What’s in a name, a name rearranged? Part 2


by Stacie A. Swain

Note: Note: This post originally appeared on the Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy blog. For part one, see here.

Words matter.[i] When I began to understand deconstruction as a method, I felt like I no longer knew how to speak (I’m still figuring it out). In this sense, I see pedagogy as teaching one not simply how (and not what!) to think but also how to write and speak. I understand critical religion pedagogies as teaching one how to speak and write in ways that are more conscious of the social dimensions (context and implications) of what one reproduces through discursive citation (of concepts and sources). Even then, as my supervisor is fond of saying, “if it’s difficult to step out of the box, it’s even more difficult to keep from falling back into it!”

The discourse on religion coming from a critical theory of religion or a critical religious perspective as offered in the editorials, appears to (or prefers to) remain within the ‘religion’ box without questioning how it came to be or whether it really ‘is.’ The claims made in the Critical Research on Religion pieces under discussion cite and enact ‘religion’ in a performative sense, bringing it into being and reproducing it, manifesting constructions and constructing manifestations. Using the term ‘enacts’ perhaps applies to all scholarship, if to differing degrees: “‘enactment’ can, in general, be understood as a less conscious and willed dimension of reproducing social and political categories.”[ii]

However, as Russell McCutcheon points out in his Theses on Professionalization, “teaching and research are complementary activities, inasmuch as teaching, somewhat like publication, constitutes the dissemination of information gained by means of prior research.” Additionally, “The performative… is always pedagogical, and the pedagogical is always political.”[iii] Scholarship by its very nature performs or enacts a pedagogical performance that doesn’t simply stop at the end of the page.

The CRR editorial asks, “Is it time to find new ways to unmask the processes through which we position our own intellectual tasks?” Absolutely (sort of). For the most part, that’s what scholars who deconstruct and historicize the category and the study of religion aim to do, whether for their own purposes or for the intellectual satisfaction of taking things apart – that would depend on the scholar and the project, and similar scrutiny may certainly be applied to their work. Deconstructing ‘religion’ only to reconstruct it over again but ‘better’ would defeat the purpose of “unmasking” the processes through which ‘religion’ comes to be constituted as an object of study and critique in the first place.

One caveat, ending on the “unmasking” metaphor: I rather doubt that there is something really real, reachable, and readable under the mask, either within scholarship or with respect to that which scholars claim to study – something to be taken prima facie or at face value. The assumption that there are forms of religion, religions, the religious, research, scholarship, and pedagogy that should be taken at face value that can be “unmasked” is perhaps one of the fallacies of constant (re)construction built upon on ambiguous conceptual categories. There will always be cracks in the foundation – unknown, unacknowledged, unrealized, perspectives and interests, waiting in the wings to (re)construct again (and again, and again).

Deconstruction can be used to take ‘religion’ apart not only to rearrange the social features that contribute to the constitution of religion, but also to question how it is that those features came to ‘be’ and to be arranged in the first place. Critical (religion) pedagogies in the study of religion destabilize the ‘givens’ of the field in order to offer new perspectives. Fostering an awareness of the perspectives and aims of a particular approach teaches students not simply to parrot one approach or another, but to evaluate each for the work that it does both on and off the page.


[i] Anecdote: As an early, avid reader who often read words before ever speaking them, words, word usage, and wordplay has always fascinated me. As a young adult, I paid a large chunk of cash to become certified as an ESL instructor. I ended up never using it, at first due to circumstance but afterwards because teaching someone how to communicate seemed like a loaded responsibility. I try to still bring that awareness into my own work and pedagogy.

[ii]Ahmed, “Interview with Judith Butler,” 2.

[iii]Denzin, Lincoln, and Smith, Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, xi.

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For the Good or the Guild? Scholars Respond to Kate Daley-Bailey: Jason Sager


In this series, a number of scholars respond to Kate Daley-Bailey’s provocative essay, “For  the Good or the ‘Guild’: An Open Letter to the American Academy of Religion,” which appears in the most recent issue of the Bulletin journal, Vol 44, No. 4 (2015). The essay can be found here, with an abstract reading as follows: This letter/essay addresses some of the critiques and recommendations I have for the American Academic of Religion regarding its treatment of adjunct concerns. I recommend the American Academy of Religion reassess its values and priorities and ask that the organization decide if it is a nonprofit organization or a guild. Subsequently, I recommend the American Academy of Religion discontinue its obfuscation of data on adjunct existence in the field, readjust its membership dues and conferences fees with the monetary plight of its underemployed or unemployed members in mind, and avoid marginalizing or patronizing those members who find themselves within the cycle of contingent employment.

