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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Call for Papers: Ethics in Comedy

Edited by Steven A. Benko

What makes a joke right or wrong? When is it good or bad to laugh? The rights and wrongs of a joke can be expressed in political terms: a joke is politically incorrect or it exploits a marginalized group of people. Alternatively, a joke can be inappropriate or mean-spirited. A joke can make someone feel bad about their race, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status, body, gender identity, and the list can go on and on. Laughter can hurt someone’s feelings, reveal that the laugher lacks manners, or maybe holds to racist, sexist, or other offensive views. The same way that a joke can make a person feel self conscious about an aspect of their self, laughter reinforces in-group/out-group dynamics and can make a person feel excluded, isolated, or alone.

These negatives are balanced against the good that jokes and laughter can do: when they punch up, jokes and laughter can diminish the power that others hold over us. Comedians can be the sharpest of cultural critics, using irony, satire, and parody to reveal hypocrisy, speak difficult truths, and skewer social attitudes and biases that marginalize and oppress individuals and groups.

But how do we speak of an ethics of comedy? The difficulty of an ethics of jokes and laughter is that so much of what makes humor work — and much of the work that humor does — is based on transgression. This edited volume seeks contributions that attempt to formulate an ethics of comedy. When is a joke right or wrong? Is it wrong if it offends, or right if it offends in the right way? How are we to determine the moral rightness or wrongness of laughing at one moment but not the next? Are there jokes that ought not to be told or punch lines that ought not to be laughed at? And how are we to know when this is the case?

The collection should be accessible to upper level undergraduates. Essays should articulate a general approach to jokes and laughter and then apply that approach to specific examples. Examples can be drawn from any medium (stand-up, television, movies, internet, etc.). Essays that deal with comedians, topics, or ethical theories that undergraduate students would encounter in other courses are encouraged.

Please submit proposals for essays of 6,000-8,500 words that explore the ethics of comedy:

  • –  Frameworks for an ethics of humor, jokes, and laughter
  • –  Normative ethical theories and humor, jokes, or laughter
  • –  Ethics and superiority, relief, and incongruity theory
  • –  An ethical analysis of a specific comedian
  • –  How a particular ethicist, philosopher, or theologian addresses the moral rightness or wrongness of laughter
  • –  The ethics of jokes about a controversial social topic, e.g. abortion, body shape or size, sexual violence, illness, etc.
  • –  Historical approaches to the ethics of laughter: what was the moral status of humor, laughter, and jokes in the past?
  • –  Evolving social standards, ethics, and humor: what jokes used to be funny and are not appropriate any more?
  • –  Politics vs. ethics in humor

    Send your questions about the book or submit your short description to Steven A. Benko at . The chapter proposal should consist of a short abstract (275-350 words), chapter title, and a brief biography. Collaborations are welcomed. All proposals must be received by January 7, 2018. Final manuscripts of 6,000-8,500 words should be submitted in MLA style by August 20, 2018.

  • Image courtesy of boredpanda.
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”Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine”: Reflections on the European Academy of Religion

by Teemu Taira

Have you seen the recent conference announcement by the European Academy of Religion (EuARe)? If you haven’t, I would strongly suggest that you have a look at the list of announced keynotes for the conference that takes place in Bologna in March 2018 and think what it might tell us about the scholarly profile of the organization. If you have, I assume that your reaction depends on which disciplinary area you identify with. I happen to work in the Study of Religion and reading the conference announcement made me write this post.

So far there are seven announced keynotes for the conference. I visited the webpages of all seven presenters who are said to give lectiones magistrales and the result was not surprising. They are experts in different areas, but none of them can be said to be a scholar in the Study of Religion. They represent the following areas: Systematic Theology (two keynotes), Islamic and Interreligious Studies, Medieval History, Historical Theology and Theology / Ancient Christianity. In addition, one of the keynotes is Theologian and Metropolitan of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. More information about the conference and its lectiones magistrales is available here.

