religions some think that God is everywhere, and some think that, if God exists, that God is in a privileged realm, somewhere, a heaven and only forays into lesser realms or other areas, when needed. The problem is, you can analyse that mathematically and on the basis of theoretical physics. And the analysis is not entirely obvious because you have to analyse time first. How could . . . . If God is not present anywhere, then if God would want to cast an eye on something that happened it would have to go back in time and there are all sorts of issues. But the demonstration that you get from that is that there is a stark mathematical contradiction between saying that a God would be all-powerful and omniscient – in other words all-knowing – and the fact that it would have Godly attributes. So it would actually negate the Godly attributes. So you cannot have it both ways. The possibility of God, of which mathematics itself – for reasons which I’ll go into in a minute – cannot actually determine . . . . If there is a God then that God must, if it is going to be divine – in other words if it’s going to actually have the attributes that are reputed to be its attributes by religions and spirituality, that actually constitute its very essence of being God, its very Godhood – then it must be present everywhere. And if you speculate, there are ways that this is totally compatible with the current world. I believe that the image of a personal God is not possible for all sorts of reasons. It’s not a bearded man in the sky or some equivalent of that. It’s not possible. But what is possible is that it’s a higher dimensional mind that actually moves through space-time in such a way as creating something that is not entirely circumscribed, and there would be reasons for that. Surprisingly – something that very few non-mathematicians appreciate fully – you can actually grow infinity. Infinity per se is not simply infinity. You can actually grow infinity. And if you do have an infinite God, put yourself in its shoes for two minutes and look what happens. You have basically two solutions. You can just soar upon nothingness and everything. The cost of that is that you are going to become a static God, and if that happens you are actually going to lose some of your divinity. Because what you’re going to become is a curator of something that is becoming a museum universe. You know the past, the future, you know the extension of space-time everywhere and nothing ever fundamentally changes. So you are infinite, but you’re an infinite museum curator because nothing changes. So your option out of that, and the thing that will preserve and uphold your divinity, your Godhood, is actually to have a universe that can grow. And the universe that can grow is not a trivial proposition. You will find, if you analyse in certain ways, you will find that you cannot grow it in certain dimensions: you can certainly grow it in a three dimensional space or +1 dimension time, but there are certain dimensions that are closed to you. And that is quite compatible, in some ways, with one of the advances in cosmology. You know that in cosmology a lot of very reputable physicists have tried to understand the Big Bang. And there’s many scenarios that actually give rise to a Big Bang. Many totally different scenarios that would lead to our seeing the Big Bang the way we see it. But it could be quantum fluctuation in a parent universe; it could be colliding super-brains in a 5-d space-time; it could be the existence of time before itself; it could be the bouncing universes and the bouncing universes have different ways of happening – there’s the Penrose way, there are some other ways. But what all of those scenarios have in common, in our quest to understand the Big Bang, is that they all require something to have been there before the Big Bang. So the best minds both in cosmology, in information theory, in many different ways, tried to understand and tried to work out how the Big Bang can happen from absolute nothingness. And the results were extremely interesting. The only plausible scenario was that the Big Bang could happen out of nothingness only if the disembodied laws of mathematics – so at least some disembodied laws of mathematics – existed prior anyway. So you come to a road where even if a Big Bang as we know it didn’t come from something material – such as a false vacuum, such as a prior universe, such as anything – it came from this incarnate mind. Because another way of proving it, with wave functions etc., the mathematical laws in that case would be alive. So you come to a possibility that the whole universe is actually part of . . . . If I may express it that way – it sounds terribly religious – and that’s for lack of a better word . . . . But the whole universe including your cup of coffee, the pen, a galaxy somewhere is part of the body of God. So that leads to a place where what we call God is not somebody personal, is not somebody judgemental, but it’s somebody alive, that has a possibility of disincarnate existence, that lets universes happen for very specific reasons. And those specific reasons are to grow, to grow infinity itself. And then we have a reconcilable of image of spirituality and science. And this is the only way that I see a place, the only proper way where we can reconcile the two. And all of a sudden, all of the sciences that were banished, such as studies – as you may be aware there’s a lot of studies on altered states of consciousness and so on. And all those studies are pooh-poohed by modern science because they are all afraid that it’s going to link them with religions with funny hats, with judgementalisms, with associations with books that were basically the Stephen King novels of 2000 years ago and when there was no understanding of anything, at a time when very, very few people knew how to write and they wrote what they could. They thought that earthquakes were the acts of God, they thought that diseases were the acts of God, etc., etc. And to become associated with that, of course, it’s a sure-fire killer in careers of science – as it should be. But the problem is we are stuck there right now. We are stuck in this rut where we either have the Isis people or we have the Richard Dawkins, and both of them have areas that they call no-go. It is haram – or whatever the word is – in certain regions to ask questions. It’s forbidden in almost all of them. Science does kind-of the same thing. When confronted with things it cannot explain under the current science, scientists sweep it under the rug as well. And take all the conflicts on earth today. They fundamentally all arise from that. And we’re not talking something that is not massive. We have massive conflicts. We have people who suffer immensely, like all those girls subjected to female circumcision because of ancient texts and everything. And we seem to be stuck in this course. And we have very many people who have experienced something that they can’t explain. And the explanations of Richard Dawkins just do not wash with them. So what do they do? They go back to those who say they know better, although they do not, and that perpetuates the cycle and the stand-off where we are stuck right now. The stand-off. And what I’m trying to say, we need to move forward. This is the 21st century. We need to free ourselves from spiritual reliance on ancient texts. And there’s no justification where those ancient texts should be deemed as being the corner-stones of modern-day religions – absolutely not. And you can prove they’re not suitable for the job. But we should also move from where that leads science to, which is wholesale rejection of whole areas of human knowledge. And we’re stuck, we’re not moving, which is the reason why I wrote this book, which is my second book in the understanding of the nature of reality. And, again, if you believe in God you believe in a totally different reality than if you don’t. If you believe in materiality, as in Aristotelian physicalism, then you believe in a form of the universe that other people do not believe in. And the whole point of the book is to say the force and the strength of mathematics is that it can actually analyse that intelligently, and enable progress.

