Theses on Professionalization: Vincent Burgess


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 Vincent Burgess

Thesis # 13. Because there is no direct relationship between seniority and the quality of one’s writing, one’s familiarity with the literature, or the novelty of one’s ideas, graduate students ought never to refrain from submitting their work to a scholarly journal for possible peer review publication simply because they understand themselves to be novices. Even if rejected, the comments that result from the blind review process will be of benefit to students who have so far only received feedback from professors already familiar with their work.

Overall, this seems like great advice—and advice which is unlikely to be drastically affected by changing hiring paradigms, or even the potential shifting landscape of academic publishing (as recently discussed here and here.) Unlike other authors in this series, I cannot draw upon any specific anecdotes or overt experiences when it comes to this topic. To be honest, aside from delivering a handful of conference papers, this is the first time I’ve come close to writing anything to be published. However, the imperative to publish, and to publish often, has been looming over my head for many years—even before I began graduate school.

In my first religious studies theory course at THE Ohio State University we spent some time going over the biography and bibliography of Mircea Eliade. Eliade, it is said, had published 100 articles by the time he turned 18.[1] That’s a relatively intimidating factoid to learn when one is just beginning to process what would be expected of them as a graduate student/scholar in academia. Now, I have since learned not to hold myself to Eliade’s standards (for numerous reasons), but my understanding of the necessity to publish has never gone away.

There is, however, the inherent inferiority complex which seems to come along with being a graduate student (and much has recently been written on the notion of the “imposter syndrome”). Some of this is a result of one’s own insecurities, but much of it has been institutionalized as a primary component of academia and the processes of educating and professionalizing graduate students—presumably as a means of preserving the various egos and hierarchies central to said processes. That is, once one’s academic authority has been established, one would be understandably hesitant to relinquish even an iota of it by either implying or flat out saying that a graduate student is capable of researching and writing with the same skill and expertise as a more experienced academic. Who knows what could happen? Hell, the whole system may come crashing down.

Relatedly, a graduate student’s ‘fear of fucking up’ is especially appropriate when it can mean the difference between a highly sought after job in academia or…well…nothing. For this reason, it’s important to highlight the centrality of confidence to this thesis—being confident enough in your academic preparation to date, your research expertise with regard to a particularly technical topic, the subsequent intervention that your research and writing can make to the field, and confident enough to withstand the inevitable criticisms which come along with the submission process (no matter how constructive they may be).

After all, in most cases a well-read graduate student who has spent a considerable amount of time researching a very specific topic, case study, or question will, in fact, be better versed on the subject than most other scholars in the discipline, whether they are a junior or senior scholar. They should therefore not be hesitant to share their findings with the broader scholastic community if and when they have something to contribute. As one never knows when a significant intervention into a field or sub-field might be made, nor by whom, I agree that McCutcheon is right here to encourage graduate students to challenge such hierarchical preconceptions vis-à-vis experience vs. a potentially valuable contribution to the field. However, there are also broader issues to consider—such as the matter of one’s time.

As has been pointed out repeatedly in this series (particularly in the posts by Matt Sheedy and Emily D. Crews), one’s time as a graduate student (and, of course, as an instructor, lecturer, and/or eventual professor) is invaluable, and any extra work must be approached with substantial consideration and cost-benefit analysis. Sending a paper off for consideration to a publisher can entail a considerable amount of time. There is the researching, writing, editing, sending it off to professors for notes and initial feedback, waiting, re-writing, sending it off to the publication, waiting, waiting, more waiting, more editing (if accepted), more editing (if not accepted), sending it off to a different publication, waiting, waiting, and repeat.

Since professionalization is the goal here, it is important to point out that this endeavor—in time management and beginning to traverse the world of publishing—is undoubtedly worthwhile, as it will begin to prepare one for a potential lifetime of such activities. Just as one would not wait to demonstrate an ability to serve one’s department, and one would not wait to take every opportunity to develop their teaching skills, it would also, therefore, stand to reason that an ambitious graduate student should also not wait to begin publishing their work.

This, however, raises a question which is often the subject of much debate, especially when it comes to the hiring process: Should a graduate student take every opportunity to publish? Even though these theses are not necessarily about “how to get a job,” but, rather, how to prepare oneself for an eventual position in academia, I cannot help but take such questions—and the broader issue of employability—into account while considering this particular thesis.

There seem to be two schools of thought on the subject: 1) All publications are good, and any is better than none, and 2) it’s better to publish less, more selectively, with higher quality work, in better journals—even if that means not publishing at all before one goes on the job market. There is not space here to delve too deeply into this debate, but I will say that there does not seem to be a single scenario that is best for anyone, as there are many variables to consider—not least of which is the fickle nature of many hiring committees (see this recent reprint of a 1997 piece written by McCutcheon and Tim Murphy, along with Jeffrey Wheatley’s post in this series).

