Theory & Religion Series: Ting Guo


“Spirituality” as the Creative Self in the Digital Age

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

by Ting Guo

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

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

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

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

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

1) the search for self-knowledge

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

3) the intellectual aspiration for self-transformation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What’s in Your Religion Syllabus?: Sarah F. Haynes

Nuns and PhonesIn this new 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, here, and here.

by Sarah F. Haynes

My most popular upper-division course is titled: Buddhism. Yes, it is that broad. At a regional mid-western school like Western Illinois University many junior-level courses are broadly cast as a means of drawing in those from other programs. This is particularly important at WIU where the major in Religious Studies was dismantled last year. In light of this restructuring, the task of retooling my upper-division courses has been more extensive than in previous years.

The course description reads:

This course introduces students to Buddhism; its textual traditions and practices in its different manifestations throughout Asia and the West. We examine the historical development and philosophical traditions of Buddhism and consider how they have been shaped by and helped shape different cultures, communities, and worldviews. In addition, we pay particular attention to the lived experiences of Buddhist lay and monastic communities. Students will engage in critical reflection on Buddhist teachings and practices through primary source material, visual images, and various other media.

The broad nature of Buddhism and its relatively low enrollment (in recent years under twenty students each semester) affords me the opportunity to tailor the course based on student interest and current events. Come August when registration stabilizes I am able to look at the roster, students’ majors/minors, to consider last minute reading and assignment changes.

Since ordering books occurs so much earlier than the course starts, the “traditional” textbook that I continue to return to is Introducing Buddhism by Charles Prebish and Damien Keown. What I rather like about Introducing Buddhism (and the whole Routledge Introducing series) is the attention paid to modern manifestations of Buddhism and themes relevant to Buddhism in the 21st century. It helps that students have responded favorably to the textbook, its study tools, and other useful resources.

Each week students are required to read two or three chapters of Introducing Buddhism, along with primary source material. Here I turn to the Internet as a means of lowering students’ book costs. Students are directed to one or two sutras that elucidate material discussed in the textbook. The first half of the semester follows this format.

To ensure students are doing the weekly readings, they are required to submit, typically before class, a two-page typed reading response that critically engages with an aspect of that week’s readings. Additionally, students are required to come to class with at least two questions that foster class discussion. If it becomes apparent during class that students are struggling with the material, I allow them to revise their reading response and resubmit it a couple hours after class.

The second half of the semester is the part of the course that I tinker with the most, and it often focuses on a few broad topics that are then informed from the various Buddhist traditions. Past topics have been: gender, politics, modernity, socially-engaged Buddhism, and pop culture. However, as a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, I rarely have the opportunity to teach it at WIU. So I often pepper the last half of the course with Tibetan Buddhist material. For example, Being a Buddhist Nun: The Struggle for Enlightenment in the Himalayas by Kim Gutschow allows students to engage in a dialogue with concepts learned from the first half of the semester and what it means to be a Tibetan Buddhist nun in the 21st century.

The last couple of offerings of Buddhism have paid particular attention to Buddhist developments from the 19th-21st centuries. It is this material that students have responded most favorably. In discussing Buddhist modernity, I have turned to David McMahan’s two books, The Making of Buddhist Modernism and the more recent anthology Buddhism in the Modern World.

The course inevitably includes students drawn to it based on preconceived notions of Buddhism derived from popular culture. I have started to take advantage of this by including non-traditional assessment methods for end of the semester assignments. For example, when I taught the class in 2014, week after week I would listen to my Buddhism students talk passionately before each class about The Walking Dead. I jumped on the bandwagon so to speak, and we discussed the possibility of developing a final project around Buddhism and the zombie apocalypse. It was the most energized I had seen them all semester. We spent time as a group developing the zombie apocalypse scenario. Taking ideas from other pop culture representations, not simply copying The Walking Dead. After the scenario was set I had them write Buddhist responses to the zombie apocalypse.