HVE: Ok, thank you. We’re running out of time here. Time flies . . . . One last question, because it will be on people’s minds, is the existential question. You refrain from answering it in the book, so you reach a limit there.

CR: Yes. It will be part of my next book. Very quickly, I’ll try to tell you where I come from. Three hundred years ago we didn’t know where earthquakes, where lightening etc. came from. We had no idea, we didn’t understand atoms, electricity, tectonic plates, microbes. We’re still very close to that. The cutting edge of science has to do with wave functions. And things like this are not very well-known now, but that will actually further our understanding. And in the book I’m quoting somebody who’s actually atheistic, who’s a very well-known university professor in the US, who says we must define God in a certain way. And as she explains it – and I explain part of it in the book – the question: “Do you believe in God?” is meaningless. You have to define your terms. You have to define what God is. And my next book will try to answer this in the light of modern science. And we have to shed our preconceptions on everything. And I think we can actually come close to a definition that would be acceptable to most people, and in which we would say, “Well yes. This does exist.” And this can be construed as actually being a Godhead, and it has to be defined. And it’s got nothing to do with the personal God of the Abrahamic regions. But it has to do with the fact that there is something there that we’re not seeing at the moment, and with the fact that to appreciate that, and to begin – to use an old phrase – to touch the face of God, we have to have enhanced our knowledge, not simply to atoms, electricity, tectonic plates and bacteria but a lot more. And this is what science worldwide is in the process of doing. It will take us I believe another 200-300-400 years but we will get there. We shouldn’t jump the gun by saying we know already. No, we’re still in the process of building up our arsenal of knowledge tools that will let us put our arms around the concept.

HVE: Ok. Thank you. I’m afraid that’s all the time we have. Thank you so much.

CR: My pleasure. Thank you for your time.

Citation Info: Ransford, Chris, and Hans Van Eyghen. 2018. “God and Mathematics”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 12 February 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 9 February 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/god-and-mathematics/

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Re-Packaging E.B. Tylor

Reflections on “The Legacy of Edward Tylor – Roundtable”

by Liam Sutherland

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Religion and Feminism

‘Religion’ and ‘Feminism’ are two concepts that have a complex relationship in the popular imaginary. But what do academics mean by these two concepts? And how can we study their interrelationship? What can we say about ‘religion and feminism’, about the academic study of ‘religion and feminism’, or about the ‘academic study of religion’ and feminism? To discuss these basic conceptual issues, and delve deeper into the topic, we are joined by a long-time friend of the RSP, Dr Dawn Llewellyn of the University of Chester.

Along the way we discuss some of the basics of feminism and feminist theory, before thinking about how scholars can or should position themselves in relation to this broad topic, how we might conduct research, and how Dawn herself has done so. In the process we move beyond the problematic ‘wave’ metaphor, and think beyond ‘Christianity’ and ‘the West’ to ask what the study of religion can bring to the study of feminism, and what feminism can bring to the study of religion.

This episode is the second of a series co-produced with introduction to the Sociology of Religion, with Professor Grace Davie. Listeners might also be interested in our previous interviews with Meredith McGuire, Marta Trzebiatowska, Anna Fedele, Mary Jo Neitz and Lizbeth Mikaelsson, and feature essays by Erika Salomon, Claire Miller Skriletz, and George Ioannides.

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, humidors, curling tongs, and more.

Method and Theory in the Cognitive Sciences of Religion

podcast with the Religious Studies Project in 2014, Dr. Robert McCauley gave an overview of some of these processes cognitive scientists appeal to in accounting for religion (e.g., agent detection, theory of mind), as well as a 2015 North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) conference (and thanks to their support), McCauley discusses methodological and theoretical issues within CSR. He begins by tackling the topic of “naturalism” vs. “supernaturalism” in explaining religion, moving on to how these explanations function at different levels of analysis and integration. In closing, McCauley discusses the relationship between the humanities and the sciences, some successful and not so successful CSR theories, and the interplay between explanations emphasizing cognition and culture.

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, video games, indulgences, and more.

SPSP 2016 Report: The state of religion in social and personality psychology

This past January, the Society for Personality and Social Psychology had its biggest turn out to date for its 17th Annual Convention in San Diego, California. Despite religion, as a broad category of research, all to often being missing in action in the psychological sciences, researchers embracing the study of religion were hard to miss throughout SPSP 2016. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Adam Baimel, University of British Columbia.