Even if publishing is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for being hired, it probably won’t hurt your chances. As long as it is quality work which has something of value to add to the conversation—that is, a significant intervention or contribution to the field. To return to McCutcheon’s thesis, regardless of whether or not one is successful in their endeavor to publish their research, they will nonetheless come away with valuable feedback. Feedback which will help them hone their work as they move forward, therefore raising the overall quality of their writing and increasing the chances that they are more successful next time. And, perhaps equally important, one will gain valuable experience from beginning to negotiate the publishing arena, which will surely help her/him in the future.

Vincent Burgess is a PhD candidate in the Asian Religions doctoral program of the Department of Asian Studies at Cornell University. His research is currently focused on discourses of renunciation and environmentalism amongst contemporary, North Indian religious traditions, particularly how such discourses have intersected with various conceptions and articulations of modernity.

[1] Daniel Pals, Seven Theories of Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 159.

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Theses on Professionalization: Nickolas Roubekas


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 Nickolas Roubekas

Thesis #12: Many doctoral students do not realize that finding authors willing to write book notes, book reviews, etc., is sometimes difficult for journal editors. As a first step in professionalizing themselves, graduate students should become aware of the journals in their field and write to their book review editors, suggesting that the journal allow them to write and submit a review (especially for books that they are already reading for their courses or research, thereby minimizing on work additional to their class and dissertation research). Besides providing experience in writing and a much needed line on ones c.v., one never knows who will read the review or what other opportunities might follow upon it.

Most scholars tend to see book reviewing as a burdensome, tedious, and frankly pointless undertaking that diverts them from more important and creative projects. Add teaching workloads, administration work, grant applications, and personal obligations and one realizes that dedicating precious time to review a new book is, to say the least, unattractive. A line on one’s cv or the enticement of a free book are often not enough to persuade scholars to review a new publication.

PhD students or young scholars entering the job market do not face the same problems but they do deal with an even more stressful issue, namely, the dim and admittedly deterring possibilities of employability. When one needs to spend countless hours filling in applications, writing postdoctoral project proposals while at the same time finalizing a PhD thesis or working on individual chapters followed by back-and-forth email exchanges with her/his supervisor, why should s/he spend time in reviewing a book? Is merely a free book or a line in one’s cv enough to persuade young scholars to engage into such a time-consuming project?

I think that there are three important reasons why doctoral students and young scholars should consider book reviews as a step in professionalizing themselves, but certainly not merely the first one. I strongly believe that book reviewing is an academic exercise that is often neglected or even scorned among academics for several reasons. First, most journals simply ask for a mere presentation of the book under review without requiring (or, worse, some times, denying to accept) a critical approach by the reviewer. Second, some reviewers tend to request and evaluate books written by either ‘friends’ or ‘enemies’, with a specific agenda in mind, which in turn produces biased reviews that add little to the academic ongoing discussions and debates. Third, book review editors often assign books without considering the reviewer’s field, expertise, and ability to submit something substantial. Fourth, the book reviews section in academic journals is often seen by scholars as a promotional one replacing publishers’ catalogues. Fifth, editors tend to accept almost all submitted reviews. This, of course, reflects the difficulty they have in finding reviewers to begin with and, as one can imagine, the high acceptance rate is sometimes against the scholarly nature of the book reviews section and its service to the field.

So, why bother? Here are three reasons why I think PhD students and young scholars should consider book reviews beyond the given demand for reviewers, a free book, and a line on their cv’s:

  1. Academic reading of a book and reviewing a book serve different purposes. In the former, one goes through a particular text in search of important data or information for justifying theories, approaches, and conclusions promoted in a research output (be it a PhD thesis, a journal article, a research proposal, etc.). In the latter, however, the stakes are higher. Reviewers are – ideally – required not only to present the structure and basic ideas of the book under review, but also to: identify problems; point out future developments that the reviewed book possibly promotes; parallel the text in question with previously published works and underline the scope and the location of the work in the wider academic setting; critically assess the methods and theories promoted and justify their potentiality within the specific field it belongs to.
  1. Writing book reviews will help you do better in job interviews. This admittedly bizarre statement needs further reflection. It is almost sure that during an interview for an academic job no one will ask you something along the lines of “What do you think of Bruce Lincoln’s approach to myth?” If your PhD thesis was on myth, you are most likely aware of Lincoln’s approach to the topic. But, in all honesty, no one cares about it. It is too specialized, narrowed, and people who decide whether you will get the job or not will want to see something beyond your ability to defend anew your PhD thesis. It is more likely to be asked something like “What do you think a department of Religious Studies should offer to students?” Such a question virtually requires a broader and academically coherent answer. Your ability to know, apply, and evaluate Lincoln’s definition of myth granted you a PhD (or will soon do so). Your critical approach to Lincoln’s work on myth and its placement in the field of Religious Studies with the simultaneous evaluation of how the discipline should or could function based on Lincoln’s suggestions (which is the result of a different reading of his work usually required when you review a book) will allow you to go beyond your PhD thesis and, hopefully, impress your interviewers.
  1. Writing book reviews will make you a better academic author. When reviewing a book keep in mind that you are working on a text that managed to survive going through various stages before being published. From the book proposal stage and the various anonymous reviews to series editors and copy editors and their suggestions, what you are working on is – most of the time – a polished and well-presented text. A careful and thorough reading of a book under review will give you a very good idea of what is the standard in academic writing regarding structure, style, referencing, and argumentation. If you are working on your thesis, this is an invaluable source; if you are working on a book proposal, you have at hand an example of what you should be aiming at. Given that for most – if not all – young scholars their PhD thesis will constitute the topic of their first book proposal, having worked on book reviews gives them an advantage in presenting a project that is coherent, well thought-out, and has all the academic elements that will convince a publisher to offer a contract.

