Theory & Religion Series: Ting Guo


“Spirituality” as the Creative Self in the Digital Age

This post is part of the Theory & Religion Series, where contributors are asked to discuss a current project they are working on, or a book or essay by a particular theorist that they have found useful in their teaching and research in the study of religion.

by Ting Guo

For this post in the Theory & Religion Series, I’d like to talk about my article “‘Spirituality’ as reconceptualisation of the self: Alan Turing and his pioneering ideas on artificial intelligence”, which is a summary of my doctoral project. It looks at Turing’s personal trajectory in life and asks to what extent his search for artificial intelligence (AI) was inspired by considerations other than purely technical ones. To make AI is to reproduce what is the essential “us,” what Pamela McCorduck refers to as an “odd form of self-reproduction”. The desire for such machines, I argue, is a desire equally rooted in fear and allure, and reflects not only the drive for knowledge and human progress, but the discovery of the human self, driven by fundamental problems of being human. Ultimately, my fascination lies in individuals’ struggle for identity, how they define themselves amidst radical social changes or against political, ideological or religious contexts.

In the study of religion, arguably since the 1990s, there is a scholarly trend of placing the enquiry into “spirituality” within a framework of unchurched beliefs and praxes with emphasis on affective experience. In particular it was manifested through the countercultural movements in the 1960s-80s. This view of spirituality is offered most notably by Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead’s “spiritual revolution” thesis, according to which traditional forms of religion are giving way to “holistic spirituality”, sometimes still referred to, in the parlance of the 1970s, as “New Age”. Proponents of holistic spirituality advocate “seeking out, experiencing and expressing a source of significance” which lies within “the process of life itself”, categorised by Heelas as a framework of “spiritualities of life”.

This framework, however, remains vague, as it lacks a clear theoretical account, substituting “spirituality” with an equally ambiguous notion—“life”. Furthermore, by placing spirituality within “unchurched” experience, this “spiritualities of life” framework has neglected the changing human conditions in the current time – the Digital Age.

In contrast, my paper relates the question of spirituality to the underlying agenda of the philosophy of Artificial Intelligence (AI)—the central problem of computer science, aiming precisely to complement the understudied aspect of spirituality in the Digital Age. Few existing studies have taken into account the impact of technological advances on people’s understanding and concept of themselves. Most have considered religious sensibilities or affective experience, giving little attention to the rational aspect of spirituality and how it is manifested in the modern era. Retrieving a lost meaning of the term “spirituality” that is concerned with the human intellect, this paper proposes a conceptual model of spirituality as a process of self-reconceptualisation as exemplified in the life and ideas of Alan Turing (1912-1954)—who tragically committed suicide in his prime—and his pioneering theory of AI.

The new model of “spirituality” presented here denotes an active process of self-reconceptualisation, with the search, adaptation and transformation of self-knowledge as three main components. My etymological analysis of spirituality shows that the origin of this term includes a meaning regarding the human intellect. In ancient Greek, Latin, French and Middle English, the etymological origins of spirituality all contain meanings of the “power of knowing,” the “rational soul” and “the rational spirit, the power by which the human being feels, thinks, decides.” This aspect of meaning contrasts with the ubiquitous reference to feelings, institutional criticism, and personal experience in current scholarship and public discourses. This model focuses on how the modern person conceptualises him or herself through the faculty of reasoning, its central components indicate a dynamic process as follows:

1) the search for self-knowledge

2) adaptation of that knowledge; which, in turn, stimulates

3) the intellectual aspiration for self-transformation.

Each component is a manifestation of the rational mind, which continuously thinks and reflects, whereby the three parts are interrelated. The first component, “search,” emphasises the endeavour of actively looking for meaning and understanding of one’s self.

“Self-knowledge” is used here as a philosophical term that connotes knowledge of the ontological nature (that is, nature of being, identity conditions and character traits) of the self. In this project I choose to focus neither on the immediate mental states nor on the singular or multiple arguments of the self but, rather, on the endeavour and process of reconceptualising one’s sense of self (multiple or singular)—which encompasses various stages of pursuit and adaptation of self-knowledge—and on how such pursuit and adaptation amount to a rational aspiration for self-transformation. It is this rational endeavour that constitutes my model of “spirituality”, and differentiates it from the majority of scholarship on “spirituality” in the study of religion.

The creative capacity of self-knowledge is based on the notion of human intelligence as a progressive and evolving dynamic, put forth most notably by French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941). In Creative Evolution, Bergson refutes the Western tradition of metaphysics, which sees abstract conceptions as a timeless unchanging ultimate reality underlying the world of sense-perception. His understanding of intelligence is not something thought, but something lived. For him, intelligence can be understood as a “dynamic formulation” of one’s life, in the sense, first, that intelligence constantly creates new ideas and new needs, driving us further into unlimited fields, and frees us from constraints, thanks to the creativity and potentials that our intelligence can offer. Moreover, in progressing and evolving, intelligence reconstructs concepts, including concepts of life. As new knowledge of ourselves comes to light, we also need to create new concepts and even new methods of thinking to conceptualise the self. The reconstructions of concepts of self, for Bergson, can be understood as the means that an intelligent being bears within him or her to transcend his or her own nature; in my paper, the continuous self-reconceptualisation comprises the adaptation and transformation of self-knowledge, which is my conceptual model of “spirituality”. “Self-knowledge” here denotes personal knowledge of the ontological nature of one’s own self and the scientific knowledge of the human mind and consciousness. Accordingly, the significance of a biographical study of Turing’s life and ideas lies in unpacking his reconceptualisation of himself as an individual as well as of himself as a member of humanity: 1) Turing as the forefather of the Digital Age sought, adapted and transformed the understanding of the human mind as scientific knowledge, and 2) Turing was a man whose pursuit, adaptation and transformation of ontological self-knowledge motivated his scientific studies of the nature of the mind and how the mind could be simulated and reconfigured into a machine. His scientific quest to discover the mechanism of the mind aided him in his quest for ontological self-knowledge. In short, Turing’s ontological and scientific self-knowledge complement one another in his lifetime quest to discover both “truths.”

In order to render a vivid account of how AI best manifests this conceptual model, I apply a biographical method to examine the scientific and personal reflections upon the self of Alan Turing, the founder of AI, as he conceptualised the key notions for this field. By further analysing the ways in which these reflections are valued and integrated into contemporary studies on AI and AI-based technologies after Turing’s death, this project seeks to illustrate the relevance of “spirituality” for the current Digital Age and to crystallise a fresh meaning of this term.

Historically, as I argue, Turing’s core idea of intelligent machinery, which is derived from an idealised conception of the human calculator (literally a “person who calculates”), was driven by his personal and scientific reflections on the extent and limitations of the human mind, including a drive to surpass these limitations. Furthermore, Turing’s endeavour to seek, adapt and transform the existing knowledge of human limits not only formed the theoretical foundation for AI, but has also posthumously inspired contemporary avant-garde fields of science, technology and philosophy, including theories of human enhancement technology, transhumanism and post-humanism. By aiming to alter and advance the intellectual and cognitive characteristics and capacities of humanity, scientists and theorists in those fields seek to show that human nature is not fixed and determined, but can be reinvented. This reflexive endeavour to seek self-knowledge and use it to adapt and transform the self underpins the model of “spirituality” that my project sets out to invoke, underscoring the broader cultural values carried by AI-based sciences and technologies in the Digital Age.