Let me be clear: I am in no way suggesting that the invited keynotes are not excellent scholars. They may well be in their own areas; it is not up to me to evaluate. However, none of them have much to do with the Study of Religion, neither on the basis of their institutional affiliation nor on the basis of their publications. Given this situation, it is confusing that Alberto Melloni, who is the mastermind behind EuARe, is, or pretends to be, surprised about the less than enthusiastic reaction of Study of Religion scholars regarding the European Academy of Religion.

The relationship between the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR), founded in 2000 and dominated by scholars of religion, and recently founded European Academy of Religion has not been a love affair. The leaders of the EASR published a statement in May 2017 in which they made clear that the EASR does not support EuARe. At the most recent annual EASR conference in Leuven, Belgium, in September 2017, the EuAre was widely discussed. I wrote earlier about that with my colleague Suzanne Owen in a conference report, so I won’t repeat it here.

What to make of this? Should scholars of religion be invited to have a visible role in EuARe conferences or is there something in this situation to be happy about?

On the one hand, getting involved in EuARe and its annual conferences might be a good opportunity for Study of Religion scholars to demonstrate their worth in an organization that gathers academics from selected areas, particularly theologians, and apparently has contacts with politicians and other interested parties outside academia.

On the other hand, the absence of Study of Religion scholars may be a good thing in the long run. At least it signals that what the EuARe does has very little to do with the scholarship done in the disciplinary area of the Study of Religion (whatever the exact title of the department and no matter whether you wish to call Study of Religion a discipline or a field of study).

Whichever option you prefer, the challenge for scholars of religion, particularly in the European context, is that they should make them seen and heard in public and demonstrate beyond their own disciplinary area and even beyond academia how their work is relevant.

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When White Supremacists Come To Town

by Rebekka King

Editor’s note: While this post initially appeared on October 26, just prior to a white supremacists rally in both Shelbyville and Murfreesboro, Tennessee, its on-going implications remain as relevant as ever. In this post Rebekka King reflects on how to address such events in the classroom as they come to increasingly dominate the public conversation.

Like Teresa Delgado I’ve composed and deleted several versions of this post. My first draft, started several weeks ago, reflected on how we talk about race, violence, and nationalism post-Charlottesville. I wanted to add my voice to the many inspiring people who have found ways to incorporate discussions of xenophobia, violence, and white privilege into their courses. In that post, I attempted to address the types of questions and frameworks that our students naturally employ in the aftermath of tragedies. Specifically, I was interested in the ways our students personalize these experiences by asking each other “What would you do?” We all hope to be the people who do something in the face of hate.

If I hadn’t fallen behind in the wake of a hectic fall semester that would be the blog post you would be reading. This week, however, I’ve been tasked with a different question. Not what would you do, but rather, what will we do? I write not from the perspective of post– but the perspective of pre-.

The League of the South (along with several other white supremacist organizations) are planning a rally next weekend in both Shelbyville and Murfreesboro, Tennessee. According to a spokesperson for the organization, the group is not rallying around the preservation of statues this time because the state’s Heritage Act already makes it quite difficult to remove confederate monuments. Instead, their stated topic of contention is refugee resettlement (an issue which happens to be close to home for me; I volunteer as a translator for a local refugee family).

Right now there are several groups mobilizing in opposition to these rallies. Both local organizations and ones from out of town are coordinating resistance activities and counter-protests. Across social media and at various public forums, citizens of Murfreesboro are divided as to what the appropriate response should be. Some people are firmly resolved, others are uncertain, and many are afraid.

Coincidentally, in my introductory Religion and Society class, my students are in the middle of a unit examining religious codes and systems of ethics. Last week, we looked at Craig Martin’s A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion that explores how ethical decisions are filtered through Bourdieu’s notion of habitus. That seemed like as a good a place as any to think about the different possible actions that one might take against a white supremacist rally.

So here’s what I did, pre– an event like Murfreesboro/Shelbyville 2017.

I began by reflecting on the fact that we’ve had more conversations than usual about current and political events this semester. From Puerto Rico to Las Vegas; from nuclear threats from North Korea to a church shooting in the town next door; and from the epidemic of sexual violence against women epitomized by Harvey Weinstein to the movement inspired by Colin Kaepernick to expose systemic racism. Over the past two months there has been no shortage of current events for our students to assess or debate from the position of “What would you do?”