How the modern university may go the way of the monasteries

by Jason Sager

Kate Daly-Bailey’s comparison of the American Academy of Religion to late medieval guilds draws attention to the way in which scholarly societies such as the AAR exclude adjunct faculty who lack the financial support and resources from participating fully within the academic community. I found this comparison striking as a former adjunct faculty who taught the history of medieval and early modern Europe because of the similarities of the guild system and the modern university. Just as with scholarly societies, university administrators have put in place a system that prioritizes the economic performance of the university over the quality of education provided by the army of underpaid adjunct faculty and have sought to protect the economic interests of the institution over the priorities of adjunct faculty.

The consequences shifting the prime mission of the university from pursuing academic excellence to focusing on generating are far reaching. In a conversation with a friend and former colleague, who also is an adjunct faculty member at Laurier University, we discussed some of these consequences and what they may mean for the future of the university.

Our conversation was sparkling and intellectually engaging. As the evening wore on, the conversation turned to the subject of the fate of the institutional university. Much of what we discussed has been explored in minute detail in different forums (Stefan Collini’s articles in the London Review of Books on the conditions universities in the UK face are harrowing and worth the read). However, my friend made a point that I found to be quite insightful.

Years ago during a conversation with his former PhD advisor, he had mentioned some of the growing realities of the modern university. After listening, the PhD advisor responded by comparing the modern university to medieval monasteries on the eve of their collapse during the Reformation of the 16th century.

As a historian of early modern Europe who slummed in the medieval era, I think that such a comparison makes considerable sense. Even at the dawn of the Reformation – which helped see off a millennia of old culture throughout northern Europe – there was little sense that the monastic enterprise would come to an end. Of course complaints and social trends had begun to undermine the privileged position that monastic movement enjoyed throughout medieval Europe. While there had always been complaints about monastic laxity or abbatial abuses, the orders were too powerful and too protected to be really concerned that they would truly ever be displaced. Furthermore, after an existence of nearly 1,000 years, it is difficult to conceive that things would change so drastically.

And yet change came, and the monasteries were displaced. In England, when Henry VIII turned his cannons on the religious orders during the Dissolution of the Monasteries – leaving little more than the haunting ruins that now dot the Yorkshire landscape – he demolished more than the Gothic religious heritage of England; he tore down the religious and intellectual structures that had supported the monasteries and convents, forever altering England’s religious landscape. However, the initial stages were less dramatic than that. In 1535, Thomas Cromwell led a commission to determine the spiritual state of England’s monasteries. There was no question as to the outcome of the investigation. Reporting their findings in 1536, Cromwell and his agents presented a picture of a monastic world dominated by loose morals, gluttonous monks, illiterate abbots and centres of blasphemy – an image mostly of Cromwell’s imagination. No matter. Within a few years, England’s monastic heritage crumbled under Henry’s onslaught.

In Germany, where the Lutheran Reformation took hold, monasteries were closed down and many of their inhabitants were married off or left to their own devices, events that anticipated developments in Revolutionary France nearly 300 years later. Even the regions of Europe where Catholicism maintained its primacy, the popularity of cloistered monasticism also waned in popularity.

So what does this have to do with the modern state of the university? Quite a bit, I think. First of all, today’s university can trace its origins to the monastic and cathedral schools of the late 11th and early 12th centuries. Hence, monasteries and universities share a long-standing common tradition even as the university evolved over time. Throughout this evolution, universities for the most part maintained their basic structure and function for nearly 800 years. And like the monks did in 1500, we have assumed that the university would continue forever. Yet, as with the monasteries then, so too the universities are now under threat of disappearing.

To be fair, universities are not being bombarded with cannonade, but something more insidious is at play. For the past 30 to 40 years the raison d’etre of the university has come under attack in the guise of criticism of the value of the liberal arts and humanities. Disciplines such as History, English, Literary Studies and Art History are considered irrelevant to labour market demands of the 21st century. As a result, colleges of Arts throughout the Anglo-Saxon world have been on the defensive, attempting to mount a defense of our existence by emphasizing “skills” such subjects provide.