The Religion and Spirituality Preconference meeting kicked off as Aiyana Willard presented her work on the cognitive foundations of belief. Much ink has been spilled as to what sorts of cognitive processes make supernatural beliefs ‘easy to think’ – Willard’s work demonstrates how we can actually test these theoretical and causal models in the minds of real believers (for more on this, see here). What this type of work demonstrates is that what we need, as psychologists, to understand religion in any sort of systematic way, is access to empirical data.

ARDA database hub.

ARDA Research Hub.

Representatives from the Association of Religion Data Archives (the ARDA) drove this very point home by presenting both the existing (and quite impressive) database that they have built and what sorts of features users can expect from the ARDA in the near future.  The ARDA currently offers researchers a large collection of international and national survey data on the broad topic of religion – and they have recently made mining through these surveys by topic and specific questions of interest all that much easier. Joining in on the benefits of open and transparent science – the ARDA has made a call for researchers to publish their data sets of all varieties (experimental, ethnographic, etc.) on the website in the hopes of the ARDA becoming the premier location of all that is empirical data on religion. Best of all, their databases are open-access – so get digging, I know I will be.

The remainder of this year’s Religion and Spirituality Preconference emphasized how (1) the psychological sciences can add to our broader understanding of religion as well as (2) how believers can be an important population of individuals to study in furthering our understanding of more typical social psychological hypotheses. For example, Zhen Cheng and Kimberly Rios presented their work on the how stereotype threat – feeling at risk of confirming a stereotype of one’s social group – might play an important role in keeping religious believers from pursuing interests and performing in scientific domains.  This is important to consider given the demographic majority of liberals, and atheists (or at the very least less-fervently devoted) amongst psychologists. Speaking to the complexity of how ‘religion’ manifests in human psychological processes and behavior, Joni Sasaki presented her lab’s work exploring how interactions between genetic differences in oxytocin receptor genes and social contexts moderate the strength of religious reminders in promoting self-control (full paper here). The theme of this bi-directional interest and value in exploring religion in the psychological sciences persisted throughout the remainder of the conference.

The issue of replicability (and non-replicability) is currently a pressing concern for researchers in psychology, and was a topic of a number of presentations at SPSP 2016 (for more info see here). At the forefront of this ‘crisis’, and of particular interest to those who study religion, is work on priming. Psychological priming, the method of exposing individuals to some stimulus (often done outside of the individual’s awareness) to detect its effects on a later stimulus, is used in all sorts of psychological research. For example, Shariff & Norenzayan (2007), in their now foundational study, had participants complete a sentence unscrambling task that either involved god-related (e.g., blessed, divine), government (e.g., jury, contract), or neutral words. The mere presence of these words serve as a prime, making the concepts of god or government more readily accessible to the minds of their subjects. What they demonstrated is that activating god or government related concepts shifted the norm from being selfish (not giving much at all), to being more fair – as participants, on average, gave up just under half of their allotted windfall of money in a dictator game. These findings have served as the bedrock for continued exploration into the role of religion in sustaining human cooperation.

Despite its varied applications (not just in the study of religion), recent efforts to replicate priming studies have lead psychologists to understand how complicated (finicky) these methods really are. However, as part of a symposium organized to demonstrate important examples of how and when priming is useful – Aiyana Willard presented the results of a meta-analysis (a statistical approach to studying an effect over a number of studies – in this case, 93 studies) that suggests that religious priming is indeed an effective method for studying the effects of activating ‘religion’ on a number psychological processes and behaviors. This effect holds even after statistically correcting for publication bias (the reality that there are many an unpublished study hiding in the physical and virtual file-drawers of researchers around the world).

The psychological sciences face another important problem in understanding religion and more broadly, the psychological foundations of human nature – the over-representation of WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) populations in our studies. Religion is by no means a monolithic phenomenon, and our understanding of religion should reflect the rampant theodiversity that exists across cultures today, and has existed throughout our collective cultural histories. In one symposium session, researchers representing the Cultural Evolution of Religion Consortium (CERC), with its home at the University of British Columbia, demonstrated how the study of religion is an ideal test case for breaking through this boundary.

Michael Muthukrishna introduced the audience to the Database of Religious History and its goals of becoming a premier source for quantified religious history. This database is being built with the help of religious scholars and historians from around the world whose knowledge of diverse religious beliefs and practices is being mapped and quantified in order for history to move off the page and become subject to statistical inquiry. Edward Slingerland spoke to the value of moving beyond the laboratory and seeking answers to our questions about religion in what he called the untapped population of ‘dead minds’ in the process of quantifying and statistically mining the literary corpus at the core of many religions.

Joe Henrich presenting.

Joe Henrich presenting.

Joseph Henrich and Coren Apicella presented results from a cross-cultural study exploring the relationship between big moralizing gods and prosociality in eight diverse societies around the world. Henrich spoke to the broader goals of such a massive undertaking, in that understanding cultural variation is key to understanding anything about human nature. Apicella presented her work on this project with the Hadza – indigenous hunter-gatherers in Tanzania who serve as an interesting case study for questions regarding religion and morality given that previous ethnographies have indicated that they have no religion at all. In (very) brief, this study supports the hypothesis that belief in omniscient, punishing, moralizing gods extends the bounds of prosociality to distant others – and thus may have played an important role in the expansion of human societies. For the complete report of the work presented at SPSP, check out Benjamin Purzycki et al.’s recently published piece in Nature.