I went on to say that I wanted to have a different type of conversation. Rather than describing or offering their own opinions, I would be asking them to do a higher level of analysis. Description, I told them, is an important part of what we do in religious studies, but that’s not all we do. I called on the students who are also enrolled in my Jesus class to explain how in that class we’ve undertaken a discursive analysis wherein we’re not interested in what the texts say (and certainly not in whether they are right or wrong), but instead are interested in what they do (and what the doing does).

I printed off conversation threads from four different public Facebook events/pages that are making plans in opposition to the white supremacists’ rally. The different options presented by these pages are:

  • Do nothing (ignore them, don’t invite conflict)
  • Hold a family-friendly rally in a different location (a protest of sorts without direct confrontation)
  • Have a counter-protest and call on citizens to stand against white nationalism, Nazis, and the KKK (a protest with direct confrontation but the avoidance of physical violence)
  • Take part in an Antifa-style protest (direct confrontation with anticipated violence) [1]

As we worked our way through the four sites, I asked the class to read the language closely for evidence of how each group describes themselves, the white supremacist group, and other planned protests. We discussed how they legitimated their perspectives and where they placed their authority (in the case of the first three, each claimed to have the best interests of Murfreesboro at heart and worked to establish their local identity via connections to different community groups and networks). From there we sketched out a basic conception of how all four read the moral position “white supremacy is wrong” through different lenses provided by their habitus and with very different consequences.

The activity seemed to work well. I wanted to have a conversation that did something different than simply reiterating the students’ own viewpoints. While those types of conversations can be helpful because they provide an opportunity for students to practice speaking about contentious issues, this particular discussion is more urgent. Often I find classroom discussions devolve into each student waiting their turn to state their case and figure out who is “on their side.” My hope was that by working together to analyze the discourses and social locations of the different groups rather than evaluating each other, the boundaries that sometimes emerge in these conversations would dissolve. I also hoped that they might come to better understand their own perspectives and how they are shaped by social factors. Finally, and most prominently, I hoped they would be able to more fully understand these events as embedded in cultural systems, rather than independent, chaotic occurrences.

By way of a conclusion, I offered myself as a case study and asked them (based on their assessment of my own identity, values, and habitus) to offer evidence for and against my participation in each of the four counter activities. I told them that I was uncertain about which of the options I wanted to participate in and that I would take their advice to heart when deciding what to do. They made passionate cases for and against each position with a level of perceptiveness and concern that exceeded my expectations.

Previously, when I’ve thought about how I teach current events in the classroom it has focused on reflection as reaction. I’ve invited students to consider the facts of what “actually happened” and to delve into the nuance of context. In those cases, I have taken on the role of a guide, helping them articulate and expand their understanding. Here we don’t completely understand because we don’t yet know what will happen. There’s an ambiguity in addressing something that is uncertain and has yet to occur, especially amid the elevated risks that accompany a situation like this. In this case, I made them play the role of the guide, instructing me on how to understand and articulate my own perspective.

As I write in a moment that feels like a calm before the storm, this ambiguity and liminality feels important – which is why I wanted to write this post before the event itself occurred. As faculty we’re good at having answers. Assessment and evaluation are second nature. But both with my students and on the Wabash Teaching Religion and Politics blog, I see value in capturing the uncertainty, inviting my students and you into the process of considering the question what will, as opposed to what would, you do.

[1] For obvious reasons, I was unable to find anything on public social media forums making specific plans related to Antifa or similar groups so we read an article describing their perspective and activities.