Guo, T. “Spirituality’ as reconceptualisation of the self: Alan Turing and his pioneering ideas on artificial intelligence”. Culture and Religion: An Interdisciplinary Journal Volume 16, Issue 3, 2015:

Ting Guo is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center on Religion and Chinese Society, Purdue University. She obtained her PhD from Religious Studies, University of Edinburgh. Prior to joining Purdue, she worked for the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. She is interested in critical theories of religion, religion and culture (food, cinema and art), and the broad constitution of religion and identity in social changes and political movements.  She is currently working on a co-authored book on global immigration, nostalgia and food to be published in Taiwan in 2016, refining her PhD thesis into a monograph on the meaning of being human in the Digital Age, and a new project on left-wing Christians in Republican Shanghai. As an active academic and writer, she contributes for BBC Chinese, OpenDemocracy, Los Angeles Review of Books and other media platforms. She can be reached at @tingguowrites and

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Genealogies of Religion, Twenty Years On: An Interview with Talal Asad


The following is part of an interview conducted by Craig Martin with Talal Asad, which appears in the February issue of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, Vol. 43, No. 1 (2014). To read the full interview, please follow the link to order a copy of the journal or to read it on-line.

Craig Martin: Last fall, realizing that 2013 marked the twentieth anniversary of Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam, I interviewed Talal Asad—Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at The City University of New York—on the book and its reception and influence on the field. Genealogies of Religion influenced me early in my graduate studies—particularly the first chapter on “The Construction of Religion as an Anthropological Category,” in which Asad argues that the concept of “religion” is, in many contemporary contexts, fundamentally shaped by Protestant assumptions. This was one of the first books I was exposed to that argued there is normative work accomplished by the very term “religion,” and all of my writings since have taken this idea as a central starting point. I want to thank Asad for taking the time to answer the questions I posed to him.

Craig Martin: Can you discuss what you most hoped to accomplish with Genealogies of Religion? Do you think the book was received in the way you hoped it would be?

Talal Asad: As far as I can tell, most people have understood that I was trying to think about religion as practice, language, and sensibility set in social relationships rather than as systems of meaning. In that book and much of my subsequent work I have tried to think through small pieces of Christian and Islamic history to enlarge my own understanding of what and how people live when they use the vocabulary of “religion.” I certainly did not want to claim that as a historical construct “religion” was a reference to an absence, a mere ideology expressing dominant power. It was precisely because I was dissatisfied with the classical Marxist notion of ideology that I turned my attention to religion. I was gradually coming to understand that the question I needed to think about was how learning a particular language game was articulated with a particular form of life, as Wittgenstein would say. The business of defining religion is part of that larger question of the infinite ways language enters life. I wanted to get away from arguments that draw on or offer essential definitions: “Religion is a response to a human need,” “Religion may be a comfort to people in distress but it asserts things that aren’t true,” “Religion is essentially about the sacred,” “Religion gives meaning to life,” “Religion and science are compatible/incompatible,” “Religion is responsible for great evil,” “So is science —and religion is also a source of much good,” “No, science is not a source of evil, as religion often is; it is technology and politics that are the problem—the social use to which science is put.”

I argued that to define “religion” is to circumscribe certain things (times, spaces, powers, knowledges, beliefs, behaviors, texts, songs, images) as essential to “religion,” and other things as accidental. This identifying work of what belongs to a definition isn’t done as a consequence of the same experience—the things themselves are diverse, and the way people react to them or use them is very different. Put it this way: when they are identified by the concept “religion,” it is because they are seen to be significantly similar; what makes them similar is not a singular experience common to all the things the concept brings together (sacrality, divinity, spirituality, transcendence, etc.); what makes them similar is the definition itself that persuades us, through what Wittgenstein called a “captivating picture,” that there is an essence underlying them all—in all instances of “religion.”

The things regarded as hanging together according to one conception of religion come together very differently in another. That’s why the translation of one “religious” concept into another is always problematic. But Genealogies doesn’t argue that the definition of religion is merely a matter of linguistic representation. Religious language—like all language—is interwoven with life itself. To define “religion” is therefore in a sense to try and grasp an ungraspable totality. And yet I nowhere say that these definitions are abstract propositions. I stress that definitions of religion are embedded in dialogs, activities, relationships, and institutions that are lovingly or casually maintained—or betrayed or simply abandoned. They are passionately fought over and pronounced upon by the authoritative law of the state.

Definitions of religion are not single, completed definitive acts; they extend over time and work themselves through practices. They are modified and elaborated with continuous use. To the extent that defining religion is a religious act, whether carried out by “believers” or “nonbelievers,” it may also be an attempt at attacking or reinforcing an existing religious tradition, at reforming it or initiating a new one.

My problem with “universal definitions of religion,” therefore, has been that by insisting on a universal essence they divert us from asking questions about what the definition includes and what it excludes, how, by whom, for what purpose; about what social/linguistic context it makes good sense to propound a given definition and when it doesn’t.

Trying to construct genealogies of concepts is one way of getting at such questions. For me the most important concern in all my writing has been, “What, in this matter, is the right question?” So in Genealogies of Religion I did not try to provide a better definition of “religion,” still less to undermine the very concept of “religion.” I was looking for ways of formulating the most fruitful questions about how people enact, declare, commit to—or repudiate—things when they talk about “religion.” Thus in Chapter 4, in my exploration of Hugh of St. Victor’s account of the sacraments, and of Bernard of Clairvaux’s monastic sermons, I tried to get away from notions like “inculcation,” a passive reception of dominating power, and to move towards something more complex. Thus I wrote, “Bernard is not manipulating desires (in the sense that his monks did not know what was happening to them) but instead creating a new moral space for the operation of a distinctive motivation.” What interested me was how such subjective processes related to embodiment and discipline—or put differently, how objective conditions in which subjects find themselves enable them to decide what one must think, how one can live, and how one is able to live. This was the project I was engaged in when I wrote the essays making up Genealogies, and this is what I’m still engaged in. I don’t think of that book in isolation from my other work.

Many readers have understood what I was trying to do and sympathized (even if guardedly) with my effort. Some haven’t. It has even been alleged by the latter, to my surprise, that I am hostile to “religion,” and especially to the Christian religion, and that I developed my hostility during my childhood when I was supposedly “humiliated” at boarding school run by missionaries (in India)—because I once referred to that period in my early schooldays as the time when I learnt to argue, to be “combative,” with my Christian schoolmates! I was never “humiliated” by Christian missionaries and never said I was. More important: anyone who has read Genealogies of Religion with some attention surely can’t make sense of that claim. In fact I’ve learnt much about the complexity of “religion” by reading Christian writers belonging to different historical periods. I certainly don’t think that when people use a religious vocabulary they are really talking about mere constructions—about ideological formations whose role is to provide justification for social domination. Of course something is constructed, and reconstructed, but this construction is not teleological (made and completed for a specific purpose), and it is not properly described as essentially social. That kind of functionalism is precisely what I wanted to get away from in Genealogies.