The work highlighted here is just beginning to scratch the surface of what was on offer at SPSP 2016 on the study of religion. However, what is clear across the board is that the general interest in religion as a psychological phenomenon is growing – with the countless poster presentations by the next generation of researchers as evidence. Furthermore, there is a growing consensus in the field that religion is not only an interesting phenomenon to study – but an essential one to explore in furthering our understanding of human psychological processes and behaviors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

NAASR 2015 Annual Meeting: A Report from the Field

The North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) held its annual meeting last week in connection with the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and Society for Biblical Literature (SBL) conference in Atlanta, GA. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Matt Sheedy.

The theme for this year’s NAASR panels was “Theory in a Time of Excess,” which aimed to signal a basic problem in the study of religions; that despite increased attention and inclusion of debates on method and theory within the field over the last 30-odd years, it would appear, to quote the description on NAASR’s website, “that few of the many examples of doing theory today involve either meta-reflection on the practical conditions of the field or rigorously explanatory studies of religion’s cause(s) or function(s).” Accordingly, this year’s NAASR panels were designed to re-examine just what we mean by “theory” in the study of religion—e.g., should we follow an inclusive, “big tent” approach, or something more precise?

Be sure to wear your NAASR button! Photo thanks to NAASR.

Be sure to wear your NAASR button! Photo thanks to NAASR.

Four pre-circulated papers were presented on November 20-21, each of which included a panel of respondents:

1 “On the Restraint of Theory,” by Jason N. Blum

2 “What the Cognitive Science of Religion Is (And Is Not),” by Claire White

3 “Of Cognitive Science, Bricolage, and Brandom,” by Matt Bagger

4 “The High Stakes of Identifying (with) One’s Object of Study,” by Merinda Simmons

These panels presented a variety of critical approaches to the study of religion—materialist phenomenology, cognitive science of religion, cognitive science and analytic philosophy, and culture and identity studies—in order to explore some competing ideas of what constitutes “theory” in the study of religion, with responses from a variety of early career scholars who were chosen because of their own distance from the approaches in question.

Some questions and ideas that came out of these well-attended discussions (an average of 40-50 per session, by my count) included:

  • Can we speak about “religious” consciousness and experience without privileging particularistic and ahistorical perspectives?
  • Theory challenges us to realize that we are always fictionalizing our data.
  • What is the role of realism and inter-subjective reasoning in our work? Or, to put it differently, what are the lines between theory and addressing practical concerns as they appear in the social world today?
  • How can we address tensions between “naturally occurring” patterns of human cognition (e.g., the tendency to attribute agency to unknown forces) vs. the role of culture in shaping conceptions of the supernatural in the cognitive science of religion (CSR)?
  • Can religion be explained scientifically, as many CSR scholars would have it, or is the term religion itself too unstable to signify a coherent object of study?
  • Can we still talk about “religious belief” in the study of religion?
  • What is new about the “new materialism” (e.g., the return to questions of the body)? Is it merely repeating the idea of “lived religions” or something else altogether?
  • To what extent does one’s position in the academy (e.g., as a grad student, adjunct, or professor) determine what they can and cannot say in terms of their desire to critique certain aspects of the field?

During the NAASR business meeting, it was announced that Steven Ramey will be joining Aaron Hughes as the new co-editor of the NAASR-affiliated journal Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, and that the panel proceedings from this year’s conference will be turned into a book with Equinox Publishing. Providing opportunities for early career scholars was a constant topic of discussion at the conference, as well as the need to draw in new members—though it was noted that there was a significant spike in membership in 2015.

This year’s Presidential Panel featured two papers:

“Theory is the Best Accessory: Some Thoughts on the Power of Scholarly Compartmentalization,” by Leslie Dorrough Smith (Avila University)

“Compared to What?: Collaboration and Accountability in a Time of Excess,” by Greg Johnson (University of Colorado at Boulder)

Leslie Dorrough Smith and Greg Johnson. Photo thanks to NAASR.

NAASR Presidential Panel: Leslie Dorrough Smith and Greg Johnson. Photo thanks to NAASR.

Both of these presenters, along with those in attendance, were encouraged to read an unpublished essay on NAASR’s history by Don Wiebe and Luther Martin, which was written on the occasion of NAASR’s 20th anniversary, some 10 years ago. The purpose of this panel, now some 30 years after NAASR’s inception, was to explore how the organization can “continue pressing the field in novel, rigorous, and interesting directions,” and “to help us think through where the cutting edges may now be in the field.”

Sunday afternoon included a well attended workshop entitled, “…But What Do You Study?”: A NAASR Workshop on Theory & Method in the Job Market. Here a variety of early career scholars were broken up into groups, each with a more established scholar, to discuss strategies such as crafting a Cover Letter and what to include in one’s CV.