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SORAAAD 2017: Appropriation and the Analytical Study of Religion

Schedule:  Appropriation and the Analytical Study of Religion SORAAAD 2017
11:00 am – 5:00 pm –  Full Program PDF

I. Introduction

Appropriation, Human Behaviors, and the Study of Religion & an Overview of Workshop Themes
William Arnal, Sean McCloud, Jamel Velji, Jennifer Knust and Ipsita Chatterjea

II. Case Studies: Appropriation, “Amnesia,” Narrative, Plunder, and Erasure

(Re)narrativizing Origins: the Case of Coffee
Jamel Velji

The Bible as Plunder The Theft of Codex Bezae and the Problem of                      Provenance
Jennifer Knust

Endogenous Appropriation: Gendered Labor and AME Women
Ipsita Chatterjea

III. Analytical Frames: Appropriation, Taking, Territoriality, and Identity

What’s in a Word?  Appropriations, Bricolage, Syncretisms, Hybrids, and Combinations in our Teaching and Research
Sean McCloud

Identity before and after ‘Cultural Appropriation’: Test-cases from Christian Origins, Jewish-Christianity, and Jewish-Christian Relations
Annette Yoshiko Reed


American popular culture has always been enamored with blue-eyed soul, rewarding it to the detriment and exclusion of the very black artists who pioneered these musical traditions.

Dr. Brittney Cooper – Rutgers University, on Adele’s win of Album of the Year for 25 over Lemonade by Beyoncé

I dream it, I work hard, I grind ’til I own it,
I twirl on them haters, albino alligators.
Beyoncé “Formation,” Lemonade

In year seven, SORAAAD will focus on appropriation. How is appropriation defined with respect to power and consumption? How is appropriation considered an act of interpretation and exchange? How are appropriation and its contestation meaningful for those we study?  What do instances or ongoing acts of appropriation tell us about  the politics of representation and classification? In this workshop we will consider the implicit and overt acts of exogenous and endogenous appropriation deployed by the subjects of our research, as well as those that we deploy ourselves when designing qualitative research. We shall look at appropriation as a function of exchange, agency, erasure, classification, and power. Jamel Velji, Annette Yoshiko Reed, Sean McCloud, Jennifer Knust, and Ipsita Chatterjea will address the erasure of the Islamic origins of coffee, Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity,  avenues for assessing mixing and power in new religious movements, plunder, archeology, and the Bible,  and the endogenous appropriation and erasure of Black women’s labor. Finally, we will discuss how we as scholars cite, borrow, and adapt from other scholars.

Religious studies is an interdisciplinary field. But does its status as such justify our sometimes undisciplined mechanisms of “borrowing” – methodological, topical, conceptual, or otherwise – from other fields? We routinely witness scholarly acts of appropriation that silence points made by other scholars and also ignore their standards for substantiation. To move beyond our own acts of appropriation by name-dropping, can we begin to talk about what we owe to other religion scholars and scholarship in other disciplines by way of disciplined adaptations? Can we justify our borrowings such that they might be viewed as sensible adaptations and complementary or logical extensions by those from whom we have borrowed?

Participants and panelists in this year’s workshop will explore questions crucial both to their areas of specialization and to religious studies as a discipline. How can we track the varied and dynamic ways that ‘appropriation’ morphs as an assertion of hegemony across space and time?  How do we relate event specific studies of relatively small populations to larger discourses without distorting particular expressions as either definitively representative or dismissible as insufficient evidence? Who gets to appropriate without stigma?  How do we track and contextualize fixations on specific narratives, persistent erasures, and outcomes? To what end and with what pivots can we productively compare observed appropriation and scholarly appropriation? In the case of the latter, how can we self-check a tendency to invoke theories and other disciplines developed in other contexts without clarifying the context of exchange and carrying out the methodological labor demanded by these approaches? How do we continue to integrate research that demonstrates how appropriation has warped our study of religions both in- and outside a “Western context,” e.g., by privileging some forms to the detriment of scholarly understandings of factionalisms, esotericisms, indigenous religions, fictional religions, and new religions?

“Appropriation and the Analytical Study of Religion” will be of interest to scholars who already enact social science and critical humanities research methodologies; to those who want to develop techniques to denaturalize appropriation and examine the nature of acquisition and deployments of culture where exchange over looks power imbalances; and to anyone who wants to rethink how appropriation manifests, functions, and is used to normalize activity within specifically heterogeneous power structures.