Nickolas Roubekas is Teaching Fellow in the Department of Divinity & Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen, U.K. He received his PhD from the Aristotle University, Greece, and held a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of South Africa as a member of the ongoing research project ‘Redescribing Graeco-Roman Antiquity’, coordinated by Gerhard van den Heever. He is currently working on a monograph on euhemerism as a theory of religion (forthcoming, Routledge) and an edited volume on theory and ancient religions (forthcoming, Equinox). Since 2012 he has been the book reviews editor of Religion & Theology, published by Brill.

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Again with the Elephants…

by Adam T. Miller

A few years ago, I started teaching an introductory religious studies course online. While I have since had the opportunity to redevelop the course, initially it was just something I inherited—syllabus, textbook, assignments, all of it. In thinking through how to make the best use of what I had, I wrote a blog called “My Inherited Elephant” (initially posted on my now deactivated personal blog, later picked up by Practicum and the Bulletin).

In that post, I discuss how Gary Kessler—whose textbook I still use—tells the old Buddhist story of the blind men and the elephant[1] in order to promote pluralism and tolerance. Just as the blind men, invited by the king, feel an elephant and come to different conclusions about said elephant on the basis of perfectly legitimate (albeit limited) sensory experiences, so do the religious come to different conclusions about the Sacred on the basis of perfectly legitimate (albeit limited) experiences—so says Kessler, more or less. This story shows, he thinks, that because the source/object (presumed singular) of religious experiences (plural) is beyond our limited human grasp, we should not only acknowledge but also celebrate multiplicity with regard to religious truth.[2]

Now…let’s move back in time several hundred years.

In the fourth century, a monk by the name of Asaṅga wrote a treatise called the Summary of the Great Vehicle (Mahāyānasaṃgraha). Therein, he advances a number of views that have since been associated with the Yogācāra school of Mahāyāna Buddhism. In so doing, he discusses dependent co-arising (pratītyasamutpāda)—a doctrine likely familiar to anyone who has had to teach anything about Buddhism at any point—in relation to the comparatively newer idea of the container/storehouse consciousness (ālayavijñāna). More specifically, Asaṅga says that Mahāyāna thinking on the issue of dependent co-arising is more sophisticated than previous iterations because it distinguishes two levels of the process, or two ways of looking at it—the objective and the subjective.

Objectively speaking, dependent co-arising eliminates any beginning to the processes that constitute the world of experience. Subjectively speaking, it eliminates a static, discrete, experiencing self. But not everyone knows this. And indeed, people are predisposed not to. On this, Asaṅga writes:

“They are like the blind men who had never before encountered an elephant. When someone showed them one and had them feel it, some touched its trunk, some its tusk, some its ear, some its foot, some its tail, and some its flank. When asked what an elephant was, some of the blind men responded that it was like a plow handle, others that it was like a wooden pestle, a fan, a mortar, a broom, or a mountain rock.”

Here we can imagine a pluralist interjecting—“yes, and this is why we all agree that no one has it all right, but everyone has something right.” But this is not where Asaṅga goes. “People do not understand these two kinds of dependent co-arising,” he continues,

“because they are blinded by primal ignorance. Whether they claim that the cause of transmigration is an original essence, past actions, the creative action of a god, the self with its eight inherent qualities, or that there is no cause, or whether they imagine a self as the subject of action and experience, because they do not understand the basic pattern of the container consciousness and its cause-result relationship, they are like those blind men who, not recognizing the shape of the elephant, offered such strange explanations” (BDK trans., 21).

People don’t understand how the container consciousness works—and that’s why they offer all these silly explanations of how the world works. If only they could see the big picture…

That’s Asaṅga’s straightforwardly non-pluralist story, and he’s sticking to it.

As Russell McCutcheon rightly notes in a blog post penned as somewhat of a response to my initial post on Kessler’s use of the story, the story “naturalizes a detached, disconnected, and…rather elitist view of the world—a view in which only some of us float free of the constraints suffered by others and thereby know what’s really going on.”

But the tellings of the story given above allow another basic point to be made, and it’s one Bruce Lincoln has made on a handful of occasions—namely: the same basic story can be deployed and redeployed in various contexts by various tellers in order to advance sometimes radically different claims. In Kessler’s case, the end game is a pluralist society in which all religions are respected and celebrated on account of their partial grasp on truth. For Asaṅga, the end game is quite different–and it involves most people being not partially right, but totally wrong.