The final NAASR panel, co-sponsored with the SBL, was entitled “When Is the Big Tent too Big?” Following the description on the NAASR website, this panel sought to address the following question: “What are the strengths and weaknesses of the ‘big tent” philosophy that governs much of the disciplines of religious studies and biblical studies as represented in many academic societies, the publishing industry, and many colleges and universities?” Some of the questions/ideas raised by the panelists included:

  • The structural need for a big tent given the relative size of NAASR as compared with the AAR and SBL
  • What counts as reasonable, constructive scholarship and what goes too far (e.g., the “anything goes” approach)?
  • The need to highlight the role of ideology, power, and interests
  • An adequate secondary discourse should be neutral in terms of who can do it (i.e., it should privilege certain insiders and aim for theories that all scholars of religion can apply)
  • When is the tent to big? When it forgets its purpose as scholarship? When it covers up its own history?
  • Proposing the need to declare conflicts of interest when one is claiming academic legitimacy (i.e., where one is receiving funds from, relevant organizations they belong to, etc.).

All in all, the format of this year’s conference was deemed a success, and discussions are currently underway for adopting a similar format for the 2016 conference in San Antonio, TX, including another workshop for early career scholars looking to make their way in a challenging market.

 

 

 

 

 

“Understanding Religious Change” – 2015 ASR Conference Report

77th Annual Meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion (ASR), 20-22 August 2015, in Chicago, Illinois. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Amanda Schutz, PhD student in the School of Sociology, University of Arizona.

The theme of this year’s annual ASR meeting was a familiar one among social science conferences: understanding change. In her presidential address, “Complex Religion: Interrogating Assumptions of Independence in the Study of Religion,” ASR president Melissa Wilde urged sociologists to consider religion a variable of paramount importance, alongside commonly examined ones like race, class, and gender. She stressed that religion remains one of society’s most significant “self-sorting mechanisms” and marveled at its persistent relevance in helping us make sense of the social world. Wilde admitted she chose the theme “Understanding Religious Change” early on in her tenure as ASR president; but as the conference drew nearer, she became “struck by the ways it doesn’t change at all.” Indeed, listening to the many presentations, an alternative conference theme could have easily followed the old adage, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Joint ASR-ASA reception.

Joint ASR-ASA reception.

These two ideas—religious change and religion’s stability—are not as conflicting as they appear on the surface. Sociologists often embrace this contradiction of simultaneous progress and stasis. We set out to explain cases that are worthy of sociological inquiry precisely because they challenge working assumptions in some respect. Yet at the same time, we rely on the stability of patterns and trends to lend credence to new ideas: we set out to prove that what we suspect is happening isn’t just white noise, coincidence, or spurious, but something real and consistent. Sociologists attempt to explain new social occurrences (change) with reliable, reproducible data (stability). Several presentations at the ASR annual meeting demonstrated this alternative conference theme; three of them are discussed here.[i]

One of the most prominent recent changes in the American religious landscape is the rise of the “nones,” or those who claim no particular religious affiliation. Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith explore the emergence of a more visible and actualized form of nonreligion in their recent book Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America. Ryan Cragun, Warren Goldstein, and Jesse Smith participated in an Author Meets Critics session devoted to this book. While these critics pointed out that some of the organizational history was inaccurate, nonreligious labels (e.g., atheist, agnostic, humanist, secularist) are not interchangeable, and the book would have benefited from more direct engagement with social movement literature, the overall reception was warm. As atheists as a collective continue to grow and organize, their place in the social world—and the religious world—is worth examining.

However, as “atheist” becomes an increasingly legitimate and salient social identity and atheists organize into groups that increasingly resemble typical social movements, atheism, in many ways, resembles religion. Indeed, Cimino (who was unaccompanied by his co-author) pointed out that atheists often use religious metaphors, practice secular rituals, and may even refer to their gatherings as “atheist church.” This might not be surprising, as some have argued religious terminology is the best we currently have to describe nonreligious beliefs, practices, and ideologies. The Q&A following the panel ended with a short but lively discussion on whether atheism actually is a religion. The argument goes: if an ideology becomes dogmatic and questioning prevailing wisdom is not tolerated, that ideology has morphed into something akin to religion. In other words, if atheists believe without a doubt that god(s) does not exist, they are, in fact, religious atheists. However, the extent to which atheists as a whole accept such a proposition is debatable.

Another presentation added important details to this discussion of nones, and also demonstrated that reinforcement of the status quo can sometimes accompany change. In his presentation “The Dechurching of America: Why People are Increasingly ‘Done’ with the Church…but not with God” (based on work co-authored with Ashleigh Hope), Josh Packard admitted that the trend toward disaffiliation has been impossible for scholars of religion to ignore, and many have discussed at length how and why people lose their faith. (It is also important to note that next year’s ASR conference theme will explore varieties of nonreligion, continuing these conversations in greater depth.)

However, scholars of religion are quick to point out that “no affiliation” is not synonymous with “no belief,” and that the nones are comprised largely of those who still retain some level of religious or spiritual belief, despite disengagement from organized religion. Packard quoted several respondents emphasizing that although they have left the church, they have not abandoned their faith. Indeed, this movement away from institutionalized religion is becoming a popular area of study, as researchers are looking more closely at the various combinations of believing and belonging, which include groups like the spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNRs) and cultural Christians (e.g. Orestes “Pat” Hastings, who received this year’s McNamara Student Paper Award and presented “Not A Lonely Crowd? Social Connectedness, Religious Attendance, and the Spiritual But Not Religious”).