The SORAAAD Workshop Committee: William Arnal, Ipsita Chatterjea, David Walker, Ed Silver, Rebecca Raphael, Randall Styers, and Jens Kreinath.

SORAAAD at the University of Regina Religious Studies Department
Northeastern University Philosophy and Religion Department- Institutional Sponsor
Wellesley College – Religious Studies Department.
Texas State University – Philosophy Department

To register, please send an email to William[dot]Arnal[at]uregina[dot]ca. Place “registration” in the subject line, and include your name, indication of rank (independent scholar, graduate student, professor, etc.), and institution, if applicable, in the body of the email. You might wish to review the SORAAAD Workshop Ethos.

Registration is free, but required. Lunch will be provided.
SORAAAD thanks its sponsors for making this possible.
Participation Limit: 40

SORAAAD’s committee would like to thank Sean McCloud, Tim Jensen, David Frankfurter, Megan Goodwin, Matthew Sheedy, Stacie Swain, The Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, Christopher Cotter and David Robertson for their ongoing support of the workshop.

Social Media
#SORAAAD2017 is the official hashtag for “Appropriation and the Analytical Study of Religion.”  For news about the workshop, analytical scholarship in religion and cognate fields, the latest from our partners and your peers, and issues facing higher education please follow:  @SORAAADWorkshop.  SORAAAD is also on Facebook, and  LinkedIn

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Theses on Professionalization: Jennifer Collins-Elliott


Thesis #11. While higher education is organized so as to train ever increasing specialists–a process that begins with surveys and broad course work, examines candidates on their knowledge in general areas, and then culminates in writing a dissertation on a highly technical topic–eventual full-time employment can just as easily depend upon one’s ability to contribute lower-level, so-called Core or General Education introductory courses to a Department’s curriculum. Because many Departments of Religious Studies justify their existence not simply by appealing to the number of their majors or graduates, but also the number of Core or General Education courses that they offer to students pursuing degrees in other areas of the University, gaining early experience in such courses as a Teaching Assistant is an important step toward being able to persuade future employers of one’s ability to be a colleague who helps to teach their Department’s “bread and butter” courses.

by Jennifer Collins-Elliott

I see in Thesis 11 the confluence of a few vexing and sometimes controversial strands in the modern university, particularly at research-one state universities like McCutcheon’s home institution. First, Thesis 11 speaks to the ways in which the modern academy pulls graduate students and young faculty in two different, and sometimes competing, directions: that of specialization (research) and that of generalization (teaching). Woven into this are the concerns raised in Emily D. Crews’ piece last week and the reappearance of the Platonic form of “well-rounded job candidate”—the person who publishes original research that contributes to their specialization while also learning enough on far-flung subjects in their broader field to feel intellectually honest in the classroom while teaching survey courses. And second, McCutcheon presents here, though only in passing, an on-going conversation about the “usefulness” of the Humanities, the rhetoric of which is consonant with the increasing corporatization of public universities, and what future employment in the Humanities might look like.

Is there a teaching experience saturation point?

Similar to Thesis 10, there is a call here to be able to demonstrate one’s flexibility and range on their CV and throughout the hiring process. In a market awash with qualified candidates, institutions can, to some extent, afford to look for their unicorn. While McCutcheon recommends gaining experience as a Teaching Assistant, it is often not enough simply to have assisted in a course but rather is necessary to have been the instructor of record. To have the potential or educational training to teach such-and-such a course without having actually taught it can be a deal-breaker for a hiring committee. There is no time for on-the-job teacher training at research-one state institutions when the enrollment and numbers of majors is ever more used to justifying the existence of many Humanities departments. What increasingly appears to be the case, however, is not the lack of teaching experience before entering the job market, but rather an excess of teaching experience that, at a point, becomes less useful and more redundant—a point McCutcheon addresses in Thesis 5 and the struggles of which Matt Sheedy gives voice to in his post.