[1] More accurately, the story is a South Asian one that had legs in lots of communities.

[2] As it happens, this is more or less the moral of the story according to its Wikipedia entry: “The moral of the parable is that humans have a tendency to project their partial experiences as the whole truth, ignore other people’s partial experiences, and one should consider that one may be partially right and may have partial information.”

Adam T. Miller is a PhD student in the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, an online instructor for Central Methodist University, Editorial Assistant for History of Religions, and Book Review Editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. He is interested in method and theory in the study of religion, Indian Buddhist history and literature, and the histories of the History of Religions and Buddhist Studies. His most recent research investigates how narrative depictions of affective responses to the ritualized dissemination of Dharma discourses in Mahāyāna literature might shed light on the sociology of the Mahāyāna in India during (roughly) the first five centuries of the Common Era. His work can be followed on Academia.

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Flourish and Decay: Exploring Religion in Process

Call for Papers

The Religion Graduate Organization and the Department of Religion at Syracuse University announce the 2018 Graduate Student Conference Flourish and Decay: Exploring Religion in Process on Friday, April 13th, 2018.

Flour·ish: [‘flǝriSH] (n., v.) growth and development in a good environment; a gesture or to gesture in such a way that attracts attention.

De·cay: [dǝ͘‘kā] ‘(n., v.) to rot organically or the process of decomposition; to deteriorate; to fall into a state of disrepair. Rotten matter. A gradual decline of quality.

This conference proposes the terms “flourish” and “decay” as entry points through which to further understand how religion emerges and envelops within past, present, and future worlds.

Both flourish and decay can operate as either overarching metaphors of change, transformation, and fluctuation or as literal descriptions of cycles of growth, consumption, and loss. We embrace the capaciousness of these terms and encourage graduate students to think innovatively through them as an opportunity to explore religion in process. We welcome diversity in topics, theoretical approaches, and methodologies from all academic fields and disciplines across a broad range of histories, geographies, and religious traditions.

Keynote: Kathryn Lofton, Yale University 

Papers and panels might engage the following (but not limited to) themes of:

  • Fame, thriving, and prosperity
  • Politics, conflict, and resistance
  • Misogynoir, toxic masculinity, gender
  • Afrofuturism, critical race theory
  • Indigenous futurism, de/colonization practices
  • Ruins, cities, empire, and war
  • Futurity, millenarianism, apocalypticism and utopianism
  • Community, class, geography, place, space
  • Pollution in texts, bodies, environments, landscapes
  • Disaster, trauma, toxicity, and recovery
  • Life, biopolitics, necropolitics, health, governmentality
  • Aesthetics, beauty, and the grotesque
  • Precarity, neoliberalism, late capitalism, globalism, nationalism
  • Environmentalism, the Anthropocene, climate change, waste
  • Technology, transhumanism, robotics, and artificial intelligence
  • The viral and the virtual, affect theory
  • Death, funerary and burial rites
  • Temporalities, histories

Please submit a short abstract (350 words for papers; 500 words for panels) and a CV in PDF format to: by January 20, 2018.

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God of the (Consciousness) Gap: Religious Experience between Waking and Sleeping

by Adam J. Powell

This post first appeared on

What if I told you that last night I was visited by an angel whilst lying in bed? What if I could provide specific details, like that there were diffuse light and a sense of euphoria accompanying my encounter with the angel? What if I said that he beckoned me to approach and that, when I obliged, it seemed that I was only approaching in spirit; I could see my physical body still lying in bed? If it was not a dream, what was it?

Depending on your personal religious beliefs, epistemological commitments, cultural context, and sundry other variables, you may respond with an accusation of fabricating a tall tale, of being mentally ill, or of having had the privilege of enjoying a bona fide spiritual encounter. Ultimately, your response will have much to do with your expectations and, likewise, with your understanding of the available plausible options. In this way, our presumptions shape our conclusions (an inevitable force often strongly resisted by academics as they strive to push the cart of human knowledge ever forward).

Even so, my recent work with Durham University’s Hearing the Voice project – analysing accounts of religious experience in 19th-century America – indicates that an individual’s (or group’s) philosophy of mind shapes both the interpretive categories and descriptive terms used to recount unusual experiences. On the surface, this may not seem particularly noteworthy. Yet, it has ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ implications for the study of religious experience. On the modest side, this means that when an experience is identified as ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ and described (as they very commonly are in 19-century texts) as a ‘vision’ or ‘dream’, such language and interpretation may result from overly limited conceptual options.

Specifically, my research suggests unfamiliarity with a ‘third way’ of human consciousness – that between waking and sleeping – amongst the 19th-century religionists who chose to record their unique experiences. Consequently, many accounts from this period use ‘dream’ and ‘vision’ interchangeably or, contrastingly, attempt to distinguish between the two based on a tacit assumption that dreams are mundane sleep phenomena and, thus, visions are something special – even when the latter occur at night in bed.