The relevance of the humanities has been further eroded by the emphasis put on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects, again with the claim that graduates need to be ready for the jobs of the future. There is nothing wrong with the idea in principle and the more money available for the sciences should be welcomed. But that funding has come at the expense of the humanities. For example, at Laurier, a multi-million-dollar state-of-the-art building has been built to house the School of Business and Economics and the Department of Mathematics while the Faculty of Arts will end up being housed in the outdated and worn out hand-me-downs.

And just like the monasteries, universities have become complacent and failed to recognize our dependency on the good-will of the society in which they operate. While there were many defenders of the old monastic world, the fact is for a greater number of people, the monasteries had outlasted their value. Anyone who doesn’t think that that is happening now only needs to read the comment section of any local paper to see how unsupported universities are by the general public.


With massive increases in university enrollment in the 1950s and 1960s, we assumed that our work was done. This was something the late Jane Jacobs understood. The overturning of progressive victories achieved during the post-war period happened largely because we assumed the value and social benefits of those accomplishments – whether publically funded roads, or the strengthening of the social safety net – would be self-evident to all, and require little effort on our part to constantly remind the larger public of their value.

Instead, we need to consistently fight these battles. Barry Goldwater’s 1964 US Presidential campaign was the first warning that progressive policies–often informed by the liberal arts–would be seen as frivolous luxuries, or even worse, dangerous. The Reagan-Thatcher decade was the warm-up act for what was to come in the subsequent 25 years.

Of course, other challenges to the existence of the university come from the same developments that have disrupted other sectors of the economy. The rise of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and advances in technology bring with them many exciting opportunities. (Imagine the possibility of inexpensive virtual reality technology to recreate a historical event that students could experience.) They also bring dangers. MOOCs have provided more people more opportunities to engage in continual learning, but they have exerted downward pressure on wages of university instructors as well, for example.

This is no cri de coeur, but rather a sobering acknowledgment that we might be witnessing the end of the university as we know it. Knowing the profound challenges facing the university might mean that we can avoid the fate of the monasteries. By facing up to those challenges, we can still preserve the mission of the university while adapting to cultural, technological – and political forces that will always be with us.

Dr. Jason Sager is a former adjunct faculty at Laurier University, Ontario Canada.  His research interests are the cultural and religious history of early modern France.  He co-hosts thehistorycollective.net which is a blog dedicated to all aspects of history and issues concerning the state of the university system.

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What’s in a name, a name rearranged? Part 1


Note: This post originally appeared on the Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy blog.

by Stacie A. Swain

Recently I wrote a response to an editorial in Critical Research on Religion (CRR).The editorial debates a ‘critical religion’ versus a ‘critical theory of religion’ approach. An earlier piece briefly mentioned in the editorial (and in my post) asks, “Can a religious approach be critical?” and the answer from the CRR editorial board, in short, is “yes.” I’d like to muse on these thoughts a little more by pointing out that we now have three word combinations to consider when we think of what a ‘critical’ approach may entail with respect to ‘religion’:

1) A critical religion approach

2) A critical theory of religion

3) A critical religious approach

What distinguishes the first from the latter two is the contention that, as Willi Braun states, “religion does not exist; all that exists for our study are people who do things that we [or they] classify as “religious.”[i] In contrast, the latter two take for granted that there is something identifiable called ‘religion’ and that one can have the quality of being ‘religious.’ Here we have two claims (similarly named, but rearranged), presuming that #3 above is subsumed within #2. The two claims in question regard:

a) theory that is critical of what gets classified as ‘religion’ asan object of study;


b) a critical theory ofan object of study classified as ‘religion.’

The pedagogical implications of the two approaches in question can be elucidated by considering not only such wordplay, but also the aims that they claim to work towards and how they do so. The aims of CRR state that, “our goal is not to be pro-religion or anti-religion but to understand religions in both their positive and negative manifestations.”[ii] The authors of the editorial, “suggest a more social scientific construction of the category of religion… It need not have one agreed upon universal definition, since we think such a definition is impossible, but may contain multiple definitions (after all, words have more than one meaning) derived from some common characteristics of the world’s religions.”[iii]

When thinking about teaching this approach, it would entail defining the “category of religion” according to “the world’s religions” (i.e. defining religion by referring to religions).This is, to borrow a nice turn of phrase from Tomoko Masuzawa, “intricately intrareferential.”[iv] If one invokes ‘religion’ enough then it will (seem to) appear, much like the phantasm of ‘Bloody Mary’might as one stares into the bathroom mirror; then, you study what has been invoked as if ‘it’ has always been there, and even though you’re alone in the room, as if you had nothing to do with placing ‘it’ there and naming ‘it.’ From this I gather that a critical theory of religion entails a critical approach to something given to be already and always existing, origins mystified in the processes of construction.