This type of assignment is indicative of one of my goals for this course. I aim for my students to be able to apply theory, method, and concepts to the world beyond the classroom. For them, the zombie assignment seemed like a fun, easy project. However, they quickly realized a firm grasp of the concepts was needed to develop a “plausible” response. And while a zombie apocalypse is unlikely, I am content leaving my students with the ability to identify how and why Buddhism is manifested in and ever-changing around the world.

Sarah F. Haynes, PhD (University of Calgary) is associate professor in the Department of Philosophy & Religious Studies at Western Illinois University where she teaches courses related to Asian religious traditions. Her areas of research include Tibetan Buddhist ritual and Buddhism in North America.

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Invitation to VISOR Survey

VISORGreetings, esteemed Bulletin readers and contributors! We have recently been asked to share some information about the VISOR survey and saw fit to do so. The aim of the survey is to get a good picture of the field; the results, whenever they come in, are sure to provide a basis for stimulating conversation. For more information, see the official invitation (previously posted here) below.

Dear Colleague in the Academic Study of Religion,

In his 2015 Presidential Address to the American Academy of Religion, Thomas Tweed asserted that a “values approach can clarify divisive internal debates within the AAR, especially between those who identify with theology and those who identify with religious studies, and … disclose points of agreement as we refine the arguments we employ to defend the study of religion in the public arena and on our own campuses.” The four of us (signatures below) share that hope and invite you to participate in a survey – the VISOR survey – that will allow us actually to test Tweed’s claims.

The VISOR Project is grounded in our awareness that scholars in various disciplines who study religion have values of myriad sorts, some of which are at the very heart of their research and others tangential. We think it would be helpful for scholars who study religion – whether from religious studies, theology, anthropology, psychology, sociology, languages, biology, cognitive science, history, or other – to learn what their values are. Which ones are primary and secondary? Which are unimportant? Do values differ among scholars who teach in different kinds of institutions, e.g., a state university versus a theological seminary? If so, are the value differences non-obvious or do they reflect popular assumptions?

To collect data on these questions, we have designed an online survey built around standard (and well-known and validated) measures used to assess values. There are also demographic items and a couple of measures to help us interpret results. For some measures in the VISOR survey, participants receive instant informative feedback through graphs and explanations of results. All data are anonymous and no individual participant is identified, in accord with standard professional research guidelines.

We plan to recruit participants through a “snowball” method, i.e., through a network of contacts. Would you consider using your connections to help us reach people far and wide in the study of religion? We are hoping that you will take the survey, which you will find at, and encourage those in your network to do so as well. You are welcome to use this letter and even personalize it as you connect to those in your networks.

Apart from what is minimally required to invite other scholars to participate (using this letter as a template), we would ask you not to discuss VISOR with others. We are concerned that, if it should become a matter of general discussion or gossip before the data is collected, that could set up unnecessary concern, worry, or who knows what – the very moods and feelings that can invalidate our attempt to get clean, unconfounded data. For the study to yield valid information, it is important that the participants complete the survey in an ordinary comfortable manner.

Thank you for your confidentiality.

Ray Paloutzian
Psychology, Westmont College

F. LeRon Shults
Theology, University of Agder

Ann Taves
Religious Studies, University of California – Santa Barbara

Wesley J. Wildman
Philosophy, Theology, Ethics – Boston University

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What’s in Your Religion Syllabus? Nathaniel Morehouse

1821 Doolittle Childrens Friend III pg 8_crop

In this new 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 Nathaniel Morehouse

In the fall of 2016 I was asked at the last minute to fill in for a professor who was retiring early to teach what had become his signature class: The History of Christmas. Whenever I told friends and family I was met with a soft chuckle (perhaps thinking about notions of how the Humanities had lost any relevance if they were offing courses like this) and an incredulous question wondering how I was going to fill a whole semester with that. And to be honest at first I wasn’t too sure I could. Ultimately I described the course in the syllabus thus:

In American society Christmas is arguably the largest holiday of the year. One does not have to be Christian to feel the overwhelming focus of the 25th of December. Indeed it would be impossible to miss this day considering its monopoly of popular culture from the end of October through the end of December. Yet, of course, Christmas has not always been such a cultural powerhouse, especially as it is not the most important holiday in the Christian calendar, and was not even celebrated for hundreds of years after the birth of Jesus. This course will provide an overview of the development of Christmas; tracing its humble beginnings primarily from the second (NB “fourth” would have been more accurate) through the sixth centuries, and then examine the development of the modern iteration of Christmas as it expanded in the nineteenth century. (Other material cut for brevity)