In contemporary psychiatry and psychology, however, the set of hallucinoid phenomena that occur at night in bed, but that are not dreams, have a name: hypnagogia. These multimodal (visual, auditory, haptic, and emotional) experiences take place in transitional stages of consciousness between waking and sleeping, or sleeping and waking. In other words, they do not constitute either sleeping dreams or waking hallucinations (nor are they tall tales). They may include hearing one’s name called, feeling a presence in the room, feeling fear, or enjoying a sense of euphoria accompanying an out-of-body experience. They are also relatively common – estimates range between 30% and 70% of the general population.

The ‘hard’ significance of this, then, is that my 19th-century cases not only exhibited confusion over appropriate language (was it a ‘dream’ or a ‘vision’) because of an unawareness of the continuum of consciousness, but also may have been deemed special (therefore, religious/spiritual) precisely because of that unawareness. Those who saw an apparition in their room as they retired to bed or who ‘floated’ away from their bodies were very likely experiencing the ‘third way’ of hypnagogia, but with no conceptual space for such a liminal state there was only room for invocations of the supernatural. Indeed, based on a comparison with recent phenomenological studies of hypnagogia, I estimate that 32% of the 65 historical cases I have studied fit the definition of hypnagogic (between waking and sleeping) and hypnopompic (between sleeping and waking) hallucinations.

Of course, this sort of retroactive application of contemporary categories risks being reductionistic and misleadingly anachronistic, but let’s not ignore that ‘hypnagogic hallucination’ was coined by the French psychiatrist Alfred Maury in 1848, the very midpoint of the century on which I am focused. What is more, his fellow Frenchman Alexandre Brierre de Boismont also discussed this liminal state of consciousness (‘hallucinations in dreams’) in his 1853 book, Hallucinations. So, emerging 19th-century categories for attendant 19th-century phenomena…

In the end, this hypnagogia hypothesis contends that the terms ‘dream’ and ‘vision’ were used inconsistently during this period because phenomena comprising hypnagogia, and the state of consciousness they represent, were unknown to those trying to make sense of their experiences. They, too, wanted to know, ‘If it was not a dream, what was it?’

For the whole argument, look for ‘The Hypnagogia Hypothesis’ to be published soon, or you can simply email Adam with questions and comments (


Further Reading

Boismont, A. (1853) Hallucinations; Or, The Rational history of Apparitions, Visions, Dreams, Ecstasy, Magnetism, and Somnambulism. Philadelphia.

Cook, C. (2013) ‘The prophet Samuel, hypnagogic hallucinations and the voice of God – psychiatry and sacred texts,’ The British Journal of Psychiatry 203/5: 380.

Jones, S., Fernyhough, C., and Meads, D. (2009) ‘In a dark time: Development, validation, and correlates of the Durham hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations questionnaire,’ Personality and Individual Differences, 46: 30-4.

Jones, S., Fernyhough, C., and Larøi, F. (2010) ‘A phenomenological survey of auditory verbal hallucinations in the hypnagogic and hypnopompic states,’ Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 9: 213-24.

Mahowald, M., Woods, S., and Schenck, C. (1998) ‘Sleeping Dreams, Waking Hallucinations, and the Central Nervous System,’ Dreaming, 8/2: 89-102.

Maury, L.F.A. (1848) ‘Des hallucinations hypnagogiques, ou des erreurs des sens dans l’etat intermediaire entre la veille et le sommeil.’ Annales Medico-Psychologiques du système nerveux, 11: 26-40.

Mavromatis, A. (2010) Hypnagogia: The Unique State of Consciousness Between Wakefulness and Sleep. London: Thyrsos Press.

Ohayon, M., Priest, R.G., Caulet, M., and Guilleminault, C. (1996) ‘Hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations: pathological phenomena?’ The British Journal of Psychiatry, 169/4: 459-67.

Ohayon, M. (2000) ‘Prevalence of hallucinations and their pathological associations in the general population,’ Psychiatry Research, 97: 153-64.

Powell, A. (2017) ‘The Place of Identity Dissonance and Emotional Motivations in Bio-Cultural Models of Religious Experience: A Report from the 19th Century,’ Journal for the Study of Religious Experience, 3: 91-105.

Waters, F., Blom, J., Dang-Vu, T., Cheyne, A., Alderson-Day, B., Woodruff, P., and Collerton, D. (2016) ‘What is the Link Between Hallucinations, Dreams, and Hypnagogic-Hypnopompic Experiences?’ Schizophrenia Bulletin, 42/5: 1098-1109.

Adam J. Powell is a junior research fellow in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University and a recipient of Durham’s International Fellowships for Research and Enterprise. He has published on Mormonism, patristic theology, sociological identity theories, and bio-cultural models of religious experience.