The editorial in question particularly critiques critical religion as having a solely deconstructive approach. To reiterate a quote that appeared in my last post: “scholarship only becomes critical when it uses values to critique sets of social actors and their particular interests… the critique needs to have a goal. It must not only deconstruct but it must construct something better beyond it.”[v]A critical theory of religion then, can perhaps be described as constructive criticism – this approach claims to construct something called religion in a ‘better’ way, using criticism to build upwards upon a foundational concept called ‘religion.’ For if it is a “positive manifestation” then it is to be praised, and if it is a “negative manifestation,” then it is to be improved. This is done according to the “values” quoted above.

The above requires the admission that what has been constructed and classified (or classified and constructed) as ‘religion,’ has been constructed badly in the first place and continues to be. This is where the question of “values” and a progressive narrative comes in – one must have a pre-established notion of ‘good religion’ and ‘bad religion’ if one is to reconstruct it. But good or bad according to whom and in what context? In a pedagogy of a critical theory of religion, does one teach values to students, values beyond those of responsible and rigorous scholarship? Is there a line separating pedagogy from personal and/or institutional ideologies? If not, is there some mechanism in place to ensure full disclosure of that ideology and the potential interests it may serve, or serve to disguise?

In contrast and speaking generally, a critical religion approach is critical of the category of religion and those forms of scholarship that uncritically perpetuate narratives of the good, the bad, and the ugly ‘religion.’[vi]A deconstructive pedagogy might include examining the productive power of these (loaded) narratives in order to draw attention to construction, context, aims, and social implications. In the Twitterverse, it appears that undergraduate students in Alabama are doing just this with respect to ideology and the media. One student concludes a report on the exclusionary politics of news media: “Recognizing how a narrative is being built is an important facet of learning to deconstruct. Through deconstruction, we take nothing on face value, and contemplate why and how things are being represented.”

Thus, what are the implications of the way that CRR represents a critical theory of religion? What are some other representations of a ‘critical’ approach? For example, there’s Matt Sheedy’s recent take over at the Bulletin: “The critical scholar does not merely cast judgments based on an affective and political aversion to the group or practice in question, but attempts to make what seems strange familiar and poses questions rather than providing concrete answers or value judgments.” I would add that the ‘familiar’ be made strange, as well.

Stacie Swain is a Master’s student in the Religious Studies department at the University of Ottawa, focusing on critical religion, discourse analysis, and contemporary religion and culture. She is interested in analyzing the use of such categories in politics and law, particularly as operationalized in the context of interactions with the state. Her MA research focuses on the politics of the category of religion in reference to Indigenous peoples in Canada. Her supervisor in Ottawa is Naomi Goldenberg


[i]This is in “Introducing Religion,” in Introducing Religion: Essays in Honor of Jonathan Z. Smith, unfortunately I only have an electronic copy of the chapter in question at the moment, and don’t know the page number in the book.

[ii]Goldstein, King, and Boyarin, “Critical Theory of Religion vs. Critical Religion,” 4.


[iv]Speaking of both religion and culture, Masuzawa, “Culture,” 82.

[v]Goldstein, King, and Boyarin, “Critical Theory of Religion vs. Critical Religion,” 6.

[vi] For a more thorough discussion of what ‘critical religion’ is or isn’t according to specific scholars, consult the sources within the editorials discussed.

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Them Snake Handlers Are Crazy, Right?


by Matt Sheedy

It is rare that a blog post materializes late at night, the night before posting, as this one did, though a fit of creative energy with a dash of serendipity made it so. Just yesterday I came across a blog post in my Facebook feed with the headline, “Snake Handling Christian Bitten By Rattler, Refuses Treatment, Promptly Dies,” which was accompanied by the tags, “Kentucky, weird news, and WTF?” I had not heard of the website before, liberalamerica.org, and cannot attest to its popularity, though it is described under the “About” tab as follows:

Liberal America is the only place on the web that is devoted solely to all things liberal. We’re not just news and politics. If it interests liberals, we write about it.