At the beginning I expected the topic to be a lens through which one could discuss the general development of Christianity and Christian theology relative to the incarnation of Jesus, with some fun tangents about trees and Santa Claus thrown in at the end. This was, indeed, how I started the semester: looking at New Testament portrayals of the nativity of Jesus, Pauline arguments about the incarnation etc., then shifting to the developments of the Church (and why it is inaccurate to use it in the singular as I just did) through the following centuries. This then segued into the development of the date of Christmas, a discussion of Saturnalia, the celebration of the Birthday of Sol Invictus, and Yule. After exploring the development of Christmas in Europe we would look at the effect of the Reformation and Industrialization.

Most of the books that I have looked at which deal with the history of Christmas take roughly this approach (see for example Joseph Kelly’s The Origins of Christmas and The Feast of Christmas, Bruce David Forbes’ Christmas: A Candid History, and Penne L. Restad’s Christmas in America: A History). This approach however doesn’t necessarily touch explicitly on the way in which a course like this one allows us to examine the construction of society, as I observed as the semester progressed.

Ultimately the thing that I liked the best about this course was the way in which it allowed us to take one of the most well-known features of the American Calendar and used it not only as a lens for the development of Christianity (which almost became an afterthought by the time we reached the 19th century and the industrial revolution – which had a much stronger effect on the development of the modern notion of Christmas than overt Christian theology) but for the fundamental structures that affect our lives. While issues of consumerism, display, hegemony, and memory were effective, I found our discussion on the power dynamics associated with the calendar to be the most productive.

I asked students to develop alternative ways of measuring time, giving them the chance to break down perhaps one of the most elementary ways in which we interact with the world. Inevitably the majority of these reflected our location in North East Ohio or their own particular preferences and interests. This worked well with a reading I assigned from Keith A. Mayes book Kwanza: Black Power and the Making of the African American Holiday Tradition, which draws attention to the power dynamics implicit in the creation of a calendar and the assigning of Holidays within it.

When I teach this course next fall I will begin with Mayes book to provide the framework of power and control which are at work with any day of celebration but most especially with the calendrical powerhouse that is Christmas.

Nathaniel Morehouse received his MA in Religious Studies from New York University and his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Manitoba with a focus on early Christianity. He currently lives in Cleveland Heights and teaches in the department of Theology and Religious Studies at John Carroll University.  His first book, Death’s Dominion: Power, Identity, and Memory at the Fourth-Century Martyr Shrine, was published with Equinox Press in 2016.

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Muslim Terror


by Ian Alexander Cuthbertson

On January 29, 2017 six people were killed and others left in critical condition following a shooting at a mosque in Sainte-Foy Québec. What is at stake in classifying this tragedy as a terrorist attack?

Terrorism, however it is defined, remains a key social and political issue worldwide. Given global concerns concerning terrorism and especially so-called Islamic terrorism, it is interesting to note that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Québec Premier Philippe Couillard both quickly described the Sainte-Foy shooting as a terrorist attack.



But despite this official labeling, Canadian and international media have used other descriptors. The National Post, one of Canada’s largest English language daily newspapers, described the event instead as the “Quebec City Mosque Shooting” and the Toronto StarThe BBC, the CBC, the New York Times, and the Guardian all ran similar headlines.

While many media sources reported that Trudeau and Couillard classified the attack as terrorism, most chose instead to describe the shooting as merely an attack. Indeed, in many reports the fact that the Prime Minister and Premier considered the attack to be an instance of terrorism was itself deemed newsworthy.

In reporting on this incident, several media sources including the Montréal Gazette and the Globe and Mail ran headlines with the word ‘terrorist’ placed between quotation marks, indicating perhaps that although the attack had been described in these terms by Trudeau and Couillard, they were unwilling to use this descriptor themselves.