CM: Could you comment on the different reactions to your work by other disciplines or sub-disciplines? I’m familiar with how religious studies scholars have reacted to your work, but do you feel that this work has made the impact you hoped it would in, for example, anthropology, political sciences, sociology, as well as the diverse areas of religious studies?

TA: I really don’t know what impact Genealogies has had in the social sciences generally. I know that a number of talented young anthropologists have taken up the idea of embodiment, of sensibilities, of tradition, and of virtue ethics in their ethnography of Islam. They have recently been criticized by some people for exaggerating the importance of “formal religiosity” at the expense of “ordinary spiritual beliefs” and I have been blamed for having started this bad tendency—and then carried it on into a “reactionary” view of secularism. This is not the place to engage with their complaints, especially because they largely concern the anthropology of Islam—and so they are focused more on an earlier essay of mine as well as on Formations of the Secular. I gather that many sociologists and anthropologists studying Muslim immigrants in Europe feel that my work is perversely normative, that it deliberately ignores the reality of the social experience of Muslims and their religious response—in short, that it overlooks their modern predicament in secular liberal countries. That’s one kind of reaction to my work, I suppose. But I am curious as to why they feel so strongly that my work threatens their truth. When I was an anthropology student we used to joke about senior ethnographers who responded to theoretical arguments in seminars by interrupting, “But in my tribe people believed . . .” This kind of empiricism is still, unfortunately, with us. Many ethnographers think that they have a proper understanding of their informants’ experience (and therefore of their religious belief or disbelief) by virtue of the fact that they have spent some (limited) time with them in their form of life—as if the experience of their informants was homogeneous, complete and consistent, as if their form of life (shared briefly by the ethnographer) could be summed up in a representation reflecting an indisputable reality and was not itself an internally ambiguous interpretation, and as if their ordinary language was more authentic than the language of their theological texts.

At any rate, there has been greater interest in Formations than Genealogies of Religion among political scientists, although I see the former book as closely connected to the latter and its questions about secularism more developed than they are in Genealogies. This interest is, I suppose, due to questions of pain, violence, and suffering that I share with some of them. They already know that things are not as simple as some versions of liberal ideology claim they are.

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What are you up to at this year’s AAR/SBL/NAASR Conference in Atlanta?


‪Tim Langille:‪ I’m going to both of the Religion, Holocaust, Genocide sessions, but am especially looking forward to a Monday session on the centenary of the Armenian Genocide. On Saturday, the Native Traditions in Americas is focusing on the Trail of Tears.

‪Matt Sheedy: ‪I’m looking forward to checking out the NAASR panels on Friday and Saturday, and will be responding to one of them–Claire White’s paper, “What the Cognitive Science of Religion Is (And Is Not).”

I’ll also be presenting on the Saturday as part of the Religion, Colonialism, and Postcolonialism Group, with a paper entitled: ‪”Representations of Native Spirituality at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and the Discourse on World Religions”

Other panels/session that I’m either interested in or plan to attend include:

‪Religion and the Social Sciences Section and Cognitive Science of Religion Group and Psychology, Culture, and Religion Group: Cross-Cultural and Cognitive Approaches to Changes in Sense of Self

‪Comparative Approaches to Religion and Violence Group: Ethnographic Approaches to Religion and Violence

‪Religion, Affect, and Emotion Group: Affect and the Politics of Religious Conviction

‪“…But What Do You Study?”: A Workshop on Theory and Method in the Job Market presented by NAASR

‪Masculinities, and Religions Group: Performative and Discursive Masculinities: Intersecting Race, Religion, Ethnicity, and Sexuality

Secularism and Secularity Group: Future Directions in the Study of the Secular

‪Adam Miller: If I can make it, I’d like to attend NAASR’s “Theory in the Time of Excess: Of Cognitive Science, Bricolage, and Brandom.” Otherwise, it looks like the NAASR reception may be the only thing set in stone for Friday.

Saturday is a little more fleshed out.

Religions in Chinese and Indian Cultures: A Comparative Perspective Group: “Monasticism: Body, Community, and State”

Buddhism Section and Buddhist Philosophy Group: “Dṛṣṭi: The Problems of Views and Beliefs in Buddhism”


‪Buddhism Section: “Data-Driven Approaches in Contemporary Buddhist Studies: Perspectives on Textual and Praxis Lineages” (really looking forward to this one)

‪Critical Approaches to Hip-Hop and Religion Group and Religion, Film, and Visual Culture Group: “Sightings and Visions of Hip Hop and Religion” ***I am presenting a paper with Tara Baldrick-Morrone on this panel. It is from 3:00-4:30 and is on how Janelle Monáe and Death Grips talk about / visually represent the future to critique and re-imagine the present***

‪Buddhism Section: “Books and Bodies, Caves and Technologies”


‪Buddhist Philosophy Group: “Siddha-Scholars and Scholar-Siddhas: Tantra and Philosophy in Indian Buddhism”

‪Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group and Cultural History of the Study of Religion Group: “Critical Perspectives on the Cognitive Science of Religion”

Zoe Anthony: Looking forward to the philosophy of religion sections at the AAR this year. Shockingly, I won’t be at any NAASR events, except the reception on Friday, after I land in Atlanta that same day.

‪Here is my schedule:

‪Saturday 9:00-11:30 am, Hilton-401-402 (Level 4) Philosophy of Religion Section and Theology and Continental Philosophy Group: Between Philosophy and a Phenomenological Hard Place: New Materialism as a Methodology in the Study of Religion

‪Saturday, 1:00pm-3:30pm, Hilton 310 (Level 3), Arts, Literature, and Religion Section, Theme: New Directions in the Study of Art and Religion

‪Sunday 9:00 am-11:30, Hyatt-Edgewood (Atlanta Conference Level) Philosophy of Religion Section, the theme is on “Description, Prescription, and Value in the Study of Religion”

‪Sunday, 1:00pm – 2:30pm, Marriot-L506-507 (Lobby Level) Theology and Continental Philosophy Group: Thinking Critically about the Future(s) of the Human

‪Sunday, 5:00 Hyatt-Edgewood (Atlanta Conference Level) Philosophy of Religion Section: Continental Philosophy of Religion and Religious Studies: Past, Present, and Future

‪Monday, 9:00am, Hilton-307 (level 3) Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion Seminar: Categories for Comparative Philosophy of Religion

‪Monday, 1:00pm Hilton-Grand Salon A (Level 2) Philosophy of Religion Section, Theme: Race and the Practice of the Philosophy of Religion

‪See you all there!

‪Sher Afgan Tareen: I’m presenting a paper that will show a spatial analysis of Islamophobia in Cook county Illinois by focusing on problems related to zoning restrictions on mosque constructions with the broader aim to reveal the disjuncture between national rhetoric on Islamophobia and on the ground negotiations between Muslims and non-Muslims. Apart from that I am interested in attending the panel on celebrities and religion, plus the free food and meeting smart people.