Do you live in Liberal America? If not, welcome home! We’ve been saving the U.S.A. since 1776.

Upon closer inspection, I was dismayed to see that the article was from July 29, 2015, making it one of those (not uncommon) occurrences where an old item is reposted on social media as though it’s a new story. I quickly reminded myself, however, that the Bulletin blog is not about reporting current events per se, but rather theorizing about religion in the contemporary world. Adding to this temporal disjuncture is the image that accompanied the post (pictured above), which is not of the man who was bitten, John David Brock, but of the late preacher Mark Wolford, who died of a rattlesnake bite in West Virginia in 2012. The fact that most other sites reporting on this story included an actual image of Brock suggests to me that this was not a mere oversight, but a deliberate attempt to create an affective-political response toward those who engage in snake handling.

The article details how John David Brock, aged 60, was bitten by a rattlesnake during a service at Mossy Simpson Pentecostal Church in Jenson, Kentucky, and goes on to remark that death is “often the result when you are bitten by a dangerous snake and rely on faith to heal you.”

It is also pointed out that Mr. Brock was a coal miner for 36 years and an adherent of the Holiness faith, which includes some congregations that engage in snake handling based on a passage from the Gospel of Mark:

(Believers) will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well (Mark 16:18).

The piece concludes by stating that Holiness congregations believe that God will prevent the snakes from biting them, and will intervene to make them well if they are bitten. The article’s author, Andrew Bradford, goes on to state, “no one bothered to tell Mr. Brock that medical science beats a Bible verse any day of the week when it comes to highly venomous snakes,” while noting that snake handling is against the law in Kentucky and that “legal officials tend to look the other way for those who are dumb enough and wish to dance with serpents or sing directly into their hissing faces.” This latter remark may help to explain the appeal of going with Wolford’s image over Brock’s.

Having recently reread Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia (1995), I was particularly attuned to problems with Bradford’s narrative, especially coming from a self described Methodist on the Christian Left, who has worked in academia and journalism and should thus be aware of Covington’s book, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and has been widely discussed in academic and journalistic circles. But perhaps this is a moot point?

Salvation on Sand Mountain, described as a journalistic assignment turned ethnography and “spiritual quest,” is the story of Covington’s immersion in a variety of snake handling Holiness churches in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and West Virginia, where his investigation included close personal relationships with members of the congregations, participation in services, and even handling a rattlesnake on one occasion, which he describes in ecstatic terms, likening it to the kind of adrenaline rush he experienced while being under fire as a journalist in El Salvador (102).

I turned to face the congregation and lifted the rattlesnake up toward the light. It was moving like it wanted to get up even higher, to climb out of that church and into the air. And it was exactly as the handlers had told me. I felt no fear. The snake seemed to be an extension of myself. And suddenly there seemed to be nothing in the room but me and the snake. Everything else had disappeared. … I knew then why handlers took up serpents. There is power in the act of disappearing; there is victory in the loss of self (169-70).

What struck me most upon reading Bradford’s article yesterday was how devoid it was of any type of analysis and how its partisan leanings not only reveal a particular instance of a contest over “legitimate” Christianity, but also a good example of the difference between analytical scholarship and political commentary.

Bradford’s assertion that death is what happens when you “rely on faith to heal you” and that such practitioners believe that God will protect them from being bitten misses the most basic points that one can glean from Covington’s firsthand descriptions from handlers themselves, where the rhetoric of “faith” and scriptural injunctions to take up serpents is tempered with a careful attention to process, such as deliberately repeated rituals and musical accompaniment, familiarity with seasoned handlers who pass you the snake, not taking a snake from the wrong person, etc. These are all discussed as enactments that bare a certain empirical method in order to minimize the likelihood of getting bitten. Beyond the purported spiritual requirements and the sheer rush of staring death in the face, Covington described how practitioners would discuss their bites and brushes with death as “war stories,” which gave them prestige within the community and an identity beyond the congregation that helped to distinguish their (typically) white, rural, and poor outsider status in American culture.