A third presentation demonstrating this alternative theme, titled “The Rhetoric of Obedience: Gender, Religion, and Family Life in a Modernizing Indonesian City,” took place during the Presidential Panel on religion and gender. Rachel Rinaldo discussed how the rhetoric of submission among Muslim couples is more complex than we might expect. While men remain the head of the family, whose primary obligation is supporting wife and children, it is not unusual for wives work outside the home—though they often must ask permission of their husbands. There are inconsistencies in this worldview, Rinaldo adds: yes, women are by and large considered equal to men, but their utmost responsibility is the home, where they are expected to obey their husbands.

However, Rinaldo points out that as women become more involved in public life, public and private spheres becomes more discrete; consequently, as women become more visibly independent and their roles more varied, the rhetoric of submission in the home becomes stronger. The workplace may be an “escape” where women are increasingly welcomed (or at least tolerated), but the household is the “last bastion” of women; it is not as affected by social change as the public sphere. And if women need to be reminded to obey, Rinaldo suggests, that means there must be contexts where they’re not. Because the culture of many Muslim societies is changing, if people still wish to continue traditions privately, they must use religion as a justification of such arrangements—not culture.

landon schnabel presenting.

landon schnabel presenting.

Though conference themes are intended to encompass the largest possible range of presentations, the meeting included many panels with varying relevance to the theme of religious change. This included panels dedicated to the intersection of religion with topics like health, the environment, gender, sexuality, violence, and politics. This year’s meeting also introduced the ASR’s first attempt at a Graduate Student Mentoring Lunch, which saw a handful of senior scholars discussing their areas of expertise with graduate students. Rhys Williams, a former ASR president, expressed that graduate students today are forging connections with others in outside departments much more than they have in the past, confirming that conferences like ASR have become an integral part in the development of scholars’ early careers.

You can see the program for the 77th Annual Meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion in its entirety here. Next year’s annual meeting will take place 19-21 August 2016 in Seattle, Washington, and the theme will be “Exploring Diversity: Varieties of Religion and Nonreligion.”

[i] Discussion of presentations is based on those sessions I was able to attend. Also, as a researcher of nonreligion myself, I was prone to see these presentations as particularly exemplifying the theme of religious change.

Conference report: Rethinking Boundaries in the Study of Religion and Politics

The postgraduate “Conference on Rethinking Boundaries in the Study of Religion and Politics” was held 11-12 of September 2015 at the University of Aberdeen, in Aberdeen, Scotland. The conference was sponsored by the College of Arts and Social Sciences and Centre for Citizenship, Civil Society and Rule of Law, University of Aberdeen. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Ashlee Quosigk, a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland.

"Rethinking Boundaries" 2015 conference

“Rethinking Boundaries” 2015 conference

The conference included keynote talks from both Timothy Fitzgerald and Abby Day; it also included over 30 postgraduate presentations, workshop sessions offered by Aberdeen staff, and lots of tea breaks that allowed for participants to get to know each other, all within the walls of the historic King’s College. The conference was multidisciplinary and provided a place for participants to engage in dialogue on how to think about boundaries in the study of religion and politics (e.g. religious/secular, private/public, belief/practice and theism/atheism).

The conference began with a keynote address from Timothy Fitzgerald, Reader in Religion, University of Stirling, entitled “Religion and Politics as Modern Fictions.” Fitzgerald argued that liberal journalists and academics, while attempting to provide factual reportage, tend unconsciously to reproduce ancient “us and them” narratives. Fitzgerald described a basic discourse among journalists that legitimates rational liberal modernity against all perceived forms of backwardness and irrational barbarity (e.g. Fitzgerald offered the example of western views of Islamic countries). In western discourse, he said, the assumption is that faith, unlike nonreligious secularity, has a propensity to irrational violence. Thus western discourse pits rational western civility against the other’s medieval barbarity and western secular logical reasonableness against the other’s inability to settle their differences through negotiation, free market relations, and respect for private property. He drew attention to what he called “myths of the modern,” with one example being the distinction between the religious and the nonreligious secular, and explained how these myths are perpetuated by a range of agencies, including the media, politicians, and academics, but also including constitutions and the courts.  According to Fitzgerald, the problem with these “us and them” narratives is that “nations”, “geopolitics”, and “faith” are used in academic discourse and public rhetoric as if their meanings are self-evident and universal in their application, whereas Fitzgerald feels any claim to universal truth is problematic (for example, Fitzgerald holds that there is no true meaning of the term “God” outside someone’s or some community’s assertion that there is). Fitzgerald argued that the secular/religious binary also needs to be seen as an ideological position (rather than a self-evident truth), as the secular/religious binary is usually argued from a secular perspective (here he critiqued Edward Said, author of the famous Orientalism, on the basis that Said does not deconstruct secular reason and its dichotomous relation to religion and fails to see his secular/religious binary as an ideological position).