‪Dennis LoRusso: I’ll be responding at 4pm on Friday at the NAASR panel: “Theory in the Time of Excess: Of Cognitive Science, Bricolage, and Brandom.”. Here’s the rest of my schedule:


‪Tara Baldrick-Morrone: I will be presenting three (two-and-a-half, actually) papers at this year’s meeting:

‪Friday’s NAASR panel as a respondent to Jason Blum’s paper; Saturday afternoon on the Religion, Postcolonialism and Colonialism panel with a paper about 4th-century politics on pilgrimage and “orthodoxy”; and a Sunday panel on Critical Approaches to Hip-Hop and Religion Group and Religion, Film, and Visual Culture Group with a paper co-authored by Adam about Janelle Monae and Death Grips and their differing views on the future.

‪I look forward to the NAASR panels that include respondents to each of the three other papers, and I hope to support my fellow FSU grads by attending their presentations.

‪Jason Blum: My week gets started early: I’m presenting a paper at NAASR’s first “Theory in a Time of Excess” panel, Friday morning at 11. After that, my schedule is overfull on a number of days. This year, there seem to be more panels and talks than usual that catch my interest, particularly concerning methodological issues (check out especially some of the panels organized by the Philosophy of Religion Section.)

Andrew Durdin:‪ I’ll be attending some of the NAASR panels and participating in their workshop on Theory & Method in the Job Market on Sunday afternoon.

‪I’m also looking forward to attending the SBL Greco-Roman Religions group. On Saturday and Sunday they are doing sections on “Healing Cults in the Mediterranean World from the Late Hellenistic to Early Imperial Period,” “Redescribing Cult Formation in the Early Imperial Era: Discourse, Invention, Material Religion,” “New Approaches in Social Sciences and the Study of Ancient Religion,” and a book review panel on the new Cambridge Companion to Ancient Mediterranean Religions. Also the SBL Art and Religions of Antiquity group is doing a panel on “Art and magic” that looks promising.

‪Rebekka King: Obviously the NAASR panel is going to be exciting and I am looking forward to being one of the respondents. It is worth mentioning that the plan is to have a book come out of the papers and responses.

I’m really excited about the two sessions that Critical Research on Religion is sponsoring: The Sociology of Religious Experience (Session A23-134) on Monday, November 23, 9:00am-11:30am; AND Cultural Warriors and Counterpublics: Re-Describing Identity in the Sociology of Religion (Session A24-129) on Tuesday, November 24, 10:30am-12:30pm.

‪This will be a slightly different AAR/SBL/etc. for me because Middle Tennessee State University has granted myself and my colleague Jenna Gray-Hildenbrand funding so that we can attend some pedagogy workshops and work on some grant-writing projects with colleagues in anticipation of developing our Religious Studies major at MTSU. So if anyone sees me feel free to interrupt whatever conversations I am having to help me dream big dreams about the major. I will be attending a couple of Wabash workshops including one on Thinking about Writing and Teaching on Sunday, November 24, 4:00pm-6:30pm.

‪The Religion, Memory, History Group has a great session, The Work of Material Memory: Nostalgia, (Dis-)Comfort, and Identity Construction in Religious Practice (A22-139) featuring an all-star cast of Katja Rakow, Alexandra Kaloyanides, Sean McCloud, David Walker, and Pamela Klassen. It will be worth getting out of bed early on Sunday morning for, Sunday, November 24, 9:00am – 11:30am.

‪I’m presenting a paper on my new research on the Prosperity movement with Jewish Affinity Christianity to the Anthropology of Religion group in a sessions titled Transnational Flows and Cultural Borrowing: Ethnographies of Influence (A23-317) on Monday, November 23, 4:00pm-6:30pm. I’m really excited about this session partially because it will be great to present my new work but mostly because the other papers in the session look smart and are linked in terms of theory rather than religion, so I think it will make for interesting discussion. Ellen Badone is responding.

Stephanie Frank: In the wake of last week’s events in Paris and Beirut, Todd Green and I pulled together a panel discussing the role of the study of religion vis-à-vis responses to terrorist attacks; I am excited to hear what my colleagues have to say. Otherwise, I’m looking forward to the Philosophy of Religion section’s panel about description, prescription and value in the study of religion; the panel on the relation of continental philosophy to religious studies; and the exploratory session on political theology. I wish I could attend the panels on sacrifice and secularism and the future of debt—both of them look great.

Anna Cwikla: I am presenting at the Maria, Mariamne, Miriam: Rediscovering the Marys panel at the SBL conference. My paper, “Magdalene, Mother, Martha’s Sister, or None of the Above? The Mary in the Dialogue of the Savior,” is based on my MA thesis, but includes more recent scholarship and a different conclusion.

I’m looking forward to the Religious Competition in Late Antiquity panel on martyrdom. Last year I took a course on early Christian Martyrdom, which sparked my interest in this area. The variety of perspectives on martyrdom and the extent to which it became an integral and contested site of identity formation for different Christian groups made me realize that martyrdom was part a much larger conversation in early Christianity than I had previously thought.

I will be attending the SORAAAD workshop. The theme this year is “Canon and the Analytical Study of Religion” and includes a paper by Karen King entitled “Ancient Author-Function in The Apocryphon of John and The Apocalypse of John.” Most discussions surrounding authorship in early Christianity seem to center around Paul and his letters. As someone who is interested in non-canonical texts such as the Nag Hammadi codices, I am excited for Karen’s paper. This will be my first time attending a workshop style presentation and I am looking forward to a more engaging type of atmosphere and participation compared to the traditional panel of papers setting.

Robert A. Yelle: I am on a book panel Saturday on The Nay Science, by Adluri and Bagchee. I’m also on an annual How to Get Published panel by the editors of the AAR book series. Aaron Hughes will also be at that one.

Jeffrey Wheatley: I am not presenting this year (*sigh of some regret, but also relief*). I am, however, presiding over “The Security of the State and the Regulation of Religion” (Saturday, 1pm). On Friday I am participating in the Law, Public Culture, and Religion workshop. I hope that it will be useful for thinking about how to talk about the affect and effect of law for people “on the ground,” so to speak–to help us get out of reifying law as simply code. At 4pm on Saturday the US Religion and Empire Group has their panel: “Conceptualizing American Empire: Theoretical and Methodological Approaches.” Americanists are more and more asking how we conceptualize the United States at a basic level, and what our scholarly purview should be (regional, national, transnational, global, and so on). Do we study the US as a nation-state, a culture, an empire, a nation with an imperial history? What’s at stake in these distinctions or in how we relate them to one another?

Joseph Blankholm: Heading into this year’s conference in Atlanta, there a few panels I’m really looking forward to. At the top of my list is a panel I helped organize, entitled “Future Directions in the Study of the Secular.” It brings together four junior and recently tenured professors who will present on their research and offer some insight into the kinds of work on the secular we can expect to see in the coming years. Saba Mahmood will respond to the papers, which will be given by Mayanthi Fernando (UC-Santa Cruz), Finbarr Curtis (Georgia Southern), Devin Singh (Dartmouth), and Noreen Khawaja (Yale). My opening remarks will be brief and point to some trajectories not represented on the panel. Those interested in contributing to what these future directions might be are welcome to attend the business meeting of the Secularism and Secularity group, which will take place immediately following the panel. As co-chairs of the program unit, Jonathan VanAntwerpen and I would love to hear your input.