While I don’t want to lean too heavily on Covington’s descriptions, which are less analytic than they are personal reflections, his narrative is a good reminder of the difference between critical scholarship and journalistic commentary. The critical scholar does not merely cast judgments based on an affective and political aversion to the group or practice in question, but attempts to make what seems strange familiar and poses questions rather than providing concrete answers or value judgements. What is more–and here I may be stepping out on a ledge–the critical scholar must also recognize the importance of going out into the field (virtual or in person) to test how theory butts-up against embodied practice, and how attention to such details will always change our knee-jerk, affective-political responses to “weird news,” pushing us beyond “WTF” toward an open-ended question in need of method and theory.

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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Religious Diversity: Transitions, Intersections, Flashpoints, and Institutions

page 1 March 2016 coverThe following is the introduction to the March 2016 issue of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion (the full table of contents having already been posted), written by Lori Beaman (University of Ottawa), who is the director of the Religion and Diversity Project. We wish to express our appreciation to Dr. Beaman for kindly offering to present this set of articles for this issue of the Bulletin in her opening piece. Although not covered in this introduction (which was designed to situate the RDP articles), we also wish to draw readers’ attention to the review essay by Michael Kaler on Jason Bivins’ recent book Spirits Rejoice: Jazz and American Religion along with the response by Bivins. We offer this editorial here on the blog in order to give readers an overview of the most recent issue of the Bulletin.


By Lori Beaman

University of Ottawa

The demarcation of religious diversity as something to be studied, regulated, or governed is inherently problematic, and thus as researchers we have a responsibility to critically engage with the implications of targeting religious diversity as an area of study. Yet religious diversity is a central preoccupation of states and civil society and is attached to questions of equality and social inclusion, pluralism, and social cohesion. Each of these terms is a minefield of ideological approaches and incorporates a wealth of policy and practical concerns and responses. All make claims on what it means to live well together. Moreover, increasingly the notion of religious diversity has come to include the nonreligious as well: the increase in the number of various “nones” (secularists, humanists, atheists, agnostics, the spiritual but not religious, the uncommitted, unconcerned, and indifferent) is significantly changing the religious landscape (some have described it as a seismic shift), posing new challenges to societies that are simultaneously witnessing increased religious diversity, a renewed presence of religion in the public sphere, and a growing number of those who belong to the under-studied category of “none.” The rise of the nones has also foregrounded the inadequacy of understanding religious identity using traditional categories and measures, as well as the challenges of over-emphasizing religion as an identity category. All of this makes for a complicated field of study and a moving target in terms of solidifying focus. This is the context in which the Religion and Diversity Project has developed and conducts its activities.

The Religion and Diversity Project is a seven-year research project involving thirty-seven researchers and five comparator countries (Canada, United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and France). We’ve also collaborated with scholars from Germany, Brazil, Sweden, and India, to name a few, in the course of our activities. The scholars involved are from a range of disciplines, including sociology, anthropology, religious studies, philosophy, political science, and theology. We have a wide range of activities, from more traditional research projects to collaborations with policy makers and museums. We’ve been methodologically innovative and creative in our approach to research as well as knowledge dissemination. One of the major strengths of the project is that while we have from the outset named specific research goals and projects, we’ve also retained enough flexibility to respond to the very rapidly changing research landscape I’ve mentioned above. The primary intellectual strands of the project as well as the range of activities are described in the overview piece by our information officer, Tess Campeau in her “Facts and Figures Report” in this issue. As we have moved through the project it has become abundantly clear that Canada, along with a number of other Western democracies, is in a moment of transition in relation to religious identities. An increasing number of people are identifying as nonreligious, but there is little sense of what exactly that means. Moreover, even for many—those who claim a religious identity—there is limited participation in organized religion, which has been a standard measure for Christian majority countries. Questions about authority, individualization, and worldviews are at the forefront of research right now. Christianity remains embedded in social institutions even in countries in which formal participation has sharply declined. Tracing the subtle ways in which this residue shapes daily life, especially for minority religious groups who are not Christian, and for those who are nonreligous, requires a critical research approach. One of the key pillars of such research is the re-examination of measures of religious identity.  In their discussion “Measuring Religious Identity Differently,” Peter Beyer, Alyshea Cummins, and Scott Craig describe some preliminary results from an ongoing project aimed at recrafting measures of religious identity. As they point out, traditional measures include assumptions that limit their utility in terms of understanding religious identity. A key goal in that project has been to leave space for a more robust understanding of nonreligion. We are not alone in this endeavour, as scholars like Joseph Baker and Buster Smith in the United States, Linda Woodhead, Abby Day, and Simeon Wallis in the UK engage in projects with similar aims. As Beyer et al. point out, there is much to be learned about the nonreligious. Under this “identity” strand of the project we are also conducting another study which builds on a ten-year collaborative project let by Beyer. Drawing from a sample of one hundred participants in that study (the Immigrant Youth/Young Adults study) we are tracking shifts in their religious identities over the life course. Such longitudinal studies are rare and our hope is to deepen knowledge about identity shifts over the life course.