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What’s in Your Religion Syllabus?: Joshua Patterson

In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars of religion to share with our readers what’s in their religion syllabus, from a new class or a class they’ve taught for years, reflecting on what has worked, what has been modified, and how it has proven useful for covering a particular topic in the study of religion. For other posts in this series, see here.

by Joshua Patterson

Whether they are short or long, the goals we include in our course syllabi project a certain sense of who we are as teachers, and our identities as scholars of religion. Additionally, the statements given on departmental webpages signify particular priorities for that department and are meant to paint a picture of the collective identity of that faculty. As a doctoral student in higher education, with degrees in religious studies, one of the ways that I am researching religious studies in higher education is by analyzing learning goals. There is a strange relationship that exists between the goals we share with our students and those we hold in our own minds, and as I undertook research on learning goals, I knew from my own teaching experience that my own syllabus goals only scratched the surface of the care and intention I had for designing every aspect of my course.

To conduct this research, I began by scrolling through the syllabi collected through a joint project with Wabash and AAR, which is a fantastic resource for teaching and for data on trends in the field. This joint project continues to grow and has collected nearly 1,000 voluntarily submitted religion course syllabi. Currently there are 54 intro course syllabi available. While this is a remarkable resource, for the purpose of research design, I decided to take a more focused approach and use multiple syllabi from intro courses in only four religion departments along with statements from the chair on their webpages.

These learning goals were a petri dish for many of the most controversial topics in the field today. The influence of issues like vocationalization (or the trend to relate humanities coursework to common job skills), theological versus scientific approaches, the world religions paradigm, tension between student and faculty goals, and broad assessment pressures were all readily apparent. Patterns emerged and I was able to tie some of the most hotly debated issues in the field to data points, and test many of the prevailing theories. At a recent conference presentation I shared various graphics that are too clunky for a blog format, however, the following findings were the most fascinating.

First, this work validated the research that Barbara Walvoord conducted for Teaching and Learning in College Introductory Religion Courses. Unsurprisingly the most common goals for students entering religion courses, which center around exploration and development of their own spirituality did not appear as goals for instructors in their syllabi. While this is not shocking, given that the four departments studied were either at public institutions or privates without a strong religious identification, what Walvoord terms the “Great Divide” between student and instructor goals in religion courses is something that merits our attention. We cannot only take advantage of students’ interest in spirituality to maintain enrollment, if we do not consider the implications of those interests on how they learn in our classrooms. Walvoord’s research, along with the work of higher education researchers have shown that while the current generation of students are increasingly not affiliating with a religion, they are increasingly interested in the topic of religion. Additionally, this research has illustrated a desire on the part of students to engage and develop their own spiritual worldviews, despite their non-affiliation. These trends have tremendous implications for higher education and specifically in religion courses, and run counter to the narrative that our discipline is becoming irrelevant in light of the advent of the “nones.” It also means that whether religion professors are willing to engage their students spiritual identities or not, students are exercising their own agency to make their own meaning of what we teach, and as teachers we must decide how we will respond. This conversation among religion scholars will hopefully continue.

Next, certain institutions were more likely to trend towards what some might characterize as a theological approach, but the results would not have been predicted by simply looking at whether the department was at a public institution. This illustrates the continued tension in the field between the more traditional “theological” or developmental teaching approaches, which may (in agnostic form) be in high student demand, to the more theoretical, social scientific, or self-described “academic” approaches to teaching religion in colleges and universities. The distinction between theology and religious studies continues to be a huge concern within the field, and a difficulty with how our departments relate to others across campus. Additionally, while I believe learning goals can give discerning readers hints about the dispositions of departments, there still are not reliable ways to categorize different approaches. This ambiguity makes discussions of the appropriateness of approaches that much more difficult as scholars become more skilled at avoiding being painted into any particular corner.

Finally, the impact of accountability and assessment as a broad trend in higher education is evident in a widespread attention to employment applications and outcomes for religion coursework. In the current Neo-Liberal higher education environment, the discipline of religion is faced with serious debates about how much it will bend toward these vocational pressures, and the risks involved with refusing to “play the game.” Each of the four departmental pages I studied and multiple of the syllabi made explicit statements about the benefits of religion coursework to the modern global workplace. We need to continue to have conversations about the limits of appealing to this impulse and the methodological integrity of our approaches. How can we make our courses practical and applied and maintain academic and theoretical rigor? Several of the syllabi featured in this blog series provide thoughtful examples of engaging this tension. What’s at risk if we do not address popular concerns about job applicability? Many institutions have already seen serious drops in the number of majors, and job concerns for students is a common explanation. In light of these trends, religion departments are seeing more pressures from their institutions, receiving fewer resources, and being forced to rely more on non-tenure track faculty as a response to lower resources. Data from the Humanities Indicators Survey has noted both the decrease in majors, and the increased reliance on non-tenure track faculty.