Timothy Fitzgerald

Timothy Fitzgerald

The postgraduate presentations were diverse. My presentation on “Intra-Evangelical Conflict on the Topic of Islam” fell within the session entitled “Conceptions of Islam” which also included a thoughtful presentation from the conference organizer Sarah Hynek on “Approaching the Categories of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.” But the conference was certainly not entirely focused on Islam, and it also included sessions on a variety of topics such as “Approaching Atheism and New Atheism” and “Shaping Congregations.”

One of the most controversial postgraduate papers presented at the conference came from Armen Oganessian, who is pursuing a PhD in Divinity at Aberdeen. Oganessian proposed that if we were to view politics, or the public sphere, as a “marketplace of ideas,” that would allow us to move beyond the religious/secular binary that dominates western thought. In this “marketplace of ideas” framework, we should view all ideologies, concepts, or moralities as having a societal value, and politics as a kind of flea market for any given worldview to sell their perspective on how to govern the society. This framework frees religious thought of its unfair stereotype of only being suited for one’s private life, putting it on an even footing with all other worldviews.  This would mean, for example, that the Buddhist would have the right, just like the socialist, to construct a foreign policy based on the beliefs and morals of his worldview and then have that policy be evaluated solely on its potential effects on the society (societal value) rather than on its religious underpinnings. Then any given individual, any given member of the said society, would be able to “purchase” either the Buddhist’s or the socialist’s–or parts of either’s—foreign policy. Then that foreign policy, or the parts of a foreign policy, most frequently purchased would be the ones adopted by the society, whether it be religious or not. Oganessian’s marketplace of ideas was highly criticized during the question and comment period. One critic argued that the “marketplace of ideas” would inherently favor capitalism. Some questioned the individual’s intellectual purchasing capabilities (e.g. people are too stupid to decide for themselves where to shop). Another critic argued that had Europe gone with the popular ideals of the Catholic Church, Europe would still be in the Dark Ages—a point with which Oganessian disagreed, noting that we cannot predict what would have happened with certainty and mentioning the possibility that perhaps we would be more advanced now.

Johan Rasanayagam hosted a workshop on “Approaching the Category of Islam.” Johan undergirded the workshop with readings from Talal Asad on The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam and Samuli Schielke on Second Thoughts About the Anthropology of Islam, or How to Makes Sense of Grand Schemes in Everyday Life. The workshop explored the issue of how to study Islamic communities without making Islam the object. Rasanayagam described his own personal research, which focuses on Muslims in Uzbekistan and what their moral understanding is of what it means to be a Muslim. He found that for some Uzbekistani Muslims, “being Muslim” might involve activities that one would typically think of as religious or Islamic –like going to the mosque, fasting, etc.  But for many it also involves being a good neighbor, marrying their kids off properly, contributing to the community—basically, according to Rasanayagam, just being a good person. So the conclusion Rasanayagam came to at the end was that Islam, if it ever becomes an object at all, only becomes so within the moral self of one particular Muslim and that one Muslim’s “Islam” is different from every other Muslim’s “Islam.” According to Rasanayagam, when one tries to make Islam an object it automatically loses value and distorts reality. Thus, Rasanayagam ended up moving away from “Islam” and looking at the formation of moral selves, who just happen to be Muslim. Rasanayagam argued that rather than looking at the Muslim community or Islam, one should focus on the process by which something comes into being and continues.

Two other workshops were included: ‘Identity and Belief/Non-Belief” led by Marta Trzebiatowska and “Religion and Politics as Categories of the Modern State” led by Trevor Stack.

Abby Day

Abby Day

The conferences ended with a keynote address from Abby Day, Reader in Race, Faith and Culture, Goldsmiths University of London, on “Believing in the Future: The Religious and Non-religious Stories Young Adults Tell.” Day shared her findings from researching “Generation A” (grandmothers of Generation X) and the story of decline of mainstream Protestant Christianity mainly in the UK. Day contrasted these older women and the younger generation that they raised and how Generation A vs. Generation X differ on what they want from religion and what can be learned about religious change. Much of the conference content sympathized with the postmodern distrust of language and sought to deconstruct words/phrases such as “belong to a faith community,” “God,” and “Islam.” The conference left me with questions about how constructive deconstructing is and how far it may distance our research from the everyday reality of those we are researching. Can a distrust of language be solved with more language?

As with all multidisciplinary exchanges, it was refreshing and challenging for scholars to learn from the research of others in different fields.

 

Learning to Unlearn “Religion”: Jason Ānanda Josephson on the Invention of Religion in Japan

One of the first Religious Studies courses in which I enrolled was titled “Japanese Religion.” There were several themes running through the course, but the one that stuck with me as the most important was something the professor asked during the first meeting of the class:

The course is called “Japanese Religion”; over the semester, think about that phrase – would it be better to say “Japanese Religions”? How about “religions of Japan”? Or, is “religion” the best word to use to describe the Japanese traditions we’re studying?1

The implications of the latter question are considered by Jason Ānanda Josephson, scholar of East Asian religions and religious studies theory, in this informative interview with the Religious Studies Project. Josephson and interviewer Brad Stoddard explore how the concept of “religion” was translated, discussed, and applied in 19th Century Japan.