I’m also looking forward to two panels on economics and money, including a panel on the economics of secularism and an exploratory session that will hopefully inaugurate a program unit on religion and economy at the AAR. If you’re at all interested in seeing more work in this area at the annual conference, I strongly encourage you to attend the session and to write a letter in support of the unit. Letters should be sent to by December 1st.

Two more panels that I plan to attend include one on healing, secularism, and spirituality, and another which will offer critical perspectives on the cognitive science of religion. Both look excellent, and I’m looking forward to the good discussions that I’m sure will follow.

Merinda Simmons: I’ll be attending the panels related to NAASR’s program on “Theory in a Time of Excess” and will present a summary of my own paper in that lineup Saturday morning: “The High Stakes of Identifying (with) One’s Object of Study.” I’m also really looking forward to participating in NAASR’s Sunday workshop geared toward graduate students and early career scholars who are navigating their interests in theory and method on the job market. Also: super stoked to hear what Leslie Dorrough Smith and Greg Johnson have to say at the presidential panel! Since my next book takes up the scholarly category “slave religion,” I’m hoping to attend the panel on Albert Raboteau’s now classic book bearing the same name to see what people are saying about it almost forty years later (it was first published in 1978)…

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Terrorism in Paris: Religious Violence and the Role of the Scholar of Religion

By Philip L. Tite

This past weekend was marked by a horrific act of violence in Paris, leaving at least 129 people dead, hundreds more injured, and millions in shock and grief. Bombs and shootings throughout various parts of the city resulted in death, destruction, and, in response, military retaliation against the so-called Islamic State. We’ve seen public displays of support for France and the people of Paris in particular: not only the expected comments by politicians condemning the terrorist attacks, but widespread expressions by a multitude of people in various countries showing solidarity with the French. On Facebook, for instance, it is now common to see the French flag overlaid profile photos, with the rest of us being encouraged to do the same in order to show our support with and grief for the people of France.


As with any such act of terrorism, especially when identified as religious violence, we sit back in stunned silence or stand up with a strong moral condemnation of such murderous acts. Our knee jerk reaction is to want to hit back, to make someone pay, to clearly delineate righteousness and evil on the global level. Let’s bomb the hell out these bastards, is often what we desire deep down. The desire is to wipe out, as one American politician put it, the “scourge of evil”. Thus, a discourse of “evil” – i.e., the evil other – arises with ease in such moments and, to a degree, such a discourse offers comfort for those speaking and listening. In terms of grief therapy, this is perhaps the anger stage.

And perhaps anger is the natural, human response to such violence. But every time an act of religious violence occurs, regardless of the geographic location or the groups involved, I ask myself: What should – or can – the scholar of religion do in the face of such tragedy? This is a question we’ve been asking ourselves especially since September 11, 2001. This isn’t a matter of finding a trendy theme that will sell books or to help draw in blog readers. This is a question that gets at the very heart of our profession and especially our profession’s relevancy or lack of relevancy for public discourse.

It is a question that, within a different context, indirectly arose in the second Democratic Presidential Debate, a debate held in the wake of the Paris attack. Indeed, the debate opened with a discussion of the Paris attack, each of the candidates responding in turn to the still very raw wounds felt around the globe. Democratic front runner, Hillary Clinton, in responding to the Paris attacks during this debate, stated the following:

I think with this kind of barbarism and nihilism, it’s very hard to understand, other than the lust for power, the rejection of modernity, the total disregard for human rights, freedom, or values that we know and respect. Historically, it is important to try and understand your adversary in order to figure out how they are thinking, what they will be doing, how they will react. I plead that it’s very difficult when you deal with ISIS and organizations like that whose behavior is so barbaric and so vicious that it doesn’t seem to have any purpose other than lust for killing and power and that’s very difficult to put ourselves in the other shoes. (emphasis original)

These comments were prefaced by a quote from the moderator, displayed in the broadcast for emphasis, quoting an earlier comment by Clinton:

… respect even one’s enemies. Trying to understand and, insofar as psychologically possible, empathize with their perspective and point of view.

Clinton and her debate partners, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, come close to answering our question: What role do we as religious studies scholars play in the face of such violence as that witnessed in Paris? But I think that they fall short. Rather than throw our hands up and declare that such acts are the product of a “barbaric … lust for power” or a “lust for killing” (though power dynamics certainly do play a role in acts of religious terrorism), I think we can do more, at least on the analytical side of that question. Specifically, the events in Paris – like events in other parts of the world that we can place under the discursive label “religious violence” or “religious terrorism” – serve as data for the scholar to delve below the surface, to go beyond the physical acts and the social rhetoric (either by those committing/supporting such acts or by those denouncing/reacting to such acts), and to get at the social, political, ideological, and economic forces at play among such social actors. Even the comments by these three presidential hopefuls (as well as those Republican detractors tweeting throughout the debate on this very issue) are insightful data for us to analyze and to take a step toward what Clinton highlighted; i.e., “understand … their perspective and point of view.”

It is this very goal of theorizing below the surface of actions and rhetoric that was the pedagogical foundation for my Theorizing Religion and Violence course. In that course, my students and I explored a range of narrative scripts that commonly arise in, especially, media discourse over acts of violence. Three dominant scripts tend to arise in the American context. First is the pathological script – i.e., the violence is the result of a deranged or psychologically ill person. The violence becomes manageable because (ironically perhaps) it is aberrant (“not like us”), yet explainable (“we can make sense of this and thus control it”). “Normal” people, so the script goes, don’t walk into elementary schools or movie theaters and murder people. Our fears are thus allayed, because what happened is not normal or common. With a few tweaks to our social system, or so we are led to believe, such acts can be averted in the future. We can continue on with our normal lives.

The second and third scripts arise when the term “terrorism” is applied to the act. We have either the script of domestic terrorism or the script of foreign terrorism. The former is almost always attached to the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building by Timothy McVeigh. This type is the “home-grown terrorism” of white supremacists, bent on overthrowing their own government in the name of American nationalism and ethnic purity (and often grounded in Christian theologies/movements, such as Reconstructionist theology and Christian Identity). The latter type, foreign terrorism, is evoked when the terrorist act is done by some “other”; i.e., a person or group equally opposed to American pluralism but located outside American (or “Western”) borders. For this script, the Middle East, and Islam in particular, has become the “go to” focal point. Indeed, the very term “terrorism” for many immediately evokes images of Arab Muslims in “foreign garb” with oppressed women and children wearing bombs and throwing rocks living in the Middle East. Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” geopolitical model (comprehensively put forth in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order [Simon & Schuster, 1996]) has added to such orientalist “othering” and, as in the second Republican debate, is often evoked though never directly cited.

There are times, however, when these three scripts don’t work. When I first taught my course on religious violence, the Boston marathon bombing occurred the day before a class session. As a group – and in part as a way of addressing the shock and grief caused by that attack – we followed media coverage of the Boston bombing over the next several weeks. We noticed that the event did not neatly fit any of the scripts, even though the media continually struggled to make the “facts” fit into the appropriate “script”. Such a disruption to the expected scripts raised the important question: why are narrative scripts important?