While demonstrating teaching experience in “gen ed” courses can help open the door, the axiom “publish or perish” remains as true as ever for those who are offered tenure-track positions. As a graduate student working on her dissertation who is also teaching “bread and butter” courses, I waver between appreciating and questioning the usefulness of the experience that I’m currently gaining. I, and others in my position, have the opportunity to learn how to balance research and teaching, which is a challenge that tenure-track professors face. How can those of us trained in universities that rely on graduate student labor protect our research time? How can we graduate students or young scholars in lecturer positions, tasked with teaching large survey-courses while also trying to establish a research and publication record, work “smarter, not harder”? How does one fight the teaching undertow? Years ago when McCutcheon was the keynote speaker at Florida State University’s Department of Religion Annual Graduate Student Symposium, he gave me two pieces of advice about teaching: he told me that I wasn’t obligated to the textbook, and that every course should have a thesis statement. I found this advice to be a relief. With this in mind I found it much easier to craft a more cohesive world religions syllabus and one that would give me space to incorporate aspects of my own research. While I still think of this advice each time I write a syllabus, it has also led me to invest an inordinate amount of my time in my teaching—a danger addressed in Thesis 19. While McCutcheon is undoubtedly correct that having teaching experience for “bread and butter” courses on one’s CV is crucial in the current job market, the process of gaining this experience in graduate school can feel a bit like trying to do a wheelie while you still have the training wheels on your bike.

Future Employment in the Humanities

With politicians like Florida Governor Rick Scott doing their best to marginalize the Humanities and as of 2007 at least 70% of faculty members being employed “off the tenure track,” perhaps we should think about for whom these theses were written, or rather, what kind of future they imagine? When McCutcheon says that, “gaining early experience in such courses as a Teaching Assistant is an important step toward being able to persuade future employers of one’s ability to be a colleague who helps to teach their Department’s ‘bread and butter’ courses,” I think he’s absolutely right. But then I find myself trying to imagine what these “future employers” might want me, and the majority of graduating PhDs in the Humanities, for, and what kind of positions might become more common in the next 5-10 years? The AAUP’s report on tenure and teaching-intensive appointments suggests that there is an emerging employment field between semester-to-semester lecture appointments and full-time tenure-track faculty. The language of these appointments vary, sometimes called “instructor tenure,” “continuing lectureship,” or “senior lectureship,” but each of these positions is meant to offer greater stability, support, professionalization, and perhaps benefits than more traditional forms of contingency labor.

Thesis 11, read alongside the other 20, continues to provide a clear and concise framework for all levels of graduate students and young scholars. However, in light of increasing graduate student teaching and longer periods of lecturership between graduation and possible tenure-track employment, coupled with the emergence of a “middle class” of university teaching, we should be mindful of the ways in which the imagined audience for this advice as well as the imagined employment landscape has changed in the nearly 10 years since McCutcheon published his theses.

Jennifer Collins-Elliott is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion at Florida State University. Her research interests include the body, gender, and sexuality, as well as martyrdom and violence in late Antique Christianity. She is currently working on her dissertation, which focuses on rape in early Christian literature and is tentatively titled, “’Bespattered with the Mud of Another’s Lust’: Rape and Physical Embodiment in Christian Literature of the 4th-6th Centuries CE.” She is on Twitter @JCollinsElliott.

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In the Weeds with David (S.) Pumpkins: Sociophobics and the Social Breakdown of Horror

by Natasha L. Mikles

It’s my favorite time of year—when everything is draped in orange and black, skeleton décor abounds, and little children dressed as superheroes run amok in big-box stores. During the month leading up to Halloween, we welcome into our lives all sorts of frights and fears. Since last year, however, Halloween has seen a new face enter our holiday repertoire—David S. Pumpkins. The character is the result of a Saturday Night Live sketch featuring a couple going on a scary “100 Floors of Terror” ride. While the first few floors feature known and identifiable horror tropes—a deathly bride, a cannibal—soon the doors open onto a bizarre figure played by Tom Hanks in a brash, jack o’lantern-speckled suit with two skeleton sidekicks. Rather than scream or yell, the figure proclaims, “I’m David Pumpkins, and I am going to scare the hell out of you,” before dancing in a ridiculous manner with the two skeletons. He re-appears on floor after floor as the couple becomes increasingly confused about what exactly the nature of this creature is and why they should be scared. At one point, they argue with the figure, ask who he is, and explain that he is not scary, to which he simply replies, “I’m David Pumpkins!” Eventually all the other horrifying figures on the ride become enveloped in the mythos of David Pumpkins, who appears in front of them and inspires distinctly un-terrifying impromptu dance parties.