The day after the attack, the terrorist label had become more common and in subsequent headlines, some media sources later dropped the quotation marks.

But whether the violence in Sainte-Foy is considered a terrorist attack or merely a “terrorist attack” matters. Canada and Québec are not immune to growing anti-Muslim sentiments in the wake of the global war on terror and President Trump’s recent executive order banning immigration from Muslim-majority countries. These anti-Muslim sentiments and the violence and prejudice they encourage have tended to focus on a perceived link between Islam and terrorism or, more accurately, between being a Muslim and committing acts of terror.

Framing the Sainte-Foy attack as terrorism is not merely a matter of semantics. This framing shifts the focus away from so-called “Islamic Terrorism” to Muslim Terror: the terror that Muslim Canadians face on a daily basis in the wake of violence and xenophobic attacks and in the face of proposed provincial laws to police religious clothing and federal laws to monitor “barbaric cultural practices.”

Presently, the motives of the only suspect in the case, Alexandre Bissonnette, are unknown. It will be interesting to consider how the label ‘terrorist’ shifts as these motives are revealed and as the media learns more about Bissonnette’s own religious self-identification (or lack thereof). These shifting classifications reveal not only what we are willing to label terrorism but also shed light on the constructed boundaries between terrorist and victim, between us and them.

Ian Alexander Cuthbertson is Baker Postdoctoral Fellow at Queen’s University and is interested in examining the political and social processes that permit certain beliefs and behaviours to earn the designation ‘religion’ and cause others to be categorized instead as magic or superstition.

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Religion, Affect, and Emotion Group: American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, November 2017, Call for Papers

Boston-SliderStatement of Purpose

This Unit provides space for theoretically-informed discussion of the relationship between religion, affect, and emotion. The Unit serves as a meeting point for conversations on the affective, noncognitive, and passional dimensions of religion coming from diverse fields, including anthropology, comparative religion, psychology, decolonial theory, gender and sexuality studies, cultural studies, philosophy, and theology. Proposals drawing on these theoretical resources to examine specific religious traditions, shifting historical understandings of religion and affect/emotion, comparative work that looks at affective forms across traditions, and broader theoretical reflections are all welcome.

Call for Papers

Affect Theory and Other Critical Theories of Bodies and Emotions: A Comparative Harangue

What is the relationship between affect/emotion, culture, and religion? How does affect theory compare to other approaches to the body in the humanities? How does an attention to specific affects—like rage, passion, or love—shape our analysis of religion and other social formations? For possible co-sponsorship with the Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion unit.

The Emotional Logic of Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia as Discourses of Vulnerability

How do they create vulnerability through emotions? What is the emotional structure of being made vulnerable? How do these emotional contours interact with systems of power? For a possible co-sponsorship with the Religion, Holocaust, and Genocide unit.

Pedagogy and Affect

How do affects shape bodies, selves, and subjects? How do they condition religions and other cultural products? How are they channeled in the classroom? What is the role of media–old or new–in marshaling transformative affect?

Misleading Affects

How do we assess affects? Should they be seen as true or false? Are they pre-divided into good and bad? When affects dazzle us–with spectacle or beauty, for example–what forces are marshaled and what effects are created? How do these questions intersect with issues of religion and power?


What are the affects in the wake of resistance? How do we use affect to revivify religion, politics, or culture? How do affects wear us down?


Steering Committee

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What’s in Your Religion Syllabus?: Joseph Laycock


In this new 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 Jospeh Laycock

Every semester I teach world religions at Texas State University. Originally known as “Southwest Texas Normal School,” Texas State has undergone explosive growth in the last few years. It now has over 36,000 undergraduates including many first-generation and non-traditional college students. I love working at Texas State, but the campus is not without its controversies. Every day I walk past our “free speech zone” where self-described “confrontational evangelist” “Brother Jed” can often be seen trading insults with students. Turning Point USA, the conservative group behind the “Professor Watchlist,” sometimes has a card table near the free speech zone too. (They gave this professor a free “I Heart Capitalism” button!) Under Greg Abbot’s “Campus Carry” law, my students can bring concealed handguns to my class if they have the right license, so my syllabus includes a class policy in the event someone’s gun becomes “unconcealed.”