From what we could tell, it seems that such scripts serve at least two purposes: (1) they give order to chaos and thus reinforce a sense of stability and security for those threatened by such acts; and (2) they shift centers of power back from those doing such acts to those responding to those acts (and, as I’ve said on many occasions to my students, classification is never benign; to create a “center” is to create a “fringe” – to empower one set of social actors necessarily disempowers other social actors, and to highlight one set of social aspects or relations is to obscure other social aspects or relations). As we follow the media coverage, the social media exchanges, and the political commentary in the face of what has happened in Paris, we should be looking for the construction and implementation of narrative scripts. These may serve as explanatory keys to how religious violence serves various social actors, ideological agendas, and psychological needs.

Beyond noting the narrative scripts that are played out, we can draw upon other scholarly research on acts of religious violence. There has been a great deal of scholarship, especially over the past fifteen years, on this very topic. Arguably, the most prominent and influential voice has been Mark Juergensmeyer. In his now classic treatment, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (3rd edition; University of California Press, 2003), Juergensmeyer explicates for us the importance of performative violence and symbolic capital. Religious violence – such as 9/11, the London bombing, the Tokyo gas bombing, the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the massacre at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, and (we could now add) the Paris attacks – is designed to say something symbolic through theatrical performance. Such acts do not serve practical or strategic ends (such as in most military missions), but rather tap into symbolic capital by the selection of, for example, time and target. Juergensmeyer notes that there is a primary and secondary impact in such theaters of violence; the primary being those initially affected by the attack, whereas the secondary (and more important) impact is the impact upon those who hear about the attack through media channels; i.e., the disruptive force of such an act shifts social capital (“power”) away from those attacked and toward those doing the attacking. A key goal of performative violence, especially when located within a worldview of cosmic war, is that of empowering those who feel disempowered due to economic, military, or cultural domination by what is seen as the “evil” other. Those who could never hope to win such a war in the real world and in real time are assured of victory in the long term, because the conflict is not just against political and economic systems (“human” agents); rather, it is a war between Good and Evil cast into apocalyptic and eschatological terms (“metaphysical” agents). To participate in such a conflict is to participate in a cosmic drama. Significance and value are inevitable prizes for those engaged in such a violent struggle.

In addition to Juergensmeyer’s work, Bruce Lincoln has also given us an excellent glimpse into conflicting religious worldviews and values in his provocative book, Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After September 11 (University of Chicago Press, 2003). One of the best insights Lincoln offers, in my opinion, is the distinction between minimalist and maximalist worldviews; i.e., should “religion” fit the post-Enlightenment secular ideal of being a privatized and compartmentalized aspect of life separated from broader political and economic dynamics (and thus only serve moral development while offering postmortem or metaphysical hope) or should “religion”, in order to be truly “authentic”, permeate every aspect of one’s life, thereby calling on the adherent to be religiously political, religious social, religiously economical, etc.?

Like Juergensmeyer, Lincoln attempts to understand and explain the motivations, worldviews, and value systems attached to acts of violence (as well as responses to such violence). Added to their work is William Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford University Press, 2009), where he analyzes processes of identity affirmation of the religiously secular (and “civilized”) West and the fanatically religious (and thus “barbaric”) East, especially in how the West uses such discourse to justify acts of violence done against, primarily, the Middle East and Muslims while delegitimizing such acts done by the East against the West. Similarly, we could look at Robert Jewett’s The Captain America Complex: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism (Bear & Company, 1984) as a Cold War parallel.

But what does any of this have to do with the horrific attack in Paris? And, more importantly, what does any of this have to do with the role of the religious studies scholar when such events occur? A great deal, I suggest. As I said to a colleague over lunch two days after the attack, my gut reaction is to bomb those bastards all to hell. I shared that gut feeling while also recognizing the endless cycle of violence that will continue for as long as human beings exist on the planet, that we live in a perpetual dystopia of violence, hatred, and decay all shrouded within discourses of progress, civilization, moral superiority, and optimism that “good will always overcome evil.” And I also recognize that similar social authorizing rhetorics are undoubtedly at play on “the other side” of this conflict. But my reaction is not the only one we can have, nor, would I suggest, is it the most constructive or helpful one. But it is very human.

As scholars, however, we need to offer something more than moral disgust or fatalistic nihilism. We can switch from pathos to logos. We can offer insights into the power dynamics at play in acts of violence, to explain human processes of conflict, especially conflict grounded (in part at least) within those ideological discourses that many would call “religious” (and I do recognize the problems of a reified and essentialized category such as “religion”; but, given that social actors – i.e., “people” – use such terms as “objects” in “their reality” and social engagements, it is necessarily that scholars treat such terms as objects of study in need of theorization). Above I’ve already highlight in this post a few approaches taken in explaining religious violence, and such analysis could easily be applied to what occurred in Paris. These are just a few analytical insights at our disposal, of course.

I do think we need to be careful, however. Our goal as scholars, to counter Clinton’s claim above, is not to advise political decision makers in how best to conquer their enemies. Nor, in my opinion, is it our task to affirm or protect those groups engaged in such violence. Nor, again, is it our task to protect an “authentic core” of a religious tradition (be that Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, or Judaism) from “radical” and “fringe” groups (again, note the use of categorization to create centers and fringes of power in such “caretaking” of religious traditions). Rather, it is our task to understand our data and to explain or theorize that data. Our explanatory models, furthermore, are to serve in “making sense” of not only those classified as terrorists – it was fascinating to see the debate between the presidential candidates over whether America is at war with “radical Islamic terrorists” or, to use Clinton’s terminology, “radical jihadist ideology” – but also those responding to those acts in their political discourse, military and economic actions, and even their ritualized performative behavior (e.g., the widespread overlaying of the French flag on Facebook profile images, mentioned above). These are all human acts that play a role within the broader “event” that social actors have marked out. Indeed, we can bring our analytical talents to bear upon the very creation of “events” (and of “non-events” such as acts of violence done outside of “the West”) out of the chaos of “happenings” that occur all the time (i.e., what counts as history or an event and what doesn’t?).

By suggesting that scholars of religion have such a role to play, I am not trying to be insensitive to the grief and pain caused by the attacks in Paris. Like others, I am horrified by these acts. Nor am I suggesting that scholarship has no practical role to play in the world around us, as if determining “how many terrorists can dance on the head of a pin?” is our objective. I do think that there is an “application” of religious studies scholarship that can be made – and should be made (to evoke my own moral view) – but that application needs to follow and not precede our analytical investigations. Our goal as scholars, as far as I can see, is to make sense of the world around us both past and present. We are tasked qua scholars to explain human cultures, interactions, ideologies, power dynamics, and social authorizing processes. Our job is not to determine an “authentic Islam” or “a core to Judaism” or a “moral center for humanity” let alone to guide the world into some envisioned utopia. That is the task of theologians, ideologues, and visionaries (and that work is important, but it’s not scholarship). Our goal is to delve into the horrors and beauty of humanity, setting aside our very repulsion and attraction so that we can clearly explain what processes may have been at work, for example, in the Paris attack, the reactions to that attack, and even the histories that will be written from that attack.