The sketch is, in some ways, inexplicable. In a recently published interview, Vulture spoke with the three writers who created the character, and they themselves seem a little uncertain how the idea came together. Perhaps there is something that is just fundamentally funny about three men dancing around with funny voices and silly moves, especially in a situation where frights and terrors are expected. However, the sketch reveals more than that—it speaks to how our ideas of horror are shaped by the social world around us.

Douglas Cowan’s idea of “sociophobics” states that “what we fear, why we fear, and how we manifest and resolve our fears are socially constructed, culturally conditioned, and integrally connected to who we are as communal animals.”[1] Our fears, rather than expressions of primal forces, are actually as socially constructed as our ideas of humor. The tale of Mae Nak—which details the story of a man coming back from war to his wife and child, only to find out that both are ghosts—is one of Thailand’s most terrifying ghost stories; for Americans, however, the story of living with one’s true love after their death is the plot of the romantic film Ghost. “Sociophobics” lets us think about what is revealed about Thai and American society respectively from this difference—namely different feelings on ghosts, on romantic love, and on the appropriate form of post-mortem life. We are scared of that which we have been taught is scary, that which is essentially “knowable.” In Sacred Terror, Cowan examines the 1973 film The Exorcist, and argues for taking seriously that it terrified Americans in the 1970s because of a socially prevalent fear of supernatural evil and what it might make one do. I maintain that this fear of the supernatural was not mitigated, but rather heightened by individuals’ decreasing religiosity; a 1973 viewer might not believe in the demons portrayed, but The Exorcist played on the fear that such beliefs did not matter if the demon wanted to possess them. This same impulse is evident in Robert Orsi’s History and Presence, where Orsi admits that—despite now being a secular, areligious Catholic—he is still unable to watch the film, despite his personal disbelief.

What Cowan discovered in the positive, the SNL writers proved in the negative—the joke behind the David S. Pumpkins’ sketch is exactly a breakdown in this social formation of horror. Before Pumpkins appears, the couple are scared by several identifiable horror tropes that have a place in Americans’ social imagination of horror—the wedding suicide, the cannibal waiter, the deathly child, the escaped mental patient. But when Pumpkins appears, the man watching him states only, “I’m just trying to wrap my head around David Pumpkins. Are we supposed to know who that is?” Pumpkin’s catchphrase—“Any questions?”—recalls his essential obscurity; there are so many questions, because the viewer is lost and without any social or cultural guide.

The sketch also challenges an assumption that has been claimed by horror writers going back to H.P. Lovecraft. The bellhop who accompanies the couple at one point makes an effort to explain the pumpkin-covered figure to his confused passengers, stating, “the scariest thing to the mind is the unknown.” But this is not quite true. Lovecraft’s entities, and even Stephen King’s Pennywise, represent not only the unknown, but the unknowable. To the extent that the audience understands the fundamentally alien nature of these beings, they possess a quality that Rudolf Otto called “the wholly other.” As for Pumpkins, as an entity totally disembedded from any narrative context, we do not even know whether or not he is knowable. When questioned about his nature and purpose, Hanks states only that David Pumpkins is “his own thing,” while the skeleton sidekicks are defined only as “part of it.” Pumpkins is neither “wholly other” nor “unknowable.” He is a figure within our grasp, but still, somehow, completely apart from it. Any questions?

[1] Douglas Cowan, “Horror and the Demonic,” The Routledge Companion to Religion and Film, (New York: Routledge, 2009) 403-419. 408.

Natasha L. Mikles teaches Tibetan and Chinese religions at Texas State University. She is beyond excited for Halloween festivities.

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