From a different perspective, the complexity of identity is illustrated by the results of the Religion, Gender, Sexuality and Youth study reported on here by Pamela Dickey Young, Heather Shipley, and Ian Cuthbertson. In our initial application we identified gender and sexuality as potential hotspots requiring intensified research attention. The findings of the project reported by Young et al. unpack some of the assumptions made about religion in the lives of young people, especially vis-à-vis gender and sexuality. Choice, negotiation, and engagement are words that characterize the youth-religion relationship in relation to gender and sexuality. This project has served as a methodological model in that we consulted with Andrew Kam-Tuck Yip and his team in Britain, using a modified version of their survey to develop a project in Canada that would stand on its own, but whose results could also be compared with the UK project. This strategy takes a value added approach: while each social context has its own peculiarities, we also live in a global world that requires a new approach: researchers must move beyond their own national contexts in seeking to understand the world we live in. Increased international collaboration and consultation is a necessary component in this.

Knowledge transfer is a key component of any research, and our project is no exception in its goal to disseminate results—where possible in an interactive manner. Both the media tips by Solange Lefebvre and Kim Knott and the innovative pedagogical approaches described by Cathy Holtmann and Nancy Nason-Clark address two important sites of dissemination—the media and the classroom.  In both settings there is potential for misunderstanding, “delicate moments,” and distressing outcomes. Both situations are key opportunities for researchers to transfer research findings. The Religion and Diversity Project will wind down during the next two years as our funding comes to an end. Our results thus far highlight the dynamic nature of the study of religious diversity and signal a need for continued engagement with a number of questions. Key debates include religious education and its utility in accomplishing a level of religious literacy that is helpful in facilitating living well together. Also emerging as an important area of study is the environment and human/non-human animal relations. All of this gestures toward new and emerging models of living with diversity in a complex future.

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Now Published – Bulletin for the Study of Religion 45.1 (March 2016)

page 1 March 2016 coverThe March issue of the Bulletin has now been published and is available. Below is the table of contents of this issue, which includes a set of papers arising from the Religion and Diversity Project; a major, seven-year research endeavor centered at the University of Ottawa and largely focused on the Canadian context. The RDP incorporates the talents of established scholars, doctoral students, and post-doctoral fellows working with sociology of religion methods. These articles offer both an overview of the project and a set of samples of research that has arisen from the project.

Moving in a different direction, though no less provocative for the study of religion, this issue also includes a review essay by Michael Kaler on Jason Bivins’ recent book, Spirits Rejoice! Jazz and American Religion, along with a response from Bivins.

Table of Contents

Bulletin for the Study of Religion Volume 44, Issue 4 (December 2015)


“Religious Diversity: Transitions, Intersections, Flashpoints, and Institutions” Lori G. Beaman (University of Ottawa) – (pp. 2-3)

“The Religion and Diversity Project: Facts and Figures” Tess Campeau (University of Ottawa) – (pp. 4-9)

“Measuring Religious Identity Differently: A Canadian Survey Study” Peter Beyer (University of Ottawa), Alyshea Cummins (University of Ottawa), and Scott Craig (University of Ottawa) – (pp. 10-15)

“Religion, Gender, and Sexuality among Youth in Canada: Some Preliminary Findings” Pamela Dickey Young (Queen’s University), Heather Shipley (University of Ottawa), and Ian Alexander Cuthbertson (Queen’s University) – (pp. 17- 26)

“Picturing Religious Diversity: Active Learning Pedagogy and Visual Method” Catherine Holtmann (University of New Brunswick) and Nancy Nason-Clark (University of New Brunswick) – (pp. 27-32)

“Tips for Connecting Your Research with the Media” Kim Knott (Lancaster University) and Solange Lefebvre (Université de Montréal) – (pp. 32-34)