Josephson’s book, The Invention of Religion in Japan (University of Chicago Press, 2012), forms the backbone of the conversation. Josephson explains that he has always had an interest in East Asian religion, as well as the theory of religion and religious studies, and in his doctoral research he put those pieces together. The result is a book that critiques the category of religion using the Japanese situation as a case study. Josephson relates how, in post-1853 Japan, there was a significant discussion taking place among the Japanese elite about what the European idea of “religion” meant, how it fit (or didn’t) with existing traditions in Japan, and also, how the concept of the “secular” applied to Japanese society at the time. Josephson’s primary case study involves Shinto, rather than Buddhism, although Josephson hopes to explore Buddhist traditions in Japan in a future work.

Josephson’s critique of the category “religion” as it relates to Japan is part of an on-going discussion among scholars as to the accuracy, relevance, and necessity of that concept. (Scholars such as Timothy Fitzgerald, Russell T. McCutcheon, Talal Asad, and Tomoku Masuzawa are mentioned in the interview as key figures participating in this critique.) While I would not describe myself as a theorist primarily, or consider my main interest to be theories of religion, I have come to realize that questions about the nature of “religion,” what scholars mean when they write about “religion,” and the categorization of “religious” traditions cannot be overlooked and must be grappled with prior to studying a “religious” tradition.

When I was a student in the Japanese Religion course, I had not yet been introduced in a meaningful way to the critiques of the concept of “religion.” What seemed problematic to my novice eyes was the disjunction between the different implications of the phrases “religion in Japan,” “Japanese religion,” and/or “Japanese religions.” By the end of the course, I decided that the least problematic way to think about the topic was as “religions in Japan.” This didn’t tackle the truly important piece – namely, the category of “religion” – but it did seem to be more neutral and inclusive than any of the other phrases. In my graduate work, these questions of naming and labeling recurred – my interests centered around one of the Buddhisms in Japan, not the monolithic idea of “Japanese Buddhism.” The latter implies that there is one Buddhism that can be described as Japanese. I can think of (at least) two traditions of Buddhism that flourished and took on a “Japanese” approach over time, as well as several of the New/Emergent Religious Movements which originated in Japan and claim a Buddhist lineage. Ultimately, the use of terms like “Buddhism” and “religion” in the singular seem to be neither specific nor descriptive enough to capture the richness and diversity of the actual world. Josephson’s perspective adds that necessary final dimension to anyone studying “religion” in Japan: since it is both an imported and manufactured category, can it be used reliably by scholars to discuss Japanese traditions?

In the interview, Josephson mentions in passing that the title of his work (The Invention of Religion in Japan) could have just as easily been either The Invention of Superstition in Japan or The Invention of Secularism in Japan. I find this a particularly fascinating comment, as those three words – religion, superstition, secularism – each have a distinct implication. However, as Josephson demonstrates throughout the interview, Japanese society had to come to terms with those three ideas as a package. Was Shinto a religion or superstition? What about Buddhism? Is Japan a secular nation? Is Japan a modern nation? Since one could not be both “modern” and “superstitious,” that meant that Shinto could not be a superstition if Japan wished to take its “place” among the nations of the modern world. However, Josephson also points out that while colonialism often imposed categories upon a colonized people, that was not entirely the case in Japan. Japanese scholars involved in the (literal and cultural) translation of the concepts of religion, superstition, and secularism investigated what these terms meant to Europeans and then negotiated the idea within Japanese society, demonstrating a degree of agency not often seen during interactions between Western and Asian societies in the 19th century.

Not only am I eager to read The Invention of Religion in Japan, but I am also looking forward to Josephson’s next project, discussed at the end of the interview. The project is currently titled “Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences”; Josephson describes this as a project to analyze European society, specifically those parts of Europe that did not match up to the claims of modernity made by European scholars. Josephson’s novel approach analyzes these claims of modernity – and the disjunction between scholarly claims and reality – through the lens of postcolonial theory, using the world outside of Europe to analyze Europe.

 

1 Or at least, that’s my recollection of the instructor’s remarks! I am paraphrasing, not quoting directly.

 

References

Asad, Talal. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

Ellwood, Robert S. Introducing Japanese Religion. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Fitzgerald, Timothy. The Ideology of Religious Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Josephson, Jason Ānanda. The Invention of Religion in Japan. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Masuzawa, Tomoku. The Invention of World Religions: or, How European Universalism was

Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

McCutcheon, Russell T. [See Dr. McCutcheon’s website for a list of his work]

Tanabe, George J. (ed). Religions Of Japan in Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

The Invention of Religion in Japan

Scholars interested in Asian religions have often noted that European colonialism simultaneously disrupted native societies and to various degrees created the modern social identities commonly referred to as “Buddhism,” “Confucianism,” “Taoism,” “Shinto,” etc. Inspired by Edward Said and others, these scholars recognize the change and adaptation that resulted from colonial encounters, specifically as they relate to the natives’ appropriation of the modern category of religion.

In this interview, Jason Josephson discusses these issues and more, specifically as they relate to Japan and the formation of Shinto. Josephson first describes how Shinto is typically represented in EuroAmerican religious studies courses. He then describes the various actors and processes (both European and native) that were involved in the Japanese appropriation of the modern category of religion, paying particular attention to the material and economic interests embedded in these larger processes.

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