This is a hard task. It is one where our own humanity needs to be put in check, so that our hearts do not disrupt our minds, so that our minds are not directed by our ideologies and beliefs. It is a task that demands an existential crisis for those of us willing to embark on such analytical work. It is also a task where we risk being misunderstood as callous, heartless, or perhaps even as “sympathizers” with “the enemy”. But it is also a task that I think is desperately needed. It means wearing a pair of shoes that don’t fit, that are worn by those we may despise or oppose, to then discover that our own shoes no longer feel as comfortable as we once thought. What others do with our findings is a separate matter. Application is a post-scholarly endeavor. Our goal should not be to strive toward application, but rather to focus on explication and elucidation. Rather than moral certainty, the task is one of embracing uncertainty. This is the cold, hard, perhaps even heartless task of scholarship when it comes to religion and violence. And it is perhaps the greatest contribution we as scholars can make in the wake of the tragedy that has struck not only Paris but also other acts of violence that have occurred and, alas, will occur in the future.


Philip L. Tite (Ph.D. McGill University, 2005) is the editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion and (with James Crossley) of Postscripts. He is a specialist in early Christian studies with strong interests in method & theory in the academic study of religion, and is an affiliate lecturer in the Comparative Religion Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. He also serves on the AAR Comparative Approaches to Religion and Violence steering committee and the editorial board of the Journal of Religion and Violence. He is the author of several books, most recently The Apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans: An Epistolary and Rhetorical Analysis (TENT, 7; Leiden: Brill, 2012).

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Theses on Professionalization: Charles McCrary


In this series with the Bulletin, we have asked 21 early career scholars to weigh in on Russell McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, first published in 2007. In his 21 theses, McCutcheon offers advice to young scholars entering (or soon to enter) the job market, addressing the all-to-important (but often overlooked) question of professionalization. Each of the contributors in this series has been asked to comment on a single thesis, addressing its contemporary relevance, and how it relates to their own experience moving forward in the academic world. For other posts in this series, see here

by Charles McCrary

Thesis # 20Despite what some maintain, teaching and research are complementary activities, inasmuch as teaching, somewhat like publication, constitutes the dissemination of information gained by means of prior research. Based on one’s strengths, candidates can understandably emphasize one over the over, but declining always to carry out both, integrating them together when possible, is to shirk one’s responsibilities as a scholar.

Among graduate students who teach, teaching is often discussed as if it were a distraction from the “real” work, i.e., coursework and, more importantly, writing (articles and dissertations, not blogs.) Your advisor might tell you this. Other students will tell you this. Even one presenter at Florida State University’s Program for Instructional Excellence Teaching Conference and TA Orientation, which was mandatory for all graduate instructors and TAs, acknowledged that teaching is not “what you’re here to do.” Graduate students teach about two-thirds of all undergraduates who take FSU religion classes, and yet certain faculty members (not all) advise graduate students to spend only as much time teaching as absolutely necessary. Now, there are of course all sorts of institutional issues, and we could talk about the exploitation of graduate student labor or the quality of undergraduate education. As the university becomes increasingly bureaucratic, courses are becoming standardized. The discretion and expertise of the instructor are sacrificed to mandated language and assignments designed by committees of non-educators. I could point out that while what I’m “here to do” is to write a dissertation, the university’s interest in me extends only so far as I facilitate the instruction of seventy customers students per semester, at a pay rate of about a tenth my advisor’s. But for this post I want to think about that disconnect between teaching and our “real” work and how, practically, we might bridge the gulf between the two.

Few of us would say that teaching is ipso facto a waste of time. But plenty of us, I think, do understand it as a very different activity from research—and often a distraction from it (for better or worse.) We are all busy, and as Russell McCutcheon’s eighteenth thesis recognizes, we must juggle many balls, “knowing which will bounce if dropped and which will break.” The teaching ball hits the ground first for many of us, especially those of us for whom teaching is not a part of our evaluation and/or those whose sole teaching evaluations come from our students. Quality teaching is not “incentivized,” to adopt the parlance of the corporate university.

So, if research is indeed our main focus, how can our teaching enhance, inform, or otherwise complement that research? Of course they are both important (and potentially enjoyable) in their own right, and they are both scholarship. But, at least for graduate students, one is our “job” and the other is the thing we get paid to do in order to fund our “job.” (This situation obviously is different for adjunct lecturers, VAPs, post-doc, pre-tenure professors, and tenured professors, respectively, and it varies among institutions and contracts. But I’ll “write what I know.”) How can teaching be something other than, better than a distraction, waste of time, or side job? It is probably obvious how research can contribute to teaching, but how might teaching improve our research?

In his twentieth thesis, Russell McCutcheon suggests one way in which teaching and research are complementary: they both constitute “the dissemination of information gained by means of prior research.” I hate to quibble over word choice, but the thesis argues that teaching and research are similar, related, or analogous, not really complementary. Yes, teaching and research employ some of the same skills, and by practicing one you might hone both. In the remainder of this post, though, I want to consider the ways that teaching—preparation, planning, designing courses, delivering lectures, creating assignments, even grading papers—can make your conference papers, articles, chapters, dissertations, and books better.

As much as I might agree with McCutcheon’s appeal to one’s “responsibilities as a scholar” and the internalized shame I do feel for “shirking” them, teaching is usually not about ideals or principles. It’s about what you do with your hours. When you have to write an article or dissertation but you also must plan a lecture for your World Religions class, what do you do? What follows is, I suppose, advice. (Ugh. First I dissect word choices, and then I dole out advice. I swear I’m not normally this pedantic.) Quick caveat: my “advice” is based only on my particular and limited experience. It might or might not be helpful or applicable to you. No one should have any reason to consider me a good source of advice about anything, really. [End of disclaimer/confession.]

I believe that teaching has improved the quality, if not always the rate, of my scholarship.[1] Here are a few ways that teaching can complement, and even enhance and improve, your research.

Test your themes and frameworks. Find some similar case study and write a lecture about it. “Classification,” to quote J.Z. Smith, “often produces surprise, the condition which calls forth efforts of explanation.”[2] If you research religion and colonial governance in one place, prepare a lecture on the same topic in a totally different place. The similarities and differences will demand explanation, and those explanations might help sharpen your understanding of your own research.

Try out some new themes and frameworks. If you are intrigued by a somewhat unfamiliar framework around which a body of scholarship (or an AAR group) is already organized, plan a few lectures on that theme and read a few books on it. Then, you can see if it’s useful or applicable, and if it is, you have a head start on joining that group’s conversations.

Find new models for scholarship. As I am writing I keep a few models in mind. These are the books I have read that I want my work to resemble in style, organization, use of sources, conceptual framing, or method. I think the most important books we read are those to which we say, “I want to do it like that.” One such book for me in Jason Josephson’s The Invention of Religion in Japan. But I never would have read it had I not scheduled a World Religions lecture on “religion in Japan.” Now, each semester I find at least three or four monographs I’d like to read (New Books Network podcasts are a great way to find these), and then I schedule new lectures about those topics. I force myself to read the books, since I need to write the lectures.

See what your students notice. If possible, teach something from your research materials. Students will bring a set of questions that you might not expect. They think “outside of the box” because they are not trained in specific sub-disciplines. They ask the foundational questions that sometimes we have skipped past.

In these ways and more, teaching has been enjoyable, intellectually gratifying, and even productive, if indirectly. It might seem odd to say it—and I never would have anticipated this a few years ago—but my dissertation will be much better because I teach World Religions. This is only because I readjusted my outlook to think of teaching and research, as McCutcheon suggests, as “complementary.”