In addition to these three patterns, the study also revealed that departments have vastly different curricular offerings, structures, and requirements. Even finding an introduction course of similar content to compare across institutions was quite a challenge given the variety of course offerings and major/minor requirements. These differences in offerings and structures warrant their own detailed discussion and debate as all of these factors influence how and what students learn. The Religious Studies Project, a site that puts out both writings and podcasts, has produced a lot of materials concerning the “world religions paradigm.” The prevalence of the paradigm is easily discernable from these data, and future conversations around this topic should continually engage with practices and realities on the ground.

The study utilized many syllabi that were available online as public documents, and there are many more available through the Wabash and AAR syllabus project, but given the vitriolic nature of some of these debates in the field, it has been important to me to protect the identity of the institutions involved. As someone who taught religion courses for several years, I can admit that my learning goals, especially early on, were not detailed or well developed. I have attempted to conduct this research in a way that is sympathetic to the experiences of religion teachers given my own experiences. A religion professor of mine once said that interpreting scripture for an audience is like undressing in public, and I think talking about our learning goals and syllabi can feel the same way. I hope that this work sparks discussion about different approaches within the field, and reminds of us of the key challenges we face as carriers of and advocates for the academic study of religion in colleges and universities.

Josh Patterson is a doctoral candidate at University of Georgia’s Institute of Higher Education conducting research on the intersection of religion and higher education. Specifically, current work focuses on the discipline of religious studies, its history, current status, and relation to broader conversations around the mission of higher education, liberal arts, and the humanities. Additional projects are exploring the relationship between philanthropy and religious studies, and students’ identity formation during college.

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Claims and Constraints: The Category of Religion in the SCC Ktunaxa Nation Decision

by Stacie Swain

NB: This post adapts and expands comments that I made during a panel discussion hosted by the University of Victoria’s Faculty of Law.[i]

On 2 November 2017, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) released their decision in the legal appeal, Ktunaxa Nation v. British Columbia (Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations). In this post, I suggest that the court defined the category of “religion” to deny the Ktunaxa Nation’s attempt to (re)claim contested and unceded territory by way of religious freedom. In my reading, the court did so to preserve Canadian sovereignty and jurisdiction over territory, which the Ktunaxa’s claim called into question.

In the appeal, the Ktunaxa Nation Council and Kathryn Teneese on behalf of the Ktunaxa Nation object to the building of permanent buildings and overnight accommodation for a ski resort on Qat’muk, a mountain considered sacred. The Ktunaxa claimed firstly, that the building of the ski resort infringes upon the Ktunaxa’s constitutional right to freedom of religion under section 2(a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; and secondly, that a government minister’s decision to allow the resort to be built breached the Crown’s duty of consultation and accommodation.

Before making the claim, the Ktunaxa expressed some concern about translation and the (mis)comprehension of their relationship to the mountain and land. The 2009 Qat’muk Declaration, for example, “Recognizes that the Ktunaxa language does not translate well into other languages and consequently our spiritual relationship with Qat’muk may not be fully understood by others.” And as Ktunaxa Nasu?kin (chief councilor) and storyteller Joe Pierre stated in an interview in August 2017, this was a concern that he had from the beginning of this particular appeal (the conflict stretches back thirty years):

When I was asked to talk to one of the lawyers when we were first approaching the court cases as a Nation, one of the very first things that I said to that lawyer was, “I think the things that I have to tell you are just not going to be heard, or listened to in the courts. I just don’t believe that our court system can even fathom or understand the information I am about to give to you.”

This failure to hear, listen, fathom or understand, unfortunately for the Ktunaxa Nation, appears to have been borne out by the court’s decision. This failure, however, might also be interpreted as a refusal, particularly when it comes to actually listening rather than fathoming or understanding.

Nicholas Shrubsole, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at last year’s CSSR/SCÉR, wrote a fine piece in which he argues that the SCC decision – both the majority and dissenting opinions – evidence, “the impossibility of Indigenous religious freedom.” This impossibility is based on the the court’s failure to understand the nature of Indigenous religion. Shrubsole argues that the court prioritized the notion of “belief” according to a Christian-centric concept of “religion;” this privileging disadvantages Indigenous claims to religious freedom, and could potentially force them to conform to culturally-specific, Euro-Canadian concepts of religion. As Shrubsole puts it,

Privileging and focusing on belief is… a culturally locatable act because the way in which religion is popularly understood (even by the courts) is identifiably, if only residually, Christian in nature. Legally protecting belief, rather than religion, does not adequately address the depth and complexity of religious experience.

Because the majority decision relies upon a definition of religion based upon “beliefs,” the court is able to separate what the Ktunaxa believe from what the court calls the “object of worship,” which is Grizzly Bear Spirit and Qat’muk itself. The majority decision seems to evidence the failure of the court to comprehend or fathom the fundamental interconnections between belief, practice, and place for members of the Ktunaxa Nation.

The dissenting opinion, in contrast, contends that the court must address the unique nature of Indigenous religions, in which “the divine” flows from the land itself rather than what is built upon it, such as a church or mosque. As a result, the dissenting opinion does conclude that the building of the ski resort is a substantial infringement of the Ktunaxa’s religious freedom. Regardless, both decisions declare that the minister’s decision to allow the building of the ski resort was justified, given the Crown’s duty to protect “public interest” – a point that I’ll return to below.