“Aims and Approaches: An interview with Religion and Diversity Project Director Lori Beaman” Arlene Macdonald (University of Texas Medical Branch) – (pp. 34-37)


“Thoughts After Reading Spirits Rejoice! Jazz and American Religion: A Review Essay” Michael Kaler (University of Toronto-Mississauga) – (pp. 37-43)

“Response to Michael Kaler” Jason C. Bivins (North Carolina State University) – (pp. 43-46)


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Laying it All Out: On Moving from Dissertation-to-Book Series: Donovan Schaefer


by Donovan Schaefer

In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars who have published in the field to share some insights on the dissertation-to-book process–what to do, what to avoid, to put it all together. For other posts in this series, see here

I want to meditate on the sage words of Aaron W. Hughes, who in his own contribution to this series, insisted that “A dissertation is not a book.” A dissertation is a major intellectual accomplishment. But recognizing that there will usually be a divergence between the priorities of writing a dissertation and the protocols of writing a book is important for making the next step—after the extraordinary and utterly necessary labors of writing the dissertation—in which the dissertation coalesces into a book and enters the global scholarly conversation. In my case in particular, the dissertation was not a book. I thought that it was while I was writing it, but in retrospect, the book that I wrote—although it resembled the dissertation, in some ways, from the exterior—was manifestly different. If I’d known that my dissertation was not a book—that less than 15% of the content of my dissertation would end up in the volume I eventually wrote—my approach to rewriting would have been much different.

A dissertation is a practice book. Long-form writing is fundamentally different than short-form writing. It requires the deployment of intellectual rhythms and structures that aren’t cultivated by writing term papers. The finished dissertation will have the watermarks of a project that was completed while the very techniques for finishing the product were being learned, like a first painting or a first piece of furniture or a first thrown pot.

Moreover, your writing skills will advance rapidly while you write your dissertation. You’ll be growing more as a writer during dissertation-writing than throughout the duration of your coursework. This means that there will be a sort of Doppler effect in your writing: the chapters you write first will be clumsier and less fluid—not to mention just plain different in tone and rhythm—than the chapters you write later.

Editing a subtly askew work that you’ve already read and re-read multiple times can be harder than starting over. An argument that runs just slightly off-track of where it needs to be is more difficult to correct than an argument that is clearly running in an oblique direction. It pulls you back into the current of ideas you were trying to create the first time. Each sentence, each paragraph, has an axis that is subtly oriented to the project of your dissertation. But the current of ideas you want to create in your book runs not only past the dissertation, but in a slightly different direction. Keeping track of the subtle digressions is much more labor-intensive than you might expect.

What changed between the dissertation and the book? For me, it was my sense of how the project fit into a broader scholarly conversation. One axiom that I’ve picked up while in conversation with writing mentors is that your writing and thinking will change depending on the imagined audience. The imagined audience for your dissertation, most likely, was a handful of committee members who were gauging your performance against their own standards of academic work. But the imagined audience for a book is both broader and more fluid. It’s the virtual intellectual community, the rhizomatic network of scholarly conversations built around specific conglomerations of texts, writers, disciplinary labels, and institutions. The obligation of the dissertation is to establish that you can convert diligent research into long-form writing. The obligation of the book is to find a meaningful way to interlock with one or more of these conglomerations—to figure out what has been said, what has been asked, and what is taken for granted—then to expand the horizon of the conversation. Standing on this new stage, your argument, perspective, sources, and method, will all be adjusted accordingly.

This doesn’t mean that a completed dissertation isn’t an extraordinary achievement. Only a handful of wizards can write a focused, well-sanded book on their first crack. For most of us, the dissertation is not only an undertaking, but a zone of experimentation that, as Hughes writes, “gives you the credentials to write a book.” What others say about dissertations tends to be true: they display more of the academic machinery than is strictly speaking necessary to access and maneuver an existing conversation. But more importantly, the argument of the dissertation itself will likely mutate in the passage to the book as you reimagine the audience and, in the process, your own authorial voice. I found I needed to, as Whitman wrote, “make much of negatives” in thinking about what needed to remain and what needed to be deleted in converting the dissertation to a publishable manuscript.

Donovan Schaefer is a departmental lecturer in science and religion in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at Oxford. His research looks at the relationship between religion, emotion, and power, with particular attention to approaches embedded in evolutionary biology and poststructuralist philosophy.

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