[1] Please forgive the crass calculations going on here. Really, I think teaching is worth doing because it’s fun and rewarding and I would feel bad if I did not try to do a good job. I’m uncomfortable with the line of argument I’m advancing because it reminds me of corporate mindfulness retreats where they tell you that taking breaks actually makes you more productive and thus is “worth it” and acceptable. I suppose that is what I’m trying to argue about teaching.

[2] J.Z. Smith, “A Matter of Class,” in Relating Religion (2004), 175.

Charles McCrary is a PhD student in American religious history at Florida State University. His research interests center on nineteenth-century American cultural and intellectual history. He is writing a dissertation on the cultural history of sincerity and belief in 19th-century America. He can be found on Twitter @CharlesMcCrary.

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For the Love of God … or Queen


by Matt Sheedy

In the aftermath of the Canadian election on October 19, which saw the long dormant Liberal Party rise to the position of majority government after nearly a decade of Conservative Party rule, much ado was made of the sea-change that took place in both tone and policies.

November 4th saw the swearing-in of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, along with his new 31-member cabinet, which the PM promised would be gender-balanced. While there was much attention given to Trudeau’s response to why he chose gender parity in his cabinet (“Because it’s 2015,” he bluntly declared at a press conference), comparatively little was mentioned about the swearing-in ceremony itself—a rather drab, ceremonial process that (I imagine) many Canadians ignore, to say nothing of Americans, for whom Canadian politics does not exactly register as prime time.

However, given the controversial policies of the former Harper government on the world stage (e.g., for its position on climate change), including their use of the niqab as a wedge issue throughout the recent election campaign, and the flurry of attention given to the new Prime Minister’s physical appearance, described by some foreign media as “super hot,” there seemed to be unprecedented attention to Canadian politics in the US, as attested by comments from many of my own American Facebook friends, and by the coverage on US talk shows, such as Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and in other mainstream media.

One of the more interesting by-products of this increased attention was a blog post on the website Patheos, entitled “Half of the New Canadian Cabinet Members Choose to Skip ‘So Help Me God’ in Their Oaths of Office.” After congratulating Trudeau on the issue of gender parity in his cabinet, the blog’s author, Hemant Mehta quotes the oath as follows:

In their oaths of office, they each said: “I, (name), do solemnly and sincerely promise and swear/declare that I will truly and faithfully, and to the best of my skill and knowledge, execute the powers and trusts reposed in me as (cabinet title).”

Individuals had the choice of affirming their oaths, which allowed them to replace the word “swear” with the word “declare” and to omit the expression “So help me God.”

Mehta then lists 17 cabinet Ministers who chose not to invoke God in their oath, and concludes:

Meanwhile, we get excited in the U.S. when a member of Congress takes an oath on anything other than the Bible.

Stop showing off, Canada. You’re embarrassing us.

Mehta is the editor of the “Friendly Atheist” portal on Patheos, which presents itself as a hub for inter-faith discussions.

As a scholar of religions who holds Canadian citizenship, currently lives in Canada, and has followed Canadian politics for some time, a few things struck me about Mehta’s post.

First, while it is not at all surprising that a self-described atheist writing on issues of atheism and religion in the public sphere would be enthused by this development, the story’s lack of attention in Canadian media (I could not find a single source that was critical, while only a few mentioned it in passing) reflects not only a different style of politics between the two countries, but, I would suggest, a relative absence of mainstream journalism in Canada that looks to make hay out of divisive wedge-issues on matters of “culture.” Apart from the short-lived Sun TV News Network (commonly dubbed “Fox News North” by detractors), which thrived on culture politics in the interest of shaping a particular Canadian identity, the mainstream press tends not to “go there,” as witnessed, for example, by their overwhelming opposition to the recent niqab issue (see my post on this issue here), despite national polls showing high support for the Harper government’s proposed ban on the niqab in swearing-in ceremonies for Canadian citizenship.

One question that this raises in need of more empirical data and analysis is the role of national media in both shaping public sentiments (e.g., there was very little attention to the niqab issue prior to late January 2015, save for related issues on veiling in Québec), as well as failing to reflect a spectrum of public opinion on entrenched ideas and changing demographics. It is not at all clear, for example, what Canadians think about atheists, not least because it has never been an expedient political football, at least not in recent decades, and as the “communist threat” has largely faded from popular memory.

Second, what struck me as most interesting about the swearing-in ceremony was the pledge of allegiance to the Queen, which, to my knowledge, all Ministers took without complaint (nor an option to opt-out, as with the reference to God). Here is the pledge:

I, [name], do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors. So help me God.

Having grown up in the 80s and 90s in Toronto, and having lived in different cities around the country, I can attest anecdotally that the Queen is rarely (if ever) mentioned in any context by anyone under 50, save for the hype surrounding royal visits, which also occur in the US. Part of the reason for this, I would suggest, is that “the Queen” lacks not only actual power today (after all, the sun set long ago on the British Empire), but symbolic power as well. While former generations would have listened to royal proclamations on the radio, used the Union Jack as their flag (changed to the Maple Leaf in 1965), and, up until the Constitution Act in 1982, required the monarch’s “Royal Assent” when enacting legislation, for those who were born after 1970, such fixtures of actual power were all but removed from popular imagination.

Attempts to reinvigorate Royal ties by the former Harper government, such as the decision to restore the word “Royal” to the air force and navy, seemed to fall flat, as a recent report suggests (see page 20). While there are some media figures on the margins that still try to promote royal ties, such as former Sun TV News anchor Brian Lilley, very few seem to take notice, save for some First Nations communities, who aim to draw attention to these historical links as a way to remind the government of various Treaties that were signed (and often violated).

Tying these two themes together, it strikes me that the guiding sentiment for most Canadians when it comes to the oath to God or Queen is one of apathy. Without any real or symbolic power at stake, such ritual performances pass largely unnoticed (unless they stand out by comparison, as was the case with Mehta’ s post), which calls to mind two theoretical points of interest that are worth further consideration.

First, what are the conditions of apathy toward symbols and what are the effects of their persistence long past the time that they hold any real power? Second, what does the decision not to invoke God in the oath of office, while casually invoking the Queen tell us about an individual’s intentions when performing speech acts? While the former example may constitute a preference for atheism, or perhaps a rejection of a particular Christian valence (especially among Indigenous Ministers given the legacies of colonialism, such as forced conversation and Residential Schools), and appears to be an intentional act, the latter may mean nothing at all to many of the oath takers, especially when such words, disconnected from any tangible consequences, have melted into air.

Matt Sheedy recently defended his Ph.D in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.

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Field Note: AAR -SBL Annual Meeting a Reception for the Journal of Religion and Violence.

Academic Publishing and the AAR Groups on Comparative Approaches to Religion and Violence, Cultural History in the Study of Religion and Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion are proud to sponsor a reception for the Journal of Religion and Violence.
Meet the editors Margo Kitts and Michael Jerryson, the editorial board of the Journal of Religion and Violence and the committees for CARV, CTDR and CHSR.  Join us for Desserts, Wine and Gourmet Coffee.
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