Texas State also made national news the day after Trump’s election when childish signs were glued to a men’s room mirror calling for “vigilante squads” to “arrest & torture those deviant university leaders responsible for spouting off all this Diversity Garbage.” These are strange times and some of my students have expressed that they fear for their safety. But I also feel that what I do in the classroom matters––especially in the world religions class. One student told me after the election, “I think it’s more important than ever to study world religions . . . while we still have a world.”

I have two main goals for the course: First, I want the students to be conversant in world religions. Second, I want them to understand that “religion” is a second order category and that a lot is at stake in how this category is defined. I want students to be able to achieve these goals even if they are entering college with deficient academic skills. But I also want my exceptional students to be challenged.

My textbook is Stephen Prothero’s God is Not One. This is supplemented with selections from religious texts and current news articles. There’s a lot to recommend about this book. Some of my students don’t have much money and God is Not One costs $2.99 on Kindle. It’s also available as an audiobook, which matters for my students who commute to campus. I like that Prothero’s writing comes across as a real person making arguments rather than an impersonal assemblage of information. The first day of class, I like to show Prothero’s interview on The Colbert Report. Students seem more interested in the book when they’ve seen the author’s face. Colbert’s satirical questions also model engaging and arguing with Prothero’s thesis rather than memorizing the data presented.

Finally, Prothero’s rejection of perennialism comes as a great relief to my evangelical students who are often wary of religion professors. (One freshman explained that her parents made her watch God’s Not Dead before the first week of college.) I tell students that, if anything, comparing religions will give them a greater appreciation for how unique their own religion is.

Of course, God is Not One has no shortage of critics. When my students are ready, I like to discuss some these critiques openly with the class. For example, the problem-solution model is useful for thinking about the differences between Christianity and Islam for the first time. Later in the course, I ask my students whether this model fits the Yoruba tradition or Judaism as neatly as it did Christianity.

Assessment consists of a mid-term, a final, and weekly writing assignments. I always give feedback on the writing assignments. I try to impress on students that thinking like a religion scholar is a special skill that they are cultivating. Through the writing assignments I am coaching them in a new skill.

Four of these writings assignments deal with the definition of religion. I want students to understand the history of the category “religion” and how this history relates to colonialism and other issues of power and politics. But I prefer to explain this history through lectures rather than assigned readings. Some of my students don’t know much about major historical developments like the Protestant Reformation. Lectures let me probe to see what they already know and fill in gaps as needed. (Also, one clip from the cartoon “Metalocalypse” is especially useful for beginning a conversation about religion as a second-order category.)

After we have studied Islam and Christianity, I ask students to create a definition of religion and show how their definition applies to these traditions. What do Christianity and Islam have in common that makes them “religions?” How do they meet the criteria of religion outlined in the student’s definition? We do this again after we study Confucianism. This time, I also ask students whether things like nationalism or science count as religions under the definitions they created. And if they do, is this a problem? We do this exercise a third time near the end of the course when they have studied most of the eight religions included in God is Not One. For the final exercise, we consider a case involving whether a high school girl who is a member of the “Church of Body Modification” can claim a religious exemption to the school dress code. The students have to create a definition of religion and say whether the Church of Body Modification fits the criteria in their definition or not. If they argue that it is a religion, they are required to show what The Church of Body Modification has in common with the other traditions we have studied. If they argue it’s not a religion, they are required to explain what the Church of Body Modification lacks that the other traditions all have.

Of course, the object of these exercises is to wrestle with the questions, not necessarily to produce a flawless answer. (One student complained that defining religion gives him a headache. I told him that was the point). Some of my students go on to take advanced classes in religious studies where they can explore theory further. But I know that for many of students this will be the only religion class they ever take. My goal is that when they graduate and encounter claims like “Islam is a hate group, not a religion,” they will be able to discern the interests and rhetorical mechanisms at work. If I do my job right, students understand the difference between having a new analytical skill and “Diversity Garbage.”

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