I appreciate the argument above insofar as it problematizes the legal construction and assimilatory force of religion within and through Canadian law. However, I do want to push back upon the idea that the matter would be solved if the court could just understand the nature of Indigenous religion(s) or religious experience. And in fact, perhaps the court did fully comprehend the implications of what they refer to as the Ktunaxa’s “absolute claim.” After all, the majority decision contains this unexpected caveat:

We arrive at these conclusions cognizant of the importance of protecting Indigenous religious beliefs and practices, and the place of such protection in achieving reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous communities. (Para. 10)

In the decision, the judges are quite clear in stating that “beliefs and practices” constitute a religion; and beyond this, they are quite clear that they have no doubt that what the Ktunaxa believe and do constitutes a religion, even when the Ktunaxa call it something else. In para. 89, the court clarifies that they, “employ the term ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious’ only because this term was used by the parties in their submission… there is no issue here that the Ktunaxa’s system of spiritual beliefs constitutes a religion.”

In stressing that the Ktunaxa are making a freedom of religion claim under section 2(a) and thus “the Ktunaxa stand in the same position as non-Aboriginal litigants,” the court not only brackets out Indigeneity and compares the Ktunaxa’s concerns to a residually-Christian, Euro-Canadian concept of religion, but also constrains the Ktunaxa’s claim through the recognition of “religion.” And it’s not just what is recognized, it’s also what that act of recognition precludes. I interpret the SCC’s recognition of religion as precluding Indigenous nations’ use of the category of religion to (re)claim sovereignty and jurisdiction.

Firstly, as Shrubsole also notes, by placing the Ktunaxa in the same position as non-Aboriginal litigants with religious freedom claims (and I would add, in defining spirituality as the same as religion), the court sidesteps the United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This is another way to contain and circumscribe the Ktunaxa’s claim. As Mark Rifkin argues,

Notably, the Declaration does not present ‘autonomy of self-government’, ‘political…systems’, ‘institutional structures’ as categorically distinct from ‘spiritual and religious traditions’, ‘customs and ceremonies’, or ‘philosophies’, indicating that all equally mark potential expressions or forms of Indigenous peoplehood that fall within the right to self-determination as a political claim – as against the superintending authority of settler-state sovereignty. (345)

The 2009 Qat’muk Declaration asserts the Ktunaxa’s “inherent and preexisting sovereignty over [their] land and [their] lives thereon,” in addition to UNDRIP rights. It is this sort of claim that the court refused to hear or listen to in order to preserve the status quo, Canadian authority over unceded territory classified as Crown or public land.

Additionally then, if the Ktunaxa’s claim is made comparable to those made by other sorts of groups recognized by the state, then they are subject to the conditions and limitations placed upon those groups. In Naomi Goldenberg’s work on “religion” as a category of governance and technology of statecraft, one of the limitations applied to groups recognized as “religions” is the ceding of sovereign authority to the state in exchange for limited jurisdictional powers and privileges. Building on this, while religion and associated terms can be “privately-held,” “subjective,” and “spiritually meaningful” (see para. 51, 71), the realm of the “public,” “objective,” and the “political” belongs to the state.

Not unlike the separation of Grizzly Bear Spirit out from beliefs and practices, the court’s definition of the Ktunaxa’s claim as “religion” allowed the court (the majority decision especially) to separate the Ktunaxa’s claim out from the land that it was grounded in. The court’s recognition of religion enables a circumscription and containment of the Ktunaxa’s claim in a way that protects the Canadian state’s sovereignty and jurisdiction, which gets clothed in the language of “Crown land” and “public interest” in the conclusions of both the majority and the dissenting decision.

To return to the point about “public land” introduced above, in para. 131, the dissenting opinion characterizes the majority approach as being at “risk of excluding Indigenous religious freedom claims involving land from the scope of sec. 2a protection.” In my interpretation, that is exactly what their definition and recognition of religion enables the court to do – to separate matters of belief and practice out from questions about territory and property.

In the Ktunaxa case, the categories of religion and property construct a discursive legal framework through which to contain and refuse the Ktunaxa Nation’s claim to unceded territory. The court, in spite of being cognizant of and thus understanding the implications of their ruling, can refuse to listen to Indigenous claims. Rather than the impossibility of Indigenous religious freedom, it may be the impossibility of Indigenous sovereignty when the state claims territory in the name of the Crown and the Canadian public.


[i] I offer my interpretation of the SCC decision from the perspective of a settler scholar interested in deconstructing “religion” in Canadian law and governance, particularly in light of critiques from Indigenous, settler colonial, and religious studies.

Stacie Swain is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Victoria, specializing in Canadian Politics and Indigenous Nationhood. She is interested in how discourses on religion and spirituality structure and mediate Indigenous-Canadian relations in political, legal, and legislative contexts.

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